“Shambling After the Mad Ones”:

Bob Dylan, Alan Moore, and Jack Kerouac

A couple of weeks ago, I broke down and got a copy of Bob Dylan’s 1970 album, Self Portrait.  For many fans, this album represents the low point in Dylan’s discography.  Throughout most of the ‘60s, he had delivered an extraordinary run of classic albums—masterful, daring, and experimental.  Then came Self Portrait. You could argue that he would record worse albums in the coming years, but none of them would ever be as crushingly disappointing for fans as this one.

It certainly looked good on the surface.  The title implied something revealing from the always-elusive songwriter, and this promise was reinforced by the cover art—Dylan’s own self portrait.  Even more promising, the album clocked in at 24 tracks, making it, after the classic Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s second double album.

There was only one problem.  Self Portrait was almost entirely comprised of cover songs.  Think about that for a moment.  Dylan is regarded by many (including me) as the premier songwriter of the second half of the 20th Century, but he’s equally known for having a voice that gives new meaning to the term, “acquired taste.”  Listening to an album of cover songs by Dylan was a bit like reading a prose novel written by Jack Kirby.

The result was baffling to some, offensive to others.  It’s certainly hard to figure out what Dylan was going for on some of the tracks.  For his rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” for example, Dylan harmonizes with a recording of himself, but he deliberately staggers the timing so that he either comes in late or early on nearly every line.  The end result sounds like two very sincere drunks performing an impromptu request at a wedding reception.

As you might imagine, Self Portrait is an incredibly weird album—a grab bag of folk, country, and pop, with a couple of uninspired live performances of his own hits tossed in for good measure.  There’s only one thing weirder about it.

I kind of like it.

Don’t get the wrong impression.  It’s not Highway 61 Revisited or Blood on the Tracks—not even close—but it’s … interesting.  In fact, there’s a widespread theory among Dylan aficionados that he made a deliberately bad album in or to push away his fans.  The first half of that theory—deliberately making a bad album—seems hopelessly silly, but the second half—pushing away his fans—has precedent.

Like many acclaimed artists, Dylan has spent much of his career battling his own success.  He made his name in the early ‘60s as a coffeehouse folk singer in Greenwich Village, but Dylan walked away from a mortified fan base in the mid-‘60s by “going electric.”  From then on, no one ever knew exactly what to expect from him.  He returned to folk, dallied with country, and even went through a period where all he recorded was Gospel.  For the listener working his or her way through Dylan’s catalog, it’s easy to see both his restless sense of adventure and his contentious relationship with his audience.

Dylan is certainly not alone among contemporary artists, for you could say much the same about Alan Moore. Moore rocketed to fame within the comics industry in the early ‘80s as the master of “literary” mainstream comics, but it was a title he never seemed to want.  Like Dylan, Moore soon “went electric,” walking away from mainstream comics in the late ‘80s and pouring himself into ambitious, experimental projects like Big Numbers, Lost Girls, A Small Killing, and his masterpiece, From Hell.  When he finally returned to mainstream comics in the mid-‘90s, his stories usually maintained an ironic distance.

Both Dylan and Moore had been anointed leaders of movements they never meant to join, and their resistance was, possibly, an attempt to avoid the fate of Jack Kerouac.  Prior to either of them, Kerouac had been anointed the spokesperson for the Beat Generation, and that position dogged him for the rest of his life.

Following World War II, Kerouac had travelled the country extensively, often with the eccentric Neal Cassady.  Kerouac kept detailed journals of his travels, and in 1951 he loaded a continuous scroll into his typewriter, sat down, and spent three intense weeks guzzling coffee and furiously writing from his notes.  The result was On the Road.

That first draft was written using Kerouac’s notion of “spontaneous prose”—unfiltered, jazz-like improvisations played on a typewriter rather than a saxophone. The style put as much emphasis on rhetorical flourishes as it did clarity and plot, resulting in many memorable passages that read like prose poetry.  Consider, for example, the first sentence of the final paragraph in the book:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?

