Dylan Thomas ©Jeff Towns/DBC
As a reward for my having learnt William Blake’s poem ‘Tyger, Tyger’ and for having precociously recited it to him without stumbling, my father promised to take me to hear Dylan Thomas reading at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I was nine. “Your treat,” he said. “He’s a poet. He’s Welsh.”
He was in the habit of taking me to things that he considered to be “improving” events such as Emlyn Williams’ one-man show based on Charles’ Dickens’ public readings; or to Shakespeare plays at the Old Vic, and from my earliest childhood my father encouraged me to learn and recite poems.
At his behest I was urged to learn a lot of Blake off by heart and most of Kipling’s ‘If’. I learned one of W.S. Gilbert’s ‘Bab Ballads’ (the one about cannibalism), Gray’s Elegy, W. E, Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and a few scraps from the Welsh epic, The Mabinogion, of which my father had a fine copy with a gold embossed cover.
He’d also demand that I’d join him in reciting the seasonal, “It was Christmas Day in the workhouse/the one day of the year/In came the workhouse master/his belly full of beer…” as well as that lengthy music-hall standard ‘Albert and the Lion’, a narrative poem that ends in tragedy thanks to a small boy at Blackpool Zoo having been somewhat too curious about the Zoo’s star attraction, an elderly lion called Wallace.
Henley’s ‘Invictus’ begins: ‘Out of the night that covers me, /Black as the Pit from pole to pole, /I thank whatever gods may be /For my unconquerable soul.” And my father would boom it out whenever he felt disheartened or blown off course and he encouraged me to copy him, line by line.
My father had a small study off the landing in our house and as I ran up and downstairs I’d sometimes hear him regale himself with the poem as a tonic to bolster up his spirits. ‘Black as the pit from pole to pole, I am the master of my fate.” he’d roar with a thundering Welsh undulation, “I am the captain of my soul.’ He seemed to feel that the poem was an indispensible remedy for all spiritual ailments and he consequently insisted on my committing it to memory.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud./Under the bludgeonings of chance /My head is bloody, but unbowed.”
Henley’s poem was essentially a high-minded precursor of that now ubiquitous and mawkishly self-regarding song, ‘I did it my way’ but my father was passionate about it and when I knew all the verses, he’d poultice them out of me on the mystifying walks he took me on; mystifying because when I asked, “Where are we going?” his unvarying response would be, “There and back.”
With his children he was largely silent save for this enthusiasm for poetry. The walks were conducted with his being entirely lost in thought except for recitations of a poem by him or by me at his prodding. He’d say, ‘Give us the tiger,’ and so I’d do Blake’s ‘Tyger’ which, due to his insistence, had been burning brightly in my mind since I was more or less out of a high-chair.
My father had been badly injured in a training exercise in the First World War and to him poetry was a painkiller. “Poetry can stop you feeling ill,” he’d say simply.
England in the late forties and early fifties was a world without television; a world where visits to the cinema were a rarity and where the radio was a cumbersome mahogany box with a forbidding grille: unfriendly, dusty and predominantly silent due to its aggregation of valves overheating whereupon the whole contraption would black out with a sorry ‘phut!’. I associate childhood radio with a distinctive smell of burning dust as much as with entertainment.
There was a prevailing quiet if not gloom in those early post-war years. My father, born in Queen Victoria’s reign, once persuaded me with dark whimsy that there was a government institution called The Ministry of Silence which was capable of meting out stern punishments to those who offended against its precepts. I half believed him. Books, and particularly poems, were therefore the media of choice, and an escape hatch.
By coincidence, my mother’s maiden name was Henley and it happened that William Ernest Henley, the author of ‘Invictus’ was, in fact, a cousin at several removes. Henley had come from Bristol and he’d had tuberculosis of the bone as a child which resulted in one of his legs being amputated. He became a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and as such was thought to have been the inspiration for Stevenson’s portrait of the one-legged pirate, Long John Silver.
Judging from a description of Henley by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s imaginative leap hadn’t been too hard to make:
“… a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet”.
Stevenson would later acknowledge the connection in a letter to Henley:
“I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver … the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”
Striking as Henley’s verses were it was Henley’s piratical connection that caught my imagination, rather more than Henley himself or indeed the poem which found such favour with my father.
Although Henley’s paean to self-mastery was popular as a fireside morale-booster, Henley’s part in bringing Long John Silver into existence (albeit through a childhood illness rather than through actual piracy) weighed with me much more. It was like a feather in the genetic cap from which I derived a quiet glow, believing it to bestow outsider, if not outlaw, status.
The promised outing to see another poet – who also had what my father hinted was a slightly outlaw-like reputation – took place on Saturday, 11th August, 1951 in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Lecture Hall. It was part of a Festival of Books that the Museum had been mounting in association with the Festival of Britain.
My father and I found our way to the front of the audience and we sat down directly beneath a small, plump man with curly auburn hair, a raffish bow-tie, loud checkered tweeds and a shining face who stood patiently behind a wooden lectern a few feet above us.
I remember that he seemed not to be able to hold himself still and he swayed gently from side to side as if caught by a rough sea-breeze. I was almost immediately below him. From my perspective, he was spasmodically hidden behind a large pint glass of amber-colored liquid from where he would tantalizingly slide in and out of view.
This human metronome, seemingly set to some slow internal beat, shuffled his slightly soggy handwritten papers and then, after a brief introduction from the Museum’s Curator, Dylan Thomas sprang to life.
He pitched into a series of unstoppable recitations. His eyes bulged and his voice resonated, boomingly and rhythmically with a series of florid arias spilling out of his diminutive frame (A phenomenon which was accompanied by misty sprays of saliva that I remember my father found hard to forgive.)
Dylan was so possessed that I thought he might go off like a bomb with his fizzing and surging. I’d not seen anyone drunk before and he was clearly drunk but he was also a phenomenon, as drunk on language as on alcohol. He was caught up by great muscular waves of language – anthemic, torrential and spell-binding – whose meaning was lost on me but whose effect was hypnotic.
I’d been to the Albert Hall once and I’d heard that building’s enormous organ with its golden pipes that so dominate the Hall’s interior and I remember that I’d compared Dylan Thomas’ voice to the sound of it when my father asked me afterwards what I ‘d thought of Dylan’s performance.
I can only recall one line from the reading with any certainty, “I see the boys of summer in their ruin…” I particularly remembered it because my father would repeat it over the years. Whenever it looked to him as if I was going off the rails, he’d trot out this line, to my chagrin as he’d quite spoil it by giving it a stern, judgmental almost taunting edge.
After Thomas’ reading was over my father and I filed out of the auditorium and my father brought me home, announcing to my mother, in a matter-of-fact fashion, that “The boy was hypnotized” which was true. I still cherish a vivid, dreamy sense of having been entranced. Rhapsodically entranced.
Evidently I’d not kicked my feet in the air out of boredom once and so, to my father’s relief, I’d needed no chastening, but instead I seem to have surrendered myself to that great organ of a voice which Dylan possessed and I’d remained entirely still throughout. There’d been no microphone in the venue. It was just Dylan’s voice from a few feet away.
It was not a wholly Welsh voice. It was certainly Welsh in its impassioned soaring, but it was a voice that had by now mutated into a highly stylized theatrical projection housed within what’s called ‘Received Pronunciation’, or more frequently ‘BBC English’.
Thomas was certainly aware of his slightly managed magniloquence and he was happy to milk it to maximum effect, whilst at the same time poking fun at himself: deprecating what was something of an assumed, actor-ish persona with the sobriquet, “Lord Cut-Glass.”
