The Spectator

Dylan’s Birthday Present

Free Bob from the Bobolator cult.

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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has a big birthday coming up (70), and it occurred to me that one of the best presents we could give him would be to extricate Bob from the treacly, reductive, crushing embrace of the Bobolators. (My name for those writers and cultists who still make Dylan into a plaster saint, incapable of imperfection, the way Shakespeare’s indiscriminate “bardolators”—one of my targets in The Shakespeare Wars —refuse to believe it possible The Bard ever wrote a flawed line or a poorly chosen word.)

Similarly, the Bobolators diminish The Bob’s genuine achievements by putting everything he’s done on the same transcendentally elevated plane. With their embarrassing obeisance, their demand for reverence, their indiscriminate flattery, they obscure the electrifying musical—and cultural—impact he’s actually had.

The book and blog Bobolators, with few exceptions, cumulatively give one the impression of a cult of scriveners all eager for a few favors from the Dylan Industrial Complex—a liner-notes commission here, a super-impressive title (“Historian in Residence” at the official Bob Dylan website) there. All you have to do is suspend your critical faculties and never express anything negative.

Of course it’s not an easy job being a Bobolator. You have be prepared to praise the purportedly profound inner complexities of Masked and Anonymous—that botched Dylan movie by that Seinfeld writer—arguably the most turgid and clichéd production with the Dylan name attached to it ever. You have to chirp in wonder at “Little Drummer Boy” on the cringe-making Christmas album. You have to, in other words, make Dylan not only unsurpassable as a musician but guru-like in the ineffable brilliance of his life choices (give it up for Jesus, then give up Jesus), and a source of all wisdom whether he’s mocking those who claimed to have “God on their side” or claiming to have God on his side (and Jesus in his pocket) himself.

To see him perfect in all aspects, as the Bobolators do, is to deny Dylan the respect he deserves as an artist who takes risks and fearlessly goes out on limbs that sometimes don’t sustain his weight. The Bobolators abandon any pretense of aesthetic discrimination and in doing so reduce Dylan’s often superb choices (“going electric,” writing Chronicles) to the level of his occasional dismal ones (the Christmas album, serenading the torturers of Beijing). Let’s just say their sycophancy does him no favors.

The odes that are produced by this mindset do more harm to Dylan’s stature—make him seem merely the object of the worship of deluded fanboys, the idol of a not very discerning cult. Like the cultists who were upset at my Billy Joel put-down (still get hate mail; and fan mail, too.), the Bobolators put off many from his music altogether by making it seem some hermetic little boys club populated by Steve Buscemi Ghost World-types where you have to know which songs on Blood on the Tracks were recorded in New York and which in Minnesota to get into the clubhouse.

I say this as someone who has written about Dylan’s work in both rhapsodic and occasionally scathing terms. Someone who, yes, is known among the Bobolators, for an interview with Dylan in which he uttered his resonant description of the sound he was seeking (“That thin, that wild mercury sound.”) I guess for a time I was a Bobolator. (Jesus saved me.) But, in writing a book about him now (for Yale University Press), I’m seeking to peer through the haze of hagiography and discover what really makes Dylan Dylan—what makes him unique, and not just another great singer-songwriter. What accounts for his impact on our culture, on me. Why people continue to respond to his work. Why the cult.

In any case, if you needed any convincing it was a cult, you only had to read the outpourings of rage from his acolytes, who were on full, groveling display in the recent fracas over Dylan’s tour of that secret-police torture state otherwise known as the People’s Republic of China.

If you’re coming late to this controversy, Dylan was invited to play Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong this year so long, Reuters reported, citing an official Chinese source, as he performed with “approved content.” The widespread impression was that Dylan allowed the Chinese to vet his set list presumably for songs that might refer to, if not protest, the vicious crackdown on dissidents that was going on during the time Dylan played the People’s Republic.

Not true, Dylan protested (see he still is a protest singer) in a rare personal statement on the official Bob Dylan website issued on May 13, more than a month after his appearance had provoked controversy.

It was particularly notable since Dylan rarely responds to media attention. (One had the feeling this statement was meant to pre-empt birthday articles that made this an issue. Notable as well because that month had been marked by a profusion of defenses of Dylan from the Bobolators who indignantly denied there was anything wrong with anything Dylan did in “engaging” with China while it was jailing dissenters and had “disappeared” the artist Ai Weiwei, the iconic dissident.

