The Whole Wide World is Watching

With the re-release of 1985’s charity single “We Are The World,” along with the Live Aid DVD, now might be an appropriate occasion to re-examine some of Bob Dylan’s actions and remarks in connection with those things.

Those too young to remember need to know that it all started with a famine in Ethiopia. Millions faced starvation. Bob Geldof (formerly of the Boomtown Rats) cowrote a song with Midge Ure (formerly of Ultravox) called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” and gathered a group of popstars together under the name “Band-Aid” to record it—with the proceeds to go to famine relief. It became a Number 1 Christmas hit in the U.K., and a phenomenon in Europe. It inspired a similar effort in the U.S., under the leadership of Michael Jackson (formerly of the Jackson Five) and Lionel Richie (The Commodores), who wrote a song called “We Are The World,” and gathered a group of American stars to record it. The whole spirit of popular music stars performing for this charitable cause culminated in a huge, day long, live concert—half in England and half in the U.S.—televised around the world. Viewers were encouraged to call in and pledge money for Ethiopian famine relief. Over $140 million is said to have been raised.

Although Bob Dylan donated his services to both the Jackson/Richie single and the concert, he went out of his way on several occasions to express reservations about certain aspects of the proceedings.

For example, in September of 1985, ABC TV aired an interview with Dylan on their 20/20 program (the only significant TV interview Dylan has done other than 2004’s segment on 60 Minutes). Dylan expressed himself thusly with regard to “We Are The World”:

Dylan: People buying the song and the money going to starving people in Africa is, y’know, a worthwhile idea, but I wasn’t so convinced about the message of the song, to tell you the truth. I don’t think people can save themselves, y’know?

ABC’s Bob Brown: Save themselves, in any sorta …?

Dylan: I just don’t agree with that type of thing.

The fragment of lyric that Dylan had been given to sing went “There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives / It’s true we make a brighter day / Just you and me.”

Months after singing these words, his concession to it still rankled him, obviously. Without getting into detail here on the rather different message regarding the source of salvation that you might draw from Dylan’s own body of work, it’s interesting that whatever standard he sets for himself left him anguishing long after the fact at having to sing that Jackson/Richie line. And in what, for him then, was the unique experience of being interviewed for television, he made a point of expressing his disagreement with it.

More dramatic still, however, was Dylan’s own performance at the great Live Aid concert itself on Saturday, July 13th, 1985. It’s not a performance that you hear a lot about—and little of it would be positive, I’d wager. On the current Live Aid DVD of the event, only one of the three songs that Dylan sang is present: the final one, “Blowin’ in The Wind” (although the DVD features three songs from Duran Duran, and two each from Reo Speedwagon and Judas Priest).

You would almost need to transport yourself back to the day itself to recall that Bob Dylan was, in fact, top of the bill at this event. The only thing to come after him was the grand finale of all and sundry singing (there’s that song again), “We Are The World.” A list of performers that included (to mention a few) Neil Young, U2, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Queen, Elton John, and Spandau Ballet (they really were big in 1985!), were effectively in the role of support acts to Bob Dylan on the day. And, before his actual performance, I don’t think anyone seriously questioned whether he shouldn’t head that bill. He was, after all, “the voice” and “the conscience” of a generation, was he not? So many of the other performers had been inspired by him. He represented the idealism of the sixties, incarnate, didn’t he? He had written so many songs exploring themes of social justice, and the plight of the disadvantaged and oppressed, right? This concert was like all of those ideals being put into action. It was really a no-brainer to pick Bob Dylan as the climactic act.

And it’s easy to imagine how the producers of the event hoped and thought it would go. The excitement and mood of anticipation growing greater and greater throughout the day, as star after glittering star got on stage and sang two or three of their greatest and most loved hits, culminating with Jack Nicholson coming out on the stage in Philadelphia and introducing the great V of a G himself: the virtually mythological Bob Dylan.

With 1.5 billion people watching, all Dylan needed to do was sing three of his most famous songs and he could have that pumped-up worldwide audience in the palm of his hand. They were dying to hear those poetic words of inspiration from the man without whom arguably none of this would be happening. One of the songs would have to be “Blowin’ in The Wind,” a song known not only to rock fans but to children all over the world (one of the first songs many people play when learning the guitar). Other than that, well, there was just so much to choose from. He could come out and sing the poignant “Knocking On Heaven’s Door,” follow that up with the happier “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man,” then finish with “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and (so to speak) Bob’s your uncle. Everyone would be on a cloud of good feeling as Michael and Lionel and co. stepped forth amidst a chorus of angelic children to sing “We Are The World.” Substitute “I Shall Be Released” or “Forever Young” or “The Times They Are A’Changin'” for one of those other two, and you get the same result. Joy all around.

Dylan had other plans, however. “Plans” is the operative word: no matter how ramshackle Dylan’s performance may have seemed on the night (backed up by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, also wielding acoustic guitars), the truth is that it was amply rehearsed. Indeed, a recording circulates amongst bootleg collectors of their actual rehearsals. It seems like they did not take place only on the day of the event, either, but also before it. Dylan did not absent mindedly reach into his back catalog a few minutes before going on stage for some songs to sing; rather, he chose his songs quite deliberately and with some precision and purpose. (As to the rough performance, Dylan later complained that the grand finale organizers had taken away the stage monitors, so he and his guitarists couldn’t even hear themselves. This would explain Dylan’s out of character question to the crowd in between songs: “Does it sound alright out there?”)

So, with one and a half thousand million people tuned in, Jack Nicholson came onstage to introduce Dylan. He said, to rising cheers from the Philadelphia audience: “Some artists’ work speaks for itself; some artist’s work speaks for his generation. It’s my deep personal pleasure to present to you one of America’s great voices of freedom. It can only be one man! The transcendent Bob Dylan!”

Dylan then introduced Richards and Wood, and, without further formalities, they launched into a blues tune, in a minor key.

Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children and his cabin breakin’ down

As Dylan was well aware, this was not a song that the general viewing public around the world would be at all familiar with. There is also nothing pretty about this song, even if performed under optimal circumstances. The dark story of a destitute farmer who uses his last pennies to buy 7 shotgun shells – one each to shoot his wife, his 5 kids, and finally himself – is matched by a sad and low-down melody. On a day dedicated to raising money for the starving, there is no question of the song’s relevance, but it certainly lacked the uplift of, say, Paul McCartney earlier in the day singing “Let It Be.” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown ends with this bland statement, not of hope or of defiance, but of sober recognition and frightening truth:

There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born

The song ended, and (hats off to them) the Philadelphia crowd mustered some cheers. After all, it’s Bob Dylan on stage. (Punch drunk as they were after a day of titanic stars and huge performances, they probably would have cheered if Bob had come out in drag and sung “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”) Dylan told the crowd that he thought the song was a fitting one for the occasion, and then … well, then he dropped his bombshell:

I’d just like to say I hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa – maybe they could just take a little bit of it – maybe one or two million, maybe – and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms that the farmers here owe to the banks.

Now, inasmuch as he was regarded by many as a washed-up loon after this performance, it’s important to note that, of-course, Dylan knew exactly what he was doing. As mentioned, he’d rehearsed well for this performance. He was 44 years old and had stood on countless stages and participated in many events all around the world. He knew what was going on on this day of days, and he knew all too well what was expected of him. He understood that he was appearing at the penultimate moment of this mega-huge-gig, and that all eyes were right on him. Indeed, the next song he performed contained the lines: “And the ship’s wise men / Will remind you once again / That the whole wide world is watchin’.”

In a moment when the eyes of the world were upon him in the most literal sense imaginable, Dylan chose to defy the spirit of this enormous occasion—a huge steamroller of global feel-good charity that had rolled over the popular music world—and he chose to address only his American audience. His message? Well, the words are there, and they’re not complicated. He’s telling people to help the debt-ridden farmers of America. You can throw different constructs on this message if you like, I suppose. I think, considering the context of this massive live global event, one might theorize that Dylan was going out of his way to say to America: look within. Look to your own. Do not forget those who are part of the backbone of this nation. Value what you have right here lest you lose it.

Dylan had been around the block often enough to know that he would be pilloried for stepping out of line and making such a statement at such a moment. And indeed Bob Geldof (general organizer, saint and guru of the occasion) was furious. Even much later when he had calmed down enough to write his autobiography, he still had this to say of Dylan, “He displayed a complete lack of understanding of the issues raised by Live Aid … it was a crass, stupid, and nationalistic thing to say.” And we can be sure that the great majority of people across the world felt exactly the same way. On a day meant to raise money for the poor in Africa, here is this rich American rock star suggesting that money be diverted to American farmers – who, whatever their problems with bank loans and such, were surely not starving. Dylan simply pushed aside the fact that he would enrage the worldwide audience. He had just sung his old song about a poor South Dakota farmer, and (for once) he had a direct message he wanted to deliver to Americans. No Western Union boys needed.

