Bob Dylan turned 71 yesterday. The guy still tours all over the world, croaking out songs new and old. Saying that the man was important would be a ridiculous understatement. Along with a couple other folks, he created the movement we call Rock ‘n’ Roll. In the upcoming paragraphs, I quote from three different sources, all of which are worth understanding. They are — Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America, and No Direction Home, a documentary produced by Scorcese.
Dylan’s career is sprawling. It’s a stunning demonstration of personal evolution, not only in appearance but also in spirit and sound. He was never primitive, but in a consistent mode of innovation and reinvention. Not only is his career one of the few that can maintain such a puzzling level of revolution, it also parallels the rapid shifts in American culture during his lifetime. Greil Marcus, a Dylan specialist and author of The Old, Weird America, a book detailing many pivotal events in his life, claimed that he had the motivation to “make [himself] up.” (Marcus 19) Dylan’s will to embrace evolution was the key to a deadlocked American musical atmosphere. His activity is best judged through contradictions. Evident in so many public appearances, he would both embrace and denounce the same ideology as it was convenient.
In understanding the most transformative and static moments in Dylan’s career – from Highway 61 Revisited and “Royal Albert Hall” to his “Basement Tapes” – in dialectical terms, it becomes clear that his revolutions were dependent on his internal contradictions and personal contempt for the American variation on personality as cultural iconography.
Dylan’s tendency to seem prophetic and revolutionary is based, in hindsight, on America being primed for his personality. Hegel claims that progress is rooted in contradiction or opposition within a system. Therefore, Dylan’s inversion of public expectation and the previous nature of national iconography allowed him to function as such a potent agent of change within America’s existing cultural foundations. His most infamous evocation of this contradiction is undoubtedly his decision to, as so many say, “go electric,” or even “go commercial.” When he was young, he traded his electric guitar for an acoustic guitar in order to play folk music (Scorcese). In 1964, when he decided he “would be better with a small group,” he chose to switch back to electric instruments, which reportedly had nothing to do with sounding “modernized.” (Scorcese). Dylan began performing electrically in Bringing It All Back Home, a 1965 recording that shows a heavy influence from artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. It revealed a relationship with the blues that was deeply rooted in his musical identity. As a teenager in Minnesota, his first recorded song was one that recalled Lead Belly’s heavy hand and wail. However, it is in the release of Highway 61 Revisited that Dylan’s most imposing revolution becomes evident.
It is only fitting, given Dylan’s absorption of the blues, that he names the album after the famed “Blues Highway.” But what does it mean for him to revisit this tradition? The answer is a basic foundation in Dylan’s logic. (Or illogic?) As he revisits certain traditions, Dylan supersedes this classification by never looking for answers to problems. His career has proven that he had no ambition to cure social ills. Indeed, he said outright that “[he] didn’t really have any ambition at all” (Scorcese). While it is important to treat any of his claims as suspect, that precise idea creates the contradictory atmosphere that shapes his progress. In terms of Highway 61 Revisited, his lyrical content moves away from sweeping social narrative to a series of vaguely related non-sequiturs of dubious relevance. In Chronicles, Dylan wrote that he “could tell you anything and you’re going to believe it.” (Dylan 82) His disavowal of any heritage, musical or otherwise, along with a determination to reveal cultural inconsistencies was only another way he epitomized Hegelian progress. His expansive cultural knowledge is clear, but the endless references in “Desolation Row,” “Tombstone Blues,” and the eponymous “Highway 61 Revisited” function as witty rhyming tools rather than prophesy. Dylan features two types of songs on Highway 61 Revisited; the “you” song and the meandering pseudo-narrative. He chose to address an unknown object with the most clarity in three songs, “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and “Queen Jane Approximately.” With the exception of “Desolation Row,” a long comedy that could easily be addressed to anyone, these songs outline the architecture of the album by beginning and ending the two sides of the record.
Dylan’s progress through opposition is most evident in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the end of the first side. The biting refrain “you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is,” forms one of the most cynical, but also sincere, moments on the album. In it, “Dylan found an instant catchphrase for the moral, generational, and racial divisions that in this moment found American’s defining themselves not as who they were but as who they were not” (Marcus 8). This chorus revealed the most power by allowing the listener to believe that Dylan knew “what [was] happening,” when he never felt like he knew more than anyone else. Of course, this is the engine that propelled his progress through tumultuous relationships with the public.
