‘Give us back our unity’

[Somehow this post got deleted from the day I wrote it, September 20, and reappeared as a new post. Weird.]

This morning I listened to David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, from 1971, which has always been my favorite of his. I haven’t heard it in years, and I was pleasantly surprised at the topicality of some of the lyrics, particularly the minor parenting in “Kooks,” the xenophobia-rendered-as-apocalypse tale of “Oh, You Pretty Things,” and the interplay of the real/symbolic, Thanatos, and power/knowledge in “Quicksand.” Now I kind of see why some people–mostly desperate rock critics and record-label flacks, though I’m not sure there’s much light separating those two groups–were at the time pushing Bowie as the “next Dylan.” But it was a purely marketing comparison from the beginning, and Bowie formally declared his independence from the label with Hunky Dory‘s twisted paean “Song for Bob Dylan” and with his next record, the glam-rock theatre piece The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

This morning I was particularly struck by the Trotskyist lament contained in “Song for Bob Dylan,” the lament not just for Dylan’s wandering away from social-realist folk songs (read: betrayal) but for the (fictive) unity that existed at the time Dylan wrote those songs, that is, before the expressions of difference voiced by the black, chicano, women, and queer (and other) movements in the mid and late 60s ruined the socialist consensus. Some leftists have been trying to reachieve that consensus ever since.

And you sat behind a million pair of eyes
And told them how they saw
Then we lost your train of thought
The paintings are all your own
While troubles are rising
We’d rather be scared
Together than alone


Now hear this Robert Zimmerman
Though I don’t suppose we’ll meet
Ask your good friend Dylan
If he’d gaze a while
down the old street
Tell him we’ve lost his poems
So they’re writing on the walls
‘Give us back our unity’
‘Give us back our family’
You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity


5 thoughts on “‘Give us back our unity’

  1. Thanks, Nate. It always amazes me how Dylan is such a site for political contestations. He’s just a pop celebrity, I want to yell, but that would be slighting my love for pop music. And for Dylan.

  2. hi Eric, I’m not real into Dylan myself but I love music and I think it should be taken seriously (I mean, sometimes, cuz it should also still be fun). I am who I am today in part because I encountered Bad Religion at the right time. I think Morrissey is at least as profound as what I’ve seen quoted by Nietzsche, and Bowie will surely sit at the right hand of god someday…

  3. I think music should be taken seriously even when it’s fun! (One of my problems with Adorno’s screeds on jazz–besides wounding my love of jazz–was that he never took it seriously, he only saw how the surface reflected, for him, the ascendent consumer capitalsim of his day, and he never bothered to explore jazz’s “internal logic,” as he called it in an essay on Schonberg.)

    But yeah, music was and is a huge part of my life. Growing up in a small town quite literally in the middle of nowhere, where there was “outside” to anything, I had to search for escape wherever I could find it. Music was it. First, in junior high and early high school, it was Dylan, the Who, Hendrix, and then later punk–Clash, Talking Heads, Joy Division, Husker Du, Minutemen, the Smiths, REM, and lots of hardcore. As you say, they my encounters with all those names and more make up a huge part of who I am.

    I think I’ve just realized what it is about the fighting over Dylan that intrigues and horrifies me: Defenders and haters of Dylan alike are seeking representation, they want a pop star to speak for them. That’s about the worst use of music (art) I can think of.

  4. That’s a really good point about art. I don’t know Dylan so I can’t respond to that in his particular case. Can you say more on this? I recently saw Utah Phillips. He was really great. During his performance he made some remark like this “this is a revolutionary song, which in a mass consumer society is any society you sing yourself, god forbid anyone relate to music as a producer instead of as a consumer.” Then he taught us the song and had us sing along. Fun times.

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