Bob Dylan is set to release his 35th studio album, The Tempest, next week. But after Cadillac adverts, middle-of-the-road country/blues albums and mis-classifications, Tom Rollins asks, should we still be lapping it up?

I’ve got beef with Bob Dylan.
After a good 10 years of denim caps, Cuban heels, countless bedroom cover versions, dissertation topics and doing my top bottom up right to the bloody top, I’ve have had a little word with myself.
And now I’m having one with Bob.
1. Positively Wall Street
For all those people who sing his songs at open mic nights, festival campsites, occupations and rallies – normally ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ isn’t it? – carrying the sacred torch of protest music, the chimes of freedom, etc., Dylan is a beguiling disappointment.
He has left us with one of the most important bodies of political art, arguably, of the 20th-century. (I’m thinking: ‘With God On Our Side’, ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, ‘North Country Blues’, ‘Only A Pawn in Their Game’, etc.) These songs have entered into our day-to-day political language on a level with writings by Karl Marx (“opium of the masses”), George Orwell (“doublethink”) and the old folk standards that marchers sang from Jarrow to London and Selma to Montgomery.
But then he goes and pops up in an advert for Apple, Cadillac or Victoria’s Secret.
Apple
Cadillac (“a good car after a war”)
Victoria's Secret
And then there’s the Pepsi advert with pop monster Will.I.AM remixing ‘Forever Young.’ This one stung the most:
All this can put people off – quite right too. Some people anyway, the sort that value artistic integrity over just being a singer who does a bit of corporate back-rubbing on the side.
Dylan can now be studied in universities, and so he exists in some kind of postmodernist playing-with-the-idea-of-the-artistic-self-and-irony-is-like-a-multi-layered-onion academic wet dream, academics/fans/obsessives can say: “That’s what he wants you to think, he’s playing the game.”
If Dylan is playing a game, he’s playing it like a pro to the benefit of multinational corporations; some of them, like Apple and Pepsi, arguably responsible for nefarious damage to the environment, democracy and the progressive anti-objectification of bums, boobs and Chinese labour. That’s his prerogative as an artist and a celebrity, it’s not ours to go along with it.
The man that wrote a song as poignant, biting and tragic as ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ – after civil rights activist Medgar Evans was shot down outside his own home – also said, in 1965, that he would do what he was expected to do should he be called up to Vietnam. (By the masters of war, presumably.) That same man thrives off contradiction, Hitch-22 paradoxes and going against exactly what people expect of him at any given moment – an irritating and sometimes hilarious trait which when applied to politics can be particularly annoying.
Because of the power of Dylan’s early work, people expect a consistent progressive attitude running through his 35 album-long career. His political art – plus his other art (including those strange paintings) – can really pull the wool.

Only A Pawn In Their Game - Bob Dylan by vicky7xthomas

2. Don’t Think Twice
Since the mid-Sixties there’s been no shortage of wordy singer-songwriters to fawn over in Dylan’s wake. They’re always the next best thing, but it’s only ever “the next Bob Dylan” that matters, like we’re only ever trying to fulfil that first excitement when someone was singing about what was in the newspaper but on the telly.
Donovan, Tim Buckley, Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle, even Mike Skinner. It was Alex Turner’s turn not long ago – his northern grit was like a Freewheelin’ South Yorkshire built on flat lager and fights instead of segregation and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And now it’s Jake Bugg’s time to have a go. He’s the troubadour to watch in 2012, apparently, a pretty impressive occupation for a 21-year-old from Nottingham.
Dylan is used as shorthand for a certain type of performer, but what? Townes Van Zandt-ish Mike Skinnery folk-grime? People who write wordy, considered and articulate songs cannot exist as themselves without a comparison with the voice of a generation that ended 40 years ago. Put it like that and it starts to sound more than ridiculous.
We’re all feeling a hangover from the serious music journalists who first fell head over Cuban heels in love with him back in the day, but now it’s pure journo shorthand that reduces anyone doing something new and interesting to a Related Artists tab on Spotify.
3. Back Pages
Like my impressionable longhair brothers and sisters in arms from 1965, I used to praise Dylan as a poet. “Have you actually read the lyrics for ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall?’ It’s so good, it’s…poetry.”
But what makes Dylan a poet? Is it a song like ‘Chimes of Freedom’? Is it his sprawling acid-novel, Tarantula? Or is it because at the after-party following his Newport ’65 plugged-in gig he refused Greenwich Villager Maria Muldaur’s invitation to dance: “I would dance with you Maria, but my hands are on fire”? If you were Maria and you met that guy at a party in Dalston, you’d think he was either lysergically disturbed or a total wanker. Probably both. But it’s Bobby, so that’s okay.
If you’ll let me scratch my chin for second, I’ll explain. Dylan is not a poet because he writes songs, not poetry. Words written specifically for musical – and especially vocal – accompaniment are songs, not poetry, because Dylan sings them (or grunts and growls and ruins them, depending where you stand).
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with a bit of mis-classification, except there is here. People call songs like ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ poetry because calling them great lyrics doesn’t seem to have the same intellectual gravitas. That’s why I called Dylan a poet when I was younger because Dylan the poet, not the lyricist, felt like a leather-jacketed coup on the fusty literary canon – “Finally we’ve got someone as good as Keats,” people said. “And he’s ours!”
But, really, it just doesn’t sound as good to just say it’s a really fucking good song.


