Who is the Poet Laureate of the Left? Well, it’s not Bob Dylan apparently

By Sean Curnyn

A good deal of hoopla greeted the grizzled rock-musician Neil Young’s musical assault on George W. Bush earlier this year. His album Living With War included a hundred-voice choir singing a song entitled “Let’s Impeach the President.” For those survivors of anti-Vietnam war protests, and their younger would-be imitators, it was a moment for a sharp intake of breath and the tantalizing hope that maybe now, after all, music really could change the world. I mean, everyone has to sit up and take notice of Neil Young, right?

Young’s crusading album included another song called “Flags of Free dom,” in which he gave a name-check to Bob Dylan, and adapted the melody of Dylan’s own somewhat more lyrically complex song “Chimes of Freedom.”

He really should have known better. In an interview several months later with Edna Gundersen in USA Today, Dylan was asked about the absence of any song about the current war on his own latest album, Modern Times.

“Didn’t Neil Young do that?” he jokes . . . “What’s funny about the Neil record, when I heard ‘Let’s Impeach the President,’ I thought it was something old that had been lying around. I said, ‘That’s crazy, he’s doing a song about Clinton?'”

With his sly and somewhat wicked response, Dylan had (1) desperately frustrated the considerable number of more obvious Dylan fans who have been waiting on the edge of a cliff for him to say or sing something–anything!–against President Bush and the Iraq war and (2) told Neil Young none-too-subtly that he found his recent ultrapolitical songwriting essentially pointless.

Somehow, after over 40 years of evidence to the contrary, much of the world seems to continue to expect the man who is arguably America’s greatest songwriter to sign on to left/liberal causes at the first opportunity. If nothing else, it is proof that in attempting to kidnap Dylan’s songs (in Dylan’s own words, his songs were “subverted into polemics” in the 1960s), the left succeeded in convincing the average person that both the work and the man did, indeed, belong to them.

In the summer run-up to the 2004 presidential campaign, a concert tour of anti-Bush musicians was being organized, led by Bruce Springsteen. They would perform in swing states in support of John Kerry. The advance press regarding the tour always prominently mentioned Bob Dylan as one of the musicians being talked about for the lineup. There was no surprise about this expressed in the stories; after all, campaigning against Republican presidents is what Bob Dylan has always done, isn’t it? But when dates and lineups were finally announced for the “Vote for Change” tour, one name was prominently missing: that of Bob Dylan. And indeed, any scrutiny of the record would show that he has never endorsed a political candidate (although some political candidates have endorsed him). The closest he has ever come would be the statement in his memoir, Chronicles, that his “favorite politician” circa 1961 was Barry Goldwater.

As tempted as he might have been two years ago to give the MoveOn.org crew what they wanted (probably not at all), the true nature of Dylan’s independence was tested in the crazy crucible of the 1960s, and proven by the degree to which he resisted being crowned king by those who begged for only a word from him. It always comes back to that time, and to the Vietnam war, for Bob Dylan, especially when the media are doing one of their thumbnails of his career. He didn’t ask for it to be that way; it just is. As he said to Rolling Stone in his most recent interview:

Did I ever want to acquire the Sixties? No. But I own the Sixties I’ll give ’em to you if you want ’em. You can have ’em.
It’s an interesting paradox. Looking at the record, Vietnam should have been the wedge that forced the left to reject Dylan as a matter of dogma, because he failed to give them anything that they demanded from him, and actually gave them the opposite of what they wanted.

Instead, the Vietnam war is the seemingly unbreakable link that ties Dylan to the left in the popular consciousness. Consider: Dylan wrote no songs about the Vietnam war during the 1960s. Zero. The songs Dylan wrote that antiwar protesters later seized upon (from Blowin’ in the Wind on down) were written when the Vietnam war was little more than a twinkle in John F. Kennedy’s eye. A close study of those songs would also reveal, as Dylan himself has stated in so many words, that they are not “antiwar” songs, as such. Just as with all his best work, they are based upon an almost unerring sense of human nature and a remarkable ability to ask questions that provoke revealing answers in the listener.

“How many times must the cannonballs fly?” An honest listener must admit: Cannonballs will always fly, in this world–and the song does not deny that. Less philosophical listeners demanded other, more specific, answers from the songs and from their singer.

Consider also: Dylan never spoke out against the Vietnam war in the 1960s. Not once. It was not for want of being asked. At a 1965 press conference in San Francisco he was asked if he would be participating in an anti-war protest later that day. He replied, “No, I’ll be busy tonight.” The tape shows that he was all but laughing while he said it.

He wasn’t laughing some years later when people rifled through his garbage, and protested outside the home he shared with his wife and children, because they were unhappy with the records their “leader” was making. With America’s name at a low-water mark in the world and in the minds of the protesters at home, Dylan recorded Nashville Skyline, an album of sweet country music that can also be heard as love songs to a simpler America, and one that was certainly very far from Dylan’s front door.

Despite the heat he took, he backed down not one bit. In an interview in Sing Out! magazine in 1968, Dylan was pressed on how any artist could be silent in the face of the war. Dylan talked about a painter friend of his who was in favor of the war, and said that he “could comprehend him.” Pressed further on how he could possibly share any values with such a person, Dylan responded:

I’ve known him a long time, he’s a gentleman and I admire him . . . Anyway, how do you know that I’m not, as you say, for the war?

The topic was dropped there.

While most left-wing Dylan fans have always quickly moved to forgive or forget Dylan’s sins, there are always those who continue to upbraid him. Mike Marqusee, in The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art (2003), says, “If public life is an ongoing test for the artist, then when it came to Vietnam, Dylan failed.” He also bemoans the “fatalism of the later Dylan”–as if songs that place their hope primarily in the next world’s justice are somehow more “fatalistic” than 1963’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Earlier this year, in The Nation, Richard Goldstein took Dylan to task for his “sexism” and told us that “the rod of ages he clings to . . . is a phallus.”

On the other hand, there is also a largely unheralded brand of listener who is perceiving a funny thing in Dylan’s latter-day work: Many of his apparently secular songs of romantic love seem to resonate most strongly, and are arguably best understood, as songs of devotion to God. Is Dylan in some sense masking his (always controversial) faith in this (almost blasphemously) sly manner, where “you” often really means “You”?

It does appear clear that our view of Bob Dylan has been constricted by the “a-changin'” times during which he’s worked. And while the music of peers like Young and Springsteen is probably destined for artifact status as the decades pass by, Dylan’s seems likely to continue provoking consideration well into the future. It is also likely that that future belongs to those Dylan listeners who are not so much flummoxed by the enigma of an ever-shifting man of many faces–who supposedly swings back and forth between leftism, conservatism, faith, and nihilism–but instead to those who see a continuum in the precocious 22-year-old who wrote, “How many years can a mountain exist / before it is washed to the sea?” and the at-peace-in-his-own-skin 65-year-old who now sings:

In this earthly domain
Full of disappointment and pain
You’ll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you
And that’s sayin’ it true
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.

Posterity is likely to understand that the politics of Dylan’s art has always been on another level entirely.

Sean Curnyn is writing a book on political and moral themes in the work of Bob Dylan.

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