[ An aside: Those who follow Dylan’s live shows obsessively and note his remarks from the stage might hear an echo in something he said five weeks after the September 11th, 2001 attack on America. He was performing at LA’s Staples Center, where Madonna had recently been. Everyone’s mind being still raw from the events of 9/11, Madonna had exhorted the crowd to “Think global.” I don’t think she meant it in terms of “global conquest.” More likely she was implying that we should see everyone’s point of view on these things, and not be caught up in flag waving and rooting for the home team. Dylan had obviously read it in the paper, and, though he was not very talkative at his gigs in those years, he made an exception this time: “I know Madonna was here a couple weeks ago telling everybody to ‘think global.’ I know a whole bunch of you are doing that. I wanna try to tell you, rethink it.” (10/19/2001)]

In contemplating what Dylan did on that Live Aid stage, it’s also worth noting the business opportunity that he knowingly threw away. A seasoned performer like himself was well aware that it’s not every day you get to play to 1.5 billion people. That’s a helluva lot of record buyers. It’s no secret that their Live Aid performance lifted rock supergroup “Queen” to new heights of popularity in markets all over the world. “U2” likewise were greatly boosted in their global popularity thanks to their impressive performance that day. Dylan was being seen by millions upon millions of people who had never seriously considered buying one of his albums. A respectable performance of a few of his favorites could have been a huge boon to him, and at a time when his career was not exactly shooting skyward. Instead, he performed two songs that virtually no one knew. He followed up the morose (if penetrating) Hollis Brown with the jauntier but still very obscure “When the Ship Comes In,” a song about that ultimate moment of reckoning when all will be put right: the guilty punished and the righteous rewarded. (Though rough edged, it remains this writer’s all-time favorite performance of that song.) It’s an interesting and little-known fact that he had in mind to follow that up with his new (and even more obscure) song “Dark Eyes.” He had mentioned during rehearsals with the Stones’ guitarists that he would like to do “Dark Eyes” if there was time. Hence there was that moment after he sang “When the Ship Comes In,” when he stepped back and said, “How much time we got?” Whatever response he received convinced him that he only had time to do “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and so that’s what he did (and not the prettiest version by any means, of that great song that offers such great questions where so many hear only their own answers). But it’s amazing to think that if he’d had the time, he would have performed a total of three songs that almost nobody knew, on a day devoted to greatest hits by the greatest stars. He was doing anything but going with the flow. And his statement about giving some of the money to the American farmers would inevitably annoy viewers across the world. In a moment when he could have aided his career and his own bank account, his defiance of the group-hug-feel-good spirit of the occasion was an act of some substantial courage. Geldof described it as “nationalistic.” I would venture to say that it was an act of true patriotism – an unrecognized patriotism that is ingrained in this distinctly American troubadour. He himself hates labels, of-course, especially all the “isms,” whether thrown around as compliments or insults. But one thing was clear by what he did and said on that day: he loved America -and he was worried enough about a problem deep within the heartland of the country to shrug off a perfect opportunity to bask in international adulation. Instead, he put himself on the line and willingly made himself the target of barbs and insults from all around the world.

His statement about the American farmer was heard, of-course, in America, and led to the Farm Aid fundraising concerts, with Willie Nelson and others. While I personally have no idea if this charity has stayed true to its purpose or become yet another self-perpetuating provider of “non-profit” jobs for busy bodies, it hopefully helped some real people along the way.

* * *

With hindsight, it was probably Dylan’s Live Aid performance that cemented the whole “Dylan is a burnt-out crank” theory as the conventional wisdom in many circles. It’s true that he had already alienated most of the “rock establishment” with his gospel music—but, after all, that was commonly believed to have ended in 1981. First with 1983’s Infidels, and then with 1985’s Empire Burlesque, it seemed that he might well be on his way to rehabilitation if he would just keep well away from the “J” word. (Instead, it wasn’t until 1997’s Time Out of Mind that Dylan silenced the critics who had considered him washed up.)

With his comments and actions in this period, Dylan demonstrated (yet again) that he does not seek acceptance based on anyone else’s expectations of what he should do, who he should be, or what he should represent. He persists in being true to himself, and, I’d suggest, to certain core principles that can be seen as continuous threads through his entire body of work.

One of those, I’d also suggest, is a belief that America is indeed a special nation, and that the preservation of the particular genius of this still quite young country is not an unworthy goal.

And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.

Chronicling Chronicles (reactions to Bob Dylan’s autobiography)

Collected posts relating to Chronicles and the world’s response to it
(in chronological order, first to last)

 

New Morning … 09/26/2004

Chronicles is excerpted in Newsweek. My own reaction to reading Bob’s narrative is just plain joy and amazement. It is absolutely direct. From the liner notes to the Jimmie Rodgers tribute album to the liner notes on World Gone Wrong, it had seemed that Dylan would always add the turns and twists of poetry to any kind of writing. But the writing here is just a guy telling the truth, with the clear desire that the reader understand precisely what he is saying. Any other commentary can wait. His book deserves to be read in full. And the excerpt published so far surely can’t help but make anyone who has spent a lot of time writing about Dylan feel like stepping back and reflecting fairly deeply. It is a wonderful thing that Dylan has arrived at this point and has the chance and the space to speak for himself.

 


 

Kerry Denies Owning Chinese Assault Rifle … 09/27/2004 b

… while Bob Dylan boasts of owning a "clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle."

Alright. I wasn’t going to go to town on the Newsweek excerpt from Chronicles. I really wanted to wait until I could read the whole book. Only thing is, I didn’t count on what the rest of the world was going to do. How can Yours Truly keep silent when everyone else is hyperventilating over Dylan saying of his hippie tormentors, "I wanted to set fire to these people" … ?

First, I want to reiterate the prime directive, contained in my original mission statement . It is not my intention to try to maintain that Dylan agrees with me on all political questions, or that he can be labeled a "conservative." He spurns all labels, and does not participate in partisan politics, and I respect that about him.

That said, now that this excerpt of his memoirs has been published, it is not his conservative-minded fans who are reacting with shock or horror.

The first thing that needs to be commented on is that as soon as you get one step away from Dylan’s actual words, the media are still engaging in their usual distortions.

Since we started talking about firearms, lets continue on that theme. Any number of stories, like this in the Herald Tribune, imply that Dylan armed himself in his home in Woodstock solely for the purpose of defending himself against marauding fans. Their stalking "led him to keep several guns in his house and stifled his creative process." So, it equates Dylan with your typical celebrity who may abhor guns but is forced to carry one because of death threats and obsessive fans.

That ain’t what Dylan writes.

He says, without specifying a timeline, that "Peter LaFarge, a folksinger friend of mine, had given me a couple of Colt single-shot repeater pistols, and I also had a clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle around …." He says he had it around—not that he ran out and got it when the druggies started knocking on his door. And consider how he describes these pieces. He doesn’t just call them "guns," like your average Hollywood liberal would. ("I had to get a gun—and I hate guns! It’s terrible!"). He characterizes them in a gorgeously colorful and almost tactile fashion. "Colt single-shot repeater pistols / clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle." These terms may or may not be technically correct, but what’s clear is that Dylan had his own sense of what these firearms were – their lineage and their design. (Colt and Winchester are both classic American gun manufacturers, I might add—no Lugers for Bob!) He knew these pieces, and what they were mattered to him on some level. All of this matches perfectly with classic American notions of the place and purpose of firearms. In rural America in particular, a firearm is a tool and and a necessary possession, even for people who are not being stalked by Californian drop-outs. A farmer needs a rifle he can depend on, whether for ending the life of one of his farm animals or defending his stock from a predator. It’s not about wanting to kill people—as Dylan also says here: "… it was awful to think about what could be done with those things." Even in urban America, millions of people today own guns, not because they look forward to spilling blood, but because they greatly value their independence and their ability to defend themselves if necessary. Dylan had said just a page earlier in this excerpt,

Being born and raised in America, the country of freedom and independence, I had always cherished the values and ideals of equality and liberty.

As an aside, in a 1981 interview, Dylan was pressed on the subject of gun control (does Billy Joel have to answer these questions?). While acknowledging that America "always has been gun crazy," he also says, "Guns have been a great part of America’s past," and "I don’t think gun control is making any difference at all. Just makes it harder for people who need to be protected." (Hey Wayne La P! It looks like we’ve found a successor for Chuck Heston.)

He is admirably consistent, as usual. Woodstock 1967, London 1981, and now, in Chronicles, in 2004. He’s the same guy—surprise, surprise.

That notion of consistency brings up another issue. The world’s media is reacting like this is the story of the century, "Bob Dylan repudiates hippie fans," "unwilling icon," "fame triggered personal crisis." To anyone who has been interested in Dylan’s career and read his interviews through the years, there is certainly nothing shocking in what he is saying in this excerpt. Those who consider themselves fans and find themselves shocked by this either have not been fans for very long or have selectively tuned out those things they preferred not to hear. Dylan has gone on the record many times describing his anguish at being held up as a spokesman, at having groups of people expecting something in particular from him. His confrontations with Weberman and his band of loons in the Village are well known. His deliberate attempt to put off these people and make them forget about him by releasing, for example, Self Portrait, has been common knowledge for decades. Indeed, it was pretty damned obvious at the time. So the degree to which surprise and shock is being expressed is a vivid illustration of just how distorted is the image of Bob Dylan that the media has been perpetuating, and just how many individuals have bought into it.

Which reminds me. Bob Dylan grants a major interview to the Sunday Telegraph about Chronicles. This fortunate journalist is getting to speak to Bob directly, as well as refer to Dylan’s own words from his book. But he just can’t limit himself to the facts in front of him—he can’t restrain himself from making his own characterizations of things about which he clearly knows next to nothing. Specifically, where he says, "A year later, Dylan had written his great anti-war anthem, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’" Et tu, Mr. Sunday Telegraph? Dylan is on the record too many times to count saying he doesn’t write "anti-war" songs. At this stage of the game anyone who’s paying attention knows that "Blowing In The Wind" is a song that asks timeless questions, but doesn’t expect an answer -and least of all does it expect that war is going to end. And if you don’t expect that war is ever going to end on this earth, then why would you write an anti-war song? For more on an anti-war Dylan song that isn’t, see God On Our Side.

