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Dylan Comes to Town Championing the Standards Fare

by John Schacht

November 2, 2016

Bob Dylan will be in Charlotte Sunday night, fresh off winning the Nobel prize for literature and releasing another album of American Songbook fare, Fallen Angels. If it surprises you in any way that the gravel-voiced 75-year-old would earn literature's most coveted award, or record standards more often associated with velvet-throated crooners like Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra—well, you've probably not been following along.

But you don't have to be a Dylanologist to appreciate Dylan. His iconic 60s protest songs are justifiably hailed for their ear-to-the-ground prescience and poetry. His mid-60s fare changed the musical landscape thereafter by making rock 'n' roll as much a "music of the mind as the body," as Dylan organist Al Kooper put it. But after the 1975 break-up album, Blood on the Tracks, my musical attention begins to wander (an uninspiring Street Legal-era live show didn't help, and neither did the trio of born-again LPs that followed shortly after). The 80s and early 90s releases were, to be kind, uneven, though the stylistic twists and turns remained of interest because of their inscrutable author. 

Dylan's long final act in the 2000s has proven more steady and musically fruitful. But you can never entirely shake Dylan anyway. He permeates the work of music critics whether they choose to acknowledge it or not, and that extends way beyond Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, et al, all of whom have felled forests in pursuit of the "real" Dylan. No, it's because Dylan's DNA courses through almost all popular music since the early 60s—"he was our idol," Paul McCartney said of the Beatles' admiration for Dylan, and few musicians get covered more often than Dylan to this day. Even his turn toward the standards of Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Carolyn Leigh makes sense when you read of his long-held love for Sinatra and other standards bearers.

These days, though, I find his cultural impact increasingly relevant in the classroom. In the Popular Culture & the American Music Scene course I teach at UNC Charlotte, clips from D.A. Pennebaker's 1965 film, Don't Look Back, play integral roles. In one scene, two teenage Brits lean into the then 23-year-old musician's car and thrust their autograph books at him, demanding signatures. Gently spurned, the two kids alternate between pleading their case and calling their musician-hero "a bum." Exasperated at last, Dylan ends the discussion with a forceful yet revelatory closing argument: "If you needed my autograph," he says, "I'd give it to you."

It's seems petulant, sure, but it gets at some fundamental truth, which matters more. It also works as an introduction into Dylan's seminal role in shaping our modern world, and not just the 1960s counter-culture or rock 'n' roll, either. The mass pandemonium of Beatlemania shadowed Pennebaker's film just as it does for my students today. Right on the heels of the Fab Four's charm offensive comes an artist who's ambivalent about fame on any terms but his own. For these millennials, it runs counter to a key tenet of their social media existence, the whole point of which is to revel in one's notoriety and then, if possible, monetize it.

This isn't a Saint Dylan homily. After all, he invited Pennebaker along on that tour and gave him unfettered access, then okayed the film's release (though filmmaker and subject wound up paying for distribution themselves). Dylan's also done his share of selling out, sometimes gleefully so. But Pennebaker quickly grasped that he wasn't making a film about a rising rock 'n' roll celebrity so much as documenting an artist's self-actualization. "What I thought was, this person is trying to generate himself. He’s trying to figure out who he is and what he wants to do," Pennebaker recently told the New York Times.

You can watch that play out in real-time at an hour-long press conference in San Francisco later that year, where a chain-smoking—and completely baked—Dylan parries questions from fawning acolytes and story-hunting journalists. This is at the height of the singer's popularity and cultural impact, and the exchanges are often hilariously ludicrous. But the laughter can obscure the subtextthere's inspiration and artistry wherever you choose to find it, current cultural tides be damned. When asked which poets he "digs," Dylan lists Smokey Robinson, W.C. Fields, Charlie Rich and "that trapeze family" (The Flying Wallendas) alongside Rimbaud and Ginsberg, and he means it. And when he's confronted with the topic du jour back then—his "selling out" of the folk movement by plugging in at the '65 Newport Folk Festival and playing rock 'n' rollhe cops to it immediately. (Someone follows up and asks which commercial interest he would sell out to, and Dylan answers "ladies garments"—which makes this moment four decades later that much more delicious.)

But as the Q&A drifts from surreal to just plain uncomfortable, the veil comes off the whole enterprise—"Ballad of a Thin Man"-style—when Dylan and an older reporter share the following exchange:  

Mr. Dylan, you seem very reluctant to talk about the fact that you're a popular entertainer, and that you're a most popular entertainer.

Well, what do you want me to say?

I don't understand why you're reluctant.

What do you want me to say about it?

You seem almost embarrassed to talk about the fact that you're popular.

I'm not embarrassed, I mean, what exactly do you want me to say? Jump up and say 'hallelujah' and crash the cameras and do something weird? Tell me. I'll go along with you and if I can't go along with you I'll find somebody to go along with you.

No, but you really have no idea, no thoughts, as to why you're popular? That's what interests me...

I haven't really struggled for that. It happened, you know. It happened like anything else happens.

So much for the "spokesman for a generation," an orthodoxy Dylan had already rejected musically and lyrically. He didn't want to be the voice of the hippies, either, it turned out, or a political pundit, or a social critic, or the Picasso of Music or any other distracting stereotype. Little wonder, then, that he quit doing interviews shortly after that '65 press conference, took a long hiatus from touring and vanished from public life. Instead, at the height of 60s social unrest and political foment, and as covers of his songs blasted over the airways, he retreated with The Band into the Big Pink's basement. There, they stripped away all the artifice and went back to the basics of the music and creativity.

"Just being pressed and hammered and forced to answer questions is enough to make anybody sick," Dylan later told 60 Minutes' Ed Bradley in a 2004 televised interview. Back then, he added, people would show up at his door and want to talk politics and philosophy, and society viewed him as some kind of danger. "It was like being in an Edgar Allen Poe story," he sighed.

We're all living in the Edgar Allen Poe story now, of course. Many have devolved into public ciphers, online personas masquerading as individuals and trolling for attention; others lose themselves in the vapid causeways of celebrity worship. Meanwhile, a trickster worthy of a Dylan song turns the nation into a carnival act and gets set to pocket the proceedings. Dylan never wanted to be your hero, just a song-and-dance man. He has no great message for us beyond the one that's always been there anyway—find your true voice, and be the hero of your own story.

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Tags: Bob Dylan, musician, poet, press conference, D.A. Pennebaker, UNC Charlotte, No Direction Home, Don't Look Back, the Beatles, Smokey Robinson, W.C. Fields, Greil Marcus, 60 Minutes, music criticism

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