Regular readers may remember that at this time last year both Dad and I had taken a rain check on Major League Baseball because it was depressing to watch anything of American origin with the country going down the fascist-racist path.
The George Floyd protests gave my dear father hope that the American people had finally come to their senses and that real change was in the air. Concurrently with those protests, polls also showed Joe Biden with a healthy lead over Voldemort and that the Democrats had a real shot at taking the Senate and booting Voldemort’s partner-in-crime-and-corruption, Mitch McConnell, out of the all-powerful majority leader role. And wild-eyed optimist that he is, Dad saw the visible support of professional athletes on behalf of the BLM protests as another sign that the United States had finally turned things around . . . and a great excuse for tuning in truncated MLB season and the NBA playoffs.
Note that his daughter does not share his optimism. Biden could be leading by 30 points and it wouldn’t matter. The COVID-19 numbers combined with Voldemort’s approval rating tell me that 40 percent of Americans think he’s doing a helluva job, and that’s more than enough cover for either another stolen election or a Reichstag fire coupled with a state-of-emergency suspension of all civil rights. Since I don’t think the fat fuck can physically survive for long, I fully expect Ivanka to be running the country sometime in 2021.
Still pretty sour on my former homeland (though I go through spurts when I can’t help but tune into the horror show called “news”), I initially refused my father’s invitations to come over and watch some baseball after I returned from vacation. But dad has a way of wearing me down and I finally agreed to watch the Giants-Dodgers matchup scheduled for August 26 (which we would watch via DVR on the 27th). Giants-Dodgers games were always the most intense, (even when the Giants sucked, as they do now), so I thought it might be fun to indulge in nostalgia.
“Sorry, Sunshine—game canceled.”
“What? In August? In California? There can’t be any wildfires that close to the Bay! Coronavirus?”
“No—I guess you haven’t heard the latest. The cops shot another black man in the back.”
“Both teams decided not to play in protest of the shooting.”
For a moment I was stunned that the Giants and Dodgers could be on the same side under any circumstances, but after my brain had time to process the news, I said, “That is fucking awesome!”
“It’s happening, sunshine. People aren’t putting up with this shit anymore. Protesting works.”
“Spoken like a true son of the 60s. But whether it works or not, I’m glad they did what they did. Maybe it will sink in somewhere down the line, but . . .”
“Hey. How’s that review of Freewheelin‘ you promised me? Maybe that will rescue you from your cynicism.”
“Haven’t started it yet. And by the way, cynicism is just a manifestation of frustrated idealism. I long for a better world but I don’t think most people give a shit—hence, cynicism.”
“Well, let’s see how you feel after Freewheelin’. May young Bob heal your soul.”
Bob Dylan’s first album sold so poorly that there was talk at Columbia about dropping him. Fortunately for posterity, John Hammond’s voice still carried a lot of weight, and with additional support from Johnny Cash, he managed to convince the nay-sayers that Dylan deserved another shot.
While Dylan’s début featured only two original compositions (both revealing the influence of Woody Guthrie), in the months that followed he found his muse and his voice. The muse in question was a political activist for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) by the name of Suze Rotolo; you can see her “smile that could light up a street full of people” (according to Dylan) on the album cover. There is no question that his relationship with Suze motivated Dylan to shift his songwriting attention to more topical subjects involving culture and politics, but Dylan’s embrace of Woody Guthrie had already predisposed him to follow that path.
What’s important is what he admired about Guthrie: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” Some protest songs are satirical, others paint the ugly truth with a grim brush, but some of the greatest protest songs express deep empathy from those suffering from injustice. Sometimes that empathy is captured in the lyrics (Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune”); sometimes it’s captured in the singer’s interpretation (Frank Sinatra’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” at Carnegie Hall). The fact that Dylan identified with Guthrie’s empathy meant he was capable of empathy himself . . . he just needed to let it come to the surface in his own compositions.
Dylan covers all the bases on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: the satiric, the bleak, the empathetic, the absurd and the self-pitying. This is the folk version of Bob Dylan; most of the songs are just Dylan with his guitar and harmonica. After listening to the layered and heavily processed recordings of the Beach Boys and immersing myself in the complex tunings and noise rock of Sonic Youth (review coming soon), I have to say that the sheer simplicity of the album was refreshing, reminding me that sometimes a simple arrangement of voice and guitar can have more power than a symphony orchestra or the loudest amp stacks.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”: What can be said about a song that is familiar all over the world, a song that people know so well that they’ve forgotten its meaning and sing it in rote like they do “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Quite a lot, actually. One sure-fire test of determining whether or not a creative effort qualifies as art is timelessness, and “Blowin in the Wind” is unfortunately timeless . . . depending on your sense of morality.
Dylan’s version is as simple as simple gets: a three-chord guitar song in I-IV-V mode. It might have been one of the first songs you learned when you were trying to get your head and fingers around the guitar. The popular version by Peter, Paul & Mary is more elaborate, with the choral melody established in the guitar intro and the emphatic shift to the V chord in the verse lines where Dylan returns to the root. PP&M also added a complementary minor chord that provides a pointed note of sadness. Placing them both in the same key for comparison, Dylan’s version is G-C-D and PP&M’s G-C-D7-Em. Easy peasy.
