Alan Catlin: An Essay

Link to home pageLink to current issueLink to back issuesLink to information about the magazineLink to submission guidelinesSend email to

                                                Life Is a Pitch

“My existence led by confusion boats, mutiny from stern to bow”
Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

It must have been Summer of ’65 the first time I heard a Dylan song.  We’d be hanging out in Archibald’s cellar and Pug was saying. “Check this out.  This guy is where it’s at now. He’s making the scene in The Village.” And he put the needle down on the long playing 33 rpm vinyl album, probably, “Another Side of Bob Dylan” or, maybe, “Bringing it All Back Home” and what we heard was transformative. Not just for us but for a whole generation of writers, performers, artists, musicians, social activists.... He was where it was at then, and fifty year later, he still is.

After reading hundreds upon thousands of poems since, there are few poems I can quote even a small amount of, but I can recite any number of stanzas that Dylan wrote. As Archibald said then, “It’s not so much about what it sounds like. It’s what it says. It’s the words.”

Imagine that: The words!  Not, “Yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy” but” Go away from my window/ leave at your own chosen speed/I’m not the one you want, babe/ I’m not the one you need....”  A message song in those days was “Beep Beep” about a Nash Rambler taking down some greaser hotrod, or someone’s girlfriend being killed in a car accident (remember the gory story of Laurie?), and the songs lasted, maybe, two minutes. And then there was, “Like a Rolling Stone”, three times as long as your typical 45 rpm single. Music, popular music, would never be the same.

The Beatles turned psychedelic and arty in the 60’s, and they carried a tune. Dylan not only refused to carry anything but the weight. He steadfastly refused to be “melodic”. He simply went where no one else would dare to go because, well, he had to.  Even then it was almost impossible to believe that “Blowing in the Wind” was written in the 60’s. It was so, for the lack of a better word, timeless, it seemed to have always been with us.

The song was all about what it said. And his albums were all tone poems ranging from lyric masterpieces, songs of love and hate, message songs (though he would completely deny ever having written a topical song in his life. Dylan, if nothing else is his best dissembler) and surrealistic humor, noted mostly for the in-your-face attitude toward the Establishment.  All Establishments. There has never been, nor is it likely there ever will be, another double album like “Blonde on Blonde”.

Nor would liner notes ever be the same. We read them and nodded and felt as if we were in the know even if we had no clue what they were all about. Maybe we too were like the know-nothing Mr. Jones, “You know something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” We didn’t care that, as my future father- in-law said, “He sounds like he is gargling razor blades.”  None of us had ever been on a Drunken Boat or knew what Flowers of Evil were.

And in a very real sense it was all about the razor blades. People tend to Romanticize the 60’s saying it was all about drugs, sex and rock and roll as if the decade (actually lasting from ’64 to ’74) were one long party. A noir writer (Reed Farrell Coleman) recently wrote, “Anyone with fond memories of the sixties is being willfully stupid.” Certainly, there was than a fair share of free spirited, free love, and ecstasy of all kinds. Still, reading an oral history of the 60’by Clara Bingham, Witness to the Revolution, one can easily see the sixties to what they were: a time of social unrest, riots, bombings and war.  This being the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love we are looking back and seeing something that barely was: nostalgia mixed with lost Youth. Many of us forget the turmoil. The dissension. The divisions.

Some of us don’t.

Maybe it was Altamont, the antithesis of Woodstock, where lawlessness and counter- cultural gatherings all went wrong.  Fueling up Hell’s Angels with acid, as Hunter S. Thompson pointed out, was a common practice around that time, was just plain, bad craziness. What followed was inevitable: it’s all fun and games until someone threatens the lead singer of the Airplane on stage, someone touches a bike and the blades come out. That some of the primary rock icons of the age died in, or right after, 1970, all at the ripe old age of 27, is not incidental.  “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,” was probably a more appropriate slogan than the more famous “drugs, sex and rock and roll”. Where is Hunter S. Thompson now that we really, really need him?

