Dylan: The Poet Returns, the Media Boggle - Rolling Stone
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Dylan: The Poet Returns, the Media Boggle

Ruminations on the cultural impact of Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan

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If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed it. But there it was, in plain English in the wire-service story on Dylan‘s Boston concert: “Dylan . . . spoke three times during the afternoon affair.”

Honest to God. It is national news for the great wire service when Bob Dylan says, “Thank you. It’s good to be back in Boston.” I don’t want to be an alarmist, but aren’t they really overreacting a trifle?

The importance of the Dylan tour can’t be overestimated in terms of culture and of sociology, of course, but the emphasis which is placed upon such things as whether or not he speaks is past silliness into idiocy. It is another example of the Mr. Jones Syndrome. They don’t know what the significance is, and thus they devote their attention to trivialities. I await with interest the day the wire services report whether or not Oistrakh speaks during a concert.

Bob Dylan Bids a Restful Farewell to Tour ’74

Of course, no one expects Oistrakh or any other so-called classical artist to speak to the audience because they represent “culture,” sometimes referred to as “high culture” (straight meaning), and Dylan and what he represents is entertainment.

However, it is not the computer’s fault that it is not programmed to respond in that category. It just isn’t equipped. And while Dylan is, of course, entertainment (God knows there have been few occasions in a concert hall when you could have as good a time as when Dylan sang), he is something else altogether on another level entirely without any regard to whether or not he speaks to the audience.

The impact that Bob Dylan has had upon the culture of the past ten years in the English-speaking world (and, to some extent, in France and Brazil, among others) is extraordinary and comparable, at least in terms of concepts and additions to the language, only with Shakespeare and the Bible. I’ve said that before and every time I do people freak because their static view of history (and of themselves) is violated by the idea that something which is occasionally played on a jukebox or a radio station can have that kind of impact.

But the poet of the electronic age is a new kind of poet whose message reaches its destination in minutes and hours as compared to centuries for the aforementioned comparisons. Dylan short-circuited the educational system and rewrote the descriptions of our society we gave ourselves and regurgitated them all up in his own State of the Union messages which forever changed the way people thought about the way things work in America. Real people, I mean, not Nixon and Ford.

Of course, at one and the same time, he made hit songs and provided entertainment and all that and I don’t have a whiff of whether or not he even thinks he did these other things I know he has done. But I suspect that in his heart of hearts, in the late hours of the night when there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off, he knows what he did and why he did it. And he knows its importance, as well.

Dylan, to the general public, is classified as a rock & roll performer or a folk singer, which is like comparing Isaac Stern to Evelyn and her Magic Violin. In many ways his return to performance has been a showbiz story, even though everyone seems to ignore the real showbiz angle – which is that his advance sales and his total tour is probably the most commercially successful single event ever in the concert field. When they sell out the Boston Symphony coast to coast and turn away a million requests for tickets, you’ll read about that, I can tell you.

What is being shown by the Dylan tour is that his audience, which includes a good deal of the audience for the more theatrical pop performers, is an adult audience which can be serious about its enjoyment and does not need to charge the stage or perform in the ritualistic, idiotic ways we have been accustomed to. They never did before, any more than Dylan ever announced titles or introduced musicians, and they do not now.

Dylan’s return is a reaffirmation of their maturity, and their behavior defines what he is and does as being apart from even the Stones.

The duality of things was never better demonstrated for me than the week Dylan returned, when Iggy Pop (who, after all, is also a performer and a rock personality) leaped from the stage, dressed in a bikini, at a San Francisco appearance and promptly had his bikini bottom ripped off by a young lady who then treated him as if she were a Plaster Caster without the plaster. That’s freak rock. Dylan is poetry and music and, yes, love.

The coast-to-coast vibes set off by the Dylan tour have been beautiful. It feels good even from 2000 miles away. You know it is good, just as it was every time he and the Band played since his accident. No matter what the press said, the Isle of Wight concert was a gas to those who were there and so was the Academy of Music and the appearance in St. Louis and the Woody Guthrie concert. Just as was his appearance at the Bangladesh concert.

And when I got a letter two days after the Chicago concert from Margie Marcus saying: “He didn’t need any new message songs or protest songs, the old ones are more meaningful and relevant today than when he wrote them.” I was instantly certain she was exactly right. That’s what poetry is and, if you will, art. It doesn’t date.

A thing of beauty truly is a joy forever. “Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness.” And what we have learned and will learn from all the poets cannot vanish no matter what follows. How foolish we are to insist on telling this poet, of all poets, what he should do. Remember this is the poet who said so clearly, “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” and then laid it out the way it is: “I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.”

This story is from the February 14th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.


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