An Evening Of Talk On Bob Dylan; March 21st, 2005, Miller Theater (Columbia University, New York City), 8 pm.
Not quite three angels, but three angles on Dylan were offered for the pleasure of the attending public the other night at Columbia University. The speakers were: Professor Christopher Ricks (esteemed poetry critic, writer of highly regarded works on Milton, Keats, Eliot and others, and recently author of Dylan’s Visions Of Sin); Sean Wilentz (Professor of History at Princeton, contributing editor at the New Republic, and "historian-in-residence" at bobdylan.com); and Greil Marcus ("perhaps the most celebrated writer on American popular music and culture," as the promo for the evening put it).
Ricks was to talk about Blonde On Blonde. Wilentz was to speak on Chronicles. Greil Marcus, the flyer told us, was to speak on “‘Masters Of War,’ one of Dylan’s most searing critiques of the human tendency to war in the name of nationalism and religion.”
Yes, you read that last sentence right. Silly you if you thought Dylan was inspired to write that song by the warning Eisenhower made about the "military industrial complex" – as he’s said in interviews more than once. Whether Marcus wrote that line about the song, or someone at Columbia did, I don’t know; Marcus’s talk, although objectionable enough to this listener, took a somewhat different tack.
Marcus spoke first (resulting in yours truly developing a genuine headache quite promptly), but let me first briefly give my own impression of the other two talks.
Sean Wilentz had the enviable task of talking about Chronicles: enviable because there’s so much to say about that book that hasn’t yet been said and you could start just about anywhere. Wilentz started well, telling us that one of the achievements (and/or purposes) of Dylan’s memoir was to "record old gratitudes." It is indeed extremely noteworthy just how generous Dylan is to most of those whose crossed paths he illuminates in this book – and how thoroughly he does credit those who influenced him and set him on his way (from Frank Sinatra to Brecht and Weill to Robert Johnson and on and on). Wilentz never really got back to that theme, if it were intended to be one, but focused well on Dylan’s description of days spent at the New York Public Library, reading microfilmed newspapers from before and during the American Civil War. Dylan says of that time spent reading, "You get the feeling that the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish." Wilentz drew out Dylan’s theme of finding a parallel America (Wilentz also referred to Greil Marcus’s "Invisible Republic" coinage), conjured from the nation’s Civil War legacy and blues and folk heritage, and other sources. Dylan, in his words, "learned to write about the present out of the past."
Wilentz’s talk was intelligent, though rambling. At one point he read an extract from Tarantula – a true act of courage, if nothing else. It’s a passage that is structured around a Lead Belly refrain, and it ends with these lines:
betty had a loser blam de lam, i spied him on the ocean with a
long string of muslims – blam de lam! all going quack quack
. . . blam de lam! all going quack quack, blam!
– which Wilentz related to the contemporaneous assassination of Malcolm X.
The crowd was appreciative, if yawning a little. Wilentz’s talk might well read better than it sounded.
Christopher Ricks was instantly the showman of the evening – merely by choosing to start his talk on Blonde On Blonde by having us all listen to the first track of that album (neither of the other two speakers chose to play any Dylan music). So, we got to watch the 71 year old Oxford Professor Of Poetry bobbing his head to the groove while Dylan sang:
Well, they’ll stone you when you walk all alone.
They’ll stone you when you are walking home.
They’ll stone you and then say you are brave.
They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave.
But I would not feel so all alone,
Everybody must get stoned.
It was striking to this listener that perhaps the most genuinely accomplished of the three speakers was willing to devote a good chunk of his speaking time to just letting Dylan’s music play, uninterrupted. It served his purpose, because his purpose was (as is his wont) to draw out elements of Dylan’s art that have their way with us but of which we may not be consciously aware. He immediately posed the question, "What do you see when you hear this song?" A little later he drew attention to Dylan’s departure from the "official" text, in the second line:
They’ll stone ya just a-like they said they would.
– where Dylan on the record actually sings something like: "just li-hike they said they would." Ricks saw that as Dylan’s way of asserting that this is not a song that says something, but rather that it is a song that sings something. It’s also an example of melisma, that feature of a song – as distinct from a poem – where a single syllable can "flower into several notes." (It’s obviously a device that Dylan makes very effective use of in his work.)
