Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.
The words of America’s national bard came to me as I read for the first time this very morning Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, written by Bob Dylan in honour of his idol Woody Guthrie, who at the time was dying from Huntington’s disease.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, wrote Walt Whitman, setting song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. Dylan was to become the young voice of an older but not wiser nation that seemed very much like it was not busy being born, but, rather, under the weight of its myriad contradictions – of the old and the new, the youth and their elders, of war and peace, black and white. Dylan heard the his country’s song in the turbulent, transformed and transforming sixties declaiming that he’d know my song well before I start singing.
In 1855, when Whitman published his first incarnation of Leaves of Grass, no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of this self- proclaimed “American”. And the same could be said of the young Bob Dylan when he broke out from the pack that had gathered in the folk cafés and clubs of New York City in the early years of the nineteen sixties, an enigmatic poetic figure whose songs spotlighted the chaos and division that have long defined what it meant to be an American. It is no wonder that in later years, Dylan would acknowledge his debt to Whitman in I Contain Multitudes – unoriginal and some would argue, pretentious, but then Bob has always borrowed, be it from the Anthology of American Folk Music, the British folk tradition, the avant guard poets of Europe, and the great books of the western literary canon.
Dylan read his poem for Woody aloud once only, reciting it at New York City’s Town Hall on April 12th 1963.
Introducing the poem, he told the audience he’d been asked to “write something about Woody … what does Woody Guthrie mean to you in twenty-five words,” for an upcoming book on the icon left wing singer-songwriter. He explained that he “couldn’t do it – I wrote out five pages, and, I have it here, have it here by accident, actually.” What followed was not a simple eulogy, but a lengthy, 1705 word stream of consciousness treatise on the importance of hope.
Dylan sets the scene by describing the stresses and strains of everyday life and challenging choices we have to make as we navigate it. He describes how these can cause us to feel alone, lost, and without direction. He then explains the need for hope and how we need something to give our lives meaning. He concludes by suggesting that, for him, Woody Guthrie is as much a source of hope and beauty in the world as God or religion.
Reading it for the first time ever this morning, I could hear words, lines and themes from songs that were yet to be written, songs that have followed me down these past sixty years, from those early albums of anger and introspection, protest and perception, through to My Rough And Rowdy Ways.
The recitation was recorded, but was not officially released until 1991, on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991, after circulating on bootleg releases for years. The poem is published in full below. The images in the video that follows it are clichéd and distracting; just shut your eyes and listen to the words. I prefer just reading and recalling all those uncounted ballads, songs and snatches and the improbable ‘echoes’ of things to come. I have added a gallery of favourite pictures of the man himself. Enjoy.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom Maya Angelou
زن زندگی آزادی Zan zandaky āzādy Women freedom life
In our relatively comfortable, free and still democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Maya Angelous’s poem The caged bird sings of freedom (above) and Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:
Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying, Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.
The courage of the of the Iranian protesters, and particularly the woman and girls who have been the vanguard of this unprecedented intifada cannot be exaggerated. For brave they are indeed. Having endured long years of a brutal and vengeful, corrupt and misogynistic theocratic regime and its security and paramilitary enforcers, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions.
Several weeks, the nationwide protests that followed the murder in custody of a young woman arrested by the morality police after wearing her hijab inappropriately, and other young women and also, now, young men, who, officially, have died at their own hand or of pre-existing causes, have mobilized Iranians of all ethnicities, classes, ages and genders. And the security state us reacted predictably, red in tooth and claw. There is torture and death actual and awaiting on the streets of villages, towns and cities throughout the country, and the public trials with their black-garbed and turbaned hanging judges are in place and ready to protect the nation and the revolution in the name of Allah and the legacy of the canonised grey and dour uber-mullah Ayatollah Khomeini.
The perseverance and nihilistic exuberance of the Iranian street has reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically Egyptian president-for-life Hosni Mubarak thirteen years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure?
Fast forward to the present, and we examine why the Islamic Republic’s sclerotic theocratic regime is so afraid of another song of revolution, the crowd sourced protest anthem, Baraya, which has become a thorn in the side of the government in Tehran.
Baraye, translated as “because of …” or “for …”,the anthem of Iran’s Woman, Life, Liberty protest movement grew organically from a Twitter hashtag trend in which Iranians expressed their uncountable discontents and their commitment to the protests. It continues to unite Iranians in their opposition to the rules, restriction nd repression of Islamic Republic weeks after it wasfirst releasedonline on an international and social media that the authorities have tried and failed to silence. To paraphrase Canadian songwriter and activist for injustice and the environment in his song Santiago Dawn (see below) to keep millions down “takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve”.
Bareya’s lyrics were created by the Iranians themselves and gathered and set to music , recorded, sung and shared by a young Iranian singer, Shervin Hajipour. Crazy brave, perhaps for predictably, he was detained by security operatives soon after he posted it on his Instagram page and forced to remove it from his feed. But it had already attracted millions of views worldwide and continued to be shared and shared and shared, and it has now been played and performed the world over as people across the glob empathize, identify with, and add to the images verbalised and the emotions these engender. We all have stories to relate of oppression and exclusion, of the abuse of power and privilege and the pervasiveness of prejudice and discrimination. To quote Bruce Cockburn once more about an earlier resistance, “see them matching home, see them rising like grass through cement in the Santiago dawn”.
Baraja gives voice to the voiceless – as Bob Dylan sang in another century, in comparatively straightened times:
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
The Recording Academy, which hosts the annual Grammy Awards, announcedthat in its new merit category for best song for social change, more than 80% of nominations were for Baraye. Below is a video of the world-famous band Cold Play singing the song in Buenos Aires with Iranian actor Goldshifte Farahani.
The genesis of Baraya mirrors the organizational structure of the protests themselves insofar as like these, it is networked and leaderless, Ironically, however, David Patrikarakos editor of thee-zine Unherd wrote recently, this lack of leadership portends the protests’ doom:
“No leader has yet emerged. Instead, the protests are organised by different people or groups in different cities and towns on an almost ad hoc basis.The truth is that if the mullahs were to collapse tomorrow, there are no signs that a democratic movement would sweep to power …It is far more likely that the security state — led by the Revolutionary Guard Corps — would step into the void and make apparent what is already largely a fact: that Iran is no longer a clerical state but is now ruled by a Praetorian Guard …
… In 1979, Iranians held up images of Khomeini. In 2022, they tear them down. They know they want the regime gone but they have no one to hold up in its place. For a revolution to succeed, it’s not enough to be against someone; you have to be for someone else. It’s not enough that Khamenei loses. Someone else must win. Until that time, the mullahs will continue to cling on as murderously and barbarously as they always have, and Iranians will continue to die. For years Palestinians would say they needed a Saladin. They were wrong. What they need is a Ben Gurion. What the Iranian revolutionaries need now more than anything else is a Khomeini. Until that happens, this will only ever be half a revolution”.
At this moment in time, the outcome of that revolution hangs in the balance. The passion of the people for a better world is once again going up against the iron fist of the security state. Sadly, history past and present, in Iran and elsewhere, has shown us that when an irresistible force comes up against an immovable object, no matter how popular, righteous and justified that force may be, the immovable object invariably wins.
Meanwhile, hope springs eternal …
Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.
In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.
Sawt al Huriya
Baraya … Because of
Because of dancing in the street
Because of fear while kissing
Because of my sister, your sister, our sister
Because of changing rotten minds
Because of shame for moneyless
Because of yearning for an ordinary life
Because of the scavenger kid and his dreams
Because of a command economy
Because of air pollution
Because of ‘Vali Asr’ Avenue, and its dying trees
Because of a cheetah (Pirouz) that may go extinct
Because of innocent, outlawed dogs
Because of the incessant crying
For the image to repeat this moment
Because of the smiling face
For students, for the future
Because of students, for the future
Because of this forced paradise
Because of the imprisoned elites
Because of Afghan kids
Because of all (Because of…) non-repetitive
Because of all these empty slogans
Because of the rubble of fake houses
Because of the feeling of peace
Because of the sun after a long night
Because of the nerve pills and insomnia
Because of man, country, rebuilding
Because of a girl who wished she was a boy
Because of woman, life, freedom
Demonstrators sing “Baraye” while holding their phone lights high during a march in support of protests in Iran. Allison Bailey, Reuters. 26th October 2021
“Baraye,” the anthem of Iran’s “Woman, Life, Liberty” protest movement—a song woven together entirely from a Twitter hashtag trend in which Iranians express their investment in the current protests—continues to unite Iranians in their opposition to the Islamic Republic several weeks after it was first releasedonline.
For Iranians in Iran but also for the millions in the diaspora, this is the song of a generation, perfectly expressing this political moment and all that is at stake.
For dancing in the alleyways Because of the fear you feel when kissing For my sister, your sister, our sisters To change the minds that have rotted away Because of shame, because of being broke Because of yearning for an ordinary life
What makes this moment different from previous periods of protest is that the wall of acquiescence and pretense that maintained the state’s authority in the public realm has been torn down on a scale not seen since the 1979 revolution. In its recounting of all the painful grievances, “Baraye,” which translates in English to “for” or “because of,” signals the end of patience with the status quo and opens vistas onto a new future with a vocal crescendo that culminates in the word “freedom.”
The song reveals the simple, ordinary nature of the things that Iranians are aching for, asking for, and even dying for. It is radical in revealing on a national level the cruelty of a system that denies such basic demands—exposing the devastating conditions Iranians face under the current regime.
“Baraye” creates national intimacy by citing very specific events that all Iranians have suffered through together, in a palimpsest of collective traumas.
If “Baraye” reflects a different, perhaps unprecedented mood on a national level, it also mirrors the organizational structure of this recent protest movement. If it is networked and leaderless, so is the song. The lyrics were written by Iranians at large and merely set to music and vocalized by the young up-and-coming singer Shervin Hajipour. This explains why security forces detained Hajipour a couple of days after he posted it on his Instagram page, where it had already accrued millions of views. The regime has tried for years to push the apparent and already real aspects of people’s lives out of the public sphere.
On social media, Iranians have created a life that more closely mirrors their inner selves—replete with harsh criticism of leading clerics including Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; female solo vocalists who are otherwise banned singing at the top of their lungs; and the exhibition of private lives that are anything but a reflection of the state’s projected pious paradise. Still, the state has sought to maintain a semblance of its ideology and control in actual public spaces and its media.
“Baraye” has broken that violently imposed wall between the state’s enforced reality and people’s real lives. It forced into the open, in the face of authority, all that people have known for long but were not supposed to express openly on such a national dimension.
For the sake of a laughing face For schoolkids, for the future Because of this mandatory paradise For imprisoned intellectuals
Since its release, the song has become the single most covered protest song in Iran’s history. Within a few short weeks after Hajipour composed the music for it, musicians across Iran and beyond its borders have sung it verbatim in their own voices, translated it, and sung it in other languages—and even universalized the lyrics for a more global audience.
There have now been many interpretive dance performances to it all over the world, and it is regularly blared from cars and balconies and open windows across Iranian cities and towns. Malala Yousafzai, the girls’ education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recently sent a video message of solidarity to Iranian women, with the track playing in the background.
Last week, the Iranian rapper Hichkas released a militant hip-hop trackreferencing “Baraye” through the more casual rap lingo “vase,” enumerating his reasons, starting with “vase Mahsa” (for Mahsa Jina Amini, whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked the protests) and ending with “for a good day,” in a nod to his own 2009 Green Movement protest song.
Mahsa Amini Protest in Iran
Protesters gather in London on Oct. 1 in solidarity with people protesting across Iran.
Indeed, the expressed concerns wrapped up in the short tweets shown in Hajipour’s video, and in the #Mahsa_Amini hashtag itself, are quite universal—the precarious condition of the planet, drastic inequalities, the desire for a peaceful life—which is why the song has become resonant with so many people around the world as well.
For the garbage-picking kid and her dreams Because of this command economy Because of this polluted air … For a feeling of peace For the sun after long nights
At the same time, “Baraye” creates national intimacy by citing very specific events that all Iranians have suffered through together, in a palimpsest of collective traumas. Hajipour sings “For the image of this moment repeating again,” drawn from a tweet with a photo of Hamed Esmaeilion and his young daughter relaxing together on a couch reading newspapers. (His wife and 9-year-old daughter were killed when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner leaving Tehran in January 2020, and Esmaeilion has become the face of the grief affecting all those who lost loved ones in the crash.)
This line resonates with Iranians because so many families have been torn apart by the country’s massive brain drain, caused by a closed and corrupt economy that offers few opportunities.
In other lines, Hajipour sings sarcastically “Because of this mandatory paradise,” referring to the theocratic state’s imposed restrictions, justified in the name of achieving an Islamic utopia.
In yet another, he sings of “houses in rubble,” pointing to collapsing buildings caused by the rampant nepotism and corruption that shield state-connected builders from transparency on safety measures. In another, he sings of the “imprisoned intellectuals,” in a nod not just to the hundreds of journalists, human rights lawyers, and filmmakers but even award-winning university students who have been locked up.
The chorus arising from hundreds of tweets is clear: This is a regime that seems to be against life itself, punishing dancing, kissing, and smiling faces.
The song’s singular overnight success is not a small achievement given the long, rich history of protest songs in Iran. Already at the time of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in 1906, poets created songs about the spilled blood of the youth who agitated for representative government and, not long after, about the Morning Bird breaking the cage of oppression, which many decades later became one of the most intoned protest songs in post-revolutionary Iran.
The trajectory of Iran’s musical history clearly exhibited a century-long struggle for freedom and justice, not yet realized.
Although “Baraye” and other songs of the current protest movement continue this strong tradition, they break with the post-revolutionary legacy on one key point: They no longer call for reforms.
At the time of the last major convulsions in 2009, many activists and musicians of the Green Movement called forth songs from the 1979 revolution to stake a claim to the revolution’s original yet unattained promises. People wore headscarves and wristbands in the green of Imam Hussain and went to their rooftops to shout “Allahu akbar” to invoke God’s help against a corrupt, earthly power.
But this time around, there are no religious signifiers or any demands for reforms. If classical songs are performed, they are not the icon Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s conciliatory song Language of Fire in 2009, when Iranians were still agitating for reforms from within, but his militant 1979 song Night Traveler, (also known as “Give Me My Gun”) in which he calls “sitting in silence” a sin and asks for his gun so he can join the struggle. One of Shajarian’s masterful female protégés posted the song with the hashtag #Mahsa_Aminiand swapped “the brother” out of the verses to sing “The sister is an adolescent, the sister is drowning in blood,” in recognition of the teenage girls who have given their lives in the protests.
