Metamorphoses of Bob Dylan. Part II.

Departure from the protest

Along with the breaking out of the ideological and artistic framework of the folksinger movement, Dylan’s work became more formless, his position began to hide behind the colourful phrases and complexity of symbols and metaphors.
For example, in the song “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” Fedra and Rasputin suddenly pop up. What for? God knows. The author flaunts erudition and invites the listener to play a quiz with him — to guess what relation the listed characters have to the next lines of the song. Guessed? Well done. There is no need to draw conclusions — it’s time to move on to the next song.

Metaphors become an end in themselves, their solving is transformed for listeners into a fun game that replaces reflections on the author’s thought and position. Many rockers rushed along the path beaten by Dylan, turning their work into a vivid illusion, the most consistent Russian-speaking imitator of Bob Dylan, perhaps, was Boris Grebenshchikov, who received the nickname Bob for this and was photographed for the cover of the album «All Brothers — are Sisters» with a collection of Dylan texts in his hands .

So, Dylan vividly and figuratively criticizes Western bourgeois society, using the entire arsenal of the latest musical means, but what solution does he offer? While Dylan was a folksinger, it was self-evident that he shared the methods of his fellow guitarists. Folksingers mostly were members of various communist and socialist movements. For the most part, they advocated the organization of public pressure on the government through demonstrations and other mass actions in order to carry out socialist transformations, as well as promoted socialist candidates to leading government posts. Hence the calls for solidarity and peace in songs such as “We shall overcome” and “Which side are you on?” Perhaps the most radical position among them was taken by Malvina Reynolds (future songwriter for “Sesame Street”), who composed the song “It isn ‘t nice ”, which stated that it was impossible to achieve change by adhering to the law.

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is Freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.

In the song, she explicitly stated that the authorities in the fight against the left behave in no way “nice” and easily violate their own laws when they need it. However, Reynolds did not call for retaliatory violence, but only for bolder agitation, nothing more.
Dylan settled accounts with his past and laughed at the straightforwardness and politicization of American bards, in the song «Desolation Row» mentioning by the way:

Everybody’s shouting
«Which side are you on?»
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them.

Aestheticism, religion, show business

But it is worth noting that breaking with the previous audience and stage comrades was not so easy for Dylan. After three hit rock albums (“Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Blonde on Blonde”), he experienced a serious creative crisis, so taking advantage of the accident (or just rumors about it) for some time disappeared from public eye. And the next album, “John Wesley Harding”, was a definite tribute to the past — its lyrics became simpler, the tunes calmer, with a touch of folk and country.
And yet, Dylan made his choice — in favor of the rock scene and big show business. Has he changed his ideas? Of course, the singer could not invent anything new, he could only support one of the existing positions. What methods of struggle against the power of money, police terror and unbridled wars did the youth of those times use?

In addition to the legal methods of political struggle that most folksingers stood for, there was a revolutionary path of guerrilla war demonstrated to the whole world by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, there was a path of individual terror along which individual groups such as RAF and Weathermen tried to go. All these were methods of struggle, changing the world, and correcting its imperfections. {Of course, not all folksingers adhered to leftist, anti-capitalist views. The government and the church tried to cultivate their own pocket minstrels, but, strangely enough, they still remained marginalized in that setting of social upsurge.} And there was a way of surrender and flight — to religion, to drugs, to aestheticism.
It is easy to guess which of the two paths, struggle or flight, was less dangerous for the establishment, and to which one of them
young rebels were gently pushed. Bob Dylan himself went down the religious path. He contrasted the injustices of the capitalist system with the world of individual mystical experiences, religious moralism, that is, the desire to feed himself and those around him with the same “Pie in the Sky”, about which Joe Hill once warned the people.

By the way, Bob Dylan peculiarly paid tribute to this great singer in the song “I Dreamed I saw St. Augustine” on the 1968 album “John Wesley Harding”. Of course, this song is a remake of the famous «I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill last night», only the author puts the church preacher in the place of the working leader who gave his life in the struggle for the happiness of the oppressed.

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold

Another admirer of Dylan’s work, the author of the lyrics of the group “Nautilus Pompilius” Ilya Kormiltsev, almost literally translated this song, replacing only the main character — Augustine with Christ — so he got “I dreamed that Christ was resurrected” (Мне снилось, что христос воскрес). Please note that the poetic rythm of the Kormiltsev’s song absolutely coincides with the rhythm of the Dylan’s one and, accordingly, the song about Joe Hill.
Of course,
Dylanэы Blessed Augustine  acts as a denouncer of modern society, a disinterested person and a martyr. But the hero of the song, and with him Bob Dylan, criticizes capitalism from a religious perspective, on behalf of Christian morality.

Not on top of religion and rock culture

It is worth noting that many religious preachers of the 60s, like the singers, were also anti-capitalist, some sincerely, others to keep the flock.

