Revisit a sprawling letter from Bob Dylan about money, fame and love from 1964
The long and illustrious career of Bob Dylan’s is the envy of the musical world, After breaking through the folk scene of New York in the early sixties he found national and then international fame as the poster boy of protest songs.
The singer-songwriter quickly outgrew the smokey coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, in which he’d cut his teeth, and was now quickly becoming an important voice for a new generation. It was a level of fame that Dylan was thrust into and that he found uncomfortable and unethical.
In the early sixties, the world was beginning to murmur the name of Bob Dylan whenever music was being talked about. But for the young singer, he hadn’t really considered becoming a pop star, for him, writing the songs had just been his expression. “I dont think when I write, I just react and put it on paper,” Dylan said in 1963. Yet he was aware of his growing power “I’m serious about everything I write ….. What comes out in my music is a call for action.”
The singer had become a big voice in the growing civil rights movement and had seen Dylan align himself with the movement and other social projects. Much of that was down to meeting and falling head over heels in love with Suze Rotolo. Rotolo had guided Dylan into politics and his first two albums saw an increase in Dylan’s own songwriting.
“I wanted just a song to sing, and there came a point where I couldn’t sing anything. I had to write what I wanted to sing because what I wanted to sing, nobody else was writing,” Dylan said in 1963. By January of 1964, that vision had been enacted and Dylan had announced himself as a truly gifted songwriter.
The 22-year-old was about to release his third studio album when he sat down at his typewriter to discuss all of these aspects of his wildly changing life with Sis Cunnigham and Gordon Friesen — the founding editors of Broadside. At the time, Broadside was a highly-influential underground magazine of the period and Dylan was keen to connect.
In the sprawling letter below, Dylan speaks about his meteoric rise to fame, the money that was beginning to roll in and equally Dylan’s guilt was rising. He also speaks kindly of his love for Suze Rotolo, the muse behind so much of the singer’s rise to fame.
The letter is not only a joy to read (especially when impersonating Dylan’s tone) but it is a remarkable reflection of a moment in time when Bob Dylan was about to become the biggest artist on the planet.
You can find the full transcript of the letter below.
A LETTER FROM BOB DYLAN
for sis and gordon an all broads of good sizes
let me begin by not beginnin let me start not by startin but by continuin it sometimes gets so hard for me — I am now famous I am now famous by the rules of public famiousity it snuck up on me an pulverized me… I never knew what was happenin it is hard for me t walk down the same streets I did before the same way because now I truly dont know who is waitin for my autograph… I dont know if I like givin my autograph oh yes sometimes I do… but other times the back of my mind tells me it is not honest… for I am just fulfillin a myth t somebody who’d actually treasure my handwritin more’n his own handwritin… this gets very complicated for me an proves t me that I am livin in a contradiction… t quote mr froyd I get quite paranoyd an I know this isn’t right it is not a useful healthy attitude for one t have but I truly believe that everybody has their fears everybody yes everybody… I do not think it good anymore t overlook them I think they ought t be admitted… an I think that all fellings should be admitted… people ask why do I write the way I do how foolish how monsterish a question like that hits me… it makes me think that I’m doin nothin it makes me think that I’m not being heard yes above all the mumble jumble an rave praises an all the records I’ve sold… thru all the packed houses I play… thru all the communication systems an rants an bellows an yellin an clappin comes a statement like “why do you do what you do” what is this? some kind of constipated idiot world? some kind of horseshoe game we’re all playin responding only when a ringer clangs no no no not my world everybody plays in my world aint nobody first second third or fourth everybody shoots at the same time an ringers dont count an everybody wins an nobody loses cause everybody lives an breathes an takes up space an cant be overlooked an I am a people too I cannot pretend I’m not an I feel guilty god how can I help not feel guilty I walk down on the bowery and give money away an still I feel guilty for I know I do not have enuff money t give away… an people say “think a yourself, dylan, you’re gonna need it someday” and I say yeah yeah an I think maybe about it for a split second but then the floods of vomit guilt swoop my drunken head an I spread forth more gut torn bloody money from the depths of my forsaken pockets… an I whisper “ah it’s so useless” man so many people need so many things an what am I anyway? some kind a messiah walkin around…? hell no I’m not an I ask why dont other people with things give some of it away an I know the answer without lookin security security security… everybody wants security they want t be secure they want t be protected an I say protected? protected aginst what? protected against starvin I guess an power too an protected against the forces that they know will get them if they lose their money. an why does it have t be like that? man why are these walls built? who is this god that is so feared? certainly not in my life this isnt yes I have my fears but mine are the fears of the mind. the fears of the head a lonely person with money is still a lonely person I have never had much money before an so it is easy for me I guess t spend it an overlook it but I’m sure that many other people could overlook some of theirs too I’m not speakin now of the century ridin millionares but rather of “get theirs and get out” people I dont understand them I dont understand them at all there’s many things I admit I dont understand I dont understand the blacklist I dont understand how people aginst it go along with it I’m talkin about the full thing not just a few of us refusin t be on the show I’m talkin about the poeple that stand up against it violently an then in some way have something t do with it… not just the singers mind you but the managers an agents an buyers an sellers… they are the dishonest ones for they are never seen they play both sides against each other an expect t be repected by everybody
