Saturday, April 9, 2011

Forever Bob

If you know me or read this blog, you know my view of Bob Dylan. Simply put, I think he is the singular most important musical artist of the last half of the twentieth century. And that's with full knowledge that while he wasn't the sperm that birthed the baby that became rock n' roll, he was the brilliant son.
Dylan's first incarnation was folk music, of course, which he changed with glimmering literacy at the zeitgeist. He is on record as denying that he was the Voice of a Generation, although many most assuredly disagree. Then he plugged in and created a ragged sonic bohemianism in a mid-60s fantasmagorium that mesmerized the culture and influenced (and intimidated) his friends and peers. He imagined
Highway 61 Revisited, perhaps still the finest record of the genre. He made the stunning Blonde on Blonde with a pack of Nashville cats, and when the Summer of Love arrived--with Beatles and Beach Boys in Nehru jackets trekking to India to meditate with the Maharishi--Bob Dylan retreated to Woodstock with his family and a sack of quiet songs. He hung out in a basement with that bunch of Canadians in his backing band the Hawks, who then became the Band, and everything changed all over again.
I'm a Bob Cat, all right, so I read with interest
Maureen Dowd's critical take on the Bard's first trip to China, wherein Dylan allegedly agreed to a censored setlist:
Maybe the songwriter should reread some of his own lyrics: “I think you will find/When your death takes its toll/All the money you made/Will never buy back your soul.”
Here's more of Dowd's piece; I'm not one to give much credence to a Beltway writer when it comes to dissertations on music, but Dylan's legacy bleeds into the culture, and has always been about more than a G chord:

“Whatever the counterculture was, I’d seen enough of it,” (Dylan) wrote. He complained of being “anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent.”

Performing his message songs came to feel “like carrying a package of heavy rotting meat,” he wrote...

David Hajdu, the New Republic music critic, says the singer has always shown a tension between “not wanting to be a leader and wanting to be a celebrity.”

In Hajdu’s book, “Positively 4th Street,” Dylan is quoted saying that critics who charged that he’d sold out to rock ’n’ roll had it backward.

“I never saw myself as a folksinger,” he said. “They called me that if they wanted to. I didn’t care. I latched on, when I got to New York City, because I saw (what) a huge audience there was. I knew I wasn’t going to stay there. I knew it wasn’t my thing. ... I became interested in folk music because I had to make it somehow.”

“Folk music,” he concluded, “is a bunch of fat people.”

Hajdu told me that Dylan has distanced himself from his protest songs because “he’s probably aware of the kind of careerism that’s apparent in that work.” Dylan employed propaganda to get successful but knows those songs are “too rigidly polemical” to be his best work.

“Maybe the Chinese bureaucrats are better music critics than we give them credit for,” Hajdu said, adding that Dylan was now “an old-school touring pro” like Frank Sinatra Sr.

Sean Wilentz, the Princeton professor who wrote “Bob Dylan in America,” said that the Chinese were “trying to guard the audience from some figure who hasn’t existed in 40 years. He’s been frozen in aspic in 1963 but he’s not the guy in the work shirt and blue jeans singing ‘Masters of War.’ ”

Wilentz and Hajdu say you can’t really censor Dylan because his songs are infused with subversion against all kinds of authority, except God. He’s been hard on bosses, courts, pols and anyone corrupted by money and power.

I gave up trying to figure out Bob Dylan's career over 30 years ago when he made a Christian record that I didn't entirely hate. I don't know why (if?) he allowed Chinese officials to tell him what to do, but I'm not sure I want to know why Bob Dylan does anything he does. I don't know anything about magic, either, but I still love it when a dove flies out of the handkerchief.


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