Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas
There is something very infectious in the enthusiasm of the two experts, KG Miles and Jeff Towns, behind this book. They fed stories and snippets and all kinds of information into what is arguably a quickly drawn mapping exercise of all the connections between the two Dylans.
One was the great Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter who has helped define America for the past six decades. The other was arguably the most famous poet to ever come out of Wales, although he lists himself a bit to starboard as he did.
No wonder American writer Nelson Algren described him as a “beer philosopher, a beer prophet, a John Foster Dulles of beer” whose “studies were extended to Persian, Icelandic, Manx, Mexican, Frisian, Turkish and Moorish. ‘ those.
That same enthusiastic enthusiasm for life is one of the things that seems to bind the two artists, each with unique gifts, voices and visions, two “poets of rock and roll” as this book puts it.
The American took on the Welshman’s name, legally swapping Robert Allen Zimmerman for Bob Dylan, which is far better than one of the other aliases Bob took on at the start, being Elston Gunn, a cartoonish name with nothing like it. Elston Gunn: Living in Budokhan? I do not think so.
Not that Dylan’s name is common in Wales. There was not a single Dylan recorded as a first name in the country from 1838 to 1900, whose popularity only increased after World War II, coinciding with the publication of Dylan Thomas’ best-selling collection of poetry, Deaths. and Entrances.
The book takes the form of corresponding chapters in which each author exposes and develops an aspect of the life of one Dylan, Miles writing about the singer Bob, Towns about the poet Thomas.
So we see how the two men connect with many people such as President Jimmy Carter as well as a wide range of artists from Charlie Chaplin and Henry Miller to Hunter S. Thompson and Johnnie Ray to John Cale.
There is a lot of overlap between the interests of the two authors. The very first album Jeff Towns bought was actually by Bob Dylan, who performed for Wales for the first time at the Capitol Theater in Cardiff.
It was the same day Johnny Cash played Sophia Gardens and DA Pennebaker, who was making a documentary capturing a behind-the-scenes moment when they both sang a Hank Williams number.
For one Tonypandy fan, the Bob Dylan concert was life-changing: “It was the first concert I saw outside of the school bands. It pierced me and without sounding pretentious changed my whole attitude towards music and made me aware of life outside the then parish boundaries of the Valleys.
But Dylan Thomas also had his enthusiastic adherents, poets such as TS Eliot (called by Dylan “Pope Eliot”) who not only praised the Welshman’s verses, but bailed him out financially.
Other fans of dipsomaniac Dylan included composer Igor Stravinsky – who wrote music in his memory, punk poet Patti Smith and American poet Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth mentioned Dylan Thomas in the same breath as jazz great Charlie Parker:
Like the Pillars of Hercules, like two ruined Titans guarding the entrance to one of Dante’s Circles, stand two great dead juvenile delinquents – the heroes of the post-war generation: saxophonist Charlie Parker and Dylan Thomas . If the word “deliberate” means anything, they certainly destroyed each other.
The book has something to delight aficionados of the two Dylans. There is an account of the role of the Welsh language in the work of “Parc Rimbaud de Cwmdonkin”, including unexpected puns such as “parched land” which could mean dry or arid but could also refer to the many ministers of church and chapel in a country with a plenitude of pulpits.
We also find out that, when it comes to The Beatles, both Lennon and McCartney were fans of Thomas’ verses.
Jeff Towns is not only a fan of both artists, but he is a very knowledgeable bookseller of his craft and as a result the book contains some mind-blowing stories of finding rarities. Among them, the first American edition of Dylan Thomas’ collected poems which Towns found in a cavernous store in Berkeley.
Not only did it turn out to be Allen Ginsberg’s own copy, but he also had the temerity to add an extra line to one of the poems. Ginsberg was a fan of Thomas, and on a trip to Wales he insisted on visiting his grave in Laugharne, where he quickly knelt down and recited a Buddhist mantra.
And, of course, Bob Dylan was a fan, taking a copy of the poems with him and even taking his name. Just as this book is for fans of either or both, showing how the worlds of “two colossal vultures of culture and wordsmiths collide”.
It’s a very big and resounding bang as this lively and engaging volume amply proves.
Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas is published by McNidder & Grace. You can buy a copy at any good bookstore.
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