My father also apparently told my mother (my mother would later tell me) that although I was “hypnotized” I couldn’t possibly have understood a word of what Dylan Thomas had been “on about” since my father hadn’t understood much, if indeed anything at all. He’d say gruffly, “none of it meant much to me.”
He was aware that Dylan was in some way “modern” but I think that he may also have had an uneasy feeling that his fellow Welshman was letting the side down by being, as he clearly thought, quite so wilfully obscure. However my father’s strictures were of no avail, the damage was done, and a potent seed was planted.
Although my father’s feelings about Thomas’ poetry were dismissive, it turned out that he, in fact, possessed a copy of Thomas’ ‘Eighteen Poems’, a slim volume published when Thomas was just 20, and after the reading my father, an avid book-collector, gave it to me, taking some pride in his foresight, and I was grateful as I could then start to familiarize myself with some of the poems that I’d just heard Dylan perform.
“Should lanterns shine this holy face caught in an octagon of unaccustomed light would wither up…” was one of them. I didn’t pretend to understand it either, but nonetheless I persuaded myself that, unlike my father, I knew what the lines meant since they carried the sound of sense and also because, when I read them aloud, I was able to relive that trance-like state in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The reading in the Museum had been an entirely new kind of pleasure, different from anything I’d previously experienced. It was even quite close to what would later be described as ‘psychedelic’. Words, thanks to Dylan, were now things, things that could affect your metabolism. “Love the words,” Dylan was to say to the cast of his play ‘Under Milk Wood’ when it was performed in New York at the end of the decade: “Love the words” and, when I heard them as a child from Dylan Thomas himself, I certainly had.
Years later I went to a lecture that Robert Graves gave at the Taylorian Institute in Oxford, and afterwards (Thomas now having become an enduring affection) I asked Graves what he thought of Thomas’ work. He looked down his nose – a large nose unevenly broken while playing Rugby into the impressive shape of a Roman Emperor’s nose – and he said just one word: “The hwyl.”
In that almost untranslatable, portmanteau Welsh word, Graves had uttered the most useful clue to Dylan: the hwyl, a word whose meaning can range from spirit possession, to health, and also, very simply, to just ‘hello’,
As Dylan’s Swansea friend, Leon Atkin, would explain to me years later, the hwyl (pronounced ‘Hoil’) was that ecstatic peroration which occurs at the end of an old-fashioned Welsh sermon in order to stoke up an surge of spirituality in dissenter congregations and Thomas, with his juicy, neo-pagan psalms celebrating nature combined with a subversive politics, had the hwyl in spades and he used it to great effect.
When I’d grown up my mother would often tell people about the Victoria and Albert visit as if this was the place where I’d contracted “the bug” – the bug which, by her lights, had taught me to behave oddly and to be determined to earn no money and thus be off the grid.
By her lights the germ of what she regarded as a kind of euphoric fecklessness had evidently been contracted in the Victoria and Albert Museum all those years ago and she used it to explain to herself why I wouldn’t be going in for the church as a priest as she’d not so secretly desired. She certainly never countenanced the idea that poetry could be another kind of priestly vocation and, being devout and quite strait-laced, viewed such a notion as being close to blasphemy.
Major events were few and far between in London in the late forties and fifties. The city was a bleak wasteland. Every other block in the street in which we lived was a bombsite, and the whole city was to remain a malingering bombsite for years during my childhood whilst a bankrupt England paid off its war debt to its wartime benefactor and now demanding creditor, America.
Highlights were rare. There was the soaring and futuristic Skylon at the Festival of Britain; there was the Big Dipper at Battersea Fun Fair; the Model Railway Exhibition at the Horticultural Hall; Maskelyne and Devant’s Magic Show at the Scala Theatre in Charlotte Street and the Crazy Gang at the Victoria Palace.
There must have been other high points in that flattened and flat decade, the nineteen fifties, but those are the only ones that I remember and so hearing Dylan Thomas’ reading was a peak event, if only because my father would go out of his way to make anything remotely cultural seem special.
My father was Welsh and Thomas was Welsh and, without his ever saying much about it, my father must, at some point, have infected me with some native pride. Neither he, nor indeed Thomas, spoke any Welsh although both their fathers had. My grandfather Joe, who made stained glass windows in Covent Garden, spoke it and, as my father was fond of boasting, Welsh was Britain’s first language, although, somewhat hypocritically, he’d never bothered to give the language the time of day by learning much more than a syllable or two, although I do remember his teaching me what he claimed had been the Druids’ motto, Y gywr yn erbyn y bwd – the truth against the world. He’d remind me of it if I was being less than direct, and he’d accompany his delivery of this ancient edict with a forbidding stare.
Although he’d made the forthcoming occasion seem special my father could have had no idea quite how seminal the reading was to prove. As a result of being bitten by this “bug”, as my mother put it, I was shortly to collect all the recordings of Dylan Thomas that I could lay my hands on. Recordings of Dylan’s reading tours, had been made by two stalwart American girls lugging primitive and, in those days, punitively heavy equipment in Dylan’s footsteps.
The recordings included not only Thomas reading his own work but also poems by other authors whom Dylan had liked and admired and had chosen to read. There were poems by Auden, Yeats and D. H. Lawrence; by Thomas Hardy, and Walter De La Mare. Dylan read “The Three Bushes” by Yeats, “Whales Weep Not” by Lawrence, “Broken Appointment” by Hardy, “At the Keyhole” and the comically touching, ‘The Bards’ by De La Mare about Wordsworth and Coleridge in old age.
Through the miracle of this pioneering piece of recorded speech published by Caedmon (named after Caedmon the seventh century monk who dreamt his poems and woke up singing them) it seemed that all of these poetic spirits had been made immortal. It was as if the recordings were able to punch holes in time.
I was to leave school under a slight cloud. I’d entered into a brief correspondence with the junior branch of the Communist party on King Street, in Covent Garden – more out of a mischievous curiosity than from any strong political commitment. Communism during the Cold War was taboo. My schoolboy correspondence was discovered through my mail having been opened and since in the late fifties anti-Soviet propaganda and spy paranoia was all-pervasive and since Communist Russia had succeeded Nazi Germany as “the enemy” it was thought ill-considered.
Out of the blue, my father received a letter from the school authorities which mentioned my Communist associations with disapproval and they suggested that I was, in the housemaster’s words, “no longer benefiting from the elitist education which the school prided itself on being able to offer”. Clearly, the housemaster said, no purpose was to be served by my remaining there any further.
My father was incandescent, and it was his cue for Dylan’s line about “the boys in summer in their ruin” to be invoked, but I was happy to leave both school and home and, after a brief spell in a Franciscan monastery in Dorset helping to look after their bees, I took to the road.
I’d read the poet W.H. Davies’ ‘Autobiography of a Super-Tramp’ and I fondly imagined, along with this Welsh proto-Beat, (“What is life if full of care/There is no time to stop and stare”) that, were you resourceful enough, you could survive on little to nothing. For no reason other than the germinative Victoria and Albert Museum reading, I’d set my sights on Swansea, thinking and hoping that this might be somewhere to find a different kind of spiritual sustenance, given the poet whom Swansea had spawned.
I had another book that I took with me: ‘The Campers and Trampers Weekend Book’ by Showell Styles which extolled the virtue of “just living for the next bend in the road”. It was full of handy survival tips although I’d soon find that living for the ‘next bend in the highways and by-ways’ wasn’t as romantic as I’d been imagining in my teenage dreams.
