(Credit: Alamy)

The unbreakable friendship of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg

New York Post journalist Al Aronowitz introduced Allen Ginsberg, the legendary Beat author, to the folk singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan in 1963, and a creative friendship like no other began.

However, Dylan’s introduction to Ginsberg’s – and the work of other Beat poets – happened before then. It was part of the reason why Dylan found his way to the city by 1961. “I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was all pretty much connected,” Dylan said in 1985.

“It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti … I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic … it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley,” he added according to The New Yorker. 

It had as much of an impact on Dylan as Woodie Guthrie did and showed the young songwriter that he could fuse his natural inclination towards words with song and melody. It wouldn’t be so farfetched to call Dylan a descendant of the beat generation – he was the next in line to find salvation and truth in the spoken word. 

The Beat Generation gained momentum in the 1950s and is considered one of the important steps in the evolution of the counter-culture that would emerge during the ’60s as the hippie movement. Jack Kerouac’s seminal book which he famously typed out in no more than two weeks on a continuous roll of paper, On The Road, is considered the manifesto of the generation and did its best to capture this elusive cultural movement and to turn it into something tangible.

Dylan shared that same hunger for the sacred and the mad. “There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars,” Kerouac wrote in the book. If Kerouac was the heart of the Beats, then Ginsberg was the brain. Dylan would never get to meet the former, and grew out of touch with Kerouac’s writing as he couldn’t relate to its machismo and self-destruction; by the mid-1960s, Kerouac began his slow but painful process of death by alcoholism. “I didn’t start writing poetry until I was out of high school. I was eighteen or so when I first discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Frank O’Hara and those guys,” Dylan said about his early influence of beat poetry.

After Ginsberg and Dylan met, the two hit it off instantly. They naturally became a dual face of a new underground New York City counterculture, a beat generation of the ’60s. “If Dylan was beginning to provide the soundtrack for the counter-culture, Ginsberg gave it both a face and the networks which were essential in sustaining its momentum.”

“I first met Bob at a party at the Eighth Street Book Shop, and he invited me to go on tour with him,” Ginsberg recalled. “I ended up not going, but, boy, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have gone like a flash. He’d probably have put me onstage with him.” The beat poet refused Dylan’s invitation as it was probably a little too soon into their friendship to make that kind of commitment. He didn’t want to come across as Dylan’s sidekick.

Ginsberg added, “His image was undercurrent, underground, unconscious in people … something a little more mysterious, poetic, a little more Dada, more where people’s hearts and heads actually were rather than where they ‘should be’ according to some ideological angry theory.”

Michael McClure, Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. (Credit: Alamy)

After they met, the two were seen out together a lot. “Seeing Ginsberg was like going to see the Oracle of Delphi,” Dylan said according to Allenginsberg.org. “He didn’t care about material wealth or political power. He was his own kind of King but – he wanted to play music. He’d already achieved what an international poet could hope to achieve.”

By the mid-1970s, Dylan was a huge commercial artist and wanted to take things back to the grassroots. Dylan set out on his Rolling Thunder Revue, which culminated in Dylan picking up an entourage of stragglers and bohemians. He played medium-sized theatres with a capacity of a few thousand people, but Dylan could have easily played bigger venues. He had a whole cast of other musicians who came on tour with him, including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. He even had Spiders from Mars guitar player, Mick Ronson, in his band. Ginsberg would go on this tour as he desperately wanted to make a transition into being a musician and songwriter.

What came out of the Rolling Thunder Revue which was later turned into a documentary in 2019 by Martin Scorsese, was a film called Renaldo and Clara, co-written by Dylan and playwright Sam Shepard. The film which is part concert footage, part documentary interviews, and part fictional vignettes, see Ginsberg take on the character of the ‘Jewish father’ and Dylan as the ‘Jewish son’. The film portrays Ginsberg as this fatherly figure who watches over his reverent son, Bob Dylan. 

Although this father-son metaphor is only for dramatic effect, really the two shared a kindred brotherhood and mutual respect. The two poets’ work share similarities, as is evident in Dylan’s 1966 record, Blonde on Blonde. What Ginsberg called “chains of flashing images”, would describe the similarities between each other’s styles of poetry.

Dylan also wrote in the liner notes of his 1976 record, Desire, about Ginsberg, saying: “Big discovery, these songs are the culmination of Poetry-music as dreamt of in the ’50s and early ’60s.”

The two went on to collaborate multiple times, including an unreleased record called, Holy Soul Jelly Roll which only exists in bootleg format.

Listen to a track from this album, ‘Vomit Express’, below.

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