The Disgruntled Dylanologist

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

Ain’t Working On ‘Maggie’s Farm’ No More: Dylan tops record charts; Specter breaks Republican hearts


I got a head full of ideas

That are drivin’ me insane.
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

It’s been nearly 45 years since Bob Dylan stepped on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, electric guitar strapped across his back, and defiantly told the establishment that had made him a star, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

And while Dylan’s transition from the world’s most beloved folkie to full-blown cultural icon is now largely forgiven even by his most adamant detractors, at the time the chord Dylan struck was far from harmonious.

Dylan’s landmark appearance at Newport was wedged between two long forgotten acts by the name of Cousin Emmy and the Sea Island singers. The fact that these two groups were so closely culled from the folk tradition only accentuated the disruption Dylan caused. So horrified was the crowd by Dylan’s now notorious 3-song set, that shortly after the band finished someone is reported to have shouted: “Bring back Cousin Emmy!”

Much in the same way Dylan’s performance at Newport took the folk movement by surprise, US Senator Arlen Specter’s unexpected decision last week to switch political affiliation shocked the Washington establishment.

Chances are slim there’ll be any cries to “Bring Back Uncle Arlen!” on the part of the Republicans, however.


In hindsight, the real disdain the folkies had toward Dylan back in 1965 wasn’t so much that he ‘went electric’ (“Like a Rolling Stone” was, after all, already at the top of the charts). It was the way in which he thumbed his nose at them in such a defiant way, and did so in such a public forum.

Similarly, Specter’s decision to announce his defection one day prior to Obama’s 100th day in office was hardly the sign of a wallflower. Like Dylan, Specter was given a stage and he used it to maximum benefit.

But let’s be honest. Just as the fans at Newport knew they weren’t going to be able to keep Dylan in their pocket forever, the Republicans had to have seen this coming. Back in February, Obama’s $787 billion dollar stimulus got a total of three Republican votes— and Specter was one of them.

Admittedly, politicians cross the aisle all the time to imbue their political capital. But to cross the aisle on that vote at that defining moment in Obama’s young presidency was clearly a telltale sign of things to come, especially considering Specter’s long history of political vacillation.

There’s no question Specter needs to replenish the capital in his waning political coffers. Polls show the Pennsylvania senator has the support of only 30% of the likely GOP voters in the 2010 primary. But why the seismic shift to the Left? Two words: Barack Obama.

Roughly 180,000 party moderates – the very people Specter needs to win the upcoming Republican primary – switched parties in 2008 to vote for Mr. Obama in the general election. As a result, Specter is seen (and probably accurately so) as a political dead man walking.

Dylan was at a strikingly similar point in his career when the Festival Committee asked him to headline Newport in 1965. Not that Dylan’s supporters had abandoned him— far from it. When Dylan walked out on stage that warm July night, he was at the top of his game— loved, admired and perfectly in tune with the times. But Dylan knew something his adorning fans didn’t. It was time to move on. Time to chart a new course. Time to explore a new direction. In short, it was time.

It’s one thing to reinvent yourself. As any observant Dylan aficionado knows (is there any other kind?), Dylan was inventing “Dylan” long before he ever got to Newport. Even politicians need a bit of reinvention from time-to-time. Lest we forget, Ronald Reagan—perhaps the most significant force in the Republican Party in the last 50 years—switched parties in 1962, claiming, “I did not leave the Democratic party, the party left me.” Sounds remarkably like the rationalization Specter has repeatedly given when pressed to do a little soul searching on why he’s thrown his lot with the Left.

But in the end, Specter’s defection to the Dems is no Newport. Dylan wasn’t closing the door to his legions of supporters; he was opening a new one. He wasn’t walking away from his admirers; he was inviting them to join him. And on the topic of introducing electric music and the years of controversy that followed, for Dylan, “It was honest.” Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Pennsylvania politician. For Specter, it was all about self-preservation.

There’s no question the times in which we live are uncertain. And, as history has repeated shown, no one bears the brunt of these changing times more than our politicians and cultural icons.

Dylan was right. We really don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows; public opinion will do just fine…

Well, I try my best
To be just like I am,
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.

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May 13, 2009 Posted by | Disgruntled, Dylanologist | , , , | Leave a comment

‘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

Obama’s Stimulus Package: A ‘New Morning’ or deja vu all over again?


Can’t you feel that sun a-shinin’?

Ground hog runnin’ by the country stream
This must be the day that all of my dreams come true
So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue

Every year on the second day of February, marmot aficionados of every make and model gather in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and wait with baited breath for a certain groundhog by the name of “Punxsutawney Phil” to emerge from his burrow. As weather folklore has it, if Phil fails to see his shadow, winter will end soon. If, however, it’s sunny and Phil does see his shadow, winter continues for another 6 weeks.

