Neutrality remains the essence of Bob Dylan’s success. Indignant bystanders curse the coarseness of his voice while glorifying his creative mind. Such a passing interest in Dylan however truly reveals very little of what one is encountering. Under-rated or unappreciated he is not. His importance to a disaffected 1960’s generation does not mirror in terms of the heightened commercial success the last two decades of Dylan’s artistic output have brought him. He must have sold-out then surely? Hardly, the seven or so albums he has released since 1997, despite largely selling as well as they have, explore elements of Dylan scarcely catered to mass appeal.
Anyway, with a career that began closer to the outbreak of the First World War than the current day, what did Bob Dylan really have left to sell?
Our stubborn perception of what constitutes an artist’s ‘prime’ veils this period of creativity in an unfair uncertainty. Dylan’s latest release, Shadows in the Night, brings together a brief array of songs sung once by Frank Sinatra and sung now by Bob Dylan. Standards though these songs may be for Dylan, to those of us yet to make it beyond Sinatra’s Nothing But The Best, there is no degree of nostalgia available among the songs Dylan chose to cover. They are virtual unknowns, to a certain gathering of us. It would be Dylan’s sixth top-ten UK album in his seven latest attempts, the second of which to reach #1. A renaissance period or an artist reaching his peak in an age-bracket reserved for pensioners, few will disguise their honest opinion.
Over half-a-century before though, his blistering emergence from a complete unknown in 1961 to messianic spokesman by 1964 threatened to stifle this subsequent creativity. One event, committed fifty years ago this year, displayed the subtle alacrity of a man choosing to protest against his role as a pioneering protester, not in the hope that his position may be reconsidered, but, with an unwavering determination that what he was to subsequently create would be entirely his, and would lend itself to no man, movement or machine. In May 1965, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Bobby Neuwirth and a few others took to the back alley of London’s Savoy Hotel and decided to televise one man’s revolution.
Hardly a smash hit, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ (1965) was nonetheless Bob Dylan’s first top-forty U.S. single and his second top-ten hit in the United Kingdom. That it would not make an appearance on one of Dylan’s concert set lists until 1988 sets an unusual precedence for what a retrospective reading of this song can procure. In a year where the audible preference of record buyers circled around Sonny & Cher, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Petula Clark and more, that Dylan would neglect his own piece of chart success fosters a modicum of sense only when we consider that product of a few hours work and the subsequent music video produced.
A first of its kind, and acting as the precursor for D. A. Pennebaker’s Don't Look Back (a film covering the events of Dylan’s 1965 concert tour of the U.K.), the video recording of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was Dylan’s visualised line in the sand. His fabled diversification into electricity is by now hardly a story worth retelling. Who booed, who cheered, who hated it and who loved it is by now largely irrelevant. Dylan survived and prospered. As an article of his transformation however, scant concern is paid to the ‘Subterranean’ video that would see him playing no guitar at all as he stands there and looks right back at us.
Of the song’s foundation a lyrical and musical debt of gratitude is owed to Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry. The video however is pure Chaplin. From 1961 Dylan’s on-stage mannerisms were already being likened to Charlie Chaplin’s roguish Tramp. Robert Shelton, an early Dylan booster and, handily enough for Dylan, a writer with the New York Times, noted on the liner notes of the eponymous debut album Bob Dylan of the artists likeness to Chaplin’s screen creation. Although by 1965 Dylan’s initial shabby, journeyman aesthetic had been replaced by a more hip ensemble, for the video recording of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ Dylan nonetheless remained ‘conscious of the Chaplin tramp’. With occasional timing slips and glances beyond the camera’s reach, Dylan’s performance does not reflect the meticulous necessity of appearing as casual as Chaplin had mastered with his tramp. Yet, while the lucidity of Chaplin’s actions required no verbal explanation, the black and white nature of Dylan’s subversive lyrics allowed his cue cards to be a step out of time with the overdubbed track, yet remain entirely effective. Dylan stood alone and as the song petered out would walk in his own direction also.