Dylan sings in a voice characterized by weariness and sadness, generally allowing the words to speak for themselves. PP&M made more extensive use of different dynamics (soft-LOUD) and Mary Travers’ heartfelt passion comes through loud and clear above the harmonies. Both versions work, confirming the truth that great songs allow for multiple interpretations. I think the difference between the two is that Mary Travers’ approach comes across as advocacy, a call to action, whereas Bob Dylan’s take is as an expression of empathy, a call to reflect on the suffering of the disadvantaged. The line “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” is clearly related to the Civil Rights Movement, and the weariness in Bob’s voice reflects the weariness of African-Americans who at that time had waited a century to achieve true emancipation. What’s truly remarkable is that this is Bob Dylan at twenty-one, fresh from the prairie, having spent most of his life in an area of the country where the population is as white as the winter snow, writing a song that captured “the infinite sweep of humanity.”
I think “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a beautiful and moving song . . . and I find it intensely frustrating. I feel the same way about “We Shall Overcome”— I resist the “someday” in that song as much as I resist “the answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.” I want the answers to the rhetorical questions posed in the song to be expressed with crystal clarity. End war. Eliminate injustice. Give everyone the freedom to live their lives to their fullest potential. Transform the waste of hatred and fear into love and respect. Stop fucking around and do it now.
When “Blowin’ in the Wind” was published in the now-defunct folk journal Sing Out!, Dylan added some commentary about the meaning of the song. One statement stood out for me: “I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.” The corresponding line in the song is “How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
I thought about that comment a lot and came to the conclusion that it no longer applies to the United States. The people in the Trump administration don’t think separating children from their parents and putting them in cages is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think using the power of their offices to enrich themselves is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think . . . well, let’s skip down to the last verse:
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
Narcissistic sociopaths can’t feel empathy, so the first question is moot. As for the second question, apparently 183,000 dead Americans (as of today) isn’t enough for Trump and the GOP. It is what it is.
The timelessness of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is dependent on listeners having a certain amount of moral fiber. The song fails the timelessness test in a post-morality, post-truth universe.
“Girl from the North Country”: When young Bob visited the UK, he hooked up with legendary folk artist Martin Carthy and learned a few tunes, including the song we know as “Scarborough Fair.” Bob borrowed some bits (plagiarism doesn’t apply to songs in the public domain) to tell a tale of love long past. As is usually the case with the gossip-obsessed music press, there was a lot of speculation about which of three former Dylan lovers was the girl in the song, to which I respond, “WHO GIVES A SHIT?”
The song is bookended by the “she once was a true love of mine” verses we all know, with the more interesting differentiation contained in the three middle stanzas. Bob is obviously describing a scene that took place in his northern Minnesota days (I’ve never heard of New York City referred to as “the north country”) and he paints a vivid picture of a memory that he carried with him to Greenwich Village:
If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
Please see if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair’s hangin’ long,
That’s the way I remember her best.
Men—always looking at the tits. I’m glad he cut off the verse before launching into a paean about her Minnesota-winter rock-hard nipples.
Seriously, this is a lovely little song and Bob sings it with tender feeling.
“Masters of War”: After that charming little interlude it’s back to the heavy stuff, and Dylan pulls no punches in this all-out attack on the merchants of death who profit from mass misery. Like “Girl from the North Country,” the tune is from an English folk song (“Nottamun Town”). I suppose you could say the two songs share similar themes, as both describe manifestations of insanity (though “Nottamun Town” is far more absurdist and has nothing to do with war). While I completely agree with Dylan’s attack on immoral beings who profit from meaningless death, I think it was a mistake to shape the song as a direct challenge, because a.) they’re never going to listen, b.) they don’t give a shit about saving their souls, only their profits and c.) it sounds more like an angry rant of one individual instead of a clarion call to join with the singer to end the travesty of profitable war. The last verse is really bitter (much like a few Woody Guthrie songs directed at the fascists):
And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket
On a pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead
Oh, Bobby, try another tack. He’ll just be replaced by another greedy, ghoulish asshole.
“Down the Highway”: This is a little highway-and-suitcase-in-my-hand 12-bar blues featuring some energetic strumming as Dylan longs for Suze Rotolo, who had left New York for a while to study in Italy. The last lines “From the Golden Gate Bridge/All the way to the Statue of Liberty” are pure Guthrie. The song isn’t particularly memorable, but don’t worry—there’s a better song about his shaky relationship with Suze a few tracks down the highway.
“Bob Dylan’s Blues”: This not-much-of-song has some value as background material concerning Dylan’s self-image and fetishes (not the fun, naughty kind but standard neurotic obsessions). He depicts himself in boots, ready for the day a few years down the road when his boot heels will feel like wanderin’. The fetish is one he shares with Woody Guthrie: the outlaw armed with a six-shooter.
Well, lookit here buddy
You want to be like me?
Pull out your six-shooter
And rob every bank you can see
Tell the judge I said it was all right
Guthrie’s catalog is peppered with songs about greedy, cold-hearted banks (villains) and bank robbers (heroes). In “Pretty Boy Floyd,” he defended the murderer as a friend to the poor, crediting Floyd with paying off the mortgages of struggling farmers and buying Christmas dinners for families on relief. Dylan also expressed his admiration for sociopaths like Floyd, Billy the Kid, and of course, John Wesley Hardin (no g)—the mythical rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the poor crowd.
I will never understand the American fetish with guns, nor the romance attached to the outlaw.
“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: Dylan adopted the question/answer format of “Lord Randall” (Roud 10, Child 12), an old border song dramatizing a conversation between mother and son where sonny boy eventually discloses he is about to croak off because his (lover, stepmother, or other mom-competitor) poisoned his fish soup.
Dylan’s tale is equally dark but far richer than an already-solved murder mystery. He described the sentiments that drove him to compose “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” thusly: “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”
Try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The song is NOT about the Cuban Missile Crisis (Dylan wrote it a month before that seminal event). Dylan explained it on the album liner notes: “‘Hard Rain’ is a desperate kind of song. Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”
Hell, he could have thrown the Cuban Missile Crisis in there had he known about it, as the song is about the perpetual low-grade fever the human race has suffered from since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Living on the edge of imminent doom has shaped human consciousness for decades; the world continues to move from crisis to crisis, from one unsolvable problem to another, and we’re always waiting for the next hammer to drop. We’re addicted to bad news, which is why the media focuses on all the awful stuff rather than any of the good stuff. Addicts need their daily fix; encouraging addiction is profitable. The hard rain is not fallout rain, but the sense that “something big is coming”—symbolic of the dread we live with every day.
Bob Dylan understood that, and in an interview with Studs Terkel way back in 1963—long before the advent of news-as-entertainment and the blurring of fact and opinion—he commented, “In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”
Fox News, anyone? Again, try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The poem is structured around verses that begin with five different questions:
- Where have you been?
- What did you see?
- What did you hear?
- Who did you meet?
- What’ll you do now?
The “Where Have You Been” question sets the scene by taking us on a tour through a world suffering from environmental damage and non-stop war: “I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests/I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans/I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.” When mother asks the young man what he saw, the images come to life in all their ugliness—lynching, people working their fingers down to the bone, the lack of a safety net, the inability to communicate, the not-so-harmless toys that program children to believe that violence is not a bad thing:
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
“What did you hear?” elicits a similar list of horrors, this time focused on human callousness:
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
“Who did you meet?” results in more surreal responses. “I met a young woman whose body was burning” might refer to witchcraft and J. Edgar’s communist witch hunts. “I met a young girl and she gave me a rainbow” is easily the most hopeful line in the song. The two lines that grab me synthesize the truth of opposites, existential pain and the general sense of feeling wounded by life itself:
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
That last question was posed in similar fashion by Joe Strummer in “Clampdown”—“What are we gonna do now?” Dylan ends the song with a deeply-felt personal commitment to shine a bright light on the ugliness and devote his efforts to truth-telling, the only way out of the mess we created for ourselves:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
You know, when I started this blog I really didn’t think all that much of Bob Dylan. I hereby offer the universe my heartfelt apology (at least up to but not including Blonde on Blonde).
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”: The only self-help book I ever read that was worth a damn is Messages: The Communication Skills Book by McKay, Davis and Fanning (not a law firm). In the chapter covering Expression, they talk about a common phenomenon called “contaminated messages.”
Contamination takes place when your messages are mixed or mislabeled . . . Contaminated messages are at best confusing and at worst deeply alienating . . . Contaminated messages differ from partial messages in that the problem is not merely one of omission. You haven’t left the anger, the conclusion or the need out of it. It’s there all right, but in a disguised and covert form . . . The easiest way to contaminate your messages is to make the content simple and straightforward, but say it in a tone of voice that betrays your feelings.
—McKay, Davis and Fanning, Messages: The Communication Skills Book, 1995, Oakland CA
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” is one big fat contaminated message. We’re talking criminal-level contamination here.
Despite the high toxicity levels, Dylan had a point when he wrote in the liner notes, “It isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.” Dylan captured all the things we’d like to say after an episode of betrayal or abandonment. Sometimes we get over the hurt and approach the conversation in a more civilized manner; sometimes we just let it fucking rip. The closing lines are pure contaminated genius:
I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
The song’s melody is borrowed from a song in the public domain, “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone?” Dylan learned that tune from a guy named Paul Clayton who wrote an updated version called “Whose Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone?”). Neither comes close to Dylan’s masterpiece of self-pitying sarcasm nor expresses the weird, fleeting delight when we tell someone to go fuck themselves.
