Saturday, June 29, 2013

Was Dylan the First Real Rock Star?

During Duluth’s Dylan Days in 2012 there was a panel discussion at Tycoons in which Dylan’s significance was explored. It’s a topic of recurring interest for me because from time to time in my readings there is a trigger that unlocks another room full of ideas to examine and analyze, to hold up to the light to see if they have any substance to them.

My current stimulant has been Lee Marshall’s Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star. The new idea, which I had not recognized before but seems to ring true as I consider it, is that “rock” A.D. (After Dylan) is not the same as the rock and roll that preceded Dylan’s emergence as a rock star.

To illustrate this point, ask yourself this: Why is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland? Answer: It was there that the label “rock and roll” was coined. This was the heart of it: There were many disc jockeys of the time taken up in the euphoric new sound, which was a blend of African-American rhythms and blues while borrowing from traditions of cowboy music, jazz, country and folk. The key thing, though, was making music kids could dance to.*

Before Dylan, rock ‘n roll was about making music you could dance to. When Dylan emerged from the constraints of folk, where he was unquestionably a star, he welded a new sensibility to this established music form. Here’s how Marshall explains it: Dylan is the foundational figure in rock culture. Dylan’s shift to electric music brought to the mainstream the political authority and communal links of his folk past while his song-writing skills offered the examplar of what could be achieved artistically within the new form. 

And it wasn't "going electric" that was the significant thing in and of itself. Elvis, Chuck Berry and a host of others had been there for some time, obviously. What's different is that although rock and roll was fun, Dylan brought to it a new seriousness, a new sensibility.

As Marshall explains: Rock emerged in the mid-sixties as a was of stratifying mainstream musical consumption, as a means of creating higher and lower levels of popular music.... Rather than merely assuming a difference in quality between serious/classical music and light/popular music, rock functions to differentiate between serious, worthwhile popular music (rock) and trivial, lightweight popular music (pop).

When Dylan went electric he served as the catalyst for the formation of this new type of music.

The natural rebuttal to this argument would be that it was the Beatles or the British Invasion that changed rock and roll, so Marshall examines this thesis as well, citing Bernard Gendron’s book that posits that it was the Beatles who made this happen, “arguing that the critical acclaim of their later albums is the key force behind rock’s critical acceptance.”

But what was it that transformed the Beatles from cheery-faced mop-top boppers into the young men who really did, for a while, rule the world? And when? When you lay their careers side by side in a timeline, Dylan's achievements in 1965 reverberated everywhere. Bringing It All Back Home was released in March. In June he wrote and recorded "Like a Rolling Stone". In July he plugged in and went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and in August released Highway 61 Revisited. Both of these latter events have been considered by some to be the pivot point of rock history.

In 1965 the Beatles were still making love songs and foot-tappers. Everything they did climbed the pop charts like monkeys. Even in late fall they were still churning out songs like Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey, Boys and Roll Over Beethoven. That year the movie Help, as a follow up to Hard Day's Night, placed them squarely in the center of a well established Hollywood pattern to capitalize on youth heroes for commercial gain, as they had done previously with Elvis. The Fab Four were definitely a sensation, but in a wholly other manner than Dylan. They were pop, but they were not hip. 

Hence, Marshall declares: "My argument is that Dylan was the first real Rock Star. His razor-sharp hipness in 1965 and the strung out excesses of 1966 laid down the prototype for his new social role. Some of the substance of Dylan’s new star-image was rooted in his public persona developed as a folk star but his image in 1965-6 is a clearly different type of star-image." 

One sentence on page 93 says it all: "In 1965, Bob Dylan was the coolest person on the planet."

Today is Saturday, June 30. The Never Ending Tour will roll into town in nine days..... See you there.

* Ennyman’s Territory, Dec. 7, 2010

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