Twenty Pounds of Headlines
This is a typical example of one song that your, uh, English music newspapers would call a drug song: " I go, I don't, uh, I don't write druuuggg songs " (slurring words), "You know like I never have, I wouldn't know how to go about it, but this is not a drug song [crowd claps]. I'm not saying it for any kind of defensive reason or anything like that. It's just not a drug song. I don't mean " it's just [affects English accent] vulgar to think so."
So spoke Bob Dylan in the middle of his famous Royal Albert Hall concert during his May 1966 tour in England. The comment, spoken in reference to "Visions of Johanna," shows sides of Dylan that the reductive labels of the media cannot tame. Almost 37 years later, we might also wonder what Bob Dylan is still doing performing, at least when other rocking dinosaurs such as the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith have long succumbed to the twin stakes and serpent's smile of the dollar.
Dylan, on the other hand, is now reaching deep into no man's land, back to the folk songs of Appalachia and the tales collected by Harry Smith during the 1920s in the Anthology of American Folk Music. What's going on here? While Dylan and the public have long since diverged in taste (perhaps due in part to his early '90s phase of singing through his sinus cavities and articulating words like a drunken student at a 7 a.m. language drill), he unabashedly beats on, occasionally making appearances before the media like at the Oscars two years ago.
While "Things Have Changed" since 1966, some things remain the same. And Dylan's strange relationship with the media exposes reporters as inadequately prepared amateurs. And maybe we can learn a little something universal too, you and I, from this patient etherized upon our editorial table.
1) The media -- it's certainly painted as an enemy in the quote above, right? But this is only one layer of the Dylan canvas. He snidely dons the voice of the stoner and then the voice of the snooty English media that disparages his songs. The effect of these voices is to tease the media into believing its own claims, but to also suggest that it is inane to read the songs in one way. The crossword is part of your newspaper, chaps, not a way to interpret my songs, he seems to be saying. That my lyrics are abstract and defy realist conventions does not mean they lack sense. That I may or may not have taken a few drugs does not make them definitively about one thing.
And even today the media only holds Dylan up as the exemplary musician of the civil rights movement. For, of course, "Blowing in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" were the anthems. It is ironic that Dylan, whose recent work in "Love and Theft" suggests he does not buy into the fragmented society created by multiculturalism (cf. "High Water"), has been subsumed by the political correctness wagon and made part of a reworked history.
Dylan, like many great artists, changed his image almost neurotically: when he was labelled the great folk savior, he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival; when he became even more popular, he retreated from society to make the "Basement Tapes;" he even converted to Christianity, secretly married an African-American gospel singer the list goes on. This is not simply Madonna reinventing herself in a new and ever popular way. Dylan is the original trickster of the last-half century.
2) The bastard and the media -- and that's really what Bob Dylan is in 1966, a smug 24-year-old singer with an inflated mop of hair and even more inflated ego. The quote above is representative of how he makes the audience (and even us, listening after the fact) feel young and hip as potential people in on a secret. He plays on the idea of the crowd by getting them to cheer at the very thing -- drugs -- that he says the song is not about. And we are never really sure what he is saying, except that all meanings are valid. But our cheers potentially make us the subject of Dylan's sarcasm, and we are placed in the same ignorant boat as the unprepared reporters.
In D.A. Pennebaker's documentary "Don't Look Back," about Dylan's 1965 tour of England, numerous well-meaning or superficial journalists try to pin him down with boring questions such as "Are you folk?" and "Why are you so popular?" Dylan systematically evades giving answers by making his media answers a performance themselves, bringing props such as an oversized lightbulb to press conferences and inventing stories about his childhood in traveling circuses, not a middle-class Jewish background in Minnesota.
3) The central revelation I had watching such documentaries as "Don't Look Back" and seeing this interaction is that reporting is ultimately a failure. There is no truth or "fact" as the New York Times thought of it in the '50s -- something the destructive prose journalism of Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe made clear. But Dylan's smugness tells us that these reporters are only doing their job, not asking the right questions. To ask about a musician's success only repeats the industry of buzz and does not inform the audience about anything substantial (that "buzzworthy-ness" is all that MTV cares about is only a sad reminder of the structure of music today). Dylan desires that a journalist ask him open-ended questions that yield flexible answers of interpretation, but the music critics either hail him as a hero of social issues (the opinion of the "high critics") or as a cult phenomenon (think of the attention teenyboppers have historically received).
Yet journalism cannot hope to equal his desires, and Dylan knows this, because the journalist has a very limited time to learn his topic, and an even shorter time to write the actual story. Constant griping about the state of this paper (which, incidentally, is far more substantial than other comparable papers such as the Cornell Daily Sun) attests to this fact. Thus the same stories come out again and again -- just as we see VH1's "Behind the Music" rehash the same story of success, dramatic collapse, and rebirth -- the reporter uses the themes of success and tragedy as guiding principles for his stories. And while these issues may change slightly over time, it is only a redistribution of relative powers. The song remains the same.