“Bob Dylan’s Dream”: Here Dylan borrows the melody and a couple of lines from yet another old folk ballad of uncertain origin (Ireland, Scotland or Canada, take your pick), “Lady Franklin’s Lament.” Lady Franklin lost her husband to that fruitless search for the Northwest Passage; Dylan uses the song to bemoan the loss of dear friends from his youth, “And each one I’ve never seen again.” Of all the songs written about the lost years of adolescence, this is one of the more touching and least sentimental:
With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I’d spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words was told, our songs was sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were satisfied
Jokin’ and talkin’ about the world outside
With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never much thought we could get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one
BTW, my favorite lost youth song comes from another Guthrie disciple: “912 Greens” by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I really need to do Young Brigham.
“Oxford Town”: I haven’t written about this, but over the last few years I’ve read dozens of books on American history, largely to answer the nagging question, “What the fuck happened to my homeland?” The unfortunate answer turned out to be “Nothing.” The USA has been a white supremacist state since its founding and has made astonishingly little progress over a period of two centuries.
Dylan actually wrote the song in response to an invitation by the leftist-labor folk music mag Broadside encouraging songwriters to submit works related to the Ole Miss riots that accompanied the efforts to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Phil Ochs also submitted his take, “The Ballad of Oxford.”
Fortunately for Bob Dylan, the invitation did not involve any kind of contest. Phil’s you-are-there narrative and no-holds-barred language would have crushed “Oxford Town.”
“Talkin’ World War III Blues”: Dylan’s maiden attempt at a Woody Guthrie-style “talkin’ song” was allegedly created spontaneously in the studio at the end of Freewheelin’ sessions. I have no reason to doubt that—the story lacks both punch and punch lines. The best verse involves sex, for not even a nuclear holocaust can still the flow of testosterone:
Well, I spied me a girl and before she could leave
“Let’s go and play Adam and Eve”
I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin’
When she said, “Hey man, you crazy or sumthin’
You see what happened last time they started”
“Corrina, Corrina”: This old blues-folk number has appeared in various permutations throughout the years; Dylan brought it into the Folk Revival by borrowing the melody and a line or two from Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway.” A full band appears in this piece, suitably muffled in keeping with the folk norms Dylan would smash at Newport a few years into the future.
I’ll take Dylan’s gentle, loping version over the Ray Peterson-Phil Spector melodrama any time.
“Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”: Dylan gets partial songwriting credit for his modification of this Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas number that dates back to the late 1920s. Thomas is also responsible for Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up the Country,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Fishin’ Blues” and helping Taj Mahal fill out his sets. Pretty good for a guy who only spent three years in the music business. All I can say about Dylan’s performance in this song is that he sounds unusually exuberant and exuberance really doesn’t work for Bob Dylan.
“I Shall Be Free”: Freewheelin’ ends with yet another adaptation, this one following a path from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie. It’s essentially another talkin’ song that repeats some of the earthier testosterone-driven themes covered in “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” This time he chases a woman up a hill in the middle of an air-raid and has an interesting conversation with JFK:
Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?
I said my friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
I compliment both men on their excellent taste in broads, but alas, JFK only bonked one of the three (Ms. Ekberg). Some critics hated the song for being too lightweight, but I found the song a bit more humorous than “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”
Revisiting my father’s wish, Freewheelin’ didn’t exactly heal my cynical soul, but it’s always uplifting to find someone out there who validates one’s sense of right and wrong. I still think America is hell-bent on self-destruction, and recent developments confirm that belief.
I’ve always thought that American socialists were some of the dumbest people in the world, and now they’re proving it by inciting violence and destroying property, playing right into Voldemort’s evil designs. White supremacist brownshirts are asserting themselves, strengthened by presidential-level support. The GOP has spent decades perfecting the art of using fear to win elections—and if fear doesn’t entirely do the trick, they have the power to suppress voting and no compunction whatsoever when it comes to cheating.
I don’t have sufficient readership to have an impact on the outcome of the election, but if any of you reading this could remind the lame-brained violent lefties you happen to run into that violence is always counter-productive, I’d appreciate it. To help you soothe any feelings you may hurt in the process, give them this bonus gift of a mantra they can use to help them behave like rational human beings:
“And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”
Although my dad has been needling me for years to do more Dylan reviews, this time he didn’t have to ask. Bob Dylan was the obvious choice to break my American Boycott, for three important reasons:
- Many Americans believe he is the greatest poet of his generation, especially the Baby Boomers (though Dylan was born a few months before Pearl Harbor and fails to qualify as a Boomer). His status as a poet is still subject to debate, as demonstrated by the rather defensive argument given by Professor Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy when she announced that Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for Literature: “He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition.” This implies she had already received some blowback from academics outraged by the selection of someone who had the audacity to put lyrics to music. “Poetry is for reading!” I can hear the old farts blubbering. I attribute that reaction to natural memory loss, since the Greek poets had combined words and song over two millennia ago, in the form of lyric poetry.
- Whether you like his work or not, he has had an undeniably powerful influence on the course of popular music by extending its range to include subject matter beyond romance and novelty. More than any other artist, Bob Dylan made lyrics matter, vastly improving the quality of music in multiple genres.
- Finally, Dylan has repeatedly proven himself to be a true blue American by appearing in commercials for Pepsi, Victoria’s Secret and Chrysler.