Bob Dylan was awarded the “Tom Paine Award for Freedom” in 1963. In accepting it, he gave a speech clearly refusing that he was a topical or political songwriter. During a sequence of largely criticized performances in the UK during the summer of 1966, he told a reporter, “all I sing is protest songs” (Scorcese). Instances like this and his frequent interchanging of acoustic and electric performances reinforce his application of progress through internal contradiction. His affirmation and rejection of dominant trends allowed him unprecedented freedom in manipulating his own material. Imagining him as a performer who chooses a successful operation and sticks to it is impossible. It is Dylan’s public enactment of Hegelian progress that established him as a legendary American figure.
One famous performance, closing his 1966 tour of the UK and wrongly thought to have taken place at Royal Albert Hall, marked a critical point in his career. Even his setlists contained internal contradiction, performing the first half acoustic and alone while the second half was with a loud rock ensemble. Audiences were split. Some were appreciative of his innovation and most were livid. Greil Marcus claims that, “Dylan’s performance now seemed to mean that he had never truly been where he had appeared to be only a year before, reaching for that democratic oasis of the heart – and that if he had never been there, those who had felt themselves there with him had not been there” (Marcus 31). So many fans felt betrayed by a man who once epitomized their ideology. Famously, one concertgoer called him “Judas” just before the final song at the “Royal Albert Hall.” Dylan told his band to play “fucking loud” when barreling into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song that transformed into an even more seismic indictment during one dramatic moment. This performance, full of spite and contempt, seemed to contain the entirety of Dylan’s mounting frustrations. Still, there is an air of pleasure that he takes in his power. He wrote, “[i]t was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed.” (Dylan 121) This may be true, but his artistic innovation and reinvention was dependent on an audience. It was as though his contradictions meant nothing unless someone could pick them out and throw them back.
After the tumultuous 1966 tour of the UK, Dylan retired to America, feeling spiritually depleted. He suffered injuries from a motorcycle accident and subsequently took an eight-year hiatus from public performance. Secluded in a Woodstock, NY home, he gathered a band to record a series of extemporaneous sessions titled, “Basement Tapes.” Dylan, throughout his career, mentioned that he only “sang because [he] felt like singing,” he was “determined to play,” and that the people who didn’t understand him were “outside the music community” (Scorcese, Dylan 43). The sessions in Woodstock, a situation dense with potential for artistic license, thus became an opportunity for Dylan to be a musician without anyone watching. Marcus wrote, “[t]he sense of people playing with no accounts to settle – the sense that everything is possible and nothing matters – defines the basement tapes once they get rolling.” (Marcus 75) A lethargic philosophy dominates the “Basement Tapes”. The seclusion warded off any public ghosts but also chased away Dylan’s determination. The “Basement Tapes” are an astonishing demonstration of cultural virtuosity and musicianship that has seeped deep into the bone. However, they are also a collection of recordings that show so little development. When in the public eye, Dylan was able to be the darling of Newport and the begetter of punk within a few months. The recordings that comprise his stay in Woodstock only affirm that Dylan’s personality is one that requires an audience to witness his contradictions and progress. His trajectory is distinctly American and would form a trademark of rock ‘n’ roll. Dylan wrote, “I practiced in public and my whole life was becoming a performance” (Dylan 17). This was a technique he had mastered to the point of, as becomes evident with the “Basement Tapes,” needing the audience so that he could maintain a stable personality – one only comfortable when in performance. This reading also serves to explain his current obsession with touring, even in a crippled vocal state.
Dylan may have considered popular American culture “lame as hell and a big trick,” but it is clear that he needed it to implement his revolutions (Dylan 35). His influence and legacy cannot be overstated. In hindsight, it seems as though America needed Dylan and Dylan needed America. None of his innovations would have carried if he weren’t so charged with internal contradictions and if he didn’t have a public to watch it all happen. This is the wrong way to interpret Dylan’s career. His interest in delivering answers or conclusions seems to be miniscule. His ability to create profound cultural questions through contradicting himself is paramount. In terms of defining a massive, pluralistic society, Dylan is one of the most efficient and prolific practitioners without ever trying to be. About America, and probably the world, he wrote, “[i]t was pointless to think about it. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” (Dylan 35)