The Disgruntled Dylanologist

All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.

‘Together Through Life’: Will Dylan’s new album live on its own or is it a ‘Dead’ end?

Then she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.

Dante, Rimbaud, Eliot, Whitman, Shelley, Keats, cummings, Timrod, Blake…

Bob Dylan may be the ultimate chameleon, but he’s also an avid collector. And over the years, the collection of characters who’ve appeared in Dylan’s lyrics is trumped only by the manner in which Bob has transformed those distinct, disparate voices into his own.

For Shakespeare the play was the thing. For Dylan it’s always been about the words.

I wasn’t sure, therefore, how to react to last week’s confirmation that Bob collaborated with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter, on 9 of the 10 tracks on his upcoming album, Together Through Life.

Maybe it’s a sign of the modern times in which we live. In an era where style trumps substance, the notion that our politicians, pop stars and public figures are propped up by an army of minions clamoring to craft an image that feeds our incessant need for idolatry has become all too commonplace.

But as we look out over what seems to be a vast wasteland of perpetual despondency, we’re not looking for iconoclasts to console us. What we’re really searching for is someone to break through the clutter, to give us a sense of direction, to help us find our way home. We’re looking for clarity.

In recent months, a barrage of bloggers (this disgruntled Dylan fan not excluded) have drawn parallels between Barack Obama and Bob Dylan. But then again, the comparisons aren’t totally unfounded. Dylan isn’t the only cultural chameleon out there.

Like the title character in Woody Allen’s brilliantly insightful 1983 mockumentary, Zelig, Obama has perfected the ability to conform to his surroundings. When Obama steps on stage, we see what we want to see. When Obama speaks, we hear what we want to hear. Yet the words he speaks are rarely, if ever, entirely his own.

In a time when our culture is so sanitized, where every action is viewed under such scurrilous scrutiny, the people to whom we look for inspiration can no longer inspire by example— and so they retreat to linguistics. It’s not so much what they say, but rather how they say it, by which they are evaluated.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was the last American president to put pen to paper. The “Gettysburg Address,” perhaps his most famous piece of oratory, clocked in at 278 words and took less than 3 minutes to deliver. But in those 3 minutes, Lincoln embodied a nation’s pain and suffering with words so enduring that they are now etched in aeternum in marble.

There have been endless comparisons between Lincoln and the man who currently resides in that mansion on the hill. But whether you like him or hate him, you cannot dismiss Barack Obama. He may not write every word that comes out of his mouth, but he is hardly an empty oratory vessel. His predecessors may have spoken to the ‘vision thing,’ but Barack Obama embodies it.

With Bob Dylan, however, ‘embodying’ an artistic vision isn’t enough. With Bob, the words matter.

The issue here isn’t that Bob wrote a couple of songs with someone else— even if that ‘someone else’ just may be the second greatest living lyricist in the English language. The issue is about purity of vision, not persuasiveness of delivery. It’s about clarity.

Dylan is coming off what many consider one of rock’s perfect ‘trifectas.’ Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times are not just high creative benchmarks for Bob, they are the gold standard by which all other musicians could, and very well may, be measured.

And so the news that Dylan collaborated with another wordsmith naturally would raise a few questions. Did he need to do it? How much of it did he do? Did he even really do it at all?

Dylan and Robert Hunter have been down this road before. The two worked up a few songs together for Dylan’s 1988 album, Down in the Groove. But these were hardly a threat to the Dylan canon, musically or lyrically. They were almost transitional, as if Dylan was in some sort of Dantesque state of limbo. As we later found out in his biography, Chronicles, he was.

And lest we forget that Dylan and playwright, Jacques Levy, wrote an entire album of songs in 1976 (ironically, in 1965, Levy directed Red Cross, a play by Sam Shepard with whom Dylan would later co-write the epic, 11-minute yarn, ‘Brownsville Girl’). And while the Dylan-Levy collaboration stands as one of Dylan’s most commercially successful endeavors, there’s no debate that the songs on Desire are all distinctively Dylan.

And maybe that’s the point.

Dylan always hated being heralded as a ‘poet,’ a ‘prophet,’ the ‘voice of a generation.’ Perhaps now we know why. Sometimes accolades do more to weight us down than they do to lift us up.

And after nearly a half century of accolades, can any of us really know the full extent of the load we’ve asked Dylan to carry.

