Within three weeks of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a slightly intoxicated Bob Dylan received the Tom Paine award at the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s fundraising dinner to commemorate Bill of Rights Day. When invited to speak he referenced Woody Guthrie (an idol for both Dylan and his well-dressed audience) and dismissed the notion that any person or collective could speak definitively on behalf of other people. “I’ve never seen one history book that tells how anybody feels,” he said. A reasonable enough sentiment for a 22-year-old folk singer, but he then remarked on the confusion and fear of the day, the loneliness and estrangement a man can’t help but feel, and the understanding that can’t come without empathy—taking it as a given that such empathy was the perceived task of the people in front of him (and probably that of any artist worthy of the title). But he subsequently expressed pity for the most on-his-own-with-no-direction-home figure of the moment, Lee Harvey Oswald.
This, to say the least, did not go over well. And after the boos and an explanatory profile in the The New Yorker (“Those people that night were actually getting me to look at colored people as colored people …What’s wrong goes much deeper than the bomb. What’s wrong is how few people are free.”), Dylan no longer indulged much in public speaking nor did he associate with organizations that had an agenda. It wasn’t a step away from the political or the topical, but the work would have to speak for itself. And any effort to categorize it as high art or low, folk or rock, spiritual or worldly would be dismissed as part of the soul-sucking establishment’s attempt to hamper it, or—as he put it in a short-lived Hootenany column—“boundary it all up.”
While The Times They Are A-Changin’ (February 1964) couldn’t be taken for an apolitical work, its packaging was willfully enigmatic. A printed insert entitled “11 Outlined Epitaphs” wouldn’t let the listener off the hook:
yes it is I
who is poundin’ at your door
if it is you inside
who hears the noise
Citing Dostoevsky, William Blake and Johnny Cash, Dylan locates himself along a varied trajectory:
an’ mine shall be a strong loneliness
t’ the depths of my freedom
an’ that, then, shall
remain my song
Working out one’s own vocation with fear and trembling involves resisting the compartments of marketeers, sociologists and uptight colleagues. Another Side of Bob Dylan (released in May 1964) places such civil-rights-era anthems as “Chimes of Freedom” alongside “I Shall Be Free No. 10” (“I’m a poet / I know it / Hope I don’t blow it”). And “To Ramona” observes that the stratagems of constraint defy easy description: “From fixtures and forces and friends, / Your sorrow does stem, / That hype you and type you, / Making you feel / That you must be exactly like them.”
What’s a folk artist to do when the supposed folk establishment starts laying down what’s folk and what isn’t? Having already burned bridges with his ill-timed words of solidarity with Oswald, Another Side of Bob Dylan received a cool reception from the folk music community who, in turn, were urged by Johnny Cash in a letter to the editors of Sing Out! to “SHUT UP! … AND LET HIM SING!” (Dylan recently remarked he still has his copy of that particular issue). Add to this affirmation the beginnings of a friendship with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, an acquaintance with free-jazz genius Ornette Coleman and the earthshaking advent of The Beatles, and a different way of making music emerges. Dylan’s best biographer, Robert Shelton (No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan), suggests that these were the days when Dylan set out to become a mass-media poet.
Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon once observed that live musical performance is a situation in which “people pay to see others believe in themselves.” If Dylan was going to deliver at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on Halloween night in 1964, he’d have to wrestle with fake authenticity without getting preachy and be direct without becoming a caricature of himself. After opening with the recent songs his audience would expect (concerning the shaky ethics of boxing and anti-communist paranoia), he introduces a new, stranger number, “Gates of Eden” as “A Sacrilegious Lullaby in D Minor.” But the song is just a song, like the ones that came before, another way of fitting words together. The audience has taken in his carefully enunciated phrases, and he won’t explain himself, but he will make fun of the idea that he’s just shared something inaccessibly deep or scary: “It’s just Halloween. I’ve got my Bob Dylan mask on … I’m masquerading.”
