Thursday, October 21, 2004

Bob Dylan, Revisited

In his new memoir Chronicles, Dylan protests his protest-image.

My experience growing up at the tail end of the baby boom generation was not unlike the youngest child’s lament of having to wear the older sibling’s hand-me-downs.

The cultural milestones of the 60s were never mine to experience first-hand, but were related through the eyes, words, and interpretations of those ten and twenty years older, and who clearly reveled in their identification as part of a history-making generation. The cultural Zeitgeist, the seminal communal events, the political tragedies, and the inter-generational conflicts had already been put on, worn through, and passed down by their original owners.

My position as the youngest child in a large family of much older siblings only reinforced this feeling of being a spectator who just missed the parade.

But certain sixties cultural icons I would experience through a contemporary lens and call my own. Kurt Vonnegut, the Rolling Stones, and even Marlon Brando all continued their work through the 70s, 80s, 90s; they produced fewer works of artistic acclaim but their underlying talent was still satisfying as a fan.

But the most enigmatic and compelling “60s” artist who I devotedly followed through the years is Bob Dylan - the drama, beauty, skill, and cerebral power of his songs continues to move me in my forties.

But my appreciation of Dylan never seemed to square with the conventional narrative.

This standard bearer of the counterculture movement was, as the story went, to have been doggedly living out, post-60s, the downside of his career, offering up the occasional gem, but artistically adrift and politically irrelevant without the moorings of his “protest” roots. Dylan in the Disco 70s, the Punk 80s, and the Alternative 90s was simply an anachronism sans historical context who nevertheless was owed reverence as the Poet-Laureate of the Protest.

But I appreciated Dylan’s music without this historical baggage. For me, Dylan was just hitting his stride post ‘60s era:

After the universally acclaimed Blood on the Tracks, the panned 70s album Street Legal, and its opus “No Time to Think” were immediate and compelling, his critically impugned born-again period yielded up the elegant “Precious Angel,” “I Believe in You,” and “What Can I Do For You;” the dismissed Shot of Love album brought us “Heart of Mine” and the unmatched “Every Grain of Sand,” Infidels included “Sweetheart Like You” and “Jokerman,” and in the late 80s he delivered Oh, Mercy with “Ring Them Bells” and “Shooting Star” – masterworks all.

Not just lyrics, or rebel attitude – the conventional interpretation of Dylan’s power - these were works of art from a musician that knows how melody, rhythm, structure, and voice elevates a story and catapults words from poetry into a fully-realized song.

His resurgence in the critical media during the 90s (Time Out of Mind) and the recent Love and Theft have been treated as a return to his 60s form – but for me, Dylan had never left.

And now Dylan, in his own words in Chronicles, weighs in on the subject of his 60s persona and his role as an icon of a generation:

I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the big Cheese.”

You can almost hear the aging hipsters choking on their bean curd. But Dylan wasn’t at Woodstock, and wasn’t at Altamont. He did hook up with Joan Baez, a more outspoken political activist, but Dylan never took the Timothy Leary, John Lennon, or Abbie Hoffman path to social protest.

I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”

Dylan even fantasizes, at the height of his fame, about a conventional suburban existence (of which he attempted in upstate New York), not out of a reaction to that fame, but as a realization of his own (yes) middle-American values and his new financial means to achieve it.

Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it. . . I wanted to set fire to these people (who insisted that he lead a political movement).”

Somehow I don't think Dylan is nostalgic for those sit-ins. Dylan is an observer, and views the world through the sweeping archetypes and narratives of the folk singer – he was never going to be a leader of any contemporary social movement, other than that which furthered the expression of his art (ie plugging in at Newport).

All I ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities.” – Absolutely. And his creation of those songs have continued through to this day for those who could divorce the conventional interpretation from reality and let his work stand on its own, timeless yet relevant, iconoclastic yet apolitical, and packed with truth not fashion.

As he sings on another of his powerful 70s-era works “when you gonna wake up, and strengthen the things that remain?”. . . Dylan has been rock solid, it’s those with superficial agendas that have obscured the genius of his music.