The Magazine

What Dylan Is Not

Poet Laureate of the left, for one.

Oct 2, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 03 • By SEAN CURNYN
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Agood deal of hoopla greeted the grizzled rock-musician Neil Young's musical assault on George W. Bush earlier this year. His album Living With War included a hundred-voice choir singing a song entitled "Let's Impeach the President." For those survivors of anti-Vietnam war protests, and their younger would-be imitators, it was a moment for a sharp intake of breath and the tantalizing hope that maybe now, after all, music really could change the world. I mean, everyone has to sit up and take notice of Neil Young, right?

Young's crusading album included another song called "Flags of Free dom," in which he gave a name-check to Bob Dylan, and adapted the melody of Dylan's own somewhat more lyrically complex song "Chimes of Freedom."

He really should have known better. In an interview several months later with Edna Gundersen in USA Today, Dylan was asked about the absence of any song about the current war on his own latest album, Modern Times.

"Didn't Neil Young do that?" he jokes . . . "What's funny about the Neil record, when I heard 'Let's Impeach the President,' I thought it was something old that had been lying around. I said, 'That's crazy, he's doing a song about Clinton?'"

With his sly and somewhat wicked response, Dylan had (1) desperately frustrated the considerable number of more obvious Dylan fans who have been waiting on the edge of a cliff for him to say or sing something--anything!--against President Bush and the Iraq war and (2) told Neil Young none-too-subtly that he found his recent ultrapolitical songwriting essentially pointless.

Somehow, after over 40 years of evidence to the contrary, much of the world seems to continue to expect the man who is arguably America's greatest songwriter to sign on to left/liberal causes at the first opportunity. If nothing else, it is proof that in attempting to kidnap Dylan's songs (in Dylan's own words, his songs were "subverted into polemics" in the 1960s), the left succeeded in convincing the average person that both the work and the man did, indeed, belong to them.

In the summer run-up to the 2004 presidential campaign, a concert tour of anti-Bush musicians was being organized, led by Bruce Springsteen. They would perform in swing states in support of John Kerry. The advance press regarding the tour always prominently mentioned Bob Dylan as one of the musicians being talked about for the lineup. There was no surprise about this expressed in the stories; after all, campaigning against Republican presidents is what Bob Dylan has always done, isn't it? But when dates and lineups were finally announced for the "Vote for Change" tour, one name was prominently missing: that of Bob Dylan. And indeed, any scrutiny of the record would show that he has never endorsed a political candidate (although some political candidates have endorsed him). The closest he has ever come would be the statement in his memoir, Chronicles, that his "favorite politician" circa 1961 was Barry Goldwater.

As tempted as he might have been two years ago to give the MoveOn.org crew what they wanted (probably not at all), the true nature of Dylan's independence was tested in the crazy crucible of the 1960s, and proven by the degree to which he resisted being crowned king by those who begged for only a word from him. It always comes back to that time, and to the Vietnam war, for Bob Dylan, especially when the media are doing one of their thumbnails of his career. He didn't ask for it to be that way; it just is. As he said to Rolling Stone in his most recent interview:

Did I ever want to acquire the Sixties? No. But I own the Sixties I'll give 'em to you if you want 'em. You can have 'em.

It's an interesting paradox. Looking at the record, Vietnam should have been the wedge that forced the left to reject Dylan as a matter of dogma, because he failed to give them anything that they demanded from him, and actually gave them the opposite of what they wanted.

Instead, the Vietnam war is the seemingly unbreakable link that ties Dylan to the left in the popular consciousness. Consider: Dylan wrote no songs about the Vietnam war during the 1960s. Zero. The songs Dylan wrote that antiwar protesters later seized upon (from Blowin' in the Wind on down) were written when the Vietnam war was little more than a twinkle in John F. Kennedy's eye. A close study of those songs would also reveal, as Dylan himself has stated in so many words, that they are not "antiwar" songs, as such. Just as with all his best work, they are based upon an almost unerring sense of human nature and a remarkable ability to ask questions that provoke revealing answers in the listener.