Thursday, September 4, 2014

Is Dylan the Gutenberg of Rock and Roll?

Proposed: What Hemingway did for literature, what Duchamp did to art, what Gutenberg did to communication, Dylan did to rock and roll. Before Hemingway, prose was flowery, prodigious, and generously wordy. Hemingway’s words became quick, potent jabs, uppercuts and right hooks. In Our Time changed everything. Duchamp’s Readymades and conceptual work so split open the possibilities of art that it took decades for the art scene to comprehend the liberation from constraints that he’d unleashed. Gutenberg’s historical achievement needs no introduction.

History is replete with landmarks -- places of birth, places where heroes have fallen, places where the dead have been laid to rest. In recent times the movers and shakers of rock and roll history have produced more such landmarks. Elvis left us Graceland. Buddy Holly put Lubbock, Texas on the map. The Beatles have brought economic blessings to Liverpool. And one of our own, here in the North Country, may well be more significant than all. Perhaps because he is still performing -- twice in Minnesota last year on his Never Ending Tour and again this November – it would be a good time to reflect on what it is that has led some critics to declare Bob Dylan to be the most significant person in rock history.

By the 1990’s Dylan had been the most re-recorded songwriter in rock history. I don’t have the data on hand but his songs have appeared in conjunction with Hollywood films more than anyone I know of other than pro score composers like John Williams and Ennio Morricone. From Poor Little Rich Girl (1965) and Easy Rider (1968) to Henry Poole Is Here (2008) and The Help (2010) and even this year's Chef (2014), Dylan’s music has been used to bring home just the right mood and moment in so many varieties of film and television scenes. In light of the global reach of Hollywood, in a culture that is increasingly splintered Dylan’s influence is a fluid thread that permeates all media forms, has been the accompaniment.

These trivial factoids are not what make Dylan important though. They’re just aftereffects and byproducts. John Bushey, host of the KUMD program Highway 61 Revisited for near two decades, had this to say about Minnesota’s native son. “I think you have to look to the early 60's and the time that Dylan happened to come along. He began writing these incredible lyrics and songs pertaining to the changing times; civil rights, social issues, and songs with a political slant. His unique lyrical style influenced many musicians and attracted a much larger following to many of these causes.” After being influenced by Dylan popular groups like the Byrds, Peter Paul and Mary, and the Beatles changed what they were doing to bring this “new” music to a broader audience. Bushey affirms, “This can never be taken from Bob Dylan. His poetic, multi-dimensional ability with words helped bring about a new form of music.”

As for me, I’ve spent much more time thinking about Dylan’s significance than I ought to, but it has been a recurring meditation for so very long now because understanding Dylan’s influence is one of the keys to unlocking some of my own struggle to understand my personal experiences coming of age in the Sixties. It wasn’t just the music, and it wasn’t just the poetry of his lyrics. I credit Lee Marshall’s book Bob Dylan: The Never Ending Star for giving me a new understanding of Dylan’s pivotal role in our culture. Marshall’s insightful explorations opened my eyes to new vistas regarding what Dylan achieved.

One idea that Marshall proposes and defends, which I had not recognized before but rings true as I probe it, is that “rock” A.D. (After Dylan) is not the same as the rock ‘n roll that preceded Dylan’s emergence on the scene.

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. 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. Just like man gave names to all the animals, disc jockey Alan Freed coined a name for this new phenomenon.

Receiving the Medal
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 Lee 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 exemplar 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 rock ‘n roll was fun; Dylan brought to it a new seriousness, a new sensibility.

As Marshall explains: “Rock emerged in the mid-sixties as a way 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 catalyst for the formation of this new type of music.

It was more than the music, more than the lyrics, more than the Greenwich Village scene he emerged from. One sentence on page 93 says it all: "In 1965, Bob Dylan was the coolest person on the planet."

Everything has to be taken in context. Impressionable young people who lived through the Kennedy assassination experienced the first of multiple emotional concussions that included the escalating Viet Nam conflict, social justice issues, riots in the streets, assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. The smiling faces on billboards and laugh tracks on sitcoms did little to assuage the confusion and pain a large portion of this generation was carrying.

Then you hear a haunting song with lyrics like this:

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed 
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff 
At pettiness which plays so rough 
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs 
Kick my legs to crash it off 
Say okay, I have had enough, 
What else can you show me?

And it speaks to you. Because if your thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put your head in a guillotine, too. “But it’s all right, ma. It’s life and life only.”

Dylan sang words that resonated, and in so doing liberated other songwriters outside the confines of the folk scene where such songs had a lengthy history. Many voices followed, rising up to grapple with these times as they were changing. This, this liberation, is Dylan’s legacy.

* * * *

Tomorrow evening is my art opening at Benchmark Tattoo in Duluth. The exhibition is titled Influences, one of mine being Dylan. One of the pieces in this show will be my painting Receiving the Medal.

Meantime... life goes on all around you. Carpe diem.


Billy Joe McCallister said...

I think the Gutenberg-Dylan comparison is apples and oranges and doesn’t hold water. Gutenberg invented a concrete object (moveable type) and Dylan worked in an art form that was ephemeral (for which no name). Gutenberg enabled communication; Bob Dylan communicated.

“This can never be taken from Bob Dylan. His poetic, multi-dimensional ability with words helped bring about a new form of music.”

People throw out phrases like the above all the time and never really explain what it is they are talking about. They expect you to intuit their meaning. What is poetic about his ability,? Why/How is it multi-dimensional?. Why is it a new form of music? These questions need to be answered.

“One idea that Marshall proposes and defends, which I had not recognized before but rings true as I probe it, is that “rock” A.D. (After Dylan) is not the same as the rock ‘n’ roll that preceded Dylan’s emergence on the scene.”

I’d say more like rock A.A. (After Acid). Like Phil Ochs said: “Dylan is LSD on stage.” Meanwhile in San Francisco. . .

“Before Dylan, rock ‘n' roll was about making music you could dance to.”

Yet, “upon first hearing what the Byrds did to Mr. Tambourine Man Bob exclaimed: ‘Wow, you can dance to that!’ " and dance they did at Ciro’s. In San Francisco the bands started out playing ballrooms (and elsewhere) for dancers.

None of the essay is close to explaining or portraying what Dylan was doing, what this new form was, etc. Be happy to discuss any this with you.

What was the new paradigm?

ENNYMAN said...

You're probably right that the Gutenberg comparison is apples and oranges. A reminder to be wary of hyperbole. Comparisons to Picasso or Balzac or Hemingway would be apples to apples. Then the discussion would revolve around whether Dylan was that kind of force even if with regard to music.

Maybe the essay is incomplete because it is abbreviated (for "blog length" from a longer piece. I keep falling back toward the contrast between what Dylan was doing while the Beatles were doing Help. He produced Like a Rolling Stone and Bringing It All Back Home. Elvis had been doing insipid Hollywood films that were embarrassing and out of touch.... The folk sensibility carried into the rock world...

Now, I admit I have maybe drunk too much of the Kool-aid here, through association with likeminded Dylan "fans" and may have lost my objectivity... but then again, I am not alone in being somewhat taken by his influence.

Yes, A.A. explains a lot of what is often left unsaid.