Ricks said that he considers Blonde On Blonde to be a "love album," and he amusingly paraphrased the various scenarios in which you might say the "lover" on the album finds himself, song by song. He also touched on the allegations of misogyny that some other writers have hurled Dylan’s way. He quoted Dylan’s (recent) line:
There ain’t no limit to the amount of trouble women bring
… and he talked of stereotypes, pointing out mischievously that many of those who most vociferously oppose stereotypes are quite enthusiastic about "role models."
Ricks also went through the titles of each of the songs on Blonde On Blonde, distinguishing those where the the titles are naturally deducible on hearing the song (e.g. “I Want You”) from those where you could never conceivably guess the title from the song (e.g. “Temporary Like Achilles”). In the case of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, he pointed out that nothing in the song identifies the "they" doing the stoning as women – other than the title, if you allow it.
In general, Ricks was Ricks: allusive, punning, and filled with a very infectiously shared affection for the songs that he loves. He ended with some words about “Just Like A Woman” – a much-maligned song, and unfairly so, in his opinion. He took a swipe at Michael Gray (author of the monumental "Song & Dance Man" Dylan RPG barrier), who dismisses the song even while lauding the astounding beauty of the lines:
And your long-time curse hurts
But what’s worse
Is this pain in here
I can’t stay in here
Ain’t it clear that –
I just can’t fit
Ricks seemed to posit that any aspect of the song that you might consider maudlin is redeemed by the "terrible pain" the singer is clearly experiencing. He ended by quoting another author who writes off the song as some kind of male chauvinist horror show, and exited the podium with a line directed to that author that went something like, "Great art is not only that with which you concur."
He receives fairly thunderous applause and some cheers – easily the best reception of the evening.
Greil Marcus begins by telling us that he is here to talk about “Masters Of War.” "Topically, I suppose," he adds.
This is where it gets difficult for me. I want to be fair to Marcus, who is learned in his way and loves a lot of the same music I love, and has an undeniable ability to write … sometimes. Yet, he managed to infuriate me over and over again in such a way as to blot out just about anything redeemable about his talk.
He did talk about the source of the melody to “Masters Of War”; an ancient folk song called “Nottamun Town”.
He also talked about Dylan’s Grammy Awards Ceremony performance of the song in 1991, and made much of how Dylan turned words into pure sounds on that occasion. If I’m recalling correctly, he actually said that he thought that was Dylan’s best ever performance, period (though it’s hard to believe I’m recalling that correctly). He does go on and on about every micro-aspect of that (probably fairly improvised) performance, in his trademarked fashion. He quotes an interview that I’m not aware of (and he didn’t cite the source) where Dylan is asked why he performed that song on that night, and supposedly replied blandly: "Because of the war." The Gulf War was in progress at the time. Some members of the audience laugh knowingly at that point. Naturally Dylan and all of us right-thinking people were opposed to that war to force Saddam out of Kuwait.
He indicates early in his talk that he doesn’t really consider “Masters Of War” to be a very good song. Then he goes on to quote an unpublished Dylan song from around the same time that he dug up somewhere – which he says is far worse. I feel a little pang of sympathy for Dylan at that point – here’s a song that has never been published, much less recorded, was clearly discarded quite deliberately, and now Mr. Smarty-Pants rock critic is quoting it for all and sundry in 2005, in order to prove … something I’m sure. I guess nothing’s off-limits.
Marcus talks about the occasions on which Dylan has performed “Masters Of War” – saying that he left it behind in the early 60s but returned to it in the 80s. He finds significance in the various dates on which Dylan has sung the song during his "Never Ending Tour." For example, he offers a date in November of 2002 when the song was sung. Significant, he tells us, because the U.S. mid-term elections had recently taken place. Mr. Marcus reminds us that Bush and the Republicans won big in that election by whipping up war fever. Dylan’s performance of the song was in his words an "answer record" to this event.
Best of all, “Masters Of War” was part of Dylan’s set list in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on election night of 2004. Marcus was either at that gig or has listened closely to a bootleg recording of it, because he goes on at some length about the precise way in which Dylan sang it on that occasion. Dylan didn’t change the words, mind you, but there was no doubt in Marcus’s mind that it was directed more dramatically than ever at our evil leader (I guess Dylan had seen some more accurate exit polls than the rest of us – he knew Bushitler was going to win and/or steal the election and was fervently sounding his warning bell for us).