There’s more to say, but there’ll be more time to say it too, God willing. And the book isn’t even out yet.

 

 


 

Go ‘Way From My Window … 09/28/2004

This, of-course, is nuts. In a story on Chronicles, this newspaper (Pioneer Press) chooses to talk to (and hold up as an expert) exactly the kind of fan Bob fantasized about igniting. In 1972 (when she was 37 years old!) she took a trip from Deerfield, Illinois to Greenwich Village to hunt down Bob. Who does she go see to get the skinny on Bob’s location? A.J. Weberman, the guy who combed through Dylan’s garbage to find an explanation for his "sell-out," and organized street protests in front of his family’s house. Even so, he doesn’t willingly give her Bob’s address – she rifles through his papers and finds it. Then she rings Dylan’s doorbell, gets deflected by Sara, and hangs out across the street waiting for Dylan to come out. Dylan is gracious to her when he does, of-course. 32 years later, she is not so gracious. Speaking of Dylan’s choice to play keyboards instead of guitar in concert these days, she says:

"I know artists have to change… I know everything has to change, but he went off the wall this time … I’m furious with him."

And of the last time she saw him in concert:

"He never picked up the guitar," she says. "I will be mad about that for the rest of my life. That’s obscene."

This is all pretty obscene alright. This woman really believes that Dylan owes her something – that he must meet her expectations and do things in exactly the way that she prefers. How frightening is that? It’s beyond her grasp that if she doesn’t like what Dylan’s doing, she can just choose not to listen. He must play guitar for her. He hasn’t done enough for her yet.

Is it any wonder that Bob asked Newsweek not to reveal the location of the hotel where he met their reporter? It may not be 1968 or 1972 anymore, but they’re still out there.

I have to admit that when I read the excerpt of Chronicles, with Bob describing being persecuted by "fans," I felt a pang, kind of like: "I dreamed I was amongst the ones that put him out to death."

But no. It ain’t me babe! Bob can do whatever he wants. I look forward to being surprised, flummoxed and knocked off balance. If he should decide to pack in his music career and start hosting the CBS Evening News, then fine, he’s made more wonderful records than any human being could ever be expected to make. I just hope he provides somewhat more balanced reporting than what we’ve been getting.

 

 


 

Talking About Chronicles …09/30/2004

Some interesting tidbits from the online chat with David Gates, who had interviewed Bob Dylan for Newsweek and offered himself for readers’ questions on MSNBC.com.

The biggest piece of "news" out of it was a direct explanation of why Bob is playing keyboards these days -according to Mr. Gates:

he told me a lot about that. basically it has to do with his guitar not giving him quite the fullness of sound he was wanting at the bottom. (six strings on a guitar, ten fingers on a piano.) he’s thought of hiring a keyboard player so he doesn’t have to do it himself, but hasn’t been able to figure out who—most keyboard players, he says, like to be soloists, and he wants a very basic sound. he says he wants to tweak the sound some, because he’s not quite satisfied with how the guitars and keyboard are sounding together.

So much, apparently, for theories about arthritis or carpal tunnel problems. As for the new songs Bob said he was working on, this additional delightful detail:

he did say he’s written a song based on melody from a bing crosby song, ‘where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day.’

This was a real trademark song for Bing, and one he actually has writing credit on too. Yours Truly happens to be a major Bing Crosby fan, so it is endlessly pleasurable to know that Dylan is too. He has also alluded to it on other occasions in the past.

And on a different note, there is this little grenade, prompted by a question about what Dylan would be writing about in forthcoming volumes:

he does have ‘blood on the tracks’ stuff and material about ‘freewheelin’ and his walking off the ed sullivan show, which, by the way, he regrets having done. what else he’s written, or might plan to write,  don’t know.

Now because your scribe is nothing if not fair, I’m going to grant that since this wasn’t a published part of their interview, it amounts to something only slightly above hearsay. Nevertheless, how interesting if Dylan regrets that moment—still held up to this day by those who would champion his countercultural/protest persona—when he refused to play on the Ed Sullivan show because they didn’t want him to sing "Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues." I wouldn’t say it indicates that he is now a member of the John Birch society, but rather that he may appreciate that this was a slight song—a topical song of the kind he avoided putting on his actual albums—and it was not something to make a hullabaloo about. Even that Sullivan may have had good reason not to have someone on his show seeming to make fun of not just John Birchers, but anti-communists in general. How nice for history if there were footage of Bob Dylan on the Ed Sullivan show performing, say, "Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right."

Another little tidbit, prompted by someone’s comment that they are "shocked at Mr. Dylan’s dismissal of the pivotal historic events of the ’60s," though I don’t think that’s exactly how Bob has put it. Anyway, Gates includes this in his reply:

he seems to follow the news—we shared a little joke about the apparently forged bush documents.

Priceless.

In case anyone was wondering, and (bizarrely to me) some were, there’s "definitely no ghostwriter." Simon & Schuster edited and cut, but "didn’t add anything." Anyone who thinks Bob Dylan would put out an autobio using someone else’s words has got to be in some other solar system, if you ask me. People have pointed out seeming clichés or music industry press release type language in the Chronicles excerpt, like:

"All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities."

People shouldn’t forget that Bob has a penchant for taking cliché and using it in an off-kilter way to throw the reader/listener and make them think. Christopher Ricks has written extensively on this—a nice example is from “I Shall Be Free“—"I see better days and I do better things," where Bob is playing on the cliché, "seen better days." Take 10 minutes and you could find a dozen examples yourself. By using a cliché in an odd way, it also makes the reader/listener rethink what that phrase means. What does Bob mean above when he says "powerful new realities?" I don’t know, but I could speculate … I won’t right now. Whether doing these things with cliché will work in a good way in a book of prose, and in a memoir, is open to debate. Only a few people have read the whole book at this point, and they don’t seem to be commenting.

My grubby little hands can’t wait.

 

Addendum: Another nice detail, this time from the Sunday Telegraph interview, which is now available in the Chicago Sun-Times, is that before running off to New York city to become "the conscience of a generation," the young Bob Dylan seriously considered "enrolling in the Army and going to West Point."

Just wait for people to start saying that Dylan is engaging in revisionist history and portraying himself incorrectly for some unfathomable, inscrutable reasons of his own. I’m just glad to be one of those fans for whom this self-portrait makes simple, straightforward sense.

 


 

"Bob Dylan Is The Nowhere Man" … 10/02/2004

I expect there to be more of this—a lot more. In the popular left wing blog, Daily Kos, there is this posting, where it is stated that "Bob Dylan is a total fraud." In what is basically a reaction to the published excerpt from Chronicles and accompanying interview in Newsweek, the writer slams Dylan as "a maladjusted man," "acid fried dope freak," and further says "Bob Dylan is not Bob Dylan. He is not even Robert Zimmerman anymore."

Even the Newsweek reporter is consigned to hell, for not coming up with the appropriate questions to ask of a 63 year old giant of American song, namely, about "politics, 9/11, religion," and "Bush or Kerry or today’s world of terror politics."

There are a couple of premises underlying this rant. One, that the writer is someone who has been deeply impressed by Dylan’s songs in the past (or else why would he care a jot about the subject?), and two, that the writer has gotten the distinct feeling that his heretofore idol is not supplying the answers that he wants to hear—and that even if the Newsweek reporter had asked all of these specific political questions, this "fraud" Dylan would not have said the right thing—i.e. he would not have condemned Bush and preached against the war we are currently fighting. I guess it comforts the ranter to dismiss him as some kind of burnt-out shell of the real Bob Dylan—whoever that may be.



Whether the backlash to Dylan’s straightforward self-expression in Chronicles will reach the level of the backlash against his open Christianity back in ’79 and the early ’80s, and whether it will have tangible effects (like a drop-off in concert attendance) is an open question at this point. I tend to think not—I think that Dylan is right in thinking that he has largely escaped the burden of his myth and people’s expectations, and that his audience these days is a lot closer to accepting him for what he is and is happy to hear whatever it is he brings to the stage each night. At least that’s what I hope. But in spots like Daily Kos and elsewhere, I’m sure there will be a lot more ranting before it’s all through.

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

 

 


 

"His version" of his life … 10/03/2004

As if to underline what Yours Truly wrote yesterday, here’s an example from the British Sunday Times of someone trying to delegitimize Dylan’s memoirs before they’ve even been read. After summarizing some of the information that was published in the Newsweek excerpt (that Bob never wanted to be the voice of a generation, felt hunted by obsessive followers etc), the writer expresses his shock:

Holy cow. What will the 63-year-old prince of folk, whose anthems were adopted by the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, tell us next?

So, the writer ignores the fact that what Dylan says in the excerpt is perfectly consistent with his remarks in interviews for the better part of four decades, and instead wants us to believe that because particular groups "adopted" his "anthems," that this tells us some more accurate truth about Dylan—as if you draw your conclusions about a songwriter based on the character of the people who might choose to sing the songs. It’s kind of like saying that Cole Porter must have been a big lover of spaghetti, meatballs, Jack Daniels and Ava Gardner, since his greatest interpreter, Sinatra, enjoyed all of those things. (Of-course Bob was demonstrably sympathetic to the civil rights movement, but the writer here is clearly using that example as a broad brush to try to say that Dylan enjoyed political activism generally, and saw himself as writing theme songs for varied causes.)

