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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"The last time I saw Donald Armstrong" - The Bob Dylan/James Dickey Connection

I've been dipping into Chronicles: Volume One again while talking with Scott Warmuth over various discoveries we've made in the text. Scott, as you already know if you follow Dreamtime, found evidence that a 1961 issue of TIME magazine was the reference source for at least one section in Chronicles. During our correspondence Scott mentioned another discovery he had made, which I'll let him reveal publicly himself when he's ready. But his remark had me opening Chronicles again, and as I was skimming through the text, I stopped on what I always thought was one of the stranger passages in the book..

I gazed around the room, got up and nervously paced around a few times, watching the clock on the wall--it seemed to be running backwards.  I sat back down feeling lines plowing into my face and the whites of my eyes turning yellow. Al Kooper was clowning around, telling shaggy dog stories. I was listening to Daniels practicing scales on the fiddle, thumbing through some magazines that were left on the table, Collier's, Billboard, and Look magazine. Running across an article in Male magazine about a guy, James Lally, a radio man in World War II who had crashed with his pilot in the Philippines.  I got sidetracked for a second.  It was a gut crunching article, unfiltered.  Armstrong, the pilot, was killed in the crash, but Lally was taken prisoner by the Japanese, who took him to a camp and beheaded him with a samurai sword and then used his head for bayonet practice.  I pushed the magazine away.  Russ Kunkel, the drummer on the sessions, was siting on the couch was his eyes halfway shut, tapping two sticks together-- gazing through the glass darkly. I couldn't stop thinking about Lally and felt like moaning in the wind.~ Chronicles: Volume One, Pages 139-140
There's something weird - weird in the full Shakespearian sense - about this paragraph.  There's a thread of unspoken dread running throughout the passage that doesn't seem warranted. Dylan has "lines plowing into my face" and relates that the whites of his eyes are turning yellow.  The wall clock is running backwards. He feels like "moaning in the wind" and paraphrases 1 Corinthians 13:12, noting that drummer Russ Kunkel is "gazing through the glass darkly." All these allusions seem to make even less sense when read in context. Before and after the passage, Dylan is thinking about what was constantly on his mind; trying to figure out how to "freeze-frame" his image and "suggest only shadows of my possible self."  On a separate note, he's also deciding what to call the album which he would eventually title New Morning.

So what to make of the story of Lally and Armstrong that is the foundation of the passage? Are we to believe the article impressed Bob Dylan so much in 1970 that he introduced it as a strange non sequitur into Chronicles thirty years later?

You'd be unlikely to find a copy of Collier's in a 1970 recording studio, unless Bob Dylan brought it in himself.  The magazine stopped publishing in 19 and 57.  Leaving that aside, the other three magazines could have been on the table, including Male, a he-man "men's adventure" magazine specializing in lurid war tales and still being published into the `70s. It's also possible that there was an article about James Lally in some edition of Male, as his actual death at the hands of the Japaneses fit all the requirements for one of their patented stories, especially given the grisly details. According to one report Lally's body, as well as the body of the already deceased Armstrong, had been buried to their shoulders and their heads used for bayonet practice, as Dylan tells us the article relates. The war-crimes trial of Lally's executioners was also one of the first of its kind, making it even better fodder for a Male article.

Without an index of Male, we'll never know whether Dylan read the story in that magazine or not.  Perhaps the overall gruesomeness of Lally's death or some specific imagery caught his attention. Maybe it ended up in his commonplace book to be unearthed and used some three decades later when he was looking for some background material about the making of New Morning.

