Ellen Willis (Editor of New Yorker) Article

Below is an article posted to the Facebook Edlis Cafe group. Must reading.

“Dylan” – from Cheetah, 1967


Nearly two years ago, Bob Dylan had a motorcycle accident. Reports of his condition were vague, and he dropped out of sight. Publication of his book, Tarantula, was postponed indefinitely. New records appeared, but they were from his last album, Blonde on Blonde. Gruesome rumors circulated: Dylan was dead; he was badly disfigured; he was paralyzed; he was insane. The cataclysm his audience was always expecting seemed to have arrived. Phil Ochs had predicted that Dylan might someday be assassinated by a fan. Pete Seeger believed Dylan could become the country’s greatest troubadour, if he didn’t explode. Alan Lomax had once remarked that Dylan might develop into a great poet of the times, unless he killed himself first. Now, images of James Dean filled the news vacuum. As months passed, reflex apprehension turned to suspense, then irritation: had we been put on again? We had. Friends began to admit, with smiles, that they’d seen Bobby; he was rewriting his book; he was about to sign a contract with MGM Records. The new rumor was that the accident had been a cover for retreat. After Blonde on Blonde, his intensive foray into the pop demimonde, Dylan needed time to replenish his imagination. According to a less romantic version, he was keeping quiet till his contracts expired.

The confusion was typical. Not since Rimbaud said “I is another” has an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity. His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker’s ultimate antagonist. The original disparity between his public pose as rootless wanderer with southwestern drawl and the private facts of home and middle class Jewish family and high school diploma in Hibbing, Minnesota, was a commonplace subterfuge, the kind that pays reporters’ salaries. It hardly showed his talent for elusiveness; what it probably showed was naiveté. But his attitude toward himself as a public personality was always clear. On an early recording he used the eloquent pseudonym “Blind Boy Grunt.” “Dylan” is itself a pseudonym, possibly inspired by Dylan Thomas (a story Dylan now denies), possibly by a real or imaginary uncle named Dillon, who might or might not be the “Las Vegas dealer” Dylan once claimed was his only living relative.

In six years Dylan’s stance has evolved from proletarian assertiveness to anarchist angst to pop detachment. At each stage he has made himself harder to follow, provoked howls of execration from those left behind, and attracted an ever-larger, more demanding audience. He has reacted with growing hostility to the possessiveness of this audience and its shock troops, the journalists, the professional categorizers. His baroque press conference inventions are extensions of his work, full of imaginative truth and virtually devoid of information. The classic Dylan interview appeared in Playboy, where Nat Hentoff, like a housewife dusting her furniture while a tornado wrecks the house, pursued the homely fact through exchanges like: “Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?” “Well, I guess I’ve always wanted to be Anthony Quinn in La Strada … I guess I’ve always wanted to be Brigitte Bardot, too; but I don’t really want to think about that too much.”

Dylan’s refusal to be known is not simply a celebrity’s ploy, but a passion that has shaped his work. As his songs have become more introspective, the introspections have become more impersonal, the confidences of a no-man without past or future. Bob Dylan as identifiable persona has been disappearing into his songs, which is what he wants. This terrifies his audiences. They could accept a consistent image — roving minstrel, poet of alienation, spokesman for youth — in lieu of the “real” Bob Dylan. But his progressive self-annihilation cannot be contained in a game of let’s pretend, and it conjures up nightmares of madness, mutilation, death.

The nightmares are chimerical; there is a continuing self, the Bobby Dylan friends describe as shy and defensive, hyped up, careless of his health, a bit scared by fame, unmaterialistic but shrewd about money, a professional absorbed in his craft. Dylan’s songs bear the stigmata of an authentic middle-class adolescence; his eye for detail, sense of humor, and skill at evoking the archetypal sexual skirmishes show that some part of him is of as well as in the world. As further evidence, he has a wife, son, and house in Woodstock, New York. Instead of an image, Dylan has created a magic theater in which the public gets lost willy-nilly. Yet he is more — or less — than the sum of his illusions.

Many people hate Bob Dylan because they hate being fooled. Illusion is fine, if quarantined and diagnosed as mild; otherwise it is potentially humiliating (is he laughing at me? conning me out of my money?). Some still discount Dylan as merely a popular culture hero (how can a teen-age idol be a serious artist — at most, perhaps, a serious demagogue). But the most tempting answer — forget his public presence, listen to his songs — won’t do. For Dylan has exploited his image as a vehicle for artistic statement. The same is true of Andy Warhol and, to a lesser degree, of the Beatles and Allen Ginsberg. (In contrast, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were creatures, not masters, of their images.) The tenacity of the modern publicity apparatus often makes artists’ personalities more familiar than their work, while its pervasiveness obscures the work of those who can’t or won’t be personalities. If there is an audience for images, artists will inevitably use the image as a medium — and some images are more original, more compelling, more relevant than others. Dylan has self-consciously explored the possibilities of mass communication just as the pop artists explored the possibilities of mass production. In the same sense that pop art is about commodities, Dylan’s art is about celebrity.

This is not to deny the intrinsic value of Dylan’s songs. Everyone interested in folk and popular music agrees on their importance, if not their merit. As composer, interpreter, most of all as lyricist, Dylan has made a revolution. He expanded folk idiom into a rich, figurative language, grafted literary and philosophical subtleties onto the protest song, revitalized folk vision by rejecting proletarian and ethnic sentimentality, then all but destroyed pure folk as a contemporary form by merging it with pop. Since then rock-and-roll, which was already in the midst of a creative flowering dominated by British rock and Motown, has been transformed. Songwriters have raided folk music as never before for new sounds, new images, new subject matter. Dylan’s innovative lyrics have been enthusiastically imitated. The folk music lovers who managed to evolve with him, the connoisseurs of pop, the bohemian fringe of the literary community, hippies, and teen-agers consider him a genius, a prophet. Folk purists and political radicals, who were inspired by his earlier material, cry betrayal with a vehemence that acknowledges his gifts.

Yet many of Dylan’s fans — especially ex-fans — miss the point. Dylan is no apostle of the electronic age. Rather, he is a fifth-columnist from the past, shaped by personal and political nonconformity, by blues and modern poetry. He has imposed his commitment to individual freedom (and its obverse, isolation) on the hip passivity of pop culture, his literacy on an illiterate music. He has used the publicity machine to demonstrate his belief in privacy. His songs and public role are guides to survival in the world of the image, the cool, and the high. And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced it to come to terms with him.II

By 1960 the folk music revival that began in the fifties had expanded into an all inclusive smorgasbord, with kitschy imitation-folk groups at one end, resurrected cigarbox guitarists and Ozark balladeers at the other. Of music that pretended to ethnic authenticity, the most popular was folk blues — Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Lightnin’ Hopkins. The response to blues was in part a tribute to the ascendancy of rock-and-roll — Negro rhythms had affected the consciousness of every teen-ager in the fifties. But blues, unlike rock, was free of identification with the dominant society. Its sexuality and rebelliousness were undiluted, and it was about people, not teen-agers. Besides, the Negro, always a dual symbol of suffering and life force, was gaining new political importance, and folk blues expressed the restlessness of activists, bohemians, déclassé intellectuals. Since younger Negro performers were not interested in preserving a genre they had abandoned for more distinctly urban forms, white city singers tried to fill the gap. Patronized unmercifully by blues purists, the best of them did not simply approximate Negro sounds but evoked personal pain and disenchantment with white culture.

At the same time there was a surge of folk composing. The Weavers, in the vanguard of the revival, had popularized the iconoclastic ballads and talking blues of Woody Guthrie, chronicler of the dust bowl and the Depression, the open road, the unions, the common man as intrepid endurer. Pete Seeger, the Weavers’ lead singer in the early days and the most prestigious folk musician in the country, had recorded albums of topical songs from the thirties and forties. With the emergence of the civil rights movement, freedom songs, some new, some updated spirituals and union chants, began coming out of the South. Northern musicians began to write and perform their own material, mainly variations on the hard-traveling theme and polemics against racism, the bomb and middle-class conformity. Guthrie was their godfather, Seeger their guru, California songwriter Malvina Reynolds their older sister. Later, they were to acquire an angel — Joan Baez, who would record their songs and sing them at racial demonstrations and peace rallies; an organ — Broadside, a mimeographed magazine founded in 1962; and a sachem — Bob Dylan.

Gerde’s Folk City, an unassuming, unbohemian cabaret in Greenwich Village, was the folk fans’ chief New York hangout. On Monday, hootenanny night, blues interpreters like Dave Van Ronk, bluegrass groups like the Greenbriar Boys, the new topical songwriters — Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Len Chandler — would stop in and perform. Established singers came because Gerde’s was part of the scene, because they enjoyed playing to the aficionados who gathered after midnight. The young ones came for a showcase and for contact with musicians they admired.

When Bob Dylan first showed up at Gerde’s in the spring of 1961, fresh-skinned and baby-faced and wearing a schoolboy’s corduroy cap, the manager asked him for proof of age. He was nineteen, only recently arrived in New York. Skinny, nervous, manic, the bohemian patina of jeans and boots, scruffy hair, hip jargon and hitchhiking mileage barely settled on nice Bobby Zimmerman, he had been trying to catch on at the coffeehouses. His material and style were a cud of half-digested influences: Guthrie cum Elliott; Blind Lemon Jefferson cum Leadbelly cum Van Ronk; the hillbilly sounds of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers; the rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. He was constantly writing new songs. Onstage, he varied poignancy with clownishness. His interpretations of traditional songs — especially blues — were pretentious, and his harsh, flat voice kept slipping over the edge of plaintiveness into strident self-pity. But he shone as a comedian, charming audiences with Charlie Chaplin routines, playing with his hair and cap, burlesquing his own mannerisms, and simply enjoying himself. His specialty was composing lightly sardonic talking blues — chants to a bass-run guitar accompaniment, a favorite vehicle of Woody Guthrie’s: “Them Communists were all around/ in the air and on the ground/ … I run down most hurriedly/ and joined the John Birch society.”

