Throwback Thursday: Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, Revisited

“Remember where you come from, and you will know who you are.” — Suz Rotolo

1960s Greenwich Village, NYC (Public domain)

So, I decided to give Tarantula another chance this week. What prompted me was that marvelous scene in I’m Not There in which Cate Blanchett, as Dylan, is in the middle of a hotel room with white walls upon which a giant tarantula in silhouette is crawling. It’s an unforgettable scene. The book itself less so. And yet, it remains in circulation, in spite of itself.

Image for post
Image for post

Tarantula has been compared to Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg (The Beats) and Rimbaud, but my first impressions upon re-reading it were James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Andy Warhol’s proclamation, “Art is whatever you can get away with.”

If I were asked when I first picked up a copy of this book I would have said it was when I was in high school in the 60s. The reality is that the book was never “officially” in print till 1971, proof that memory is a faulty and unreliable creature. So I must have been in college at the time. The cover was cool, and the title was cool. But the content? It depends on what lens you assess it through.

It wasn’t till later that I became acquainted with Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce’s 14-years-to-produce language game that made little sense to anyone and struck most common folk as a massive inside joke. Was it a joke on the readers or on his publisher?

So it is that Dylan produced a bit of prose here that was supposed to be something important. Was it also an inside joke? A joke on readers or on McMillan, his publisher?

What probably happened, no doubt, was that in 1966 Dylan had become such a hot commodity that anyone who published anything he wrote would be guaranteed a profit. A pitch was made, contract signed and the deal set in motion.

“Something’s happening but you don’t know what it is, eh?”

I dunno.

It’s a book of historic significance only for the fact that Dylan wrote it, and it has an iconic photo on the cover (I already said that, I know). The back cover (of my copy) says this book “captures the tone and spirit of the turbulent times in which it was written.”

Straight up, that’s McMillan’s marketing copy. His songs did, but nothing in this book really does that.

To capture the times I would suggest Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a bracing read as well, and no joke. Michener’s Kent State is on point at the end of the decade.
Dylan’s Tarantula was an insignificant blip on the period’s literary scene and even less in retrospect. It’s easy to imagine him saying, “I was funnin’ you.” Something akin to his 115th dream, though even there there’s serious satire taking place. The rambling tripe on most of these pages seems to have no real aim other than to fill pages with ink.

Perhaps it could be said that this was a foreshadowing of Seinfeld, which was essentially about meaninglessness.

Image for post
Image for post
“Don’t Look Back” — Painting by the author.

Here are the book’s opening lines, after the initial chapter heading Guns, the Falcon’s Mouthbook & Gashcap Unpunished.

aretha/ crystal jukebox queen of hymn & him diffused and drunk transfusion round wound heed sweet soundwave crippled & cry salute to oh great particular el dorado real and ye battered personal god but she cannot she the leader of whom when ye follow, she cannot she has no back she cannot … beneath black flowery railroad fans etc.

Alas. I’m sure there is some backstory on all this, of which I’ve forgotten or am unfamiliar. It doesn’t really matter. Here are a few of the more critical reviews of this book on Amazon.

Three Star Review
If you need to read a review of this before you buy it , you must have no idea about Bob Dylan and this particular book. Investigate thoroughly before you commit. All Dylan fans will want to have it , whether they read it or not is up to them. I tried and couldn’t really do it — but I had to “own” it.

Two Star Review
Dylan is by far the greatest songwriter of all-time and perfectly deserving of a noble [sic] prize in literature if ever one is bestowed upon him. However this stream of consciousness book is pure crap. It will be a highly collectible book if you have the first edition, first printing in good condition in about 50 years. Till then read Lyrics 1961–2001 or Chronicles vol.1 instead.

One Star Review
Is Bob Dylan now the pen name of a machine learning software fed hastily written assignments from a one hundred level poetry class? Tarantula is what the software produced.

One Star Review
I really couldn’t make sense of this book. I am old enough to blame myself when this happens. I like his lyrics, but this book is unreadable. I wonder if he wrote it deliberately to mock those who say they get it. It is as if you hold up a toddler’s doodle to art critic, who compliments it as some work of genius.

* * * *
On the flip side there are many like these five star reviews:

A Masterpiece
Spontaneous bebop prose poem. As with Naked Lunch, I can only absorb 10 pages at a time and then my head hurts gloriously. If you love Dylan, buy it, dog ear it, highlight, and rave.

Good book by Dylan when he was 23
I enjoy reading this as much as I did when I got my first copy in the early ’70s. As dazzling as Bob’s music.

* * * *
It’s probably significant that when you go to Bob Dylan Wikiquote, itself an exceptionally long Wikiquote entry, there are no quotes from Tarantula.

But that’s OK. I own it, read it again and am happy to have it on my bookshelf. Do you have it on yours?

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store