The Free-Floating Bob Dylan

The wonderfully inauthentic art of America's most vital singer-songwriter

(Page 2 of 3)

Echoes of this complaint against the unprecedented wealth and opportunities of postwar America sound through the Beats (whose style Dylan pinched in some of his mid-'60s work); intellectuals such as Paul Goodman, whose classic Growing Up Absurd (1960) argued that the "system" in the '50s gave young men no meaningful, authentic choices for life, leading the intelligent and spirited to rebellion; and J.D. Salinger's massively popular The Catcher in the Rye (1951), whose protagonist Holden Caulfield, the patron saint of disaffected, whiny kids everywhere, tellingly directs his harshest contempt at "phonies." Far from merely an era of bland conformity, it seems one couldn't swing an Organization Man in the '50s without whacking some sort of far-out rebel.

Hajdu's explanation of the folk authenticity ethos is evocative, and certainly as good as or better than anything the folkies themselves could have come up with. Folk authenticity was an ill-defined quality you claimed to possess, one that dripped virtue and decency, and that your enemies lacked. Yet the insistence on it was a self-deluding exercise at best. The usually white, usually well-off college kids who championed folk were not the rural, mountain, poor, and often black folk who had actually developed and kept this music alive. By pretending that singing those songs meant absorbing the values that their original guardians exemplified, the folk revivalists were faking it, becoming something that they were not.

But their values still seemed to them "real" somehow. They resolutely sided with nature vs. artifice, cotton vs. rayon, wood vs. plastic. They were opposed to what they saw as the commercial and intellectual values of the dominant culture. While rock 'n' roll in the '50s may have scared many mainstream Americans, to folkies it was just one more plastic, inauthentic product of the Commercial Machine. The Pete Seegers and Joan Baezes of the folk world sought to replace such crass, moneymaking music with songs that reflected what they saw as the struggle and dignity of the common man.

It's easy to laugh at the folkies now, to find their music effete and dull and to find absurd their dream of building a proletarian social consciousness by playing precious British love ballads and songs about miners' travails. But within their own circumscribed world, who can fault them? They had a music and style they loved and wanted to preserve. As Joan Baez buddy (and son of Masterpiece Theater's Alaistair Cooke) John Cooke told Hajdu, "One of the things that made [folk] music different and better than whatever everybody else was listening to was the fact that everybody else wasn't listening to it....It was anticommercial music."

Alas for snobs like Cooke, folk music became a full-on cultural explosion by 1963. Joan Baez became a major pop star; folk was the subject of a weekly ABC TV show Hootenanny and used as a general-purpose cultural signifier in everything from pinball machines to candy bars. Folk may never have lived up to its implied politico-cultural promise to re-authenticate a plastic American middle-class "death culture," but its insistence on authenticity remains a cornerstone of self-consciously cool subcultures, ranging from punk's disdain for "posers" to hip-hop's concern for "keepin' it real."

Going Electric

By any definition, authenticity is something Bob Dylan lacked, even before he adopted his stage name in 1960. Born in 1941, he has warped and changed year by year, evincing no solid core other than an ability to write great songs. He was a small-town, middle-class kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, who loved Little Richard more than anything. He went off to a hip college scene at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and, as insecure new college kids are wont to do, shed his past. He fell in with a crowd of hard-left folkie types and became consumed by the Woody Guthrie myth -- not through the man's actual music but through Bound for Glory, his autobiography about life on the road.

Though he fancied himself a vagabond, Dylan traveled the country only a little bit -- one trip to Colorado and back to Minneapolis, with occasional visits to another left-leaning college town, Madison, Wisconsin. According to stories Sounes dug up, he burgled records from benefactors along the way and lied madly to create a phony legend about himself. He eventually tracked down his hero Guthrie in New York. Guthrie was dying, his voice uncharacteristically slurred by late-stage Huntington's Disease. Guthrie's wife complains that Dylan, thinking he was tapping into Guthrie's essential style, began emulating some of the verbal tics brought on by his illness.

Dylan was well-known for pinching techniques and songs wholesale from others during his early days. Indeed, his genius is intertwined with his ability to both pick up and shed new influences and styles over time. As one Hibbing friend told Sounes, Dylan "had it calculated all the way....Each step, how he was gonna do it, and how you get to be a star." Even while he was the young king of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Dylan violated "authentic" folk codes, first by writing his own songs in a folk or protest mode, and then by returning to his real, hidden roots -- the rhythms and electricity of rock 'n' roll. Dylan's live debut with a full electric band happened at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. A legend has bloomed around it: When he performed three songs with an electrified rock band, hidebound folkies booed en masse, shocked and appalled that Dylan dared to challenge folk's limits.

