Bob Dylan: The degeneration of a '60s figurehead



Bob Dylan Behind the Shades: The Biography — Take Two
By Clinton Heylin
Viking, 2000
780 pp, $50 (hb)

In February 1991, as the US was bombarding Iraq in a frenzy of bloodletting, Bob Dylan received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in New York. Dylan, the one-time protest singer turned conservative Christian, stunned the glitterati by choosing to sing on national television, in the middle of the Gulf War, his powerful anti-war anthem from 1962 — "Masters of War".

War hysteria had provoked Dylan, at least on that night, back to his musical and political roots. As Clinton Heylin's biography of Dylan shows, this episode was no aberration. Dylan's divorce from radical social engagement could not withstand the occasional fling with his old '60s flame.

Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941, Dylan formed his first band in 1956 in Minnesota and played raucous rock and roll before discovering blues and folk. Woody Guthrie's sensitive songs of social protest then captivated the young Dylan who moved to New York in 1961 to visit Guthrie as he lay dying in hospital from Huntington's Chorea, and Dylan hit the coffee shops and cafes of the folk boom with his Guthrie repertoire. Still learning his craft, he was sometimes employed as room-clearer to shift the late customers with his rasping voice and harmonica but the talent scouts of Columbia Records divined a special talent beneath the rawness.

From folk revivalist, Dylan blossomed into a writer of original songs and, under the influence of the Guthrie spirit and his girlfriend Susan Rotolo, who worked in the New York office of the Congress on Racial Equality, he wrote anti-racist civil rights songs, satirical songs, anti-militarist songs and songs which became anthems for the flourishing movement for political change ("Blowin' in the Wind", "The Times They Are A-Changin'", "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall").

The successful combination of political commitment and art in these protest songs made Dylan a cultural figurehead of the left and established his fame in wider society, particularly amongst youth rejecting the stale political orthodoxies of capitalism with its race hatred, war, nuclear terror and conservative resistance to change. "Deadness or aliveness" was the choice for society, as Dylan saw it in his early songs, a phase which ended in 1964. Having helped launch the '60s protest movement, Dylan now bailed out.

Anti-authoritarian but also hostile to political organisation, Dylan backed off from the increasingly radical '60s. "There is no left or right anymore", he believed, "only the personal". As he told the left-wing folk singer, Phil Ochs, "the stuff you're writing is bullshit, because politics is bullshit. What's real is inside you. Your feelings". Dylan's fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, signalled the transition to his new apolitical phase. His song, "My Back Pages", explicitly dismissed his previous engagement with social issues. As some left critics saw it, this album of "negative petty-bourgeois introspection" was the first and greatest of Dylan's betrayals — protest abandoned for the personal. Other betrayals were to follow in steady succession — folk for rock, rock for country, pretty well everything thrown over for Christian fundamentalism.

Not all Dylan's new material was without merit, artistically or socially. His folk-rock period produced the energetic and socially critical "Maggie's Farm" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as well as the hit tune of the apolitical counterculture, "Mr Tambourine Man". Nevertheless, Dylan's long farewell to the protest genre really gathered pace when he hit the pop cliches of country music in 1968 and 1969, years of dynamic political turmoil centred on the Vietnam War about which Dylan remained silent. The deterioration of Dylan's songs in both quality and social significance became a source of despair to radicalising youth.

Dylan, nevertheless, continued to move in and out of radical politics, each brief emergence from the banalities of country music giving hope to past fans that Dylan was back. He played at a 1968 memorial concert for Woody Guthrie who had died the previous year. He released a protest song in 1971 about George Jackson, the Black Panther activist murdered in prison by San Quentin guards (a song towards which Dylan later cooled). Phil Ochs persuaded Dylan to appear at a Friends of Chile concert in 1974 for political prisoners following the CIA-sponsored coup against the social-democratic government of "Marxist" Chilean President Salvador Allende.

In 1976, a case of racist victimisation again spurred Dylan into protest. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, an ex-boxer framed for murder, sent a copy of his biography to Dylan because of Dylan's "prior commitment to the civil rights struggle". Dylan's response was a hit record, included on his biggest-ever selling album, Desire, which criticised the racist justice system. Two benefit concerts included in Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue which toured the United States raised $600,000 for the Carter defence campaign. Less than 10% of this, however, reached Carter, with over half a million dollars disappearing into "expenses" to cover limousines, parties and hotel charges. A multi-millionaire, Dylan's lavish lifestyle undercut his practical commitment.

These political engagements were but brief flashbacks to the early Dylan. In 1978, after a mauling by critics of his recent albums and films, and the breakup of his marriage, a susceptible Dylan, looking for new values, had a vision of Jesus in a Tucson hotel room and became a born-again fundamentalist. His ire now focussed on adultery and pornography, Dylan's music hit rock-bottom, barren artistically and politically.

Dylan is now a shell of his former self, living on his reputation. Even his appearances for worthy liberal causes such as Amnesty International show a Dylan "who could not sing his old songs with any conviction, let alone new songs of quality". Although Dylan has toned down the right-wing moralistic religion and the self-righteous message that he is saved and the rest of us can rot in hell, his music well has truly run dry.

Heylin's biography is a torturous, eyelid-dropping account of Dylan's evolution, a massive aggregation of the concerts, recording sessions and albums, and the famous music names that Dylan played with. Dylan trivia buffs will revel in the behind-the scenes goss but analysis is in short supply and off the mark.

Heylin grossly over-values the later Dylan phases relative to the early '60s Dylan. Heylin regards political commitment in song as passe, an establishment view which dismisses the social context which enabled Dylan to not only become a superstar but to be a force for social change in his early days when his poetic vision and political commitment combined to create a popular and radical art which he never subsequently equalled.

Forty years on, the times cry out for more a-changin' but sadly Dylan's is no longer among the voices.

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