The state security system instantly understood the significance of “Baraye” as a protest song. Hajipour was forced to take it off his Instagram account; however, not only has his song already been shared widely by other accounts and on other platforms, but the sentiments behind the lyrics are within the millions of people who wrote them.
The chants of “Death to the Dictator” have reverberated from the streets to the universities, from oil refineries to urban rooftops, and from bazaars to school courtyards. And so have the haunting calls for freedom repeatedly intoned at the end of “Baraye,” pouring forth from every corner of the actual and virtual Iranian public sphere.
That song’s reality can no longer be repressed and hidden by force.
Song lyrics in this article are based in part on Zuzanna Olszewska’s translations.
Nahid Siamdoust is an assistant professor of Middle East and Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran.
Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Recently, I’ve been enjoying very much the Definitely Dylanpodcasts produced and narrated by broadcaster Laura Tenschert, a board member at the Institute of Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma (and yes, you’ve read it right – the Bobster is now a legitimate focus for the academy). With an enchanting Celtic lilt, she brings a fresh, and indeed very original perspective in her exploration of Dylan’s work. Listen, do!
This week, the New York Review of Books published an essay by one of Laura’s Institute colleagues, addressing Bob Dylan’s lyrical narratives of American history. Across the six decades of his career, Bob Dylan has mined America’s past for images, characters, and events that speak to the nation’s turbulent present. And Sean Wilenz discusses in some detail the chronological development of Dylan’s historical songs from With God on Our Side, to Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, to Blind Willie McTell, to Tempest, and the to the history overload of his latest album of original songs Rough and Rowdy Ways, and most specifically in Murder Most Foul. But what caught my attention, was Cross the Green Mountain.
Now, I’ve been tangled up in Bob Dylan for near on sixty years. Neither a fanatic nor a completist, I bob (yes, I know – bad pun!) out and back in. And sometimes I miss stuff. I missed Blind Willie McTelI, and it is now one of my Dylan favourites. I missed Love and Theft, but caught up with great pleasure – Mississippi is a gem! And I deliberately ignored his take on The Great American Songbook. Diana Krall does it better and she’s also a hot pianist and gorgeous.
And I missed Cross the Green Mountain, which he wrote for the soundtrack of Ted Turner’s American Civil War film Gods and Generals. Though based on a successful book, the film sank without trace. Ted was a Civil War aficionado – he joined the serried ranks of Civil War recreationalists in the epic, hours-long Gettysburg – in the forlorn hope that was Pickett’s Charge, the denouement of that harrowing two day battle. Bob’s song ended up in one of his many Bootleg releases. Here is a truncated version featuring footage from Turner’s film. You can listen to the the complete song together wit Sean’s essay, below.
It is a remarkable song, drawing on a multitude of theological, literary, and historical sources. Sonic ally, it seems to me to reflect the mood and ambiance of the 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, and specifically It’s Not Dark Yet, and also, 2001’s Love and Theft. A blog called Waxing Lyrical describes it thus.
“Cross the Green Mountain is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.
“Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song”.
And he concludes his review of Bob Dylan as a historian thus:
“It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.”
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there
It’s a gloomy conclusion. For many, however, the glass is half full rather than half empty. As Paul Simon sang In American Tune, “we come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune”. But he also added: “you can’t be forever blessed”.
The United States of America is more than North and South, Red and Blue. There are probably more than two Americas: North, South, Black, White, East and West Coast, and the Mid West; the heirs of the Mid 19th Century Know Nothings, nativists and immigrants, and indigenous, and more. It is the country of Trump and his carpetbaggers and of the tele-evangelists, the bitter and twisted, revanchist and retro America, the dangerously blinkered and overconfident America driven by its creation myths of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. But it is also, the America of Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Quad compadres. It is Walt Whitman’s America and the America of Herman Melville and John Steinbeck. It is the America of Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. It is Leonard Bernstein’s America, Paul Simon’s America, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s America.
As Leonard Cohen said, America is “the cradle of the best and the worst”.
But outsiders do indeed look at America today and shake their heads in wonder.
I have prayed for America I was made for America It’s in my blood and in my bones By the dawn’s early light By all I know is right We’re going to reap what we have sown
Jackson Brown, from Lives in The Balance
Both the NYRB and Waxing Lyrical articles are republished in fill below.
This essay is adapted from a keynote lecture delivered at a conference to honor Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday, “Dylan @ 80,” convened by the Bob Dylan Institute at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 24, 2021.
Bob Dylan performing at a SNCC voter registration drive, Mississippi, 1963
Two American presidents, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, bite the dust on Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s latest record (his thirty-ninth studio album, released last year), and a third, Harry S. Truman, pops up on the next-to-last track, on Mystery Street off Mallory Square in Key West, where Truman had his winter White House. Elsewhere on the album, we cross the Rubicon with Julius Caesar; and on the beautiful song “Mother of Muses,” three Union senior officers from the Civil War as well as two great commanders from World War II (one American, one Soviet), clear the way for Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr. This is not the same phenomenon as the appearance of Ma Rainey and Beethoven, emblems as much as people, in “Tombstone Blues” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan brings a different kind of history to bear on this album, though hardly for the first time in his writing. Mystery Street doesn’t actually exist—it’s the one spot in the Key West song that’s imagined—but it is at the center of everything in that liminal paradise, just on Dylan’s horizon line. Once you get to the Mystery, it seems, you’ll find History dwelling there.
This in itself is highly unusual, as few songwriters if any have exhibited Dylan’s historical knowledge, let alone his historical consciousness. In Dylan’s case, though, history is only one branch of knowledge and creativity that absorbs him: whether it’s a Juvenal satire or a picture at an exhibition or a recording of Robert Johnson, Dylan responds by breaking things down, trying to understand how they work and what makes them different from everything else. As the critic Greil Marcus recently noted, it’s helpful to think of Dylan as a scholar, as well as craftsman. Do so and we might better understand how his art works.
But what difference does history—and more specifically, American history—make to Dylan’s work? Dylan has long populated his songs with historical characters, as well as characters from the territory where history shades into legend, and his work is never too far from the larger American mythos emanating from its rough and rowdy past, with its gamblers, prophets, false prophets, and outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lenny Bruce. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Dylan writes, convincingly, of reading deeply in history books once he’d reached Greenwich Village, and of how figures such as the antislavery and civil rights congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had “a clubfoot like Byron,” made a deep and lasting impression on him.
Dylan has also often seemed to depart from the mental clatter of the present, by living according to a time-warped calendar, in which the Galveston flood or the great Mississippi flood or the sinking of the Titanic have only just happened. Long ago, he has said, he discovered in folk songs a parallel universe of old-fashioned virtues and actions; and in time, that universe became real, so that if someone asked what was happening, the answer was (to take another assassination) that President Garfield had been shot down and there was nothing anybody could do, just as Bascom Lamar Lunsford sang it. “All of this was current, played out and in the open,” Dylan writes, of his Village days. “This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.” It’s hard to listen to the last two decades of Dylan’s compositions especially and not hear him living in some version of that time warp and pulling his listeners into it, too.
How does he go about it? Well, for one thing, he studies. For a historian, it was fascinating, even thrilling to read, in Dylan’s memoir, of the young rising artist’s visiting the New York Public Library and researching in American newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm to help calm his mind. Of course, it may never have happened: although I can attest to the book’s spiritual accuracy about the Village in the early Sixties, the author of Chronicles also fabricates, which tells you something about Dylan and his relationship with history. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain whether he really first encountered Thaddeus Stevens in the early Sixties, when most historians portrayed Stevens as a deformed, vindictive radical, or if he only discovered him later.)
Still, Dylan builds his fantasies from facts, and it was exciting to read of his carefully studying primary historical sources, as assuredly he does. Such was the routine until the Internet made microfilm largely obsolete—and the thought of an ambitious Bob Dylan’s seeking inspiration by threading one of those strips of film into one of those plastic or metal reels on one of those archaic machines, then turning a knob or pressing a lever, trying to keep everything in focus, just as we once did, felt like a kind of validation of his work and, I suppose, of mine. That Dylan remains fascinated with documents from the nineteenth century was affirmed recently by the historian Douglas Brinkley, reporting on Dylan’s research into the details of the gruesome Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.
What Dylan takes from the past obviously isn’t the same as what the average historian does; the differences and the similarities are equally important. Dylan is no stickler for the kind of factual accuracy that the historian’s craft demands but that the songwriter’s safely ignores. When someone asked E. L. Doctorow if Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met, as they do in his novel Ragtime, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the spirit Dylan works into his songs.
“A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he told an interviewer in 2012. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” Yet to discover and express that kind of truth requires knowing as much as you can about what actually happened, as much as any historian might hope to. This is surely the reason, I imagine, why Dylan pressed Brinkley for all that he knows about what happened at Sand Creek (which turns out to have been be much less than Dylan had already learned from his studies.).
A trained historian commonly dives into sources with a particular topic or line of narrative in mind and can block out the rest. Dylan, though, can get disoriented and nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected. “The issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern,” he writes in Chronicles of the 1850s. “There were news items about reform movements, antigambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths and religious revivals. You get the feeling the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everyone will perish.”
Once over his bewilderment, though, Dylan soon surpasses most historians in quickly building a syncretic sense of the whole. For example, Civil War–era America, as he says he discovered it a century later, was an unrealistic, grandiose, immensely suffering land, riven by clashing comprehensions of time itself. Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the Declaration of Independence, checks and balances, everything Americans supposedly prided themselves on—indeed, reason itself—could carry you only so far. “After a while,” he continues, “you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.” Shine a light on that America, he writes, and “you could see the full complexity of human nature,” in a place that did not at all resemble the America of the Sixties, “but yet it did in some mysterious and traditional way. Not just a little bit, but a lot.” A reasonable man tracking unreason, Dylan offers a summary metaphor, more pithy and powerful than any historian would ordinarily use: “Back there, America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.” As important is where Dylan later claimed that perception took him: “The godawful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything I would write.”
That shows how seriously Dylan takes history. And looking back at some of his major efforts at historical perception, from his early songwriting through Rough and Rowdy Ways, it’s plain that his use of history has matured and become more sophisticated and nuanced over the decades.
A mural by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020 Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Dylan debuted his first obviously historical song, “With God on Our Side,” written when he was twenty-one years old, at Town Hall in April 1963. Although it became something of a favorite over the next couple of years, most famously as performed with Joan Baez, it fell out of his repertoire in 1965, and has remained largely untouched ever since. A sanctimonious lecture about American sanctimony—a counternarrative to what he portrays as the false one the history books tell us—the song is in keeping with an easy iconoclasm, asserting that the American history you’ve been fed is a pack of lies designed to glorify war and conquest. That easy iconoclasm is very much with us amid today’s social and political turmoil, but many of the feelings, as well as observations, inside that song are long out-of-date, stuck inside the high cold war, ban-the-bomb period of American antiwar protest, when every day felt as if human existence was on the brink of superpower thermonuclear annihilation. (In 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was falling, the Neville Brothers recorded an updated version of the song that substituted a new verse about Vietnam for the original one about World War II and the Holocaust. It didn’t catch on.)
As a songwriter’s history lesson, “With God on Our Side” is barely coherent. It has a point to make about the US military’s slaughter of the Indians, and maybe another about the futility of World War I. About the Spanish–American War, though, all it can is say is that the war had its day, whatever that means. It doesn’t know what to make of the Civil War, by which, a historian might point out, the US Army and Navy, with upward of 200,000 Black recruits, nearly half of them formerly enslaved, killing and dying to the strains of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” effectively brought about slavery’s abolition—something the emancipated reasonably regarded as a godly outcome. The song’s most graphic, unsettling line concerns not American war crimes but Nazi Germany’s eradication of the Jews. The song’s final betrayal, of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, though assuredly timeless, invokes absolute evil in ways that reduce American history into foreshortened fable.
What can be said on behalf of the song is that it expresses an outrage, utterly innocent of tragedy, which encapsulates the first two critical lessons anyone needs to learn about American history alongside its achievements and promise: first, that the deadly gap between reality and the nation’s proud, sometimes messianic professions has, at its worst, been real and too often wide; and second, that America the beautiful also has some twisted roots planted in dark and bloody ground. “With God on Our Side” is a preachy song that Dylan had to outgrow, but without its historical foundation, there would have been much less for him to grow on.
“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” written less than two years later and released on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, is no less a protest song than “With God on Our Side,” but the similarities end there. One of the first efforts in Dylan’s shift from folk to rock, it is seemingly a song about what used to be called the discovery of America, and it is as rollickingly uplifting and zany as its predecessor was sententious and leaden. The recorded version opens with a carefully edited false start, but the musicians regroup for a six-and-a-half-minute roller-coaster ride, more joyful than scary, a display of clackety exuberance that brushes the guardrails yet stays on course. Dylan has written of how much, in his early New York years, he came to admire the frenzied comic work of the downtown artist Red Grooms, and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” sounds like a Red Grooms composition put to music. That Dylan has thought to perform it publicly only six more times since that recording session fifty-odd years ago might signal that, unusually for him, he’s decided he likes the recorded version well enough that there’s little to be gained from revisiting it.
Unlike “With God on Our Side,” “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” puts us in a real, if also fantasized, historical place—“I think I’ll call it America,” Captain Ahab/A-rab announces early on from his ship as the place comes into view. The song gives us a couple of actual historical names and events—but, as in a dream, the names slip: A-rab’s ship starts out as the Mayflower then morphs into the Pequod; and at the end, when A-rab and the crew prepare to shove off back to sea, they spot the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailing their way, to discover an America that’s already been discovered. And so, as the names slip, time does, too.
