Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bob Dylan Is Nobody’s Pawn

Near the beginning of this month we were treated to an impressive Super Bowl performance by the Seattle Seahawks and a powerful two minute Chrysler commercial narrated by Bob Dylan. I'm not sure which of these was more startling. I do know that the buzz after the game, regarding the commercial was fairly substantial. I saw Facebook posts of "sellout" by a few people and I was going to write a blog post about it, but found Rolling Stone had already captured my sentiments when it wrote the next day, "A great many Super Bowl viewers were shocked to see Bob Dylan in a Chrysler commercial last night, but they really shouldn't have been."  

Amongst the circle of Dylan fans I've gotten to know here in the North Country the unanimous sentiment seemed to be how cool it was. These are the people who have read the books, follow, listen to his music and have all the albums, know the lyrics, have followed his career for their whole lives, and know all the highs and lows of the Never Ending Bob.

And their reaction was this: He's never done the expected. Why would he start now?

What prompted me to write about it this morning was yesterday's superb look-back at the Civil Right Movement on Minnesota Public Radio. The portions I got to hear while travelling back from lunch had to do with James Meredith at Ole Miss, and the shooting of Medgar Evers. In response to the first incident Dylan wrote Oxford Town. In response to the latter tragedy he produced what I consider one of his most powerful songs, Only a Pawn in Their Game.

In the MPR piece they shared how Medgar Evers put his life on the line in his fight to abolish Jim Crow laws and to obtain the same rights for blacks that all other Americans had. Evers had put his life on the line for American freedom in World War II at both Normandy and the European Theater. The racist ways of the Deep South stood in stark contrast to things he had seen overseas and he took steps to rectify the injustices he saw all around him.

MPR aired the vitriol that white callers directed to the television station that aired his seventeen minutes of FCC-enforced "equal time" in response to a white politician who had previously denounced the notion of equality for blacks. These hate-filled calls painted a painfully vivid picture.

Dylan's Times They Are A-Changin' captured this moment and the songs he wrote became anthems for civil rights. And there were expectations that he would keep producing this kind of music, expectations that he dashed in a relatively short time.

Two decades later a new wave of Dylan fans began following him. Slow Train Coming brought converts from the Christian sub-culture who embraced the "born again Dylan" and now claimed him as their own. But a few years and three albums later these fans became confused, wondering why he didn't continue producing Gospel songs.

I recall Dylan answering this matter in an interview about the time his Oh Mercy album came out. He said, in essence, that once he said what he had to say he didn't feel a need to keep saying it again. He gave us the songs and others could take them forward into the world.

In short, he wasn't going to be what this new group of followers wanted him to be either.

A hallmark of the American dream is its homage to the notion of rugged individualism. Though Dylan's career has exemplified this, being a man who marches to his own drum has scraped more than a few people the wrong way over the years.

Was the Super Bowl ad a surprise? Maybe. But it shouldn't have been. Whatever happens next, we already know Dylan is never going to be what others others want him to be. Kudos to you, Bob. Whatever you've got up your sleeve for the rest of 2014, we're looking forward to it.

Meantime, my you stay forever young. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ed- I always LOVE your insight. I rewound the commercial 3 times that night- I loved it. To me - it was a another face in the multi-faceted mind of all things R.Z. It was a statement about the Iron Range i.m.h.o.
Jim Wiita