I naively thought that I’d be falling into a ready-made camaraderie of gentlemen of the road, a collection of gypsy encampments even, straight out of George Borrow, and that perhaps there’d be the ‘spikes’ that had housed the unemployed of Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ positioned at convenient places along the route. But this was a fantasy; such places no longer existed although there were a couple of Salvation Army Hostels en route and I’d set off from a Rowton House at the Elephant and Castle where I’d holed up for a bit.
I made it to Swansea mainly by walking and hitching, and, after a tip from an elderly vagrant in the centre of town, I found my way to a Crypt below St Paul’s Church in St Helen’s Road, Swansea, where, just as this providential gentleman of the road had indicated, “the Reverend Leon Atkin will see you right.”
The Crypt turned out to contain an assortment of refugees: there was a man who’d kept a collection of telescopes in a tent on Mumbles Bay but who had, inexplicably, “to bring them in for the winter.” His huge brass tubes were accordingly piled up in leather boxes beneath a Church trestle table upon which Leon Atkin would daily place a great spread of food for the Crypt’s transient residents.
In addition to this roving astronomer, there was a pair of petty criminals who were apparently wanted by the police for some nefarious dealings “in the smoke”, i.e. up in London. There was a prickly bare-knuckle boxer whom you had to be careful to skirt around especially when he was in his cups. Others drifted in and out. There were unemployed casual laborers and those simply unable to fend for themselves – people the French call les marginales.
As far as I could gather, thanks to the benignly anarchic sense of community established by Leon, you could come and go as you pleased. When this white-maned and burly figure appeared in the Crypt’s combined dormitory and living space, as he did daily, he’d greet everyone warmly and make sure that they had enough to eat and were supplied with proper bedding from the vestry where there were about forty camp beds. Each morning Leon would seize hold of a huge industrial-sized coal scuttle and fill it up from the bunker outside, then he’d ensure that the stove was generously topped up and that the radiators in the Crypt were in good working order, slapping them approvingly if they were.
All were invited, in a casual fashion, to attend Leon’s church upstairs, in the main body of the building, but no one was ever expected to. Board and lodging was free and came with no strings attached. It was the closest thing to unconditional love that I’d ever experienced and it was always understated. Leon gave off a kind of quiet, selfless radiance. There was no subtext, just a feeling of benign transcendence; grace even.
When I got to know him and when I told him that I’d seen Dylan Thomas reading a few years before and that I’d come to Swansea hoping to find people who knew him, Leon’s smile broadened and he told me that he’d known Dylan well, “since he was a lad”, and he missed him sorely, although, “The only time I saw Dylan in a church was when his coffin was taken in for the funeral service”.
“Like to hear a story about him?” Leon enquired. I nodded enthusiastically, “You ever hear of the Blackshirts?” I said that I had. ”Well, they tried to hold a rally here, in the Plaza Cinema in ’34. Dylan and I went to it, along with Dylan’s communist friend Bert Trick, and did we give them what for? We did. We did,” He twinkled in anticipation of reliving the story.
“The British Union of Fascists they called themselves and the leader of the Blackshirts was an Englishman called Sir Oswald Mosley. He was a fierce man for attacking the Jews was this Mosley – Sir Oswald if you please – and all of Swansea knew of him in advance and of his horrid foulness, you see?” I nodded.
“Now” – Leon leant forward conspiratorially – “their modus operandi was to invite questions from the audience which were to be written down and then they’d pass them up to this Mosley creature for him to answer.
“I wrote down, “I work for a Jew. Do you think I should change my employer?”
“Well, at this Mosley curled his thin lip and expressed disgust that anyone should work for a Jew, and then he said that “surely the questioner would be certain to find someone more reliable to work for, amongst Swansea’s Gentiles?” and then this Mosley looked about him and he said to the audience, “Now, who asked this? My advice to you is that you should find a new employer.”
“They’d always ask this, see? ‘Who asked this question?’ and if was a question that they didn’t like then their thugs and their bully boys would escort the questioner outside and they’d more than likely duff him up, but this time, of course, it was their undoing because I stood up and, of course, when I stood up then I exposed my clerical collar.”
At this Leon chuckled, “Thus revealing who it was that I worked for. The penny dropped. Quite loudly. The audience got it. ‘That’s Reverend Leon!’ they cried. All hell broke loose. The Plaza held three thousand people. Three thousand people up in arms!
“Well, they had to squirrel Mosley out through the back door, didn’t they? He was ranting and squawking “Blasphemy! Blasphemy!” and then the audience weighed in. They attacked the Blackshirts. Dylan and Bert and I, we were all pretty handy with our fists.” Leon looked up at me, and then added, slightly apologetically, “To do good, you know, in this life you must sometimes use your fists. Bit shocking but there we are. ‘What weapon has the lion but himself?’ Know that line? It’s John Keats.
“Oh yes,” he continued, “Dylan was spot on about the Blackshirts. He’d talk about their ‘curdled patriotism’ – that was his phrase – and then he’d describe that scrawny old demagogue, Mosley, as suffering ‘From an elephantiasis of the soul’. Quite a juxtaposition that, eh?” and Leon laughed in a great rumbling peal as he recollected “the great Plaza Cinema rout! Yes. Just down the road from here, you know. It’s there still. It survived the bombing, but Mosley hasn’t though. He’s completely discredited now.”
Leon Atkin described himself as a “minister of the Social Gospel.” He’d started the refuge in the nineteen thirties, and in the bitter winter of 1947 his Crypt became a friendly oasis for dozens of men who might otherwise have died. On every Friday evening for decades Leon would visit every public house in Swansea to collect money for the hostel and to enable Swansea’s children to enjoy a Guy Fawkes’ night with a stupendous firework display on the beach, and they’d also be taken by him in three huge parties to the circus.
Disillusioned with political parties and regarding them as being inept in their ability to deal with the underprivileged, Leon was to stand as a ‘People’s Party’ candidate and he heroically polled over two thousand votes.
When Dylan was alive, Dylan would always make a point of seeing Leon, referring to him as “my priest”, and when Leon was asked by David Thomas, the local Swansea historian, for his memories of Dylan, it was always Dylan’s spiritual virtues that were in the forefront of Leon’s recollection:
“He [Dylan Thomas] lived, I suppose, more on faith than most parsons ever have tried to do. And no one could ever accuse him of daring to submit his talent to commercial interest. In fact, there were times when he looked like a tramp, and I suppose he didn’t eat much more than a tramp. He always struck me as a man whose soul was so much alive that he suffered. He suffered a lot, I think. But every action he seemed to make was, according to my unorthodox view, a religious action. It was an attempt to evaluate and appreciate and express beauty and something that was lovely… He was a perfectionist… poor old Dylan, he did just explode… you could almost say that he died in childbirth.”
Leon had much more in common with the early, and resolutely pacifist, Christian church rather than with the established church and, despite their both being quick with their fists, he and Dylan were in fact staunch pacifists. Dylan was not averse to firing off letters to the Swansea and West Wales Guardian in which he railed against “the obscene hypocrisy of those war-mongers who venerate Christ’s name and void their contagious rheum upon the first principle of his Gospel.”
Dylan’s radicalism is overlooked but Caitlin, his wife, once observed that the sight of a uniform made him “physically sick” and in the same year that Leon, Dylan and Bert Trick made Mosley’s Blackshirts a laughing stock and caused the Blackshirt fascists to be banned from holding meetings in Neath, Llanelli, and Cardiff as well as in Swansea, Dylan was writing in ‘New Verse’:
“I take my stand with any revolutionary body that asserts it to be the right of all men to share, equally and impartially, every production of man from man and from the sources of production at man’s disposal, for only through such an essentially revolutionary body can there be the possibility of a communal art.”
