13 April 2011

Going Through All These Things Twice

An old friend, both in age and longevity, sent me the link to Maureen Dowd’s critique of Bob Dylan in the April 9th edition of the New York Times. Others have responded, but I want to weigh in on this one. I’ve been thinking about Dylan for almost fifty years.

The essence of Dowd’s critique is that Dylan’s recent series of concerts in China were evidence of his ‘selling out’ because he did not sing “The Times They Are a’ Changin,” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dowd claims that to have included these songs in his playlist would have aligned Dylan with the democratic forces in China who the government has actively repressed. She writes, “He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.” I don’t understand what she was talking about finally.

Dowd’s criticism reminds me of the crowds who booed Dylan back in 1965 when he sang—first at the Newport Folk Festival— accompanied by electric guitars. At the Albert Hall some fool even called out to him during his performance “Judas,” to which Dylan responded, “You’re a liar!” I love that response. It was so honest. (Actually I prefer his next response to this hostility even better: he turned to The Band, at that time his back-up group, and said to them, “Play it fucking loud!” and they broke into what many think as the greatest rock n’ roll song ever written: “Like a Rolling Stone.” If nothing else, that composition changed forever the way music was written, listened to, and played. And I would guess that there were many in that hostile audience that bought the single that made it so popular. Then, everyone wanted him to be just like them so that they could be assured of who they were; then, Dylan refused the coronation: don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters! And now in 2011 Maureen Down has resurrected the old but discredited charge against Bob Dylan.

Then, in 1965, his detractors accused Dylan of abandoning the purism of folk music with his use of electric instruments and of walking away from the political struggle of which folk music spoke and for which Dylan had been declared (without his assent) spokesperson. People define Dylan’s career as pre- and post-electrification as if the volume defined its theme and as if the music’s physical source altered somehow its honesty. Dylan has never defined himself as a protest singer; he never even identified himself as a folk singer. “Everyone knows I’m not a folksinger,” he says early in his career when he was only 24 years old. He turns seventy this year. Every one seems to enjoy forgetting that even as he was writing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War,” Dylan was also writing “The Girl from the North Country” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” You will recall that in the latter song Dylan writes longingly of a time when “As easy it was to tell black from white,/It was all that easy to tell wrong from right.” He knew at the beginning that the world was too complex to speak in absolutes, and that this belief in a Manichean world was an idealist and precious position that he could not continue to hold and survive in the world. In this acknowledgement of complexity and doubt rests the power of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Having depicted the obvious crime and injustice perpetrated in this case (fictionalized as it had to have been) appealing to the self-satisfied moralists who saw in the case yet another instance of rabid Southern racism, Dylan sang, “All you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears, Bury the rag deep in your face/For now’s the time for your tears.” Dylan knew that it took more than words and sympathy to change the order of things; he knew that all those who came to hear his protest songs allowed him to do all of the work so that they could peripherally participate in the struggle. Dylan knew that this self-righteousness demanded shame. Dylan refused to relieve anyone of his/her responsibility. Dowd understood little of this. Even while he was singing “It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Dylan was also saying, “But it’s not to stand naked under unknowin’ eyes, Its for myself and my friends my stories are sung.” He did not intend to proselytize but to explore in public some troubling ideas. And even as he sang that “The Times Are a’ Changin,” he admitted in “Restless Farewell,” “You’re right from your side. I’m right from mine. We’re just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.” Dylan knew early that the political and the personal could not be separated, and he had no intention to ignore either one in his work. From the beginning Dylan disavowed any role as leader or moral exemplar. In the Playboy interview in 1965 Nat Hentoff asks Dylan, “Would you advise young people to skip college, then?” And Bob Dylan responds, “I wouldn’t advise anybody to do anything.” It’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung. I don’t know that it gets any clearer than that.

I don’t think Maureen Dowd has looked at this interview or she would have there heard Dylan say, “Everyone knows I’m not a folk singer.” Dylan was never easily definable except by his own self-invention, and he continued over the years to reinvent himself. Sometimes I could go with him, at other times he didn’t speak to me. But I’m glad I stuck with him because that he was always present made me secure.

When Maureen Dowd criticizes Dylan she speaks, perhaps, from some place that demands a singular uncompromising standard that Dylan should exemplify. It is an unfair demand.
The concerts in China of which Ms. Dowd is so critical must be more carefully scanned. When I go to the website, Boblinks, and look at the play lists for both concerts, I find the following:

Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
Tangled Up In Blue
Honest With Me
Simple Twist Of Fate
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Love Sick
Rollin' And Tumblin'
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
Highway 61 Revisited
Spirit On The Water
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad of a Thin Man
(1st encore)
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower
(2nd encore)
Forever Young

Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking
Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
Things Have Changed
Tangled Up in Blue
Honest With Me (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on lap steel)
Simple Twist Of Fate
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
Blind Willie McTell
The Levee's Gonna Break
Desolation Row
Highway 61 Revisited
Spirit On The Water
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone
Forever Young

These are very typical sets from a Bob Dylan concert. I know. I have been attending such events for more than forty-five years. Both shows began with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking:”

     Stripes on your shoulders

     Stripes on your back and on your hands

     Stripes on your shoulders

     Stripes on your back and on your hands

     Swords piercing your side

     Blood and water flowing through the land

Slow Train Coming may have been a religiously-theme album, but this song from that album contains outrage at events in Tiananmen Square (and a great many places more): it is clear that from the outset at these concerts in China Dylan spoke politics, but as always, Dylan’s politics could not be separated from the personal. “Tangled Up in Blue” is evidence of this complex intertwining of the two. Dowd’s critique derives from her simplistic awareness concerning a considerable body of Dylan’s work. I wonder why Dowd sees no political agenda in Dylan’s early song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” sung as the second offering in Beijing. Also offered in Beijing, less than a month after the disaster at the nuclear power plants in Japan, Dylan sang “A Hard Rains Gonna Fall,” composed in 1963 when the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed all too real. And the next night in Shanghai he included “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” another reference to distasters for which humans must take responsibility. Wasn’t Dowd listening? At the concert in Shanghai Dylan sang “Desolation Row” and then closed the show with “Ballad of a Thin Man” accusing: “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.” As in every concert I have ever attended on the Never Ending Tour, Dylan wove the overtly political with the overtly personal creating a complex tapestry that spoke immediately to our lives in the contemporary world.

I think it is not of Dylan that Dowd spoke in her article; rather, it was of herself she spoke. I think Dowd demanded that Dylan be who she insisted he be despite his continual refusal to enact her desires. I think she spoke from her own personal disappointments and feelings of inadequacies. She could not hear what he actually had to say because she was listening for something that she wanted to hear. She could not hear Bob Dylan over the cries of her own troubled conscience.


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