Curiously, none of the Bobolators suggested Dylan follow the courageous example of Björk, who capped her 2008 Chinese concert by crying out “Tibet! Tibet!” (What happened to the spirit of “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City”?) Dylan’s not a protest singer, the Bobolators maintained, and he was only faking it when he sung protest songs in the past.

Dylan’s story is that the Chinese didn’t vet his set list: “As far as censorship goes,” he wrote on his site, “the Chinese government had asked for the names of the songs that I would be playing. There’s no logical answer to that, so we sent them the set lists from the previous 3 months.”

“There’s no logical answer to that”? I think what that means in Bobspeak is that he never knows what he’s going to sing on any given night; it’s all dictated by his unpredictable Muse.

I kind of like the way he sends up the Chinese authorities by sending them three months’ of song lists, but it still evades the real issue; not what he sang but whether he should be singing at the sufferance of torturers at all.

Still, in all likelihood nobody would have paid much attention to Dylan’s Chinese adventure, except for a scathing column by Maureen Dowd in the Sunday New York Times calling Dylan a “sell out” for kowtowing to the Chinese Stasi in the wake of Ai Weiwei’s arrest.

Suddenly, as if answering a bugle call, the Bobolators rose and rallied as one to defend the besieged artist. No, I don’t mean Ai Weiwei; he’s just a disappeared Chinese guy to them, out of sight out of mind; he was no Bob Dylan. Must defend Bob. Whatever Bob does has a Higher Meaning.

And guess what the focus of the fierce attacks on Maureen Dowd was. Her unfamiliarity with Dylan’s recent set list. She had jabbed at Dylan for not doing his most strident protest songs like “Masters of War” and “Hurricane” when—the Bobolators sneered—they rarely appeared on his set lists anymore. He hadn’t sung “Hurricane” since 1976! Oh the humanity! (The humanity they had lost touch with in their Bobolatry.)

I’m not kidding: The Bobolators turned Dylan in China from an argument about repression, torture, and “disappearances” of dissidents, and how an artist, how any human should react to it, into an inside-baseball Dylanological contretemps designed to show off their superior knowledge of Dylan’s set lists in his recent concerts. Talk about missing the point! Could they be this obtuse or just shamelessly eager to show Bob their undiminished fealty?

The “historian in residence” was the first to weigh in with a weak-tea defense of Dylan, a defense that raised a number of questions. Was there any line he’d draw? Would it be OK with him if, back in the day, Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet of Chile wanted to hear the soothing strains of “Lay Lady Lay” over the screams of his prisoners? Or how about today, Assad in Damascus must have some time off from piling up his dead citizens to enjoy a little live (non-protest) music. They just do these things out of sight in the People’s Republic. The impression one got from the historian-in-residence was that human rights had to take a backseat to Dylan’s whims.

One doesn’t expect Dylan to be keeping close track of Chinese crackdowns but why wouldn’t the historian-in-residence have not tipped him off that it was not a good moment to comfort the afflicters? Perhaps that was behind his hasty rush to justify the misguided deal—he hadn’t spoken up before the deal went down and thereby hadn’t protected Dylan from the scandal.

Have I made myself clear?: It should not have been an argument about what Dylan sang, but whether he should have sung anything at all. He could have cancelled the appearance without making a statement when he realized what was going on (people could have drawn their own conclusions as to whether the cancellation was political) or faked a motorcycle accident.

(By the way, re: motorcycle accidents. All good Bobolators know that Dylan’s mysterious 1966 motorcycle accident changed the course of his life and his art, but the details, the seriousness, the after effects, have been obscured by mystery and unfounded theories. I now think I know the truth: the words of The Second Doctor, as I’ve come to call this shadowy now-dead figure. Something I learned about, curiously enough, while attending the J. Anthony Lukas Prize award ceremony at Columbia J-school earlier this month, something confided to me by one of the many ace investigative reporters there, so I tend to trust it.)

But, to return to the China contretemps, the Bobolators second line of defense was—seriously—that if his Chinese government hosts paid close attention and felt the true existentially subversive power of the songs Dylan actually sung, it would have rocked their world. Why the Great Wall of China would probably have crumbled into dust. Just from the force of his Truth, dudes. Gee, maybe it has! Has anyone checked the Wall lately? Is it still there?