The two film scripts Dylan produced, though never filmed, also reveal his radical concerns: The Doctor and the Devils was based on the adventures of the body-snatchers, Burke and Hare, and showed how there is one law for the poor and another for the rich; and Rebecca’s Daughters, based on the toll-gate riots in Wales in 1843, exposed governments only bringing in reforms when they were fearful of revolution.
At the time Dylan wrote his revolutionary manifesto for ‘New Verse’ a quarter of the population of Swansea was out of work. In January 1934 Dylan wrote to his friend Trevor Tregaskis Hughes, a short story writer from Swansea who worked for British Rail at Euston Station, that “society to adjust itself has to break itself; society… has grown up rotten with its capitalist child, and only revolutionary socialism can clean it up”. He concluded, “Capitalism is a system made for a time of scarcity.”
In November 1933 when Dylan was just 19, he was writing to Pamela Hansford Johnson of “an outgrown and decaying system” in which “light is being turned into darkness by the capitalists and industrialists… There is only one thing you and I, who are of this generation, must look forward to, must work for and pray for and, because, as we fondly hope, we are poets and voicers not only of our personal selves but of our social selves, we must pray for it all the more vehemently. It is the Revolution.”
Dylan promises her that, when he’s outlined the political facts to her in greater detail, she’ll want to “don your scarlet tie…” as he puts it, and then he adds, “The precious seeds of revolution must not be wasted”.
Dylan would later extol what he came to call ‘Functional Anarchy’ (and indeed his great friend Vernon Watkins said of him, “None has ever worn more brilliantly the mask of anarchy” and his revolutionary ideals were influencing his poetic output.
“Remember the procession of the old-young men,” Dylan Thomas would write of his pressing social concerns and he would choose to write of them in what was, for him, an unusually plain and accessible style:
“From dole queue to corner and back again,
From the pinched, packed streets to the peak of slag
In the bite of the winters with shovel and bag,
With a drooping fag [cigarette] and a turned up collar,
Stamping for the cold at the ill lit corner
Dragging through the squalor with their hearts like lead
Staring at the hunger and the shut pit-head
Nothing in their pockets, nothing home to eat.
Lagging from the slagheap to the pinched, packed street.
Remember the procession of the old-young men,
It shall never happen again.”
After the Reichstag fire, Hitler’s false flag operation, and the Vienna massacre which followed it, Dylan’s poem ‘My world is pyramid’ would appear in New Verse in December 1934 and in it he mourns the death of the hopes embodied in the socialism of ‘Red Vienna’ and Dylan describes the city’s being ravaged by vengeful Nazis as a crucifixion. It’s a poetic version of Picasso’s Guernica, and his “Red in an Austrian volley,” contains the lines:
“I hear, through dead men’s drums, the riddled lads,
Strewing their bowels from a hill of bones,
Cry Eloi to the guns…”
The persistent caricature of Dylan (created in large part by the American media’s response to him on his final US tour) as an apolitical self-destructive bohemian drunk was misguided and when, in one of the first books to appear in which he was mentioned, Dylan’s work was described as “apolitical” Dylan wrote challengingly to its author, Henry Treece, to say,
“Surely it is evasive to say my poetry has no social awareness – no evidence of contact with society; actually, ‘seeking kinship’ with everything… is exactly what I do do”.
Dylan was to make his opinion of Treece’s book even more clear when a friend asked him to inscribe a copy for him, and Dylan wrote in it ‘to hell with this stinking book’.
One day during my stay in the Crypt, Leon told me that he’d had a word with Dylan’s closest friend, Vernon Watkins, and said that he’d persuaded Vernon to agree to see me for lunch to talk about Dylan. “He was interested to know you’d heard Dylan.”
Leon prepared me for the meeting by saying, “You have to be a bit careful. He’s very religious is Vernon. He once leapt from a window in Cambridge to see if angels would save him. Unfortunately, he was met by a sudden rush of gravity. Made a full recovery though. Likes tennis very much, does Vernon. Tennis and the sea.
“But you’d be interested because Dylan would always show Vernon his poems before he’d show them to anyone else. Trusted him. Vernon has a tendency to quote Blake all the time, “prayer is the study of art.” That’s the sort of thing he comes out with. Had a breakdown once and got God.”
This was slightly disturbing, but Leon quickly corrected the impression he’d given by saying that although Vernon had been “playing the mad hatter for a bit” he was now “quite stable” adding, “you have to be really, don’t you, if you’re a bank clerk.”
When the time of the appointment which Leon kindly made for me had arrived, Leon picked me up from the Crypt and led me across St Helen’s Road towards the rendezvous. Detecting my adolescent apprehension (I was then just seventeen) he put his hand on my shoulder and said reassuringly, “No need to be nervous. It’s an article of faith with Vernon that he never thinks badly of anyone. You’ll be in compassionate hands.”
He led me into a tiny Italian restaurant next to the branch of Lloyds bank where Vernon Watkins had worked for most of his life and where he was now the oldest serving cashier. I got the impression that he ate here every day. Vernon was a shy, elf-like man with pointed ears, at once jerkily spry and then quite immobile like a lizard.
He told me that he had been under the spell of Yeats’s poetry all his life and that he’d met Yeats and that he’d then written a poem about him into which he put all the things that Yeats had said. Yeats had told him, Vernon said, that all poems were “a piece of luck.”
I asked Vernon how Dylan had thought of his own poems and he said that Dylan had called his own poems “statements on the way to the grave.” There was a doleful pause. His remembering this seemed to trigger him off emotionally and his eyes welled up. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. I think it was the first time I’d seen a grown man weep.
It had only been seven years, in fact, since Dylan had died and while Vernon was obviously pleased to talk enthusiastically about Dylan’s work, Dylan’s being snatched away so dramatically and so many thousands of miles away at the age of just 39 obviously still grieved him dreadfully. At what I imagined to be a welter of unspoken memories pumping through his head he’d suddenly look transfixed; hollow eyed and shattered. Then he’d press a napkin to his eyes, dab his face and recover. He went on quietly:
“Dead poets can be your contemporaries you know, that’s if the whole of the past is a simultaneous experience, and it is. In which case…” He studied me closely, “Dylan’s right here now, you see. He’s sat at this table. Not dead.” And then he repeated it, quite insistently, as if it was a phenomenon that he often experienced, “Not dead.”
All of a sudden we seemed to be having a kind of impromptu séance until he emerged from it and was able to concentrate on his spaghetti and then on his lychees.
He was like a slightly damaged schoolmaster, looking at you quite abstractly one moment as if you weren’t there, and then examining you closely on your knowledge of all the poets in Elysium; on all his personal familiars, on Swinburne, on Milton, on Hopkins, and now on Thomas – all of whom he clearly had intense relationships with. A kind of poets’ club, unconstrained by time; all united in poetic ecstasies on Mount Parnassus.
Although Vernon obviously kept some daunting imaginary company, I steeled myself and passed him a poem that I’d written about the old man from the Gower Peninsula and his rusting brass telescopes who was living in Leon’s Crypt. Vernon unfolded it carefully, scrutinized it and then folded it back up and passed it back without a word.