In an ever escalating American environment of confusion, rage and disillusion, Dylan’s decision, as a vocal component of the cause for change in America, to be seen not singing but standing there, effectively motionless, was an act of attrition that would reverberate in the more experimental half of the 1960s. Would the inarticulate precision of John & Yoko’s ‘Bed-In’ four years later have been feasible in a society entirely unprepared by Dylan’s own alternative interpretation of communicating with popular culture? Ultimately, the importance of this event in terms of an evolving American landscape in which the exponents of popular culture were becoming increasingly visible can be measured by what it signalled in terms of change in its most important lyricist. Interpretations and early analysis of his ‘protest’ songs, his unrequested ascension to ‘Archbishop of Anarchy’, led Dylan to seek a different medium in which there would be no mistaking his intentions. In an effort to defy the times, he embraced them seamlessly.
There remains a heightened degree of self-awareness consistently fostered in both the viewer and the participants being viewed as this video plays out. Standard practice determines that a music video will almost always carry out actions to the tune of the subsequently aligned song itself. We are not witnessing the on-screen actions in real time with the song we are hearing. Yet, with ‘Subterranean’, we have the unusual phenomenon of listening to Bob Dylan, with Bob Dylan. Naturally, it is not an experience shared in a literal sense for anyone other than the few people present at the time of the event itself. But, in this video recording – one must assume given his shifting of the cards when the timing occasionally slips – Dylan is listening to his recording of his own song while highlighting for the viewer an image of the words he wishes for you to consider, for better or worse few can be certain.
What bears thinking about is his decision to integrate fresh meaning into these pre-recorded words. Through this visual medium Dylan infuses his own lyrics with puns, miss-spellings and altogether unrelated words as the record plays. An attempt at satirising those who tried so earnestly to understand the ‘meaning’ of what he was singing, or perhaps just a bit of fun? Either way, Dylan was alerting anyone who cared to watch that far from being a misunderstood, tortured poet, he could clarify better than most that where the song began and where Bob Dylan ended, there was a man in there who was not perhaps all that people needed him to be.
That Bob Dylan, the popularised possessor of a great creative mind and a grating voice should achieve a British and Irish #1 album with an album of covers, let alone an album covering the songs of Frank Sinatra, must then surely be a minor miracle or an unfathomable con. Or, perhaps, our abundance of information has burdened any ability we had at giving time to the notions we are led to understand as fact. Reading the 2014 Pep Confidential by Marti Perarnau, one is faced with a Pep Guardiola, famed manager of Barcelona and now Bayern Munich, who apparently despises with a passion any notion of ‘tiki-taka’ football. A complete misinterpretation of the footballing aesthetic he wished to cultivate, it is a gleeful example of one’s work being horribly misconstrued and effectively staying that way.
For Dylan, a long-term critic in Greil Marcus ascertained that even in lieu of a career spanning six decades, Dylan’s obituary had already been penned after only the first four or five years, now left awaiting that fateful day. The ‘Crown Prince of Protest’ it seems will never outrun the initial outlet which afforded him a place in the minds of a weary American people. He has written songs finer than ‘Blowin in the Wind’, ‘The Times They Are-A Changin’’ and ‘Masters Of War’, yet, for many, this genre of song deemed too stifling by a Dylan that yearned for unlimited creative liberty will forever constitute his legacy. It would not however continue to limit him from doing exactly as he wanted musically, and otherwise.
In the back alley of The Savoy Hotel, he left an indelible message for those that cared to watch that he, like Chaplin’s tramp, would come and go as he pleased, occasionally cheering you up and inspiring you, and perhaps more often than not, confusing and infuriating you. Half a century on, sitting atop of the U.K. album chart, what, one wonders is his measure of ‘suckcess’?
Arthur James is @ArthurJamesOD.
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