It is enough to recall such a phenomenon of the twentieth century as “liberation theology”, a doctrine that proved that every Christian should be a revolutionary. For example, the Catholic priest Oscar Romero from the standpoint of Christianity opposed wars and social inequality. He put justice above church subordination. “I am ready for anything for the unity of the church, but I cannot go against my conscience,” he said. For the intransigence of his views and popularity among the people, he was killed by CIA agents.

However, Bob Dylan did not rise to such a height of Christian morality. His Christianity was far more moderate and respectable. Apparently, the amorphous position (with indisputable poetic talent) allowed Dylan to become very popular among people of different views and live happily ever after, earn a lot of money, enjoy the favor of the authorities and receive all kinds of awards from them, while more angry and principled rockers died young ones.

In 1978, Dylan announced that he had rediscovered Christianity, his albums began to resemble collections of church hymns. But in this turn, we can see the breath of the era: the left movement in the USA and Europe fell into decay: groups of radicals were defeated, mass movements lost their masses, the older generation of ideologists went to the grave, former youth leaders were transferred to official or managerial seats, in Soviet stagnation reigned. The defeated children were looking for a way to reconcile with the world of their fathers. Religious escapism provided them with such an opportunity.

By the way, even the very nature of Dylan’s poetic talent can be partly explained by his Christian views and the weakness of political convictions. Pay attention to the peculiarities of the styles of other religious authors, for example, Chesterton or Grebenshchikov. The pretentiousness and excessive complexity of Chesterton’s phrases, his tedious verbosity and constant paradoxes, or the multilayer pile of quotes in Grebenshchikov’s songs are caused by the fact that they, in essence, have nothing to say. And not only to the public, but also to themselves. To get closer to your idols, means to discern their artificiality. By the way, it was already mentioned Blessed Augustine who said about God: “If I saw myself, I would see You”, apparently without realizing how atheist this idea sounds. A close and direct look at the Creator reveals that he himself is a creation — the creation of a believer’s imagination. Hence, religious writers have this situation of attraction and repulsion: on the one hand, they constantly write about the subject of faith, try to get closer to it, but at the same time they hide the face of the deity behind a lot of allegory masks, move away from it at a respectful distance, entangle the subject of faith in a multilayer motley rustling wrapper of words and images.
This time Bob Dylan betrayed protest rock as he wonce did it with folksingers. Many former fans and fellow rockers accused Dylan of hypocrisy. John Lennon responded to his song “Gotta Serve Somebody” about serving God with the song “Serve Yourself”:

You say you found Jesus Christ, he’s the only one
You say you’ve found Buddha sittin’ in the sun
You say you found Mohammed facin’ to the East
You say you found Krishna dancin’ in the street

Well there’s somethin’ missing in this God Almighty stew
And it’s your mother
You got to serve yourself
Nobody gonna do for you.

Bob Dylan has come down the path of religious goodness to the point that in 2009 he released an album of Christmas carols. Critics praised the release, at the same time comparing Dylan with folksinger Burl Ives. And this comparison is very symbolic, because Burl Ives was initially friends with the American Communists, but as soon as he turned out to be blacklisted, he renounced his friends and, on some, he tapped the Commission for the Investigation of Anti-American Activities, after which he refused politics and began to sing Christmas songs. But Ives’ career went uphill and all sorts of awards arrived. So the comparison with Ives, perhaps, was presented by critics as praise, but Bob Dylan should have been alerted.

The followers lead the leaders

However, Bob Dylan, with all his inconstancy and hidden conformism, still remains an outstanding poet, he expressed many nuances of the feelings and thoughts of an American of the twentieth century, although these are precisely the shades and nuances — he prefers not to touch on the main thing. He may state this or that position in his interviews, but his songs remain quite abstract and ideologically vague, which makes them acceptable for any media and any audience.

I repeat, “the followers lead the leaders” and the described turn in Dylan’s work was caused by the crisis of the labor and trade union movement, the crisis of the “old left” and the fascination of youth with carnival forms of protest, the growth of escapist sentiments.

If humus is an excellent fertilizer for flowers, then rock culture flourished thanks to the decomposition of youth protest, its transition into purely cultural forms. Remember, the “dreamers” of Bertolucci wondered why there are no famous rock bands in France? Is it because the French students in 1968 fought on the barricades, that is, they were occupied wth the real struggle for real changes change, while the youth of England looked at them from the side and played on electric guitars?

While the people are dancing, they are not dangerous — this Metternich’s idea was perfectly understood by the governments of various Western countries and opened the gateways for the creative expression of young people, even if this work offended the taste of respectable citizens. It’s better to allow shocking art, it’s better that young rebels insult the existing order with words and not deeds. “We’ll sow our wild oats and then become just like you,” ironically noted the protagonist of the comedy-drama «Courier» (1986). Bob Dylan confirmed this thesis.

By Dmitry Kosyakov

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