He ate another lychee, mixing it with a half teaspoonful of vanilla ice cream. He then gently intimated that the purpose of poetry was “to set up a vibration” but he left me in suspense as to whether I’d done such a thing with the poem I’d just been so forward in showing him and I was too shy to enquire any further.
After all with Dylan Thomas and all the other luminaries as Vernon’s benchmarks I thought I was unlikely to match his high standards. I also got the feeling that there might never again be room in Vernon’s brain for any other poets ever, given the huge crater left by Dylan’s absence, still evidently causing him such anguish. However he did allow himself to say rather obliquely, “any poet passing judgment on a living contemporary is damned.”
I then asked him what Dylan was like. Vernon said wistfully, “He was a born clown” and added, “he was so magnanimous.” There was a pause then he amended what he’d just said with a kind of desperate, rueful ache, “reputation is the enemy of poetry.” He didn’t say much more but it was clear that he meant Dylan’s notoriety had swamped a proper recognition of his talent and Vernon was clearly pained by this and he evidently blamed the Americans for having indulged Dylan on tour and then for exaggerating his behavior as it made good journalistic copy.
I mentioned how I’d loved to listen to the recordings of Dylan and he told me that “the two ladies from Caedmon”, Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen, had asked him to choose a suitable monument with which to honour Dylan in his home town and how they’d said that they would pay all the expenses and had generously sent Vernon fifty pounds.
Vernon said he’d chosen lines for it from Dylan’s poem ‘Fern Hill’ and they’d been carved by a local sculptor Roland Cour on a block of Pennant Sandstone from Cwmrhydyceirw Quarry. The lines were, “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea.” Vernon’s recitation of Dylan’s lines prompted another silent tear.
Richard Burton would say that “Only Dylan could read his own stuff” and that was perhaps true, but Dylan’s poetic spirit suddenly became audible to me again through Vernon Watkins’ quiet and infinitely sad evocation.
Leon now appeared at the entrance to the little restaurant and Vernon invited him to join us for a cup of coffee before we all left.
As we got outside, Leon and I watched Vernon slip back into Lloyds bank a few doors up. He seemed to hop into the building like an elderly, wounded seabird, there to spend the rest of that Friday afternoon behind his hatch.
“Poor man,” said Leon, as Vernon vanished, “I always get the feeling that he was someone who was hit by a tornado when he was with Dylan and now… well, look at him. Flattened by bloody Dylan altogether.
“That Yankee fellow, Brinnin, wrote a mischievous book about Dylan in New York. Mostly lies. He wanted to use some of Dylan’s letters to poor Vernon in his book. But Vernon got his measure. Wouldn’t let the bastard use a single one. Very, very, very protective of Dylan is Vernon.”
I told Leon that Vernon had told me in the course of lunch that Dylan often talked to him in his dreams.
“Oh yes. The poor bugger suffers, doesn’t he? Dylan suffered too, you know. Had a very angry wife, did Dylan. Ever heard of Blodeuwedd? the woman made of flowers? Mythical Welsh beauty. Well,” he paused, “Dylan’s wife, Caitlin, wasn’t her although she was beautiful. Mostly Dylan saw the flowers. Good on him for that. Fair play. But speaking for myself, I could only see the thorns.”
“Poor Vernon. A good man. The bank clerk who dreams of being a fisherman and of catching mermaids. That’s how Dylan described him. Now, you don’t ordinarily think of bankers as being unworldly, do you?”
At this, Leon stopped still in the street, put his hands behind his back, and recited, “I know the weight of unspoken words, of speech that cannot be drawn. I crouch and my life returns to the sea. It trembles, then it is gone.” That’s one of Vernon’s for you. Did he recite any of his poems to you? He’s not really as shy as he makes out. He stopped me once outside the bank and he exclaimed, ‘Leon, the world’s mysterious! Woven in light!’
“There. Been quite overshadowed by Dylan of course.”
Although Leon was large of stature and heavily built he seemed to become light-footed whenever he sang or recited. He’d often so unselfconsciously pepper his conversation with snatches of poetry that he made me wonder if everyone in Swansea had their heads filled with it, like biblical poet-prophets.
Dylan’s namesake, R. S. Thomas, was to pay Vernon Watkins a tribute in a poem called ‘The Bank Clerk’: “It was not the shillings he heard,/But the clinking of the waves in the gullies of /Pwll Du. Turning them over/To the customers at the counter/He offered them the rich change/Of his mind, the real coinage/Of language for their dry cheques.”
Philip Larkin also paid Vernon Watkins a visit once and commented, “In Vernon’s presence poetry seemed like a living stream, in which one had only to dip the vessel of one’s devotion. He made it clear how one could, in fact, ‘live by poetry’; it was a vocation, at once difficult as sainthood and easy as breathing.”
Vernon Watkins died playing tennis. The lines on his memorial stone are thought to reflect his feelings towards Dylan: “Death cannot steal the light /Which love has kindled/ Nor the years change it”
In October, 1953 a picture appeared in the South Wales Evening Post of Leon Atkin and Dylan together in the Bush Hotel in the High Street. It was to be Dylan’s last drink in Swansea. He was on his way to catch the train at the start of his final journey to America for a fourth tour. This time it was apparently to write an opera with Stravinsky in California which Boston University might be commissioning. Stravinsky had already set a sonnet of Dylan’s to music and the opera’s formidable theme, as proposed by Dylan, was to be the rediscovery of the planet following an atomic misadventure for which the forging of a whole new language was required. Stravinsky had said of Dylan, “As soon as I met him, I knew the only thing to do was to love him.”
Dylan had also been obliged to go in order to earn sufficient money through public readings to pay an outstanding tax bill. He would never return alive.
Not so long beforehand he’d written a poem on his birthday. Its prophetic last line was “As I sail out to die.”
The received wisdom is that Dylan died as a result of a drinking bout in the White Horse Tavern in New York but the story’s authenticity has lately been undermined. For a start, the post-mortem revealed no signs of alcoholic damage to the brain and nor was there any cirrhosis of the liver. It now seems likely that the real cause of Dylan’s death was medical negligence. Four days prior to his death a New York doctor, a Dr. Feltenstein, gave Dylan an unusually high dose of morphine as a sedative.
Although, while he was staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, Dylan had boasted to his last lover, Liz Reitell (an assistant at the Poetry Centre in New York who’d helped to stage the first performance of ‘Under Milk Wood’), “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s a record”, it turned out that Dylan had, in fact, drunk nothing like that amount and that, rather than his suffering from a colossal alcoholic assault on the brain as the legend favors, he was actually suffering from a severe chest infection, probably bronchial pneumonia, possibly undiagnosed diabetes, and he was experiencing extreme breathing difficulties as a result of one or other of these two conditions rather than from an alcoholic stroke, the received wisdom.
Dylan had suffered from bronchitis and asthma since childhood and his Chelsea Hotel crisis required to be treated with antibiotics rather than with the paralysingly high doses of morphine that Feltenstein would give him on three visits. Feltenstein injected 30mg of morphine, three times the normal dose for pain relief.
Milton Feltenstein was Reitell’s family physician. She would later describe him as “a wild doctor who believed injections could cure anything” and it’s now thought that Dylan’s mistreatment with morphine by an incompetent and flamboyant doctor accentuated his respiratory problems and brought on the coma from which he would never recover.
Shortly after his seeing Dr. Feltenstein, on Tuesday, 3rd November, and after his being misdiagnosed and then erroneously prescribed for, Dylan was overcome and started to break down and weep in his bedroom at the Chelsea. He told Liz Reitell that he wished to die and to “go to the garden of Eden”.