the heroes of this battle are not me an Joan an the Kingston Trio nor Peter Paul an Mary for none of us need t go on that show none of us really need that kind of dumbness but there’s some that could use it for they could use the money I mean people like Tom Paxton, Barbara Dane, an Johnny Herald… they are the heroes if such a word has t be used here they are the ones that lose materialistically ah yes but in their own minds they dont an that is much more important it means much more we need more kind a people like that poeple that cant go against their conscience no matter what they might gain an I’ve come to think that that might be the most important thing in the whole wide world… not going against your conscience nor your own natural senses for I think that that is all the truth there is… an no more thru all the gossip, lies, religions, cults myths, gods, history books, social books, all books, politics, decrees, rules, laws, boundarie lines, bibles, legends, an bathroom writings, there is no guidance at all except from ones own natural senses from being born an it can only be exchanged it cant be preached nor sold nor even understood…
my mind sometimes runs like a roll of toilet paper an I hate like hell t see it unravel an unwind at my empty walls I’m movin out a here soon yes the landlord has beaten me it hurts t tell you. this place I am typin in is so filthy my clothes cover the floor an once in a while I pick up somethin an use it for a blanket… the damn heat goes off at ten an dont come on til ten… that’s mornin wise gushes of warm smelly heat always wake me up when I sleep here the plaster falls constantly an the floor is tiltin an rottin but somehow there is a beauty to it columbia records gave me a record player of the goodness of some keeps on amazin me an sometimes I play it. gettin back t the landlord tho he is really too much he owns I guess three buildings I pay him way too high an I’m gettin screwed an I know it an he knows it but I just dont have the time t go down t the rent control board. I been told they’d get after him but I’m so lazy. when sue was here he was gonna jack up the price cause he said I never told him I had a wife. you really got t see this place t believe it. I ought a’ve jacked him up a long time ago an used him for heat. last year he put in a new window (there was a god damn hole in the other one) man it was like I asked ‘m for his blood relation or something. (which he’d probably give away) anyway the record player’s on now an I’m listenin t Pete sing Guantanamera for the billionth time. I dont have many folk music records (I dont have many records really) but I do have that one of Pete’s. god it’s like I go in a trance he is so human I could cry he tells me so much he makes me feel so good it’s as tho of all the things that’re sold t make one feel better, aint none of it worth while. all the cars, an clothes, an trinkets an foods, an jewels an diamonds an lollypops an gifts of glad tidings, just dont do nothin for the soul. I believe I’d rather listen t Pete sing Guantanamera than t own everything there is t own… (that’s my own private selfishness shinin thru there) yes for me he is truly a saint an I love him perhaps more than I could show (as always is the case ha)
I think of love in weird terms. sometimes I even feel guilty about it because I know I love sue but I should love everybody like I love sue an in all honesty I dont I just love her that way an I say what way? an a voice says “that way” an I get quite up tite an I know I have a long way t go when the day comes when I can love everything that breathes the way I love sue then I will truly be a Jesus Christ ha ha (but I dont wanna be a Jesus Christ ha ha) an so I am again contradictin myself away away be gone all you demons an just let me be me human me ruthless me wild me gentle me all kinds of me
saw the last issue of broadside an especially flipped out over “talkin Merry Christmas” I have never met Paul Wolfe but I’d like to he has an uncanny sense of touch as for Phil, I just cant keep up with him an he’s gettin better an better an better (spoke with someone who was with him in Hazzard named Hamish Sinclair.. an englishman of high virtues an common tongue) I want t get over an see Phil’s baby I’m told the girl came out yellin about the bomb. good girl
my novel is going noplace absolutely noplace like it dont even tell a story it’s about a million scenes long an takes place on a billion scraps of paper… certainly I cant make nothin out of it. (oh I forgot. hallelullah t you for puttin Brecht in your same last issue. he should be as widely known as Woody an should be as widely read as Mickey Spalline an as widely listened to as Eisenhower.)
anyway I’m writin a play out of this here so called novel (navel would be better I guess) an I’m up to my belly button in it. quite involved yes I’ve discovered what the power of playwriting means as opposed t song writing means altho both are equal, I’m wrapped in playwriting for the minute, my songs tell only about me an how I feel but in the play all the characters tell how they feel. I realize that his might be more confusin for some but in the total reality of things it might be much better for some too. I think at best you could say that the characters will tell in an hour what would take me, alone, two weeks t sing about
I shall get up t see you one of these days just cause I haven’t in a while please dont think I’m not with you. I am with you more’n ever. yours perhaps is the only paper that I am on the side of every single song you print an I am with with with you
my nite is closin again now an I shall drift off in dreams an climb velvet carpets up t the stars with newsweek magazines burnin an disappointin people smoulderin and disgustin tongues blazin an jealous mongrel dogs walkin on hot coals before my smilin unharmful eyes (oh such nitemares)
an I shall wake in the mornin an try t start lovin again
I got a letter from Pete an he closed by sayin “take it easy but take it” I thought about that for an hour or more when I reached my conclusion of what it really meant I either cried or laughed (I cant remember which) I will repeat the same an add “give it easy but give it” an I’ll think about that for an hour an at the end either cry or laugh (I’ll write you another letter an tell you which one it is)
all right then faretheewell shaloom an vamoose I’m off agian off t the hazzards an lost angels an minneapoilcemen an boss towns an burnin hams an everything else combined an combustioned for me… tryin t remain sane at all times
love t agnes she is one of the true talents of the universe I’ve always thought that an would like t see her again some time