That fall, New York Times folk music critic Robert Shelton visited Gerde’s and gave Dylan an enthusiastic review. Columbia Records signed him and released a mediocre first album in February 1962. It contained only two Dylan compositions, both nonpolitical. Dylan began publishing his topical songs in Broadside. Like his contemporaries, he was more propagandist than artist, his syntax often barbarous, his diction crude. Even so, his work stood out — it contained the most graphic descriptions of racial atrocities. But Dylan also had a gentler mood. Road songs like “Song to Woody” strove — not too successfully — for Guthrie’s expressive understatement and simple, traditional sound.

In May 1962, Broadside published a new Dylan song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Set to a melody adapted from a spiritual, it combined indignation with Guthriesque simplicity and added a touch of original imagery. It received little circulation until nearly a year later, when Peter, Paul and Mary heard Dylan sing it at a coffeehouse. Their recording of the song sold a million copies, inspired more than fifty other versions, and established topical song as the most important development of the folk revival. The relative subtlety of the lyric made the topical movement aesthetically self-conscious. It did not drive out direct political statements — Dylan himself continued to write them — but it set a standard impossible to ignore, and topical songs began to show more wit, more craftsmanship, more variety.“Blowin’ in the Wind” was included in Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which appeared in May 1963. This time, nearly all the songs were his own; five had political themes. It was an extraordinary record. The influences had coalesced; the voice, unmusical as ever, had found an evocative range somewhere between abrasion and sentimentality; the lyrics (except for “Masters of War,” a simplistic diatribe against munitions-makers) were vibrant and pithy. The album contained what may still be Dylan’s best song — “It’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a vivid evocation of nuclear apocalypse that owed much to Allen Ginsberg’s biblical rhetoric and declamatory style. Its theme was modern, its spirit ancient. At first hearing, most of the Freewheelin’ songs sounded less revolutionary than they were: so skillfully had Dylan distilled the forms and moods of traditional music that his originality took time to register.

Freewheelin’ illuminated Dylan’s America — or rather, two Americas. “Hard Rain” confronted the underside, “where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden,” “where black is the color and none is the number,” a world of deserted diamond highways, incipient tidal waves, clowns crying in alleys, children armed with guns and swords, “10,000 whisperin and nobody listenin” and occasional portents of redemption: “I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow.” The satirical “Talking World War III Blues” toured the country’s surface: hot dog stands, parking meters, Cadillacs, rockand-roll singers, telephone operators, cool females, officious doctors. Dylan’s moral outrage coexisted with a grudging affection for American society and its foibles. If there was “Masters of War,” there was also “I Shall Be Free”: “My telephone rang, it would not stop, it was President Kennedy callin me up./ He said my friend Bob what do we need to make this country grow I said my friend John, Brigitte Bardot.”For a time the outrage predominated. Dylan’s output of bitter protest increased and his humor receded. He was still learning from Woody Guthrie, but he often substituted despair for Guthrie’s resilience: his finest ballads chronicled the disintegration of an unemployed miner’s family; the killing of a Negro maid, punished by a six-month sentence; the extremity of a penniless farmer who shot himself, his wife, and five kids. At the same time his prophetic songs discarded the pessimism of “Hard Rain” for triumph in “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and vindictiveness in “When the Ship Comes In”: “Then they’ll raise their hands, say we’ll meet all your demands, and we’ll shout from the bow, your days are numbered.”

It was Dylan’s year. Stimulated by the wide acceptance of his work, inspired by his ideas and images, topical songwriters became more and more prolific. Dylan songs were recorded by dozens of folk singers, notably Joan Baez (at whom he had once sneered, “She’s still singing about Mary Hamilton. Where’s that at?”). No folk concert was complete without “Hard Rain,” or “Don’t Think Twice,” or a protest song from Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’. The college folk crowd imitated Dylan; civil rights workers took heart from him; masochistic journalists lionized him.

And in the attenuated versions of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, even Lawrence Welk, his songs reached the fraternity house and the suburb. Then Dylan yanked the rug: he renounced political protest. He put out an album of personal songs and in one of them, “My Back Pages,” scoffed at his previous moral absolutism. His refrain — “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” — seemed a slap at the thirties left. And the song contained scraps of uncomfortably private imagery — hints of aesthetic escapism?

Folk devotees were shocked at Dylan’s apostasy. Folk music and social protest have always fed on each other, and the current revival had been political all along. For children of Depression activists growing up in the Eisenhower slough, folk music was a way of keeping the faith. When they converged on the Weavers’ Town Hall hootenannies, they came as the anti-McCarthy resistance, pilgrims to the thirties shrine. The Weavers were blacklisted for alleged Communist connections; Pete Seeger had been there, singing for the unions, for the Spanish Republic. It didn’t matter what they sang — in the atmosphere of conspiratorial sympathy that permeated those performances, even “Greensleeves” had radical overtones. Later, as the left revived, folk singing became a badge of involvement, an expression of solidarity, and most important, a history-in-the-raw of struggle. Now, Dylan’s defection threatened the last aesthetically respectable haven for believers in proletarian art.

Dylan had written personal songs before, but they were songs that accepted folk conventions. Narrative in impulse, nostalgic but restless in mood, their central image the road and its imperative, they complemented his protest songs: here was an outlaw, unable to settle for one place, one girl, a merely private life, committed to that symbolic onward journey. His new songs were more psychological, limning characters and relationships. They substituted ambition for the artless perfection of his best early songs; “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” a gloss on the spiritual possessiveness of woman, took three stanzas to say what “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” had suggested in a few phrases: “I’m thinkin and wonderin, walkin down the road/ I once loved a woman, a child I’m told/ gave her my heart but she wanted my soul.”

