Dylan Thomas and John Cale


Dylan Thomas died 66 years ago last Saturday. The Welsh poet is known as much for the theatrical readings of his own poems as he is for his prodigious drinking. What isn’t really appreciated, perhaps, is how much of an influence the Welshman had on the Beat generation and, indirectly, on rock & roll, through the conduit of another gifted Welshman, John Cale

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died on Nov. 9, 1953, after a sustained drinking bout at the Cedar Tavern in New York City. He was arguably the most famous poet in the world at a time before the Beat Generation broke open the American canon and poured gasoline in its gas tank. Thomas was as famous for his sold-out readings as he was for his post-reading drinking binges and was heard to say, just prior to lapsing into his final coma, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s the record.”

The year before his death, Thomas gave readings to packed houses in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as on the powerful KPFA radio, events that sparked the so-called “San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” The young poet and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti was among those smitten. Ferlinghetti wrote, in his excellent history, Literary San Francisco, “His voice had a singular beauty and richness, in the great Welsh oral tradition; and the excitement he generated was an early inspiration for a tradition of oral poetry here, the subsequent San Francisco poetry movement being consistently centered on the performance of poetry in public.”

Thomas’s visit came at a time when fellow poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth was beginning to hold weekly literary gatherings at his 250 Scott Street home in the Fillmore district, where Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, William Everson, Ruth Witt-Diamant, Ida Hodes, and younger poets like Jack Spicer, James Broughton, Robert Duncan, and Philip Lamantia would take part. In 1957, Rexroth and Ferlinghetti began performing poetry to jazz accompaniment at the Cellar (576 Green Street) every Wednesday, an occasion that served as a magnet to the burgeoning Beat poetry scene (as did Ferlinghetti’s and Peter Martin’s City Lights Bookstore, which opened in 1953).

Before alcohol robbed him of his remarkable talent, Thomas wrote some of the finest verse in the English language, including “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” and “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” His gift for language extended to poetic plays like Under Milk Wood and memoirs (A Child’s Christmas in Wales). He spent his adult life in dire financial straits, partly due to his weakness for the bottle. Because of the former issue, Thomas embarked on wildly successful speaking tours of the United States, which were consistently colored by the latter: He liked to boast that he was “the drunkest man in the world.”

Though it is seldom even mentioned in stories about him, Words For the Dying is one of Cale’s greatest achievements.

The reach of Thomas’s verse extended even into the era of underground rock & roll. A major influence on fellow Welshman, John Cale, Thomas shaped the latter’s appreciation for the written word as a child. In his brilliant memoir, What’s Welsh for Zen, Cale writes, “I wanted to write an opera on Dylan Thomas’s life. When you grow up in Wales, you can’t skip Dylan Thomas. At school we were taught that he used his English the way other poets used their Welsh. In Welsh you can express a lot with only a few words. He was someone to identify with, a contrast with the strict Presbyterian community in Wales, with his sense of humour—God knows he needed it…I had imitated the Thomas style in grammar school and was a little afraid of it. The poems seemed to carry so much baggage with them and the noise the language made was daunting enough. I worked very freely, chose a poem and started to play…”

Cale’s first attempt to “borrow” from Dylan Thomas appeared on his stunning album Paris 1919 (1973), on which he was backed by members of Little Feat, Lowell George and Richie Hayward.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” from Paris 1919-John Cale:

In 1988, Cale would compose an entire album’s worth of music built largely around the poetry of Dylan Thomas, Words For the Dying. The centerpiece of the album was a cycle of four songs called “The Falklands Suite,” the words for which were taken from four different Dylan Thomas poems. The idea was to memorialize those aboard the British ship Sheffield. The only addition to Thomas’s words was a reference, at the end of “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed,” to the “drowned of Falklands.”

The funereal tone of the words and slow emotional crescendos of Cale’s musical composition—backed by orchestra and children’s choir—serve as a stark counterpoint to the saber-rattling of PM Margaret Thatcher, who’d provoked the stupendously awful but (thankfully) short-lived war over the distant, windswept islands off of the coast of Argentina.

“Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed”-John Cale, composition, voice; Dylan Thomas, words.

Arguably, Dylan Thomas’s best-known and most frequently anthologized poem is “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night”. Here, as part of his “Falklands Suite,” Cale performs the song live with orchestra and choir:

Though it is seldom even mentioned in stories about him, Words For the Dying is one of Cale’s greatest achievements.

John Cale’s appreciation for the written word extended to Beat poetry, as well. He contributed one of the best tracks for a Jack Kerouac tribute disc called Kicks Joy Darkness. His reading of Kerouac’s poem “The Moon” is accompanied by his own orchestral sound.

John Cale 1981 by Tom Hearn
John Cale 1981 by Tom Hearn

John Cale website