The song’s protagonist, one of A-rab’s men, was already familiar to Dylan listeners from an earlier song, the Chaplinesque figure, assumed to be a traveling salesman, forever getting in and out of jams in “Motorpsycho Nitemare” (of which “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” is a rewrite, with the identical melody). But this time, the maybe salesman is a hipster sailor traveling across a historical landscape where it’s sometimes 1620, sometimes 1851, sometimes 1492, but always 1965 as well—and could just as easily be America today, which is really the point. From the start, when A-rab, momentarily transformed into Peter Minuit on Manhattan, sets about writing deeds, building a fort, and buying the place with wampum, America’s history collapses into stories of sharp dealers and confidence men, with a handsome ambiguous male waitress dressed in a powder-blue cape, and an undertaker who’s only interested if you’re dead, and people demanding not “Ban the Bomb” but “Ban the Bums” along what Peter Stuyvesant knew as the Bouwerie—an America that always has been and always will be: a newfound land that is frantic, exasperating, jumbled, and irrational beyond the point of absurdity.
Eighteen years later, in 1983, Dylan wrote what some have considered a historical masterpiece.“Blind Willie McTell” is as allusive as “With God on Our Side” is didactic, and as spare and exact as “115th Dream” is rambunctiously ramshackle. It’s another traveling song, but this time, the road is time, starting in a condemned Southland soaked with martyrs’ blood, moving back to the closing-down of a nighttime country tent show, then further back to slavery days and the Civil War, then up to the present via a chain gang and rebel yells, ending with the traveler on the road, his mind on the recurring, punctuating presence of Blind Willie McTell, the Georgia songwriter and bluesman who made his name recording in the 1920s and 1930s. The song offers a lesson about human greed and corruption, envisaged inside Southern history, born of slavery’s whips, the Middle Passage, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, yet with a trace of redemption, or, at any rate, of enduring beauty, and heard as sung and played in a blind black man’s blues.
I’ve sometimes seen “Blind Willie McTell” described as an updated protest song, intended to chart the continuing tragedy and suffering of Blacks in the American new world, and that’s there to be heard in the version recorded nearly forty years ago. But Dylan famously had doubts about the song in 1983 because he didn’t think it was finished, which is why it didn’t appear on Infidels, and, although it’s now esteemed, even beloved among Dylan’s songs, he’s struggling with it still. In contrast to “With God on Our Side” and “115th Dream,” he’s performed it frequently in concert (more than two hundred times since 1997), but over the years, the song has changed and continues to. None of Dylan’s work is fixed, but some songs are less fixed than others, and “Blind Willie McTell” is one of those—though even so, as with every song he alters, the original version never disappears. It is a matter of multiplication, not substitution.
Dylan’s current version of “Blind Willie McTell” eliminates the verse about burning plantations and slavery’s ships; and the chain gang and the rebel yells are gone, too. The song now confines itself historically more or less to McTell’s own time, or maybe as far back as the 1880s; and the verse that is now one of the two remaining historical verses, involving a woman and a fine young handsome man, notes that “Some of them died in the battle/Some of them survived as well,” leaving both “them” and the battle they fought to the listener’s imagination.
I can’t say why Bob Dylan has struggled with the song or why the struggle has led him here, but just as history seriously rendered has ironies and ambiguities as well as certainties, so a master of ambiguity has made this historical song more ambiguous, the suffering less specific, less singular, and less explicit, yet leaving nothing easy about it; while the “power and greed and corruptible seed” that the singer sees everywhere taint us all.
Ironies, more than ambiguities, mark what was, until recently, Dylan’s most ambitious and dedicated work of history: “’Cross the Green Mountain,” written nearly twenty years after “Blind Willie McTell” as part of a film soundtrack, one bright spot in an otherwise abysmal Ted Turner movie about the Civil War. In a mournful arrangement notable for Larry Campbell’s keening fiddle, and written in the style Dylan showcased two years earlier on Love and Theft (released, as luck had it, on September 11, 2001), it is a song of war that the precocious author of “With God on Our Side” could scarcely have imagined writing, yet with a curious possible connection to that older song.
Not a shot gets fired; no bugles blare; you can’t tell one army from the other. The song dwells upon soldiers in a ravaged land just before the fog of war descends or just after it’s started to lift. Walt Whitman, who spent three years in Washington hospitals tending to mutilated, sick, and dying troops, wrote in his notebook, shortly after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, that “the real war will never get into books.” Dylan tries to get some of that real war into his song.
Two striking verses, both reworkings of relatively obscure Civil War poems, spring cruel ironic traps, with a touch of Ambrose Bierce’s spirit, as well as Whitman’s. The first, containing a line lifted from an Ohio-born Confederate poet, relates the moment of the death of “our Captain,” “killed outright he was by his own men.” The second, a condensed rewrite of one of Whitman’s lesser-known poems, relates a mother’s initial shock at receiving a letter that her son has been severely wounded, shock relieved by the letter’s assurance that he has survived and is recovering in a hospital bed—“but,” the narrator encroaches, “he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.”
The living God’s presence pervades “’Cross the Green Mountain,” as something real and not an instrument for warmongering propaganda. But as the song’s cruel ironies dramatize, God’s ways are as inscrutable as His purposes. In that inscrutability, there is an important restatement of “With God on Our Side,” with a twist and a much deeper resonance. There is no godly side in “’Cross the Green Mountain”—Dylan certainly chooses no sides, either in the poetry borrowed or the stories related. And while we know that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and proclaimed He was on their side, in the song, at least, the Almighty picks neither.
Instead, Dylan writes of “an avenging God,” to whom all must yield—but whom or what, exactly, is God avenging? Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, began at one point to indict blasphemous Southern justifications of slavery—slavery, which he called the fundamental cause of the war—but he stopped short, lest he turn pharisaical, remarking, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln ventured, rather, that God had inflicted terrible carnage on both the North and the South, as both sides had shared in “the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Dylan, who has certainly read Lincoln’s address, is chiefly interested in other aspects of the war, but his invocation of God the Avenger, smiting “the land of the rich and the free,” squares with Lincoln’s.
Just past sixty years old when he recorded “’Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan has, over the two decades since, seen the world in which he started out crumble to dust, and watched fiercely urgent events he wrote about in traditional forms pass into history. He was drawn, early on, to the ballad form, not simply as the source of mythic archetypes like John Henry and Stagolee but also as a means of rendering deadly incidents of injustice that touched him. He has lived long enough now for his once-current ballads to become as ancient-seeming as the original ones that inspired him. Give or take a few years, today we stand as distant in time from the killings of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Hattie Carroll as Dylan stood, in 1963, from the killings of William “Billy” Lyons in “Stagolee,” Albert Britt in “Frankie and Albert,” and Delia Green in “Delia.” Longevity has similarly shaped Dylan’s most recent approaches to history, as he has inhabited old ballads about monumental catastrophes from well before his time and invented new ones about catastrophes he remembers well.
Other songwriters’ ballads about the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, form a subgenre all their own, with a dozen or more different compositions, of which Lead Belly’s “The Titanic” and the campfire favorite “It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down” are among the best known. Of all these, Dylan’s “Tempest” (from the album of the same name, released in 2012) is by far the longest, its melody and some of the lyrics lifted from the Carter Family’s “The Titanic,” recorded in 1956. Dylan must have thought the Carters’ version unfinished, and he supplied the missing material, including a couple of time-warp cameos by Leonardo DiCaprio, borrowed, in turn, from James Cameron’s overblown movie. There is a recurring tragic note of a sleeping watchman, but otherwise, the song is a plain yet progressively riveting account that turns to horror: a chaos of floating dead bodies, flooded cabins, and exploding engine rooms, at times resembling a Civil War battle in which, as Dylan sings of the sinking ship, “Brother rose up against brother/In every circumstance/They fought and slaughtered each other/In a deadly dance.” The song offers vignettes of unreflective heroism alongside vignettes of betrayal, human nature in all its complexity amid the disaster.
And so, finally, eight years after that song—that is, in the plague year of 2020—Dylan’s historical quest brought him to the venerable presidential assassination genre with the song “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. He would have known the traditional songs “Charles Guiteau” (about James Garfield’s assassin) and “White House Blues” (about William McKinley’s death) no later than when he first listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952, in which both appear. Around the same time, he would also have heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford performing “Mr. Garfield” on Lunsford’s Smoky Mountain Ballads album, which had been released by Folkways in 1953.
Long-mislaid manuscripts from late 1963, rediscovered and later obtained by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash in 1989, show that Dylan was deeply affected by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, scribbling lines that included what would become the central image in “Chimes of Freedom.” His only public reaction at the time of that event consisted of his notorious, bungled, confrontational remarks three weeks later, upon receiving a civil liberties award, about seeing something of Lee Harvey Oswald in his own alienated self. He later denied that Kennedy’s killing had stunned him: If it had so affected him, he asked, why hadn’t he written a song about it? Today, just at the point when his songs from 1963 are passing from memory into history, he has written “Murder Most Foul” as a kind of incantatory ballad.
Kennedy’s murder inspired an important song in 1966, perhaps Phil Ochs’s finest, “Crucifixion,” even if its starry imagery, recalling Whitman’s elegy to President Lincoln, at times whirls a little grandly. (Ochs suggested his song was not only about JFK but about Dylan himself, also.) Like Ochs, Dylan presents Kennedy as a lamb led to ritual slaughter. Dylan, however, wishes for little imagery: although the song warps time and constructs its own truth, “Murder Most Foul” is as literal as can be, as literal as the Zapruder film (the footage that is described by the song’s narrator as ugly, vile, and deceitful, but which he has watched thirty-three times or more, trying and failing to make sense of what happened). Unlike the older assassination songs, which focus on the assassin or the deed’s aftermath, “Murder Most Foul” dwells on the actual killing, one cold fact after another feeding the tale, to the point at which Kennedy himself—though, in reality, his head would have just been shattered by the assassin’s bullet—describes falling into his wife’s lap, realizing in a flash he’s been caught in a trap.
The song begins by describing the assassination as a coolly calculated conspiracy, with Kennedy, like Julius Caesar, murdered shamelessly, mockingly, in the broad light of day. The singer then calls upon a mysterious wolfman to howl about the evil deed, when suddenly the song jumps from 1963 to 1964 and the Beatles’ arrival in the US, and then moves ahead in time to the rise and fall of the hippies’ Aquarian Age. Yet the irrepressible evil deed just as suddenly intrudes, uncontained; time slips, bits and pieces from the assassination story swirling around and piling up and blotting out the rest.
The Who’s Acid Queen flashes but swiftly disappears into the song’s most horrible couplets, placing us inside the presidential Lincoln at the fatal instant. We then encounter what seems like an odd reference to Patsy Cline, which in turn refers to Lee Harvey Oswald as a “patsy,” no longer a fellow alienated young man as Dylan had pegged him in 1963 but a fall guy.
Then, out of nowhere, the mysterious wolfman reappears, and he’s none other than the famous rock-and-roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack, crazed, shouting, speaking in tongues, just maybe a prophet, and it’s radio request time, and thence begins the better part of the entire second half of Dylan’s longest song ever, a six-hundred-word cascade of callouts, from Nat King Cole to On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy to Etta James to Charlie Parker, some of the best of what America has had to offer the world (plus Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata), tilting to the years since World War II. As in “Blind Willie McTell,” redemption or at least beauty glimmers out of a monstrousness that one of the song’s characters suggests has marked the arrival of the Antichrist. Yet nothing seems to work, and as the requests rampage, the fatal day returns to the song like a revenant, one more time. The perfectly timed bullet left the nation forever changed, forever conflicted, forever haunted: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell,” the song concludes, Dylan’s voice combining elements of fear, resignation, and menace, “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’—play ‘Murder Most Foul.’” The song becomes a part of the mercurial history it has just related, a history from which there seems to be no escape.
Dylan has studied the events closely, right down to the minute when Lyndon B. Johnson got sworn in. He connects Dealey Plaza with different layers of American culture, from the horror franchise Nightmare on Elm Street to the legendary Dallas barrelhouse and red-light district from which the traditional song “Deep Ellum Blues” takes its name, two miles from the old Texas School Book Depository sitting at 411 Elm Street. He sees the assassination as a ripping point, not a tipping point, when the three Graces died and when the nation, its soul torn away, began “to go into a slow decay.” With the full story unknowable, never to come out—“What is the truth, where did it go/Ask Oswald and Ruby—they oughta know”—“Murder Most Foul” is in part about the nation’s calamitous failure to come to terms with what happened. You don’t need to buy into the song’s conspiratorial set-up, reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s paranoid fantasy film JFK—which might even appear to be a symptom of the cynical nihilism that the assassination unleashed and that has poisoned the nation—in order to find its larger point deeply moving, the point about reckoning and failing to reckon with the dreadful moment in November 1963, when the fall of America began.
More history appears in the songs that precede “Murder Most Foul” on Rough and Rowdy Ways. In “Mother of Muses,” which sounds inspired by something he’d seen in the Nobel Prize medal that he finally picked up in 2017, Dylan looks back in honor to the military he’d denigrated in his 1963 song, when he sang about “the names of the heroes/l’s made to memorize/With guns in their hands/And God on their side.” “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” weaves subtle references to the dead bluesman into a juxtaposition of holiness and sex that is at least as old as the tent show in “Blind Willie McTell.” The awful killing of President McKinley as rendered by Charlie Poole’s slightly macabre 1926 recording of “White House Blues”—not the shooting itself, which the song barely mentions, but McKinley’s unexpected death from gangrene eight days later—is the entryway to Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” a dreamlike song about a divine paradise, way down at the end of the line.
Bob Dylan performing in Hyde Park, London, England, July 12, 2019 Dave J Hogan/Getty Images for ABA
Thus, then nearing eighty, Dylan concluded his latest meditations, with American history all over the place. It turns out that Dylan was being straight in Chronicles, if not necessarily about every detail of what happened in 1961, then about a deeper truth in all that followed: if the songs have been, as he has said, his lexicon and prayer book, the American past has come to serve as his template for viewing, in a multitude of ways, an explosive culture of feeling, a place where human nature is visible in its full complexity. In his historical view, this is an America utterly different from our own and yet, in some mysterious and traditional way, not so different at all.
Along with the raging mayhem of history, there has been, also, a powerful elegiac quality to Dylan’s recent songwriting in this vein: a backward glance over traveled roads that appears elsewhere in his recent output, especially in the paintings of American cityscapes and byways in his “The Beaten Path Series,” first exhibited in 2016. That quality, which pervades Rough and Rowdy Ways, actually dates back many years, before Chronicles, and is tied to a feeling that a time is soon coming, if not already here, when truth will be erased and, with it, traditional songs and even history itself. Then, he intimates, anything that came before the here-and-now will be time out of mind. “Look out! there wont be songs like this anymore, factually there arent any now,” he wrote in his liner notes to World Gone Wrong, back in 1993. It’s become a late autumnal feeling in his work—call it November-ish, while recalling that November 22, 1963, was a hot, sunny day in Dallas—a feeling that speaks to a wider condition that has built to this very moment.