Dylan’s language was opening up— doves sleeping in the sand were one thing, “crimson flames tied through my ears” quite another. And his tone was changing: in his love songs, ingenuousness began to yield to self-possession, the spontaneity of the road to the gamesmanship of the city. They were transitional songs, full of half-realized ideas; having rejected the role of people’s bard, Dylan had yet to find a new niche.


In retrospect, Dylan’s break with the topical song movement seemed inevitable. He had modeled himself on Woody Guthrie, whose incessant traveling was an emotional as well as economic necessity, whose commitment to radical politics was rooted in an individualism as compulsive as Dylan’s own. But Guthrie had had to organize or submit; Dylan had other choices. For Guthrie, the road was habitat; for Dylan, metaphor. The closing of the iron mines had done to Hibbing what drought had done to Guthrie’s Oklahoma, but while Guthrie had been a victim, Dylan was a bystander. A voluntary refugee from middle-class life, more aesthete than activist, he had less in common with the left than with literary rebels — Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, Crane, Ginsberg.

The beauty of “Hard Rain” was that it exploited poetry while remaining a folk lyric, simple, repetitive, seemingly uncontrived. Now Dylan became self-consciously poetic, adopting a neo-beat style loaded with images. Though he had rejected the traditional political categories, his new posture was if anything more scornful of the social order than before. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” attacked both the “human gods” who “make everything from toy guns that spark to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark” and their acquiescent victims. “Gates of Eden,” like “Hard Rain,” descended into a surreal netherworld, the menace this time a psychic bomb, the revolt of repressed instinct. As poetry these songs were overrated — Howl had said it all much better — and they were unmusical, near-chants declaimed to a monotonous guitar strum. Yet the perfunctory music made the bohemian commonplaces work — made them fresh. Perhaps it was the context: though few people realized it yet, the civil rights movement was losing its moral force; the Vietnam juggernaut was becoming the personal concern of every draftable man; a new generation of bohemians, more expansive and less cynical than the beats, was about to blossom. The time was right for a reaffirmation of individual revolt.

But Dylan had also been exposed to a very different vision: in May 1964, he had toured an England transformed by mod fashion and the unprecedented excitement over the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. When his new record came out the following spring, its title was Bringing It All Back Home. On the album jacket a chiaroscuro Dylan, bright face emerging from ominous shadows, stared accusingly at the viewer. In black suit and striped shirt, he perched on a long divan, hugging a cat, behind him a modish, blankfaced beauty in scarlet lounging pajamas. The room, wreathed in light and dominated by a baroque mantelpiece, abounded with artifacts — Time, a movie magazine, a fallout shelter sign, folk and pop records (including earlier Dylan), a portrait, a candlestick, a few mysterious objects obscured by the halo.

Most of side one was devoted to “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma.” But the most arresting cut on the side was “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a hymn to the psychedelic quest: “take me disappearing through the smoke-rings of my mind…. take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship.” Drug-oriented bohemians loved it; it was another step away from the sobersided politicals. It was also more like a folk song than anything Dylan had written since giving up politics, a spiritual road song with a lilting, singable melody.

The other side was rock-and-roll, Dylan on electric guitar and piano backed by a five-man band. It was not hard rock. There was no over-dubbing, and Dylan played his amplified guitar folk-style. But the beat was there, and the sound, if not overwhelming, was big enough to muffle some of the lyrics. These dispensed a new kind of folk wisdom. Chaos had become a condition, like the weather, not to analyze or prophesy but to gripe about, cope with, dodge: “Look out, kid, it’s somethin you did/ God knows when but you’re doin it again.” The message was pay attention to what’s happening: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin meters.”

One rock song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” was released as a single. As Dylan’s pop debut, it was a modest success, hovering halfway up the Cash Box and Billboard charts. That summer, Dylan cut “Like a Rolling Stone,” the most scurrilous and — with its powerful beat — the most dramatic in a long line of non-love songs. It was a number-one hit, as “Blowin’ in the Wind” had been two years before — only now it was Dylan’s own expressive snarl coming over radio and jukebox.

“Like a Rolling Stone” opened Dylan’s first all-rock album, Highway 61 Revisited. More polished but less daring than Bringing It All Back Home, the album reworked familiar motifs. The title song, which depicted the highway as junkyard, temple, and battlefield, was Dylan’s best face-of-America commentary since “Talking World War III Blues.” The witty and scarifying “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which derided the rationalist bewildered by the instinctual revolt, was an updated “Times They Are A Changin’,” with battle lines redrawn according to pop morality. Dylan did not hail the breakdown of sanity he described but merely kept his cool, mocking Mr. Jones (the pop equivalent of Mr. Charlie) for committing squareness: “The sword-swallower he comes up to you and then he kneels/ … and he says here is your throat back, thanks for the loan/ and something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

