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.