February 7, 2008
The genesis of early Dylan—at the Skirball
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
One of the weaknesses of "topical songs" is their temporal quality -- they were, by definition, of the moment. What Dylan wanted to do, what Woody Guthrie had done, was to write songs that were forever.
It is interesting that in collections of Dylan's songs or greatest hits, beginning with his first collection in 1967 and including "The Essential Bob Dylan" (2000) and the just released "Dylan" in either its 18- or 51-song editions, the collections don't include such protest songs as "Only a Pawn in Their Game" or "With God on Our Side" or "North Country Blues" or "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" -- or even "Masters of War," which has gotten some play during the current conflagration. Only "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They are A-Changin'" seem to make the cut (and even "Blowin' in the Wind," which quickly became an anthem of the civil rights movement, today sounds apart from the rest of Dylan's canon).
As Dylan became one of a kind, he found himself part of a tradition of self-invented, self-created artists who have forged their own way. He rejected the notion of being a leader and even the whole notion of leaders. Yet he remains, as this exhibition demonstrates, "the voice of a generation."
When I listen again, as I've recently been doing, to some of Dylan's most popular songs from his early years, such as "It Ain't Me, Babe," "Positively 4th Street," "Ballad of a Thin Man," or "Just Like a Woman," what strikes me is not the visionary quality but the peevishness -- the stubbornness. A lot of those songs, including "Like a Rolling Stone," are put-down songs. That also is very much of his time.
As a child of Depression-era middle-class Jewish parents, coming of age in the 1950s, a decade of conformity, Dylan's stance was one of rejection, one of going his own way -- and as such he was as much "the voice of his generation" as Arthur Miller, Rod Serling, Lenny Bruce or J.D. Salinger. His "topical songs" ask Eisenhower/Betty Crocker America to wake up to the reality of racism in the South and the potential of nuclear self-immolation. His more personal or abstract songs expose "phonies" among friends, lovers, music critics -- and offer an anthemic call to reject the direction parents, society and the establishment would have us undertake. He is an individualist.
In the late 1950s and '60s, a generation was searching for their own truth, not their parents'. Dylan's disdain, evident in so many of those early songs, is all about staying one's own course. It was about saying "No." Dylan said it to his parents' way of life, to his hometown of Hibbing, Minn., to college and Dinkytown, to the folkies and the protest movement and finally, by 1966, to his fans. He wasn't going to work on Maggie's farm no more.
Similarly, the whole controversy surrounding Dylan going electric is also given perspective when witnessed via the installation at the Skirball and through the prism of those times.
Living in the shadow of the atomic bomb, living through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movements, were reasons for high seriousness. But what Dylan displayed from his first appearances, much as Woody Guthrie did, was a sense of humor and a sense of fun (that was often absent from the serious-minded folk scene).
Then President Kennedy was assassinated. Time stopped for a moment there. You might think that such a momentous and tragic event would put a pall on the very notion of "fun," but to the contrary, it was a reminder that leaders are temporal, and time is short. After a proper mourning period, the nation found a way to experience joy again -- and it came through music: The Beatles arrived in America.
This exhibition does a great job of making clear that, in retrospect, the question should have been: Why shouldn't Dylan go electric? Not only was The Beatles' sound and spirit infectious, but by capturing the American public (and the record charts), they launched a challenge to all American musicians -- a sonic space race, if you will. If the Beatles could access the roots of rock 'n' roll -- Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins -- why couldn't Dylan, who had been playing Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran songs in high school and knew that for him, factually and musically, Highway 61 led from the Delta to Minnesota. It was his musical heritage to use.
At the same time, all sorts of performers were already going electric with Dylan's music -- The Byrds, The Turtles, even Sonny and Cher had their versions -- so, why in the world would Dylan let them have hits with his songs and not decide to join in the fun?
All of which led to an incredibly creative output that would have Dylan, in little more than a year's time, release three albums (one of which, "Blonde on Blonde," was a double album), producing a cornucopia of songs, bold and funny, mystical and cryptic, full of longing and lyricism.
Several of my friends' teenage children are now Dylan fans, so I thought I would ask them why they listen to or care about his music. I interviewed separately Bijou Karman, 16, a 10th-grader at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, and Dakota Nadlman, 15, a sophomore at Agoura Hills High School, and they said remarkably similar things. Both came across Dylan through their parents' record collections; both love music from the '60s and had started by listening to The Beatles and then found their way to Dylan.
"I like the sound of his voice," Bijou said. "His voice is so unique," Dakota said, elaborating that Dylan has led him on a journey to listen to all of the artist's influences, from Guthrie to blues artists. For Bijou, Dylan makes her "feel like I was in the '60s." They respond because he and his songs remain real and authentic.