“Free your mind…and your ass will follow” sang that zany prophet from the world of funk, George Clinton, in Funkadelic’s classic 1970s album named as such. An “experimental” album Clinton had claimed it was then. An experiment in “cutting a whole album while tripping on acid”. A mass incitement of experiments in acid was far from their minds, but retaining a firm grip on the asses of the masses was definitely on the front lobes of the whatchamacallit, the Cultural Committee this April, when the Chinese government decided to cancel the series of planned concerts by Bob Dylan in China for this year.
Perhaps it was Bjork’s hijinks during her concert in Shanghai in 2008 that did it? Shrieking out “Tibet! Tibet!” followed by the exhortation “Raise your flag!” the Icelandic swan had sent heebie-jeebies crawling up and down the spines of the politburo. Their magnanimous gesture to the hordes at home by scheduling world class entertainment had begat overt instigation from the ungrateful Bjork. Thom Yorke toured Japan soon after with Radiohead. But he definitely didn’t garner any invitations to play in Shanghai. Not with his piano resplendent with a painted Tibetan flag hogging centre-stage! And now came the prospect of Dylan and alarm bells clanged out in the corridors of Beijing. Something about him had their knickers in a knot, for sure.
But what? What were they spooked about?
That he would wax hallucinogenic himself by singing “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine” – in that delightful and surreal LSD induced paean “Subterranean Homesick Blues”? That there could be flashes of pictures of Lhasa behind him as he sang”…where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison”? Images of Tiananmen Square protesters during “It’s alright ma (I’m only bleeding)”? That he would sneer “Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is; Do you, Mr. Jintao”? Maybe their aesthetic sensibilities kicked in, given the indecipherable mumble/warble/whine that his voice degenerates to these days; bad enough to require interpreters even in Arkansas. Or could it be that they were wary of his reputation as a legendary exponent of the art of the mindfuck, a la his toying with newsmen in London who asked him about his philosophy of life to get: “Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb”?
Make no mistake, it wasn’t any of that. For no overt gestures, actions or words from him are necessary to put the fear of God into authoritarian regimes anywhere. His very presence suffices. For it is an allegory about possibilities. A parable of hopes and dreams. Of a voice and a figurehead of a generation. A montage of indelible events seared into the world’s consciousness. And an image that has endured and will endure for generations to come. And at its core, an idea.
Of just Bob Dylan.
This idea of Bob Dylan germinated in the late 50s when the gawky but ambitious rock-star-wannabe kid from Duluth landed in college in Minneapolis. When he discovered Dinkytown and its hipster counter-culture crowd who slacked around in coffee houses listening to improvisational jazz, smoking weed and discussing politics and the state of the world fervently. Here they were – the ones who took comfort in their refusal to compromise or conform and as a perpetual outcast himself and a stubborn outlier in his own existence, Dylan for once, was at ease. Cuba, Khrushchev, Coltrane, cold war, Saul Bellow – the mix was heady. The metamorphosis from Robert Zimmermann to Bob Dylan was well underway now. Till the rocker hit the snag. Trying to plug in his electric guitar and Marshall amp to dazzle the smart-asses with his chops came the discovery that rock was passé to this brood! Rock was out – t’was folk music that strummed their strings!
Folk music? That age old tradition with its pantheon of songs of the hinterland passed on through generations? “This land is your land”, “Pastures of Plenty” – songs about the glorious land, its glorious people, their simple American-ness, their simple ways. This was what they listened to? Hopes dashed, pass the joint, man. What now? But folk music at the dawn of the 60s had been given an edge inadvertently, courtesy of Joseph McCarthy. Bob Seeger had just been hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Branded a “commie bastard”; all for singing about farmers and coal miners! And then the realization: that acceptance here was not dependant on star-power, looks or voice. A mandated requirement to connect, telegraph your sincerity across and communicate through the pantheon, respecting it. And finally, the discovery: Woody Guthrie.
He had truly found his calling now. And his muse and mentor. A career defining epiphany. Guthrie, the driftin’ troubadour, singing about the common man and people existing on the fringes of society’s conventional boundaries. Pointed lyrics about the salt of the earth – farmers, labourers but also the free spirits: the hobos who rode freight trains and drifters at peace with themselves. With a directness and simplicity that drew Dylan in instantly. And Dylan, with his obsession to be the James Dean, the brooding Brando hanging around the fringes; peering, sneering and dazzling them with his incisive insights, had stumbled upon the medium for his own muse! His poetic sensibilities were already frothing at the edges and he now had a role-model, one who had dared to be sacrilegious and write his own folk songs! Out with the electric guitar, strap on the acoustic and a harmonica. He wanted to be Guthrie. And the hipsters were eating out of his palm now!
And then New York. “I am headin’ east to meet Woody” he had proclaimed. Dylan and New York; New York and Dylan. This was a confluence that had to happen. It was ordained. The clubs and coffee-houses in Greenwich Village made Dinkytown in Minneapolis look like a knitting party. A simmering, smoking (weed) cauldron of NYU and Columbia students, academics, bohemians, hipsters, leftists, war protesters, artists, non-conformists, poets, songwriters, draft dodgers, actors, the requisite drifters – and connoisseurs of the bleeding edge folk music, all of ‘em. Kindred souls. Hookah parties with Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. Rabid debates about McNamara, Castro, MLK, Kerouac, Casey, Westmoreland, Mao and Kennedy. And LSD. Their mind was open and their ideological fuel pump primed. And here came the flint to ignite the flame. Packing a guitar and a harmonica.