The Chrysler commercial really hit a nerve. Super Bowl ads invariably attract the greatest number of viewers, but the Pepsi ad was also a Super Bowl ad and didn’t come close to generating the buzz of the Chrysler spot. Methinks the uproar had more to do with the method of delivery than the message. In his first two appearances as a shill, Dylan simply provided the music (doing a “Forever Young” duet with Will.I.Am. for Pepsi; crooning “Love Sick” to Adriana Lima in the Victoria Secret ad). In the Chrysler spot, he narrated the entire two-minute pitch. Because recorded interviews with Bob Dylan are as rare as coherent thoughts from Donald Trump, millions of people watching the commercial had probably never heard him speak. Given that many of those viewers had elevated Dylan to god-like status years before, the impact must have been similar to the shock of the Japanese populace when Emperor Hirohito’s voice crackled over the fragile airwaves to announce the surrender. DYLAN SPEAKS! THE EMPEROR SPEAKS! SILENCE IN THE HOUSE! HEED THE WORDS OF THE EMPEROR!
After one minute of silence accompanied only by the sound of guacamole and chips making contact with teeth and gums, angry viewers wailed in unison: “DYLAN HAS SOLD OUT!” In the morning they woke up to news rags of all stripes screaming “DYLAN SELLS OUT!” A more reasoned analysis by Ruben Navarette unearthed the layers of hypocrisy in Dylan’s core message of American pride: “Let Germany brew your beer,” he says. “Let Switzerland make your watch. Let Asia assemble your phone. We will build your car.” The simple fact that Chrysler had been recently purchased by Fiat pretty much demolished the “Buy American” message. Dylan was certainly guilty of “nostalgic manipulation,” calling up an image of America that died in the 1970s when the bosses of the big automakers ignored the threat of reliable high-mileage cars rolling off the assembly lines in once-defeated and desolate Japan. Dylan defenders could argue that the ad formed a subversive message of support for the guys and gals on the assembly lines screwed by blind management and a dumb trade policy that failed to protect their jobs, but the bottom line is that the cultural icon of the anti-establishment 60s, a man who consistently protested the excesses of capitalism and exposed the system as a massive get-rich-quick scheme open to insiders only, made a nice chunk of change on that fateful Super Bowl Sunday.
So yeah, Dylan is a sellout, but who the fuck in America hasn’t “sold out” at one time or another? Having grown up and lived most of my life in the land of Old Glory, I can personally attest that I cannot recall a single acquaintance who either wasn’t a sellout or who would have gladly sold themselves out if given the opportunity. It’s a matter of degree: some people would sell out their mothers and any shred of decency lingering within their damaged psyches for the big payoff, but the vast majority of us sell out in a more socially-acceptable manner: by giving up our dreams and compromising our values the moment we take a job we don’t really want. Well, shit, you’ve got to pay the rent and put food on the table, right? And once you’ve made that deal with the devil, oh my—look at all the things you can buy now! Have some more credit! Consume, consume, consume! I’ve been there, you’ve been there, we’ve all been there. Americans are wired to try to make a buck—it’s part of the cultural DNA. In taking advantage of a lucrative opportunity, Dylan’s behavior was in perfect alignment with the values and priorities of the vast majority of Americans, giving his status as a true American poet even greater credibility. Dylan spent most of his peak years attacking and satirizing the system, but he also understood that he had to live within that system, and like everyone else, played the angles to the best of his ability. Just because he chose to exploit the opportunities provided by fame doesn’t make his social commentary and observations on the state of the human race any less meaningful.
Sorry, but sellouts have no right to call anyone else a sellout, so give poor Bob a break here. He’s only one guy, and one guy can’t change the world. Much of his early work was geared towards trying to motivate his Baby Boomer listeners to get up off their asses and make the world a better place. And that effort did yield demonstrable progress in many areas (until the Boomers got scared and voted in Reagan and Trump, undoing half the progress they made).
Dylan’s desire to expose the system as an inhuman creation of human beings still runs hot throughout Highway 61 Revisited, and the movement away from protest songs so apparent on Bringing It All Back Home is now complete. In its place are vignettes that dramatize the unfairness and absurdity of it all. Although sometimes his symbolist leanings lead to little more than wordplay, the best songs—er, poems—are marked by powerful imagery pregnant with meaning.
“Like a Rolling Stone” was a breakthrough for Dylan in many ways, for at the time of its composition he was seriously considering tossing his musical career down the shithole. He told Playboy, “Last spring, I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation . . . But ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ changed it all. I mean it was something that I myself could dig. It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.” What began as “this long piece of vomit, 20 pages long” eventually turned into one of the most influential singles ever written, and convinced Dylan to stick with songwriting. During the months leading to its creation, he had developed the practice of sitting in front of the typewriter and dumping everything that came into his head onto paper. This cleansing ritual helped rid his brain of various expectations, overbearing influences and miscellaneous crap, enabling him to find his own voice within the muck. And I mean “voice” literally and figuratively—I’ve never considered Dylan much of a singer (she said in a tone that communicated understatement), but on “Like a Rolling Stone” he sings with absolute clarity and confidence, like a man who has found his true calling.
