Bob Dylan: Queer icon?
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“Wearing high heel boots, a tailored pea-jacket without lapels, pegged dungarees of a kind of buffed azure, large sunglasses with squared edges, his dark, curly hair standing straight up on top and spilling over the upturned collar of his soiled white shirt,” an icon stepped off an airplane. It was November 1964, just outside Columbus. On the tarmac, “Businessmen nodded and smirked, the ground crew looked a little incredulous, and a mother put a hand on her child’s head and made him turn away.”
Bob Dylan had arrived.
If you asked the average person in 2020 about Bob Dylan, they would probably note his unconventional voice, his 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature or ’60s hits such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” What they probably wouldn’t acknowledge is his relation to queerness.
While not queer himself, two of Dylan’s most profound literary infleunces, poets Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud, were uncompromisingly so. Their poetry reflected that. Since these two writers were vital to Dylan’s creative process, his most powerful albums are intimately related to the idea of queerness. While rarely, if ever, considered, a queer framework is vital to understanding Bob Dylan’s music and place as an American icon.
Wild Electric Visions
“Old lady judges watch people in pairs, limited in sex, they dare, to push fake morals, insult and stare . . . And if my thought dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine”
—“It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” 1965
After stepping off the airplane, Bob Dylan was chauffeured to Kenyon College for a concert. When he learned that students were required to wear uniforms during the show, Dylan exclaimed “Ties? Well, I’m gonna tell them they can take them off. That’s what I’m gonna do. Rules — man, that’s why I never lasted long in college. Too many rules.” Dylan himself was about to break a whole lotta rules.
He would soon pivot from his acoustic folk style, pick up an electric guitar and embark on a run of iconic albums now known as his Electric Trilogy: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. On top of this sonic reinvention, Dylan’s lyrical voice sharpened to a surrealistic, satirical switchblade, and slashed artistic and social conventions to tatters with every song. Key to this shift were two queer poets.
“Allen Ginsberg is the only writer I know,” Dylan said in ’66. “He’s just holy.”
Ginsberg was a Beatnik notorious for his surrealistic poetry and blatant homosexuality, both of which challenged the norms of post-World War II American life. In the ’56 poem “America,” he asserts, “I won’t say the Lord’s prayer / I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations” and asks the nation “When will you take off your clothes?” Ginsberg stood alone, championed being different and challenged the United States of America to do the same. Predictably, he was dragged into court.
After the ’56 publication of his masterpiece “Howl,” Ginsberg was “canceled” nationwide: Many bookstores banned his poetry and he was even put through an obscenity trial. Though the judge ruled in his favor, Ginserg was no national hero, and still relatively risqué, at the time of Bob Dylan’s Electric Trilogy in the mid-’60s. Yet Dylan called him holy. He also brought Ginsberg on tour and put him in one of the first music videos of all time, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” More importantly, though, Dylan emulated Ginsberg in his songwriting.
Allen Ginsberg’s wild, satirical style is all over the Electric Trilogy. One of the most potent examples is “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which, like “Howl,” blasts holes into mid-century America’s traditional facade. In the song’s chorus, Dylan mockingly tells a character named Mister Jones, and by proxy masculine, upper-class white America, including those businessmen who laughed at him on that tarmac in ’64, “Something is happening here, but ya' don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”
While scholarship has dissected the rebellion of “Thin Man,” the song’s relation to queerness is almost never mentioned or, if it is, isn’t taken very seriously. Yet a queer reading adds radical, perhaps even vital, shades to the song. “You walk into the room,” it begins. “With your pencil in your hand, you see somebody naked, And you, you say, ‘Who is that man?’ You try so hard, but you don’t understand.” By the time Dylan tells Jones “the sword swallower, he comes up to you, and then he kneels, he crosses himself, and then he clicks his high heels,” it’s almost too obvious.
When viewed with Ginsberg’s context, it’s easy to see how the song challenged ’60s heteronormativity years before the Summer of Love, Stonewall and glam rock. Dylan shoved queerness into mainstream America’s face and mocked its privileged, prejudiced ignorance.
Another Electric Trilogy piece, “Maggie’s Farm,” similarly resisted American boundaries through a symbolic character, this time named Maggie. Her overbearing conservatism is similar to that of the mother who turned her boy away at the airport in ’64:
“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more … I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them … I just get bored.”
