American Grandstand: It Takes A Lot to Laugh

Bob Dylan's latest album reinforces the point that all rock gods are human

Bob Dylan performing on stage. Credit: Keith Baugh/Redferns

The best definition of humor I've ever come across was contained in an old Fred Allen vaudeville skit. Allen would summon from the audience a gentleman wearing one of the broad-brimmed Panama hats fashionable in the Thirties. While they chatted about what is funny, and what isn't, Allen would remove his victim's hat and, taking out a large paring knife, proceed to peel off the brim. Handing the hat back to its enraged owner, Allen would ask, "What's the matter? Don't you think that's funny?" And when his fuming victim indicated that he did not, Allen would simply say, "Well, they do," gesture to the doubled-up audience, then snip off the sucker's tie.

Some people would undoubtedly contend that Allen's malicious perspective dominates this columnist's critical methodology. Well, the basic problem with writing humorous material is that not everyone gets it. Still, when I compared Bob Dylan to Elvis Presley as the Clown Prince of Rock, I didn't expect people to get angry about it. But what was more shocking, I didn't expect to be told that such things can't or shouldn't be said because "he's Bob Dylan."

My piece on Street Legal — an album I still find more amusing than enlightening but nonetheless listenable — has caused even some of my friends to hurl imprecations at me like so many hot pennies. Response to my review of the Rolling Stones' recent concerts was more abusive — at last count, letters were running forty-seven to two against, and readers have called from all over the country to let me know they disagree.

The number of responses is unusual — about ten times what this column generally attracts. But while it's flattering to know one is so widely read, it is distressing that so many people feel the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan are beyond failure — that their every public action is not only of major significance but must be taken with the utmost seriousness. For someone who has always believed that the perfect rock attitude is: "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke," this is disillusioning.

The punks have been big rock news for the past two years, not because they celebrate the armpit of life, but because they've rejected the idea and the worship of a rock aristocracy. But I don't think I realized until now that the punks' failure to gain widespread acceptance is due to the desire of the current rock listener for an aristocracy. There are a variety of reasons for this, but I can't help feeling that the central issue here is laziness: if the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan are incapable of failure, we have no responsibility to make difficult decisions about the relative quality of their work.

Half the fun of being a fan is trying to determine whether old heroes have lived up to past standards. Critics and fans alike missed a great deal of the pleasure and insight of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for instance, because we weren't prepared for the low-key way Dylan delivered his insights. But when I say that Street Legal is hilarious, it's not because I don't respect Bob Dylan, but because I do. And laughter is a better response than rage. When one of the greatest performers rock has ever known gussies himself up in a sequined suit and puts a photo of it on his album jacket, people should be encouraged to see the humor in this, not forbidden to even entertain the notion that it's funny. Dylan, the Stones, the ex-Beatles, the Who and the Kinks (or whoever else is left from the Sixties pantheon) are humans, not gods (I'm pretty sure of this).

I'm a fine one to talk. No less an authority than Pete Townshend has accused me of taking rock too seriously, and on the grounds that it takes one to know one, that's indisputable. My only defense is, in the words of Oscar Wilde, "One must be serious about something if one is to have any amusement in life." But never mind what musicians say. One of the glories of rock is that fans have always had a say in what counts — it hasn't been left to an elite of critics and scholars to determine such matters. But if rock is going to become just another instrument of aristocracy — if old heroes must be praised, not just respected, if their foibles can't be greeted with as much gusto as their successes — then we have effectively lost our place in the process by which rock is made. That would certainly be a lot simpler — all the judgments are made for you, and no one need try to keep up with the times, since a glance at the popularity charts will tell you everything you need to know. But I prefer the risk of saying no once in a while. The fact that so many people have lost the need to resist occasionally is no laughing matter.

This story is from the September 21st, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.