“Desolation Row” was Dylan’s final tribute to the Götterdämmerung strain in modern literature — an eleven-minute freak show whose cast of losers, goons, and ghosts wandered around in a miasma of sexual repression and latent violence underscored by the electronic beat.The violent hostility of traditionalists to Dylan’s rock-and-roll made the uproar over “My Back Pages” seem mild. Not only orthodox leftists but bohemian radicals called him a sellout and a phony. At the July 1965 Newport Folk Festival he appeared with his electric guitar and was booed off the stage. Alan Lomax, America’s foremost authority on folk song, felt Dylan had chucked his artistry for a big audience and forsaken a mature culture for one that was evanescent and faddish. Tom Paxton, dean of the new crop of topical songwriters, commented: “‘Where it’s at’ is a synonym for ”rich.’“

Defiantly, Dylan exacerbated the furor, insisting on his contempt for message songs and his indifference to causes, refusing to agonize over his wealth or his taxes (“Uncle Sam, he’s my uncle! Can’t turn your back on a member of the family!”). In one notorious interview he claimed he had written topical songs only to get published in Broadside and attract attention. Many former fans took the bait. Actually, Dylan’s work still bristled with messages; his “opportunism” had absorbed three years of his life and produced the finest extensions of traditional music since Guthrie. But the purists believed in it because they wanted to. Their passion told less about Dylan than about their own peculiar compound of aristocratic and proletarian sensitivities.

Pure folk sound and idiom, in theory the expression of ordinary people, had become the province of middle-class dissidents who identified with the common man but whose attitude toward common men resembled that of White Russian expatriates toward the communized peasants. For them popular music — especially rock-and-roll — symbolized the displacement of the true folk by the mass. Rock was not created by the people but purveyed by the communications industry. The performer was incidental to engineer and publicity man. The beat was moronic, the lyrics banal teenage trivia.These were half-truths. From the beginning, there was a bottom-up as well as top-down movement in rock-and-roll: neighborhood kids formed groups and wrote songs; country singers adopted a rhythm-and-blues beat. Rock took a mechanized, acquisitive society for granted, yet in its own way it was protest music, uniting teenagers against adults’ lack of sympathy with youthful energy and love and sex. The mediocrity of most performers only made rock more “authentic” — anyone could sing it — and one of the few remaining vindications of the American dream — any kid from the slums might become a millionaire. (The best singers, of course, were fine interpreters; Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry did not have golden voices, but neither did Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie.) Rock-and-roll was further from the grass roots than traditional music, but closer than any other kind of pop. If folk fans did not recognize this, the average adult did, and condemned the music for its adolescent surliness and its sexuality, covert in the lyrics, overt in the beat and in the intense response to idols.

But it remained for the British renaissance to prove that the mainstream of mass culture could produce folk music — that is, antiestablishment music. The Beatles, commercial without apology, delighted in the Americanized decadence of their environment. Yet their enthusiasm was subversive — they endorsed the reality of the culture, not its official myths. The Rolling Stones were iconoclastic in a different way: deliberately ugly, blatantly erotic, they exuded contempt for the public while making a fortune. Their cynicism, like Leadbelly’s violence or Charlie Parker’s heroin, was part of their charisma. Unlike traditional folk singers, they could cheerfully censor their lyrics for Ed Sullivan without seeming domesticated — the effect was more as if they had paraded a sign saying “Blank CBS.” British rock was far superior to most early rockand-roll.

Times had changed: electronic techniques were more sophisticated, radio stations and record companies less squeamish about sexual candor, and teen culture was merging into a more mature, less superficial youth culture with semibohemian tastes. Most important, the British groups successfully assimilated Negro music, neither vitiating rhythm-and-blues nor imitating it, but refining it to reflect their own milieu — white, urban, technological, materialistic, tough-minded.

Most folk fans — even those with no intrinsic objections to rock, who had perhaps listened to it when they were teen-agers and not obliged to be serious — assumed that commercial exploitation automatically gutted music. Yet the Stones were creating blues as valid as the work of any folk singers, black or white. After Bringing It All Back Home, the contradiction could no longer be ignored, and those not irrevocably committed to the traditional folk ethos saw the point. Phil Ochs praised Highway 61; Joan Baez cut a rock-and-roll record; more and more folk singers began to use electronic instruments. Folk-rock generated an unaccustomed accord between the folk and pop worlds. In Crawdaddy! Richard Fariña lauded “this shift away from open-road-protest flat-pick-style to more Nashville-Motown-Thameside, with the strong implication that some of us had been listening to the A.M. radio.” Malvina Reynolds pronounced the new rock-and-roll “a wonder and delight.” By November 1966, folk-rock had received the final imprimatur — Pete Seeger recorded an album backed by three members of the Blues Project.

Folk-rock was never a form, but a simpleminded inspiration responsible for all sorts of hybrids. At first it was mostly rock versions of Dylan folk songs, social protest rock, and generational trauma rock, a weekend-hippie version of the classic formula, children against parents. Then, self-styled musical poets Simon and Garfunkel began imitating Dylan’s apocalyptic songs (“The words of the prophets are written on a subway wall”), starting a trend to elaborate and, too often, sophomoric lyrics. The Lovin’ Spoonful invented the “good-time sound,” a varying mixture of rock, blues, jug, and old pop. Donovan wrote medieval fantasies and pop collages like “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow.” And there was acid-rock, the music of new bohemia.

