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You can now listen to Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, but maybe you shouldn’t

Bob Dylan

Half a century after its publication, Bob Dylan’s weird and misunderstood book Tarantula will be made available as an audiobook. The new edition, read by actor Will Patton, will be out on December 3.

At the core of Tarantula, there is a ridiculous bravado. To the journalists who interviewed him, Bob Dylan promised a book as early as April 1963. Still, he remained evasive about the content. The music prodigy wanted to compete with the kings of American literature, from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg. At the time, The New York Times Book Review wrote: “The official appearance of Bob Dylan’s Tarantula is not a literary event, because Dylan is not a literary figure.”

Bob Dylan

Tarantula is an UFO in sky of the American written canon. Is it genius? Or a literary gulag? Haven’t decided yet.

Between 1964 and 1965, Dylan filled up pages and pages. The first draft was entitled Bob Dylan off the Record, but he ended up picking the title Tarantula. Nobody has ever understood why, not even Dylan himself. Maybe a reference to Nietzsche and his Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“Lo, this is the tarantula’s den! Would’st thou see the tarantula itself? Here hangeth its web: touch this, so that it may tremble. There cometh the tarantula willingly: Welcome, tarantula! Black on thy back is thy triangle and symbol; and I know also what is in thy soul.”

Don’t worry, we don’t understand either.

Anyway, the release of the book was planned for 1966. But in July that year, a motorcycle accident ended the first part of Dylan’s career and the publication of Tarantula was postponed. The volume finally came out in 1971, mostly to curb the circulation of pirate copies. Fans greedily threw themselves onto this experimental prose and poetry collection, but the book was a commercial failure.

Today, the time has come to reread — or more accurately, listen — to Dylan’s nonsense again. The book is a free association of ideas, in the spirit of the surrealists’ automatic writing concept. After a moment of legitimate terror, you can let yourself lulled into this weird and uncomfortable atmosphere, reminiscent of his lyrics from the ’60s.

In 2003 Spin magazine did an article called the Top Five Unintelligible Sentences from Books Written by Rock Stars. Without surprise, Dylan came in first place with this line from Tarantula: “Now’s not the time to get silly, so wear your big boots and jump on the garbage clowns.”

Don’t try to make any sense out of his rambling cocktail of words, your brain might crack open. Or you’ll achieve enlightenment, who knows?

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October 31, 2019