It’s perhaps my favorite scene in D. A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. Pennebaker has setup this narrative as Dylan tours England in 1965, introduced with shots of British music newspapers touting the teen-aged Donovan as Dylan’s rival. My well-remembered scene is shot in Dylan’s Savoy hotel room, where boffins can pick out various UK music figures sitting about and talking. In the background, there’s Donovan himself, tuning an acoustic guitar as Dylan asks if there’s anyone in the British Isles that is a poet like unto Allen Ginsberg. Dominic Behan is offered. Dylan says nah. Donovan has tuned up and launches into his “I’ll Sing a Song for You.”
“That’s a good song” Dylan chimes in as Donovan sings, and though eyes behind Ray-Ban shades he still seems to be paying respectful attention. Someone says “He plays like Jack man,” not a slur, but referring to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, the legendary folkie and predecessor to Dylan in the Woody-Guthrie-continuation field.
Dylan takes the guitar from Donovan and launches into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The guitar has gathered a capo and Dylan has lost the shades. Donovan lights another filter cigarette and chews on his nails, figures how to be cool.
Now, “rating” Dylan songs is subjective and subject to mood, even for any one person. For this one person, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” gets a lot of respect: a song about love using politics as a metaphor or a song about politics using love as a metaphor? The best metaphors are like that, the thing and the representation can flip places.
So besides the people-watching and the music in a movie about a songwriter that actually has little music in it,* the gist that’s often drawn from this scene is an unhelpful but crucial tip: if you’re ever in a song pull, don’t sing your song just before 1965-vintage Bob Dylan if you can help it.
OK, so I’ve already drifted back to 1965, let’s keep drifting backwards to 1922, and you’re a Modernist poet, not a singer-songwriter. You’re about to be published in The Dial, the sort-of-successor to the mid-19th century American Transcendentalist house organ, now publishing the cream of Modernism in art and literature. Let’s get specific, the “you” you’re playing as you travel back in time is Mina Loy, a woman who’s au fait with the avant garde and whose poetry remains strikingly original even today. Yes, the Modernist movement is going to have its problems with women as artists, but Loy seems fierce.
There are lovely color pictures of Brâncuși’s sculpture, but this is the artist’s own photo, which has a certain monochromatic mystery to it
And the Mina Loy poem that goes into that issue of The Dial is a glorious ode to a visual Modernist: one of Constantin Brâncuși’s series of bird sculptures “The Golden Bird.” Loy’s poem has something the pre-WWI Modernists often had, a joy at the new way of looking and expression.**
The lesson of the Dylan’s Savoy Hotel room is true but unhelpful here. The November 1922 issue of the Dial leads off with a new publication of a poem called “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot. You might have heard of it.
Antiquities dealers ask for more than $1,000 for this back issue
Art of course isn’t a competition. “Rating” art is a silly pastime that gets sillier the thinner you try to slice it. The emotional/intellectual transfer happens between art and audience or it doesn’t. Still the unhelpful rule would hold that if you’re trying to make an impression as a Modernist poet, holding up your “read me” sign next to what gets rated a masterpiece isn’t the way to go.
Now, almost a hundred years later, readers and critics are starting to look again at Loy, whose entire career was overshadowed compared to others she worked beside. How successful was her art? There’s no fixed record, because that assay happens every time it’s read or listened to. I think this tribute to Brâncuși stands up, even though it no longer benefits from the early 20th century shock of the new.***
Musically, today’s performance marks my annual tribute on the anniversary of the unfortunate death of the American musician and composer Jimi Hendrix. Each year for September 18th I plug in a Stratocaster electric guitar and try to channel a little of Hendrix’s bird in flight. Hendrix was enormously interested in the electric guitar’s timbral possibilities, so I tried to make my guitar part reflective, chirping with bird song, and gong-like in turn. You might easily think: this is my Savoy hotel room moment. You could be right, but I persist. My performance of Loy’s piece praising Brâncuși’s sculpture is available with the player below. The text of her poem is here if you want to follow along.
If you ever find yourself, regardless of the unhelpful rule and your careful plans, as a Donovan next to someone as a Bob Dylan, one choice is: go ahead anyway. I’m glad Loy did.
*Yup, it’s true. The movie is forever showing Dylan about to go on stage and then it cuts to another backstage scene. This may have been necessary for music-rights issues, but the movie Pennebaker got was all the more unique because of this.
**RaulDukeBlog has sagely commented here about the gloomy-gus nature of so much of 20th century High Modernism. T. S. Eliot’s poem helped turn it that way, even if it was a personal expiation to break out of that. Two World Wars and surrounding atrocities certainly didn’t help cheer up the arts, and our present state is damp with sodden things that can only be dried with some fire that joy sparks. Another reason to go back earlier in Modernism, and to look at the kindling of artists like Loy and their pure enthusiasm for breaking out of entrenched tropes.
***A famous anecdote about Brâncuși’s work has it that at one point when the statue was being transported to the U.S. the customs officials refused to believe the abstract form was a sculpture at all, and it was instead classified as a metal ingot.