Psychedelic music, like folk-rock, was a catchall label; it described a variety of products shaped by folk, British rock. Chicago blues, jazz, Indian music. psychedelic lyrics, heavily influenced by Dylanesque imagery, used the conventions of the romantic pop song to express sexual and mystical rather than sentimental love and focused on the trip — especially the flight — the way folk music focused on the road. The Byrds, who had started folk-rock moving with their hit record of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” launched the California psychedelic sound with “Eight Miles High,” which picked up on the Beatles’ experiments with Indian instrumentation and was ostensibly about flying over London airport (it was banned anyway by right-thinking disc jockeys).

Though the Byrds were from Los Angeles, the scene soon shifted north, and a proliferation of underground rock groups — some, like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Country Joe and the Fish, quickly surfaced — made San Francisco the new center of avant-garde pop, superseding Britain. The California groups came closest to making the term folk-rock say something.

For hippie culture, bastard of the beat generation out of pop, was much like a folk culture — oral, naive, communal, its aphorisms (“Make love, not war,” “Turn on, tune in, drop out”) intuited, not rationalized. Pop and beat, thesis and antithesis of the affluent society, contained elements of synthesis: both movements rejected intellect for sensation, politics for art, and Ginsberg and Kerouac glorified a grass-roots America that included supermarkets and cars as well as mountains and apple pie. The hippies simplified the beats’ utopian anarchism and substituted psychedelic drugs for Zen and yoga; they also shared the pop enthusiasm for technology and the rainbow surface of affluence — their music was rock, their style mod. Like Dylan, they bridged old culture and new — they were still idealists — and they idolized him. But he did not consider himself their spokesman. At twenty-five, he was too old (“How can I be the voice of their generation? I’m not their generation”) and, though he did not admit it publicly, too well-read. While “Mr. Tambourine Man” was becoming the hippie anthem, he was saying “LSD is for mad, hateful people” and making fun of drugs in “Memphis Blues Again.” Dylan was really at cross-purposes with the hippies. They were trying to embody pop sensibility in a folk culture. He was trying to comprehend pop culture with — at bottom — a folk sensibility.


It is a truism among Dylan’s admirers that he is a poet using rock-and-roll to spread his art: as Jack Newfield put it in the Village Voice, “If Whitman were alive today, he too would be playing an electric guitar.” This misrepresentation has only served to discredit Dylan among intellectuals and draw predictable sniping from conscientious B student poets like Louis Simpson and John Ciardi. Dylan has a lavish verbal imagination and a brilliant sense of irony, and many of his images — especially on the two Blonde on Blonde records — are memorable. But poetry also requires economy, coherence, and discrimination, and Dylan has perpetrated prolix verses, horrendous grammar, tangled phrases, silly metaphors, embarrassing clichés, muddled thought; at times he seems to believe one good image deserves five others, and he relies too much on rhyme. His chief literary virtue — sensitivity to psychological nuance — belongs to fiction more than poetry. His skill at creating character has made good lyrics out of terrible poetry, as in the prerock “Ballad in Plain D,” whose portraits of the singer, his girl, and her family redeem lines like: “With unseen consciousness I possessed in my grip/ a magnificent mantelpiece though its heart being chipped.”

Dylan is not always undisciplined. As early as Freewheelin’, it was clear that he could control his material when he cared to. But his disciplines are songwriting and acting, not poetry; his words fit the needs of music and performance, not an intrinsic pattern. Words or rhymes that seem gratuitous in print often make good musical sense, and Dylan’s voice, an extraordinary interpreter of emotion though (or more likely because) it is almost devoid of melody, makes vague lines clear. Dylan’s music is not inspired. His melodies and arrangements are derivative, and his one technical accomplishment, a vivacious, evocative harmonica, does not approach the virtuosity of a Sonny Terry. His strength as a musician is his formidable eclecticism combined with a talent for choosing the right music to go with a given lyric. The result is a unity of sound and word that eludes most of his imitators.

Dylan is effective only when exploiting this unity, which is why his free-verse album notes are interesting mainly as autobiography (or mythology) and why Tarantula is unlikely to be a masterpiece. When critics call Dylan a poet, they really mean a visionary. Because the poet is the paradigmatic seer, it is conventional to talk about the film poet, the jazz poet. Dylan is verbal, which makes the label even more tempting. But it evades an important truth — the new visionaries are not poets. Dylan is specifically pessimistic about the future of literature. Far from Desolation Row, “The Titanic sails at dawn/ … Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s towers/ while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.” The infamous Mr. Jones, with his pencil in his hand, his eyes in his pocket, and his nose on the ground, is a literary man. With the rock songs on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan began trying to create an alternative to poetry. If Whitman were alive today, he might be playing electric guitar; then again, he might be writing advertising copy.