On one level, the piece is the ultimate karma’s-a-bitch song, with Dylan seemingly taking pleasure at Miss Lonely’s plummet from privilege. And while I certainly don’t buy the interpretation pitched by Jann Wenner that the song celebrates the poor woman’s liberation, I don’t accept Dylan’s offhand comment that the song is mainly about revenge. To my ears, the lyrics are a justifiable expression of outrage at the obliviousness of the wealthy, white and privileged when it comes to the suffering and resentment they generate. For me, the core couplet of the song appears at the beginning of the third verse:
Ah, you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
It’s that kind of obliviousness that earned Marie Antoinette a trip to the guillotine, the ugly fuel that feeds the justifiable resentment of the underclasses against an arbitrary system based on inheritance and tradition. That such an arrangement is allowed to exist in an allegedly democratic society is a fucking outrage. I think of the British, still under the rule of Etonians and Oxonians who have peddled the bullshit quality of their “superior” education for centuries. The truth is much more prosaic:
Ah you’ve gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Her fall from grace, occasioned by one of the many frauds who prey on the leisure class, is depicted in terrifying fashion, and any empathy we feel for Miss Lonely comes from the vivid description of her new life at rock bottom:
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say do you want to make a deal?
She has no choice but to sell herself for money, because of the uninformed and oblivious choices she made while riding high:
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
You may notice that there’s no evidence that Miss Lonely has learned a damned thing. Dylan doesn’t supply us with an appendix or a sequel describing how she rose from the mat and became a passionate social activist dedicated to eliminating income inequality and social injustice. Instead, he leaves her in the cold streets, devoid of understanding, clueless as to how she got there, another life trying to survive in the darkness, surrounded by society’s castoffs, part of an underclass created by an upper class that couldn’t care less.
The music that accompanies “Like a Rolling Stone” serves its purpose by providing Dylan an open stage to recite his lyrics. Mike Bloomfield was on a tight leash (Dylan told him he “didn’t want any of that B. B. King stuff”), and his contribution is appropriately pedestrian. Al Kooper lost his guitar slot once Bloomfield entered the picture, and over the protests of producer Tom Wilson, slipped into the mix on the organ. His contribution can be easily reproduced by any church-going grandma with a cheap portable electronic keyboard. The most impactful decision came early on, with the change from 3/4 to 4/4 time, unstiffening the flow and aligning the music with rock sensibilities (you can hear the “waltz” version on Volume 2 of The Bootleg Series, and it’s bloody awful). “Like a Rolling Stone” smashed paradigms about song length and subject matter in rock music, and remains one damned fine piece of work.
With a few notable exceptions, the music on Highway 61 Revisited is unremarkable, but hey, Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, not music (no, there isn’t a Nobel for music, but he wouldn’t have been under consideration had there been one). Half the songs are little more than standard blues progressions or variations thereof, beginning with “Tombstone Blues.” Though Bloomfield gets in a few good licks during the presentation, the rest of the band (including Dylan) seem to spend most of the time struggling to keep with the choppy, high-speed rhythm. The struggle has nothing to do with the chords, which add up to a grand total of two. The lyrics fall into the symbolist-surreal camp without much in the way of concrete imagery, and the listener leaves the table hungry for meaning. It’s one of those Dylan songs that have a few good lines you can quote to enliven a dull conversation; of those, the last verse takes home the gold:
Now, I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge
Ironic that these lines appear in a song largely bereft of melody. While it’s tough to follow a masterpiece, “Tombstone Blues” would be a poor choice no matter where it appeared on the tracklist.
“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” features an easy, loping beat with a last-call honkytonk feel courtesy of Paul Griffin on piano and the rhythm section of Harvey Brooks (delivering a rather cheeky and playful bass line) and Bobby Gregg on drums. Though my usual reaction to a Dylan harmonica solo is “Hurry up and move on, Bob,” this one is well played and features a fantastic flourish at the end, as if he’d like to have another go-round. In addition to providing Steely Dan with the title of their debut album, the song foreshadows his deeper exploration of country sounds in John Wesley Harding. And though I wish his use of sexual metaphor could have been a little more explicit (or more complete with the introduction of a tunnel for that train to slide into), I deeply appreciate the line, “I want to be your lover baby, I don’t want to be your boss,” an emphatic rejection of all those early rock songs that made a big deal about making a girl “mine.”
The second attempt at blues-based rock, “From a Buick 6” doesn’t fare much better than the first—it’s a stiff presentation, in large part due to Harvey Brooks’ annoying make-sure-you-hit-all-the-right-notes bass part. Dylan seems to have fun singing about his shotgun-equipped squeeze who puts up with his shit and pulls his ass out of various jams, but “From a Buick 6” is not one of his most memorable works.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” certainly is. In order to appreciate the context of the song, I suggest you crank up your cable TV with its thousands of channels and find one of the networks airing old sitcoms around the clock. You’ll want to find episodes of three shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Notice the manicured lawns and manicured white people. Pay attention to the routines, and how the boys raid the refrigerator after a long day at school, how the dads sit in their easy chairs and read the afternoon paper after a hard day at work (except Ozzie—does anyone know what the fuck he did for a living?), how the family all sits down together for a dinner of meat, vegetables, potatoes and milk, how the neighbors drop in without knocking and are invariably greeted with a smile, how the moms are always in dresses and have plenty of time on their hands to make the beds and straighten up the living rooms without breaking a sweat. Pay particular attention to the characters of Ricky, Bud and Beaver, the three boys most likely to cause “trouble” by getting into “scrapes,” and how dad (or mom, on rare occasions) gets them out of the fix and wraps it up by giving them fatherly advice related to one of life’s lessons—all of which have to nothing to do with helping the boys find their true selves, but have everything to do with enforcing conformity to social norms that reflect the American ideal.