Most critics view “Maggie’s Farm” as a general rebellion against American conventions, capitalism and authority. Yet a queer reading is relevatory; one oppressor at Maggie’s farm is Maggie’s mother, who “talks to all the servants about man and God and law.” Clearly paralleling Ginsberg’s refusal to say the Lord’s Prayer, this line will be familar to anyone who grew up queer in puritanical America. Subsequently, Dylan’s speaker escaping Maggie’s Farm becomes not just rebellion, but a necessary, touching escape.
Through “Thin Man,” “Maggie’s Farm” and other songs like them in the Electric Trilogy, in a distinctly queer fashion, Dylan shattered societal norms at a time before doing so was considered “groovy.” Though a decade later, America was little kinder to him than it was to Ginsberg.
When he performed Electric Trilogy songs for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65, Dylan was booed, cursed at and walked out on. Some fans wept with shock. According to legend, someone even tried to cut the speaker cord with an ax. Yet Dylan kept releasing and performing electric music, and the vitriol got even worse.
In the final moments of a ’66 Manchester performance, as a chorus of audience members booed, one fan screamed “Judas!” at the top of his lungs. Dylan leaned towards the microphone. “I don’t believe you!” he taunted. “You’re a liar!” He turned to his bandmates, and exclaimed “Play it fucking loud!” Then, they launched into “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan screamed the lyrics: “How does it feel?! To be on your own?! No direction home?!”
This screeching electric rebellion is an anthem for American anathema, with Dylan thumbing his nose at society’s rules to the roar of an electric guitar. One of those rules was heteronormativity. With that in mind, “Like A Rolling Stone” sears with greater power. Dylan was called the Bible’s biggest human sinner, sneered at by hordes of squares and still played it “fucking loud.”
In the same interview where he called Ginsberg “holy,” Dylan also said something that, in ’66, three years before Stonewall, would have been absolutely inflammatory: “Sex and love have nothing to do with female and male. It is just whatever two souls happen to be. It could be male or female, and it might not be male or female. It might be female and female or it might be male and male. You can try to pretend that it doesn't happen, and you can make fun of it and be snide, but that’s not really the rightful thing. I know, I know.”
Blood, Desire and Rolling Thunder
“I could stay with you forever and never realize the time. Situations have ended sad, relationships have all been bad, mine have been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud’s.”
—“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,”1975
“Focus in on that,” Dylan orders a cameraman in footage from 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which can be seen in the Netflix film “Rolling Thunder Review.” Facing the camera, he and Patti Smith each hold corners of an Arthur Rimbaud portrait. Smith turns to Dylan. “I seen (sic) this Rimbaud book, and I saw this picture … and I thought it looked like you … I used to, like, pretend he was my boyfriend. Or if … you were. You know, it doesn’t matter, right?” Why would Patti Smith consider Dylan synonymous with Arthur Rimbaud (and it wasn’t just the fact that she was probably (totally) on acid)? And who is Rimbaud, anyway?
A 19th-century poet famous for being “arrogant, rebellious, and highly seductive,” Arthur Rimbaud’s work is known for its “derangement of the senses” and beautiful imagery. Like Ginsberg, Rimbaud was homosexual and “passionate for liberty, to the point of making transgression an art form.” His most famous line is “I is another,” a mantra for self-reinvention that Dylan seized on. “Reading Rimbaud the bells went off,” Dylan wrote in “Chronicles,” his memoir. “It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier.” Rimbaud’s footprints spread across Dylan’s songwriting career, where resounding poetic vision is combined with a proud, almost misanthropic sense of elation at standing alone, outside society and its boundaries. “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,” Dylan wrote in ’65’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” “Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands.” Like with “Rolling Stone,” critics have noted the rebellious beauty exuded by this line. With Rimbaud in mind, though, a touching shade of queerness can be gleaned in the heaven Dylan finds in ostracization.
Yet, even at the apex of their solitary exaltations, both Dylan and Rimbaud fell deeply, brutally in love. During the recording of his Electric Trilogy, Dylan married Sara Lownds. Rimbaud was involved with a fellow poet named Paul Verlaine. The immense, individual passion of their souls, the force behind their powerful writing, made romance for Bob Dylan and Arthur Rimbaud both heaven and hell on Earth. Dylan’s marriage fell apart in the mid-70s, likely due to his adultery. Rimbaud stabbed Verlaine at one point, who later shot Rimbaud with a revolver. In his poem “The Savior Bumped Upon His Heavy Butt,” Rimbaud describes love’s capacity for both salvation and damnation: “Love and blindness! Majesty! Virtuous renown, / Savior! Stupid, hot-eyed as a bitch in heat! / I’m the soul in agony! This passion is mine! / Stupid, I cry, my tears fall down like rain.” Rimbaud’s love seethes on the line between ecstasy and agony, without any limits.
