Authenticity is a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan Defines Hip for a Generation

9 May
1960s Bob Dylan Embodies Cool

“He has a visionary’s eyeball that could x-ray all that was corrupt and phony, and who knows what he sees when he looks at you.” -Dalton
Image from soundonsound.com


“He has to have the oldest, most authentic songs. He begins a rabid, quasi-spiritual quest for the obscure, the rare, the core sound.” -David Dalton

“This was the Beat ideal—a community of intellectual outsiders. But it was an ideal that the mass bohemianism of the ‘60s would blow up and wreck because, for one thing, it wasn’t going to be a secret too much longer, and it wasn’t the small elite group of insiders anymore. Two, three, years, it would all be gone. And Bob would be one of the major causes of its demise.” -David Dalton

If anyone embodied authenticity or the ephemeral concept of “IT” in the 1960s, it was Bob Dylan. David Dalton shines a light on Dylan’s hipster persona (among his many others) in Who is that Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan. He reveals Dylan as a vehicle for the pop-culturification of the Beat movement (frequently comparing him to Kerouac, both in literary style and lifestyle), and also exposes, yet again, the sheer unsustainability of Beat ideals.

Dylan got his start on the folk circuit, rising through to the upper echelons of Greenwich Village stardom, which, according to Dalton, was sort of an “upside-down hierarchy, with those who were most successful at the bottom” (This is similar to Beat culture, in which academic success made one less authentic). From its urban perch, the rising folk culture seemed to mythologize America’s recent pastoral past, effectively whitewashing it in the process. Says Dalton: “The folk faction was essentially a romantic movement on a quest for a lost, bucolic America, the very America their parents and grandparents had either destroyed or wanted to get the hell out of. […] These folkies romanticized a culture that would have hated them.” Nonetheless, Dylan embraced this ideal with his country-boy stage act and his falsified history as a rambling bumpkin. And though he was quick to leave this scene behind when he sensed it was becoming passé—no longer a source of authenticity—he would continue to draw on mythologized images of American history throughout his career.

On to the Electric Dylan, reviled by fans to the point of booing—yet another myth shattered by Dalton, but one seemingly encouraged by Dylan, who appeared to welcome the boos that followed him after Newport as proof of his hipness. He shed his folk-protest skin as quickly as possible, brushing off a reporter’s question on his musical shift by muttering “That’s all I do is…uh…protest.”

In his art and in his life, Dylan—like the Beats before him and the emerging psychedelic Pranksters that became his contemporaries—was all about pushing things to the limit, searching for “IT” at any cost. Dalton points out that, at their core, protest songs were about finding solutions to a problem, an act that “implied compromise.” It’s hard to imagine Dylan compromising on anything, and that led him down some dangerous roads. Dylan, along with Keith Richards and other hard-living rockers, were expected to drop dead at any moment in the 1960s. Yet, there was an upside to this. “Dying young was proof of authenticity,” Dalton claims. How’s that for unsustainability?

But Dylan did the next best thing to dying; he disappeared in a shroud of mystery after his motorcycle accident in 1966. This “near death” experience led to a shift in Dylan’s music, away from electric psychedelia and more towards classic country, although it certainly gave weight to the apocalyptic, mythological imagery Dylan continued to weave into his songs.

By the time the foreboding, biblical album John Wesley Harding appeared in 1967, the prevailing mood of the counterculture was one of “impending apocalypse,” says Dalton. “The counterculture narcissistically focused on a number of incidents that seemed to confirm that a day of reckoning was at hand—when actually what was about to end was just our youth.” In one of Dalton’s more astute observations, he again reveals the inevitability of the counterculture’s demise. When the 1970s rolled around and, beyond all logic, the world still continued to exist, communes became cults, acid tests became heroin binges, and peaceful protests became Kent State.

And then came Nashville Skyline. 1969: the year that followed the deaths of MLK, RFK, and thousands of American soldiers, and all the while Dylan was singing “Lay, Lady, Lay”? Dalton asserts that Nashville Skyline embodied “the same complacent middle-class values [Dylan had] taught us to suspect.” Amusingly, Dalton claims that images of the “beaming, howdy-neighbor Bob” on the album’s cover were used to “calm protesters and to stop demonstrations from becoming violent.”

Bob Dylan Nashville Skyline Album Cover

“Howdy, neighbor!”
Image from amiright.com

Kent_State_massacre

Didn’t work.
Image from wikipedia.com

By 1969, many of the counterculture’s heroes had died, “sold out,” or simply abandoned them, like their one-time Messiah, Bob. It was out of this malaise that Hunter S. Thompson crawled with all his fear and loathing.

Electric Bob, Hipster Bob, Bob of Ultimate Cool…this incarnation of Dylan hardly lasted three years, helping to prove the ever-shifting, unsustainable nature of authenticity. And yet this is the most iconic Dylan, the images from these years far outweighing any other period in his career in the common zeitgeist. But Bob moved on, continuing to make music and art for more than 30 years after the Beat and psychedelic movements met their end. How did he do it?

“Dylan became such an obsession for the counterculture because he so immaculately embodied its newly hatched mythologies: From folk music he brought the authenticity of a crusade, from rock the idea of revolutionary momentum that could change the world, and from the Beats the fusion of drugs and attitude that made hipness seem like an enlightened state of being.”

Strategic appropriation has always been Dylan’s thing. He takes what he needs from one subculture, or music genre, or fellow artist, and he moves on. He never stops moving. He’s 71 now, and he’s practically been touring nonstop for the better part of two decades. He released his 35th album last year. Dalton accuses Dylan of having a “synthetic personality,” but he doesn’t mean it as a bad thing. “It’s the chameleon nature of the American hero,” he says, “the confidence man, the hustler. […] Anyone looking for a Grand Unifying Theory of Bob is just going to have to keep looking.”

Dylan is an interesting case study in authenticity precisely because he seems to have found “IT”. He’s sang “IT”, wrote “IT”, scrawled “IT” into his liner notes, and he’s lived to tell the tale. Or, rather, he’s lived to give us glimpses of the tale as he winks and nods and dons ridiculous wigs in Christmas music videos (this continues to blow my mind).

I’ll be seeing the Great Bob himself this summer in a concert with Wilco, and I’m not even going to care if he sounds like shit. I’m just going so that I can see this living legend in the flesh and feel the hipness just wash over me.

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4 Responses to “Authenticity is a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan Defines Hip for a Generation”

  1. Paul May 15, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Great stuff! More! More!

  2. oldblue125 July 29, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Authenticity? What is that in a country whose great myth is concerned with the chance to change your identity and your circumstances? What is it when you are dealing with an artist who typifies the literary figure of the prankster? When the folk are electrified shouldn’t folk music be as well? Wasn’t Dylan himself IT itself (living metaphors though is a subject for another discussion along with life actors)

    just a few things: 1968 was when RFK and MLK were killed; 1969 is when Nashville Skyline came out (and why shouldn’t bob be able to sing a little country; he listened to a lot of it as a kid. if it didn’t meet people’s expectations too bad)

    post accident bob went down in the basement to reconfigure folk music again; he didn’t immediately jump to biblical (a misnomer) or country

    let me know if you want to discuss any of this further

    • emkaydoubleyou July 29, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Authenticity is such a tricky concept precisely because its definition is always changing, which is why I believe the ever-shifting Bob so easily became an icon of authenticity.

      You’re absolutely right; I got the dates from for RFK’s and MLK’s deaths wrong. What I meant to say is that in 1969, the country was still reeling from those deaths, along with the others that marked the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s.

      I found it interesting that Dalton’s book portrayed the betrayal some of Dylan’s fans felt during his musical shift of the late 1960s, the time of all this cultural upheaval. I myself appreciate Nashville Skyline and the other works he recorded around this time (although I must admit I have a hard time getting into the Basement Tapes where, as you say, he “reconfigured folk music.” I think I appreciate what came after that reconfiguration more than the process of it). There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with his move into country music–it was just ironic that fans who loved him for how he pushed boundaries were so quick to dismiss him when he kept pushing. (BTW the “biblical” nature of John Wesley Harding was referring to the nature of his imagery, not necessarily saying his music was explicitly Christian at this point. Of course biblical themes appeared throughout Dylan’s work in the 1960s, but seemed to intensify as he moved towards Christianity.)

      But despite the fans who dismissed his musical shifts, Bob has continued to evolve his career and add to his enormous body of work. I believe it is shifting identity that allowed him to break through all those musical barriers. To my ear, the music he makes now is much more rooted in the 1940s and 50s, which is likely due to his musical influences growing up. I wasn’t alive in the 1960s or 70s, so it’s difficult for me to say how I would have felt about Bob’s music back then. Being so many years removed from it, however, grants a whole new perspective, allowing me to view his career as a progression and gain a whole new appreciation for music I didn’t start listening to until 2003.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my blog! I wonder, have you read Dalton’s biography? If so, what did you think?

      • oldblue125 July 29, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

        more later — at work

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