Monday, November 27, 2006

News: Positively Bob: Dylan in the Classroom

By Josh Kurp
      “You can hear the school bell ring,” sings Bob Dylan in his 2001 song “Floater (Too Much To Ask).” “Gotta get up near the teacher if you can/ If you wanna learn anything.”
      Although Dylan wasn’t talking about The New School, The New School is definitely talking about Dylan. Every Wednesday night in 65 5th Ave., 25 students meet with Professor Robert Levinson for a course named “Discussing Dylan.”
      The class has become so popular that some of the most important figures throughout Dylan’s career come to speak, including multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson of The Band; Jacques Levy, who co-wrote many of the tracks on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire; photographer Elliot Landy, who took the picture of Dylan on the cover of Nashville Skyline; and most recently, D.A. Pennebaker, director of the Dylan documentary Dont Look Back.
A typical class begins with watching a video clip of Dylan, followed by “Bob 101,” a way for students who are relatively unversed on all things Dylan to catch up on his history. Then comes the guest.
      One of the more exciting visitors for students this semester was Peter Yarrow, a member of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, who joined the class on November 1. He began the night by playing Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In,” then talked about his personal relationship with Dylan.
      At the Newport Folk Fest in 1965, when Dylan famously switched from acoustic to electric guitar, he was originally supposed to close the festival but instead was made to play earlier, in the middle.
      Dylan was furious at Yarrow, who sat on the festival’s committee. According to Robert Shelton, author of the Bob Dylan biography No Direction Home, after playing three electric songs and getting booed off the stage, “Dylan and the group disappeared offstage, and there was a long, clumsy silence. Peter Yarrow urged Bob to return and gave him his acoustic guitar.”
      Shelton adds, “As Bob returned on the stage alone, he discovered he didn’t have the right harmonica.”
      “What are you doing to me?” Dylan demanded of Yarrow.
      To this day, Yarrow speaks of this event with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “No amount of begging was going to change Bob’s mind,” he said at one recent class.
      Levinson’s technique for finding guests is simple.
      “Before the class began, I went to the index in every Dylan biography I could, picking people out, and finding ways to contact them,” he said.
Levinson’s interest in Dylan began in 1961, when Dylan was playing in coffeehouses around Greenwich Village, including The Gaslight and Café Wha? near Washington Square Park.
      “The Village was a fifteen cent subway ride from where I lived [in Brooklyn], so I could sit in ‘basket houses’ without money,” Levinson said. “As long as I didn’t mind not being able to pay when the basket came around, I could look at the girls from NYU.”
      “Then one day, Bob comes in and BOOM, you just knew this guy is different from everyone else,” Levinson continued. “You had to be dead to not realize Bob.”
      Since then, Levinson has been devoted to Dylan, spreading the word through his class at The New School, his radio show “Positively Dylan” on WHPC and his writing in Isis, the “Magazine for Dylan Enthusiasts.”
      “I enjoy ‘Discussing Dylan’ because it exposes me to others who share similar experiences with Dylan and his work,” said Frank Beacham, an adult member since the course’s beginning in fall 2002.
      “I view Bob Dylan as a window through which to learn about music and culture,” he added. “The class is an important part of that.”
      Beacham also views Levinson as an effective teacher because “he puts all the various viewpoints regarding Bob Dylan out in front of the class and lets the chips fall where they may,” he said. “He does not impose his personal viewpoints on his guests. He lets them say their piece whether he agrees or not.”
      The class was temporarily in a lawsuit with Dylan’s lawyers because it was viewed it as an intrusion upon Dylan’s life. Once Levinson described the class and they saw its educational value, Levinson said, the lawsuit was quickly dropped.
“So, we know that Bob’s at least aware of the class,” he said.

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