Sunday, January 9, 2011

Chaos to Creation: the enigma of Bob Dylan (Part: Two)

Dylan’s radical spell lasted for a brief period – between January 1962 and November 1963. While his music was been considered as the definitive proclamation of the sixties folk revival and its radical political thought, Dylan had clearly indicated that he is not the conventional folk singer who is just adapting traditional material for a new context, neither a political artist committed only to socio-political causes. Along with the situational songs, he was writing distinctively personal lyrics marked with private references of grief and anxieties, songs about relationship, about the nuances and contradictions of love. He did not hesitate to include a confounding and abstract composition Boots of Spanish Leather in his most politically charged album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Many decades later he complained in Chronicles, “As far as I knew, I didn’t belong to anybody then or now […] the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation […] I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.”

Dylan was apparently getting frustrated from the demands of organized activism and was impatient to get himself free from the restricted boundary of a particular group or movement. He also came to realize a bitter fact that political activism enforces its particular objectives and principles on individuals and demands strict regimentation. From early 1964, he consciously started to renounce his one-dimensional “Prince of Protest” image, refused to be a spokesman of the counterculture or to play the limited role of a politically committed artist. Expressing the discord he wrote in Maggie’s Farm:

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.

Being part of a simmering political milieu of the sixties’ had certainly helped Dylan to prosper as a voice of protest – a label slapped on him by the critics and viewed by him with disgust in later years. Peter Doggett’s detailed narrative of that tumultuous time There's a Riot Going On argues that the sixties counterculture “borrowed his name and his work without permission, and then hounded him for a declaration of solidarity until he finally (and briefly) gave way.” But Doggett misses an essential point. Though Dylan had disclaimed having any curiosity in the political process, exposed his discomfort with absolute positions and withdrew himself from protest movements, his role as a social and political critic which had challenged the existing socio-political chain of command is undeniably the fundamental reason behind his popularity and the iconic stature he had attained during that period. He is associated with this identity even today. His songs have achieved its brilliance and transcended the political preoccupations of their historical point of origin not by disregarding the political contexts, but by intensely embracing all its deeply entrenched complexities.

All I can be is me - whoever that is

Dylan’s rupture with Left politics came out in open even before the release of The Times They Are A-Changin’. On December 1963, he appeared at the leftist civil-rights group Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s annually held Bill of Rights Dinner to receive their prestigious Tom Paine Award for his services to the civil-rights cause. Dylan was uneasy from the start since people who came with him were not allowed to enter the venue. “They weren’t dressed right, or something,” he allegedly told Nat Hentoff later. The well-dressed elder audience irritated him further since he perceived them as people who were once involved with the Left in the thirties, disconnected now from grass root reality but still striving to change the world from the safer haven of civil-rights politics. “It is not an old peoples’ world. It has nothing to do with old people. Old people when their hair grows out, they should go out,” he said in a notoriously offensive speech. Dismissing the older generation Left as people who “haven’t got any hair on their heads” he further declared not to allow them to act as guardians and protectors of his mind anymore. Grounding his tirade against the veteran civil-rights campaigners, many of them sitting in the audience, as people who have “taught through the years to look at colors,” he affirmed during his speech that “I just don’t see any colors at all when I look out.” He was also critical in his speech about the suit wearing Negroes he saw four months ago on the platform at the Great March on Washington, and said in an acerbic tone: “My friends don't have to wear any kind of thing to prove that they’re respectable Negroes.”

Dylan’s controversial comments offended many of his friends within the radical fraternity. They were critical about his inappropriate and flawed perception of the people who were genuinely involved in progressive causes and struggled for right to free speech. The criticism obliged Dylan to send a confession to the ECLC clarifying his position. In a remarkable message addressed to “all fighters for good things that I can not see” Dylan wrote that he was feeling uncomfortable at that night because of the attention aimed at him. Thinking “something else was expected of me” but not knowing “what should I say” he decided to “just be honest”. “When I speak of bald heads,” he explained, “I mean bald minds”. When he spoke of Negroes, he was speaking on behalf of his Negro friends, “the ones that dont own ties but know proudly they dont have to”. Admitting that his suggestion to “old” people was a “betraying thought”, Dylan tried to fix the damage by saying “those that know me know otherwise” and asked not to blindly follow his “explodin words” as the effort will invariably lead to misunderstand him. (Source)

Dylan reached the pinnacle of his creativity during the next fourteen months with a trilogy of albums Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. As his mind turned elusive and aloof, the vocabulary, structure and tone of his lyrics also turned introspective, personal and obscure. He started to introduce issues that have little to do with politics. Beat and French symbolist poetry started to reflect prominently in his works. He craved to escape into the phantasmagoric world of Mr. Tambourine Man through the smoke rings of his mind. As if to define his own terms, Dylan conspicuously made a populist turn to embraced the riotous form of electrified rock & roll, although, in his lifetime he could never entirely end his relations with traditional folk music. The long narrative of his radical songs that used to speak about the suffering masses, now started to explicitly depict messages from his private universe, his alienation, suffering and grievances.

