Robert Hudson, The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966

Hudson, Robert. The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 249 pp. Hb; $23.99.   Link to Eerdmans

In his foreword to this new book, David Dalton confesses that his first impression of a book on Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan was “just plain perverse or at the very least willfully paradoxical.” Pairing two polar opposites sometimes generates intriguing discussion, but are Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan “opposites”? They seem like they inhabit different universes. On the surface, writing a book on the two seems so strange and to subtitle the book “the Perilous Summer of 1966” seems oddly specific.

Thomas Merton and Bob DylanThere will be some readers who love Thomas Merton but have no idea what to think of Bob Dylan and his nasal tones. There will be other readers who are intimately familiar with Bob Dylan’s career but will need to spend some time on Wikipedia to figure out who in the world Thomas Merton was. Both have a fiercely loyal fandom, both have generated significant secondary literature studying every word they have written from every conceivable angle.

I will admit, I am solidly on the side of the Bob Dylan fanatics. I remember hearing Dylan when I was a child and being captivated with his lyrics and strange mystery tramp image. I remember a fifth grade teacher having the class sing Blowin’ in the Wind, “How many times must the cannonball fly?” One of the first records I bought as a teenager was the live album Hard Rain, and like most people my age his Blood on the Tracks was a favorite. Dylan’s spiritual awaking in the late 1970s paralleled my own. As an adult I have seen Dylan in concert twenty-five times, purchased all his albums in several different formats and tracked down elusive bootlegs and “field recordings.” I have been asked to lecture in a popular music class on the impact of Bob Dylan on American culture.

But Thomas Merton was a mystery to me before reading Hudson’s book. I had a vague idea he was an important writer in Catholic circles, but I had never read anything by him, nor would I be likely to given my Protestant commitments. When I first saw the promotional material for this book, my only thought was “he was a monk, right”? He was, but he was so much more. Beyond his voluminous spiritual writings, Merton was a poet, he wrote on social issues including atomic weapons and the Vietnam War, he was interested in Buddhist monasticism and building bridges between Catholicism and eastern religions. And in 1965, he discovered Bob Dylan’s music and he was immediately hooked. In fact, Dylan influenced Merton to write Cables to the Ace, a collection of poetry which might perplex a Merton fan, but would be quite familiar to Dylan fans in 1965.

Merton and Dylan never met, although Merton reached out to him several times. Even so, Hudson tracks Merton’s fascination with Dylan during a period in Merton’s life which included his retreat to a hermitage but also his well-known affair. At the same time, Dylan was imploding after becoming the new “voice of a generation” in the early sixties. Dylan “went electric” in 1965 and embarked on a world tour which tested his limits. After a near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan too retreated to a farm in Woodstock to raise his kids and contemplate his life and fame.

Both Merton and Dylan struggled to live out a contemplative life. Although Merton thought he was called to live as a hermit, Hudson narrates Merton’s struggle to be separate from the world, including an affair with the much younger Margie Smith. Merton also met Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. In 1966, Joan Baez and Ira Sandperl visited Merton and encouraged him to teach at Sandperl’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. Dylan’s time on his farm in Woodstock was also a struggle since his longtime manager pushed for new material. Dylan wrote dozens of songs and collaborated with The Band in a series of recording sessions. The result was the first real bootleg album, the Great White Wonder, prompting the release of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the Band’s Music from the Big Pink. Hardly a contemplative life on the farm!

So there are some parallels, and Hudson masterfully narrates the last years of Merton’s life, including his obsession with Bob Dylan. Merton was no desert monk, he had a record player in his hermitage and he played three Bob Dylan albums (Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde). Like many people who have encountered Dylan’s music and lyrics, the words resonated with Merton where he was at the time and shaped some of his poetry as well as opening up his thinking to new ways to communicate.

Hudson’s book is a good introduction to Merton for non-Merton readers, and might encourage a few non-Dylan fans to pick up some of Dylan’s early recordings. Although the book seems like an odd mash-up of unrelated characters, Hudson’s narrative invites the reader into the word of the mid-1960s as Merton deals with his own passions through the lens of Bob Dylan.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.