And then they twisted themselves into pretzel-like contradictions: Dylan was never really a protest singer anyway; he only faked being one early in his career to get a leg up the ladder of fame from the folkies then fashionable when he arrived in New York at the beginning of the ‘60s. So he shouldn’t have been expected to do anything confrontational in China; he was, like, above mundane political considerations.

Great defense! They’re saying—his defenders!—that he was a scheming careerist liar. (Do they really believe the emotion in that beautiful ballad “Song to Woody” was all faked?) But he’s Dylan so it’s OK.

What’s amusing is that they’re willing to accept his explanation that he was never sincere in the first place politically so he shouldn’t be bothered by it now. Don’t they realize that this itself could be insincere. That he might be insincere in his protestations of insincerity about his protest songs? They’re just such suckers for anything that issues from Bob’s mouth they don’t know when or whether they’ve been conned by one of the great put-on artists.

Still you have to love Dylan for creating all the mystery—and for that immortal line from the disclaimer-of-sincerity period when the folkies were on his case: “Folk music is a bunch of fat people.”

But if Dylan was never really a protest singer, how can you claim at the same time that his songs, whatever he played, had the effect of a powerful protest on the Chinese torturers? Oh, and one of the most peculiar Bobolator defenses was that he really didn’t, as Maureen Dowd implied, inspire anti-Vietnam War protesters with his music because, despite all the anti-war songs Maureen Dowd wanted him to play, like “Masters of War,” he wasn’t really against the Vietnam War! It may be true: The entire Vietnam protest movement was mistaken if they took any inspiration from him. They had the wrong exegesis!

I don’t mean to be sarcastic—actually, to tell the truth, I do. As a matter of fact, as a more positive birthday contribution, I’d like to pay tribute to Dylan’s sarcasm. A rhetorical mode that has been somewhat taken for granted, underrated aesthetically, confused with irony and cynicism. We take it for granted because it’s become embedded in the consciousness of our culture, the sarcastic “Yeah, right” is our default attitude. For which Dylan can claim much credit and deserves much praise as far as I’m concerned, since I believe you can never be too skeptical of received wisdom.

And I think people get sarcasm most wrong when they confuse it with irony. Irony is most often the detached observation of the disjunction between word and world (“Like rain on a wedding day,” etc.). But sarcasm is more earnest; sarcasm may be intended to hurt but almost always because he or she who utters it has been hurt, feels hurt. Cares. Irony pretends to detachment, cynicism knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, but sarcasm is earnest in its own mean-spirited way, and cares enough to hurt back. Most of all it doesn’t like being lied to.

We weren’t always, but America is now a nation (with many reasons why) that assumes it’s always being lied to, whose default response now is that two-word compression of all sarcasm: “Yeah, right.” And the case can be made that America wasn’t a “Yeah, right” nation before Dylan came along. Parts of America still are not, but most of America has that precise attitude problem toward authority. I remember seeing a great T-shirt on the downtown subway at Union Square: “I ♥ my attitude problem.” I ♥ America’s wised-up wise-guy attitude problem. And I ♥ Dylan for expressing it so well that he altered the national attitude.

It’s not his only attitude: He’s written some of the best love songs ever, and some of the only ones that incorporate sarcasm. (What would you call the final line in “Boots of Spanish Leather” if not heartbroken sarcasm?) The sarcasm was there in the gritty rasp of Dylan’s voice whatever he was singing. The voice itself was a polemic against prettiness, but not opposed to beauty.

Where did that come from? The fashionable thing to think these days is that the roots of what made Dylan Dylan are to be found in the distant past either in the old weird America of coal mines and Appalachian hollows and hollers or in the Popular Front politics of the prewar ‘30s. Aaron Copland—yeah, right.

The Bobolators think that it somehow enhances Dylan’s stature to place him in the vast rural American backwoods landscape with these other rootsy “authentic” folk figures or in the “Popular Front” movement whose politics exalted “the people.” Make him one with them. All of which makes him little more than a weirder Pete Seeger, a figure in a vast Thomas Hart Benton landscape rather than the idiosyncratic genius he is. It’s not that he doesn’t have influences, just that trying to reduce him to his influences, please. … These meta theories of Dylan have the effect of making him a less startling distinctive figure, more derivative.