So the writer thinks that the question of the moment is: "… how much further Dylan is prepared to go in deconstructing himself." Note, not deconstructing his myth, which presumably would be the correct result of telling the straightforward truth, but deconstructing himself,—ending up presumably with something other than the truth about himself (which this writer obviously has a better eye for).

He ends his piece with this lovely expression of dubiousness:

He has promised to set the record straight in a way that “no one could misinterpret”. But who has written the book — Bob Dylan or Robert Zimmerman?

He’s almost perfectly echoing the idiot I quoted yesterday from Daily Kos, in enunciating both Bob’s birth and legal names, as if this makes some point or other. Whatever that point may be certainly escapes me.

Aside from the parts I’ve quoted, this article is not particularly mean or stuffed with lies and distortions. However, the quoted parts basically bookend the piece and I believe are intended to leave the reader thinking that Dylan’s forthcoming memoir is likely to be just one more "reinvention" in a long line of self-created myths and images. So, it is a pre-emptive attack on an unread book that the author (Dylan) has stated is just his attempt to tell the truth as he remembers it.

It’s also more evidence that there is great nervousness out there in left-wing-Bob-Dylan-fan-world in advance of the publication of this book. While here we simply wait with eager and open minds for the gift that Dylan is providing for us—his fans—and for history.

I got my dark sunglasses,
I’m carryin’ for good luck my black tooth.
Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’,
I just might tell you the truth.

 

 


 

Et tu, ISIS … 10/04/2004b

No official review of Chronicles, that I know of, has yet been published. No one who has read the entire book has as yet come out with any detailed description of it. However, the pre-publication spin continues. The theme – in case you haven’t gathered it yet – is that nothing that Dylan says in it is going to be reliable. He has his own mysterious ulterior motives, and besides, he’s such an incorrigible chameleon (nice parodox there) that whatever picture he presents will be just one more illusion. So, his own express statement that, "When you write a book like this, you gotta tell the truth, and it can’t be misinterpreted," is simply being shrugged off—even and especially by those who consider themselves great admirers of the man and his music.

Take this from the BBC today. The writer of the piece says, "So-called Dylanologists remain skeptical about whether the complete truth will finally emerge … ." Well, complete truth, if you ask me, is setting the bar a little high, for anyone lacking in that handy attribute of omniscience. But what about just allowing that Dylan’s intention appears to be to tell the plain truth about particular events as he remembers them? The BBC talks to the editor of the Dylan fan magazine ISIS, and hears the following:

I think he’s doing it for his own benefit … Those who know Bob Dylan will be a little bit suspicious. I don’t think it’s going to be a completely heartfelt "tell-all" autobiography … He has bent the truth right from the beginning , and what is truth and what is myth has been blurred – even in his own mind – with the passing of time.

Now I know that ISIS has been around a long time and has done a lot of great work, but what’s the idea of characterizing an unread book in advance in this way, when everyone is either days or hours away from being able to actually read it? And isn’t stating that Dylan himself has blurred truth and myth "in his own mind" going a bit far for someone who is neither Dylan’s intimate friend nor his psychiatrist?

In fairness to the ISIS editor, I’m sure that the BBC reporter talked to him for some time and then used a few selected quotes. The agenda may be more the BBC’s—I don’t know.

However, I do know that all of this aspersion-casting on Dylan’s intent smells to me like that political concept of "innoculation." By saying before the book comes out that you believe the writer is incapable of reliably telling the truth, you give yourself a way of later dismissing anything in the book that you find unpalatable. "Well, I never thought it was going to be the truth, you know."

Since the only thing that everyone has seen at this point is the Newsweek excerpt, I’d really like to know what part of that strikes anyone knowledgeable as being untrue? Isn’t it just a more intimate angle on events that everyone knows happened? Isn’t that what anyone would expect of a straightforward memoir?

Within hours, the book is going to be in this reader’s hands, and many others, and all of this advance spin will be in the past. Still, it’s sure been interesting to me to see it unfold.

 

 


 

Got it … 10/04/2004d

I’m on page 55, and I’m taking it slow, and it is a pure and utter delight, and it’s one more thing: a treasure. After Dylan’s 40-year career of song, no one would have had any right to expect this of him. Imagine if there were a book like this by Stephen Foster, or Lorenz Hart? Or Jimmie Rodgers? Describing their inspirations, their lives, and the times that carried them? All three of those songwriters and American originals, now that I think of it, died in sad circumstances. Dylan has been given the gift of a kinder fate, it seems. And this book is a kind and unexpected gift, from him, to posterity.

 


 

Shhhh!… 10/05/2004

I’m going to be reading in any of my spare time today, rather than posting. There’s lots of stories in the press to accompany the release of Chronicles – and many of them are obviously going to include spoilers, so I’ve often been glancing at them and clicking away as fast as I can. However, for a story that includes a fresh telephone interview with Dylan, check out Edna Gundersen in USA Today. Not too much in the way of unheard tidbits from the book, which is a good thing for those who want to enjoy it first hand for themselves. (And there is a lot to enjoy, let me tell ya. It’s a total blast …)

 

 


…10/05/2004b

 

"My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater"

Bob Dylan, Chronicles, page 283

"There was no point arguing with Dave (Van Ronk), not intellectually anyway. I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody. I wasn’t that comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble."

(Tom Mix was a star of silent westerns. Barry Goldwater was of-course the iconic Republican who wrote "The Conscience Of A Conservative" and was a formative influence on Ronald Reagan.)

I wasn’t going to grab little things out of the book and trumpet them mindlessly, but this one is just too much fun.

 


 

Someone call Pulitzer … 10/07/2004

The reviews from the non-Dylan-obsessed critics are multiplying, and they are certainly skewing heavily positive, and with good reason. This book is so much more than Yours Truly expected. It works on levels that I didn’t remotely anticipate. It’s taking time to settle into me. Someone with as much Dylan-related baggage as I have is probably least qualified to provide any snap appreciation of this book. I’m beginning to realize that Dylan has created something here that stands aside from his own musical output. I don’t have time to get to grips with it in my own words in anything other than a glib fashion right now, so I’ll stop right there. Comments from anyone else who’s read it are very welcome. My contacts deep within the book selling industry also indicate that it’s selling at a feverish clip. So better not delay—if you don’t have it, go out and get it now …

 


 

…10/07/2004b

An especially fine piece on Chronicles I just read in the U.K. Telegraph (may require free registration). Weirdly, I can’t find the reviewer’s name. (Addendum: It’s Neil McCormick – thanks to Nigel for that info)

The language is pure Dylan, encompassing the old-world formality of his early songs (apparently gleaned, in part, from spending time in the New York Public Library scanning microfilm of 19th-century newspapers); the dark, mystical undercurrents of the folk world from which his music sprang; the biblical flashes of fire and brimstone rhetoric all held together by the deadpan humour of hardboiled America, as if one of Raymond Chandler’s private eyes were re-interpreting the Old Testament.

That’s a great line. It closes:

In rock and roll terms, this book is like discovering the lost diaries of Shakespeare. It may be the most extraordinarily intimate autobiography by a 20th-century legend ever written.

No argument here.

 


 

The Winds Of Change Are Blowing Wild And Free … 10/11/2004

CBS News Sunday Morning did a segment yesterday on Bob Dylan. Your Truly interrupted his devastating boycott of that entity long enough to take it in. Though apparently timed to coincide with the release of Chronicles (they acknowledged that Simon & Schuster is a sister company of CBS), the segment didn’t deal with that book specifically at all. It was basically set around the Christopher Ricks book, "Dylan’s Visions Of Sin," and included on-camera chatting with both Ricks and the mid-atlantic pop music critic Paul Gambaccini. So it hovered around the question of whether Dylan is really a poet (how many times must a man ask a question, before he realizes the asking has answered it?). Oddly, though Ricks makes a thoroughly well studied case with his book, the CBS segment producers almost undid it all by having some English drama students solemnly reading aloud some of Dylan’s better known lyrics while staring intensely into the camera.

If anyone reading this missed it, you didn’t miss much. Reading a chapter of the Ricks book is worth about 500 of these shows. Most noteworthy to me was this: it may have been the first time a TV show did a cheap summary of Dylan’s career without labeling him the spokesman of a generation. They almost did, but not quite.

"It’s an argument that has raged for decades: Is Dylan the voice of the baby-boom generation that without him, wouldn’t have a voice?" (from the website, but the TV broadcast used a similar line.)

There’s the key difference: they used the term, but they phrased it as a question. That alone is progress.

Still, I hope if Dylan was watching that he didn’t do any serious damage by biting himself or anything. See the story in Chronicles on receiving the honorary degree at Princeton for more on that.

 

———————————–

 

Killing Me By Degrees … 10/11/2004b

Since the Princeton episode came up, maybe it’s a chance to focus on one of the countless delightful passages in Chronicles. I don’t want to ruin the whole thing, which is worth reading in full along with the whole book, but to summarize, it’s a moment when Dylan is frustrated at being labeled by a speaker as "the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America." He feels he’s been taken by surprise, kind of a victim on the stage. This is 1970 and he’s particularly upset because he felt he’d made all kinds of progress at getting away from titles like that, from the adoration of those worshipping him for something he was not. Now he laments with a mix of comedy and tragedy, that "this kind of thing could set it back a thousand years." He goes on:

Didn’t they know what was happening? Even the Russian newspaper Pravda had called me a money-hungry capitalist. Even the Weathermen, a notorious group who made homemade bombs in basements to blow up public buildings, who had taken their name from a line in one of my songs, had recently changed their name from the Weathermen to the Weather Underground. I was losing all kinds of credibility.