The reality is that he'd already released Bringing It All Back Home, which included a whole side of electric rock. At the time of the Newport show, his rock classic "Like A Rolling Stone" had been released as a single the week before and would in three weeks hit number 2 on the charts. It's unlikely most of the audience was shocked or angered by anything other than a bad sound system. Still, there's no question that folk reactionaries such as Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax were appalled by Dylan's performance. Seeger still maintains that if he'd had an ax that day, he'd have cut the electric cable to shut Dylan up.

Dylan has carefully played to the myth of the overwhelming boo, once noting in his best hipster-bitch mode that "I can't put anybody down for coming and booing. After all, they paid to get in....Lots of whole families had driven down from Vermont, lots of nurses and their patients, and, well, like they just came to hear some relaxing hoedowns, you know, maybe an Indian polka or two. And then just when everything's going all right, here I come on, and the whole place turns into a beer factory."

Musical Chameleon

More than his folk comrades, Dylan recognized that authenticity -- at least the folkies' restrictive version of it -- is likely to lead to artistic stagnation and irrelevance. "He not busy being born is busy dying," Dylan sang. Yet even as he was leaving the folk world's values behind, Dylan couldn't even manage to be an authentic apostate. Through most of "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," which appears on the acoustic side of Bringing It All Back Home, he seems to be channeling Paul Goodman. Dylan trowels on disturbing visions of the emptiness of modern life, spitting at standard authority figures and the lie of commerce, at "toy guns that spark/flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/It's easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred."

Like Goodman, Dylan tried to lay bare the supposed spiritual emptiness of consumerism and middle-class life. So even as he was selling out by going electric, Dylan failed at being authentically inauthentic. Or to put it differently: He was a contradictory human being, with no allegiance to entrapping cultural codes. He had everything he needed, he was an artist, and as he exited the folk world, he didn't look back.

For the most part he still hasn't. In every step of his career, Dylan's vitality as a singer and writer has come from creating new personae and new voices. A generic Dylan imitation is something every drunken wag at a party thinks he can nail. But listen in a row to vocal performances ranging from "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1965) to "Lay Lady Lay" (1969) to "Gotta Serve Somebody" (1979) to "Things Have Changed" (2000). You'll hear an immensely skilled vocalist who can sing with marvelous expressiveness in a wide variety of styles and tones. While rock performers such as David Bowie and Neil Young get more play out of being "musical chameleons," it is equally true of Dylan, who has invented fresh ways for a rock band to sound on almost every one of his albums since the mid-'60s. It's rare that a song from one would not sound out of place on another. On tour, he reinvents his own oldies every time he plays them, radically altering the tempo, tone, and arrangements. Dylan's singularity as an artist comes from his penchant for -- perhaps even his commitment to -- constant reinvention of the self. As one might challenge Holden Caulfield, what does it mean to be a phony if constant change is what the individual personality chooses? We are all nothing more than what we are -- existence precedes essence, as Jean-Paul Sartre, another hip intellectual who loomed large in Dylan's early days, said. Thus, authenticity becomes a slippery idea indeed. Perhaps endless carping about who is more "real" could be settled in the manner of Bishop Berkeley, by the debaters bashing themselves against rocks.

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  • nfl jerseys||

    yhz

  • John||

    Bob is the Joker. It has always been an act. That is what makes it great. And that is why he never faded into tiresome irrelevance the way his folkie counterparts did.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    Dylan has written a huge body of wonderful songs with rich, fresh language, a vast emotional range, and an appreciation for and understanding of the totality of human experience. He has blended these with exhilarating melodies and musical backings. He has been absurd, tender, vengeful, smart, sexy, foolish, mystic, pious, nostalgic, journalistic, and phantasmagorical.

    Somebody get Barfman in here. I think his emetic rate is about to go through the roof.

  • John||

    If only he could live up to the standards of real artists. You know, like Madonna.

  • Neoliberal Kochtopus||

    That's right.

  • sarcasmic||

    Dylan songs sound best when someone else plays them.

  • Almanian!||

    hah! yes

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Only the cover of 'All Along The Watchtower' is better than the Dylan original and that is because Hendrix did his best guitar improv in it.

