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Review: Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas

01 Oct 2022 5 minute read
Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas is published by McNidder & Grace

Jon Gower

There’s something seriously infectious about the enthusiasm of the two experts, K G Miles and Jeff Towns behind this book. They’ve fed in stories and snippets and all manner of info into what is arguably a swiftly-drawn mapping exercise of all the connections between the two Dylans.

One was the great, Nobel prize-winning singer songwriter who helped define America these past six decades. The other was arguably the most famous poet ever to have come out of Wales, albeit beerily listing a bit to starboard as he did so.

It’s little wonder that the American writer Nelson Algren described him as a ‘philosopher of beer, a prophet of beer, a John Foster Dulles of beer’ whose ‘studies had been extended to Persian, Icelandic, Manx, Mexican, Frisian, Turkish and Moorish’ ones.

Cartoonish

That same zestful enthusiasm for life is one of the things seemingly binding the two artists, each gifted with unique gifts, voice and vision, two ‘rock and roll poets’ as this book has it.

The American took the Welshman’s name, legally trading in Robert Allen Zimmerman for Bob Dylan, which is much better than one of the other pseudonyms Bob took early on, being Elston Gunn, a cartoonish name without anything like the same ring to it. Elston Gunn: Live at the Budokhan? I don’t think so.

Not that the name Dylan was a common one in Wales. There wasn’t a single Dylan registered as a first name in the country from 1838 to 1900, only growing in popularity after the Second World War, coinciding with the publication of Dylan Thomas’ successful poetry collection Deaths and Entrances.

The book takes the form of matching chapters in which each author expounds and expands on an aspect of a Dylan’s life, Miles writing about singer Bob, Towns about poet Thomas.

So we see how both men connect with many people such as President Jimmy Carter as well as a wide range of artists from Charlie Chaplin and Henry Miller through Hunter S. Thompson and Johnnie Ray to John Cale.

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There’s plenty of overlap between both authors’ interests. The very first album Jeff Towns bought was actually by Bob Dylan, who first played in Wales at Cardiff’s Capitol Theatre.

It was the same day Johnny Cash was playing Sophia Gardens and D.A. Pennebaker, who was making a documentary captured a backstage moment when they both sang a Hank Williams number.

For one fan from Tonypandy, Bob Dylan’s was a life altering gig: ‘It was the first concert I had seen other than school bands. It transfixed me and without sounding pretentious changed my whole attitude to music and made me aware of life outside of the then parochial confines of the Valleys.’

Praised

But Dylan Thomas had his enthusiastic adherents, too, from fellow poets such as T.S. Eliot (referred to by Dylan as “Pope Eliot”) who not only praised the Welshman’s verse but bailed him out financially.

Other fans of the dipsomaniacal Dylan included the composer Igor Stravinsky – who wrote music in memory of him, punk poet Patti Smith and the American poet Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth mentioned Dylan Thomas in the same breath as the great jazz musician Charlie Parker:

Like the Pillars of Hercules, like two ruined Titans guarding the entrance to one of Dante’s Circles, stand two great dead juvenile delinquents – the heroes of the post-war generation: The saxophonist Charlie Parker, and Dylan Thomas. If the word “deliberate” means anything, both of them certainly destroyed themselves.

The book has plenty to delight aficionados of both Dylans. There’s an account of the role of the Welsh language in the work of the “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Park” including unexpected puns such as “parched land” which could mean dry or arid but might equally refer to the many church and chapel ministers in a land with a plenitude of pulpits.

We find out too that, when it comes to the Beatles, then both Lennon and McCartney were fans of Thomas’ verse.

Buddhist mantra

Jeff Towns is not only a fan of both artists but he’s a super-knowledgeable bookseller by trade and therefore the book has some cracking stories about finding rarities. Prominent among them is the first, American edition of Dylan Thomas’ Collected Poems which Towns found in a cavernous shop in Berkeley.

Not only did it turn out to be Allen Ginsberg’s own copy but he had also had the temerity to add an extra line to one of the poems. Ginsberg was a fan of Thomas, and on a trip to Wales he insisted on visiting his grave in Laugharne, where he promptly sank to his knees and recited a Buddhist mantra.

And, of course Bob Dylan was a fan, carrying a copy of the poems around with him and even taking his name. Just as this book is for the fans of one or ‘tother or both, showing how the worlds of ‘two colossal culture vultures and wordsmiths collide.’

It’s a very big and resounding bang as this lively, engaging volume amply proves..

Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas is published by McNidder & Grace. You can buy a copy from all good bookshops.


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Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones
1 month ago

The difference between Bon and Dylan, is that Bob Dylan did three masterpiece albums, about six okay ones and then literally sold out (he sold the rights to his catalogue to one of those massive companies that buy intellectual properties and artist catalogues), starting flogging cars and acting as if fans should thank him for mumbling through bad versions of all of his songs unable to see him because he has a weird attitude to video screens at his gigs (“It was alight, couldn’t see him or make out many of the words mind…had a great chippy dinner on the… Read more »

John
1 month ago
Reply to  Cathy Jones

But Bob did write some great songs.

arthur owen
1 month ago
Reply to  Cathy Jones

Do you think Dylan Thomas would not have ‘sold out’ if he had had an offer?

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