Just hilarious stuff.

 


 

Jet Pilot … 10/13/2004

Who’d a thunk? The Village Voice reviews Chronicles and it’s a fine review, with no mention of anti-war protest songs, no gratuitous slams of Bush, no back biting of Dylan for imaginary back slidings. Just a perceptive, appreciative review. There are quite a few of them around of-course, though this one is better written than most.

So, contrary to some of the negative pre-publication talk by some fearful and defensive Dylanites ("it’s not going to be the truth blah blah blah"), it looks like Dylan has genuinely succeeded, thanks to the sheer strength of his writing, in blowing away his potential critics. It’s just about impossible for any person with a fraction of fair-mindedness to read Chronicles and think that Bob is making it all up, and pursuing some twisted agenda of his own for re-invention, though this had been the line some were taking in advance, as covered in this space back then. Though there are some vignettes where he’s self-evidently taking license ("I cut the radio off, crisscrossed the room, pausing for a moment, to turn on the black and white TV. ‘Wagon Train’ was on.") he’s clearly doing it to set a scene and offer a flavor, before going on to describe experiences of greater import, which are actually believable memories.

NPR has their radio interview snippet with Bob. Pretty short, and pretty short on anything new, but, since it’s so rare, it’s just nice to hear Bob talking—even giggling. One piece of news (to me): Dylan says that along with being able to sail a boat, he can also fly a plane. Add that to his affinity for firearms and it seems he’s a regular James Bond.

But could Roger Moore sing "It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding" in a convincing fashion? Even Sean Connery? I think not.



 

 


 

Life Is In Mirrors, Death Disappears … 10/17/2004

Mike Marqusee reviews Chronicles for the UK Guardian. Marqusee is author of the recent book, "Chimes Of Freedom, The Politics Of Bob Dylan’s Art," where he takes a classic leftist view of Dylan’s work. His general conclusion in that book seems to be that Dylan has written powerful songs that articulately argue left-wing points of view, but, lamentably, the man himself has never stepped properly up to the plate to defend the correct causes. Most especially, he indicts what he sees as Dylan’s big cop out vis-a-viz the Vietnam war. Dylan never spoke out against that war in an interview or public appearance, despite constant entreaties, and never wrote a song that mentioned the war specifically (until 1985’s quirky “Clean Cut Kid”. ED: Correction! see below *) Marqusee writes, "If public life is an ongoing test for the artist, then when it came to Vietnam, Dylan failed." His assumption seems to be that but for some kind of moral cowardice or self-serving desire to be seen as above the fray, Dylan would naturally have joined the anti-war movement and condemned the actions of his government and countrymen.

In this assumption, Marqusee is exactly wrong, based on a preponderance of the evidence. However, analyzing the historical record with regard to Dylan’s place in the Vietnam war /protest maelstrom will have to wait until I have the time to deal with it at proper length. For now, I just find it interesting to see how Marqusee, in the course of what is overall a positive review, attempts to make his reading of Chronicles conform to his overall thesis on Dylan.

He makes a point of mentioning Dylan’s portrait of "blues guitarist and Marxist intellectual Dave Van Ronk," but fails to point out that Dylan’s commentary on his politics is this: "There was no point in arguing with Dave, not intellectually anyway … I wasn’t comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble." He likewise lauds Dylan’s sketch of John Hammond, whom Marqusee chooses to label as "the veteran leftwinger who produced Dylan’s first albums." However, though Dylan praises Hammond very highly as a true giant in terms of his contribution to the world of music, he does not grapple with his politics at all, except for a mention of Hammond’s ire at having one of his artists (Pete Seeger) blacklisted. And Marqusee chooses not to note many of the other personalities Dylan sketches—how about Ray Gooch? Dylan dwells at length on his time with Ray and Chloe in their West Village apartment, and Ray’s rather unconventional view of the Civil War, as well as his mesmerizing and massive collection of guns. (One of my favorite moments is Dylan asking him what all that stuff was for, and Ray’s deadpan answer: "Tactical response.") So, Dylan’s portraits of powerful personalities like Van Ronk and Hammond are not in themselves a reflection of his agreement with left-wing politics. Quite the opposite, as the statement above about Van Ronk illustrates.

On the other hand, when Dylan states that his favorite politician was "Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater," well … that’s pretty darned direct.

Never fear—Marqusee is ready. Pre-emptively, in fact, he observes, regarding Dylan’s musings on the inevitable cycles of history, "Here he seems to be reading back into his youth some of the attitudes he struck later on." Ah, so there we are: Dylan is re-inventing himself, rewriting history, or, as someone more tactless might put it: lying.

He says: "The young man who wrote ‘Hattie Carroll’, ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘Masters of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was a poet of urgency, and he would have found the fatalism of the later Dylan far too pat." Leaving aside Marqusee’s apparent belief that those songs were written to achieve some tangible, immediate end, rather than as timeless commentaries on aspects of our human dilemma, what about this notion of "fatalism of the later Dylan?" He is perhaps alluding to Dylan’s lack of proper "urgency" with regard to any particular public causes—the fact that in interviews as well as in his music he now appears to be looking towards an eternal, God-given peace and justice, rather than expecting such conditions to prevail here on this earth. Maybe he means that Dylan writes from the point of view of someone who sees this life as the blink of an eye, and sees that there is a bigger equation with which we have to reconcile ourselves. Marqusee seems to think that this "fatalism" was thankfully absent from Dylan’s early work.

Uh, let me see. On Dylan’s first and eponymous album, you can hear this:

Well, in my time of dying don’t want nobody to mourn
All I want for you to do is take my body home
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
… Jesus gonna make up my dying bed.

Then there are the songs, "Fixin’ To Die," and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," and "Gospel Plow:"

Dig my grave with a bloody spade,
See that my digger gets well paid,
Keep-a your hand on that plow, hold on,
Oh, Lord, Oh, Lord, Keep-a your hand on that plow, hold on.

None of these were written by the 20 year old Dylan, of-course, but rather carefully picked, one would think, as tracks on his first album, and what was then the crowning achievement of his life. If you doubt his understanding of these songs at that age, put on that old LP again and listen to him sing them.

Fatalism? Let me see. The album is "The Times They Are A-Changin’," the year 1964. This one has some of Mike Marqusee’s favorite songs on it. It also has "The Ballad Of Hollis Brown." Marqusee also speaks highly of this song in his book, describing it as "Dylan’s presentation of the self-destruction of the oppressed … ." Well, since Dylan was so young and filled with verve to change the world, I guess that this song about a destitute farmer who shoots his family and himself must end with some kind of call to the barricades—some direct plea to end all the suffering and to stamp out all poverty once and for all. No? Well, not exactly.

There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born
.

Seven people dead and seven new people born? Oh, well, that’s alright then.

OK—I do not think that Dylan is being callous and dismissive of the loss, but he is taking a longer and more profound view of human tragedy and of life and of death. It is precisely this that Marqusee accuses Dylan of "reading back" into his younger self with this memoir: "He claims that the old songs taught him there was nothing new on this earth." Yes, Mike, that’s exactly what those songs did teach him, and it’s exactly what a song like "The Ballad Of Hollis Brown" teaches to those who can listen to it without leftist kneejerk earmuffs on.

Fatalism? A bad thing, we’re supposed to believe? In what sense? If there’s anything true that everyone should appreciate about life, it’s that it’s bound to be fatal. Being born is nothing if not a death sentence. Living—it kills ya every time. The truth however is that it’s the easiest fundamental truth to ignore, and most of us breeze through the precious moments of our lives believing ourselves effectively immortal. If we didn’t, it’s obvious we’d act differently. I’d suggest that this is a constant and intense theme of Dylan’s work, and you can draw a straight line from "In My Time Of Dyin’" on his first album through, "It’s Alright Ma":

For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes
Must get lonely.

and on to "Sugar Baby," the final track of his most recent album, which ends:

Just as sure as we’re living, just as sure as you’re born
Look up, look up – seek your Maker – ‘fore Gabriel blows his horn

And many songs in between (if not all of them, in some deeper sense).

So, I would say that Marqusee’s attempt to show Dylan "reading back" and reinventing his younger self completely falls apart on cursory examination. And the entire broader effort by the left to co-opt and own the work of Bob Dylan is thankfully falling apart too, slowly but surely, aided and abetted by Dylan’s great and irrefutable memoir, and loudly applauded here in the cavernous offices of this web publication.

 

 

* Wrong!” Clean Cut Kid” does not include the word "Vietnam," though its reference to a "napalm health-spa" and the overall story certainly leave the listener convinced that this is the military action that the "kid" was involved in. On the other hand, the 1986 soundtrack song “Band Of The Hand” DOES mention Vietnam ("for all of my brothers from Vietnam and my uncles from World War II") though the song occupies a different landscape. Likewise, the 1981 unreleased track “Legionnaire’s Disease” includes this verse:

Granddad fought in a revolutionary war, father in the War of 1812,
Uncle fought in
Vietnam and then he fought a war all by himself,
But whatever it was, it came out of the trees.
Oh, that Legionnaire’s disease.

So that would actually be the first mention of Vietnam in a published Dylan song.

