The Disgruntled Dylanologist

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

“The Days of ‘49”: Walter Cronkite, Bob Dylan and the death of network news

My comrades they all loved me well, a jolly saucy crew
A few hard cases I will recall though they all were brave and true
Whatever the pitch they never would flinch, they never would fret or whine;
Like good old bricks they stood the kicks in the days of ‘49

Believe it or not, there once was a time when “the most trusted name in news” was more than just a pithy slogan: a time before the barrage of 24-hour news channels, a time before the Internet, a time before the incessant, perpetual stream of information that now runs across our television sets, computer screens, and iPhones like an endless, mind-numbing loop.

It was a time when the most trusted name in news wasn’t a name at all— it was man. And with the passing of Walter Cronkite on July 17th at the age of 92, we were reminded of that time.

Known for his metered, straightforward delivery, and his iconic sign-off line, “That’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite wasn’t just the anchor of the nation’s most-watched news program. He was our Rock of Gibraltar at a time when America was awash in a sea of instability, unrest and turbulence.

The Kennedy assassination, the Apollo moon landing, Watergate, Civil Rights, the war in Vietnam. Cronkite covered them all, and did so with an accuracy and authority that hearkened back to a time when those who referred to themselves as ‘reporters’ actually engaged in the business of reporting.

Yet for all his attributes, all the qualities that made him the consummate newsman, Walter Cronkite was not without his frailties.

He cried when he read the news John Kennedy had died at the hand of an assassin’s bullet. He allowed his boyish sense of awe to spill over as he watched Neil Armstrong take that one small step for man, that one giant leap for mankind. And he tempered his disgust when he reported on a president who had put his own political aspirations ahead of a nation’s moral authority.

Walter Cronkite may not have invented TV journalism, but by the time he relinquished the reins of the CBS Evening News in 1981, he had most certainly become the epitome of it.

He also sowed the seeds of its demise.

For two decades, Cronkite had reported without bias or bravado on America’s slow and slippery descent into a civil war in far off and distant land. But when the most trusted man in America referred to Vietnam in a 1968 as a “bloody and endless quagmire that is costing both American and Vietnamese lives,” he effectively ended the era of the impartial, impervious reporter.

So did Cronkite destroy network news? Far from it. In fact, he set the bar by which network news will forever be measured. But he was held in such high esteem, his opinion so valued, that when he broke from the reporter’s credo of sticking to ‘just the facts’ by opining on Lyndon Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, he paved the way for the evening news’ transition from a factual clearinghouse into a bully pulpit.

Of course, political punditry is hardly new. Just as trusted newsmen like Cronkite reported on the stories of the day, traveling troubadours like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan made names for themselves by crafting songs that painted a stark portrait of injustice, inequity and intolerance in a way that often elevated point of view over matter-of-fact.

But can Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Arianna Huffington, Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes or the myriad of other pundits whose sole reason for existence is to pontificate and polarize really be laid at the feet of Walter Cronkite? Of course not.

But in a time when Jon Stewart can be voted the “most trusted newscaster” by 44% of Americans, beating out real newscasters Brian Williams of NBC (29%), ABC’s Charles Gibson (19%), and CBS’ Katie Couric (7%), it’s evident the pundits haven’t merely found a place alongside news—they’ve replaced it altogether.

Just as there is power in the facts, there is power in opinion. But for all he brought to network news, the moment Cronkite allowed the two to become intertwined, he unwittingly brought an end to the ‘golden era’ of TV journalism that he had come to define…

In the days of old, in the days of gold;
How oft’ times I repine for the days of old;
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ‘49.


August 2, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘All Along the Watchtower’: Dylan added to Guitar Hero’s set list

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,

“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

By 1965, Dylan had already garnered a reputation as a prankster. His mercurial nature and increasingly interpretative lyrics had resulted in a goading ability to confound critics and fans alike.

And so, when Dylan stepped onstage at Newport with a Fender Stratocaster strapped across his back instead of the familiar Gibson Nick Lucas Special acoustic guitar with which the folk set was accustomed, in all likelihood his fans were probably hoping this was just another one of Bob’s attempts to bewilder. The joke, it turns out, was on them.

