One day Bob Dylan poured a bottle of whiskey over his head and walked into a department store pretending to be drunk so that he would get some bad press. He found that being thrust into the role of ‘the conscience of a nation’ encroached on his privacy and interfered with his creativity and he wanted his freedom back.
Those involved in political struggle in the USA placed an onerous responsibility on Dylan, demanding of him his talent, his time, his total commitment.
Regardless of how he later revised his stance, the early songs which shot him to fame were the work of an artist responding to injustice and oppression and the politics of the day. He was heavily influenced by, of course, Woodie Guthrie, but was also open to the songs of Brecht and Weill as well as Irish rebel music.
“All through the night they [the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem] would sing drinking songs, country ballads and rousing rebel songs that would lift the roof. The rebellion songs were a really serious thing. The language was flashy and provocative – a lot of action in the words, all sung with great gusto… I loved these songs and could still hear them in my head long after and into the next day. They weren’t protest songs, though, they were rebel ballads … even in a simple, melodic wooing ballad there’d be rebellion waiting around the corner.”
That quote, describing the early 1960s, is from Dylan’s extraordinary autobiography, ‘Chronicles’, published in 2004.
I think I heard my first Dylan song in late 1963, around about the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. It was ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ covered by Peter, Paul and Mary. The song made great sense against the scenes on television of blacks being beaten in the USA, but still taking to the streets demanding civil rights; blacks being cut down in South Africa, but still marching against apartheid; villagers being strafed and napalmed in Vietnam, but still heroically fighting back.
Dylan sings it best in that smoky, hurt voice of his:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before they call him a man?…
How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?…
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?…
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
A year later he released his rallying call ‘to the nation’, so to speak, a recruiting address to writers and critics, and a warning to Congressmen and Senators:
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.
His songs became anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements and he was often at marches alongside people like Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte.
I love most of his early material which was often dark and foreboding, and his love songs such as the sensually delectable ‘Lay, Lady Lay’, but little from 1973 until his re-emergence with the short-lived Travellin Wilburys in 1988. I saw him a few years ago playing to a very small audience and thought, what a comedown, how sad. But reading ‘Chronicles’ one realises how he actually despised all the attention that came with fame and is probably now more content.
Unlike the majority of artists who have nuclear-fuelled egos, Dylan actually comes across as humble though morose, learned, philosophical, flawed, scarily self-possessed, a reticent and private person, all at odds with the artist who has something to say.
He is a phenomenon certainly at odds besides someone like the extrovert Bruce Springsteen – once called the ‘new Dylan’ – whose current tour is around “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”.
That tour consists of covers of folk songs popularised by one of Dylan’s mentors, Pete Seeger, and it has a contemporary resonance given the US war on Iraq. One of the songs Springsteen sang in Dublin recently is the nineteenth century Irish anti-war/anti-recruitment song, ‘Mrs McGrath’. It was once recorded by Makem and the Clancys, and was also popular with republicans after 1916 when the British government threatened to introduce conscription.
One would be tempted to charge Dylan with deliberate naivety for not realising the demands that his powerful ballads would unleash and the hopes they raised. But in last year’s Scorsese’s film, ‘No Direction Home’, which covered his life from 1961-66, Dylan says that he learned early on “not to give away too easily anything that was dear to me,” which included surrendering the personal life which fame inevitably consumes.
In ‘Chronicles’ he writes: “All I ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities. I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of.” He said fame and riches did not translate into happiness and describes how he and his wife and three children sought anonymity and normality.
However, “demonstrators found our house and paraded up and down in front of it chanting and shouting, demanding for me to come out and lead them somewhere – stop shirking my duties as the conscience of a generation.” His former lover, Joan Baez, even wrote a song challenging him to lead the masses.
In restaurants he would be pointed out: “That’s him over there.” Necks would stretch and people would stop eating.
“I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as… High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent…”
It was around this time that he poured the whiskey over his head and went shopping. He even went to Jerusalem and got himself photographed at the Wailing Wall wearing a skullcap. The papers called him a Zionist. “This helped a little,” he said. He made what appeared to be a country and western record to throw his fans off. “I had assumed that when critics dismissed my work, the same thing would happen to me, that the public would forget about me.”
In the late 1970s he became a born-again Christian but in the mid-80s it was rumoured that he was affiliated to a branch of Hasidic Judaism. In 1997 he performed before Pope John Paul II. Who or what is Bob Dylan, indeed!
Today is his 65th birthday. But at the age of 22, when he wrote the following about the cost of struggle, he showed that he was a witness, a poet and a man of deep conscience:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black 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 souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak 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’,
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.