Finally, one of Dylan’s presumed compositional contributions to the Traveling Wilburys, a 1988 song called “Tweeter & The Monkey Man”, includes these lines:

Tweeter was a boy scout before she went to Vietnam
And found out the hard way nobody gives a damn
They knew that they found freedom just across the Jersey Line
So they hopped into a stolen car took Highway 99

So, my original statement that “Clean Cut Kid” is the only Dylan song to mention Vietnam could hardly be more wrong, in a technical sense, and I’m indebted to a visitor named Michael M. for pointing this out. Nevertheless, I think that the intended point of my sloppily researched statement—that “Clean Cut Kid” is the only Dylan song that directly deals with the "Vietnam question"—remains true.

 


Honest With Me … 10/26/2004

The NY Times Sunday Book Review of Chronicles by Tom Carson really called out to be addressed, although Yours Truly has been trying to make ends meet this week—a persistently futile effort. The review, to put it mildly, is snide. Of-course an early and very positive review of Dylan’s book was also in the NY Times, by Janet Maslin. It’s been endlessly recirculated; here it is in The Arizona Republic.

Though the Sunday book review supplement has a certain cachet that the daily paper doesn’t, it’s probably safe to say that a bad review there doesn’t necessarily sink a book. Just to get that level of attention is probably welcome to most publishers, if not writers. And in the case of Chronicles, it’s too late to shut the stable door—it’s at number 3 on the same NY Times’ bestseller list, and has been awarded positive if not rave reviews across the English speaking world at this point.

However, it’s interesting that the ultimate and essential hit piece on Bob’s memoir should appear in the NY Times. There’s a certain serendipity here—considering their evil hit piece this week on President Bush—the absurd "missing explosives in Iraq" story. A fairly to-the-point angle on that nonsense is here.

So, as for Tom Carson and Chronicles: it does not bode well for a serious book review in a serious publication when it begins by saying that Dylan’s memoir fails to answer the question "So what was up with the mustache, dude?" He expends an entire paragraph on that unfunny inanity. From there he goes on to state that he had not "given a flying Wallenda about Dylan in years." In the rest of the review, it must be noted, he then presents himself as somehow deeply knowledgeable about the essential facts of Dylan’s make-up. The essential fact—in fact—is that Bob is consumed with "image tending." And he posits that "constructing a notional, elusive but compelling identity to suit the project at hand" is central to Dylan’s work and that this book is just one more such identity. Here lies the fundamental flaw in his review (other than his sheer laziness and ignorance): he fails to see that there is a consistent identity in the writer and performer we know as Bob Dylan, and that many listeners can easily follow the thread from his first recording to his most recent, and find no unresolvable clashes or contradictions. Changes in musical, lyrical or singing style do not amount to a disposal and reinvention of the central actor—i.e. the creator of the work. And for many of those self-same listeners, Chronicles represents nothing more than a straightforward (if also revelatory and rambunctious) account of the various times and experiences Dylan has chosen to write about. It isn’t some brand new Bob Dylan, refitted for 2004—it’s the same Dylan we already knew through his music and interviews. Those of us who were paying attention, at least. He’s just telling us stories we hadn’t yet heard.

From there onwards, it’s really just a matter of watching exactly how snide and low-to-the-ground Carson can get. He presumes to tell us that "in a provincial Middle American town like Eisenhower-era Hibbing, Minn" (that is so NY Times), Dylan’s Jewishness must have made him a "square peg," and in not regaling us with stories about (I guess) alienation and anti-semitic attacks, Dylan is selectively omitting crucial information. Well—first of all—Dylan is not feigning to give us a detailed account of everything he has experienced in his life. It’s 293 pages of fairly large type, after all. Secondly, how does Carson know what was most formative in Dylan’s life in Hibbing? Why should we believe that Tom Carson knows better about what is was like to be a Zimmerman in Hibbing during that time, and that Dylan is trying to pull the wool over our eyes and leave out pivotal facts, in the name of some kind of "image tending?"

Why indeed?

There are many things that Carson presumes to tell us that he knows better than the writer of the book. He sneers at the very idea that the 20 year old Bob Dylan would have any affection for and real knowledge of American history. How could Bob even dream of seeing, as he writes in Chronicles, the ghost of John Wilkes Booth in a Greenwich Village tavern, fresh as he was from "Hibbing’s superb public schools?" The reference is sarcastic—Tom Carson presumes to know that the young Robert Zimmerman had no good history teachers—and that he never saw an image of John Wilkes Booth in a textbook – or that if he did it cannot have made any impression on him. That’s a helluva lot of presuming, unless Tom Carson actually attended school with the young Robert Zimmerman and his classmates in Hibbing, Minnesota (in which case I apologize). Even then, he has chosen to reject the idea that Bob may have had a particular interest in these matters, and may even have gathered his knowledge from other sources.

The theme, you see, is that Bob Dylan is lying.

And on and on. He glibly labels the U.S. Civil War (which Dylan meditates on at some length in Chronicles), as "the 19th century’s ultimate Good/Bad war," claiming that Dylan’s intention is that we are meant to recall "his own time’s coming storms." There is no such implication in the book—Carson indeed provides no evidence of one. And Carson’s characterization of the Civil War in that manner is nothing short of juvenile, tasteless and ignorant. "The 19th century’s ultimate Good/Bad war." Just a bunch of cocksure ironic bullshit.

And that’s just about what the entire review is. The most sneakily insidious aspect of the whole thing is that he pretends to actually be praising the book. Dylan is lying, but doing it in such an entertaining fashion that we can forgive him. It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading truth or lies—nothing matters except whether the reviewer believes that it meets a certain standard of hipness or smartness or timeliness. As he says, "conditional genius is how pop culture works."

Well, Mr. Carson, you can hang your hat there if you wish. It doesn’t really do it for me. I don’t spend my short and precious time on this earth deliberately listening to "conditional" music, or reading "conditional" books and marvelling at how appropriate to their moment they are and how short their shelf-life will be, and laughing off how dishonest they are. If that’s how you choose to approach the work of Bob Dylan, including this book, then you’re just focusing on the breeze while the train is passing you by. And that’s a real doggone shame.

 

 


 

In Xanadu … 10/30/2004

This might be the best written review of Chronicles yet, in terms of skipping right past the preconceptions and putting a finger on the real greatness of the book, as a book. Written by one of our Australian friends.

With its word-play and word-magic, its flights of daft numerology and its detours, its evasiveness on the trivia and utter candour on the things that matter, this is an aesthetic memoir to place next to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.

I haven’t read Coleridge’s tome. However, the full text is online here (and likely many other places) and would no doubt reward further reading. Considering the comparison made by the reviewer, dig these opening sentences of Coleridge’s chapter one:

IT has been my lot to have had my
name introduced both in conversation, and in
print, more frequently than I find it easy to
explain, whether I consider the fewness, unim-
portance, and limited circulation of my writings,
or the retirement and distance, in which I have
lived, both from the literary and political world.
Most often it has been connected with some
charge, which I could not acknowledge, or
some principle which I had never entertained.

Sounds like he and Bob could have shared a lot of war stories over cigars, or something. I’m going to keep reading, and will definitely put a siren up if I find any references to this guy:

 

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 

 


More On The Memoir … 10/31/2004

The Washington Times (neo-con rag and mouthpiece for Bushitler and his fellow fascists) has a nice review of Chronicles this morning.

 

 


Writers And Critics …11/21/2004 08:32:07 pm

Back to Bob for a minute. In the NY Times last Sunday, the following letter to the editor was published, in reaction to Tom Carson’s review in the Times of Dylan’s Chronicles. I already critiqued his review here for being the snide piece of irony-worshipping garbage that I believe it to be, and this letter to the editor from someone with special knowledge just underlines the fact that Carson’s studied and insistent skepticism with regard to Dylan’s reminiscences is utterly misplaced.

Tom Carson’s review of Bob Dylan’s ”Chronicles” (Oct. 24) punctures a lot of the mystique, but also reveals some basic ignorance of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Having spent the last two years editing the memoir of Dylan’s mentor Dave Van Ronk, I can assure Carson that both Dylan’s romantic primitivism and his fascination with history were the common coin of that scene. Dylan certainly would have known at 20 that the Café Bizarre ”used to be Aaron Burr’s livery stable” — that is the first thing anyone who played the club remembers about it. Before Dylan transformed the folk world into a mass of self-involved singer-songwriters, it was populated by amateur historians posing as what Van Ronk liked to call ”neo-ethnics,” and they all treasured both their carefully honed hayseed accents and their links to previous self-mythologizers like Walt Whitman. Dylan’s memoir, quirky as it may be, gives a straightforward sense of that time and place.

Elijah Wald
Cambridge, Mass.
Published: 11 – 14 – 2004 , Late Edition – Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 4

Thank you, Mr. Wald. And since the book has now been out about 6 weeks, it’s worth pointing out that for anyone who believes it to be purposely deceitful, they have a little problem with a dog that doesn’t bark. That is, there has been no rush of contemporaneous figures – and people Dylan mentions in his book – coming out and saying, "Hey, that’s not how it happened. I was there, I know." Though it’s likely that a few people are miffed at their portrayal, or lack of one (Robbie Robertson only gets mentioned for that dumb question he asks on the car ride), no one seems to be seriously questioning Dylan’s veracity. Aside from reviewers like Carson, that is – of which there have been blessedly few.