And when you look at it from that perspective, can we really fault Dylan for wanting to share his burden—and his vision—with someone else? Even if sharing that vision does run the risk they might see if from a different point of view…

And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you


April 22, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Abraham Lincoln: Only a Pawn in Their Game

And the Negro’s name,
Is used it is plain,
For the politician’s gain,
As he rises to fame

It’s not that hard to see why the media went out of their way to connect last Sunday’s Inaugural Celebration Concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

From the eloquent articulation of a dream by a preacher-turned-political activist, to the realization of that dream by an equally eloquent community organizer-turned-president, you couldn’t have orchestrated a more defining set of bookends to mark a more transformative period in American history. Frankly, the media would have been castigated had they not connected the dots.

The most obvious comparison between the March on Washington and last week’s Inaugural Celebration Concert centered around geography, specially a pristine pool that begins at the base of the monument erected for our first president and ends roughly a mile later at the base of a stone temple consecrated for the man who served as our nation’s 16th commander in chief.

But to compare King’s address to the 250,000 people who assembled at the Lincoln Memorial on 23 August 1963 with Sunday’s concert simply because Obama was blessed with a crowd of similar size on that same, hallowed ground is not only ill founded, it does a disservice to the dream.

The truth is that the March on Washington wasn’t a celebration at all. It was a conflict narrowly averted. While King had reached a peace with the “Big Six”—as the six prominent civil-rights leaders were called—SNCC and CORE, two of the more militant factions of the movement, saw the March as a way of challenging what they believed to be a lack of support for civil rights by the Kennedy administration. For them, the speech King planned to deliver erred on the side of appeasement, rather than accountability.

Said another way, when King stepped behind the podium that warm August day he was stepping into a battle—both literally and figuratively.

Last Sunday’s Inaugural Celebration Concert, however, was anything but. So concerned about “how far we’ve come as a country,” the organizers allowed a emphatic sense of harmony to reduce this star-studded 3-hour event to nothing more than a cavalcade of stars burning brightly against a carefully lit marble backdrop.

And in all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Obama’s inauguration, the media fell into the same seductive trap as the rest of us. They got caught up in all the hoopla, and in the process failed to place the true measure of King’s prophetic proclamation on race in America in its proper context.

No disrespect to Steve Carell, Kal Pen, Jack Black, Marisa Tomei and Ashley Judd—all fine actors indeed—but it was painfully clear their involvement was more of a repayment for their financial contributions to the Obama campaign than a true recognition of an investment in any social cause beyond perhaps which Inaugural Ball they planned to attend.

And then there was the entertainment. The 1963 March on Washington featured performances by Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Josh White, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Each of these artists played a vital role in shaping and redefining not just civil rights, but human rights.

Yet with the notable exception of Stevie Wonder and Pete Seeger, the biggest role the performers who graced the stage Sunday played in the civil rights movement was their ability to recall the past trials and tribulations of the artists and activists who actually attended the 1963 March.

Bono, Bruce and Beyoncé are all compelling entertainers to be sure. But endearing homage does not equal the contributions made by those who actually affect change, no matter how heartfelt thei accolades may have been.

Let’s be clear. Drawing a historical parallel between Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama is perfectly in bounds. The MLK “I Have a Dream” speech has been taught in social studies classes for the last four decades, and rightly so. It remains a pitch-perfect piece of oratory given at precisely the right moment in history. Obama’s ascension to the highest office in the land is equally monumental—a moment of mixed gravitas and giddiness not just for ‘Black America,’ but a moment of immense gratification for all Americans.

So if I’m not taking issue with King, Obama or the events that elevated and celebrated their place in our nation’s history, what then am I taking issue with? Actually, it isn’t the media’s linking these moments together that’s raised my ire, it’s the monument.

The Civil Rights Movement has often been compared to a game of chess. This past Sunday’s event, though light in substance, was dead on in terms of design.There was a Bishop (Rev. V. Gene Robinson), a King (Martin Luther King III), and a Queen (Queen Latifa).

But what about the pawn—the very centerpiece of this ungrateful grunt? I would submit the pawn in this 200-year-old game was none other than the man at whose feet they stood.

Yes, that’s right. Abraham Lincoln was a pawn in Obama’s game, just as he was a pawn in Dr. King’s March on Washington some 46 years before. Polished up, propped up and pimped out.

Yet despite the transparent attempt to manipulate and maneuver his memory like some paonic piece on the chessboard, in the final analysis perhaps this grunt is for naught. I doubt Lincoln would have minded the part he ultimately played in what is unquestionably the most overdue endgame in American politics…

On the stone that remains,

Carved next to his name,

His epitaph plain:

Only a pawn in their game.

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment