by carl wilson

Parking Meter Watch


Sorry this didn't come earlier - I was just wandering along minding my own business when WHAM, the biggest traffic spike ever hits, thanks to the Slate link via Alex Ross, and meanwhile I'm editing 10 million stories for the Globe's big special project this weekend and can't participate. The 24-hour infotainment universe sux.

But maybe some stragglers will still be into the discussion.

Alex says: "I'm not so sure Chronicles reveals Dylan's early '60s political period as opportunistic or aestheticized. There's a deep nostalgia for the entire folkie universe, page after page on its characters and lore. The book doesn't delve much into politics as such, but the Old Left's earnest convictions—Communist, socialist, New Deal, what have you—seem inseparable from the funky realness of the scene."

One thing I appreciated about Alex's big Dylan piece in the New Yorker was that it got at how strange it is to be a non-boomer on this subject matter. I think Dylan's pretty obviously an Empire State-sized 20th-century cultural figure, but if you read the boomer reviews from England, especially, on Chronicles, you'd get mockery of his claim to have "rock'n'roll roots," for example, because they all knew he'd only ever been a folkie, and if you hear the average person around the office that age talk about him, usually they think of him almost exclusively as a protest-song singer (bizarre considering how short that part of his career really was) - he's frozen in their memories in one dimension. If this is frustrating to hear, I can only imagine how it is to live through, and I can't blame Dylan for using the biggest, weirdest axes he could find to chop that icon to pieces. Consciously or not, he hated Bob Dylan The Voice of a Generation so virulently that he was willing to go stark ravers to banish him, and religion and whiteface etc etc were all escape plots gone wrong.

Chronicles - like his last album, and maybe the one before that - could only come when he felt he'd made his break, that the madness was over. It's only now he's willing to admit that folk music (in essence including pop music) was his original religion and always would be, that he loved folk songs' use of Biblical language more than he ever loved the Bible (he doesn't say so but the implication's etched deep between the lines of Chronicles), that he loved how socialism and civil rights animated a folk narrative more than he ever loved the sounds of ideologies clashing.

So [...]

... any claim on Dylan's part that he was being opportunistic is, I think, another evasive manoeuvre. But the aestheticization is just who he is - if he's a preacher and a prophet he's a preacher of words not of messages, a prophet of poetry not of revolt.

Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding ... It was life magnified. It was all I needed to exist. Trouble was, there wasn't enough of it. It was out of date, had no proper connection to the actualities, the trends of the time. It was a huge story but hard to come across.

I think this is where his politics catch fire: In this sense that these songs were supposed to connect to the "trends of the time" - to the Ricky Nelson he was oddly mesmerized by, to the way the Civil War was still alive around him - and that he glimpsed that he could be the one to make that happen.

But does that mean, as John suggests on Utopian Turtletop that Dylan was "a good sincere liberal activist for the time that he was"? I don't think so. I think, especially from reading Chronicles, that he pretty much was a kid from the sticks who didn't know much of the world - he strikes a tone of awe about the communists and anarchists around him in the Village, indicating that often didn't know what they were on about. I think he didn't have the energy for issues the way he did about stories and songs and poems (including ones about issues). I think he always had a different, visionary horizon held up to his causes, something closer to the way that Burroughs and Frank O'Hara were political - it was a poetic politic, always shooting for that fifth dimension, even if it could only be attained by passing through the door to greater justice in this one, if you catch my meaning. People who summed him up as a civil-rights guy or an anti-war guy were stopping on the first lilypad when he wanted to hop skip and jump across the Styx. And once he had he didn't give a shit about that first lilypad anymore. The trouble is just that the revisionist in him was given to wishing that lilypad out of existence.

Alex says, "On the other hand, the cynical-radical mid-'60s period, in which Dylan made such a nasty break with the Old Left, is hardly touched on. It's like a nightmare he can hardly bear to think about."

We have to assume future volumes are meant to address this, but: Radical? Yes. Cynical? Is it cynical to travel out beyond the boundaries of everyone's expectations or is it hopeful in another way (even if you yourself can't make it back)? Is that actually nasty?

The most revealing bit on politics in Chronicles comes right after the Civil War-era-newspaper-obsession passage, and I think that's just where it belongs - it portrays Dylan and his friend Len Chandler as two kids reading the papers and talking about how to write topical songs, and you catch Dylan reading the newspapers of the early sixties with much the same epic bafflement with which he read history:

Reputable psychiatrists were saying that some of these people who claimed to be so against nuclear testing are secular last-judgment types - that if nuclear bombs are banned, it would deprive them of their highly comforting sense of doom. Len and I couldnt' believe this stuff.... Semantics and labels could drive you crazy. The inside story on a man was that if he wanted to become successful, he must become a rugged individualist, but then he should make some adjustments. After that he needed to conform... Len and I thought this stuff was idiotic. Reality was not so simple and everybody had their own take on it. ... I hadn't yet begun writing streams of songs as I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd - there was a certain consciousness of madness at work. Even the photos of Jackie Kennedy going in and out of revolving doors at the Carlyle Hotel uptown, carrying shopping bags of clothes, looked disturbing... The dominant myth of the day seemed to be that anybody could do anything, even go to the moon. You could do whatever you wanted - in the ads and in the articles, ignore your limitations, defy them. If you were an indecisive person, you could become a leader and wear lederhosen. If you were a housewife, you could become a glamour girl with rhinestone sunglasses. Are you slow witted? No worries - you can be an intellectual genius. If you're old, you can be young. Anything was possible. It was almost like a war against the self. The art world was changing, too, being turned on its head. Abstract painting and atonal music were hitting the scene, mangling recognizable reality. Goya himself would have been lost at sea if he tried to sail the new wave of art. Len and I would look at all this stuff for what it was worth, and not one cent more.

Now, some will complain that I elided Cubans and Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson from that section - but then I also left out Genet and feminism and a pretty list of "new modern-day phobias" and the Chicago Blackhawks. With rare exceptions I think his political songs were written with that same jumble of metaphors devouring reality devouring metaphors, the Mississippi rolling on behind them past the righteous and the wicked and the ravenous and weak. I guess finally the question is whether he saw those songs as political (rather than "topical") the way they ultimately have been received, and the biggest problem in answering that is that so many people have the mistaken impression that they were there. As we get historically further and further from that conventional wisdom we'll have a better and better sense of how to read him and hear him, just the way we forget whatever political contexts Shakespeare's plays come from, obvious as they once might have been, and take them for the ever-rearranging puzzles that they are.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 20 at 7:15 PM | Linking Posts




Zoilus by Carl Wilson