The book wasn’t published until 1957, but its impact on the literary scene and the culture was profound.  His description of the now fictionalized versions of himself, Cassady, Alan Ginsberg, and William Burroughs popularized the notion of the “Beat Generation.”  But those experiences described the counterculture of the late ‘40s, and Kerouac felt little in common with its heirs—the Beatniks of the late-‘50s or the hippies of the ‘60s.  As a result, he spent much of the ‘60s retreating from his own legacy.  He continued to write books—many of them quite good—but he sank further and further into alcoholism and died at age 47.

So why am I writing about Dylan, Moore, and Kerouac?  Well strangely enough, I find them all converging in one place—the third volume in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  In many ways, this book, entitled The Black Dossier, is just as weird as Dylan’s Self Portrait. Even though it received good reviews, it had to have disappointed some fans of the first two League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books.  Moore and O’Neill drop the Victorian setting, moving the story up to the mid-20th Century.  The Black Dossier isn’t really even a sequel to the first two volumes.  Instead, it’s like a cross between a “found footage” movie and an epistolary novel.  In addition to a frame story, the book includes a miscellany of other faux documents, including a Tijuana Bible, a memoir, part of a lost Shakespeare play, and even a 3-D section.  In other words, the book, itself, contains the materials of the “Black Dossier.”

One of the “documents” is an excerpt from a book by “Sal Paradyse” called The Crazy Wide Forever.  The author, with a minor spelling deviation, is modeled on Sal Paradise, the Jack Kerouac persona from On the Road.  In the excerpt from Paradyse’s book, we get the story of Mina and Allan’s brief travels with Paradyse.  It includes many references to Dean Moriarty, the name Kerouac gave Neal Cassady in On the Road, and who, in LXG continuity, is a descendent of Professor Moriarty.  Moore also works in the character of Doctor Sachs, or “Doctor Sax” from another of Kerouac’s novels.

In the excerpt, Moore offers his own pastiche of Kerouac’s style, writing as much for the ear as for the eye, with lots of rhyming, hipster slang, and cultural allusions.  Thus, Mina becomes “Minnie” and Allan Quatermain becomes “English Al.”  Moore’s take on Kerouac is exaggerated, of course, and it contains no end punctuation so the entire, several-thousand-word excerpt reads as one long run-on sentence.  The result is difficult reading, but Moore nevertheless manages several genuinely clever and stylish flourishes:

… n Minnie sez how everythin’s a vital mission n they’re in The Thin Man English Al and she they’re Willum Powell n Myrna Loy spinnin about th globe in diner cars n great cruise liner Queens n limosouines avertin villanies n rightin ruin an ya buy it all the whole thousand n one Arabian nights t’ hear her delicate best Sunday china voice with all its tinkling silverware …

It’s fun, but so dense that it’s hard to imagine many readers doing much more than skimming the first dozen lines or so.  Amazingly, Moore fills five full pages with this parody, and it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to sense his own affection for Kerouac or his contempt.  Much of material The Black Dossier seems closer to contempt—particularly Moore’s take on James Bond.

In many ways, the negativity is understandable given the background of the publication.  Moore had launched League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, along with the rest of his ABC line of books, under the banner of Jim Lee’s Wildstorm.  But when Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics, Moore found himself unwillingly under the aegis of the company he had sworn off in the late ‘80s.  So for his final “DC book,” Moore produced an odd assortment of narrative whatnots, many of which seem designed to set up the direction of Century, the next volume of the series to be published by Top Shelf.  It’s all a bit audacious—producing a decidedly less commercial volume as a prelude to a book soon to be published by a rival company.

While The Black Dossier didn’t suffer the critical drubbing of Dylan’s Self Portrait, both works share a connection.  There’s something compelling about an artist who resists catering to his or her audience, who opts, instead, to push them away.  By conventional standards, it may seem mad, but it’s the kind of madness Kerouac described in On the Road:

I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.

I think I know what he means.  Looking back at my interest in Dylan, Moore, and Kerouac, I realize just how often I’ve shambled after the mad ones as well.  And you know what?  Given a choice, I’ll take the mad ones every time.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer

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8 Comments

  1. Mario Lebel says:

    I’m not knowledgeable when it comes to Dylan. I know some of his work. Some of his albums are pretty great and some of his songs are spectacular but every time I listen to him I can’t help but get the feeling that there is a lot I’m missing. As if I’m sampling too little or I don’t understand how it connects to the rest of Dylan (his life and his work). The idea about wanting to push away your fans is really interesting and it ties into what I’m reading at the moment.

