Voice of a Generation meets the Fab Four
By Stephen Smith Earlier this year, much was made about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America for the first time in February 1964. However, a slightly later visit on Aug. 28 may have been more significant in triggering revolutionary musical developments in the works of both the Beatles and a young visitor.
By Stephen Smith
Earlier this year, much was made about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America for the first time in February 1964. However, a slightly later visit on Aug. 28 may have been more significant in triggering revolutionary musical developments in the works of both the Beatles and a young visitor.
Not long before the Beatles made their first historic flight to take the states by storm and spread the contagion of Beatlemania, George Harrison reputedly had brought to the attention of his bandmates the French release of a new album by a young American upstart. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan included "Blowin' in the Wind," the reworking of an older slave song with Dylan's own elegantly universal lyrics; "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," an apocalyptic vision communicated through a cascade of surreal images; and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," a sort of anti-love song that seemed to be the antithesis of the Beatles' "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Sure, Dylan sings, I'll hold your hand if you want me to, but don't expect commitment and, if you leave, well, that's all right too.
Nevertheless, Dylan's initial reaction to early Beatles songs, recollected by him in 1971, was positive and prophetic: "Their chords were outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid. ... I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go."
But notice what he does not mention: the lyrics couched within those exciting chords and harmonies were undeniably clever, but obviously did not stretch the conventional boundaries of subject matter and theme found in late 1950s and early '60s pop music. No young girls were hurling themselves frenziedly at the stage as Dylan sang about cannon balls flying, hard rain falling, and cynical lovers parting. Indeed, the musical paths of Bob Dylan and the Beatles crossed at about the time that he was pointing in one direction and they in another. But their intersections would change not only their music, but also the experimental paths followed by other songwriters who believed that popular music could aspire to the status of art.
When Dylan visited the Beatles in a New York hotel room 50 years ago today, the Beatles had already received a note of congratulations on their American success by another of their musical heroes, Elvis Presley. But, according to numerous accounts in Dylan and Beatles biographies and memoirs, the Fab Four were particularly nervous about meeting in the flesh their more contemporary competitor for fame and critical plaudits.
Most accounts agree that, in an attempt to lessen the tension in the room, Dylan was offered booze and pills, the Beatles' substances of choice at the time. He declined but reciprocated by rolling joints of marijuana he had brought with him, relaxing his new friends and opening up a flow of conversation of questionable lucidity that continued through the evening. (Paul McCartney would later say he thought he had written a brilliant new song that night, only to discover a piece of paper the next morning with four scribbled meaningless words.)
After that encounter, Dylan's actual contacts with the Beatles, other than Harrison, a lifelong friend and a Traveling Wilburys collaborator in the '80s, were minimal. And he was not always charitable in commenting upon later Beatles works, referring to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as an overproduced studio gimmick.
So what was important about Dylan and the Beatles meeting during a time when songwriting geniuses were engaged in the nonstop experimental one-upmanship that also involved the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and others in those heady days?
Dylan was a musical sponge who had absorbed an astounding knowledge of folk, blues, and bluegrass, mimicking and mastering the roots of rock-and-roll. He demonstrated to the Beatles, as John Lennon attested many times, that popular music could be poetry, tackling politics, social issues, history, and even love - but love in a context of mature complexity and a painfully personal perspective that often avoids easy sentiment and conventional attitudes. Let images, Dylan taught, carry compact meaning that simultaneously teases and informs: His own character who built a fire on Main Street and shot it full of holes ("Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again") or Lennon's man who blew his mind out in a car ("A Day in the Life").
Equally important, Dylan gained courage from the Beatles to evolve further musically, merging his knowledge of rock's antecedents with their electric sound and formal experimentation, expanding his musical vocabulary within a new sound that demanded more than a solitary performer with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. Like the Beatles, he knew that standing still was really going backward. If the times were a-changin', his music had to change too.