This week in Advancement, Jason Hartley mounts a spirited defense of Bob Dylan at 70.
Bob Dylan turns 70 today, so Ron Rosenbaum decided to pen a tedious, poorly reasoned, and badly written essay insulting the singer and his biggest fans as a “present.” Rosenbaum’s main point is that fans who worship Dylan are harming his legacy and diminishing “The Bob’s genuine achievements by putting everything he’s done on the same transcendentally elevated plane.” That makes some sense, but Rosenbaum appoints himself the arbiter of what is actually elevated and what is not. To that I say, fuck you.
Still, that’s not the part that I found the most angering. After all, many critics feel that their judgment is infallible and anyone who disagrees with them is obviously foolish or delusional. What really gets me is that Rosenbaum uses the recent “controversy” about Dylan’s set list for his shows in China to show how poorly Dylan’s fans serve him.
Rather than just assign my own suspicions to people who may or may not exist—a practice Rosenbaum seems to endorse—I will quote his arguments about the China flap as well as his weird, show-offy digressions, and his pointless meditation on sarcasm vs. irony.
“The book and blog [worshippers], with few exceptions, cumulatively give one the impression of a cult of scriveners all eager for a few favors from the Dylan Industrial Complex—a liner-notes commission here, a super-impressive title (Historian in Residence at the official [emphasis his] Bob Dylan website) there.”
There are unofficial Dylan websites, so you need to label the official one appropriately so people will know that it is approved.
“The odes that are produced by this mindset do more harm to Dylan’s stature—make him seem merely the object of the worship of deluded fanboys, the idol of a not very discerning cult. Like the cultists who were upset at my Billy Joel put-down (still get hate mail; and fan mail, too.), the [fans] put off many from his music altogether by making it seem some hermetic little boys club populated by Steve Buscemi Ghost World-types where you have to know which songs on “Blood on the Tracks” were recorded in New York and which in Minnesota to get into the clubhouse.”
First of all: It’s not exactly a bold move to trash Billy Joel. But on to the next point, “Blood on the Tracks” is one of Dylan’s most famous albums, and the story of its recording is well known. I suppose it is possible that people’s knowledge of the details might put someone off of Dylan’s music but Rosenbaum doesn’t give any examples of this actually happening. And is Dylan hurting for fans?
On to China:
“Dylan was invited to play Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong this year so long, Reuters reported, citing an official Chinese source, as he performed with ‘approved content.’ The widespread impression was that Dylan allowed the Chinese to vet his set list presumably for songs that might refer to, if not protest, the vicious crackdown on dissidents that was going on during the time Dylan played the People’s Republic.”
Well, if it came from an official Chinese source it must be true. However, Dylan made his own statement about all this, saying that he just sent them the set lists from the last three months, which Rosenbaum dismisses without really addressing. He does, however, have some remarks about the Dylan worshippers:
“Curiously, none of the [ardent fans] suggested Dylan follow the courageous example of Björk, who capped her 2008 Chinese concert by crying out ‘Tibet! Tibet!’” We all know the result of that act: immediate religious freedom for Tibetans, a heartfelt apology from all the members of the Chinese ruling class, and the Pope was so inspired that he had brunch with Sinead O’Connor to discuss her views on the Catholic Church’s complicity in the abuse of children.
Rosenbaum then credits Maureen O’Dowd for bringing Dylan’s Chinese adventure to light: “Still, in all likelihood nobody would have paid much attention to Dylan’s Chinese adventure, except for a scathing column by Maureen Dowd in the Sunday New York Times calling Dylan a ‘sell out’ for kowtowing to the Chinese Stasi in the wake of Ai Weiwei’s arrest.”
Dowd called for Dylan to play “Masters of War” and “Hurricane,” to which his fans rightly responded that he hasn’t played those songs for years, so why would he start playing them now? Rosenbaum says that this was the fans turning “Dylan in China from an argument about repression, torture, and ‘disappearances’ of dissidents, and how an artist, how any human should react to it, into an inside-baseball Dylanological contretemps designed to show off their superior knowledge of Dylan’s set lists in his recent concerts.”
If Dowd specifically said what songs he should sing, it seems okay to mention that he never sings those songs anymore. What’s more, the songs he did do are actually quite subversive (see Sean Wilentz), so instead of yelling anything at the end of the show like the courageous Björk, he embedded his message throughout the concert. This is not satisfactory to Rosenbaum, who thinks the real question is not what Dylan played during the shows but whether he should have played them at all. Apparently his view is that Icelandic pixies are allowed to entertain the Chinese (as long as they shout something), but not the Voice of a Generation.
Rosenbaum goes on: “[The] second line of defense was—seriously—that if his Chinese government hosts paid close attention and felt the true existentially subversive power of the songs Dylan actually sung, it would have rocked their world. Why the Great Wall of China would probably have crumbled into dust. Just from the force of his Truth, dudes. Gee, maybe it has! Has anyone checked the Wall lately? Is it still there?”
Of course it’s not still there! Björk had it torn down! And here is a weird aside tacked on to an inside-baseball reference to Dylan’s motorcycle accident: “All good [fans] know that Dylan’s mysterious 1966 motorcycle accident changed the course of his life and his art, but the details, the seriousness, the after effects, have been obscured by mystery and unfounded theories. I now think I know the truth: the words of The Second Doctor, as I’ve come to call this shadowy now-dead figure. Something I learned about, curiously enough, while attending the J. Anthony Lukas Prize award ceremony at Columbia J-school earlier this month, something confided to me by one of the many ace investigative reporters there, so I tend to trust it.”
What are the words of The Second Doctor? Was the accident faked? Worse than we thought? Is this proving some kind of point about Dylan’s honesty? Or is it just Rosenbaum showing us how important he is? I really have no idea what this means.
Finally, Rosenbaum takes issue with the fans’ asserting that Dylan was never really a protest singer anyway: “And then they twisted themselves into pretzel-like contradictions: Dylan was never really a protest singer anyway; he only faked being one early in his career to get a leg up the ladder of fame from the folkies then fashionable when he arrived in New York at the beginning of the ’60s. So he shouldn’t have been expected to do anything confrontational in China; he was, like, above mundane political considerations.”
Note superfluous “like” to show how dumb these people are.
“But if Dylan was never really a protest singer, how can you claim at the same time that his songs, whatever he played, had the effect of a powerful protest on the Chinese torturers?” Because the songs that are not considered protest songs are more powerful because their message is less strident. This is not so hard to understand.
Anyway, then he gets off of the China bit to teach us all about the difference between irony and sarcasm, the latter of which he feels is superior to the former. Apparently, sarcasm is earnest as opposed to merely detached and is characterized by an attitude that can be summarized as “yeah, right.” Rosenbaum feels that Dylan helped embed that attitude into the consciousness of our culture. Also it is sarcasm, he contends, that made many of Dylan’s love songs great. I’m not sure what any of this has to do with the supposed fanboy legacy tarnishing the article is supposed to be about, but Rosenbaum felt this insight was too important to leave out. (Not sure if I’m being ironic or sarcastic here.)
He does get back to the fanboys, though, complaining that they view him, erroneously, as a “weirder Pete Seeger, a figure in a vast Thomas Hart Benton landscape rather than the idiosyncratic genius he is.” The problem with that view, he explains patiently, is that Dylan is “more accurately located in the urban ‘Black Humor’ movement of the late ’50s and early ’60s: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller and Catch-22, Terry Southern and the Dr. Strangelove script, Burroughs, Mailer.” I would say that he is located in no movement, which is why he is an idiosyncratic genius.
Finally, after 3,000 words or so of this, he finally gets to an anecdote about himself:
“…It was in a sixth-floor garret in the Village—I was oversharing my sadness. I did it by quoting one of Dylan’s most beautiful and overlooked songs of love and loss: ‘I Threw It All Away.’ ‘I must have been mad/ I never knew what I had/ Until I threw it all away.’ It just so happened that a poetically lovely young woman in a brown velveteen mini shift (hey, there are some details that linger in your memory) had been curled up on a couch taking note of this with a kind of knowing smile (she was onto my self-romanticizing game, yet in a forgiving way), and after I repeated ‘I threw it all away’ one more time she spoke up and said, ‘Yeah, but don’t think twice, it’s all right.’ We ended up living together the next three years. I look back on it now as ‘Love at First Cite.’”
My condolences to the poetically lovely young woman.
For more on Advancement, check out Jason’s book The Advanced Genius Theory.