[sixties-l] Rock of Sages (fwd)

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Date: Thu Dec 20 2001 - 19:54:18 EST

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    Date: Thu, 20 Dec 2001 14:39:44 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Rock of Sages

    Rock of Sages


    19 December 2001
    by Todd Gitlin

    Monuments have toppled all over the world, but Bob Dylan stays on his
    feet indefatigable, protean, transcending his every generation.
    openDemocracy's North Americas editor asks whether the source of his
    endurance lies precisely in the fact that he started old?

    "Did you know Bob Dylan was nominated for the Nobel Prize four times?",
    stage-whispered a young student, sitting behind me at Madison Square Garden
    on November 19, as we waited for Dylan's concert to begin. The combination
    of awe and knowingness seemed, in that moment, to echo as much as to
    There are popular artists who succeed by mere survival, or by momentarily
    bridging generations in their art or appeal. Dylan has done far more. His
    songs have articulated and reshaped American society's thought-dreams over
    forty tumultuous years and because American, much of the world's also.
    Like no other artist, he has made the changing times his own.
    For all these decades Dylan has put words and music to a resonant awareness
    that nothing comes easily, that the city on the hill is mined. The sense of
    ageless doom that accompanied his youthful journey from Minnesota to New
    York has remained at his core, a protection from facile optimism or
    cynicism. He has belonged always to himself. On this New York evening, more
    than ever he seems to embody as well as fully earn the complex feelings
    invested in him.
         In the mouth of a graveyard
    If the search for meaning after catastrophe is to be more than clich, then
    the small figure intoning ancient texts in a nasal rumble, and lunging with
    little dance steps around the stage in a pink suit, is always in the
    running to be one of its prime sources.
    It turns out that Dylan can perform A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, written
    almost forty years ago by a fevered 21-year-old in the midst of another
    global crisis (over Cuba), and make the song remain an ever-ready prophecy
    of apocalypse, as if scripted for 11 September:
    I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken^I met another man
    who was wounded with hatred^ I heard the roar of a wave that could drown
    the whole world.
    Indeed. If Americans who lack the taste for apocalypse are now getting to
    know the grain and texture, the look and the stench of doom, Dylan must
    have been less surprised than most. For he always exuded the confidence of
    a battered man who suffered, who was there and who emerged from the wreck
    convinced that he knew how the blame for the crash was shared around.
    Yet Dylan has also resisted the didactic impulse by implicating himself in
    the common fate of age, time, death, pain, loss. How do you grow old in
    public? Ironically. It turns out too that he can sing his way painlessly,
    not self-pityingly, through and past the line, The girls all say, 'You're a
    worn out star!' (Summer Days, from his latest album Love and Theft),
    surrendering nothing.
    A person, and a country, can't pretend its way into starting all over
    again. Dylan's self-mockery avoids the mawkish because, as it were, he
    started out broodingly old in his twenties, longing for or pretending
    to a magisterial presence from the start, chronicling failure as an
    achievement, brightly and rhythmically desperate, and always droll about it.
         "I'll die first before I decay"
    The idea of an aging rock star sounds an instant oxymoron. Rock and its
    variants were born to be young, news. Chansoneurs maudits, dark angels of
    song would seem equally unpromising candidates for cultural longevity. They
    were surely not supposed to last long enough to produce grown children and
    retrospectives, or to be heaving themselves onstage into a seventh decade.
    No minstrel of angst would have anticipated growing old in public, still
    Yet in Dylan's case, it makes sense. Perhaps the more precise word to
    describe his younger persona is not old but venerable. It turns out that
    lyrical darkness and deadpan surrealism wear well, and are not
    intrinsically hostile to ironic review or self-renewal. Maybe it is sheer
    luck that he never overdosed from toxic experience. If so, he earned his
    multiple lives.
    Both flawed and blistering, the lifelong presence on the New York stage
    delivers the existential message: still alive, in process, underway. The
    bearer of the defiant voice is with us, is surprising, is unfinished, is no
    more nor less mortal than anyone. Chronicling his inner life, he
    accompanies our own, a rock of sages in a fallen land.
         Not dark yet
    Dylan's artistic standpoint, and one of the key sources of his early
    impact, was a moralism rooted in some core complexities of American
    experience religious, racial, musical yet holding them in balance. His
    most earnest political songs interrogated their times without fully
    surrendering to them, his romantically personal ones challenged as well as
    consoled, his visionary ones warned even in the act of inspiring.
    When Dylan the trickster later cultivated weirdness, taking up residence
    among clowns, seers and paranoids, he always conveyed the sense that his
    life was or could also be ours, seen differently. Making the weird
    commonplace, he compelled us to see that the world had gone wrong yet
    remained marvelous.
    Through all these phases, his imagination careened around frantically,
    assuring us that he'd seen it all, there's really nothing to be surprised
    at or to fear: Down Positively 4th St. and Highway 61, blown by an Idiot
    Wind, always believing there must be some way out of here. From the
    defiance of I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm no more, the menace of The
    senator came down here, showing everyone his gun, the timelessness of
    Businessmen they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth, to the radical
    anger of Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to
    stand naked. Allusions to the piercing texts only preserve their
    crystalline artistry. The accidental gift of Dylan's new work is to
    underscore the continuing vitality of the old.
    But the underscoring is intentional, in part, because Dylan has offered up
    melody as his sacrifice to time. Dylan was always more melodist than he or
    his critics let on. Without music, his words sometimes read like precocious
    ramblings Rimbaud left in the oven too long.
    In recent years, his work suffers when he tries to rejuvenate his oeuvre by
    fiddling with his own melodic and rhythmic achievements. When he sings
    Blowin' in the Wind with a discordant updraft at each line's end, an
    outsider can only believe that he strives to refresh himself. To do so
    would challenge any performer who tours for hundreds of shows as custodian
    of a high-demand repertoire. It'd be harder still when live performances
    must compete with the technical perfections of the studio. The wages of
    success are boredom. What do you do for an encore? Too often Dylan's
    recourse is self-mutilation. The jester trashes his own lines.
    The best to be said for this rewriting is that the master is frolicking. It
    is a kind of modesty that he practices. At times, he rises above past
    excess: his snarl is stylized now, stripped of the meanness, say, of You
    just kind of wasted my precious time. A straight-ahead work like Forever
    Young is one of the few songs that gains from recasting. But mainly,
    erasing his past achievement, Dylan in trying to make himself new doesn't
    surpass himself. Rather, denying himself his melodies and muffling his
    lyrics, he slips away into his own Cheshire presence.
    As Dylan departs the Madison Square Garden stage, only one stop on the
    'never-ending tour' that has become his public life, he leaves behind a
    crowd and a city that, like him, are having to manage the muted joys,
    discoveries and ordeals of a somehow still open future. That this strange,
    flawed angel of our disorder remains, still awed and knowing, alive to
    reality, trying (against the odds) to find something new in himself, is
    small but real consolation as the hard rain continues to fall on Manhattan
    and the world.
    Todd Gitlin is North America editor of openDemocracy.

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