Seeing himself on his own deathbed, he wrote his last poem. It was called ‘Elegy’ and in it he holds his own hand:
“Veined his poor hand I held, and I saw/
“Through his unseeing eyes to the roots of the sea.”
He records himself, “crying as he died. Fearing at last the spheres’ /Last sound, the world going out without a breath.”
It was an accurate thought. Dylan’s death was momentous. When Dylan died, Karl Shapiro said, “it was as if there would never be any more youth in the world.”
Shapiro noted that “everyone looked upon Thomas as the last of the young poets.”
Shapiro was to go even further: “The death of Dylan Thomas in 1953 was the most singular demonstration of suffering in modern literary history. One searches his memory for any parallel to it. At thirty-nine Thomas had endeared himself to the literary youth of England and America, to most of the poets who were his contemporaries, and to many who were his elders; he was the master of a public which he himself had brought out of nothingness; he was the idol of writers of every description and the darling of the press. (The Press scented him early and nosed him to the grave).”
Dylan Thomas was radical and he had been attracting huge crowds. He’d recently been invited to the Soviet Union and it’s even been suggested that, just as in the case of Paul Robeson, a declared communist, there might have been something more to Dylan’s death than what would come to be caricatured for decades as simply the tragic self-destruction of a bohemian drunk.
But it was 1953; it was then the height of the Cold War, and here was a crowd-puller not averse to broaching revolutionary ideas in a US that was then so staid, so stultifying, and so paranoid about Communism. Mightn’t it be better if he was disposed of?
Momentarily intriguing as the notion is there’s no evidence for it but certainly several other British writers have had a knack of being fatally consumed by America’s kleptocratic and venal mindset.
Charles Dickens was cheated out of his US royalties and, rather like Dylan Thomas, forced to undertake a series of demanding readings to try to recoup his losses – an ill-starred venture that accelerated Dickens’ demise. Dickens wrote to his friend the actor Macready of his alarm at having his brand new coat torn off his back by a grasping New York crowd eager for souvenirs. Several English writers have trod the gilded path to Hollywood and drunk from its poisoned chalice never to be heard of again and John Lennon was, of course, murdered outright.
In the case of Dylan Thomas, it can be said that he was to suffer no less than two deaths at American hands. Less than a decade after his death, his identity was eerily pilfered so that the Dylan Thomas that everyone had come to know and love pre-1953 would be eclipsed by his name being borrowed, or more properly stolen.
A then unknown and insecure folk singer looking to forge an identity for himself latched onto Dylan’s name and by assuming it, Robert Allen Zimmerman saw a way of securing for himself an as yet unearned significance.
Robert Allen Zimmerman had previously toyed with the idea of calling himself ‘Elston Gunn’ and even ‘Jack Frost’ but, as soon as he was introduced to the work of Dylan Thomas, he felt a compulsion to help himself to Dylan’s name in order to further his career as poet-folksinger.
Dylan Thomas had at this point achieved near-mythic status in New York’s bohemian and literary circles and so Robert Zimmerman’s appropriation of his name was a glaringly obvious way of his trying to pass himself off as a great poet before he’d begun. As Joni Mitchell put it:
“Bob [Dylan] is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”
Now that the name ‘Dylan’ has become commonplace, Zimmerman’s identity theft may seem to have little significance yet, when Dylan Thomas was born there was, in fact, no one else alive who had Dylan as their first name.
The use of the name was a unique coinage and especial to Dylan’s family. Thomas’ father, David John Thomas, known as ‘D.J.’, had chosen it with a scholarly care. D.J. had noted his new-born son’s likeness to the Dylan ail Don, the “curly-haired boy” mentioned in the epic poem, ‘Mabinogion’. The mother of the Dylan ail Don, Arianrhod, gives birth to Dylan through magical means – through a wand that bestows life.
D.J. was, in other words, giving his son a name that, outside its passing mention in an obscure piece of 12th century Welsh literature, had, in fact, been unused.
Florence Thomas, Dylan’s mother, had her doubts about her husband’s choice since the correct Welsh pronunciation of the name was “Dullan” and Florence was worried that other children would tease him by calling him “dull one.”
However, despite his wife’s reservations, D.J. had had his way and the aptness of his choice was later borne out in what Dylan Thomas referred to as “that bloody cherub picture”, namely the curly-haired portrait of Dylan by Augustus John.
‘Dylan’, D.J felt, was his son’s ‘soul-name’ – something that tied him to the soil of Wales. It was what T. S. Eliot, in ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, called a “deep and inscrutable, singular Name”.
Dylan’s father had read him poetry as a child – some said he’d even read it to him in the womb – and two thirds of Dylan’s entire life-time’s output was written at 5, Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea the house which D.J. had purchased from his modest earnings as a schoolteacher and to which Dylan would often return for the cwtch (meaning his safe place; his place of affectionate hugs). Dylan’s soul-name would, like a fairy blessing, serve to bestow upon him a kind of ancestral familial magic.
The reason that at the beginning of the 1960s Robert Allen Zimmerman decided to adopt Dylan’s name was patently to help himself to some of Dylan Thomas’ poetic stardust. No reason why not to, some might say, but in an astonishingly short time, through a determined manipulation of the media, Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan was able to make certain that, by the end of the decade, it was he whom people would think of at the mention of the name ‘Dylan’ and not Dylan Thomas.
Dylan Thomas, his body barely cold, was to be pushed aside by Bob Dylan although Bob Dylan’s chutzpah would be unable to save him from a satirical jibe from his song-writing rival Paul Simon:
“I knew a man, his brain so small/He couldn’t think of nothing at all/He’s not the same as you and me/He doesn’t dig poetry. He’s so unhip that/When you say Dylan, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas/Whoever he was/The man ain’t got no culture/But it’s alright, ma/Everybody must get stoned.”
Obviously anyone in the world of entertainment is at liberty to call themselves whatever they wish and Penny Rimbaud of Crass and the Shakespeare Sisters, for example, have hardly dented the significance of either the French poet nor of the English bard but Bob Dylan’s case is perhaps different, if only because Robert Zimmerman’s helping himself to Dylan’s name, and to something of his cachet, has clearly sat so uneasily with the thief himself over the subsequent decades.
Furthermore, fans of Dylan Thomas have found the purloining of their hero’s name galling since there are several elements of Zimmerman-Dylan’s character that would make Dylan Thomas, were he alive, squirm with righteous revulsion.
When Robert Zimmerman arrived in New York in January 1961 his driver’s license read “Zimmerman.” His birth name was something that he was self-conscious about; he didn’t want anyone to discover the truth. He was Bob Dylan. Nothing else. Once when Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, was asked whether his assumed name was pronounced in the same way as Dylan Thomas, he retorted, “no, like Bob Dylan.”
The pilfering of the then much more famous poet’s name would bring Bob Dylan an immediate benefit but there was also to be an unforeseen cost.
Bob Dylan would find himself increasingly irritated by the amount of times Dylan Thomas’ name would be brought up by interviewers just as he was trying to build up his career and to establish himself as the only person called ‘Dylan’ who mattered – the only ‘Dylan’ whom, in Bob Dylan’s view, anyone should be paying any attention to.
In 1966 he was so riled by it that he allowed himself the pronouncement, “I’ve done more for Dylan Thomas than he ever did for me.”
It’s unclear quite how he could have believed this to be true since, apart from the fake Dylan’s stealing something of the real Dylan’s poetic kudos, the light-fingered Bob had also been feeling entitled to make free with some of Dylan Thomas’ actual lines. Dylan Thomas was doing rather more for Bob Dylan than the other way round.