It’s hard not to tremble in these dystopic days in American history—days when everywhere you look, the center seems undone—peering out from East Thirty-Eighth Street and Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, or from wherever you happen to have spent the plague year, all the way to the US Capitol, desecrated and bloody. These are days of schism, of evil for evil, when it’s unclear whether we’ll ever reverse the long decay diagnosed in “Murder Most Foul,” or whether, as may be the fate of life on Earth itself, it’s just too late: desire and destiny have already been dismembered, and it feels as though America is back on the cross, with only the slimmest chance that wisdom or redemption will follow. As much as to the past, Bob Dylan’s historical vision speaks to this, our moment.
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton. His most recent book is Richard Hofstadter: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays, 1956–1965, the first in a multivolume edition of Hofstadter’s work that he is editing for the Library of America. (July 2021)
In a lifetime of writing and performing music, Bob Dylan has constructed a considerable body of work comprised of innumerable songs that speak to individual listeners in distinct yet profound ways. It is my belief that Dylan’s song writing abilities have only increased with the passing years, and that the some of the songs he has composed since his creative “rebirth” in the late 1980’s are equal – if not superior – to anything he wrote in the halcyon days of his youth. I think that whilst his earlier lyrics captured the desired spirit of a generation – which ultimately catapulted Dylan to the forefront of public consciousness – in a more powerful and immediately persuasive manner, I think that in reaching maturity, Dylan has even more to say; and his breadth of understanding of history, contemporary society and his craft has allows him to articulate lyrics that are considerably more controlled than the lyrics of youth, but that don’t compromise the extent to which evocative imagery and alluring ambiguity operate as key components of his style.
Songs such as “Dignity”, “Series of Dreams”, “Ain’t Talkin” and “Not Dark Yet” are magnificent songs that contain lyrics of the highest calibre. It is the depth and complexity of ideas and feeling that render them works of such stark beauty. They also typify Dylan’s current style of ambiguous and resonant simplicity, as opposed to the unrestrained, passionate imagery of earlier times. Each of these songs deserves fulsome analysis, if only to ensure time is actually given over to enjoying them. But it is “’Cross the Green Mountain – Dylan’s contribution to the largely unwatched civil war film, “Gods and Generals” – that in my opinion sits on par with his finest ever lyrics. It is a bold, rich, evocative and ultimately redemptive exploration of conflict on earth. It may take the American Civil War as an inspiration, but the implications of the themes it contains transcend historical connections. It certainly seems to have been designed to encourage listeners to forge meaningful connections between events, peoples and concepts; the very kinds of connections that I would argue that Dylan views as necessary to avoid the kind of bloodshed that he evokes so poignantly.
The song opens with a multilayered invitation to an experience grounded in reality and reflection, via the allusion to dreams and flood. The framing of the ensuing narrative with the context of “monstrous” dream lends the entire lyric a reflective and meditative air. The image of something rising out of the sea seems an image readily associated with the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2005; an event contemporaneous with the song’s origins.
The final lines of the opening stanza attain a level of authoritative ambiguity that Dylan sustains throughout the lyric; the ominous notion of something rising Leviathan-like out of the sea – a kind of vengeful force. But what is interesting is why a vengeful force would strike a land rich and free; intriguingly, the “otherness” of ‘something’ obscures motive, and Dylan’s selection of “rich” as opposed to brave suggests some uncomfortable possibilities.
The image of a “merciful friend” in the song’s second verse conjures an image of death as saviour or one capable of offering release from struggle or strife; but Dylan blurs this redemptive distinction through the placing the image within a question, and then transfers the narrative from the present to the future tense in a manner that accentuates doubt and emotive resonance, rather an any kind of reassuring certainty.
The concluding lines of the second verse are amongst Dylan’s very best. He twists the Shakespearean sentiment of parting as sweet sorrow into a subversive rejoinder, where in death, the departed meet. In the context of a lyric penned as an accompaniment to a civil war dramatisation, one wonders of whom Dylan is thinking when he “thinks of the souls in heaven who will meet”, as the notion of those on opposing sides meeting and accepting each other in death is a tragic counterpoint from which to consider lives lived and lost in brutal conflict.
The apocalyptic imagery of burning altars in the first couplet of the song’s third verse acts an horrific counterpoint to the battleground imagery of advancing troops in its second. Significantly, Dylan moves fluidly, if mysteriously, from either side of the rather abstract conflict that he recounts, so that listeners cannot easily align themselves to the conflict’s heroes. His shifting, elegiac and compassionate narrative dissolves the hero-villain dichotomy into something far more human, and more tragic.
The notion of a foe having crossed over from the other side is mordant and obtuse, an image that, in the context of far-reaching flames most strongly evokes the notion of the devil walking amongst man. It’s a disconcerting image, as is the notion of those soldiers with “more brave blood to spill”, whose sacrifice is simultaneously poignant and pointless, driven both by honour, desperation, and bloodlust. No wonder the flames fall wide, and that the foe has crossed over; it is as though the actions of man have enlarged hell itself.
The shift from foe to God in the fifth verse is startling; suggesting perhaps that an “avenging God” and the foe could be one and the same. The wide streets and dim lines seem oddly redolent of the chartered world of Blake’s “London”; a comparably savage mediation on troubled times. It segues poignantly into one of those eminently quotable Dylan lines sagely reminding us that “lessons of life can’t be learned in a day”. In this context, the grey world seems a neglected pot of wisdom, unwisely discarded.
It’s here that again the boundaries between historical account and contemporary reflection blur darkly. And the fact that our narrator listens while he “stands” is a fascinating detail. Within lies the possibly that this is an act of remembrance, and that the music from a far better land is that of the past, or of Heaven. It’s curious that the natural tendency is to extrapolate forward or backwards in order to locate the better land, even though it may be a lateral leap that is required. Perhaps inevitably, Dylan has drawn upon the innate ethnocentrism inherent in all cultural examinations. The important question that remains all but unanswered is the source of the superiority of the better land; but the return to conflict and loss in the following verse gives a world-weary clue.
The death of the Captain seems drawn with the broad brush-strokes of an oil painting; the lament for what horridly would be termed today a “friendly fire” death seems a poetic tragedy, reclaimed in this context from the self-serving euphemism of the ‘friendly fire’ cliché. There is also, buried within these lines subtle allusion to rebellion and to mutiny; and the “great” is as much an affectation as it is affection. Again, Dylan has selected imagery that is readily interpretable, but with multiple, frequently contradictory possibilities.
In the following stanza, where a seeming time of judgement draws inexorably closer, the “unknown world’s” nature can be simultaneously seen from opposing sides: one on hand it is the hellish uncertainty subsequent to an annihilated world, but on another, it is the world beyond the vicious vices of mankind, where even virtue – perhaps no longer needed in Dylan’s utopia – exists only as memory. The “happy year” images makes the former more plausible than the latter, but both readings exist on an implicit level, and it is the latter interpretation’s presence that shades the deathly imagery of the lyric with such profound melancholy.
The assertive declarative tone of the lyric’s eighth verse is fascinating yet elusively troubling. The notions of blasphemy are disturbing, as is the persona’s exhortation of loyalty to truth and right, in spite of blasphemy being on “every tongue”, which logically must include its own. The irony is resolved only through an embracing of the kind of pluralism that accusations of blasphemy logically preclude through their very existence.
The hectoring self-righteousness of the persona at this point seems satirically designed to induce a knowing inscrutability, one that ultimately coheres with the lyric’s weary blend of compassion and indifference to those involved in the central conflict, albeit in a rather opaque manner. The stated fealty to “truth and to right” seems to be advocating a kind of declarative autonomy fused with an ambiguous incarnation of faith or
fidelity, whereby the writer has simply conveyed things as they are, which serves, bewilderingly, to obfuscate the meaning and message of the lyric still further, behind yet another layer of possible interpretations.
The next verse is one of Dylan’s finest ever creations. It delves further into an exploration of the relationship between purpose, perspective and meaning, with the command to “serve God and be cheerful” seeming both logical and ludicrous in equal measure, in that it may be the only sane choice, in spite of an insane context of war. The choice to link the instruction to serve with being cheerful is fascinating, in that being cheerful can be read as either the end product of serving God, or a second (necessary or tautological) instruction. Depending on how this enigmatic half-line is read, it is either comforting, cynical or something else again. And yet, the concluding, tense-defying “look upward beyond” with its otherworldly overtones seems to yolk together an existence both earthly and spiritual into a single decree, startling in its fusion of futility and its lack of stated alternatives.
These words connect with the following line via one of Dylan’s better employments of the technique of enjambment, as two distinct meanings emerge from within lines that are distinctly (and rhythmically) complete. The notion of looking upward “beyond/the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn” is a surreal subversion of night and day imagery, as the song (and particularly the music)’s somnambulant creep staggers through a world of dark, disturbing visions; and, rather than emerge into a clear, comforting world, it is the night that becomes the place of certainty – underscoring its allure – thereby reinforcing the notion that our day’s actions are little more than an illusory defence against the true darkness and the empty anxieties of each new day.
In this context, the men’s position within the “green grasses of the bloodstained world” seems strangely logical; as though our day’s delusion will inevitably hold sway over other possibilities. At a stroke, Dylan gently, implicitly endorses the notion that reality is little more than smoke and mirrors, but to set it aside is akin to abandoning consciousness, which is as unfathomable in war time as it is in peace time.
The tenth verse is almost unbearably poignant, with its evocation of a world where ghosts permeate every pore of existence. With a deft shift in emphasis, Dylan’s directs the reader/listener’s gaze from the stars above – and their heavenly associations – to a world where the living are “walking in dreams, whoever you are”. Walking in the dreams of the living, including one’s own. And even more powerfully, walking in the dreams of the dead. It’s a startling image of the spirit world; one that simultaneously decries the futility of war, whilst painting the entirety of existence as a sacred place. The final couplet is tightly focused, suffused with sense of stifled grief that comes in acknowledgement of all that must needs be unspoken in times of tragedy and loss, both in terms of the loss of human lives in conflict and in the loss of human possibility that inevitably comes from clinging to the coldly familiar and shunning the bright unknown.
The lyric’s penultimate verse is its most personal, with the tantalising personal touch of a wounded soldier and his mother, where the solider lives on – if only for a fleeting, tragic moment – in the illusion of a letter that lists him as wounded, rather than deceased. It’s a deftly cutting dramatic touch, positioning the reader/listener to feel – apart from sympathy for the mother and her son – that the real tragedy is the delusion.
It’s at this point that the narrator detaches from his worldly reportage, signified initially by notions of being “lifted away”, but ultimately realised in its shift to a collective first-person point of view. Here, Dylan pulls off the astonishing narrative trick of rendering the present and future into the past tense, and acts as the conscience and consciousness of the entirety of humanity. In it, two key understandings are offered: that the fate of humanity rests of the surrendering of fear – or perhaps the fear of fear – and the embracing of the uncertainty and weakness inherent in change and growth; and secondly, that the past, present and future are tangible, malleable and extant, and that the world we inhabit is a stranger, darker, more beautiful and more tragic reality than our limited perspectives allow us to see.
“’Cross the Green Mountain” is truly one of Dylan’s finest creations. It is astonishing and maddening that such a towering achievement was initially hidden away on a soundtrack, and even despite it’s release on “Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume Eight” is yet to receive anywhere near the attention a lyric of this calibre deserves. In twelve remarkable verses, Dylan essays a civil war history, a visionary history of humanity and a grimly insightful summation of the likely path ahead for us all. It’s a strange, sad species that would choose maintaining a grip on destructive reality, but it is our world; and in Dylan’s hands it is brought into stark focus, and seems all the more revealing of our true nature because of it, as in charting our dreams, our strife and our struggles, he shows that the best and worst of who we are, who we were and who we can be are all strands of a single thread. An elegy, a tribute and a lament, this song is beautifully hewn tale of tragedy that reaches far beyond its overt themes and into the hearts and minds of all who seek to walk a clearer path in a confusing world.
They say artists hold a candle to the world so we all can see it a little more clearly. On this occasion Dylan’s light is searing, and we can see just how rocky are our surroundings, and just our precarious our footing. But certainty – however daunting – must eventually hold sway over delusion. It’s just that reality might be a little more complex – and considerably less tangible – than we would like it to be.
Bob Dylan – ‘Cross the Green Mountain
I crossed the green mountain, I slept by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head, I dreamt a monstrous dream
Something came up out of the sea
Swept through the land of the rich and the free.
I look into the eyes of my merciful friend
And then I ask myself, is this the end?
Memories linger sad yet sweet
And I think of the souls in heaven who will meet.
Altars are burning with flames falling wide
The foe has crossed over from the other side
They tip their caps from the top of the hill
You can feel them come; more brave blood to spill.
Along the dim Atlantic line
The ravaged land lies for miles behind
The light’s coming forward and the streets are broad
All must yield to the avenging God…
The world is older, the world is grey;
Lessons of life can’t be learned in a day.
I watch and I wait and I listen while I stand
To the music that comes from a far better land.
Close the eyes of our Captain; peace may he know.
His long night is done; the great leader is laid low.
He was ready to fall; he was quick to defend;
Killed outright he was, by his own men.
It’s the last day’s last hour, of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown world is so near
Pride will vanish and glory will rot,
But virtue lives and cannot be forgot.
The bells of evening have rung
There’s blasphemy on every tongue;
Let them say that I walked in fair nature’s light,
And that I was loyal to truth and to right.
Serve god and be cheerful, look upward beyond
Beyond the darkness that masks the surprises of dawn
In the deep green grasses of the bloodstained world
They never dreamed of surrendering; they fell where they stood.
Stars fell over Alabama, I saw each star;
You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are.
Chilled are the skies, keen in the frost
The grounds froze hard, and the morning is lost.
A letter to Mother came today;
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say.
But he’ll be better soon; he’s in a hospital bed.
But he’ll never be better. He’s already dead.
I’m ten miles outside the city and I’m lifted away
In an ancient light at the start of day
They were calm, they were blunt we know them all too well,
We loved each other more than we ever dared to tell.
