Nat Hentoff died the other day. When I encountered his work in the Village Voice, in 1989 when I started at Columbia, he was already considered a crank. I was dimly aware of his past reputation as a music journalist, but his specialty was civil rights commentary. Somewhat bizarrely, he was a fervent opponent of abortion. (I don’t remember, and don’t care to look up, what his exact, technical position on the issue was.) I did go see him speak on campus once, accompanied by a very smart, self-identified feminist I was dating at the time. It was, as I recall, a mildly contentious occasion, but I remember little else.
I can’t say Hentoff’s writings made a huge impression on me, although I read him more or less regularly. But his démodé opinions on abortion, and the mockery and shunning that it seemed to occasion, was an early hint to me that it is often the left that is most hostile to heterodoxy.
Hentoff, I discovered somewhat later, was also a fan of Merle Haggard, another figure whose politics often confounded his admirers. He also wrote this 1964 profile of Bob Dylan for The New Yorker. It’s quite good, although Dylan also tossed him a few whoppers about his background. (Hentoff’s credulity also seems to be the reason people persist in thinking “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is about the Cuban missile crisis.)
Hentoff had the remarkable good fortune to sit in on the recording of an early Dylan album in its entirety. He describes witnessing the recording session that would become known as Dylan’s fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan.” This would be Dylan’s last folk album before he launched on his electric pursuit of the wild, thin mercury sound. Hentoff relates Dylan recording such numbers as “Chimes of Freedom,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” and “My Back Pages,” and a studio that was filled with a sycophantic entourage, a couple of rambunctious children, and a patient African-American producer. (One song Hentoff doesn’t mention is “Ballad in Plain D,” which is widely considered the worst song Dylan ever committed to record. In eight excruciating minutes, he recounts a bitter quarrel he had with his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, along with her sister. One subject of this horrible fight, it emerged years later, was Rotolo’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.)
A fusion of Huck Finn and Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan writes songs that sound drawn from oral history.
On the subject of young Bob and Greenwich Village…
Recent film watched: Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ take on the Village folk scene, told through the travails of a character loosely inspired by Dave Van Ronk. I liked the film well enough, but I might remember the cat the best. According to the Coens, they were concerned that their script didn’t have enough of a plot, so they added the cat. More than one, in fact.
Free association: The cat as plot device. Martin McDonagh did the same thing in his garishly violent play, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.” My S.O. and I, along with JB, one of our theater friends, made a pilgrimage to New York a few–cough–11 years ago to see “Inishmore” at the Atlantic Theatre, along with a Cate Blanchett-headlined production of “Hedda Gabbler” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A few years before that, in 1998, I saw “Beauty Queen of Leenane,” that play that made McDonagh famous, with its original cast, including Marie Mullen in the title role. Now Mullen is back in New York to do this show, but this time she’s the awful mother. My S.O. wants to go.