This was the America of Mr. Jones, a society where everyone knew their roles, where everyone adopted a very narrow definition of right and wrong, where everyone followed a routine, where everyone watched the same shows, where everyone’s goal was to try their very best to be a “good” father, mother, son, daughter, businessman, housewife, etc. That was the America that sucked the life out of early rock ‘n’ roll, the America that assigned degrading roles to women and people of color, the America that worked diligently to create a predictable, safe environment for its citizenry.
The façade began to crack in 1963 due to the Civil Rights Movement and the Kennedy Assassination, two events that shattered the manufactured image of American perfectionism. Women, equipped with The Pill and lessons from The Feminine Mystique, began to assert themselves in unfeminine, unpredictable ways. By 1965, the world of the Nelsons, Andersons and Cleavers seemed on the “eve of destruction,” and all those Mr. Joneses (Ozzie, Jim and Ward) who had built their lives around a very specific set of rules and the virtue of predictability proved themselves completely incapable of comprehending it all:
You raise up your head and you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says, “It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?” and somebody else says, “Well, what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God, am I here all alone?”
But something is happening and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The verses in “Ballad of a Thin Man” form a series of nonsensical interactions, sort of like distorted takes on “Who’s on First” that evoke terror instead of laughter. What is most terrifying to Mr. Jones is that his “proper” education, where success is measured not by critical thinking ability but the ability to memorize certain “truths” and regurgitate them during the final exam, has left him completely unprepared to deal with the unexpected:
Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well-known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The unusually complex chord pattern (for Dylan) clearly indicates a song written on piano, as the contortions necessary to pull off that F#augBb in the second position on a guitar is itself a paradigm-breaker, whereas it’s a simple adjustment on a keyboard. Kooper’s horror-movie organ enhances the other-worldly feel of the song to the nth degree. Meanwhile, Mike Bloomfield plays his supporting role to perfection with nimble complementary counterpoint mixed with shimmery vibrato chords. Dylan’s vocal has all the right touches, and you can tell he’s on his game in the first verse:
You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”
(laugh) You try so hard but you don’t understand
Just what you will say when you get home
That little laugh feels like, “You’re kidding, right? You don’t know how to explain a naked man to your wife? Uh . . . hasn’t she ever seen one?” Perhaps not. It was twin beds/lights out for Rob and Laura, after all.
Flipping over to Side Two, we get “Queen Jane Approximately,” which most have interpreted as a softer version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” with the main character awash in the emptiness of a life based on materialism and the “need” to impress others. The difference is that Queen Jane’s story takes place before the crash, giving Dylan the opportunity to offer himself as her savior. The problem with the accepted interpretation of the song is Dylan’s response to Nora Ephron (cited in Andy Gill’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right) that “Queen Jane is a man.” At first glance, Dylan’s assertion smells like bullshit, but after turning the lyrics upside down and inside out in my head for weeks, I realized I was attempting to interpret the song through contemporary norms regarding LGBTQ relationships, forgetting that the song was written over four years before the Stonewall Riots when homosexuals were considered persona non grata.
Viewing the song through that lens changes everything. Instead of viewing Queen Jane as some form of debutante bored with it all and dealing with her looming old maid status by refusing to see anyone, the line “When your mother sends back all your invitations” becomes a mother’s painful rejection of a son for his immoral, socially-unacceptable behavior. The interpretation gains more validity in the third verse, especially when you remember that homosexuality was described as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the DSM as late as 1973:
When all of your advisers heave their plastic
At your feet to convince you of your pain
Trying to prove that your conclusions should be more drastic
Some of the “treatments” prescribed by mental health “advisers” to “cure” homosexuality were indeed “drastic,” including electro-convulsive therapy applied to the brain and genitals, castration and lobotomies. Given that Dylan spent his more focused formative years in the Village, he would have been acutely aware of the existence of the homosexual underclass and their struggles. So while I could be completely off-base by interpreting the song through my personal lens of bisexuality, let me point out the obvious: when you hear the word “queen,” what comes to mind after you’ve emptied your memory of British female monarchs, Freddie Mercury and the four suits in a deck of cards?