Well we know where we’re going But we don’t know where we’ve been And we know what we’re knowing But we can’t say what we’ve seen And we’re not little children And we know what we want And the future is certain Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads
To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.
The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.
The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.
And so, to the year in review:
During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its watch with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.
In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.
It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in Crisis, Milo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.
There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death ofStalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.
As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Home, and a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.
Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Bluesshone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.
I am not one who makes much of the festive season, but inspired by the example of my favourite blog, Thom Hickey’s Immortal Juke Box, here are five favourite Christmas songs. No Neil Diamond or Mariah Carey here.
The King, sung here by Canadians Loreena McKennitt and Cyril Smith, from Loreena’s Christmas album To Drive the Cold Winter Away, hails from a long tradition of “Wren King” songs. The king of the title is the wee wren, “the king of all birds”, as many old songs tell it. Through December until Twelfth Night (the sixth of January), it was common among Celtic-speakers in Brittany, Wales, Manx, Scotland, and Ireland for children and adults to cruise their neighbourhoods cadging food, money or booze in return for seeing a Wren that they had captured. This particular “King Wren” song dates from the eighteenth century, although the heavy weaponry was added in the nineteenth.
Health, love and peace be all here in this place By your leave we shall sing, concerning our King Our King is well-dressed in silks of the best In ribbons so rare no king can compare We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles In search of our King unto you we bring. We have powder and shot to conquer the lot We have cannon and ball to conquer them all. Old Christmas is past, twelve tide is the last And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. Northumbrian Kate Rusby’s rendering of the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy is gorgeous. I reblogged Thom Hickey’s tribute to this lovely song earlier this month. It is worth another look and listen. The lyrics are so bucolic, so timeless:
The rising of the sun The running of the deer The playing of the merry organ Sweet singing in the choir
Loreena sings a lovely version of The Wexford Carol on her Christmas album. But Christmas songs don’t get much more beautiful than this beautiful version by American bluegrass diva Ali Krauss and cellist virtuoso Yo Yo Ma. The carol is believed to have originated in twelfth century Ireland in my mother’s home town of Inis Córthaidh.
In 1961, Dusty Springfield was but a young lass, but even back then, she had a fabulous voice! I was twelve years old and this was the first time I’d heard the Springfields, the Americanesque folk trio founded by her brother Tom. It was the beginning of unrequited puppy-love that ended when I heard the Bobster’s Love Minus Zero No Limit – see my reverie What’s Bob Got to Do With It? Dusty went on to become one of the greatest soul singers of all time, and Tom gave the world The Seekers. He adapted Bambino from a traditional Italian carol, just as he was later to transform a Russian folk-song into The Carnival is Over.
Santo natale bambino mio… To you and all mankind, To you and all mankind, maybe, And from strife we shall be free.
It’s been voted the best Christmas song of all time – in the U.K, that is, because Americans don’t get it, as The Independent discovered – and, yes, it’s my number one because it IS the best Christmas song of all time. And yet, it seems, the “bah humbug!” straighteners and virtue signallers are out to get it, as reported recently by Aussie writer Mark Mordue: Sanitize Clause would rob a Christmas ballad of its soul.
The irascible, untuneful, dentally-disadvantaged Shane McGowan and his hot ceilidh band hit the big time with this “Christmas Eve in the drunk tank” shanty, wonderfully aided and abetted by the gorgeous and doomed Kirsty MacColl, who could’ve been famous but for a rich Mexican in a speedboat. The repartee between these loser-lovers is up there with Burton and Taylor:
I could have been someone Well so could anyone You took my dreams from me When I first found you…
You’re a bum You’re a punk You’re an old slut on junk You scumbag, you maggot You cheap lousy faggot Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last
When it comes to a Christmas song, how low can you Go? And, as the band kicks in with the accordion and pipes, how high can you fly?
Bob Dylan is currently criss-crossing Australia on yet another circuit of his globe-trotting, decades-long Never Ending Tour. He played Sydney’s gorgeous art deco State Theatre the other night, at oure one-time local venu, the small but venerable Enmore Theatre in Newtown, to acclaim from fans young and old.
Veteran Australian folk music critic Bruce Elderwrote somewhat underwhelmingly: “… given the inevitable limitations (his voice is an ageing, husky, adenoidal instrument; he doesn’t talk to the audience; he always offers new interpretations of his old material; every song was delivered from behind his piano; he never tries to establish a rapport with his audience) this was a fascinating stroll through the “great American songbook” via an eclectic reinterpretation of twenty of his songs”. But friends of mine were much more enthusiastic. Stephane wrote me: “I thought of you last night. The show was great, it was fantastic to see him (he is still in good shape at 77!!). We even saw him smiling and dancing a bit at some stage on a fantastic version of “Gotta serve somebody”. Charles messaged: “It was really, really good. He was in top form. His voice sounded better than it has for quite a while. He played only piano but that with gusto and energy – and sometimes tenderness – throughout. The band cooked and arrangements were brilliantly re-imagined bringing new focus to the lyrics “. And this from Llew: “Started with It Aint Me Babe and Ballad of a Thin Man, so I was happy no matter what else happened. He did an encore of Blowin’ in the Wind and Don’t Think Twice. Not the old versions of course. He never said a word to the crowd”.
At a Bob Dylan concert – and I’ve been to many – we hear what we wish to hear, filtered through the memory of how we heard him all those years ago when we were young and idealistic and our world was new. To this day, I can never get enough of Bob – in all of his many guises. I listen to at least one or two of his songs every week and always discover something I hadn’t heard before. He has been a constant soundtrack to my ever-evolving, often revolving sense and sensibility. I wish that I’d been there in Newtown on Sunday night.
Bob in Newtown
Meanwhile, I have recently read classics professor Richard F Thomas’ scholarly frolic Why Dylan Matters. It is an entertaining and informative if ponderous and overwrought exegesis of the Bobster’s interaction with and intertextualizing (there’s a nice, fresh word for us all) of the old Greek and Roman poets and playwrights, and also poems, plays and folk songs of later vintage, including Rimbaud, of course, and Robbie Burns, and the hunter-collectors Cecil Sharp, Alan Lomax and the eccentric Harry Smith’s encyclopedic Anthology of American Folk Music so well analyzed in Greil Marcus’ insightfull Invisible Republic – Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes.
And then, last night, by chance I watched the Todd Hayes’s 2007 film I’m Not There, an imaginative and at times surreal biopic inspired by Bob Dylan’s life and music, in which six actors depict different facets of Dylan’s public persona. I first saw the film when it was release and recall being a tad disappointed at the time and unsatisfied – although I did think that Cate Blanchett was fabulous as electric Bob.
Second time around, however, thought it a marvelous film full of allusions and illusions, facts and fictions, follies and fantasies. The selection of songs was superb, particularly Memphis Blues Again during the many railroad sequences, Ballad of a Thin Man in a smokey Blonde on Blonde cabaret, and The Man in the Dark Black Coat as the leitmotif for the Billy the Kid parable. The mix of extracts from interviews, chronicles, and other stuff was fascinating, and with the lyrics of the songs, demonstrate just what a gifted poet and songwriter Dylan was and is – which is the message Thomas gives in his professorial take on the man.
Cate was, as before, peerless. A great choice if a daring one on the producer’s part. She has the voice, the gestures, the body language down to a tee. She got a global globe award for that, and an Oscar nomination. Ben Whishaw as French poet Arthur Rimbaud is also very good, as is gorgeous Frenchie Charlotte Gainsbourg as Susie/Sara. And, much to my surprise, Richard Gere was good as the aging Billy the Kid (he got away after Pat Garrett done him in).
The weirdest thing is that just that morning, I was reading the lyrics to Tombstone Blues. And the second song up in I’m Not There was Tombstone Blues, sung by the late Richie Havens and a little Marcus Carl Franklin who goes by the name of Woody. They didn’t sing the best verses, but there is a cut, later on, to a Vietnam era President Johnson saying “the sun is not yellow, it’s chicken”. How about that?
With Bob Dylan once more on our fair shores, critic and author Peter Craven explains how Dylan’s “way with words helped change our times”.
It is reproduced below to surmount News Corp’s paywall.
Bob Dylan: rock poet’s way with words helped to change our times
Peter Craven, The Australian, 11th August 2018
For a lot of people who were young in the 1960s and starting to think of themselves as adults, Bob Dylan was a kind of god. And the funny thing is that this image of him as a sort of dynamised genius, a cross between Shakespeare and Marlon Brando, has never really gone away. We thought of him as a great songwriter who was also a great performer and, in a thrilling way, a great poet. And somehow this atmosphere of awe remains.
Dylan released what is probably his greatest album, Blonde on Blonde, in mid-1966 — 52 years ago — yet on his present Australian tour (his first was, you guessed it, in 1966) a lot of bright young kids, millennials aged 22 or so, who are a bit bored with Shakespeare and a bit vague about Brando, will be there along with contingents of their parents or grandparents.
Rock music is partly a domain of classic fashion and no one is going to shift Dylan’s status because, in its contemporary aspect, Dylan created it. As he said to Keith Richards, that old villain of the Rolling Stones, “I could’ve written Satisfaction but you couldn’t have written Desolation Row.” Is that why they gave him the Nobel Prize in Literature two years ago? The fact he could write a 12-minute rock song that could include lines such as:
And Ezra Pound and TS Eliot Fighting in the captain’s tower While calypso singers laugh at them And fishermen hold flowers Between the windows of the sea Where lovely mermaids flow And nobody has to think too much About Desolation Row
Is it that with Dylan, and especially the Dylan of those great records when the singer went electric (though Desolation Row is plucked out on an acoustic guitar with only the lamentation of the harmonica by way of accompaniment), rock music had thrown up a figure with the courage to trail the greatest artistic pretensions like a cloak?
Think of those mermaids in this long, deliberate monstrosity of a song, so lame with the limitations of musical talent and so grand and sepulchral in the way it overcomes them. Do the mermaids deliberately invoke TS Eliot’s Prufrock (“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”)?
Who knows? You could almost say who cares, as the logic of Desolation Row is annihilating because — whether by design or accident — it’s a pop-art replica of Eliot’s The Waste Land. It’s as if Dylan has revised and rewritten Eliot’s poem and turned it into his own.
All of which is weird beyond belief. Dylan is the singer-songwriter with the highest reputation in the history of rock music, if not the whole of popular music, yet this reputation depends pretty absolutely on a few hours of music that he wrote in the 60s — between his second LP, The Freewheelin’Bob Dylan, in 1963 and John Wesley Harding in 1967, where he is already tending towards lean meditations on the bare bones of country music.
The only other album for which the very highest claims continue to be made is Blood on the Tracks,which dates from 1975 and is venerated by many enthusiasts, but which to the diehards sounds a bit like Dylan imitating himself, whatever claims you make for songs such as Tangled Up in Blue and Idiot Wind, and however endearing it is to hear Dylan throw off lines like “Relationships have all been bad / Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud”.
You can make a case that Dylan is very like Rimbaud — the French teenager who wrote some of the greatest poetry of the later 19th century — not in his relationships but in his relation to language. Like the French adolescent prodigy he took the poetic diction of our tradition — in its further reach, Western civilisation — and remade it in his own image.
So, in one way he’s like Rimbaud because he blazed so young, so briefly and so brilliantly, and lived to outlive his genius. Though it’s odd in a way to think that with Dylan, as with the casualties of rock 50 years ago (such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix), the reputation depends on the early work.
Then again, that’s some kind of norm, isn’t it? Think of how much the Rolling Stones trade on the vigour of what they wrote 50 or more years ago.
The 60s were when popular music upped its ante. Philosopher Raimond Gaita said to me once that before Dylan, anyone at a university was expected to educate themselves in classical music, according to their limits, but afterwards not. It helped of course that Dylan burst on the world in the early 60s with songs such as Blowin’ in the Wind, so that he’s still sometimes thought of as a folk singer and a protest singer.
Poet Robert Lowell, who thought Dylan wrote some great lines though not sustained poems, said he had “a Caruso voice”, and it’s true that he had a voice — and in some sense still does — of such overpowering individuality that it haunts or harrows the soul.
He created his early music by sounding the depths of what he could learn from Woody Guthrie and the blues, but he gave it a grave monumentality that was at the same time radically individual — it sounded like nothing on earth, it didn’t sound like anything that was ordinarily called singing — yet it seemed, too, to speak for the folk, so that when he says in With God on Our Side “The country I come from / Is called the Midwest”, you believe him.
In fact, as “the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond” — as Joan Baez, his one-time lover and very beautiful vocal interpreter once called him — Dylan crisscrosses the US. But in his work from the mid-60s — in particular in the great songs on Blonde on Blonde such as Visions of Johanna (“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it”) — he sings in a New York accent.
It’s the voice of the greatest of urban metropolises that enunciates that great line from Just Like a Woman — “I was hungry and it was your world”.
How could he dare to write with that kind of plainness and that kind of grandeur? And how could he create such an opalescent, allusive and elusive thing as the side-long, 11-minute Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands? Perhaps it’s an image of the eternally mourning woman, widowed by life: “And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — as much a transcendence of the popular culture it plays on as the very greatest of Warhol.
And that’s the trick with Dylan: he inhabits the form of an idiom he is re-creating. He sounds grounded in the deepest folk tradition yet the inimitable voice is the voice of something that a lifetime ago was a form of rock ’n’ roll. Think of the stately ravaged opening of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues:“When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez / And it’s Easter time, too / And your gravity fails / And negativity don’t pull you through …” It sounds pretentious to say this sounds like Baudelaire, but it does.
Dylan’s idiom — a language that was at once streetwise and capable of literary reference — also had extraordinary emotional range. Think of the blistering invective of Positively 4th Street and then place it against the lyricism of Love Minus Zero/No Limit (“My love she speaks like silence / Without ideals or violence / She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful / Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire …”) There’s a dazzling simplicity in that but the juxtaposition of “ideals” and “violence” is completely new in the world of popular music.
The times were a-changing and there’s a symbolic sense in which Dylan changed them. Quite early on he could write a song such as The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll that had as its refrain “But you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears” where “philosophise” is used in the sense of rationalise but the upshot has a Shakespearean effect; it’s as if Dylan bypasses ordinary literary language to create a kind of sung poetry shorn of artifice.
And it’s there in the most lushly romantic and dreamy of Dylan’s songs, Mr Tambourine Man, perhaps the clearest example of why he is such a great songwriter, why he was once such a dazzling singer and why he is a poet.
In Ballad of a Thin Man Dylan derides someone who has been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books and is described as having discussed lepers and crooks with great lawyers.
I once discussed Dylan with one of the world’s great literary critics, Christopher Ricks — the man who did the knockout edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and who wrote the knockdown defence of Milton against his modernist critics. Ricks is one of Dylan’s most formidable admirers. He believes that when you put Dylan’s words together with music, he is an extraordinary maker of worlds out of words.
Dylan created for the rock music of the baby boomer generation a poetic language equal to its hubris in thinking it could discover a new heaven and a new earth, that it could encompass a radical new politics and some kind of derangement of the senses that might open up a new spirituality.
It may be that all these things were delusions or potential traps, but the language he used to shape and shade them has outlasted its occasion. That’s why it speaks to the millennials. That’s why they’ll be there in droves to see the grand old man of rock who is also so much more.
Dylan changed the language in which we think and feel.
Decades ago I gave up rock music and tried my way with classical music. But Dylan’s words and music have never left my mind.
When we shore up the ruins of what we have made Western civilisation, how could he not have a high and mighty place? Who do we think could compare with him?
I’ve read a lot about Dylan, and Peter Craven’s article is excellent, but the thing is, no words seem aver to come anywhere near accurately describing what seems to be a very personal and unique relationship / interpretation each fan of Dylan has with his work.
Here are some of the comments posted in respnse to Craven’s piece:
You make sweeping statements of Dylan’s relevance and output in the context of “decades ago I gave up rock music”. Making your critique of the greatest singer/songwriter’s career output rather shallow. “Tried my way with classical music” – good for you! In my experience, and in my own case, Dylan goes deep and has produced extraordinary work over decades, because of his singing and phrasing. The emotion, uniqueness and genius of his singing. Unfortunately his live voice has been off badly, imo, for about a decade now. The man is genius but it isn’t because of the songwriting. He should never have received a Nobel for Lit, that’s says more about the self important (why do we give it so much attention?) Nobel Academy than anything else. Dylan is rock n rolls greatest and most influential singer songwriter by a million miles. He is steep in rock, country, blues, folk and Americana. How predictable we get another tired article in a broadsheet newspaper misunderstandings & representing Dylan and from someone who “gave up Rock decades ago”. Why give up rock? And gave it up for classical, how worthy!!
He also wrote two of the most vicious put- down songs ever: “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively Fourth Street”.
Have seen him three times – each time was different. Would see him again. Love the fact that he constantly reinvents his classics and always has a sensational group of musicians with him. This concert is no exception – his piano playing is standout.
Dylan, in centuries to come, will not be so much seen as a singer song writer, but a written history of humans of the western world of the 20th century. Sent from the future to document and capture a deep understanding of the soul of humanity.
You get the impression of Dylan as an almost unsurpassed songwriter but reluctant performer, due to the brilliant cover versions of his songs. Think of Hendrix with All Along the Watchtower, Peter Paul and Mary with Too Much of Nothing (and Blowin’ in the Wind), Manfred Mann with Just Like a Woman and You Angel You, Bryan Ferry with A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, and UB40 with I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.
l And you might add Simon and Garfunkel’s repertoire…The Sounds of Silence, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and more thought-generating songs.
@Peter “reluctant performer”!!. No one in the history of rock n roll anywhere near is level of fame and influence has performed as many times. He is engaged in the “Never Ending Tour” that has been going essentially non-stop for two decades! Performance is the absolute essence of who and what Dylan is.
At 76 years of age I loved the good music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Occasionally I would hear the radio commentator, mention the name Bob Dylan but that was it. Never knew his songs or was ever interested in them.
He’s my favourite songwriter of all time and undoubtedly a genius, but I gave up on his concerts years ago. There seemed little point when he’d be half way into a song before I could actually (sort of) recognise it. I’ll stick to my record collection – and there are quite a few stinkers in there too – and memories of the great concerts.
I don’t agree with much that Peter Fitzsimmons says, but he called Dylan an impressionist and I think that is the best description of him.
No mention of “Lay lady Lay”. my favourite love song. ” whatever colours you have in your mind, I’ll show them to you, you’ll see them shine” Of course ” lay across my big brass bed” is not too shabby either.
His concerts have been unattendable for 30 years. Still a genius.
He may well be a good poet and songwriter. I agree with Bob Rogers, he should leave performing to others.
f only van Gogh painted like da Vinci, imagine how much better his paintings would be!
The serpentine storylines of Nathan Hill’s astonishing debut novel The Nixconverge on the chaos and carnage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, when Hubert Humphrey was selected as candidate to run against Richard Nixon that fall, and Mayor Daley set the city’s finest upon the thousands who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and other social and political ills in what contemporary reports described as a “police riot”.
Hill sets the scene beautifully…
“The day before the riots the weather turned. The grip of the Chicago summer loosened and the air was spring-like and agreeable…In the very early dawn there appeared on the ground a thin, slick dew. The world was alive and lubricated. It felt hopeful, optimistic, and therefore disallowable as the city prepared for battle, as National Guard troops arrived by the thousands on green flatbed trucks, as police cleaned their gas masks and guns, as demonstrators practiced evasion and self-defense techniques and assembled various projectiles to lob at the cops. There was a feeling among them all that so great a conflict deserved an nastier day. Their hatred should ignite the air, they thought. Who could feel revolutionary when the sun shined pleasantly on one’s face. The city instead was full of desire. The day before the greatest, most spectacular, most violent protest of 1968, the city was saturated with want”.
Indeed, for most of that year, the western world was full of unfulfilled desires and unsatisfied wants.
In this, the third in a series of posts recalling the tumultuous events of 1968, we review a year that breathless commentators have dubbed “the year that changed America”, and, drawing an even longer bow, “the year that changed the world”. It was indeed a year of seismic social and political change, from the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements in America, to protests and revolutions in Europe, and famine in Africa. And as the year ended, Apollo 8 gave us our first view of our sad, blue planet from space.
It was indeed a great year to be alive, young and engaged – although a very great many endured grief, misery and pain, and met violent deaths. Yet, it is in our nature to imagine and indeed, re-imagine our salad days as the best of times and the worst of times. But looking back through our back pages, the year was perhaps no better or worse, no more significant or seminal than any year fore or aft. Like cars seen through the rear-vision mirror, memories always seem a lot closer and bigger. Recall the last verse of Bobby Goldsboro’s tear-jerker Honey, released that February: “…see the tree how big it’s grown. But friend it hasn’t been too long. It wasn’t big”. But we do, however, enhance our depth of perception, and accordingly, our understanding.
1968 conjures up a kaleidoscope of searing images apart from those of police clubbing demonstrators on the streets of Chicago.
A South Vietnamese general blowing out the brains of a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive. The Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis standing next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr. and point to where the assassin’s bullet was fired. Students at Columbia University taking over campus buildings, only to be hauled away, battered and bloody by police. Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police. Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan in the basement at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. Women dumping bras and girdles into a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant. Protesters facing off against coppers and horses in a violent mêlée in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in the Black Panther Salute as second-placed Aussie Peter Norman stands tall and silent in solidarity (a stance which would earn him opprobrium in his still prejudiced and conservative homeland).
As young people in the UK, we viewed these scenes to an exciting and eclectic soundtrack of blues, rock and psychedelia as the pop music cavalcade of the ‘sixties rock ‘n rolled on.
The Beatles sang Hey Jude, and The Rolling Stones, Street Fighting Man, and Jimi Hendrix delivered simply the best-ever cover of a Bob Dylan song with his blistering, sinister All Along the Watchtower. Imagining we were Born To Be Wild, we were invited to get our motors running and head out on the highway, or else to “take the load off, take the load for free”. We could pointlessly ponder the mysterious meaningless of MacArthur Park, or just lay back in a hazy daze with the Hurdy Gurdy Man (a strange ditty that has enjoyed a brief comeback with the recent hippy, trippy Romans-versus-druids soap Britannia). Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson!
Images and music aside, what was it really like to experience 1968?
Christopher Allen, in a piece in The Australian reviews an exhibition commemorating the events of 1968 at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. His is an original overview, advising caution when seeking signs and patterns in contemporary events. The past, as they say, is a foreign country – they see things differently there. “The signs 50 years ago were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
In an entertaining and upbeat piece in The Guardian, Hendrick Herzberg rebuts that cliched putdown of how people who remember the sixties weren’t really there, recounts his own adventures, and claims that “In a modest way, 1968 was the kind of year that pushes history in some unforeseen, astonishing direction – a gentler little brother to 1492, 1776, 1848, 1914, 1945, and 2001”. I would add 1789, 1939, and 1989 and 2011. Check them out.
I too remember the ‘sixties, and I too was there, albeit not on the political, social or cultural front lines. But I was at Grosvenor Square, occupied the vice-chancellor’s offices, did drugs (soft, mind), dug Cream, read Oz and IT, and totally got into Hair, which opened in London that year. And today, I share Hetzberg’s reverie: “In 1968, the ‘sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068. The ‘sixties again! I Can’t wait!”
In contrast, Tod Gitlin gazes through a glass darkly in a sober retrospective for The New York Review of Books: “When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy”.
And indeed, the enduring historical memory of 1968 is one of a succession of seemingly disconnected conflicts and collisions, turmoil and turbulence, not only in the USA but around the world. Yet beneath the apparent chaos, Gitlin seems to suggest, there were patterns that can only be discerned with the benefit of hindsight or as visions from a great height – much like, perhaps, that iconic image of our blue planet.
“Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued appeared breakable, breaking, or broken”.
The pendulum was swinging away from the previous year’s Summer of Love into a darker place. The lyrics of Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, released that September, seem, in retrospect, to describe the turning tide: “Last night I held Aladdin’s lamp, so I wished that I could stay, but before the thing could answer me, well, someone took the lamp away. I looked around, and a lousy candle’s all I found”. In November 1968, Jimi Hendrix sang: “Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl”.
There lurked a new narrative, and this was one of backlash and counterrevolution. “What haunted America”, writes Gitlin, “was not the misty spectre of revolution but the solidifying spectre of reaction. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal”.
”This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely. And presciently. Fifty years on from this momentous year, all that is old is new again.
Read on and enjoy these articles and the accompanying pictures.
But first, a poignant memento of 1968 from the 1979 film version of the “tribal love-rock musical” (yep, that how it was marketed back in the day) Hair, which i saw in London in the fall of 1968.
Commemorations are the greeting cards that a sensation-soaked culture sends out to acknowledge that we, the living, were not born yesterday. So it is with this year’s media reassembly of 1968. What is hard to convey is the texture of shock and panic that seized the world a half-century ago. What is even harder to grasp is that the chief political victor of 1968 was the counter-revolution.
When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy: a South Vietnamese general’s blowing out the brains of a prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive; the Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr., pointing at where the assassin’s bullet had come from; demonstrators at Columbia taking over campus buildings, then hauled away, battered bloody by cops; Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police; Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan’s shots at the Ambassador Hotel;Soviet tanks rolling into Prague; police clubbing demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; women’s liberation activists dumping girdles, hair curlers, and bras (unburnt) in a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant; Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in defiance.
A more thorough survey would take note of social collisions that, however violently repressive, failed to register in America with the same supersaturated significance. For example: the killing of three students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, by highway patrol officers after the students protested segregation at a bowling alley (February 8); the near-deadly shooting of the German radical student leader Rudi Dutschke in Berlin (April 11); Chicago police battering a wholly nonviolent antiwar protest (April 27).
As for less bloody demonstrations, there were so many, so routinely, that TheNew York Times regularly grouped civil rights and antiwar stories on designated pages. Neither does this rundown of calamities take into account images that did not see the light of day until much later, like the color shots of the My Lai massacre (March 16), not published until late 1969—by which time they were almost expected. Or the images that never materialized at all, like the slaughter of hundreds of demonstrating students by troops in Mexico City (October 2).
Images aside, what was it really like to experience 1968? Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued then appeared breakable, breaking, or broken.
The textureof these unceasing shocks was itself integral to what people felt as “the 1968 experience.” The sheer number, pace, volume, and intensity of the shocks, delivered worldwide to living room screens, made the world look and feel as though it was falling apart. It’s fair to say that if you weren’t destabilized, you weren’t paying attention. A sense of unending emergency overcame expectations of order, decorum, procedure. As the radical left dreamed of smashing the state, the radical right attacked the establishment for coddling young radicals and enabling their disorder. One person’s nightmare was another’s epiphany.
The familiar collages of 1968’s collisions do evoke the churning surfaces of events, reproducing the uncanny, off-balance feeling of 1968. But they fail to illuminate the meaning of events. If the texture of 1968 was chaos, underneath was a structure that today can be—and needs to be—seen more clearly.
The left was wildly guilty of misrecognition. Although most on the radical left thrilled to the prospect of some kind of revolution, “a new heaven and a new earth” (in the words of the Book of Revelation), the main story line was far closer to the opposite—a thrust toward retrogression that continues, though not on a straight line, into the present emergency. The New Deal era of reform fueled by a confidence that government could work for the common good was running out of gas. The glory years of the civil rights movement were over. The abominable Vietnam War, having put a torch to American ideals, would run for seven more years of indefensible killing.
The main new storyline was backlash. Even as President Nixon assumed a surprising role as environmental reformer, white supremacy regrouped. Frightened by campus uprisings, plutocrats upped their investments in “free market” think tanks, university programs, right-wing magazines, and other forms of propaganda. Oil shocks, inflation, and European and Japanese industrial revival would soon rattle American dominance. What haunted America was not the misty specter of revolution but the solidifying specter of reaction.
Even as established cultural authorities were defrocked, political authorities revived and entrenched themselves. In so many ways, the counterculture, however domesticated or “co-opted” in Herbert Marcuse’s term, became the culture. Within a few years, in public speech and imagery, in popular music and movies, on TV (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, TheMary Tyler Moore Show) and in the theater (Hair, Oh! Calcutta!), profanity and obscenity taboos dissolved. Gays and feminists stepped forward, always resisted but rarely held back for long. It would subsequently be, as the gauchistes of May ’68 in Paris liked to say, forbidden to forbid.