Skipping the gravitas, even mocking it, he moves swiftly to the more obviously ridiculous “If You Gotta Go, Go Now.” Like Andy Kaufman, Dylan claims no particular vocation save that of a song-and-dance man, and the question of whether or not to take him seriously is something with which he won’t concern himself. Then another new one, “It’s All Right Ma, It’s Life and Life Only,” which eventually appears on Bringing It All Back Home as “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” The audience laughs at the title, and he chuckles in response, “Yes, it’s a very funny song.”
But it isn’t a funny song. On this particular evening it’s the Dylan song that—possibly more than any other—would be heard with the utmost seriousness. It marks the day of judgment for every death-dealing abstraction, con game and unjust ruler in sight. One line would be applauded for the next 40 years of live performance throughout several administrations: “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” And a line oft-quoted by Jimmy Carter: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” George Harrison’s favorite: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” And lest we think our young entertainer is getting too high-and-mighty: “If my thought-dreams could be seen / They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Not bad for a 23-year-old.
When pressed about a song’s meaning, Dylan has—in recent years—noted with mock exasperation that nobody ever asked Elvis Presley what he really meant when he sang “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”
Paradoxically enough, Dylan is determined to be a pop entertainer. And the notion that the entertainer (or artist or poet) need not explain—that it’s even a little unseemly to expect an explanation—will be a tricky one to articulate for the popular artist. When Thom Yorke says his lyrics are only gibberish or Jeff Tweedy laughs at someone pronouncing him a prophet, they’re using public space largely cleared by Dylan—who could combine the political relevance of Woody Guthrie and the popular appeal of Elvis without losing himself completely. It’s social criticism as musical entertainment; poetry for the people. When the audience needed it, he knew how to put his Bob Dylan mask on. In 1964, he began to create a media persona he could deliberately mess with. Within a year or two, he’d be telling his television audience, “Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.” He could be Charlie Chaplin and Walt Whitman, with never a need to boundary it all up.
But he’d also begun to learn the hard way that being truthful (in metaphor or testimony) was the way he bore witness, and, for his part—the song means what the song means. When asked to explain a particular song, Elvis Costello (an unashamed Dylan devotee) observed that, if he could have put it another way, he wouldn’t have written the song. If he could have said it in a sentence, he would have. Or in the case of Steve Earle, a song about American Taliban John Walker Lindh isn’t, properly speaking, a statement about John Walker Lindh. It’s a song. It speaks for itself.
An especially illuminating moment occurs when Dylan’s audience is shouting requests, and somebody asks for a cover of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“God, did I record that?” Dylan responds. “‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ Is that a protest song?” And in a fit of laughter, the audience members are shown they can have it more ways than one. It can matter. But nobody’s going to try and make it matter. That would be cheating. The either/or need not apply. Without ambiguity, the jig is up. Anyone with an ear to hear will get it. Call it “protest” or “nursery rhyme.” Every day is poetry. And poetry is the thing that never ends.
Within months, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (existential? surreal? nonsense? comedy?) would bust open expectations even further (with ripples reaching everyone from INXS to R.E.M. to Radiohead to hip-hop); in time, Dylan would even “go electric” with what he called “thin wild mercury music.” He would wear dark glasses—decades before Bono donned his fly persona shades—and arrive for an interview with a lightbulb, silently daring reporters to ask him what it was for. A media blitz was simply another opportunity for a song-and-dance man to exhibit freedom and speak the truth. John Lennon, Patti Smith, Richard Pryor and Michael Stipe would do it too, but in 1964, Dylan walked this tightrope alone.
Almost 40 years later, Dylan’s Love and Theft emerged with a seeming effortlessness from his Neverending Tour. He tips his hat to Warren Zevon, Buddy Holly and Charley Patton, noting that affectionate borrowing and standing on the shoulders of giants is all any of us can manage when we try to speak out loud. But something of an amused acknowledgement of his place along the continuum of folk/protest/punk/rock/entertainment might be coming through in “Summer Days”: “How can you say you love someone else when you know it’s me all the time?” Surely an icon is allowed to wax self-referential from time to time. And as he doubtless understands—as he’s testified, in fact—it’s all a masquerade.