They rob him of what made him such an intriguing and original force, not just a figure in the societal landscape that we’re supposed to think more of because he’s more like everyone else who came before but as a distinctive departure from what came before.

It’s there, some of it, sure. But I think if you want to place Dylan in a cultural landscape, it is more accurately located in the urban “Black Humor” movement of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller and Catch-22, Terry Southern and the Dr. Strangelove script, Burroughs, Mailer.

And that the attitude of ridicule toward authority and propriety in all of them can be traced to their temporal location between two holocausts: the one Hitler perpetrated (but which people still didn’t want to talk about) and the nuclear holocaust that seemed imminent, particularly after the Cuban Missile Crisis of ‘62. It was in ‘63 that Dylan wrote “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”

Just what is it that the twin specters of two holocausts, past and future, have to do with sarcasm? Well, an awareness of the human predilection for greater and greater mass slaughter, now push-button extermination, was at odds with the pretensions to piety, propriety, rectitude, and legitimacy that the official culture claimed for itself. Made one snicker and sneer at its claims to moral and ethical righteousness, their Pollyanna vision of human nature, founded as it was on tolerance, even enabling of extermination.

And it’s too often forgotten that Dylan wrote a horrifically chilling Holocaust verse for one of his most brilliantly sarcastic songs, “With God on Our Side,” which is in effect a sarcastic tour of official American history as intermittent slaughter, rationalized by religion, by “American exceptionalism,” and climaxed by the aftermath of the Second World War, after which Dylan sneers about the way we forgave the Germans even though “They murdered six million/ In the ovens they fried/ The Germans now too/ Have God on their side.” Killer.

He didn’t forgive the Germans, or forgive the forgiving, and it’s all there in that deliberately raw, ugly, in-your-face barbarism, “In the ovens they fried.” No one wants that image, that metaphor made (burning) flesh conjured up before their inner eyes. We’re usually content with speaking in hushed tones about “ovens.” Dylan wasn’t satisfied that we were satisfied.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating his connection to the black humor movement or the origin of the black humor movement in a kind of displaced discourse about the absurd evil of the Holocaust(s). Dylan would, much later in his career (1981) on one of his “Christian” albums no less, write a tribute song to Lenny Bruce. Very sincere for the most part, as if he’s looking back and seeing his younger sarcastic self in Bruce. And then—as if freaked out by his earnestness—he couldn’t resist what sounded like a bit of sarcasm at Bruce’s (and his own) expense. After praising him for having the insight to “rip off the lid before its time,” he recounts his one meeting with Lenny, a taxi ride:

“Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months.” You can picture it.

But not all sarcasm is necessarily harsh or Holocaust-related, thank God. Dylan is a master at evoking the subtle shades, gradations, and nuances of sarcasm. The potential tenderness of sarcasm.

I know the first Dylan song that really got to me was “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” a song with a sarcastic title and yet filed with regret, remorse, romantic longing, and a wish that things had turned out differently. His words are sarcastic, but he’s almost sending up his self-portrait of detachment, portraying it as false bravado for a broken heart. He’s thinking at least twice.

And I’d like to close on a personal note involving that song and its fusion of love and sarcasm.

There’s something about this breakup song that, rather than indulging in bitterness and self-recrimination, lends itself to a romantic feeling. I can testify to this. I was at a party some years ago, feeling morose. A girl I didn’t want to lose had left because I didn’t do enough to keep her, and she had just taken off for the United Kingdom to marry a banker. The very next night at that party—it was in a sixth-floor garret in the Village—I was oversharing my sadness. I did it by quoting one of Dylan’s most beautiful and overlooked songs of love and loss: “I Threw It All Away.

“I must have been mad/ I never knew what I had/ Until I threw it all away.”

It just so happened that a poetically lovely young woman in a brown velveteen mini shift (hey, there are some details that linger in your memory) had been curled up on a couch taking note of this with a kind of knowing smile (she was onto my self-romanticizing game, yet in a forgiving way), and after I repeated “I threw it all away” one more time she spoke up and said,

“Yeah, but don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

We ended up living together the next three years. I look back on it now as “Love at First Cite.”

I have Dylan to thank for it.

Happy birthday, Bob.

If you’re in Manhattan this Tuesday night, Ron will be speaking about his latest book, How the End Begins: The Road to Nuclear War, at the 92nd Street Y with The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg.