Dylan in the Sixties (1) - George Monteiro

Dylan in the Sixties  (1) - George Monteiro

Dylan in the Sixties
George Monteiro

In December 1965 the New York Times Magazine published an updating article entitled "Public Writer No. 1?'' Its author hoped to account for, among other things, the enormous impact that Bob Dylan'spoetry was having on college students. Presented in evidence were the views of an unnamed Brown University senior. "We don't give a damn about Moses Herzog's angst or Norman Mailer's private fantasies," he began:

We're concerned with things like the threat of nuclear war, the civil-rights movement, and the spreading blight of dishonesty, conformism, and hypocrisy in the United States, especially in Washington, and Bob Dylan is the only American writer dealing with these subjects in a way that makes any sense to us. And, at the same time, as modem poetry, we fed that his songs have a high literary quality. As far as we're concerned, m fact, any one of his songs, like "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," is more interesting to us, both in a literary and a social sense, than an entire vol­ ume of Pulitzer Prize verse by someone like Robert Lowell.

As a once and present teacher of literature at that senior's university, and as a warm and long-time admirer of Robert Lowell's poetry­ Pulitzer Prize or not-and quite conceivably as a teacher at some point of this very Brown senior, I felt a good deal of puzzlement, to say the least.
     It was then that I decided to work at Dylan. Somewhat sys­ tematically I listened to all of Dylan's songs. To my surprise I found that as far as Dylan was concerned there was indeed something going on in his career that did not lend itself to the simplistic ex­ planation then current among those folk purists who repudiated his every overture to rock-and-roll, that a good man had betrayed them by opportunistically selling out. There was, if I understood Dylan'ssongs and read the sequence of his albums accurately, a significant set of identifiable changes in Dylan's career.
     There had been, I felt, a development of temperament and ideas that suggested something more interesting and far more dy­ namic than the demands of the market called for. Listening back, and across, the seven albums then out soon suggested the quite startling fact that Dylan's short public career was already charac­ terized by sharply marked points of reference and by a sequence of phases. Moreover, it became clear that much transformation had already taken place even before Dylan's famous appearance at New­ port in 1965, when he publicly espoused rock-and-roll and for his pains was hooted from the stage by the folk purists dominating the audience-and that these transformations had apparently escaped the notice of most of his admirers at the time. That there had been strong hints of change all along-and that consequently his new sound and the seemingly new content of that music should not have come entirely unexpected-is now evident (granted that hindsight is a superior sort of vision ). "Motorpsycho Nightmare," for example, in rhythm, if not in content, anticipated some of the finest songs in Blonde on Blonde ( 1966). But it did so without rock backing-and suffered as a song, I think, for not having it.
     Yet there were other hints that Dylan's work had never been static, and that Dylan himself was constantly presenting himself in different, evolving guises. In this context, a look at album covers, placed chronologically, is informative. No doubt the covers have been designed with the market in sight, but, answering to market research or not, they provide a series of scenes that speak volumes, about Dylan's changing commercial image, to be sure, but also about a far more intriguing matter, Dylan's changing conception of himself as an artist.
     1962. The cover for Dylan's first album, entitled simply Bob Dylan, serves ostensibly as a simple introduction. He is pictured clutching a guitar (which tells you what kind of a singer he is), and he is clothed in winter coat, sheepskin lining and collar. Here: an innocent out of the West. A rustic, a bumpkin, possibly one of those good country people, who in their simple and unsophisticated way, ask the strong, fundamental questions, so goes folklore, that nobody inthe establishment has the bad taste to ask. On this album the poet sings mainly traditional songs, and songs written by others.
     I963. The cover for his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, an album which contains mostly Dylan's own songs, shows him as a man moving about in the city, moving about aimlessly per­ haps. Having lef t his Huck Finn cap behind with the first album, he is shown walking in a wintry New York street (probably a Village street) . Ill-clothed for the weather, wearing apparently some kind of thin-worn denim trousers, huddled into his jacket, he appears puzzled, sensitive, hurt, vaguely victimized. A young girl hangs on his arm. Her presence completes a romanticized picture of sensitive youth; and the shabby wholesomeness of both figures makes this scene singularly devoid of any sexual innuendo. Huck Finn has disappeared, and the catcher in the rye--Holden Caulfield-has re­ placed him. The girl? Obviously she is Holden's sister Phoebe, even though the liner notes will misinform you by telling you she ' Suze Rotolo, Dylan's girlfriend. The album contains the remarkable song about nuclear disaster and inordinate human suffering, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." For all of its folksong trappings, in· eluding its ballad devices, the song captures and extends the spirit of Salinger's Catcher.
     1964The Times They Are A-Changin'.The cover this time shows Dylan in a workshirt, open at the collar. His snapshot-like portrait has extended to the entire cover, which is, unlike the first two, printed in black and white. The album is largely a mani· festo-Iike collection of protest songs, such songs as the attack on those who wage war "With God on Our Side," and on the killer of Medgar Evers as "Only a Pawn in Their Game." The cover presents Dylan as a 1930's Woody Guthrie figure-I am tempted to say, as an idealized image of Steinbeck's labor organizers out of In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. In this pose, Dylan is the embodi· ment of blue-shirt determination and protest. He's a Huck Finn turned Wobbly-one who doesn't light out, having had enough of civilization. He'll stick in there, we feel. He'll fight.