And while Dylan’s defiant act of ‘going electric’ undoubtedly sent a shock of horror through the crowd, in all the chaos that followed chances are those in attendance probably failed to appreciate just how good a guitar player he really was. That’s all about to change.

And even though we’ll need to wait until later this summer until we can emulate our favorite traveling troubadour, the buzz has already begun.

That’s right, Bob Dylan is officially a ‘Guitar Hero.’

And what song did the good people at Activision, the makers of Guitar Hero, choose to showcase Dylan’s talent as an axman? “All Along the Watchtower.”

And just so you know, contrary to Bob’s lyric instructing otherwise, there very much is reason to get excited.

Sparse and restrained, “Watchtower” is the perfect song for the revised Guitar Hero format, which unlike previous incarnations allows multiple players to play a multitude of instruments.

So what makes “Watchtower” so well suited for Guitar Hero? It’s open for interpretation. Whether it’s Dave Matthews’ slow burn acoustic build, Bono’s politically infused lyrical addition, or Hendrix’s searing, Wah-Wah wig out that rightfully snagged the song the #5 spot on Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos, all have offered a unique, interpretative variation on this tumultuous tale of intrigue.

Interpretation, of course, is exactly what lies at the genius of Guitar Hero. And having performed the song more than 1,500 times, Dylan’s been afforded quite a few opportunities to reinterpret the song himself over the last 35 years.

But there’s another reason why this timeless classic makes perfect sense. Because just as the simple construction of the song lends itself to interpretation, so, too, does the lyrical content.

Unlike many of the “talkin’” songs Dylan was composing around this time (many of which ran in excess of 12 verses), “All Along the Watchtower” is essentially a stripped-down three-chord folk song, consisting of three tightly crafted verses, no chorus and plenty of room for solos. Yet while the song isn’t especially structurally complicated, it turns out it’s actually one of Dylan’s most complex.

The joker, the thief, the prince, the businessman, the barefoot servants, the approaching riders, the plowmen, the howling wind. It’s tough not to get lost in the cast of enigmatic, inscrutable characters scattered throughout “Watchtower’s” turbulent terrain. But buried beneath this laconic landscape is a cautionary tale that is alarmingly applicable to the times in which we live.

Clocking in at a mere 2 minutes and 33 seconds, Dylan uses his time, and his expansive imagination, wisely. The song opens and closes with two figures guarding what we are led to believe is a medieval castle. And while Dylan’s parables are often puzzling (this one is no exception), many have kept the Kafkaesque view that the castle is representative of established society’s existing power structure.

But just what exactly are the princes guarding? Are they intent on preserving the old guard? Or will they be swayed by the inevitable change brought on by the distant howling wind? And should it get too late, what happens then?

Thematically, the song also strikes a resounding chord. As the song circles back to its haunting conclusion, some have cited the final refrain of William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming” as inspiration: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

And while the reference to the Irish poet points us in the right direction, in the end it doesn’t completely satisfy. Neither Dylan nor Yeats offers explanation as to the ominous outcome, leaving us instead with a sense of foreboding mediation on the looming conflict, and its potentially catastrophic consequences.

It’s only to be expected. As with all of Dylan’s diabolical diatribes, “All Along the Watchtower” works on many different levels. But at its core, the song focuses like a laser beam on a fundamental issue of the era in which we find ourselves— the realignment of human values against the established order.

And when to stop to think about it, isn’t that precisely the scenario our own newly anointed political prince must now confront?

President Obama has admitted to being a Dylan enthusiast. Chances are, however, we won’t have to worry how Barack Obama might interpret this harrowing harbinger of things to come even if he were to try his hand at the newest addition to Guitar Hero’s set list.

It turns out, unlike many of his presidential predecessors, Obama does not play an instrument. But then again, doesn’t that make him the perfect candidate for the game….

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

May 18, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , , , , | Leave a comment