In the realm of political power, though, for all the many subsequent social reforms, 1968 was more an end than a beginning. After les évènements in France in May came June’s parliamentary elections, sweeping General De Gaulle’s rightist party to power in a landslide victory. After the Prague Spring and the promise of “socialism with a human face,” the tanks of the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact overran Czechoslovakia. In Latin America, the Guevarist guerrilla trend was everywhere repulsed, to the benefit of the right. In the US, the “silent majority” roared. As the divided Democratic Party lay in ruins, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy turned the Party of Lincoln into the heir to the Confederacy. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal.
Counter-revolutions, like their revolutionary bêtes noires, suffer reversals and take time to cohere. The post-1968 counter-revolution held the fort against a trinity of bogeymen: unruly dark-skinned people, uppity women, and an arrogant knowledge class. In 1968, it was not yet apparent how impressively the recoil could be parlayed into national power. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely.
1968: the year that changed America
Hendrick Herzberg, The Guardian, April 15, 2018
Where were you in the 1960s? And what were you? A toddler, a grade schooler, a teenager? A young adult? Were you already old enough to form your own memories? Or were you old enough but in the “if you can remember The Sixties you really weren’t there” category?
Of course, if you’re like most people, you were nowhere. You hadn’t been born yet. You didn’t exist. But wherever and whatever you were or weren’t, it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard about The Sixties – quite enough, maybe. Ad nauseam, maybe.
There is a continuing theological controversy among sixtiesologists concerning when The Sixties can properly be said to have begun and ended. Tuesday 8 November1960 – the day Senator John F Kennedy was elected president – has a pretty good claim to the beginning. Kennedy’s campaign slogan, which appeared on every campaign poster, had been LEADERSHIP FOR THE 60’s. Out with the dull, conformist, priggish, crewcut, Eisenhowerish Fifties! In with the dashing, exciting, daring, sexy, slightly longer-haired, Kennedyesque Sixties!
A darker view – the view I take – sets the clock of The Sixties ticking three years later. The assassination of President Kennedy was a crack in time. Like Sunday 7 December 1941; and like Tuesday 11 September 2001; Friday 22 November 1963 was “a date that will live in infamy”. And, like them, it was a day that is remembered in vivid detail by those who experienced it.
I was taking a noontime shower in my Harvard dorm room, having been as usual up till dawn getting out the college daily, the Crimson. I heard a faint, muffled radio news bulletin coming through the wall from the neighboring room. As I dried off, I turned on my own radio. I can still see the edge of the shower stall and the little bathroom window next to it. On the grass below, a girl was standing under a tree, weeping. The Crimson put out an extra that afternoon, but without my help. It felt too much like a schoolboy stunt. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want to play newspaperman. I didn’t want to be distracted from the communal grief all around me.
So The Sixties, in this conceit, began either in 1960 or, like Philip Larkin’s sexual intercourse, in 1963. And the ending? That too has long been a subject of debate. There are plenty of nominees, two of which may be considered the frontrunners. Like the beginnings, one is light and one is dark. The light one: Friday 9 August 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, freeing the nation from a quarter-century of having had him to kick around. The dark one: Altamont. Sunday 6 December 1969. Google it. Or see the movie.
It is possible to build a narrative around two currents of the year’s events, currents that melded and crisscrossed and fed off each other, to startling effect: the music, mostly a kaleidoscopic, wildly imaginative explosion of rock’n’roll; and the politics, mostly a politics of protest – protest against the Vietnam war, against racial injustice, and, more broadly, against what was experienced as the joyless, stultifying blandness of mainstream American life.
Those two currents, the music and the protests, washed over me as they did over millions of others. In 1966, a year out of college and a newly minted cub reporter for Newsweek, I was lucky enough to land in San Francisco. Something was happening there, and I found myself in a position to absorb it.
The scene, cultural and political, was quite something. A new kind of music – rooted in blues, rock, and electronica, and supercharged by psychedelia – was drawing motley-dressed weekend crowds to a couple of repurposed old dance halls, the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. For $2.50 you could spend hours listening and dancing to bands that were still unknown back east or down south in LA – bands still without record contracts but with wonderful names: Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service – often paired with iconic bluesmen like Muddy Waters and James Cotton. The walls were mesmerizingly alive with rhythmically pulsating, ever-changing liquid projections. It was, in the patois of the moment, mind-blowing. For the gentle dreamers that Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle’s gossip columnist, had dubbed hippies, the Fillmore and the Avalon were Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic.
Like every young man of my generation, I had to reckon with the draft. I was against the war, of course, but I didn’t think I had the stomach to go to jail over it. I had zero desire to go to any more schools, graduate or otherwise. I was unmarried and childless. Canada was not my country, my country was the United States of America. I wasn’t physically or mentally ill and was too proud to fake it. And I wasn’t a conscientious objector. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get killed either. My solution was the US navy.
I got a haircut and reported to the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, for three months of officer training. From there I asked to be sent to Vietnam, but it wasn’t like it sounds. Unless you were a flier (like John McCain, the future senator), a Seal (like Bob Kerrey, also a future senator) or a member of the Riverine Force (like John Kerry, a future senator, presidential nominee, and secretary of state), being a naval officer in Vietnam, especially a “public affairs” officer like me, posed very little physical risk. Instead, however, the navy, in its wisdom, assigned me to a desk job in lower Manhattan.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenziedI stole away from the office whenever I could, and devoted the time to salving my conscience. I pitched in at the ramshackle headquarters of the War Resisters League. In March, after Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race, I took to hanging around his Manhattan headquarters, doing layouts and writing headlines for the Kennedy Current, the campaign’s weekly tabloid.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenzied: the bloody shock of the Tet Offensive; the electoral abdication of President Lyndon Johnson; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the riots that followed; the murder of Robert Kennedy; the chaotic, riotous Democratic convention in Chicago; Nixon’s hairsbreadth victory over Hubert Humphrey in November. And me? Well, at Christmastime I got the orders to Vietnam (as a “recreation officer” at the US base in Da Nang) I’d hoped for two years earlier. Only this time I didn’t want to go. My antiwar sentiments had hardened to the point that I decided I preferred jail to further military service, and I announced my intention to refuse the orders.
But before I could achieve fame as a martyr for peace an unexpected medical difficulty developed: I had a wisdom tooth pulled, the wound bled for days, and when I was diagnosed with a (relatively mild) form of hemophilia, the navy quickly mustered me out. I had managed to have it both ways: veteran (kind of) and resister (in a way).
Why didn’t I think of that?
In 1968 the sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068.
In one of the most famous stories from antiquity, Croesus, the proverbially rich king of sixth-century BC Lydia, in what is now Turkey, was disturbed by the rise of the Medes and the Persians on his eastern borders. Thinking it might be wise to crush these potential rivals before they became a serious threat, he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, plying it with gifts to ensure a favourable answer. The oracle replied that if he made war on the Persians, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus accordingly gathered his armies and attacked, but he was defeated and taken prisoner by Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire.
The oracle had a reputation for accurate yet riddling answers. A half-century after these events, Heraclitus, one of the most brilliant Pre-Socratic thinkers and famous for enigmatic aphorisms, declared: “The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals but signifies.” It is up to us to read the sign he gives, and Croesus had fatally misconstrued that sign in his eagerness to hear what he wanted to hear.
The signs 50 years ago, in 1968, were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
The political protests of May 1968 in Paris were among the most significant events of that year. Although partly emulating earlier student agitation in the US, the French protests were much broader in their implications. The term that the French use for this movement, la contestation, suggests its universal spirit of revolt and its nebulous sense of direction, if not nihilistic disorientation. It was a catastrophic time for many young people caught up in the hysteria and afterwards left to pick up the pieces of interrupted studies and broken careers, in an ambience of cynicism and disenchantment. Ever since the revolution of 1789, the French have been prone to political overexcitement, and throughout much of the 20th century communists continued to believe in their own kind of revolution in the same way Christians believe in the second coming.
The zealots thought 1968 heralded the end of days and the imminence of the dictatorship of the proletariat; but the grassroots movement, spreading from students to workers, was not supported by the Communist Party, which was still committed to a totalitarian and Stalinist model of central control. A few months later, a similar pattern evolved within the communist world: the opening up of Czechoslovakia to greater freedom, democracy and independence — the Prague Spring — was crushed in August when Soviet tanks invaded the country and occupied its capital.
The events of Paris and of Prague dealt a fatal blow to the credibility of communism in the West; the old left began slowly bleeding to death until its collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall 21 years later. Thus May 1968, as in the story of Croesus, did indeed herald the fall of an empire, but not the one the student rioters thought they were going to bring down.
Much else happened in 1968, including the opening of the new National Library in Canberra, whose anniversary is the occasion for this exhibition. As we enter the exhibition, we are confronted by a wall of 21 tabloid bills, in the centre of which is one announcing the opening of the library. The remaining headlines sum up many other momentous events of the year, starting with the mysterious loss of prime minister Harold Holt, who disappeared, presumed drowned, while spearfishing off Portsea in December 1967.
America was shocked by two political assassinations: that of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. Both events are covered in the exhibition by photographs, posters and copies of contemporary news magazines. Particularly interesting, especially today, is an article about the revulsion against gun culture that followed the death of Kennedy, whose brother, president John Kennedy, had been assassinated less than five years earlier. There are pictures of individuals willingly giving up guns at police stations: so many were handed in that the police, as we see in another photograph, ended up disposing of them by dumping them in the sea.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was growing more intense — it was the year of the Tet offensive — and provoking greater opposition at home, mainly because of the draft, of which fatal randomness we are reminded by a set of the wooden balls that were used in the birthday ballots. It was clearly a political mistake to send conscripted soldiers to Vietnam; professional soldiers expect to fight wherever their nation sees fit to send them, but conscripted troops should be reserved for national self-defence.
At the time, however, the spread of communism in Asia looked like a serious menace, which it would be smug to discount with the benefit of hindsight. Communism had only recently been suppressed by the British in the course of the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) and, more recently still, by Suharto in Indonesia, in a far bloodier struggle from 1965 onwards. So the threat of violent totalitarian revolution was real. At the same time, there was a prima facie moral justification in helping South Vietnam defend itself against the north. The way that North Vietnamese aggression was turned into a fight for freedom in the eyes of many in the West was one of the first examples of the self-destructive neurosis that has afflicted the Western intelligentsia for the past couple of generations. A map of Vietnam published in the US in 1968 includes an insert labelled “Freedom’s struggle in Asia”, with a pall of black covering Siberia, Mongolia, China and North Vietnam. It is easy to understand the fear of the domino theory in Southeast Asia, and clear that this had serious consequences for Australia.
And to argue that time was running out for the communist dream, and that even China would, within a generation, be starting to build its own unique model, combining capitalist profiteering with communist authoritarianism, would have seemed mere wishful thinking.
For the time being Mao Zedong, after killing 45 million people by starvation during the Great Leap Forward of 1957-62, had launched the almost equally disastrous Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until his death in 1976, and posters showed beaming peasants and workers celebrating the foundation of new socialist regional committees.
This is the great difficulty in anticipating the future: we can imagine plausible scenarios but the really important things are often ones that seem entirely implausible until they happen. It would have seemed far-fetched to suggest that Southeast Asian countries racked with poverty and communist insurrection in 1968 would be booming capitalist economies by the early 20th century, but even more unbelievable that one of the most significant threats to security, freedom and human rights would one day be the rise of fanatical Islamic belief among the populations of several regional countries. Religion in general was assumed to be a long-spent political factor, of marginal relevance in the thinking of left and right.
Even in the Middle East, religion was not yet an important factor. Israel had spectacularly crushed its Arab neighbours in the Six-Day War of 1967 and extended its control over buffer territories in the north and east; its neighbours were angry and humiliated, but were all ruled by secular dictators. Iran was a prosperous, secular and modernising nation under the rule of the shah, even though there was growing opposition to his authoritarian rule. But a map of The Daily Telegraph motor marathon from London to Sydney reminds us how essentially peaceful the region still was: it is many years since such a rally could follow an itinerary from London through Europe to Turkey, then on to Tehran, Kabul and Bombay (as Mumbai was then called), before the cars were ferried to Fremantle for the final legs from Perth to Sydney.
Culturally, the period represented a new level of mass consumption of pop music and other media. At the time, pop groups often seemed to give voice to various forms of social and political dissent, but in retrospect their objective role was to channel and neutralise the malaise, turning it into harmless entertainment. Television had more or less completed its takeover of family life by 1968; people who used to play the piano or talk or read a book after dinner now sat glued to serials and talk shows. TV was a new form of addiction, whose damaging effects we now can begin to understand in the age of far more serious addiction to smartphones and other devices.
The final part of the exhibition is devoted to the conception, planning and building of the new library. Canberra, only 55 years old in 1968, was still in the process of growing into its ambitious urban design. An area from Capital Hill down to the lake had been designated as a special ceremonial triangle, destined to house not only the new Parliament House but also some of the most significant cultural edifices of the new city. These included the National Library on one side and the National Gallery, which was established in 1967 and opened in 1982. The new library was a favourite project of Robert Menzies as prime minister, and the exhibition includes correspondence and his speech in introducing the National Library bill in 1960. Although he retired in January 1966, his successor Holt invited him to lay the foundation stone in March that year.
In his speech on that occasion, Menzies expressed the hope he would live long enough to see the white marble structure reflected in the waters of the lake: this is exactly how Max Dupain photographed the finished structure in 1968. Seeking grandeur in the depth of distance, he takes a view of the new building from across the lake at night, so the library appears as a small but radiant temple-like form, its reflection shimmering silently on the dark waters.
1968: Changing Times. National Library of Australia, Canberra, Until August 12, 2018
I was 6½ years old when I saw the Beatles perform Love Me Do on Britain’s Granada Television. Like anyone old enough to remember that moment in 1962, I was thunderstruck – by the harmonies, the haircuts and the wavering harmonica that John Lennon was playing.
Our generation had never heard anything like it – not until we heard Please Please Me, and then I Saw Her Standing There, and then From Me to You, and then She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, Can’t Buy Me Love, I Feel Fine, Ticket to Ride, Help …
They just kept coming didn’t they? One glorious foot-stomping pop classic after another. Songs that took us to places of head-shaking ecstasy in less than 2½ minutes, blending influences of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, rockabilly, skiffle and – later – reggae, folk, country and western, Indian, psychedelia and string quartets.