(For a previous post on this very question of the significance of when Dylan sings “Masters Of War”, which actually cites figures and sources, click here.)
The centerpiece of Marcus’s talk, however, was his description of the incident in which some high school students in Boulder, Colorado, attracted national attention and the scrutiny of the Secret Service when it was alleged that they called for President Bush’s death while rehearsing their performance of “Masters Of War” for a school concert. This was in November of 2004.
Marcus told us that the kids called themselves "the Taliband." Quite a few audience members laughed out loud at this. After the controversy broke, Marcus tells us, they changed their name to "Coalition Of The Willing." They made other changes, too. Instead of only displaying pictures of President Bush while performing the song, they decided to diversify their "masters of war " – by also showing pictures of Hitler and Stalin. More laughter from some members of the audience. These kids are so incorrigible – don’t you love it?
Marcus not only details the controversy, but gives us a blow-by-blow and note-for-note account of the eventual public performance, where Secret Service members were apparently present. He spends a great deal of time describing the other acts which preceded the band in question at this amateur high school concert. It’s not clear why he’s providing all of this detail – and I do believe it was at this point that my headache really asserted itself.
He finally ends his talk shortly after saying that the reasons why this song has survived and continues to be adopted by people who oppose war in our own day are two-fold: the song’s melody, and the vehemence of its lyric. It’s the fact that it dances around that which is permissible to say that makes it so attractive.
Well, as regular readers might imagine, when the formal talks ended yours truly was eagerly anticipating the question and answer period, and contemplating what single question might be best directed to Greil Marcus to attempt to call him to account for a talk that was at least as much political propaganda as musicology. The most insidious and enraging aspect of his talk was the subtext – which mind you was loud and clear – which said, in my humble opinion: "We all agree here that the war in Iraq is wrong – and we all know that we all agree on that, and isn’t it nice that we’re all so smart and correct? And not only is the current war wrong, but the first Gulf War was also wrong, as any decent human being would know, and of-course our hero Bob Dylan agrees with us on all this too – and isn’t that nice? And Bush is one unbelievably bad stupid evil President – and isn’t it so nice that there’s no debate about that whatsoever amongst us enlightened Bob Dylan fans here tonight?"
Before any question and answer session, however, the moderator ( Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosopy and Director, Heyman Center for the Humanities) invited the three panelists to talk amongst themselves while we listened. There was a moment of awkwardness, which Marcus broke by jokingly asking Ricks, "Where do you get your ideas?" Then Marcus decided to say something himself instead – and talked about how in listening to the other speakers he had been reminded that people sometimes ask him, "How can you hear so many things in a song?" He said that the other speakers had demonstrated that you can never find too much in a song – there’s always more to be plumbed or explored. (Note: he was clearly not talking about Dylan songs in particular here, but just songs.) This seemed to me a useful conclusion to draw for someone who has fashioned a career out of hearing the most, well, surprising things in pop songs.
There may have been a few more sweet nothings between the panelists at that point, but then … quite abruptly … it happened. Christopher Ricks, who had been quite silent to this point, turned towards Greil Marcus and spoke with the air of someone who had been waiting to get something off of his chest.
He said that he thought there was a lot that was very seriously wrong with “Masters Of War” as a song. He said that he believes it lends itself – and unfortunately so – to enlistment in party politics. He referred to the fact (known by the way to any serious Dylan fan who has read his interviews through the years) that it is not intended to be a song of pacifism. He went on to say that the song seems to collude with the most depressing aspect of argumentative politics in America today: the tendency of one side to say that the other side is not just incorrect, but has no case to make whatsoever.
He asked Marcus if he had any reservations about the delight he appeared to take in it. Then, amazingly, in liberal Manhattan, at Columbia University, amongst a group of Bob Dylan fans, some applause (scattered but real) greeted Ricks’ words. (In what seemed to me to be a reaction to the applause for Ricks’ apostasy, someone in the audience was heard to plaintively object "No! No! No!")