Once, when looking for a title, (and a theme) for an essay on, what the 60’s were to me, I could not get past Dylan and what he mean t to me. (I still can’t, if I am honest with myself.)  I was trying to define my coming of age time. It didn’t go well. None of it. Not living it or looking back. I settled on a Bob Dylan song for the title, “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleedin’.” The essay has never been published and probably never will be. There is just so much angst, depression, and desperation in it, the writing feels like a self-laceration, rather than self-revelation.

The 60’s were not a happy time for me. College was not something I wanted then, but the alternative was an all expenses paid trip to Vietnam. By the time I graduated, in 1970, the general feeling was, the war was a senseless conflict and it that was becoming the primary concern of everyone between the age of 18-35 (Or anyone who cared for someone of that age).

The war was pretty much the only thing on everyone’s mind. (Just as the great divider, Trump is now, for most of the same reasons. It’s alright ma....) The war machine was hungry for male flesh. It did not matter who you were or what you did or where you came from, Uncle Sam was waiting for you. More than one college dorm wall had a recruiting poster of Uncle Sam as a skeleton, representing Death, in full patriotic regalia, pointing his skeletal finger with the words: Uncle Sam Wants You, on it.  It was like the infamous poster of Jim Morrison that was said, “His eyes followed you wherever you went in a room”- Death as Uncle Sam was always in the back of your mind, hawking the war in Vietnam.

And the war was televised. People you knew from high school were being wounded. A guy from freshman year flunked a one credit gym class and was .01 under the academic threshold for sophomore year so he volunteered for the navy. He was killed less than half way through the next term. It could happen to you, or the guy next you, like this guy you were getting drunk with every Friday night of freshman year. People were coming back from the war and telling you, “Don’t go. Do anything to get out.  None of it makes any sense.” And those were the regular guys.  The guys who enlisted, the two and three tours, well-decorated soldiers, were coming back and were even more adamant about us getting out. 

Buffalo Springfield was on all the jukeboxes in every bar and they were saying, “There’s something happening here/ what it is ain’t exactly clear? there’s a man with a gun over there/ telling you, ‘You’ve got to beware’”

This was serious shit.  And I was seriously depressed in a place where winters were epic, the campus surrounded by endless fields of frozen snow and ice, a mental institution at the end of the field on one side and a hospital on the other, with a graveyard between you and the nuthouse.  A silent scream of HELP does no good when you can’t articulate it and no one can hear.......

I hated the CORE courses though I managed a 3.0 freshman year despite an F in one course. But by sophomore year everything was just so, well, depressing. And I was lonely. The girl I loved was hundreds of miles away. The girl who could save me and I thought of Dylan,” I can’t understand, I let go of your hand and left me here facing the wall....”  or “if you’re going to the North Country remember me to one who lives there...” and on it went; The depression. The war.

Then I read the side effects to the vitamin supplements that were supposed to give me an energy boost. I learned that people who are susceptible to depression should not take these pills as they tend to enhance the effects.  In 1965 school psychologist suggested I was a potential severe depressive as one of the reasons I was such an under-achiever. I was sure underachieving my sophomore year but I survived. Somehow. In Ice Hell.

Ice Hell is what I thought of Utica in those days where there were only three things to do: get messed up, play cards and read. The order was the priority. It didn’t get any better with each passing year. I just got to move off campus. And, in fact, the weather got worse but the course load was all major and minor subjects by junior year.  I loaded up on my hours to make up for the courses I dropped and within a couple of semesters I was an almost straight A student. I could say, years later, that I had a triple major English, Intellectual History and Substance Abuse with a minor in card playing.

And it beat the alternatives.

One of those was staying in school forever or until the war was over, whichever came first.  They had changed the deferment exemption for students to a limit of five, but were not       taking anyone out of a semester already in progress. That meant never missing a session and coming up with the money to pay for it. You might be starving but you were always enrolled in Something.

