Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Parables from some weird new bible: Poet Robert Adamson and his love of Bob Dylan

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, September 2014

The great ideals have turned into a plea.
Middle of the night… on the stereo a longplay record turns
around. Its tracks are scratched: Dylan's singing burns
suppressed scars. We hardly listen as we justify a fallen hero.
It was Dylan's dream that taught us all we know.

That is an extract from a poem written by Robert Adamson in 1970. 'Elegy For Bob Dylan's Dream' was composed for his then wife in response to the disappointment they both felt upon Dylan collaborating with Johnny Cash on the former's 1969 album Nashville Skyline. It was a brief moment of recoil in the poet's deep, abiding reverence of Dylan, who had such a profound effect on Adamson, one of Australia's most majestic poets, that the word 'influence' seems inadequate.

"She was a full-on socialist, a union leader and she loved Dylan," says Adamson of his first wife Denise when we meet at his home on the Hawkesbury River. "He brought out a record before Nashville Skyline [John Wesley Harding] and she was disappointed in it, and I was too, and she said 'next he'll be singing with Johnny Cash', which was unthinkable. And then on the next record, he did.

"To Denise, Johnny Cash was this right-wing, Christian enemy to socialism and people like herself, though he's not seen like that anymore. Dylan brought out Nashville Skyline and Denise said 'that's it, he's sold out big time'."

Such a reaction is only possible if one cares deeply about such an artist, and Dylan has been a guiding preoccupation for Adamson since the mid-sixties – these days he loves both John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. The beginning of their relationship is an oft-told story: whilst in Long Bay Gaol, the song 'Only A Pawn In Their Game', from The Times They Are A-Changin' was played over the radio into Adamson's cell (as an example of a 'hideous song' by the rather less than progressive DJ John Laws). Upon leaving prison, Adamson gorged on everything Dylan had released, striking up friendships with folk singer Michael Driscoll, young poet Michael Dransfield and eventually artist Brett Whiteley, all of whom placed Dylan on a heroic pedestal. "I think I wanted to be a folk singer, I wanted to participate in that adventure. But I was alienated in every way, I just didn't know what to do or how to talk about it."

Despite Adamson's early attempts at poetry whilst incarcerated, and his work for some years afterwards, being infused with Dylan-esque imagery and energy, Dylan is not a figure who immediately comes to mind upon reading Adamson's recent work, particularly collections The Goldfinches of Baghdad and The Kingfisher's Soul. Dylan's signature surreal passages through history, literature and art, as well as his early political screechings, seem in a different domain to Adamson's elegant mood-pieces filled with microcosmic impressions of the Hawkesbury's wildlife, poems rich with species of bird, fish and marsupial.

Indeed, it was not Dylan's subject matter that first shook Adamson, as much as it was Dylan's wilfulness, the force of his persona and his sheer otherness – his representing a potentially different path, rather than that of the 'delinquent', a label he was tarred with during early adulthood. It was an alien voice that boomed over the radio in his cell, and Dylan was able to maintain his unusualness to Adamson due to the fact he would make a serious about-turn in style, approach and image every couple of albums. Not that this always met with approval from the poet, hence poems like 'Elegy For Bob Dylan's Dream'.

"When I heard Dylan for the first time, I thought 'what a great singer' I didn't even think about those incredible words or that 'Only A Pawn In Their Game' was an amazing message. It was the best thing I'd ever heard because it was so different. It amazes me when people say Dylan can't sing.

"I never thought of him as a political commentator. I didn't care about that, I liked him for his incredibly strange phrasing and his singing. Often I don't care what it's saying, it's pure poetry. It's like parables from some weird new bible."

The question of Dylan's credentials as a poet has filled meaty tomes by the likes of heavyweight critics such as Christopher Ricks and Clinton Heylin. Adamson, who included song lyrics by Paul Kelly when he edited the Best Australian Poems anthology in 2010, is better qualified than most to evaluate. Naturally, his bookshelf contains volumes of Dylan's lyrics, as well as pretty much every notable critical work that has been written on the folk bard.

"If you look at it on the page, it's great but it's not exactly Wallace Stevens. It's better than most poetry.