    For about a week or so I’ve been reading a couple of chapters of Neil and Me by Scott Young (Neil’s father). It’s a really interesting book, partly because of who the author is. Neil has had moments in his career where he deliberately tries something new or, as he’s said before, tried to do something that has a chance of being a failure. The result has been upset fans and after a few projects designed not to be successes it’s not surprising some fans feel like they’re deliberately being pushed away.

    However, for Neil Young it’s more about pushing yourself creatively, keeping things fresh, and avoiding the unfulfilling tendency to worry more about success and what pleases the audience. It’s not so much pushing fans away but showing them that there is more than one side to them as an artist. When you look at great artists like Dylan and Young, singer/songwriters who have had very long careers and have also both been very prolific, it’s pretty clear that writing songs is easy. When you reach a certain level of success it doesn’t matter what you produce anymore. People will buy your new album because it’s the New Dylan Album. To a point, some fans don’t care if the new music is good, they just want to hear something familiar. Producing something similar ad nauseam is one of the best ways to kill a creative soul, in my opinion. I don’t quite see it the same way you do, as “battling his own success”. I think it’s more battling stagnation and growth. When you’re already successful, why worry about being successful? Maybe I’m tacking on Young onto Dylan. I can’t help it, I’m knee deep in Young at the moment.

    Sure, Dylan went electric, boohoo, but damn, isn’t it great that he went electric? I don’t see it as Dylan pushing away his fans, rather I see it as an experiment in giving his fans something they might not have known they would want or enjoy. You make a good point that it’s odd that such a creative songwriter would release an album almost full of covers. It’s less odd that such an album would be called Self Potrait. Maybe Dylan is trying to share with his fans something about who he is, but he’s doing it through other people’s work, reinterpreting it. Why this particular song? Why this particular way? It might not give you as many answers as you want, but it’s certainly fleshing out the character of Dylan.

    I think Alan Moore is a completely different story. He’s been hurt by the publishing industry for the medium he loves. Part of that is related to him not wanting to do the same work over and over again (something that some superhero comics writers don’t mind doing at all) but part of that is also unrelated to the stories themselves. I don’t entirely disagree with you, simply pointing out that there might be something missing for me.

    Damn, I enjoyed the hell out of this article. More please. Oh, next Monday? Ok.

    • Hi Mario. Thanks for the kind words. That Neil Young book sounds fascinating.

      I agree with most of what you say here, though there are a couple of things I should probably try to clarify about this particular column. I totally get what you say about artists trying new things, expanding, experimenting, going in new directions, etc. And that’s certainly part of what both Dylan and Moore have done through their careers. I’m not a music critic, but it’s also what I think Miles Davis did for most of his career. It’s almost as if a clock goes off and the artist says, “Ooops. Time for a wardrobe change.” And then they go in a new direction.

      What makes Dylan a bit different is the way he was treated. Even though he’s always very cagey about not revealing much of himself, he has said repeatedly that he wasn’t comfortable with his image in those early days. He was treated as a devoted acoustic folk singer and a passionate social protest singer and political activist. But he was never fully devoted to either of those roles. He liked folk music, but he liked other stuff too. And he had vague political notions–racism and war are bad–but he wasn’t deeply connected to political activism. At least not in the way that someone like Pete Seeger was.

      But he was treated as this near deity and put on a pedestal with lots of fans demanding more, more, more. So when he would go in different directions, it was a combination of exploring new musical territory and simultaneously and deliberately pushing back on the fans who were defining him in a very narrow way.

      At least, that’s my understanding of him–especially in this period from the late ’60s and early ’70s. He seemed to have an attitude of “You’re not going to define me.”

      Moore is somewhat different, and you’re absolutely right about being hurt by the industry. Almost every chapter of his early career is punctuated with fights, betrayals, and bitterness between himself and the publishers, and those conflicts shape much of his later attitude about comics. Those fights also feed the sometimes contentious relationship he has with some of his fans and with comics readers in general. Too often, sizable portions of the audience have sided with the corporations as they have clearly exploited the creators. So Moore sometimes stereotypes a large swath of comics readers and the superhero genre, etc., and I think his opinions are largely colored by and reflective of all of his bad experiences.