I look back on those times. Of my avoidance of the draft, and knowing many people who served admirably and well. Of many who served, but did not feel at all well about it, I still feel it was a matter of principle not to participate in a war I felt was immoral and unjust. I never felt any enmity towards soldiers: these were our friends, our classmates, our cotemporaries, our brothers and sisters and they did what they felt they had to do (or had no other choice to do.)  They were physically braver than I was or am.

My answer to a question as to why I did not do more to protest against the war was, “I was too busy being fucked up.” It was the same answer I could have provided for not serving.  In a very really way, not going in the Service was an act of practicality. I would have lasted about ten minutes in Vietnam. I had no survival sense whatsoever. No warrior instincts. This does no honor to my much more together friend Tony, who did not even last that long (or so I was told).   My straight A’s in English and Intellectual History (the discipline that taught me what I needed to know about jerking around a bureaucracy-the draft board, that led to may eventual deferment) and an F in a one credit, required gym course; the difference between life and death. That was the 60’s.

But there were other alternatives too, of course.  It wasn’t quite the same as the Civil War where you could pay someone to serve for you and be immune from the draft. You could, however, use political connections to get yourself into the Reserves. It worked for George W. Bush whose service was questionable, to say the least. Or you could have other priorities as, say, Chickenhawk Dick Cheney, who like Bill Clinton, used academic deferments to safely elude the most vulnerable years of the draft (19, 18 20-22). You could be a “Fortunate Son” as John Fogarty sang, to his eternal credit, at the half time of the Super Bowl about the disparity between the classes of who was fighting the wars and why. (Fortunate Son also being the title of an unauthorized biography of W. that makes for interesting reading of what exactly it meant to be the son of an influential father during the 60’s). Gone were the days when Everyone served and true war heroes went on to long public service career s such as a genuine war hero, John McCain. Even Bush senior and Darth Nixon served with honor and distinction in World War II. Reagan of course was busy during the war making war propaganda movies with his good buddy John Wayne the ultimate faux soldier. But that’s another story altogether. 

Perhaps the ultimate Fortunate Son would be one Donald J. Trump who skirted the war effort through a highly questionable foot injury, though he can’t remember to which foot or ankle or whatever it was.  His real war would be, as he confessed, on more than one occasion, was avoiding STD’s having sex. This is the same man who belittled John McCain’s years as a prisoner of war saying he was not a hero because he was captured.  What he was, was shot down, in combat, as a pilot, risking his life for his country, and in order to be taken prisoner, you had to be there, in the field of battle, instead of safely at home, ogling women and perfecting your bedroom techniques. What can you make of such a man who would suggest these things about a real solider? It is just one of innumerable moral offenses that are the basic components of his lack of character.

Trump has stated that everything you ever needed to know you learned in high school (prep school/ military school) and adulthood was basically translating all that you learned into action. Like most Fortunate Son’s, he claims to be a self-made man ignoring the financial, political, and shady connection provided by his father.  His sense of privilege distorts his sense of accomplishment and becomes all part of a fantastical conspiracy of distorted images and cracked mirror reflections.  When reality fails, enter the world of complete fantasy, television.

Hollywood was the dream merchant of yore but now television has become the omnipresent nightmare merchant of unreality (think of all those products you love to own but can’t have: cars, vacations, homes, appliances bankruptcy attorneys, women/men). Hence when you see Reality television what you get is television reality, which is all a function of advertising. Advertising that is more and algorithmically targeting the individual and means to remove your ability to reason and to choose through forms of subliminal seduction.  

Advertising, after all, is all about the sale, the pitch, and the product and when you have then is the ultimate morally deficient pitchman, Donald J Trump as the leader of the country... Now what? He has children who have inherited the privilege gene and feel twice as entitled as the progenitors. They are the new wave, the beautiful people of no substance. Life is a pitch. What does not happen on screen does not happen at all. Only reality TV matters. Enough people, let’s say enough of the electorate to swing an election, with a little help from our Russian friends. Apparently a significant portion of the population can’t tell the difference between the pitch and the product. And now? No, we are living in Trumplandia, the ultimate dystopia. It’s all television now

But it’s alright ma, I’m only bleedin’.
As Dylan said in that song,
“But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked.”