"The songs [on the page] come across as really good, strange stuff I think. If you were an editor of an Australian poetry magazine and a batch of these came in you'd think 'f***, what's this?' But it's impossible for us to know how they'd stand up as poems if we'd never heard Dylan sing them. It's like reading the text of a Shakespeare play if you've never heard it performed."

The influence of poetry on Dylan, however, is indisputable. The fact he took his artist name from Dylan Thomas, and his friendship with Allen Ginsberg, need not be dwelled on here. There is also William Wordsworth, Adamson saying, "Dylan took from the vernacular and made it work in song, in the way Wordsworth would have done in his time – probably better than Wordsworth, I think Dylan's done it on a more drastic level."

But there is one poet that both Dylan and Adamson share as a seismic, encompassing influence, a seminal visionary figure who explored and represented rebelliousness and amorality. Jim Morrison of the Doors, among plenty of others, was among those who appropriated Arthur Rimbaud in a posturing, limited sort of way. Dylan – and Adamson upon being exposed to Rimbaud by Driscoll – saw something more decisive, perhaps spiritual, in both Rimbaud's poems and famous letters, where he expounded his crucial adage, "I is someone else", and called for poets to become "seers" via a "derangement of the senses". The 19th century symbolist hit Adamson at the same time as Dylan, setting fire to his imagination. Yet, now, he admits he "didn't put the two together" at the time.

In fact, Dylan was both living out a Rimbaudian sort of persona, and allowing his lyrics to be directly influenced by the dazzling Illuminations and A Season In Hell. I asked Adamson about how much of a connection he saw between "I is someone else" and Dylan's shapeshifting artistic identity.

"Dylan didn't just create music under a different name, but became a different person," says Adamson. "He took on this Woody Guthrie sort of persona, and became Bob Dylan, which he got from Dylan Thomas. So he decided to be a poet-singer like Guthrie, but of the world like Rimbaud.

"He wanted to broaden the Guthrie thing, and he already started ahead of it, as Dylan Thomas was from Wales. He wanted to get away from Hibbing, Minnesota really badly, and maybe he's still trying to get away from it.

"I see Dylan as getting lines like 'To live outside the law you must be honest' [from 'Absolutely Sweet Marie'] from Rimbaud. A lot of lines like that are Rimbaud-ish. There are Rimbaud-like lines in 'Chimes of Freedom' too, and particularly 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall', with its 'I saw this' and 'I saw that'. It's like A Season In Hell, where all these visions are piled up on each other."

If you visit the Brett Whiteley Studio in Sydney's Surry Hills, you will find lines by both Dylan and Rimbaud scrawled on the wall. It was at the studio where Adamson "kind of met" Dylan – as his international fame increased, Whiteley struck up a sort of friendship with the singer, based on Dylan's wish to learn to paint during his visits to Australia. In 1986 Whiteley organised a press conference for Dylan in his studio which Adamson attended, only for the poet to be both too shy, and too drunk, to engage with the visitor.

The experience left Adamson reflecting on Dylan's remoteness, and the impossibility of penetrating the man behind the art. As the father of pretty much all modern songwriting, and indeed the whole notion of the Romantic singer-songwriter or folk troubadour, the awe in which he is held might prohibit meaningful communication with others. Just watch any of his amusing but painful press conferences – including that at the Whiteley Studio, which is on YouTube.

"He's not the songs, he's this guy that you don't know," says Adamson. "And how do you get to know someone under these circumstances? If you met him some day out fishing you might be able to talk, but imagine the pressures on him as a person. How do you talk to him without hassling him or paying tribute to him? It's almost like he's not real."

And naturally, Dylan's distant, otherworldly mystique, and the barriers between him and others as a result, yielded a poem for Adamson, a kind of partner to 'Elegy For Bob Dylan's Dream'. His meditations formed the crux of 2000's 'Letter To Bob Dylan', an exquisite musing on Dylan's myth and unreality, in which he writes:

                         …I'll leave
this letter unposted – better you
find it by telepathy. It'll arrive
as a wince or little black chuckle           
or as a faint snatch of song perhaps
praising your singing – the one thing exempt
from the tax of memory and living out the days.

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