Marcus, now put in a position to defend his lecture, came up empty. He said that he did not consider “Masters Of War” to be a good song. If he listed his 100 favorite Bob Dylan songs, he said, it would not be on the list. He equivocated in his fashion by saying that, on the other hand, if he listed his 10 least favorite Bob Dylan songs, it would not be on that list either (this is a man for whom Nick Hornsby’s "High Fidelity" surely struck home – updating those lists must take up most of Greil’s spare time).
Ricks did not let it go so easily. He was clearly disturbed, not only by Marcus’s talk, but by the reaction of a portion of the audience to it. He pointed out that when Marcus made a reference to someone saying "Bush should die," there was a ripple of agreeing laughter in the audience. He found this deplorable. Likewise, the laughter that occurred when the high school band’s name, "The Taliband," was mentioned. Ricks said that he found the name unfunny, and pointed out that it indicated the band members had no idea what the Taliban were truly about (though he allowed that the name they used to replace it, "Coalition Of The Willing," at least displayed some wit). The fact that the high school kids compared Bush to Hitler and Stalin was similarly a terrible show of ignorance – and not something to be celebrated or laughed at.
Marcus responded that he thought that it was an encouraging sign to see high school kids even caring about such things.
Ricks stayed on his point that something was seriously wrong with political debate in this country at this time – with the difficulty that existed in being able to raise a contrary opinion in some circles without being shouted down. He allowed that he cannot vote here (being a British and not an American citizen) and that he didn’t think he would have voted for Bush in any case last November. Yet, he thought that Kerry did not deserve to win. He recalled the hypocrisy of Democrats in 2000, who said that the 5 -4 U.S. Supreme Court decision was an example of political bias (i.e. Republican) on the court, but that somehow the Florida State Supreme Court decision, favoring Gore (by Democratic judges) was beyond reproach. He pointedly described friends of his in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who supported Bush in the last election. He said it took a certain amount of real courage to be a Bush supporter in Cambridge. The contrast was implicit with an old rock’n’roll writer making a smug anti-Bush speech to what he could safely assume was a theater full of liberal Manhattanites.
Ricks said that Dylan had much finer "protest" songs than “Masters Of War” – he gave the example of “Oxford Town”, as a song that makes its points beautifully without lending itself to polemic.
For a second time, Ricks received scattered but heartfelt applause for the stand he took in the small theater at Broadway and 116th St.
In short, and in a way I certainly have failed to convey with my spotty powers of recollection, Ricks sliced, diced and buried Marcus’s whole reason for being there that night. He exposed the vacuity of basing a lecture around a song that the speaker is neither willing nor able to defend. He exposed the cowardice inherent in making broadbrush political slanders during a talk about Bob Dylan’s art – when the obvious expectation was that no one would step up and call the speaker out on any of it.
Ricks did not need to do any of this. It would surely be far easier to be congenial with your fellow panelists, wrap the thing up painlessly, and head out for a late dinner at a nice New York restaurant. But then, perhaps, Christopher Ricks is one of those for whom the swallowing of principle only leads to indigestion.
Whatever the case, and whatever way you might vote in any election, Professor Ricks, yours truly hereby salutes you. (Dylan’s Visions of Sin, by the way, is a wonderful book, in my opinion – one of the very few books on Dylan that can genuinely expand your appreciation and enjoyment of his work.)
So, since almost the entire "panel discussion" period was taken up by Ricks’ pummelling of Marcus, there was no need for any such as me to pile on during the Q & A period. That proved a peaceful enough interlude. Someone asked the panelists what they thought of Dylan’s film Masked & Anonymous – they all said mostly positive things. It emerged that Marcus has never seen Renaldo & Clara – which is curious for someone of his generation who has been in the rock criticism business. For his part, Ricks feels it’s a terrible thing that Renaldo & Clara is not officially available for viewing. He said that he thinks it’s really a rather wonderful film, though of-course it does contain some bad things … like Joan Baez, for instance (he did say that!).
So there you have it – my take on An Evening Of Talk On Bob Dylan. I have to concede that this account is based merely on my personal recollections and some scribbled notes. You’re entitled take it or leave it, as to its perfect factual accuracy. But you can believe it when I say that it was a fine moment and milestone for those who would separate Dylan from the claws of those on the left who continue to believe that he lives and breathes and writes songs just for them. Time was, they could make their claims and expect no dissent. Those times, they are a-changin’.
Also see this related post from 3/25/2005: Only A Pawn