(My little post on Bowie prompted me to reread this post I started several months ago on Dylan and leftist politics, which I abandoned. Looking back over it, I find it’s not quite as horrible as I’d remembered, but nonetheless not what I’d hoped it would be. Still, I’ll put it up. Maybe someone will get something from it.)
My local public-broadcasting station reaired No Direction Home last night, and I’ve been thinking of our good friend Dylan most of the day. So what follows is part catharsis and part trying to give some form to the discursive fragments bouncing around in my head. (Yes, I know, another American white boy pontificating on Dylan. How predictable. And boring.)
In the documentary, Scorsese lingers, to an almost painful length, on the press conferences Dylan held in late 1965. Painful because of the by turns banal, leading, and self-important questions posed by the interviewers and Dylan’s visible agitation and exasperation, not to mention his extraordinarily weary posture and gestures, which seem premature for a twenty-four-year-old. What’s odd from the vantage point of today is the questioners’ expectation that Dylan not only talk “deeply” about his art and its Meaning but also that he describe his role in the larger social picture, as the “voice of a generation.” There are no such expectations of pop stars today. Which is fortunate, because questions like those in the documentary really ask for a specific answer that conforms to an already-defined social and artistic outlook and because the social outlook of today’s pop stars is almost exclusively like the apolitical do-gooderism of wankers like Bono and Michael Stipe.
But what’s fascinating in the documentary is Dylan’s refusal to play along. My interest is not, as it is for Dylanheads, to protect the messiah from persecution so much as it is to point to the value of Dylan’s resistance to interpreting, to explaining his work. Dylan refuses to read for his audience, which is also a refusal to recognize the distinction between (passive) listener/subject and (active) artist/leader. In this sense, his “mutiny from above” (as Posthegemony called it), his refusal to interpret, is mirrored by his turn away from (obviously) protest songs. At one point in the documentary, Baez remembers that she had a grand plan for the music she and Dylan would do together and laments that her political-artistic project was never carried out. They would sing clear-thinking protest songs and draw clear political lines. In other words, Baez was advocating a sort of pop paternalism, a program in which their music would enlighten the people about the evils of racism, war, etc. It was this soft authoritarianism that Dylan turned his back on.
On the other hand, the anger the folkies (Baez and Pete Seeger are merely the famous names among a whole group neo-Transcendentalists and Trotskyists) felt at Dylan’s betrayal was protesting too much, as the “postpolitical” batch of Dylan tunes, those on Bringin’ It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, are, in the end, mostly (merely?) deterritorialized protest songs. “Ballad of a Thin Man,” for instance, can be read as a “surrealized” version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Other “electric” songs could easily find a “folk” analogue in Dylan’s previous recordings.
Interestingly, though, and perhaps most threatening to folk/leftist orthodoxy, it’s the songs at the end of Highway 61, the ones that sound most folky, that have most radically left protest music behind. “Desolation Row,” especially, with its acoustic-guitar-only arrangement, employs ugly, often nonsensical imagery that spurns the saccharin images and harmonious thoughts preferred by folk and imagines a radical separation between inside and outside that is antithetical to folk’s aesthetic of a natural unity that must be captured.
It’s in this context that the importance, and the provocation, of “Like A Rolling Stone” becomes clearer. Seeger mentions that many took “how does it feel to be on your own?” to be a betrayal of folkie collectivism, an (re)assertion of individualism against the aims of mid-century socialism. I think it makes more sense to read “Like A Rolling Stone” as a challenge, as a serious, not sneering, question: now that you’ve made yourself homeless, what do you do? now that you are unknown, how do you avoid regaining an identity?