Songs that started with choruses. Songs that went from minor falls to major lifts. Songs with beautiful bridges and mysterious openings, like that indescribable shimmering announcement of A Hard Day’s Night, or the 16-minute medley that concluded Abbey Road, their final recorded album. (And, yes, Abbey Road was always my favourite, even though Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper and The White Albumcould always ambush me with their brilliant innovations.)
Songs that were arrows aimed at the collective heart of nations. Songs that captured the tempo and temper of a generation. Songs that saw two geniuses – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – hunting as one pair to become the greatest songwriting duo in history – and this before George Harrison finally emerged from their oversized shadow.
Songs that came to represent arguably the greatest outpouring of melody from one source since Mozart. Not scores of good songs. Hundreds of great songs that are still being analysed, deconstructed and, of course, played today.
I was eight when the Beatles came to Australia in 1964 and 300,000 people poured onto the streets of Adelaide to welcome them. I had photos of the Beatles all over my bedroom wall (actually I still have photos all over my wall, although not my bedroom) and I remember crying when my mother went to see them at the Sydney Stadium and told me I couldn’t go.
I was 14 when the Beatles disbanded in 1970 and my world was shattered for that central part of my history – our history – that had just died. And then again 10 years later when John Lennon was murdered in New York. I remember the moment as though it were yesterday – standing in a hospital corridor waiting to see my sick grandmother – as a woman in the room next door yelled to her deaf mother: “Did you hear mum? A madman just shot John Lennon.”
It was as if I’d lost a member of my own family, which in a way I had; only to be repeated 21 years later when George Harrison died from cancer.
The Beatles were the stuff that dreams and screams were made of and like millions of boys my age, I learnt to play guitar and sing because of them. I fell in love to the Beatles. And with the Beatles – George first, then Paul, then John, then George all over again.
And, truth is, this love has never deserted me – nor many in my generation – no matter how far we’ve travelled from their phenomenon, in time and space. Of course there were other loves too: the Beatles’ great rivals – the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream; the Beatles’ successors – Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads and Fleetwood Mac; the Jewish songwriters – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon; the androgynous ground breakers Bowie, Michael Jackson and Prince; not to mention Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Van Morrison, Cat Stephens and Bruce Springsteen. And all this well before we’d even entered the ’90s.
Such a long list of musical loves, but never like that first great love. And now that Paul McCartney is about to arrive on our shores after a near 25 year absence it feels appropriate to reflect on why this should be so, notwithstanding the millions of words already penned about the Greatest Band the World has Ever Known.
I remember the moment as though it were yesterday – standing in a hospital corridor waiting to see my sick grandmother – as a woman in the room next door yelled to her deaf mother: ‘Did you hear mum? A madman just shot John Lennon.’
It was always about the music, but the multiple stories that attached themselves to the Beatles were no less compelling. Two motherless Liverpool teenagers, one caustic and witty (Lennon), the other conciliatory and hugely ambitious (McCartney), crossing their city one day to find the only person who could teach them the B7 chord.
And then, in the space of a few short years, forging a songwriting partnership that would see them, by early 1964, capturing 60 per cent of the American singles market, all top five positions on the Billboard’s singles and then, the following week, 14 of the top 100 US singles.
They’d honed their stage craft during their Hamburg years (1960-62) when – among the bouncers, gangsters and sex workers of the notorious Reeperbahn – they’d performed 800 hours on stage, mostly on Preludin to stay awake, with show-stopping songs like Ray Charles’ What’d I Say.
They were the Rolling Stones before the Rolling Stones ever declared themselves a white Chicago blues band from London. For one thing, McCartney was a virtuoso musician who already knew his way around his left-handed guitar by the age of 15.
Son of a big band leader, he was steeped in famous music hall songs, while also imbued with the rock ‘n’ roll of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis and Chuck Berry, not to mention the revival of British jazz, known as skiffle. Plus he could sing harmonies like an angel and he taught Lennon how to tune his guitar.
By the time he’d reached his prime, he was playing bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, harmonica, trumpet, recorder, oboe, flugelhorn, cello, violin, harpsichord, even the drums.
“Mr Lennon, is Ringo Starr the best drummer in the world?” a breathless interviewer once asked John Lennon. “Ringo isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles,” Lennon replied.
It was an apocryphal story and it belied Ringo’s mastery – his rock-steady backbeat, his tom tom grooves, his syncopated propulsion, his languid rolls. As McCartney noted after Ringo first sat in for original drummer Pete Best: “I remember the moment standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like …what is this? And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of the Beatles.”
And then the so-called “Quiet Beatle” George Harrison, the lead guitarist, whose magnificent songwriting talent only began to fully reveal itself in 1968, four years after Beatlemania had swept the world, with songs like While My GuitarGently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun and Something, the latter Frank Sinatra describing as “the greatest love song ever written.”
All great stories naturally have their tension and for the Beatles it was, firstly, the global hysteria that saw them turn their backs on live performances in favour of the studio. There they would end up penning their most brilliant songs – Day Tripper, We Can Work it Out, Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, In My Life, Paperback Writer, Eleanor Rigby. And all this before they got around to Sgt Pepper, The White Album, Let it Be and Abbey Road.
It was the tension also of the Lennon-McCartney rivalry that, at its best, would see them trading song for song – Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever for McCartney’s Penny Lane; or lyric for lyric, as in Day in the Life, arguably their greatest collaboration.
At its worst, though, was the feud that finally erupted in the wake of manager Brian Epstein’s death from a drug overdose in 1967. That’s when, according to Lennon, McCartney began bossing the others around, trying to assert his will over the band.
Lennon was withering about McCartney in his final Rolling Stoneinterview, claiming McCartney was an “egomaniac” who’d tried to destroy – subconsciously – his [Lennon’s] songs. He also damned Yesterday, the most covered song in history, with faint praise.
“Well, we all know about Yesterday,” he said. “I have had so much accolade for Yesterday. That is Paul’s song, of course, and Paul’s baby. Well done. Beautiful … and I never wished I had written it.”
That final interview came three days before Lennon was gunned down and whatever chance there might have been of a true reconciliation between these old Liverpool friends ended with those five shots from Mark Chapman’s .38 Special revolver.
In the 47 years since the Beatles disbanded the question has often been asked: “Who was the better songwriter, Lennon or McCartney?” In 2014, an American documentary crew attempted to provide an answer after spending 10 years asking 550 musicians, directors and actors for their verdict.
One respondent said it was like choosing between your mum and dad. Another said it was like deciding between “food, shelter and clothing”. Lennon got the highest number of votes, although when US President Barack Obama awarded Paul McCartney the annual Gershwin prize for popular song in 2010 he described the now 75 year-old McCartney as “the most successful songwriter in history.
“He has composed hundreds of songs over the years – with John Lennon, with others, or on his own. Nearly 200 of those songs made the charts. Think about that. And stayed on the charts for a cumulative total of 32 years. His gifts have touched billions of lives.”
My friends and I are among those billions, although I might be the most hopelessly devoted of all. Once a month a few of us gather for a night of Beatles songs and I’ll be damned if I’m still not trying to work out the complex chord progressions and the high notes to their two and three-part harmonies.
My daughters, too, are fans, even though they were born two decades after it all ended. When each girl turned five I gave them the complete works of the Beatles with the instruction: “If you want to learn about songwriting and melody then listen to this.”
My elder daughter is now a singer-songwriter, my younger daughter a photographer. No prizes for guessing where we’ll be the night McCartney rolls back the years.Liverpool
Singer-songwriter Otis Redding was born on September 9, 1941, in Dawson, Georgia. He became known the voice of soul music. Just as his career was taking off, he died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967. “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” became posthumously his first and only Number One hit in January 1968.
for we had love and each other and the moon for company when I spent summer with Monica and Monica spent summer with me
June this year saw the fiftieth anniversary the publication of Roger McGough’s wistful verse-memoir “Summer With Monika”, and in October, we celebrate the publication in 1967 of that great anthology The Mersey Sound which showcased the poetry of Liverpudlians McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henry.
Named for the musical revolution that originated in the northern English port city of Liverpool, it became one of the best-selling poetry anthologies of all time, exerting an influence on British poetry well beyond the decade. I bought the slim volume as soon as it came out, and back in the day, guitar in hand, I would set many of its poems to music as it nurtured my nascent song-writing and poetry skills. I recall now Patten’s “Somewhere Between Heaven and Woolworths’, and “Delicate John’ and the tunes I set to them. I still sing McGough’s Great War country-and-western-noir ‘Square Dance’: “Swing your partners dos-y-doed, all around the shells explode”
The poems had an immediacy, a relevance to those breakout times when a young man’s hopes and fears seemed to centre of the availability or otherwise (mostly not) of casual sex with gorgeous dolly birds, the American quagmire in Vietnam, and the imminent threat of a nuclear Armageddon. They spoke in a familiar vernacular, everyday English that we understood and related to about ordinary events and workaday artifacts that acquired a totemic significance upon the printed page. Toasters, teapots and fish ‘n chips. Kardomah cafes and Star of India restaurants. Bus-conductors, postmen, and milk bottles on the doorstep. Schoolyards and superheroes. Miniskirts and monarchy. The northern English weather.
And all this against the soundtrack of some of the greatest popular music that ever was spilling out of radios and record players in the suburban bedrooms and inner city bedsits of teenagers across the land. There wasn’t a great lyrical leap from the songs of the Beatles with their particular Liverpudlian spirit of place to the words, worries and wonderings of our very own British ‘Beat Poets’.
“This was indeed a decade of change and ferment. Values changed, morals changed, habits changed, clothes changed, music changed (the best music ever). The way people looked at the world and thought about it. We often look back and remark that a supernova of creativity burst over the western world during those years, the likes of which was not seen before and has never been seen again. And nowhere more so than in decadent, decaying, depressing, old England, trapped in tradition, class, and prejudice”.
I browsed through the whole book the other day, and in a way, it was like a reunion party, a meeting and greeting of old friends, a pleasant, nostalgic journey to a gone time. As that well-worn saying goes, the past is indeed another country – we certainly did things different then. The places and the people, the perceptions and perspectives, the preoccupations and the passions. As I read, I’d recognize words, phrases, images, ideas that osmosised into my own verse, particularly poetry I penned in the late sixties and early seventies, and which are gathered up in my Tabula Rasacollection.
It was my habit in those days to scribble little notes in the margins. And there they were now, for me to ponder fifty years on, and to wonder how the world looked when I wore a young man’s skin, and thought with the mind of a raw, inquiring, idealistic youth who had yet to break loose of the ties that bound, of family, school, and town. But the adventure had obviously begun – if only in the imagination, as I read and rehearsed, pondered and prepared for the great escape. An upper sixth, adolescent eclecticism well-illustrated by the picture below of my additions to Adrian Henri’s stream of consciousness nomenklatura:
Like Adrian Henri’s name-dropping, my neatly-written notes list a host of folk living and dead, mostly white and mostly male. Actors, authors and autocrats. Poets, painters, and philosophers. Popstars, policians and television personalities. Most are, even today, remembered and commemorated. Some are long forgotten. There are few on my list that I failed to recognize after all these years. But praise be to Google! I soon rediscovered that Sean Lemass was Taoiseach of Ireland in 1967; that Frank Mitchell was a notorious ax-murderer killed that year on the orders of the infamous Kray twins; that Manny Shinwell was an MP and trade unionist, and Jack Dash, a communist trade union leader. Bartle Frere was governor of Cape Colony at the time of the Zulu wars, and Dudley Stamp, a celebrated geographer of the British landscape, both included, I believe, because I was doing A Levels in History and Geography at the time, and their names struck a chord of sorts. In the light of my later life DownUnder, one name was particularly prescient: Harold Holt’s short tenure as prime minister of Australia ended in 1967 with a ill-fated swim off the coast of Melbourne. There are now Harold Holt swimming clubs and annual swimathons all over the country.
I will conclude this personal retrospective with a some quotations, poems and recordings:
She walks across the room and opens the skylight
thinking, perhaps a bird will drop in
for and teach her to sing
The children who grow old
to who squabble and grow thin
who lick their lips at disaster .
and quietly whisper of sin
walking in empty squares in winter rain
kissing in darkened hallways
walking in empty suburban streets
saying goodnight in deserted alleyways
in the midnight hour
The Independent recently published an affectionate tribute to Roger McGough on the occasion of this fiftieth anniversary. It includes Roger’s revisiting of one of his iconic poems:
Not for me a youngman’s death
Not a car crash, whiplash
One more for the road, kind of death.
Not a gun in hand, in a far off land
IED hidden in the sand death
Not a slow-fade, razor blade
bloodbath in the bath, death.
Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain
bullet in the brain, death
Not a horse-riding, paragliding
mountain climbing fall, death.
Motorcycle into an old stone wall
you know the kind of death, death
My nights are rarely unruly.
My days of all-night parties
are over, well and truly.
No mistresses no red sports cars
no shady deals no gangland bars
no drugs no fags no rock ‘n roll
Time alone has taken its toll
Let me die an old man’s death
Not a domestic brawl, blood in the hall
knife in the chest, death.
Not a drunken binge, dirty syringe
‘What a waste of a life’ death.
And here is one of my favourites from the Summer of Love:
Summer With Monika
They say the sun shone now and again
but it was generally cloudy
with far too much rain
they say babies were born
married couples made love,
often with each other
and people died
they say it was an average ordinary moderate
run-of-the-mill common or garden summer
but it wasn’t
for I locked a yellow door
and I threw away the key.
and I spent summer with Monica
and she spent summer with me
unlike everybody else we made friends with the weather
most days the sun called and sprawled all over the place
or the wind blew in as breezily as ever
and ran his fingers through our hair
but usually it was the moon that kept us company
some days we thought about the seaside
and built sand castles on the blankets
and paddled in the pillows
or swam in the sink and played with shoals of dishes
other days we went for long walks around the table
and picnicked on the banks of the settee
or just sunbathed lazily in front of the fire
until the shilling set on the horizon.
we danced a lot that summer
bossanovaed by the bookcase
or maddisoned instead,
hulligullied by the oven
or twisted round the bed
at first we kept birds in a transistor box
to sing for us but sadly they died
we being to embrace in each other to feed them.
but it didn’t really matter because
we made love songs with our bodies
I became the words
and she put me to music
they say it was just like any other summer
but it wasn’t
for we had love and each other
and the moon for company
when I spent summer with Monica
and Monica spent summer with me.