  • anon||

    I honestly had no idea Dylan wrote "All Along the Watchtower."

  • sarcasmic||

    He wrote "Knocking on Heaven's Door" as well, though Guns 'n' Roses did a better job playing it.

  • Almanian!||

    My garage band in the 70's did a better job playing it.

  • BigT||

    The commercially available Knockin' is terrible. I had a few other live versions on bootleg albums. All better. One was absolutely sublime. I gave all those away a few years ago - to a real vinyl head.

  • Irish||

    Dylan songs sound best when someone else plays them.

    I agree sometimes, but Like a Rolling Stone is just a great damn song. Hurricane is also great, even though it's a total misrepresentation of what actually happened.

  • Almanian!||

    I cannot begin to express how much I hate Bob Dylan as a performer. Written some REALLY great songs - but they all sound better when someone else sings them.

    He's more overrated than Springsteen, which is saying something.

    And - Bob - it's been, what, 50, 60 years? LEARN HOW TO PLAY THE HARMONICA, YOU WHEEZING WINDBAG!

  • John||

    He is not as overrated as Springsteen. Springsteen is a terrible performer who also can't write songs.

  • Almanian!||

    I just hate them both. Dylan's just been overrated for longer cause he's been around longer :)

  • John||

    Yeah but Dylan really has written some great songs.

  • Apple||

    No one is more overrated than Springsteen. Bob Dylan mostly deserves his high ratings. I'm even a fan of his own performances on the records up through somewhere in the '70s. I didn't buy into the "he can't sing" shit. I wouldn't pay to watch him grumble through unrecognizable tunes now, but he WAS great and still writes good songs. Springsteen isn't fit to lick his boots.

  • Hawk Spitui||

    Let's face it - America may never produce a Bach or a Beethoven, but we'll always have an endless supply of guitar twanging commies who can't carry a tune in a bucket.

  • Loki||

  • Almanian!||

    Hah! I always considered this to be a not-quite-so-direct parody. Heard it on a Python album back in the day - maybe "SEcret Policeman's Ball" or something?

    Anyway - "I've suffered for my music. Now it's your turn..."

  • sarcasmic||

    That was terrible yet oddly compelling.

  • Almanian!||

    exactly

  • ChrisO||

    Adrian Belew's impression of Dylan on Frank Zappa's song "Flakes" has always been my favorite.

    "Want to buy some mandies, Bob?"

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    Yes, a discussion on Dylan is proof of the inanity of the Peanut Gallery.

    No single person has contributed more to popular music since 1960 than he has - both in performance and composition.

  • Almanian!||

    Shriek, ladies and gentlemen! He'll be here all week! Try the veal!

    Shriek - THE BEATLES. CAROLE FUCKING KING, EVEN!

    You're a moron.

  • sarcasmic||

    Page, Clapton, Lennon, Presley, fuck. Dylan wrote a lot of words, but that's about it.

  • Irish||

    No single person has contributed more to popular music since 1960 than he has - both in performance and composition.

    I like Dylan, but this is just absurd. Was there anyone other than Bob Dylan that actually attempted to write, play, or perform like Bob Dylan? Not really. People covered his songs but they always did so in a way that was totally different than Dylan's version.

    Compare that to the Beatles, the Stones, or any number of influential punk bands who were imitated by all of their contemporaries. Compare Dylan's influence to the early rap and hip hop artists who essentially invented a style of music. Dylan was no where near as influential.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I was just thinking about Led Zeppelin and how three quarters of the metal in the 80s was a direct knockoff of them.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Isn't he Mr. Green Jeans' son?

  • Almanian!||

    DON'T TALK SHIT ABOUT MR. GREEN JEANS. I always liked him better than Captain Kangaroo.

  • Pro Libertate||

    What's wrong with the Captain? I loved him and that show.

  • Mainer2||

    http://www.sctvguide.ca/episodes/sctv_s1.htm

    What about Captain Combat and Mr Green Fatigues ?

  • anon||

    This 45 years/45 days thing is just their way of slacking off for a month and a half at work, isn't it?

  • Almanian!||

    I believe you are correct.

  • ||

    Was this view of Dylan as an invented man, the changing man, and a cultural marauder new back in 2001? It seems to be widely accepted now. His 2001 album was called Love & Theft and I thought that was a joke on him stealing from all the things he loved to make his music. I'm Not There in 2007 was all about Dylan putting on and taking off different personae.

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