In the song My Back Pages on his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, Dylan tried to articulate why he distanced himself from the regimented politics of the Left and moved towards a new direction. Renouncing many of his earlier political convictions as “romantic facts”, he aimed his fury against the Left movement’s visions and ideals. He now doubted the conservative and superficial lessons he had received from the “corpse evangelists” and belittles their “phony jealousy”. He denounced the dogmatic methods of “memorizing politics / Of ancient history” and the simplistic preaching of the “self-ordained professor’s tongue”. Expressing regrets he disclosed that by taking a “soldier’s stance” to moralize the tutored ideals, he unknowingly got detached from life and became his own enemy. He spurns his former self for being deceived by “abstract threats / Too noble to neglect” and for perceiving “I had something to protect”. The refrain of every verse repeats: “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now” expressing how unconfined he now feels after writing-off his own past and moving away from the stifling captivity.

All I do is protest

Cynically interpreting his own achievements, Dylan had also claimed later that political songwriting was “too easy” for him as he just “picked up what was in the air, and gave it back to people in another form.” If his words are to be taken at face value, then we have to acknowledge that one of his best-known anti-war protest songs Masters Of War was written because it was “what the people want to hear” and he knew it would sell! Whatever he might have been saying in public, his rebellious inner core remained absolutely intact. One of his most provocative works It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) released on the next album Bringing It All Back Home accurately reveals Dylan’s defiant state of mind. Sung using only an acoustic guitar, this electrifying twenty verses long masterpiece is perhaps the greatest protest song Dylan has ever written. The song begins with an allusion to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon novel, but, in a sharp contrast to Koestler who was criticizing communism in the novel, Dylan’s song targeted capitalism. David Baldwin has suggested that, “Nearly everyone and everything in the song’s world is connected in a web of corruption in which money is the only real value.” Through an unremitting flow of imagery, Dylan’s fiery words ripped open the depravity and hypocrisy of the capitalist system. He attacks the authoritarian “human gods” who “Make everything from toy guns that spark / To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark,” and considers that creativity is “Nothing more than something they invest in.” Depicting the powerlessness of people through his complex figurative language Dylan talks about how propaganda cheats people by tempting them to think that they are the one “That can do what’s never been done / That can win what’s never been won”. With ruthless sarcasm he unleashes his anger against a society that “push fake morals, insult and stare / While money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Directly criticizing the social and political conditions for suppressing an alienated individual through its totalitarian rules, Dylan declares:

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

In his absorbing book Chimes of Freedom, Mike Marqusee writes that the song “is a sweeping condemnation of a society in which the holiness of life is denied […] a society dominated by commodities, all public discourses has grown corrupt.” Dylan also didn’t spare futile activism that claims to challenge this system. He uncovers that “To understand you know too soon / There is no sense in trying,” just because “You follow, find yourself at war,” and end up discovering that “you’d just be one more/Person crying.” Being the product of that society, the critical voices also cannot escape from its corruption and emptiness. The political point of view expressed in the capacious song is absolutely stunning. “There’s a magic to that…It’s a different kind of a penetrating magic,” an apparently proud Dylan told Ed Bradley in 2006. Then, with a definitive tone he concluded: “And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time.”

Chaos is a friend of mine

In the next double album Blonde on Blonde, Dylan shifted his focus away to more abstract ideas. Brilliantly travelling around areas of deeper insight previously unexplored by popular music, he took his music to a level where others dare not risk going. The songs of Blonde on Blonde are heavily embroidered with flashing images expressed through a reflexive surreal-romantic language and his magnetic voice – the “thin…wild mercury sound…metallic and bright gold” as he himself has defined. Tracing a folk heritage, Dylan accumulated many of its precious elements – especially from the blues, cleverly deconstructed the older forms and styles and mixed them with a unique interpretation of life and history to offer the listeners something absolutely poetic and original. The parodied declaration about speculative criticism of the opening track Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, the opaque sensuality of Visions of Johanna, the strikingly rhythmic I Want You, the hilarious imagery of Leopard Skin Pill-box Hat, the graceful yet cryptic love song Just Like a Woman, the gripping melody and feverish lyrical allusion of the eleven minutes and twenty seconds long Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowland has made this album one of Dylan’s greatest achievements of all time. One of the most fascinating aspects of the songs is that they never sounded like something coming out from a high priest of learning, despite the fact that his music had actually turned highly sophisticated in nature.