      But as I think about him, I also see someone who got into the industry with more of an appreciation for the underground comix creators like Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb than he had for anyone doing mainstream comics. Then, when he ironically became the king of the superheroes, he was a bit like the character in that old Talking Heads song who looks around and says, this isn’t my life. How did I get here?

      So you’ve got someone who, like Dylan, is living with a label he didn’t really want, and is being defined in a way he didn’t like. And for all those other reasons, he maintains a sometimes combative relationship with a sizable portion of the comics reading community.

      Wow, I’m rambling, so I’ll shut up now. Don’t know if I’ve clarified what I was trying to say or only muddied it up. :) But thanks again for the great comment.

      • Mario Lebel says:

        Ah, yes, I see what you’re saying about Dylan. I warned you I didn’t know much about him! Hahaha.

        I’m still not convinced about Moore. The dominant story in his body of work is in the superhero genre. As someone who didn’t want to be associated with that genre he sure wrote a lot of comics about superpowered beings. Even his more experimental work like the comics-as-essay Promethea has plenty of superheroics in it.

        I understand the dominance of superheroes in his early career. What better way to make yourself known in American comics than to write about Superm- – I mean, Swamp Thing? I also see a clear backlash against superheroes in the early nineties but most of what he’s done since working with Image, ABC Comics, and Wildstorm has been, again, superheroes. Sure, they’re unconventional (Top Ten, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc.) but still very much super teams doing super things.

        Do you have any other articles related to Moore and his career? I’d like to do further reading on your take on Moore. Maybe I should go reread your From Hell articles.

      • Yeah, but Miles really is the one who did it the best, right? I mean, Moore suffers because some comics fans won’t read anything that’s not from Marvel or DC, but guys like Dylan or Lou Reed were mainly reinventing themselves for the same audience. I have yet to meet someone who only likes Dylan’s gospel years. Moore from time to time seems to wish that he could get new readers, but it’s usually the superhero crew that keeps reading him. Maybe one day, with a healthier industry…

        For some Self Portrait background, I’ll only add that the deal with his former manager (who kept making money out of his songs) and the rise of bootlegs releasing bad recordings of his earlier stuff (Dylan didn’t like them at all, which is understandable) seem to have motivated him to release this album.

        The difference I see with Moore is that there is no contempt in Dylan’s album. It’s not parody, it’s not ironic, it’s no longer Acne in 1961. And we know that he was singing those old songs regularly. It can explain why he chose to release them at that point, but he seems to enjoy doing them.

      • Mario L. I have the 3-part series on From Hell and another piece on the graphic novel A Small Killing. And there might also be um, a book … coming soon. (It hasn’t been formally announced, but we’re doing final edits on my book–about 1/3 of which is specifically on Moore.)

  2. Hold it! You mean you don’t already own all the Dylan albums and more boots than you could possibly care for? Oh, Greg, you’re denying yourself so much great music!

    Self Portrait is my favorite album from the years between Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. Sure, it’s not the best album he could have released with the material he recorded, but that’s something His Bobness always does. We just can’t trust the man.

    And Mario (it seems we meet every Monday), I get what you’re saying. I don’t disagree (although many claim that Dylan was not pushing himself in those years). And I’ll be the first to admit that some of his fans take things way too personally. Bob is not out there to hurt you, you know?

    But I find it interesting how these attempts of doing something new often come with a complete break from the past (not only Dylan, everybody). In the long run, it’s easy to see that the new material only adds to the previous work, but when it is released, there is the silly idea (often expressed by the artist himself) of “this is the new me, take it or leave it, I won’t be doing that stuff anymore”.

    • Hi Mario. I have a sizable collection, but you’ve gotta admit–the guy’s got an enormous body of work. I only started listening in college, so I’ve never really branched into any of the bootlegs yet. Just the major studio releases. But don’t hold it against me. “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” So I’ll get there eventually. :)

      • Oh, don’t worry. Take your time. Hell, once you get some of the albums you’ll still have to take your time (I’m taking my time with BS 9). Just promise me you won’t fear the “bad” albums. Open mind and a sense of fun is the key.

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