And while I’m on the subject, thanks to visitor Russ for mentioning this, Dylan’s recent Q & A with Rolling Stone, of which I was completely unaware. It’s a nice little exchange. Here’s something he says about Chronicles:

With the book, what I try and do is put a feeling across. It’s not the kind of book where it’s a short life and a merry one. It’s more abstract, drawn out over long periods of time. I worked the book, if you want to call it that, in patterns. I portray life as a game of chance.

Bang on, as it should be coming from the author. But the phrase "Simple Twist Of Fate" occurred to me a great deal while reading the memoir. He’s highly cognizant of the moments when his life could have gone one way or another, and so the book is filled both with a sense of chance and, I think also, the implicit sense of an unseen hand.

More from the telephone Q & A:

What’s the last song you’d like to hear before you die?

How ’bout "Rock of Ages"?

I heard you’ve written songs for a new album.

I have a bunch of them. I do.

When will you crank ’em out?

Maybe in the beginning of the year. I’m not sure where and when.

Can you tell me about them?

No, I couldn’t explain them to you. After you listen to them, call me back. It’s difficult to paraphrase them or tell you what kind of style they’re in. You won’t be surprised.

Why not?

The musical structure you’re used to hearing — it might be rearranged a bit. The songs themselves will speak to you.

I love that – when he says about his next album, "You won’t be surprised." Anyone else would say exactly the opposite, "Oh, just wait, it’s gonna be something different for me, something you haven’t heard before." And of all artists, Dylan is one who could claim to consistently surprise. What the heck do you call Nashville Skyline, Slow Train Coming, Highway 61, Time Out Of Mind? Some of those, and others, were more earthquakes than mere surprises. Yet he can laconically say, hey, I can’t describe them, but you won’t be surprised. Hilarious, and true on some level Dylan’s brain operates on.

What a gift it is that he’s still with us and making music, and grown adults can await his next album with the giddy anticipation of fifteen year olds.

It frightens me, the awful truth of how sweet life can be

 

 

 


 

The Top Of The End …12/30/2004 09:19:11 am

Nat Hentoff has this piece on Chronicles today. Another contemporary from those early years who does not take issue with the truth of any of the reminiscences in the book, although he acknowledges learning things that he did not know about the young Dylan at the time. Also has some first hand details about how that slam blast interview for Playboy came about.

Almost 3 months after its release, with Chronicles resting near the top of the bestseller lists, and on almost everyone’s list of the best books of the year, it’s nice to step back and appreciate the breadth of Dylan’s achievement. Once again, he defied any and all predictions and created something both deeply entertaining and enduring, and in a style that was completely unexpected. It’s what he’s done again and again with his music, but who’d have thunk he’d do it in this form? As much of a fan as I am, I never would have expected his book to basically sweep the world the way it has. Someone like me would have been intrigued by it if the pages contained a series of black splotches interspersed with incoherent limericks -but this book has reached out and found its own audience. It could easily have been different perhaps. If a couple of prominent bad reviews had set the tone, and a few people with an agenda had succeeded in portraying the work as dishonest and unworthy of attention, then maybe it wouldn’t be at the top of all these year end lists after all, but in the remainder bins. Simple twists of fate can decide such things. But even if that had happened, long after the noise had quieted, his book would still stand as the unique portrait of an American artist that it is. And it will contribute more to posterity’s understanding of his life and work than a dozen books by the likes of Sounes or Marqusee.

God on Our Side

“With God on Our Side”, a song which Dylan wrote in 1963, is commonly referred to as one of Dylan’s great anti-war songs. I’d like to explore some of what my ears tell me is going on in this song, which I would certainly consider to be a very great song, though as to its anti-war message, well, more anon.

Time for a gratuitous Dylan quote:

Myself, what I’m going to do is rent Town Hall and put about 30 Western Union boys on the bill. I mean, then there’ll really be some messages.

(Playboy interview with Nat Hentoff, published 1966)

Those who like to hear “With God on Our Side” as an anti-war song generally really tune into and recall the first seven verses. Verse 1 can be heard as an introduction (Oh my name it is nothin’/My age it means less). Verses 2 through 7 itemize (poetically) a series of wars that the United States Of America has fought, from the wars against the Indian nations to a possible future war with the Russians, with “weapons of the chemical dust.”

Each verse ends with a variation on the statement that “God’s on our side.” Like so many Dylan songs, it is structured in a breathtakingly effective way. It starts out with a tone of sincerity, with reference to growing up in the American midwest and abiding by the laws and believing that the land has God on its side. After all, we do sing (even leftists on occasion), “God Bless America,” and Irving Berlin is, maybe, a bit player in this song somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with wishing for God to help you and bless your country, and if you’re wishing it, then you’ve got to believe that it might be so.

However, soon enough, as the conflicts are detailed, the notion of God being on our side takes on a bitter irony. Much more so when the wars themselves leave unanswered questions: “The First World War, boys/It came and it went/The reason for fighting/I never did get.”* And the Germans “murdered six million/In the ovens they fried,” but they now too have “God on their side.”

By the time Dylan gets to the end of the seventh verse, “And you never ask questions/When God’s on your side,” he’s written a song that could reasonably be characterized as an anti-war song. The notion of God being on our side has arguably drifted beyond mere irony, to wet, dripping sarcasm. Many are happy to hear it like that, and to sing it like that, and to conclude that God has not been on America’s side, ever, and that war is always wrong.

But this is where Dylan is just about to show why he is a songwriter for the ages, rather than a mere commentator on the times. The repetitive and powerful litany of wars comes to an end, and out of nowhere we hear this astounding verse:

In many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

How do you react to this, if you’re taking “With God On Our Side” as a straightforward anti-war song? What the heck does Judas Iscariot have to do with anything? He didn’t fight in any war. Hell, he’s not even an American.

Well, if you wanted to, you could perhaps write a whole book on this verse. But let’s just consider the question that Dylan is posing here at the end. That is: did Judas Iscariot have God on his side? (“I can’t think for you.”)

Let’s follow the path that the question demands. Initially, such a question seems absurd – Judas was the sneaky villain who gave Jesus’ location away to his enemies, thereby sending him to his death. He couldn’t have had God on his side, right?

Almost immediately however, if you understand or care about Christianity, you’re forced to think again. Jesus’ death was neither an accident of fate, nor a crime due to the villainy of a few specific people. His death was part of God’s plan to redeem humanity. So, if Judas had not acted as he did, would God’s plan have been obstructed? Was Judas therefore acting according to God’s plan? In a certain sense, was God on Judas’s side? Yet, the Bible says that “Satan took possession of him.”(John 13:27) How could God lead someone to the devil, and to evil? He couldn’t—surely to say that would be blasphemous. Yet the Bible also says, in the words of Peter: “‘Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.'” (Acts 1:16)

This isn’t a simple question to answer, for those that concern themselves with such things. God surely did not lead Judas to commit a sinful act, especially if we believe in human free will, and yet it was an act which was predicted by Scripture, and also one which occurred to fulfill God’s plan to save humanity.

One way of considering this is to reflect on the fact that God’s purposes are not our own; they are, in fact, His. On September 25th, 2001, Bob Dylan sat with a journalist from Rolling Stone, in a promotional interview for his new album, Love And Theft, which as it happens was released on September 11th, 2001. In the midst of a discussion about something Bob had said in the past at an awards show, Dylan said this:

You hear a lot about God these days: God the beneficient; God, the all-great; God the Almighty; God the most powerful; God the giver of life; God the creator of death. I mean, we’re hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary. So people better be able to deal with that, too.

So then, what does it mean to have God on your side? Is God ever really on your side? Or is that a silly question? It must be believed that God is carrying out His own higher purposes, which we can’t comprehend, but in which we somehow figure, by virtue of our existence. Yet, in a personal sense, as a believer, one trusts in God to be on one’s side in His love and in His will to offer redemption. This is rather different, however, to the question of God being on the side of a nation. “The nations rage” while “He who sits in the heavens laughs”—so it is written in Psalm 2. Perhaps, as a believer, one should be more concerned about whether one’s own nation is on God’s side, in the scheme of things. God works through history, surely, but not necessarily in the way the individual believer would like Him to at any given time.

This is where the 8th verse of this “anti-war” song has led us—to these kinds of questions. And there’s one more verse to come:

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.

“If God’s on our side/He’ll stop the next war.” Yet, if we’ve considered the questions from the previous verse, we’ve realized that the whole idea of God being on our side, especially in a national sense, is one that might be fraught with error. There is no real expectation that God will step in and “stop the next war.” Perhaps that’s why the words “fall to the floor.” It’s implicit that wars will continue to happen.

Anyone who thinks that I’m giving excessive weight to the last two verses should ask themselves what “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” would be without its last verse, or indeed “Boots Of Spanish Leather” without its last three. If you’re willing to hear the carefully expounded set-up, but you reject the denouement, what exactly would you be choosing to hear? (Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’)

So, from seeming to be a fairly run-of-the-mill anti-war song, this has transformed itself into a song which instead weighs the question of God’s purpose in our existence, and our purpose in God’s plan. Given the last two verses, in fact, you cannot consider this to be an “anti-war” song at all. Why write an anti-war song if you have no confidence that war will in fact end?

As Dylan says somewhere else, “every question/if it’s a truthful question/can be answered by askin’ it.”

“With God on Our Side” is a song which will never grow old, because it asks questions which will always be worth asking, and it goes far beyond any attempt to pigeon-hole it as a piece of simple, left-wing, anti-war screed. I don’t possess the final answer to the questions posed, and wouldn’t deign to suggest a politically “conservative” answer in this space.