For example the phrase, “the chains of the sea” in Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, ‘When the Ship Comes In’, matches the last line of Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill: “I sang in my chains like the sea”, and in an article ‘How Dylan Thomas influenced Bob Dylan’, Alexander Poirer indicates other filchings and stylistic pilferings. He suggests that, “Lines from Thomas like “Under the windings of the sea/They lying long shall not die windily” sound like they could have been pulled directly from one of Dylan’s songbooks.” And on a record by Steve Goodman, Somebody Else’s Troubles, made in September 1972, Bob Dylan contributes some harmony vocals under the pseudonym Robert Milkwood Thomas, echoing the title of Dylan Thomas’s play. Bob Dylan’s parasitic relationship with Thomas was being hidden in plain sight.
Bob Dylan’s plagiarism is, of course, legendary: the melody for his winsome song “Blowing in the Wind” came directly from an old spiritual “No More Auction Block,” and the song’s central lyric notion was lifted from Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’.
His copyright infringements have been the subject of a remarkable number of lawsuits. There have also been allegations of musical plagiarism and it’s long been thought that Bob Dylan’s nasal twang was a pastiche of the great vocalist Carter Stanley – of the 1940’s Stanley Brothers bluegrass duo.
When challenged about plagiarism however Bob Dylan only says dismissively that “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”
But Bob Dylan’s unrestrained kleptomania would prompt the folk singer Tim Hardin to say of him:
“He’s a cold motherfucker, man. He was thinking, he was listening to what everybody said all the time and going, “Uh-hummm, yup,” and writing it down in his little photo-fuckin-graphic memory, you know what I mean? Taking pictures of everything and reproducing the whole lick for himself. Then he learned to give somebody else a little credit, by having their picture on the album or something. Fuck him.”
In the case of his feeling free to dip into Dylan Thomas’ oeuvre in order to spice up his own work, it occurs that Bob Dylan’s misplaced sense of entitlement may stem from a kind of magical thinking: ‘I have a right to his work since I’ve taken over Dylan’s name.’
In an early Playboy interview, where Bob is invited to discuss his nomenclatural plagiarism, the freshly incarnated ‘Dylan’ lets slip a striking admission:
“Sometimes you are held back by your name. Sometimes there are advantages to having a certain name. I wouldn’t pick a name unless I thought I was that person.”
When the legendary Woody Guthrie was at death’s door, young folk musicians would make a pilgrimage to see their hero and to sing with him before his death. Bob Dylan was amongst them and it’s been suggested that he borrowed his vocal style from the dying Guthrie – ghoulishly copying the singer’s slurred speech, the side effect of the illness, Huntington’s disease, that was taking Guthrie’s life.
But Sidney Carter (author of the cheerfully exuberant hymn ‘The Lord of the Dance’) who met Bob Dylan in London, concluded that, “Dylan Thomas had more influence on Bob Dylan than Woody Guthrie did, with an image of the bard who went forth as a kind of romantic prophet, doomed to an early death.” And it’s worth noting that Bob Dylan didn’t call himself Bob Guthrie and when he made his peculiar statement, “I wouldn’t pick a name unless I thought I was that person” he can only have been thinking of Dylan Thomas but did he really think that he was Dylan Thomas?
The flak which Bob Dylan has had to deal with on account of the name change could be thought of as inevitable blowback or even karma. In order to deal with it he has had to adopt a number of increasingly bizarre coping mechanisms.
He’s tried, for example, to give the impression that he’s outgrown Dylan Thomas; he’s implied that he’s a far greater poet than Dylan Thomas ever was, and then confusingly, and almost in the same breath, he’s insisted that there is no connection at all between him and Dylan Thomas. In one recorded comment he seemingly wishes to write Dylan Thomas out of history altogether. Dylan Thomas never existed. There was and there is only Bob Dylan.
In an interview with the Chicago Daily News in November 1965 Bob is asked: “What about the story that you changed your name from Bob Zimmerman to Bob Dylan because you admired the poetry of Dylan Thomas?”
“No, God, no.” Bob Dylan says, “I took Dylan because I have an uncle called Dillion [sic]. I changed the spelling, but only because it looked better. I’ve read some of Dylan Thomas’ stuff and it’s not the same as mine.”
Like other bogus attempts to romanticize his past, namely that he was an orphan, that he jumped freight trains, that he was brought up on an Indian reservation, this was a blatant attempt at deception: There was no “Dillion” in the Zimmerman family.
In a 1978 interview with Playboy magazine, Dylan repeatedly denied taking his stage name from the poet only to be undermined by Paul McCartney. McCartney gives the lie to Bob’s disingenuous denials that there was any connection between the two, “We all used to like Dylan Thomas. I read him a lot. I think that John started writing because of him. I am sure that the main influence on both (Bob) Dylan and John was Dylan Thomas. That’s why Bob’s not Bob Zimmerman – his real name.”
Hardest to swallow of all of Bob Dylan’s apologetics and one that suggests that his identity theft has unbalanced him altogether is his contention that his original self (Robert Zimmerman) was actually killed thanks to a Hell’s Angel (coincidentally called Bobby Zimmerman) and who was, according to Bob’s delusional narrative, “transfigured in a religious way.”
In September 1977 the Soviet Literature Gazette dismissed Bob as “nothing more than a money-hungry capitalist” and when Bob Dylan displays his contempt for a poet whom he says he’s outgrown, and when he happily does what Dylan Thomas never did and that is to sell out to any and every commercial outfit and does so on an industrial scale, then perhaps it’s tempting to recall Norman Mailer’s harsh verdict on him: “If [Bob] Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.”
Joan Baez’s reward for fostering Bob Dylan’s career was betrayal and ridicule. She had introduced Dylan’s song “With God on Our Side,” into a performance of her own and she’d then recorded it on her 1963 album, “Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2.”
Her generous support gave him credibility in radical circles and the two of them would sing his songs together at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963. Then in July of that year, she’d invite him on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. His biographer, Robert Shelton would write: “Baez, the reigning queen of folk music, had made Dylan the crown prince”. Despite this, Bob Dylan refused to allow her to appear on stage and cold-shouldered her out of his tour; and dumped her during the filming of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about him, “Don’t Look Back”.
Joan Baez however was cut from a different cloth. When her debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959 made her an overnight star, she would have the moral integrity to turn down a $50,000 offer to advertise Coca-Cola. Bob Dylan by contrast was eager to embrace every opportunity to sell out, to court American capital and to have the troubadour bow to Mammon.
Unlike Dylan Thomas who never once sold out – who never ‘shilled’ for anyone –his deadly Doppelganger would prove as keen as mustard to have his voice serve any and every American corporation.
Sidney Carter once said, “The word poet means different things to different people. Strange, you can talk about a commercial artist, but you can’t talk about a commercial poet. A poet has to have something holy as well to have genius.”
Dylan Thomas once said wistfully but cheerfully that he’d never earned enough from poetry “to feed a goldfinch” and he hadn’t. He left just under a hundred pounds upon his death. The fake Dylan has been voraciously, all-consumingly commercial.
