[sixties-l] On Dylan's 60th... (fwd)

From: Ted Morgan (epm2@lehigh.edu)
Date: Wed May 23 2001 - 13:56:51 EDT

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                     Published on Wednesday, May 23, 2001 in the San
    Francisco Chronicle
                     Bob Dylan -- A Poet for Our Times
                     by Tom Chaffin

                     BACK IN the early '80s, I was having dinner with poet
    and singer Leonard Cohen, and we were talking about Bob Dylan. Cohen had
    had dinner with Dylan a few nights earlier, and we were discussing
    Dylan's current slump in popularity.

                     He had recently embraced evangelical Christianity and
    produced a series of religious albums that troubled many fans.

                     Cohen thought the reaction unfair, and was particularly
    galled by a review blasting Dylan's album, "Shot of Love," because it
    included "only one masterpiece," which was Dylan's poignant hymn, "Every
    Grain of Sand."

                     "My God! Only one masterpiece," Cohen exclaimed, as we
    ate at a restaurant in Montreal. "Does this guy have any idea what it
    takes to produce a single masterpiece? I think
    anything he does merits serious attention."

                     Tomorrow, as Dylan turns 60, and I think about my own
    attention to his work,

                     I find myself agreeing with Cohen.

                     After all, I am in good company. Not long ago,
    England's Poet Laureate Andrew Motion called Dylan one of the great
    artists of the century.

                     Yes, Dylan has had his ups and downs. At the moment,
    you would have to say that Dylan is on a roll. He recently won an Oscar
    for the song, "Things Have Changed."

                     Whether he is up or down with public admiration, I've
    always found Dylan worthy of my attention. I know of no other
    contemporary poet who has drawn such an unflinching bead on our age and
    its perils.

                     One goes to different poets at different times for
    different reasons: Shakespeare for insights into the human heart and
    just about anything else; T. S. Eliot for perspectives on human
    alienation; Wallace Stevens for epistemological ruminations, and Yeats
    for the vagaries of passion and memory.

                     Dylan, drawing on the romantic traditions of Byron,
    Whitman, Keats and even Woody Guthrie, has written with varying degrees
    of insight on all of those subjects and others.

                     He achieves his greatest powers however as a social
    visionary, as heard in his three classic rock albums from the 1960s:
    "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on
    Blonde." The three collections made Dylan an international icon.

                     With their Cubist-like shifting perspectives, haunted
    visions of an impersonal, uncertain future in which even language is
    undermined, songs such as "Like a Rolling Stone,"
    "Desolation Row" and "Ballad of a Thin Man" captured the spirit of our
    day and time.

                     Most trenchantly, in this age of the Internet, cloning
    and other innovations, technology in Dylan's world still carries an icy
    breath. He's never been a Luddite. But in an era in which too many
    revere computers and capitalism with the sort of unquestioning
    veneration that cargo-cultists reserve for a beached Cessna, Dylan still
    understands that relationships between people matter more than those
    between people and machines or institutions.

                     Three years ago, when Dylan released his most recent
    album, "Time Out of My Mind," critics noted its conservative tone --
    conservative not in its political ideology but in its
    longings for lost human connections.

                     But in Dylan's 1960s works, I find that same yearning
    in songs such as "Ballad of a Thin Man" and "Like a Rolling Stone." The
    surprise is that -- rebel-poet pose notwithstanding -- even the 1960s
    Dylan now sounds essentially conservative, even nostalgic.

                     Contrary to what many critics have assumed, Dylan never
    made himself an apologist, much less an advocate, for any particular
    vision of the future. Yes, he supported that '60s civil rights and
    anti-Vietnam War movements. (Both, by the way, are arguably conservative
    -- pro-Constitution, anti-interventionist -- causes.)

                     For the most part, however, he merely described the
    world he envisioned and warned against what seemed, to him, its bland

                     "I accept chaos," he wrote. "I am not sure it accepts

                     Typical of great poets, even when Dylan tried, he made
    a poor ideologue. Over the years, he flirted with various belief
    systems, most notably Marxism, Christianity and Judaism. But he never
    stuck with any one for long.

                     Songs like "Maggie's Farm" and "All Along the
    Watchtower" display an abiding wariness of the marketplace and the ways
    in which it undermines a proper moral order. But although lionized by
    the New Left, Dylan never embraced its systematic anti-capitalism.

                     Four decades after Dylan recorded his first album --
    when many of his early fans have embraced capitalism with a zeal that
    would have embarrassed their parents -- his skepticism about the
    marketplace remains undiminished. "Are birds free from the chains of
    the skyway?" Dylan asked in 1964 in "Ballad in Plain D." He is still
    asking that question.

                     Beyond all his eccentricities and changes in style and
    focus, Dylan's oeuvre remains a sustained meditation on the nature of
    and limits to human freedoms -- political, economic, existential and
    spiritual. To see Dylan as a protest-singer or rebel-poet misses the

              Yes, he saw that the times were a'changin', he knew that
    something was happening here, and understood that his Mister Jones
    didn't have a clue. But nowhere did Dylan advocate, or welcome, change
    for its own sake.

                     "I cannot bring a world quite 'round, Although I patch
    it as I can," wrote Wallace Stevens.

                     We cannot ask poets to give us new worlds -- only to
    give us insights into those in which we live. Dylan still manages the
    latter task peerlessly, and 36 years after he brought it all back home
    to us??? -- that's more than enough.

                     Tom Chaffin teaches at Emory University. His biography
    of explorer John Fremont will be published by Hill and Wang next year.

                                          2001 San Francisco Chronicle

    Ted Morgan
    Department of Political Science
    Lehigh University
    Maginnes Hall #9
    Bethlehem, PA 18015
    Phone: (610) 758-3345
    Fax: (610) 758-6554

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