May 24, 2017

Bob Dylan and JFK at 76 and 100: Parallel Universes, Strange Countries, and Dark Dreams

By Stuart Mitchner

A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries you have to enter. —Bob Dylan, from Chronicles: Volume One

Is it any wonder that songs, dreams, strange countries, and parallel universes are on my mind the morning after watching the return of David Lynch’s 27-year-long interrupted dream, Twin Peaks, on Showtime Sunday night? On top of that, today, May 24, is Bob Dylan’s 76th birthday. In fact, the original motive for this column was the 100th birthday of John F. Kennedy next Monday, May 29, and while it’s too soon to say anything about the reincarnation of the show frequently credited with inspiring the Golden Age of the Television Series, it’s worth nothing that Eagle Scout David Lynch was present for the inauguration of JFK, which coincided with his 15th birthday, January 20, 1961.

The parallel universe that my wife and I happen to be living in at the moment, however, is the Amazon series based on Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which is set in 1962, except there’s no President Kennedy, America has lost World War II, and the country has been divided between the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States, meaning swastikas on the sky signs of Times Square, the shadow of the Rising Sun on the Golden Gate Bridge.

But if the Axis powers won the war in 1947, why begin the story 15 years later in 1962? I have the answer in my hands: President Kennedy’s Oct. 22, 1962 speech to the nation about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, which is among the documents reproduced in A Vision for America: JFK in Words and Pictures (Harper $45), a massive, richly illustrated anthology edited by Stephen Kennedy Smith and Douglas Brinkley, the first words of which are, with minor adjustments, from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound: “To hope till hope creates from its own wreck the thing it contemplates.” The book includes reflections by a host of commentators, from the Dalai Lama’s prayer for freedom, peace, prosperity, and happiness to Don DeLillo’s evocation of the moment in Dallas “that would change the way we live and think, day to day, year to year.” A Vision for America is nothing less than an elaborately documented celebration of the American dream the media called Camelot. And in case readers in May 2017 doubt that something so improbable actually happened, the book offers nearly 500 pages of evidence.

McCain Was There

Among the millions listening to Kennedy’s announcement of the “quarantine of all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba” was future senator John McCain, then a pilot on the USS Enterprise, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft and the first to reach the blockade being formed in the waters off Cuba, as McCain writes in his contribution to JFK: “For a few days, we believed we were going into action. It would have been my first combat experience …. I can still feel … the pride of thinking that I was among a select number whom the glamorous, inspiring American leader was counting on to do the job …. He was the man who issued my personal summons to history, and who seemed in that moment to be the very best man for the job.”

Maureen Dowd on JFK

How strange to think of a “glamorous, inspiring” president in these trumpestuous times. Maureen Dowd’s account of “JFK, cub reporter” opens by recalling that he “not only liked to hang out with journalists but actually was one.” Kennedy saw journalism as “a noble calling, one that was important to educating the public and protecting the national interest.” He also enjoyed the company of reporters “because they were more raffish than others.” As for the stories he wished “they didn’t write” and of which he sometimes disapproved, he nevertheless knew “that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very very active press.” Commenting on the “Serviceman’s View” columns the 28-year-old Kennedy wrote for the Hearst syndicate in 1945, Dowd notes that he’s “not afraid to call it as he sees it, using clean, lucid prose and showing a knowledge of history and a love of sports metaphors.” She adds that he would have been “terrific at Twitter” and was wary of the U.S.S.R., “though he could never have foretold how that country would bring him to the brink of war when he got to the White House.”

Greenwich Village 1961

While Bob Dylan isn’t a contributor to JFK in Words and Pictures, there’s a Dylanesque edge to Norman Mailer’s vision of Kennedy as existential hero, highlighted by a quote about the president’s “patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.” When I came to New York in January 1961, my first year away from home coincided with the first year of Kennedy’s term; one reason I relate to Dylan’s recollections in Chronicles is knowing he arrived in the city at the same time, living in the same Manhattan neighborhood, sharing the “feeling of destiny,” for “America was changing” and “New York was as good a place to be as any.” That’s how it was for me living in the Village at the dawn of the sixties, listening to jazz in the clubs and the folk singers, possibly including Dylan, in Washington Square while working at the literary heart of the scene, the Eighth Street Bookshop.

Although the Cuban Missile Crisis weighs down one of Dylan’s most uninspired lyrics “all about the fearful night we thought the world would end,” JFK makes a lively entrance in “I Shall Be Free” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: “Well my telephone rang it would not stop/It’s President Kennedy callin me up/He said ‘my friend Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?’/I said ‘My friend John, Brigitte Bardot ….’” The album, Dylan’s second, came out in late May 1963, half a year before Dallas.

Nov. 22, 1963

According to Anthony Scaduto’s “intimate biography,” Bob Dylan was scheduled to perform in upstate New York the day after the assassination. The first song on the set was “The Times They Are a Changin’,” a Dylan dream with words like “There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’/It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls” and “The line it is drawn/the curse it is cast.” Dylan was worried, thinking, “‘How can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me. That was just too much for the day after the assassination. But I had to sing it. My whole concert takes off from there.’”

The audience’s reaction amazed him: “‘Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding that song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping or why I wrote that song even. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.’”

According to Scaduto, when Dylan returned to the Village, he “watched the national tragedy through the rest of the weekend and into the Monday morning funeral.” Through it all “Dylan sat and watched and said little, just feeling the emotion of it. He drank a little wine, and played Berlioz’s Requiem over and over.”

Toward the end of Chronicles, Dylan recalls his mother’s response to Kennedy’s visit to Hibbing during the 1960 campaign, when “eighteen thousand people had turned out to see him … he was a ray of light” and gave “a heroic speech” that “brought people a lot of hope.” Dylan adds: “If I had been a voting man, I would have voted for Kennedy just for coming there. I wished I could have seen him.”

Singing on the Schoolbus

Bob Dylan’s recipe for making songs come true reminds me of “Row Row Row Your Boat,” the round we used to sing on the schoolbus along with kids all over America, singing “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” The great thing about the song was how you could play around with the words, turning life into “school,” but the word you loved somehow, the one that made it fun, was dream. Maybe that’s one reason grown-ups have a weakness for dark dreams like Twin Peaks and The Man In the High Castle.

Or maybe it’s because these shows make it easier to live with the “can this really be happening?” chaos of Trump’s Washington. It could be worse. We could have lost the war, and that shining knight of the FBI, Dale Cooper, could be trapped in the Red Room while his murderous longhaired doppelgänger roams the land.