Earlier this week, a couple strolling up to Belmond La Residencia heard what sounded very much like the thing of rusty beauty that is the voice of Bob Dylan drifting down the street. This has led to speculation that the reclusive singer may be hiding out in the village from the body that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature.
If this is true, it may well not be the first time Dylan has visited Deiá. In an article called ‘Dylan and the Great Tradition’ on the FolkWorks website, Ross Altman claimed Dylan visited Robert Graves in Deià in 1964, clutching a copy of his album The Times They Are-Changin’ to present to the august poet.
The White Goddess and The Thin Man
Dylan had been profoundly influenced by Graves’s The White Goddess. This had been republished in 1960 – just in time to become a counterculture touchstone – although Dylan may have read an earlier edition in the 1950s. In the book, Graves says that the only true subject for poetry is the muse, in the form of woman. Dylan took this to heart.
Apparently, The White Goddess influenced A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, though I have absolutely no idea how. It’s also said to be all over Visions of Johanna, which makes more sense. In his article, Altman suggests that the song Soon After Midnight on the 2012 album Tempest shows that the book is still influencing Dylan but that’s open to debate.
Unfortunately, Graves declined to meet the scrawny, dusty Dylan. I have heard that he told his wife Beryl he was too busy writing. Perhaps Beryl, known for her kindness to young waifs on pilgrimages, gave that strange young man a cup of tea or glass of water.
I’ve also been told that when Dylan’s record company Columbia decided that there should be a Spanish translation of his lyrics, some time in the late 1960s or early 70s, they asked him who he’d like to take this on. He chose Graves and Columbia duly sent a stack of albums to Canellun. Graves was not remotely interested and the job went to someone else.
I don’t know if Graves would have given a tinker’s damn for the debate as to whether Dylan’s lyrics are poetry. Graves had his own very specific ideas as to what constituted good poetry. It had a lot to do with truth. Dylan and literal truth have mostly been nodding acquaintances but there’s always been plenty of poetic truth in his writing, which is perhaps the point. Anyway, Dylan’s been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, not poetry.
In Robert Shelton’s biography of him, Dylan is quoted as saying ‘I think a poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet.’ Gnomic or nonsensical? You choose.
But did Dylan ever meet Graves?
In foggy old London town
Dylan told Shelton he met the poet in 1963 and claimed ‘I didn’t even know who Robert Graves was’. This was in 1966, on the then controversial electric tour of England so perhaps Dylan was still smarting from being turned away from Canellun without meeting one of his heroes.
In Chronicles, Dylan’s tremendous autobiography, he writes ‘Invoking the poetic muse was something I didn’t know about yet…In a few years’ time I would meet Robert Graves himself in London. We went for a brisk walk around Paddington Square. I wanted to ask him about some of the things in his book, but I couldn’t remember much about it.’
I’m not sure there actually is a Paddington Square in London. This could be standard American whimsy when it comes to British place names. Or it could be Dylan signalling that he never really met Graves. After all, he doesn’t give the year when the meeting allegedly took place.
It doesn’t particularly matter. Because, as Graves understood and Dylan knows, poetic truth is the only thing that matters.
Even if he never did, Dylan should have come to Deià. He should have met the noble, craggy old poet in a London square that perhaps doesn’t exist. Dylan should have been wearing a thin jacket that offered no protection to the wind and rain. Graves should have been wearing his black Cordoban hat.
(It just occurred to me that one way of interpreting Dylan’s now customary stetson is as as much a nod to Graves as to Hank Williams.)
And who was that Dylan those tourists heard? Was it David Templeton quietly singing ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ to himself or the thin man in hiding? We’ll never know.
Which is as it should be.