Agent Zimmerman

By JAMES PARKER  |  November 20, 2007

“But . . . wasn’t this sort of FBI territory?” I ventured. “Domestic surveillance and such?”

“FBI!” He snorted unpleasantly. “Would a G-man learn how to play the dulcimer? Take classes in the dulcimer, for six months? Deirdre!” He hailed the reluctant bartender. “Deirdre! Another Long Island Iced Tea, if you would. Thank you, sweetie.”

“Dulcimer classes?”

“You bet your ass. I was in a medieval folk trio called Tyme Out of Mynde. Tyme Out of Mynde, with y’s where the i’s should be! That’s sacrifice, pal. That’s doing your duty. But you know, when I first saw Zimmerman in the Cafe Wha?, right there things began to get wonderful.”

“He was — ”

“Oh, he was a graceless little monkey then, of course. Tobacco-stained fingers, chubby cheeks, no manners at all. And that voice! Like Woody Guthrie left out in the rain for a week. And such silly-billy music he made at first, all about being an old boxcar-jumper with holes in your hat. So derivative, so false! But, you see, that was the whole point.”

Now I was interested. “What was the whole point?”

“He had no identity! None! Just this greedy, untethered intellect slipping about in the realm of myth and symbol. Like a dreamer, but wide awake. I couldn’t have imagined better conditions for the creation of a first-class artistic spy. Can you see the magic of it? He wanted an identity, and I had one ready for him! He would be the bard, the Pied Piper. He would take all of this shambling, up-all-night disaffection, this shapeless totality of kooks and bums and hedonists, and lead it right into the river. Ha!” He slapped the surface of the bar, and I nearly fell off my stool. “So I put him on the payroll.”

“But — but what did he do for you?”

“What did he do?! Good God, man, listen to the records! He hypnotized them. Under my instructions, of course. ‘Be more enigmatic!’ I’d say. Or: ‘Be more Biblical! Be more like William Blake! Speak to their souls! Make them feel like the end of the world is around the corner! And whatever you do, keep the scorn in your voice.’ Well, he was a natural for that kind of work. He was a very well-read boy. Thank you, Deirdre my darling.” He slurped at his fresh drink.

“But what about, you know, the chimes of freedom flashing and all that? ‘The answer is blowin’ in the wind’?”

“Decoys. In order to fully subvert the pitiful earnestness of the times, he had to partake of it now and again. Incidentally, the best line in ‘Tambourine Man’? ‘To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free’? That was mine.”

“And when everyone booed him? When he went electric — what was that?”

“Ah! He loved booing. It was like champagne to him. On that tour of Europe, all skinny and heavy-lidded, while everyone howled — marvelous. That was Phase Two: Disorientation.”

I was feeling a little disoriented myself. “I still don’t get it,” I mumbled. “The Voice of a Generation. . . . The People’s Poet!”

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