Proving that “third time’s the charm” isn’t just an exhausted cliché, Dylan and his pals finally hit pay dirt in the field of blues-based rock with “Highway 61 Revisited.” Though now truncated and merged with various interstate and US highways, Highway 61 is best known as the Blues Highway; the intersection with US-49 is the crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly offered up his soul to Satan. At the time the song was written, the road stretched from the Delta to Duluth, where Dylan was born (the cutoff is now in the center of Minnesota, in the town of Wyoming). In Dylan’s imagination, Highway 61 is the place to go if you want to accomplish something that either a.) falls outside the boundaries of socially unacceptable behavior or b.) falls outside of society’s capabilities. It’s the ultimate back-channel for making things happen.
The steady, rollicking beat gives a singer lots of flexibility with their phrasing, and Dylan takes full advantage of that opportunity. Combined with his use of American vernacular (as opposed to high-falutin’ ”poetic” language), his phrasing reminds me of a street corner storyteller, a guy whose flair for language draws a crowd of regulars who gather ’round to hear his latest riffs. In the first verse, he transforms the story of Abraham and Isaac into a tale anyone can relate to through his use of everyday language, his depiction of a religious icon as an Average Joe and conversational phrasing with pauses and emphases in all the right places:
Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God said, “No” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
God said, “Out on Highway 61”
Beneath the fun and language games you’ll find pointed commentary on the state of things in 60’s America. Georgia Sam in verse two (likely a reference to Blind Willie McTell) is a black man desperate to escape something (a lynch mob, the troopers, whatever) and asks poor Howard about an escape route. As Howard is carrying a gun, we can assume that Howard is poor and white; if so, we’re left wondering whether his directions to Highway 61 will lead Georgia Sam to freedom or to his demise. Verse three satirizes American consumerism and the useless junk left in its wake; the fourth takes on the myth of the American nuclear family. The last verse held special meaning for a populace living under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and the real-time escalation of the American presence in Vietnam, but Dylan’s insight is even more relevant today, given the presence of the roving gambler in the White House and the sycophants who eagerly do his bidding:
Now, the roving gambler he was very bored
Trying to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said, “I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes, I think it can be very easily done
We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61”
Though I wish Dylan had eased up on the siren whistle after a while, “Highway 61 Revisited” qualifies as both a hoot and a storytelling masterpiece.
Dylan songs often improve when other people sing them, and I do prefer Judy Collins’ rendition of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” on In My Life with its varied instrumentation featuring winds and pizzicato strings. That said, Dylan’s version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” somehow feels more intimate and true-to-life. Integrating bits of Rimbaud, Kerouac, Poe and Hank Williams, the tale describes the experience of a painter (according to Mr. Dylan) who (like nearly every American expat who chose Mexico as their getaway destination) finds himself the victim of what he might define as “gringo exploitation,” but is more accurately the alienation he feels as a stranger in a strange land, where the exploiter has now become the exploited, where Americans are viewed with suspicion and distrust:
Sweet Melinda, the peasants call her the goddess of gloom
She speaks good English and she invites you up into her room
And you’re so kind and careful not to go to her too soon
And she takes your voice and leaves you howling at the moon
His attempt to distance himself from the culture through an attitude of cultural superiority hasn’t worked (“And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through”), and since he doesn’t want to wind up like Angel (“Who looked so fine at first but left looking just like a ghost”), he decides to move on: “I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.” Good call, dude.
Now we arrive at the single reason why I have resisted reviewing Highway 61 Revisited with every fiber of my being: eleven minutes and twenty-four seconds of “Desolation Row.” The listening experience is a drag; the music rarely varies (three chords, I-IV-V); and the one notable variation—a Marty Robbins-like “latin-flavored” guitar counterpoint courtesy of Charlie McCoy—gets tiresome after the third verse. Geez, Bob, couldn’t you have pulled something out of the Johnny Cash Playbook and changed the key a couple of times? The lack of a narrative discourages continuing disinterest; the song is just ten stanzas of poetry randomly thrown together connected only by their proximity to Desolation Row. New York Times critic Robert Shelton watched Dylan perform the piece in concert and described it “another of Mr. Dylan’s musical Rorschachs capable of widely varied interpretation . . . It can best be characterized as a ‘folk song of the absurd’.”
I tend to agree, but getting back to the Swedish Academy justification for the Nobel Prize, the poem generally reads well. Some of the stanzas click; others seem overwrought; some feel like gibberish. I suggest you skip the album track, read the poem and pick your favorite verse. As I’m forever interested in the subject of gender within culture, my favorite is the second verse:
Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one, ” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
I always thought Romeo was an asshole and I hope the ambulances mean that Cinderella kicked his entitled male ass.
Highway 61 Revisited usually appears in the top ten in those greatest albums of all-time lists—lists that are still largely compiled by Baby Boomers. Although the reasoning behind those lists is fundamentally flawed (appreciation of a given piece of music is always affected by mood and individual experience), I can fully understand why the album has achieved such lofty status. In the context of 1965, Highway 61 Revisited was the ultimate mind-blower, an integration of folk, blues and rock loaded with compelling lyrics—lyrics that were light years ahead of anything else on the charts, lyrics that caused people to stop and re-think “reality.” What blows my mind is that there was once a period in modern history when producing intelligent, thought-provoking music resulted in mass-market acceptance and commercial success.
Hard to imagine that now.