The folk fraternity was genuinely upset with Dylan for his denial to conform their beliefs and expectations. Quite expectedly, he was booed by some of the folk purist audience at the 1965 Newport Folk festival after a feisty presentation of Maggie’s Farm with an amplified rock band. As if to counter them, Dylan chose to end his performance with a solo acoustic presentation of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue:

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

Dylan’s complicated relationship with the “real” music of folk was immortalized when a disappointed and irate fan shouted at him “Judas!” at the Royal Albert Hall, Manchester in May 1966. Denying any guilt he promptly responded, “I don't believe you, you’re a liar.” On 29 July 1966, after returning from a nine-month world tour, an exhausted Dylan got in an accident on his motorcycle near his Woodstock home. He was then at the peak of his popularity and influence but at the same time under extreme pressures to fulfill the expectations involved in being Bob Dylan. From the day he moved to New York City at the age of twenty in 1961 till the next five years, his life was moving extremely fast. Tired of all the attention and constant scrutiny, Dylan now wanted “to get out of the rat race,” to escape from the pressures that had built up around him. “They expect him to be who they interpret him to be,” wrote Suze Rotolo in her recently published memoir A Freewheelin’ Time. “The very mention of his name invokes his myth and unleashes an insurmountable amount of minutiae about the meaning of every word he ever uttered, wrote, or sang.” Dylan was having a family now and was dreaming for, as he wrote in Chronicles, “a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard.” The mysterious accident gave him a much-needed break from his hectic lifestyle. Dylan withdrew himself from the public only to reappear again sixteen months later to perform at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He also did not tour for the next seven years.

There were tears in my bed

The contradictions and conflicts within Dylan’s art virtually symbolized the ambiguous relationship between music and political activism. His growing political pessimism had outraged many of his radical admirers and friends like Joan Baez who admitted openly that his refusal to show a political conscience extremely disappointed her. He even squabbled with Phil Ochs and bluntly told him “You’re nothing but a journalist.” Ochs, unlike Dylan, had deliberately embraced political and social causes through his music and never deserted his protest roots. Dylan also refused to share what he thought about the Vietnam War. Instead, when pressed for a political opinion on Vietnam in his first post-accident interview in Sing Out! Dylan shot back: “how do you know I’m not, as you say, for the war?” When asked why his songs aren’t as socially or politically applicable as they were earlier. Dylan responded, “I no longer have the capacity to feed this force which is needing all these songs. I know the force exists, but my insight has turned into something else....” Also in the same interview he had categorically refused to take any position on political issues since he felt that “It doesn’t necessarily mean that any position must be taken.” He told Christopher Sykes in 1986, “I don't know which of my songs was ever political.” When Sykes referred to Masters Of War, Dylan said, “I don’t know if even Masters Of War is a political song. Politics of ‘what’? If there is such a thing as politics, what is it politics of? Is it spiritual politics? Automotive politics? Governmental politics? What kind of politics? Where does those word come from, politics? Is this a Greek word or what? What does it actually ‘mean’? I don’t know what the fuck it means. […] If you listen to that stuff you go crazy. You don’t even know who ‘you’ are anymore. It don’t make any sense to me.”

Despite his repeated denial that he was motivated by political impulses, it was quite impossible for Dylan to shed his political conscience. In October 1971, he recorded George Jackson, his first “protest” song since 1963. The song was his tribute to the black convict George Jackson who became a Marxist and a member of the Black Panther Party in prison. Jackson spent twelve years of his life behind the bars after he was convicted of stealing seventy dollars from a gas station when he was only eighteen. Dylan had read Jackson’s prison letters Soledad Brothers and was passionately motivated by the book. In a spurt of emotion, he penned the heartfelt ode after Jackson was murdered on August 21 at the age of twenty-nine by the prison guards at the notorious San Quentin prison yard, allegedly while trying to escape.

The song follows a simple narrative recounting Jackson’s troubled life, blamed the authorities who hated him because “He wouldn’t bow down or kneel” and “Because he was just too real.” It describes the prison guards who “cursed him / As they watched him from above” and were “frightened of his power” and “scared of his love.” In the final verse Dylan conveyed a fascinating revelation:

Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard.
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards.

Dylan’s passionate homage to a martyr of institutional racism, however, failed to escape controversy. While appreciating her son being subject of a Dylan song, Jackson’s mother had expressed that she would be more contented if she had received a portion of the royalties Dylan has earned from the song. Peter Doggett has found that in Dylan’s reading, the moral difference between the oppressor and the oppressed has been blurred out – “they were both ‘us’, both trapped in the prison yard.” Doggett further complains, “He had employed the same ambiguity nearly a decade earlier, in Only a Pawn in Their Game, undercutting the moral simplicities of the folk protest movements. Now he was mythologizing a hero of the movement while subverting the hero’s philosophy.” Rolling Stone magazine commented that “the song immediately divided Dylan speculators into two camps: those who see it as the poet’s return to social relevance and those who feel that it's a cheap way for Dylan to get a lot of people off his back.” Indeed, Dylan’s urge to sing for Jackson is contrary to his earlier stand when he had refused to stage a benefit concert for the Black Panther Party and contributed just $40 for the party’s legal defense fund.

Five years later he will come back again with another aggressive topical ballad Hurricane, describing black middleweight boxer Rubin Carter’s false trial and conviction under a racist American power structure. (To be continued…)

(Go to Part One / Part Three)

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