Marketing Genius: The Friendship of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan

By Hishmeh, Richard E. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2006 | Go to article overview

Marketing Genius: The Friendship of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan


Hishmeh, Richard E., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


So we're all applauding ourselves is what it comes down to.

-Sam Shepard

When New York Post journalist Al Aronowitz first introduced Alien Ginsberg to Bob Dylan in New York in 1963, the two became friends almost immediately. The story goes that Dylan, booked in Chicago the following evening, invited Ginsberg to come along. Ginsberg politely declined, and later famously claimed, "I was afraid I might become his slave or something, a mascot."1 By 1965, the two seemed determined to make their new friendship a public affair. This impulse is seen in a number of places in 1965 including the following: the filming of D. A. Pennebaker's documentary on Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back; Larry Keenan's photography session outside of City Lights Bookstore; the release of Dylan's album Bringing it All Back Home; and the first mention of Dylan in a Ginsberg poem entitled "Beginning of a Poem of these States." The year 1965 is also when Dylan appeared on Les Crane's TV talk show and discussed, among other things, future collaboration with Ginsberg on both film and music projects. Together, these events comprise the foundation of a public friendship that would be as carefully constructed and consciously manufactured as any marketing or publicity strategy in today's corporate entertainment industry. Perhaps the only difference is that the product up for sale was really no product at all: it was the image of genius.

As one element in a fully integrated and elaborate marketing strategy, Ginsberg and Dylan's mutually beneficial public friendship portends to what is now "business as usual" for multinational corporate entertainment conglomerates. If critics, scholars, and biographers of Dylan's music career have overdetermined his importance to the history of popular music-repeatedly citing his introduction of a folk sensibility to popular rock and roll, or crediting him with the subsequent rise of the figure of the singer/songwriter-then what has remained beyond this critical gaze is how the marketing of Dylan was also part of a revolutionary development in the popular music industry. In this context, another event might be added to the long list above: though far less romantic, the 1965 formation of CBS Records International seems an equally important development in the history of popular music.2

By 1965, Ginsberg's most influential work as a poet was arguably behind him. He had already achieved international recognition for Howl and had completed his next best collection of poetry, Kaddish and Other Poems, in 1961. When Ginsberg is discussed today, at least in literary circles, these are the collections to which we most frequently return. Still, Ginsberg's reputation does not rest on his poetic achievements alone. He is also widely regarded as a counter-culture icon-a bridge between the Beat culture of the 1950s and the hippie culture of the 1960s-and it is around 1965 when Ginsberg really begins to make this transformation from strictly a poet to a cultural icon. Ginsberg's friendship with Dylan provided the catalyst that facilitated his movement into mainstream recognition from a new generation of youth culture. His affiliation with Dylan allowed Ginsberg, with some acumen, to dabble in mediums beyond just poetry, as in his 1971 recording studio experiments with Dylan.

Whereas Ginsberg had reached his poetic peak by 1965, Dylan had reached a moment of artistic stagnation. Having taken his folk roots as far as they could go, Dylan had not yet achieved the musical celebrity he sought. Frustrated by this stagnation, Dylan, too, was searching for a way to reinvent his image. His recording of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the first song on his 1965 Bringing it all Back Home album, was one such attempt, and his public friendship with Ginsberg was another. Dylan was able to use this friendship to negotiate his transition from folk music hero to the poet-laureate of rock and roll. His bond with Ginsberg put Dylan's folk purist dissenters in an awkward bind. …

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