In May 1966, Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde, a double album cut in Nashville with local musicians. Formally, it was his finest achievement since Freewheelin’, but while the appeal of the Freewheelin’ songs was the illusion of spontaneous folk expression, the songs from Blonde on Blonde were clearly artifacts, lovingly and carefully made. The music was rock and Nashville country, with a sprinkling of blues runs and English-ballad arpeggios. Thematically, the album was a unity. It explored the subworld pop was creating, an exotic milieu of velvet doors and scorpions, cool sex (“I saw you makin love with him,/ you forgot to close the garage door”), zany fashions (“it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine,/ your brand new leopard-skin pillbox hat”), strange potions (“it strangled up my mind,/ now people just get uglier and I have no sense of time”), neurotic women (“she’s like all the rest/ with her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls”).

The songs did not preach: Dylan was no longer rebel but seismograph, registering his emotions — fascination, confusion, pity, annoyance, exuberance, anguish — with sardonic lucidity. Only once, in “Just like a Woman,” did his culture shock get out of control: “I can’t stay in here/ ain’t it clear/ that I just can’t fit.” Many of the songs were about child-women, bitchy, unreliable, sometimes vulnerable, usually one step ahead: “I told you as you clawed out my eyes/ I never really meant to do you any harm.” But there were also goddesses like Johanna and the mercury-mouthed, silken fleshed Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Beatrices of pop who shed not merely light but kaleidoscopic images.

The fashionable, sybaritic denizens of Blonde on Blonde are the sort of people despised by radicals as apologists for the system. Yet in accepting the surface that system has produced, they subvert its assumptions. Conservative and utopian ideologues agree that man must understand and control his environment; the questions are how, and for whose benefit. But pop culture defines man as a receiver of stimuli, his environment as sensory patterns to be enjoyed, not interpreted (literature and philosophy are irrelevant) or acted upon (politics is irrelevant). “If you want to understand me, look at my surface,” says Andy Warhol. And “I like my paintings because anybody can do them.” The bureaucrat defends standardization because it makes a complex society manageable. Yet he thinks of himself as an individualist, and finds the idea of mass-produced, mechanized art incomprehensible, threatening — or a put-on. The pop artist looks at mass culture naively and sees beauty in its regular patterns; like an anthropologist exhibiting Indian basket-weaving, Warhol shows us our folk art — soup cans. His message — the Emperor has no clothes, but that’s all right, in fact it’s beautiful — takes acceptance of image for essence to its logical extreme. Blonde on Blonde is about this love of surface.

Dylan’s sensitivity to pop comes straight out of his folk background. Both folk and pop mentalities are leery of abstractions, and Dylan’s appreciation of surface detail represents Guthriesque common sense — to Dylan, a television commercial was always a television commercial as well as a symbol of alienation. From the first, a basic pragmatism tempered his commitment to the passionate excesses of the revolutionist and the poète maudit and set him apart from hipster heroes like James Dean. Like the beats, who admired the total revolt of the hipster from a safe distance, Dylan is essentially nonviolent. Any vengefulness in his songs is either impersonal or funny, like the threats of a little boy to beat up the bad guys; more often, he is the bemused butt of slapstick cruelty: “I’ve got a woman, she’s so mean/ sticks my boots in the washing machine/ sticks me with buckshot when I’m nude/ puts bubble gum in my food.”

Dylan’s basic rapport with reality has also saved him from the excesses of pop, kept him from merging, Warhol-like, into his public surface. John Wesley Harding, released after twenty months of silence, shows that Dylan is still intact in spirit as well as body. The songs are more impersonal — and in a way more inscrutable — than ever, yet the human being behind them has never seemed less mysterious. For they reveal Dylan not as the protean embodiment of some collective nerve, but as an alert artist responding to challenge from his peers. If Dylan’s first rock-and-roll songs were his reaction to the cultural changes the new rock represented, John Wesley Harding is a reaction to the music itself as it has evolved since his accident. The album is comprehensible only in this context.

As Dylan’s recovery advanced, he began making the papers again. He signed a new contract with Columbia — the defection to MGM never came off — and the company announced that he was recording. Dylan was still revered, his near-mythic status only solidified by his long absence from the scene. But whether he could come back as an active performer was another question. Shortly after the appearance of Blonde on Blonde, three important albums — the Beatles’ Revolver, the Stones’ Aftermath, and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds — had all set new standards of musical ambition and pretension. Ever since, the “serious” rock groups had been producing albums that said, in effect, “Can you top this? “ — a competition that extended to album covers and titles. In the spring of 1967 the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, possibly the most elaborate rock album ever made and certainly the most celebrated. It was reported that Dylan had listened to the first few cuts of Sgt. Pepper and snapped “Turn that off!”; perhaps the new developments in rock — which he had done so much to inspire — had left him behind. On the other hand, perhaps he was leaving rock behind. Many of Dylan’s associates — notably Tom Wilson, his former A&R man — had always insisted that Dylan was much more sophisticated musically than he let on. And in May a New York Daily News reporter quoted Dylan as saying he was at work on “two new sounds.”

By Christmas the Stones were first in the pretensions sweepstakes — Their Satanic Majesties Request, with its 3-D cover, was almost a parody of the whole art-rock phenomenon. How was Dylan going to top that? Everyone waited for a revolutionary masterpiece or an extravagant flop. What we got was John Wesley Harding in a plain gray jacket with a polaroid snapshot of Dylan and three Indians in the country. The first sound to greet the eager listener was the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The first line of the first song was “John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor.” Dylan had done it again.

