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Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and the Rock & Roll of the 60s

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John Wesley Harding helped set in motion a reevaluation — and a reaffirmation — of rock & roll root values. In a short time, old and new blues guitarists were enjoying fresh currency, gospel singers were scoring pop hits, Everly Brothers-style groups like Crosby, Stills and Nash were finding a mass audience, and even country & western style was meeting with a new reception. This last trend, in particular, disturbed some critics a year later, when Dylan recorded an LP of lovely and pure country songs, Nashville Skyline, that included a raggedy duet with C&W star Johnny Cash. Since country was widely viewed as the music of a working-class sensibility and since it represented a conservative audience that was seen as a stalwart supporter of the war in Vietnam, did this mean that Dylan had now switched political sides? Or had he simply lost faith in political solutions altogether? The truth was, folks like Dylan and his cohorts in the Band — who had emerged in their own meaningful right with Music From Big Pink and the Band — were simply trying to offer a saner, more embracing alternative to the rancorous spirit that had alienated many everyday Americans from the rock revolution. Dylan and the Band understood that there was still much to love about America and its people, despite their grand failings; in addition, there was no way the young could alienate the working- and middle-class masses and still win a genuine revolution.

In late 1969, the Band's leader, guitarist Robbie Robertson, described his and Dylan's new music as a refutation of "the punky attitude that had to do with music — hate your mother and stab your father."

"So what if your parents did do you wrong?" Robertson asked. "Maybe they did, but so what? I'm tired of hearing . . . Jim Morrison and those people. I just think they're a drag. Even if that is their situation, who cares? That's got nothing to do with music."

Plenty of other artists, of course, had fewer reservations about offering music as a force of division or rebellion. Among them were the Doors (who, indeed, had sung gleefully about the prospect of offing dad and fucking mom), the Velvet Underground (who had popularized songs about S&M and heroin addiction), Iggy Pop and the Stooges (who acted out impulses of self-destruction), the Mothers of Invention (who looked like bikers and played like prodigies) and MC5 (a white Detroit band that was openly dedicated to the ideal of violent black revolution). In part, perhaps, these bands were simply trading on the increasingly commercial value of shock. But they were also making plain that underneath the veneer of altruism and idealism, the 1960s youth scene was riddled with some considerably darker truths — namely, that drugs had quickly become as much a means to obliterate as to enlighten, and that in a truly free or anarchistic society, bloodshed was as likely to be encountered as lasting peace or equality. It is a testament to the merit of such bands as the Velvets, the Doors and the Stooges that their ability to face and address these realities has helped make their music among the more enduring and oddly affirming legacies of the era.

Increasingly, the best late-1960s music was music about fear, doubt and the possibility of apocalypse, and no band addressed these concerns more forthrightly or valuably than the Rolling Stones, who were quickly establishing themselves as perhaps rock's smartest and greatest band. Throughout their history — from the time they were arrested for pissing in public to the brouhaha over their drug busts — the Stones epitomized rebellion and disrespect to both fans and detractors, and they had long been the band that many parents and authority figures hated the most. Now, like Dylan and the Band, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had started reasserting primal blues and country forms, and they were also asking some of the toughest questions around ("I shouted out who killed the Kennedys?" sang Jagger in "Sympathy for the Devil," and then answered unabashedly, "When after all it was you and me"). But whereas Dylan would, more and more, make music of withdrawal and abdication, the Stones flirted openly with questions about evil and violence that aimed to reveal both themselves and their fans as accomplices in all the modern terror and chaos.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: the Rolling Stones

By 1968 — a year in which Robert Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in Memphis, and the broken hopes of millions of people erupted in costly, long-term violence (perhaps most famously at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, at which police brutally bludgeoned American youth) — rock & roll had become a field of hard options and opposing arguments. The Beatles seemed dazed and wearied by their role as youth leaders. On one hand, they had recorded two versions of "Revolution," in which they opted in, and then out, of the notion of violent revolt; then, on the other, they issued "Hey Jude," their greatest anthem of community and forbearance.

The Stones, though, faced the contradictions of their positions more directly. In "Salt of the Earth" (from Beggar's Banquet), Jagger extolled the working-class masses, only to admit his hopeless distance from any real involvement with such people ("When I search a faceless crowd/ A swirling mass of gray and black and white/They don't look real to me/In fact they look so strange"), and in "Street Fighting Man" (banned in several U.S. cities for fear that it might incite more political riots), the Stones admitted to both a desire for violent confrontation and a longing for equivocation ("Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution/But where I live the game to play is compromise solution").

This meant that rock's consensus of joy and opportunity was finished, and its most significant components came apart quickly. The Beatles made more great music, but they shortly disintegrated into a tense, mutually distrusting partnership; in many ways, their deterioration was a metaphor for a larger dissolution: the failed hope for a social community we had longed for but never really achieved. Dylan withdrew for a time into writing domestic bromides, and though he would go on to make some of his most resourceful music in the 1970s (Blood on the Tracks and Desire), he would never again affect rock music and American culture as sweepingly as he had with "Like a Rolling Stone" and John Wesley Harding. Meantime, the Rolling Stones capped their grandest triumph with a tragic debacle. At the end of 1969, following the dismissal and then death of founding member Brian Jones, the Stones recouped with their strongest album, Let It Bleed, and with an American tour that amounted to rock's most successful large-scale concert series to date. But at the end of the tour, eager to deflect charges of greed, the Stones staged a free concert outside San Francisco at Altamont Speedway, and following the example of the Grateful Dead, they hired the Hell's Angels as a security force. It was a day of legendary violence: The Angels pummeled scores of people, usually with little or no provocation, and in the evening, as the Stones performed "Under My Thumb," the bikers beat and stabbed a young black man to death in front of the stage, in full view of the band, the audience members and a camera crew.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

More Song Stories entries »
 
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