It's alright ma (I'm only bleeding) - Bob Dylan by vicky7xthomas

If there’s any doubt whatsoever that Dylan is a really fucking good songwriter – one of the best we’ve ever had, one of the best we’ll ever have – then just read the lyrics for ‘It’s Alright Ma’:
While preachers preach of evil fates

Teachers teach that knowledge waits

Can lead to hundred-dollar plates

Goodness hides behind its gates

But even the president of the United States

Sometimes must have to stand naked
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged

It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge

And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it
Advertising signs they con

You into thinking you’re the one

That can do what’s never been done

That can win what’s never been won

Meantime life outside goes on

All around you
[…]
For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree

Who despise their jobs, their destinies

Speak jealously of them that are free

Cultivate their flowers to be

Nothing more than something they invest in
While some on principles baptized

To strict party platform ties

Social clubs in drag disguise

Outsiders they can freely criticize

Tell nothing except who to idolize

And then say:God bless him
While one who sings with his tongue on fire

Gargles in the rat race choir

Bent out of shape from society’s pliers

Cares not to come up any higher

But rather get you down in the hole

That he’s in.
Yes this could be read as a poem – it has all the hip wisdom, wordliness and truth-telling of a great poet. But without Dylan’s machine gun folk guitar and restless, rasping delivery it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be Dylan anymore.
I think it’s an insult to pop music as an art form that those who push it forward, develop it and enrich it for everyone after them become part of an elitist supra-sect which no longer quite associates with pop.
If pop really does mean popular – populist, democratic, for everyone – then what could be more pop than the words of Bob Dylan: forever quoted in books, films and TV, sung from the barricades from Chile to Occupy LSX and enjoyed in a deep, profound way by people the world over.
You can stream The Tempest for free here before its release next week.

Share on Facebook
  • Music
  • Style
  • Life
  • Subcasts
  • Essay
DRONE WAR 2.0
New "killer robot" drone technology means civilians are always going to be in the crosshair.
DOES MY GUILT LOOK BIG IN THIS?
How "eco" is the eco-fashion industry?
WE SLEPT...WE WOKE
One man tells Substance about life in the indignados' Spain.
END OF THE OCCUPATION
A centuries-old law has gone.
IS EDM EATING ITSELF?
A look behind the headlines, dollars and cakes of Electronic Dance Music
FOREIGN FLAGS AT LA BASTILLE
Has Francois Hollande's election victory revealed a French identity crisis?
MY DAD IS A ZIONIST...
Why renouncing my Israeli citizenship was the only thing left to do.
THE iPOD AND THE FUNCTION OF MUSIC
How Steve Jobs' little white jukebox changed the musical landscape
THE DREGS OF SOCIETY
New measures to tackle binge drinking are scraping the barrel.
THE NEW DRUGS TRADE, PART 2
Illegal drugs are freely available online
THE NEW DRUGS TRADE, PART 1
The legal drug business is still booming