The new melodies are absurdly simple, even for Dylan; the only instruments backing his guitar, piano, and harmonica are a bass, a drum, and in two songs an extra guitar; the rock beat has faded out and the country and English ballad strains now dominate. The titles are all as straight as “John Wesley Harding”: most are taken from the first lines of the songs. The lyrics are not only simple but understated in a way that shows Dylan has learned a trick or two from Lennon-McCartney, and they are folk lyrics. Or more precisely, affectionate comments on folk lyrics — the album is not a reversion to his early work but a kind of hymn to it. Nearly all the songs play with the clichés of folk music. The title song, for instance, seems at first hearing to be a second-rate “Jesse James” or “Pretty Boy Floyd.” It starts out with all the catch phrases about the benevolent outlaw, then goes into the story: “It was down in Cheney County the time they talk about/ With his lady by his side he took a stand.” But the next line goes right out of it again: “And soon the situation there was all but straightened out.” You never learn what happened in Cheney County or why it wasn’t entirely straightened out, and the song ends with more stock lines about the bandit’s elusiveness and the helplessness of the law. It is not about John Wesley Harding, but about a familiar formula: and this, friends, is how you write the generic outlaw song. Several of the songs are folk-style fantasies. “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is both a folk ballad (based on another stock situation, the gambler on the road) and one of Dylan’s surrealist dream songs; “As I Walked Out One Morning” describes a run-in with an Arthurian enchantress as if she were a revenue agent or the farmer’s daughter. This juxtaposition of the conventional and the fantastic produces an unsettling gnomic effect, enhanced in some cases by truncated endings — in “The Drifter’s Escape,” the drifter’s trial for some unknown offense ends abruptly when lightning strikes the courthouse and he gets away in the confusion; “All along the Watchtower” ends with a beginning, “Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” The aura of the uncanny that these songs create is probably what Dylan meant when he remarked, years ago, that folk songs grew out of mysteries. But some of the album is sheer fun, especially “Down Along the Cove,” a jaunty blues banged out on the piano, and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” a thirties-type pop tune that rhymes “moon” with “spoon” for the benefit of those pundits who are always crowing over the demise of “Tin Pan Alley pap.” And “Dear Landlord,” the best cut musically, is further evidence that Dylan has — well, the only word for it is mellowed: “Now each of us has his own special gift and you know this was meant to be true,/ And if you don’t underestimate me I won’t underestimate you.”

In the end, what this album is about is Dylan’s reconciliation with his past, with ordinary people, and even— warily, ambivalently — with his arch enemies, the landlords of the world. Of course, being Bob Dylan, he has turned this reconciliation into a rebellion. His sudden removal of the mask — see, it’s me, a songwriter, I just want to write nice songs — and the apparent step backward could be as traumatic for the public as his previous metamorphoses; Dylan is still in the business of shaking us up. John Wesley Harding does not measure up to Blonde on Blonde. It is basically a tour de force. But it serves its purpose, which is to liberate Dylan — and the rest of us — from the Sgt. Pepper straitjacket. Dylan is free now to work on his own terms. It would be foolish to predict what he will do next. But I hope he will remain a mediator, using the language of pop to transcend it. If the gap between past and present continues to widen, such mediation may be crucial. In a communications crisis, the true prophets are the translators.

Notes to Prologue

1 When I wrote this piece (and a few others in the book), I had not yet stopped using “man,” “he,” etc., as generic terms applying to both sexes. In the interest of historical accuracy I’ve left these locutions intact, though they grate on me aesthetically as well as politically. For the same reason I have not changed “Negro” to “black.”

2 Here as elsewhere in this prefeminist essay I refer with aplomb if not outright endorsement to Dylan’s characteristic bohemian contempt for women (which he combined with an equally obnoxious idealization of female goddess figures). At the time I did not question the idea that women were guardians of oppressive conventional values; I only thought of myself as an exception. I was not possessive; I understood men’s need to go on the road because I was, spiritually speaking, on the road myself. That, at least, was my fantasy; the realities of my life were somewhat more ambiguous.

3 This statement now strikes me as absurd, a confusion of aesthetic sophistication and self-consciousness with merit in some absolute sense. It makes even less sense when applied to the best mid-sixties British rock versus the best early rock-and-roll. Precisely because they had a more spontaneous, direct relation to their material and their audience, performers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis got to places that the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who never even tried to reach. The reverse is also true, of course.

(c) Ellen Willis

2 thoughts on “Ellen Willis (Editor of New Yorker) Article”

  1. Today, almost every critic bows down to the Velvets, but Willis “got” those proto-punks early. Her 1979 essay from the anthology “Stranded” (included here) remains a foundational, luminous analysis of Lou Reed’s street-hassle humanism — and a statement of Willis’s own purpose. “What it comes down to for me — as a Velvets fan, a lover of rock ’n’ roll, a New Yorker, an aesthete, a punk, a sinner, a sometime seeker of enlightenment (and love) (and sex) — is this: I believe that we are all, openly or secretly, struggling against one or another kind of nihilism. I believe that body and spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way. I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal,” she wrote, then ended wryly with the refrain from “Heroin”: “But I guess that I just don’t know.”

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