Dylan grapples with this same love in his ’75 masterpiece Blood on The Tracks, released as he and Sara were steaming toward a brutal divorce. From “Idiot Wind”:
“I woke up on the roadside daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are / Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars / You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies / One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes, blood on your saddle.”
To quote Dylan in footage from Rolling Thunder: “The heart will fuck you up.” Love in Blood on The Tracks is a sea of souls heaving against one another on the tenuous border between heaven and hell, where “there’s music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.” In the album’s opener “Tangled Up in Blue,” Dylan flits from first to third person in Rimbaud-style self-transformation, as if even narrative convention is too stifling to his soul’s flaming power. In “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” Dylan takes “I is Another” literally; his character dresses as a monk to steal a diamond tycoon’s wife. Throughout Blood, Dylan never lets up, finding love in “a strange hotel,” “Honolulu,” “San Francisco,” “Ashtabula” and a dreamlike cabaret. His love is spawned by “A Simple Twist of Fate” and can happen at any moment, to anyone. It’s revolutionary love, “A Shelter From The Storm” that shatters the American mold of the nuclear family, so thus, while joyous, is constantly under assault. “I struggle through barbed wire,” Dylan crows in “Meet Me in The Morning.” “Well, you know I even outrun the hound dogs / Honey, I’ve earned your love.”
The biographical nature of Blood has been heavily studied, but its direct invocation of queer life, which is vital to understanding the complicated songs, tends to be ignored. Without the context of Rimbaud, though, potentially revolutionary emotional dimensions are missed.
With Desire, the ’76 album that followed Blood on The Tracks, things get more obvious (but are mentioned even less frequently by music critics). In “Isis,” the speaker travels to “the wild unknown country” with a man, saying “I gave him my blanket, and he gave me his word.” In “Black Diamond Bay,” during a volcanic eruption, a soldier and a tiny man are “crouched in the corner thinking of forbidden love.” Like with The Electric Trilogy and “Blood on The Tracks,” without at least considering a queer context to the songs, fascinating resonances in Desire are squashed.
Between Blood on The Tracks and Desire, Dylan brought Ginsberg and Rimbaud figuratively together on The Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour through mostly small towns on the East Coast. During the intimate shows, Dylan wore white face paint, mascara, the occasional mask and a hat adorned with flowers, becoming “another” every single night. Dylan chose Mick Ronson as a guitarist, fresh from Daid Bowie’s backing band Spiders From Mars. He also frequently invited Ginsberg on stage for poetry readings. At one point, Joan Baez dressed in drag to impersonate Dylan. It was a queer celebration that tore through traditional America, from a Mahjong Hall in Massachusetts to a Correctional Facility in New Jersey to Plymouth Rock itself, where the country’s puritanical boundaries were first drawn. It’s also Dylan’s greatest tour, period.
“He was electric,” Larry Sloman, a Rolling Stone critic, said of the tour. “I’ve never seen him ever since then that comfortable in his own skin.”
“I was born on the other side of the railroad track. Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.”
—“Key West,” 2020
Back in ’64, when Dylan returned to the airport for departure, “The businessmen were staring again. When one of them turned to his complainion, nudging him and pointing … Dylan looked over his shoulder and waved. “It’s alright, man,” he said, “I make more money than you do.”
Bob Dylan forged an iconography by standing against a hostile world and its strict rules. He did so with a heavy debt to Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Rimbaud, specifically in relation to queer identity. His songs must be considered in that tradition. Queerness has inspired, maybe even haunted, Dylan’s most iconic work beyond The Electric Trilogy and Blood on The Tracks, all the way to 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. On the album’s opening track, parroting Whitman, another queer poet, Dylan says it best: “I fuss with my hair and I fight blood fueds … I paint landscapes and I paint nudes … I rollick and I frolic with all the young dudes … I contain multitudes.”
Bob Dylan is an icon not just because he’s an excellent songwriter and his voice is odd. He’s not a dusty “Yacht Rock” relic. Reframing Dylan’s work in relation to queerness adds revolutionary, and woefully unexplored, dimensions to an already revolutionary career.
Bob Dylan isn’t considered a queer icon. Maybe it’s time for that to change.
For a compilation of Dylan’s queer-inspired compositions curated by the author, check out this playlist.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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