That's possible.  It's also possible that Dylan was well aware of another source reporting the death of Donald Armstrong, James Dickey's poem, "The Performance."
The last time I saw Donald Armstrong
He was staggering oddly off into the sun,
Going down, off the Philippine Islands.
I let my shovel fall, and put that hand
Above my eyes, and moved some way to one side
That his body might pass through the sun,

And I saw how well he was not
Standing there on his hands,
On his spindle-shanked forearms balanced,
Unbalanced, with his big feet looming and waving
In the great, untrustworthy air
He flew in each night, when it darkened. from "The Performance," 1959
 In March 1945, James Dickey had volunteered to become the historian for the 418th Air Squadron, and recorded the following on March 15th:
A most unexpected and tragic occurrence befell the Squadron when 2nd Lt. DONALD H. ARMSTRONG ... and his observer F/O JAMES J. LALLY ...high-speed-stalled close to the ground over the Jap strip at St. Jose,Panay, and crashed northwest of the field. ... [The plane] was found to be almost completely demolished except for a small portion of the crew nacelle. The entire Squadron awaited apprehensively the guerrilla radio operating near San Jose, for the plane had gone down between Japanese and Filipino-held positions. Finally the guerrillas informed us that Armstrong had been killed and Lally, badly injured, was in the hands of the enemy. There has been no further news to date.
The event resonated with Dickey for the rest of his life, becoming the basis for essays, short stories, and eventually two poems about Armstrong and Lally, "Between Two Prisoners" and "The Performance." One of James Dickey's most-anthologized poems, "The Performance" was not without its share of  Dylanesque controversy. Dickey changed many of the facts, ignoring Lally altogether and making Armstrong, who had died in the plane crash, "a mythical hero executed by sadistic enemies," as Henry Hart wrote in The Southern Review.  Dickey, a man who liked to mythologize his own life, claimed "almost every word of `The Performance' is literally true," and at various other times said he had been close friends with Donald Armstrong, wrote that Armstrong was a daredevil hero who had taken it upon himself to bomb an enemy field, and that he had seen Armstrong practicing showy handstands as reported in "The Performace."

In fact, none of it was true, but more grist for the re-invention that James Dickey created for his own life. "Dickey revises Armstrong's life by re-envisioning it," Hart writes, and goes on to theorize that "Armstrong provided Dickey with a mirror in which he could see himself in larger-than-life proportions."

James Dickey famously growled in a 1969 symposium about the "debased kind of music Bob Dylan and these people play."  If you read the line in context, Dickey was more complaining about the decline of traditional southern country and folk music, an opinion that Dylan would likely have agreed with then and now.  But whether James Dickey was a fan of Bob Dylan or not, it's probable that Dylan was a fan of his.

The inherent danger in exploring anything Bob Dylan writes or says is that sometimes the cigar is probably just a cigar, and maybe this anecdote of his idly thumbing through an issue of Male is just what it is. On the other hand, we're dealing with a man whose 1991 Grammy Acceptance Speech sounded, on first listen, to be embarrassed, semi-coherent rambling...
"Well, my daddy, he didn't leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say, son, he said..." (pause) "He said, you know it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you and if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways."
... which turned out to be a allusion to Psalms 27:10.and a near-direct quote from the commentary of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch...
"Even if I were so depraved that my own mother and father would abandon me to my own devices, God would still gather me up and believe in my ability to mend my ways."


3 comments:

Christopher Dickey said...

Fascinating and very well informed speculation. I guess we'll just have to ask Dylan about it -- as if that would clarify anything.

fhb said...

That means a lot to me coming from you, Chris. I'm a great admirer of you and your father. Thanks!

Sheldon Kelly said...

Dickey was first & foremost a poet, with a great & genuine sense of scansion & meter. When Lewis King (later model for Lewis Murdoch in Deliverance) asked JD why he'd replaced his name as rightful owner of a canoe with Al Braselton's in the famous "On the Coosawattee" poem, Dickey answered, simply, truthfully: "It just didn't scan, Lewis." Dylan, meanwhile, knew & lifted from the greats. From Keats, bible to Dickey. These are fairly well-documented, almost beyond speculation. One must concede that Bob Dylan chose well. (Lewis & I laugh about that now & again - as did Al before he died.)