However, I’d suggest that it is indeed a very great song, and it is also, thankfully, a song that belongs to all of us.

*as sung by Bob; the published version is “Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight”

I think he made the right choice with the version he sings.



Bob Dylan’s Argument with a Leftist

In 1964, Bob Dylan released the album Another Side Of Bob Dylan. While he later complained that he didn’t pick the title—feeling that it was “overstating the obvious”(Biograph interview, 1985)—the album was a departure of sorts, with its unabashed emphasis on the exploration of the internal world, and its lack of obvious “protest” songs. (In fairness to Dylan, he had never released anything on record that was merely a finger-pointing protest song, and he had already written and released numerous and exquisite personal songs like “One Too Many Mornings” and “Boots Of Spanish Leather.”)

This album contained a fairly direct kind of artistic manifesto, in the form of “My Back Pages,” where Dylan clearly is relishing his maturation and his feeling of being liberated from the bonds of narrow political thought. As in these various lines:

Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull
….
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow.
….
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

It’s a song where perhaps even Dylan himself would concede that he is speaking in the first-person-Bob (he usually pooh-poohs those who would tie his songs down to his persona and his life – to the confessional rather than the universal). So it speaks of a watershed moment where he realizes that his purpose is not to go down wrangling with the events of the day, and engaging in righteous combat with the “bad” people, on behalf of the “good” (define those terms?).

One might wonder what the process was for Dylan in reaching this point. What events, conversations or dreams told him that he would be choosing the wrong path if he followed the demands of those who would have him write tailor-made songs for all of their causes-de-jour? You might look for some of it in Dylan’s off-the-cuff address at the December 13th, 1963 Emergency Civil Liberties Committee fund raising dinner, where they presented him with the Tom Paine Award. He proceeded to give a speech which put a big dent in their fund raising that night –

There’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there’s only up and down and down is very close to the ground. And I’m trying to go up without thinking of anything trivial such as politics.

When later in the speech (which took place 3 weeks after the assassination of JFK) he said that he “saw some of myself” in Lee Harvey Oswald, the crowd’s discomfit turned to outward hostility.

However, one can go beyond the extemporaneous remarks of an uptight and well-oiled Dylan on that night, and look to a published work of his poetry for a window into his thinking during this tumultuous period. On the back of the album cover of Another Side Of Bob Dylan, gathered under the heading of “Some Other Kinds Of Songs …,” there appear a number of untitled poems.

It is in what you could call “Poem # 10” that Dylan portrays some verbal confrontations with a frustrated and angry individual. It bears close reading, and here it is:

you tell me about politics
this that
you speak of rats.
geese. a world of peace
you stumble stammer
pound your fist
an’ i tell you there are no politics
you swear
tell me how much you care
you cheat the lunch counter man
out of a pack of cigarettes
an’ i tell you there are no politics
you tell me of goons’
graves. ginks an’ finks
an’ of what you’ve read
an’ how things should be
an’ what you’d do if . . .
an i say someone’s been
tamperin’ with your head
you jump
raise your voice
an’ gyrate yourself
t’ the tone of principles
your arm is raised
an’ i tell you there are no politics
in the afternoon you run
t’ keep appointments
with false lovers
an’ this leaves you
drained by nightfall
you ask me questions
an’ i say that every question
if it’s a truthful question
can be answered by askin’ it
you stomp
get mad
i say it’s got nothin’ t’ do with
gertrude stein
you turn your eyes
t’ the radio
an’ tell me what a
wasteland exists in television
you rant an’ rave
of poverty
your fingers crawl the walls
the screen door leaves black marks
across your nose
your breath remains on
window glass
bullfight posters hang crooked above your head
an’ the phone rings constantly
you tell me how much i’ve changed
as if that is all there is t’ say
out of the side of your mouth
while talkin’ on the wires
in a completely different
tone of voice
than you had a minute ago
when speakin’ t’ me about something else
i say what’s this about changes?
you say “let’s go get drunk”
light a cigarette
“an’ throw up on the world”
you go t’ your closet
mumblin’ about the phoniness of churches
an’ spastic national leaders
i say groovy but
also holy hollowness too
yes hollow holiness
an’ that some of my best friends
know people that go t’ church
you blow up
slam doors
say “can’t no one say nothin’ t’ you”
i say “what do You think?”
your face laughs
you say “oh yeeeeeaah?”
i’m gonna break up i say
an’ reach for your coat
‘neath piles of paper slogans
i say your house is dirty
you say you should talk
your hallway stinks as
we walk through it
your stairs tilt drastically
your railing’s rotted
an’ there’s blood at the
bottom of your steps
you say t’ meet bricks with bricks
i say t’ meet bricks with chalk
you tell me monster floor plans
an’ i tell you about a bookie shop
in boston givin’ odds on the presidential
race
i’m not gonna bet for a while i say
little children
shoot craps
in the alley garbage pot
you say “nothin’s perfect”
an’ i tell you again
there are no
politics

(© 1964, 1973 Special Rider Music)

While this poem is many things, I believe it is fair to say that it is describing a series of disagreements with a friend of a distinctly left-wing persuasion. We know well enough that Dylan wasn’t surrounded by too many conservative ideologues with whom to argue in Greenwich Village in 1963 and ’64. And this person of whom Dylan says,

You speak of rats. / geese. a world of peace.

and

you rant an’ rave / of poverty

is pretty clearly of a left-wing mindset.

While there’s a lot going on here, I’d like to focus on the elements of hypocrisy and intolerance that Dylan picks up on in his erstwhile friend’s world view.

you swear / tell me how much you care / you cheat the lunch counter man / out of a pack of cigarettes / an’ i tell you there are no politics

Hypocrisy indeed—and of a kind that’s not unfamiliar from some on the left. This individual speaks loudly of how he cares about poverty–the proletariat no doubt—the oppressed and the set-upon. However, Dylan spots him gladly getting away with not paying for a pack of cigarettes, not caring or thinking whether the low-paid lunch counter man will see it coming out of his salary—not caring either that he is stealing from a small business trying to survive in the tough city. In his own mind, quite possibly, the thief would justify it by saying that nobody except the “rich” business owner is losing—and that he himself has little money and deserves to have the cigarettes. This is a microcosmic moment and typifies the desire of many on the left to impose utopian ideas on the world at large (preferably through a powerful central government apparatus) while maintaining an easy disregard for applying similar standards in their daily lives and interactions. It’s emblematic of an ideology that plays down personal responsibility in favor of a state-mandated equality. Stealing the cigarettes is OK to Bob’s friend at the lunch counter, because, in a truly fair world, he would have enough money to buy all the cigarettes he wanted. Tobacco companies and small-business owners wouldn’t be organized around making profits; their wares would be provided to the people at a regulated price that all could afford. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” in Karl Marx’s famous construction.



Those forced to spend a lot of time with determined leftists, or those of us who used to be inclined that way ourselves, can recognize the small hypocrisies that Dylan defines in the what are also the sharply observed urban details of this poem.

And for intolerance, Dylan provides this vignette of an illiberal liberal being called out and not enjoying it one bit:

you go t’ your closet /mumblin’ about the phoniness of churches / an’ spastic national leaders / i say groovy but /also holy hollowness too / yes hollow holiness /an’ that some of my best friends / know people that go t’ church / you blow up / slam doors /say “can’t no one say nothin’ t’ you”

Note, this is not the “born again” fire breathing Dylan of 1979 here defending people who commit the crime-against-the-left of going to conventional churches. This is the 22 or 23 year old Jewish kid from Minnesota, caught up in the maelstrom of early 1960s New York politics, folk-music-singing gurus, Greenwich Village socialists, civil rights activists—powerful personalities, many of whom are sincere and many of whom are bitter and narrow minded, but all of whom see the talented young Dylan as someone they want on their side. They’ve supported him, flattered him when they felt like it, and they fancy he owes them. Where this individual in the poem fits into that network is not defined of-course. However, what a telling piece of deference Dylan gives to this person. When he (the leftist) rails against “the phoniness of churches,” Dylan is not so presumptious as to directly take him on. It’s a riposte so meek it is comical: “Some of my best friends know people” that go to church. Even this, however, is way too much for the friend to take. He blows up, slams doors, says “can’t no one say nothin’ t’ you.” It is not acceptable to him that Dylan should call him to account in any way for his intolerance of churches or church-going folk. He should just go along with the broad brush strokes used to portray the conservative enemy. Truth is secondary to fighting and winning.

Sound familiar?

So, those are a few of the elements of this poem that I enjoy. Before someone takes me to task, I acknowledge that there is a broader theme here too, of-course, summed up by the refrain: “there are no politics.” It would be overdoing to to view this poem as an endorsement of right versus left. Dylan is also, more broadly, taking apart any mindset that views the world through a narrow, dirty telescope, where everything is political, where everything must be broken down into a cause: a battle to be won against the other side. It’s a criticism that undoubtedly would also apply to someone on the right who cannot live or move without determining what is the appropriately conservative. Is a play or a movie on our side or on the other side? That’s a suffocating way to live one’s life, for anyone.

However, it’s worth noting that it’s not conservative-minded folk who have come up with coinages like “the personal is political,” “art is politics,” and so on, and go ever further in trying to bind everyone to politically correct rules of their own making, proscribing some words and thoughts while mandating others.

Lies that life is black and white, indeed. Bob was so right.