As much as one loves Bob Dylan, it is always best to resist the temptation to write about him. He is a slippery fish, who is routinely put-off by the industrial-level attempts to access his soul through the interpretation of his lyrics. And if Dylan makes albums—at the rate of almost one a year—as an excuse for introspection, then much of what we find obscure in his catalog is by definition intelligible only to him.
This leaves Dylan theorists with only his public persona to base their theories on, which allows the song and dance man ample opportunity to do the one thing he seems to love best: dissemble. Here is a recent Dylan comment on the media:
I realized at the time that the press, the media, they're not the judge—God's the judge. The only person you have to think about lying twice to is either yourself or to God. The press isn't either of them. And I just figured they're irrelevant.
If we cannot get to Dylan through his lyrics, or through his public statements, what is left? Answer: his endorsement deals.
Endorsements are a wonderful interpretive lens because even the most asinine decision to do a commercial tells us a little something about the person. For instance, what can we infer about Michael Jordan through his Hanes partnership? Does he simply love underwear? Maybe he believes in the nobility of the Hanes brand? Or maybe he wants a big check. Bags of money would also explain commercial engagement with McDonald’s—precisely the kind of food you can bet was never on Jordan’s training table. It would also explain his deal with Coke; his endorsement of re-usable alkaline batteries; ballpark hotdogs; and sneakers made by the best child labor outsourcing can buy! Put it all together and you begin to get a sense of what the man values, or should I say value$.
So, what do Dylan’s commercials reflect?
Sometimes, Dylan does not appear in the commercial, choosing merely to license his song, like in this Chobani bit featuring a rampaging bear on a maniacal quest for yogurt; the background tune: Dylan’s “I Want You.” Other times, a montage of various, younger Dylan’s appear, like his split-screen appearance with Will.i.am in a Pepsi commercial. When he is not eating yogurt and sipping Pepsi, or listening to his iPod, Dylan enjoys taking a drive in his Cadillac…until he gets bored and decides to switch to Chrysler because, hey, “things have changed!” Where is America’s finest poet off to in such a hurry? A Victoria’s Secret commercial shoot, of course—and what red-blooded American wants to keep the models waiting?
All of these ads spur a question: Where has the usual Dylan disdain gone? There was no wink or nod or anything one might expect from the normally reclusive and ornery singer. Maybe Columbia Records demanded some kind of recompense for allowing the production of Christmas in the Heart? That, or the PR types knew better than to trust Dylan with any artistic input in his advertisements.
And then I spotted his most recent commercial for IBM.
(For those who can't watch, the commercial proceeds as follows: Dylan walks into view and sits on a couch before a computer who then begins to speak. “Watson,” IBM’s natural language processing machine, informs Dylan that, in an effort to improve his language skills he has read all of the singer’s lyrics. He reports that his analysis shows Dylan’s major themes are that “time passes” and “love fades.” After Watson confesses he has never known love, Dylan offers they write a song together, to which Watson responds with some of his own lyrics: “do be bop be bop a doo.” With that, Dylan walks away, guitar in hand, while the words “IBM Watson thinks with us to outthink the limits of creativity” appear on the screen.)
Just how Watson, hand-in-hand with Dylan, will engage in “outthinking the limits of creativity” is impossible to tell. It is impossible, because “outsmarting the limits of creativity” is a meaningless statement, which brings me to my theory. What is at play here is the reappearance of that old Dylan mischievousness, this time at the expense of the very company he is ostensibly endorsing. IBM, in an attempt to promote a machine that will seamlessly interface with human beings, comes off as having created a tone-deaf bot that, when confronted with a paragon of human creativity, is literally abandoned. We don’t know where Dylan rambled off to, but we do know that the song with Watson does not get written. If this is a little joke Dylan is making about the limits of human ability to interact in a meaningful way with modern technology despite the best packaging efforts of Silicon Valley, then I have only one thing to say: Welcome back, Bob.
The central Illinois music scene (the ostensible subject of my magazine piece this week) was amazingly fecund in the 1970s, and worthy of a self-indulgent blog post all its own. The alpha and omega of this time and place was REO Speedwagon, and Gary Richrath enjoyed an intensely loyal following around town even before he joined REO.
Jon Bon Jovi is nobody’s idea of a conservative. Indeed, the hirsute rocker is a well-known Democrat. And yet, when Chris Christie announced his bid for the Republican nomination for president on Tuesday, and played a Bon Jovi tune in the process, the musician didn’t complain.
With so many Republican candidates announcing their bids for the presidency these days, one our most hallowed election-year rituals can’t be far behind. I refer, of course, to when fading musical acts attempt to prove their progressive bona fides by making a stink when a candidate they disagree with plays their music at a rally.
B.B. King, born Riley B. King and also called the Beale Street Blues Boy and the King of the Blues, has died at the age of 89. Earlier this month, he announced he was in hospice care due to complications from diabetes. (Nearly 15 years ago, B.B. had become a paid spokesman for a blood glucose test device OneTouch. “OneTouch gave me everything,” he crooned in the TV ad.) Even at his advanced age, his death comes as a shock, since the blues legend toured well into his eighties.
Charlie Parker never achieved stardom, at least not by the standards of the music business. He never had a gold record to hang on the wall or enjoyed a significant radio hit. He never had a contract with a major record label. His face didn’t appear, even in a bit role, in a Hollywood film. If you measure a musician’s worth at the cash register—the ultimate arbiter of talent nowadays, or so it seems—Parker can only be called a minor figure, operating at the fringes of the entertainment industry.
IN BEYOND Good and Evil, Nietzsche rejoices that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "the last chord of a centuries-old great European taste . . . still speaks to us" and warns that "alas, some day all this will be gone."
The State Department is presenting a global webcast on February 4, titled "From the Street to Mainstream: The Evolution of Rap/Hip Hop Music." The host of the webcast, rapper and State Department Music Ambassador Toni Blackman, will be joined by Pras Michel, a founding member of the hip hop group the Fugees, to discuss "how rap and hip hop have increased social awareness of the African-American experience — and raised even broader issues in contemporary society." Some of Michel's more inflammatory comments in the past raise questions about the appropriateness of his appearance with the U.S.'s music ambassador on a government-sponsored webcast representing America to the world.
In the East Room of the White House Sunday night, President Obama hosted the Kennedy Center Honors Reception to recognize five American artists: Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine, and Billy Joel. The president gave a brief synopsis of each artist's career, including making light of the drug-induced hallucinations of Carlos Santana as he was introduced to the music world at the 1969 Woodstock music festival:
There's a black and white photo, a little grainy and slightly out of focus, of Igor Stravinsky greeting Mstislav Rostropovich at the Royal Academy of Music, London, in June 1964. Standing in the background in the upper left hand corner is a tall lanky figure, a 20-year-old music student named John Tavener. Also in the photo, just to the right, is John's brother Roger who was friendly with Ringo Starr.
I met him once. Well, met in the loosest sense: I was introduced to Ray Manzarek at a Los Angeles restaurant in the 1980s and got to shake his hand. No more than that, but even at the time it felt like an encounter with passing greatness, a brush with the fading mythology of the age, and down through the years, I’ve never forgotten it.