nthposition online magazine

Bob Dylan and the Beatles

by Hammond Guthrie

[ bookreviews ]

Al Aronowitz is often referred to as "the godfather of rock journalism", but his roots are in the tradition of the writers who trailed behind the Old West's outlaws and revolutionaries, embellishing the truth to delight an eager readership.

However, Al was always more a participant than a mere observer, positioned early at the crossroads of one of modern America's defining eras. His influence was a catalyst helped precipitate the psychosomatic eruptions that ripped the social fabric and gave life a new soundtrack. Bob Dylan's first meeting with the Beatles was one such pivotal event, which anchors this intriguing collection of anecdotes. It was the summer of 64, just before the US release of 'The Beatles for Sale'. The Fab Four were still composing ditties like 'I Don't Want To Spoil the Party' and covering standards such as 'Kansas City'.

By now an unofficial attaché for Dylan, Al stepped in and introduced him to the Liverpool mop tops. Exactly a year later the Beatles released 'Help!' The album and the movie soon got their fans wondering: "Are these guys stoned?" Al Aronowitz knew the truth. He had personally turned them on at the Hotel Delmonico on Manhattan's Park Avenue on 28 August, 1964. Working on assignment for the New York Post, Al became a fixture in an emerging scene populated by rockers, activists and alchemists. Another heavy presence was Murray the K, who spurned the typical 50s DJ hype to initiate a new 60s style.

Al reports: "When the Beatles first landed in New York in 64 every hotshot DJ in the world who commanded an expense account headed for the Plaza expecting an exclusive interview, but when Murray showed up it wasn't with a tape recorder, it was with the Ronettes." A tide of troubles separated these old friends in the end. They no longer spoke, Murray had a heart attack and Al lost his coveted position at the New York Post.

Then there was Woodstock - before, during and after Big Pink's basement became legend. Al was a devoted Dylan fan, nearly moving in with him. He recalls lying awake all night listening to Marvin Gaye's 'Can I Get A Witness' over and over, as Dylan typed up the original drafts of 'Mr Tambourine Man' in the next room. George Harrison quipped years later: "I'll bet you can find every note of 'Can I Get A Witness' in 'Mr Tambourine Man' if you looked for them."

The book is thick with repetitive apologies and disclaimers, as Al remembers all the people who no longer speak to him. Dylan is foremost among them, true to his habit of "treating everyone like old shoes." Other factors played a part in the social ostracism. Aronowitz became a freebase junkie, entering a recreational hell that puts dampers on anyone's friendship. He became, he admits, an "Assaholic."

His relentless idolisation of Dylan gets a little tedious ("He could string words together with God-like power and charm the rattles off a snake's ass"), yet he never misses a chance to point out what a complete jerk the cultural hero was, especially to those closest to him. The sharp barbs and cruel ad-libs provide no insight into Dylan's creative process, though this is redeemed somewhat by his descriptions of Dylan's life in Woodstock with his wife Sara ('Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland'), his respect for her, and her calming influence.

Though his association with Dylan and most of the Beatles quickly faded, Al managed to remain on intimate terms with George Harrison. Al's descriptions of their meetings at his estate at Henley-on-Thames takes a much different tone than the serrated edge he uses to rip Dylan. Mind games were not Harrison's prime directive. We learn how George asked Al to contact Buckminster Fuller for advice on how best to use the proceeds from The Concert for Bangladesh.

Scattered through these accounts of meetings with people who fanned the flames of lyrical truth and social enlightenment, Al's honesty twinkles, sometimes between the lines. He acknowledges his ambition to make a million dollars in the writer's trade, yet wound up "losing [his] diplomatic immunity."

For anyone trying to untangle the matrix of the 60s, Bob Dylan and The Beatles is an essential reference for demystifying what the author refers to as: "one of the most self-destructive binges of creativity in cultural history."