Bob Dylan would sing “I Want You” for a commercial for Chobani yogurt; he would sing “Love Sick” for a lingerie company, Victoria’s Secret; he’d appear in an ad for the Cadillac Escalade and he’d be shown driving Cadillac’s gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle as he strums, and he’d sing what had been, once upon a time, his generational protest song, “The Times They Are A’Changin'” whilst the advertising company that had hired him projected seductive images designed to convey the virtues of the Bank of Montreal. In Bob Dylan’s “Super Bowl Sunday” advertisement for Chrysler watched by 100 million people the singer rattles off an extraordinary concoction of jingoistic rhetoric devised to promote Chrysler – a company noted for building the M1 Abrams tanks that were used during the Vietnam war.
“So let Germany brew your beer,” Dylan tells the world. “Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone,” he pauses, “We will build your car.”
With stunningly meaningless gravitas he concludes, “Is there anything more American than America?”
Bob Dylan’s seemingly insatiable material appetite prompted Joan Baez, along with Pete Seeger and Country Joe McDonald the musical bedrock of the US peace movement – to enquire of him, “Have you forgotten what it’s like to be poor, Bobby?”
When he was fourteen Dylan Thomas wrote a poem entitled Clown in the Moon, “I think, that if I touched the earth,/It would crumble;/It is so sad and beautiful,/So tremulously like a dream.”
By contrast, the raddled Bob Dylan in his ten-gallon cowboy hat and in his open-topped Chrysler limo stuffed with cash gives the finger to climate change and fondles Chrysler’s remunerative defense contracts as he rides roughshod over that same shared earth, for money.
Aldous Huxley once introduced a Stravinsky composition based on a poem of Dylan Thomas’ by quoting a line from Mallarmé which says that “poets purify the dialect of the tribe.”
Thomas’ namesake would seem now to be determined that poets should be desacralized and that the language of the tribe be reduced to a money-grubbing sales pitch.
Robert Zimmerman’s cultural theft is to be copyrighted: ‘Dylan’ is to become a brand, set in Wall Street stone.
Goldman Sachs, in association with a company called SESAC, have issued bonds in Dylan Inc., bonds that are backed up by the artists’ royalties. You could hardly sell out or be sold out more definitively.
Shares in the megastar are to be quoted on the New York stock exchange – here is the ultimate copper-bottomed proof surely that Bob Dylan writes blue-chip poetry.
He’s established ‘Dylan’ as a brand and without a shred of irony, Bob Dylan even took Apple to court over their projected use of the name ‘Dylan’ to indicate dynamic language (DYnamic LANguage).
Apple had been devising DY-LAN as an application, or App, but Bob Dylan would have none of it. The irony of Bob Dylan being upset by someone else adopting a name which himself had purloined was not lost on the press and neither have rock critics and fellow artists been slow in showing their contempt:
“After decades of carefully manicured deification by Columbia Records,” wrote the music critic Jonny Whiteside, the time has come “to flout indoctrination and examine Dylan’s track record as a Grade-A phony.”
Further disdain would come from his fellow songwriter, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, “Dylan’s songs are marijuana leftovers. Dylan is the type of person you’d want to punch out at a party.”
Bob Dylan started his career at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village; its Manager, Sam Hood, a close friend of Phil Ochs, permitted himself the succinct: “He [Dylan] was such a prick.”
Bob Dylan assumed Dylan Thomas’s name but he took on nothing of Thomas’s character, and far from his possessing Dylan Thomas’s magnanimity towards his fellow poets, as attested by Vernon Watkins, it would seem that the fake Dylan was so envious of his rock and roll rivals that, given the opportunity, he’d sadistically torment them.
He once reduced the emotionally fragile Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to tears in Max’s Kansas City. Bob, backed up by his roadie, cornered Brian for Bob to tell him that his voice was crap; that his band was no good and that Brian (who’d admired Bob) had no musical talent.
When Bob felt that his fellow folk singer Phil Ochs was threatening to overtake him thanks to Phil Ochs’s rather more trenchant, more issue-based and more radical songs such as ‘Draft Dodger Rag’ and ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore’, with lines such as, “Even treason might be worth a try/The country is too young to die”, Bob threw Phil Ochs out of his limo in a fit of pique saying ,” I can’t keep up with Phil. He just gets better.” Happily for Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs’ suicide would end the competition that was causing Bob such discomfort.
Did he supply John Lennon with heroin out of a sadistic and envious desire to destroy him? Who knows? But Bob Dylan’s coolness and hipsterism is surely no more than a euphemism for a kind of grunting, self-regarding nihilism. Dylan Thomas was most certainly more fun.
Years later the myth of Bob Dylan as a counter-cultural icon would finally be exploded. ‘The business of America is business’ declared US President Calvin Coolidge and few would deny that the US’s most successful business is war.
Those maintaining that the countercultural values of the sixties had something of the eternal verities about them gulped to see Bob Dylan accepting the Congressional Medal of Freedom from a drone-wielding President who’d just passed the largest defense budget in US history, nay world history.
So much for Dylan Thomas’s pacifism, Bob Dylan was now joining the Masters of War club with all the imperial baubles to prove it: the medals and the money and the share portfolios.
Such misjudgments and sell-out moments can perhaps be attributed to excessive drug use, and maybe that explains the weird paths that his endless identity quest have led him on – a noted low point being his embracing of the racist eliminationist murderer Rabbi Meir Kahane, and his telling Time magazine, “He’s a really sincere guy. He’s really put it all together.”
Nonetheless the trahison des clercs still does its best to establish this charlatan grotesque as the US Empire’s national treasure. Here is the distinguished US novelist Joyce Carol Oates on Bob Dylan at sixty:
“Dylan” was a self-chosen name in homage to the great, legendarily self-destructive Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose lush, lyric, over-the-top poetry presumably influenced many of Bob Dylan’s songs.”
Joyce Carol Oates comments that it must have “seemed an act of extraordinary chutzpah” for Robert Zimmerman “to anoint himself with the poet’s internationally famous name” but now, forty years later,” Bob Dylan’s fellow American declares with a triumphal and patriotic pride, “Dylan is an American classic whose fame far surpasses that of his namesake, who seems to have entered an eclipse.”
The roaring sound of the sea as it rushes up the mouth of Afon Conwy, the River Conway in North Wales, is known as “Dylan’s death-groan” and the name refers to the hero of the Mabinogion who drowned, but for a while it could also be taken to refer to the drowning out of Dylan Thomas, “The boisterous broth of a boy” with a voice of gold; the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive”, Swansea’s “man of words”.
It was drowned out for several decades by a mercenary American: sneering, scowling, spiteful, and self-regarding; a supreme sell-out with an ugly, grating, amphetamine-fuelled voice and the values of Wall Street.
Now, mercifully, things may have come full cycle.
During Dylan Thomas’s centenary year it’s been proposed that, much like the Scottish Burns’ Night, there should be a Dylan Day. Should that happen it will be Dylan Thomas who’ll be associated with it rather than Bob Dylan.
Dylan Thomas’s namesake was invited to Wales to join in the centenary celebrations due to be held in the Liberty Stadium in Swansea. Apparently Bob Dylan’s staff expressed polite interest but then, for reasons best known to His Bobness, as he’s known to his more devoted followers, the invitation was declined.
No reason was given but Bob Dylan might have had a certain apprehension at the thought of being overshadowed by an inconvenient revenant in the shape of Dylan Thomas, given Thomas’ now revived and much enlarged stature.
There is nothing so constant as change and who knows that it’s not Bob Dylan’s turn to suffer an eclipse whilst Wales’s boy of summer steps back into the sunlight, free from the irksome shackles of lladron enaidiau or soul stealers.
This was first published in a limited edition of 36 copies by Gerard Bellaart of Cold Turkey Press and as an e-book by Wales Arts Review, 2016.