     1964Another Side of Bob Dylan. This album provides a strong disclaimer to its immediate predecessor. The title proclaims that there is a second side to Dylan, just as there always is another side to a record. Again, a black-and-white cover, but this time the illustrating photograph is not printed so as to take up the entire cover. Dylan has shrunk, so to speak, but Dylan's hair is longer. The photograph is clearly less public, and tending toward the introspective. The songs themselves present almost no social protest of the kind which appears in The Time's They Are A-Changin'. If Dylan's lumpen proletariat pose has largely disappeared, it is equally clear that his determination has not so much abated as it has been rechanneled. Dylan is turning in: the daily protest scene, if not the universal concerns of the human condition, have clearly lost his interest.
     1965. If toughness is still prominent in Another Side, it is no­ tably absent in the remarkable cover-in full color again-for Bring­ ing It All Back Home. For the first time Dylan is shown indoors, in the midst of a curiously traditional decor, one suggesting affluence. Dylan appears with a hoydenish girl in slacks, a girl (we are told that she is Dylan's manager' s wife) who looks remarkably like him. Beside her is a copy of his third album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. Carefully scattered about the room are other signs which recall Dylan's earlier concerns: a copy of Time showing Lyndon Johnson on the cover, a sign for a f allout shelter, a recording by Lotte Lenya. Dylan himself appears foppish, decadent: an Oscar Wilde of the mid-'6o's-his longish curly hair complementing his lavender jewel cuff links. He sits holding, not a guitar, but a decidedly improbable cat. Lettering and background are done, patriotically, in red, white, and blue-wittily calling attention to just which pigeons are pain­ fully coming home to roost.
     Contrast this with the cover for Highway 61 Revisited , also 1965. An inverted Oscar Wilde here: a sorry-faced motorcyclist, a pose which suggests his kinship with the disaffiliated everywhere, but also his membership in such curiously well-organized groups of alienated beings. Dylan here is a latter-day incarnation, not of Jimmy Dean, but of Dean Moriarty, the beat culture hero of Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, a novel that hardly need be read by today's youth, I suspect, for its social types and its message are all too fanilliar to a generation committed to quick mobility and psychedelic trips. But for once the jacket falters. The image on the cover does not keep pace with the best songs on the record and, worse, it fails to give an indication of the originality of this album. For in its most significant songs-particularly "Desolation Row," "The Ballad of a Thin Man," and "Highway 61 Revisited"-Dylan takes on the guise of prophet. And I mean prophet in the way that certain novelists and poets of the last one hundred years have assumed the concerns of the Biblical prophets, and have crossed them in their writings with a sense of the comic and the absurd. I shall have more to say about this later on. First, however, let us take a quick look at three subsequent covers to complete this survey.
     The title Blonde on Blonde (1966) is not borrowed from any song listed on the album, nor is it, so far as I can determine, an in­ sider's expression. It somehow suggests, however, the world of abstract art. The album itself is divided into two separate records packaged in one double cover. The back of this cover contains none of the customary Dylan poetry that graced earlier albums in lieu of discursive liner notes. The poetry is replaced by a series of black­ and-white photographs, mainly of Dylan. The cover itself-the entire double cover-constitutes a color photograph of Dylan, not suitable for framing but clearly a pinu p. He is wearing a long winter scarf, is again bareheaded-bis hair curlier, longer, conventionally wilder than ever before; he stands, hands in pocket, frowning (or pouting) and looking very much like a youthful Beethoven. The entire "classical-music package" of a two-record album, the Beethoven-like posturing, an abstract title-all these ploys suggest that Dylan had again transcended an earlier self. Perhaps. A note­ worthy shift had indeed taken place, but if Dylan and Columbia Records were implying that Dylan had created in this album any­ thing like his Ninth Symphony, then even Dylan's avid admirers would have done well to proceed cautiously.
     John Wesley Harding ( 969) heralded a radical transformation. The figures on the cover are decidedly ethnic and racial. Dylan is back with the folk and the new folk causes marked by society's injustice to the poor and the marginalized. The principal color is gray. The whole thing is faintly ecological.
     The cover for Nashville Skyline (also 1969) marked another change, this one a reversal going straight back to the cover of Dylan's first album. Again a guitar, but the Dylan holding it looks less like an innocent and more like one of the knowing, hat-tipping country folk in a Faulkner novel. The sneer is the smile, though the target of that smile is uncertain.
     Surely such a "reading" of album covers is highly speculative at best, but there is, I hope, a kind of accuracy and a kind of usefulness in my description of them as indicative of the drift, if not in the details, of Dylan's career through the r 96o's. But all this does engage us ina more significant way. I cannot take the time to chart in any detail the shifts and changes in the kinds of songs Dylan has written over the years, but I can make pertinent reference to several songs, which will say something about Dylan's evolution as a "song poet."