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Bob Dylan: Like a Rolling Stone, Again

Times are changing and so is the songwriter

Bob Dylan
Alvan Meyerowitz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
March 28, 1974

It took courage, after those six or eight or nine years, for Bob Dylan to make his recent two-pronged public appearance – a new album and a nationwide tour.

Yet artistic courage is exactly what Bob Dylan has been about in the 13 years since he hit Gerde's Folk City, with his tousled hair, one Minnesota iron-ore twang and a head full of music.

Nelson Algren once said about Ernest Hemingway something which also fits the Dylan achievement: "No American writer since Walt Whitman has assumed such risks in forming a style. They were the kind of chances by which, should they fail, the taker fails alone; yet, should they succeed, succeed for everyone."

Bob Dylan Bids a Restful Farewell to Tour '74

Dylan took the chances. He opened the minds of the American audience to the possibilities of poetry and music and he freed the whole of American pop music from the restraints of the music hall, the Broadway show and Tin Pan Alley. In the wake of the chances he took has come a new generation of song poets – some good, some bad – but none who would have hopefully taken step one had not Dylan made the first move.

Dylan was faced with a serious dilemma when planning this tour. He must have wondered if he was out of touch. With each of his phases of development over the years he has simultaneously attracted a new audience and outraged elements of the previous one.

In the beginning, he was a folk singer with the standard coffeehouse repertoire plus some variations. He began his career as a "contemporary folk singer" – despite the apparent contradiction in terms. They were not old songs exactly, though the melody was generally traditional or at least derivative. Dylan sang them accompanied only by his own guitar and harp. But the lyrics were mostly new and they spoke of events which were contemporary.

Toward the end of that period of Dylan's career which produced "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Who Killed Davey Moore?," "With God on Our Side," and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Dylan began to drop into his albums and his concerts some other sides of his creative inspiration, songs such as "One Too Many Mornings," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "It Ain't Me, Babe," and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." They were songs at the least about liaisons, just as "To Ramona," "Boots of Spanish Leather," and "Girl From the North Country" were flat-out love songs.

The political songs and the two kinds of love songs continued, though evolving, until his accident and the subsequent John Wesley Harding album. The love song became more rare, the liaison song went all the way to the anguish of "Positively 4th Street" before it, along with the political song, joined in a new Dylan series: the prophetic doomsday messages, State of the Union poems. They were vocal tears of rage and they defined the image of the American culture.

Out of the political songs and from those Gothic collections of eerie imagery, Dylan's audience extracted a view of the world – the world at hand, the USA – and a poetic and aesthetic rationale that bordered on religion. His first audience, the folk music followers, went along partway because of the power of his imagery and of his political songs. They stayed with him until he plugged into the main current of American musical thought, picked up an electric band, and started a musical riot at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by appearing onstage with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Right then, the politicos and their contingent traditional folkie audience turned on him. The others whom he had picked up with the shattering poetry of his newer work, stayed with him. The controversy went on with the intensity of today's argument over him, except that the forums were small and obscure. But the temperature of the battle was just as high. He was booed at Newport and when he went on tour with his new electric band – those sublime musicians who are now the Band – at Forest Hills, Minneapolis and elsewhere. Bob Dylan seldom appeared, in that last year (1966) at any concert in the US or Europe at which some disgruntled former fan did not boo him for not being what the fan wanted him to be. Johnny Cash finally ended it with a letter to Broadside magazine saying, "Shut up and let him sing!"

All along Dylan warned he had nothing to live up to and "you shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you." In every interview I know of, as well as in his songs, Dylan stressed he did not consider himself a leader.

But his audience saw him as not only a prophet but also as a leader. He had shown them how to see their own world in new terms. He had helped them reevaluate their own knowledge, redefine their own feelings and had given them the rhetoric with which to express themselves. He had remade their world.

And that's what the problem was. His audience believed him like revealed religion, and held him personally responsible for what he sang, forgetting what D.H. Lawrence, among others, had said: "Never trust the artist, trust the tale."

Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident in midsummer 1966 and then appeared in public on only two occasions, the Tribute to Woody Guthrie at Carnegie Hall in 1968 and the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969. (His other appearances, at the concert for Bangladesh, and at a St. Louis concert and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, both with the Band, were unannounced.)

His only contact with his public was a series of albums – John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self Portrait – which seemed to increase in intensity the new resentment of his former fans.

Dylan had changed the sound of his musical accompaniment. No longer was there a rock band, but country musicians from Nashville. The Nashville sound was soft and his new songs had a surprising sweetness to them. It was a gentle return. The songs were different in emphasis.

Dylan's accident had happened just as he had almost single-handedly transformed pop music into an alternative educational system. But when he reestablished communications with his audience by releasing the new albums, his poetic emphasis was personal. To his surprise, probably, he found that once again his former listeners, at least a large portion of them, felt betrayed. He no longer supplied them with what they wanted. As he wrote in Writings and Drawings, "If I can't please everybody, I might as well not please nobody at all."

The hostility and hurt that greeted his albums since the accident, in print and in coffeehouse discussions, have been the screams of outraged lovers. To be honest, they tell us less about the artist than about his critics.

Sometimes it seems as if the American audience wants to be betrayed, to have its heroes fatally flawed, and commands them to self-destruct.

But it is the artist, not the audience, who defines, in the end, the artist's role. His only responsibility is to himself and to his art. He has, truly, nothing to live up to. Like a poem, he is. You take it or you leave it alone. It makes no difference, there is only, at the bottom, as he once wrote me, ". . . no understanding of anything. At best, just winks of the eye . . ."

Forms are chosen by poets because the most important part of what they have to say seems to go better with that form than any other . . . and then, in its turn, the form develops and shapes the poet's imagination.
--W.H. Auden

All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, have to prepare to listen to his new musical performances against the background of his tumultuous history, against the tension of his dialogue with the audience, and against a priori assumptions and wishful thinking of our own. Even though we know you can't go home again, every one of us often wants to do just that; go back to a simpler time when there was love and trust and hope.

What did we get?

We got two of the most memorable musical events I have ever attended. Dylan's two Oakland concerts with the Band were gems of the performing arts. His studied casualness, his determined anti-show-business presence was still there, though now he was no longer nervous. Whereas in the old days he had chattered nervously, telling short anecdotes and cracking jokes to cover his interminable guitar-tuning or the soaking of his harmonicas in water, now he went straight at it. Proud – to be sure – strong and in total command.

"It was a lesson in simplicity," a friend of mine commented. And it was a chance in this time of glamorous and glittering rock.

Dylan and the Band opened each show with a set of six songs, then Dylan returned for three more and, leaning abruptly to the microphone, said: "Don't go away. We'll be right back."

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