Well, my fellow Disgruntled Dylanologists, we need not wait. It just so happens Groundhog Day came early this year.

Punxsutawney Phil may not see his shadow tomorrow, but America certainly saw theirs this past Wednesday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerged from the hallowed Capitol chambers and proudly announced the passage of the $819 billion economic stimulus package.

So what do the irrational idiosyncrasies of some tired, world-weary woodchuck have to do with Washington? A lot more than you’d think.

There’s no question a euphoria has been sweeping across the country in recent months. This past November, America made a deal with their elected officials, a political quid-pro-quo if you will.

The bargain was simple. Differences in point of view would be met with tempered measure; partisan decisiveness, however, would no longer be tolerated. Said another way, put your pettiness aside and get on with the business of governing.

That was the hope. The House vote Wednesday told another story. The final vote: 244-to-188. Every single Republican—all 177 of them—voted against the stimulus package. Hardly a ringing endorsement of a ‘new morning’ in America.


Let’s not lose sight of the fact, however, that $819 billion is a lot of money. The passage of the stimulus package (and it will pass in some form— that’s precisely what this whole debate is about) will not only define the Obama presidency, the programs the stimulus package will fund will define our nation’s priorities for generations to come.

Transforming our economy with science and technology; modernizing roads, bridges, transit, and waterways; developing clean, efficient energy— these are big ideas. And while big ideas necessarily come with big price tags, these programs are the most expensive public works programs in our nation’s history. How the money is spent certainly is something worth fighting over.

Ironically, the lines drawn by the partisans in Washington are not over the cost. Nor is the debate so much over the programs themselves, either. Not the big ones, anyway. We all know our country’s infrastructure is in shambles, that our education system is a disgrace and that our ability to compete in technology is severely hampered by shoddy networks and a lack of adequate resources.

The fundamental cause of partisanship, it seems, resides in the pork—those hidden programs the politicians put in to placate their political backers back home.

The fact that the American public isn’t even blinking over spending $30 billion for roads and bridges, $9 billion for public transit and $1 billion for inter-city rail must have the politicians salivating. Exactly where that money will be spent undoubtedly has them sharpening their tenterhooks.

Of course, the notion of demanding accountability isn’t such a bad thing. Truth be told, a little accountability will likely go a long way toward renewing a sense of trust and competency in our elected officials. The memory of the $700 billion that recently went to the shylocks on the Street who got their pound of flesh without having to account to a soul (accept perhaps their own— but that’s another grunt altogether) has proven far more enduring than the banks they so shamelessly ran into the ground.

Just as we have every right to hold the feet of our elected officials to fire, they have the right to demand the same accountability from the people to whom they will give the money. But rather than hammer out the details on how this massive economic stimulus package will be spent, the politicos who told us they wanted to bring a ‘new way of doing business’ to Washington are clearly still in the business of lining their pockets instead of finding ways to put money into ours.

And while this incestuous approach to governing—this “we were put in charge now let us do our jobs” mentality—has become analogous with pigs at a trough, the stimulus plan has been liken to a Trojan Horse, I would maintain our friend, Punxsutawney Phil, is better metaphor for what we can really expect from Washington.

Thanks in large part to the 1993 film of the same name, the concept of ‘Groundhog Day’ has come to mean “doing the same thing over and over.”

And while we probably won’t have to relive the next eight years in the tortuous manner Bill Murray was forced to relive the same day over and over again until he recognized the errant ways of his past, there is no question the nation economic winter of discontent is still upon us.

The good news, of course, is that tomorrow is another day…

So happy just to be alive
Underneath the sky of blue
On this new morning, new morning
On this new morning with you.

_________________________________________________

When it comes the Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil is certainly the most well known. But he isn’t the only one. A few other famous groundhogs and their squirrelly counterparts in the House of Representatives:

Punxsutawney Phil of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
Glenn Thompson (R) Pennsylvania 5th

Jimmy the Groundhog
of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
Tammy Baldwin (D) Wisconsin 2nd

Staten Island Chuck
of New York City, New York
Michael E. McMahon (D) New York 13th

General Beauregard Lee, PhD
of Lilburn, Georgia
John Linder (R) Georgia 7th

Dunkirk Dave
of Dunkirk, New York
Brian Higgins (D) New York 27th


Malverne Mel and Malverne Melissa of Malverne, New York
Carolyn McCarthy (D) New York 4th

Sir Walter Wally
of Raleigh, North Carolina
Brad Miller (D) North Carolina 13th

Pardon Me Pete
of Tampa, Florida
Kathy Castor (D) Florida 11th


Octoraro Orphie
of Quarryville, Pennsylvania
Joseph R. Pitts (R) Pennsylvania 16th

Holtsville Hal
of Holtsville, New York
Timothy H. Bishop (D) New York 1st

Buckeye Chuck of Marion, Ohio
Jim Jordan (R) Ohio 4th

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