And Dylan truly burst into life now. Effervescently and incandescently. With his Okie cadence and phrasing gleamed off Guthrie’s vocal style and with his prolific pen, Bob took the clubs and coffee-houses by storm. And from the moment John Hammond of Columbia Records plucked him off Washington Square Park and sat him down in a plush boardroom to sign him up to a recording contract, his creative floodgates went missing. And the music just gushed out. There was “Song for Woody” on his debut album, his open nod and homage to his mentor. But he was barely warming up. In 1963, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” exploded on America. The extraordinary writing on the lyrics of the album astounded and hypnotized a whole nation. Its cover, with him doing a James Dean (with his fly open!) on the streets of New York shoved his face onto every magazine and newspaper in the country. Opening with “Blowin in the Wind”, the collection of songs instantly ensnared the imagination of the music world in a vice grip. Tin Pan Alley was agog, Columbia Records couldn’t wipe the grin off their faces and Greenwich Village; well, awestruck and in a frenzy. The list of songs that remain singed onto the consciousness of the world from Freewheelin’ is too long to list. From then on, music and more importantly America, would never be the same again.
Musicologists today pinpoint this as a moment in popular music history when a marked shift occurred in the attention and care songwriters started paying to the language and lyrical quality of their songs. Everyone wanted to write like him and as well as him – not many came even remotely close. And this was his first album of original material, for Pete’s sake! What next? Well, what happened next is too well documented to need a regurgitating. But for the rest of the decade, Dylan became a lightning rod for the attention of every wannabe singer and songwriter in every nook and corner of the land. And proceeded to inspire and mold generations of rock, country, folk, blues, bluegrass and even heavy metal (!) musicians worldwide. Just listen to Bruce Springsteen doing a Dylan doing a Guthrie on “Tom Joad”. You get the idea. Everybody wanted a piece of him now – even the Beatles, the Stones and Hendrix. And whether he liked it or not, he became a singular figure who got intertwined in the happenings of a nation in extraordinary churn due to events outside of the music stage. A hard rain was gonna fall soon – he had already said that, hadn’t he?
The 50s, the first post-Pearl Harbor decade, had been – in the minds of the current university and coffee-house lot – a decade of ambivalence, of abject apathy, inaction, sanitized suburbs, songs about Peggy Sue and also one of social repression and downright cultural authoritarianism. This new generation was one dripping with their grouses and rages; against their complacent – ergo complicit – parents, the invasive and pervasive nuclear doctrine of their government, the ideological bastardization of their country’s foreign policy, armed forces pimped out in far-off lands fighting wars on belligerent yet paranoid premises and above all, a mounting anger and shame about the Civil rights movement. Everybody had grouses, peeves and rants coming out of their pores. And they were hell-bent on expressing themselves – and they did, as a decade worth of opinion, viewpoints and rage came gushing forth. And like in the Civil Rights movement, music, specifically protest songs, became a potent medium for lashing out, railing and rallying. Folk music, with its ideological and emotional core in the heart of an essentially “good America” was right there in the frontlines. Folk and blues standards from the pantheon were now given whole new meanings as they were used to hammer the point about everything that had gone awry with the country. And new songs were being written too – and used to pinpoint the excesses in the consciousness of the populace. Greenwich Village (like the Haight in San Francisco) naturally was a hotbed of creativity in this regard. Now in Dylan, they found their messiah.
He is on record then – and since then – protesting that he never was and never did want to be a singer and writer of protest songs. And that his itsy-bitsy attempts here and there were just to “make it” in the business. Hell, who didn’t write a protest song during that time anyways? He may not have asked for it, but what he got was not an appointment, but an anointment. Everybody seemed to have an axe to grind, and they came to his front door, hacking away at it. And his music was co-opted consummately, one phrase for every chip on the millions of shoulders. His every sneer was grabbed, turned around and pointed at something. His allusions were extrapolated ad infinitum; the metaphorical explorations were mulled over and mined for hidden truths. His LSD induced surreal phase was of course a gold mine. Even when he tried to look askance and aim elsewhere, he hit the bulls-eye of some issue’s target. And when he did contribute his two cents, it morphed into millions: like “Masters of War”, probably as potent an anti-war polemic as has ever been written. Or when his well honed sarcasm begat the gem “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, with its outrageous imagery of him looking for communists up his chimney and in his toilet bowl; causing the masses to turn towards Washington and give it the middle-finger salute. And whether he wanted it or not, here came the titles newspapers bestowed upon him: “Spokesperson for the new America” and “Voice of a new generation”. And Dylanesque was now an official adjective.
What the poet in him unleashed at this momentous time in the nation’s history can never be overlooked. For he forced people to think. Think for themselves, think about what things meant to them and about what was happening around them. The allegorical and salt-of-the-earth sensibilities stemming from folk music’s heritage added the additional bit of urgency into the mix. His innate inability to conform and blend in had always imbued the thrill of undermining convention and authority to his lyrics. The metaphorical explorations and allusions he deployed were unlike anything the world of music had ever encountered. In the surreal imagery he painted, he led you by the hand to the open spaces of the mind – and then buggered off snickering, leaving you to look around, find yourself and the way back. His sarcasm and his obsession of being the James Dean and Brando of music edged his songs with a rebellious tinge that was magnified by events of the time. The Bay of Pigs, Castro, Vietnam, Rosa Parks, Selma, Martin Luther King, Kennedy and Camelot, war protests, Kent State and the Chicago Eight, “I have a dream”, The Kennedy assassinations, MLK in Memphis – this was a nation being ripped apart. More than for giving people their voices, he became the poster-child for giving the new generation their minds back.
Subsequent decades saw him in patchy form at best – abysmal at his worst. He meandered, dabbled, hibernated, found the Bible, lost his voice (not that he had much of one to start with) and produced clunkers of such proportions that it appeared that the genius had his gong clanged. It just didn’t matter. For his image was sealed and his back catalogue would be mined forever when people needed to reach out for lyrical support. Anytime they needed a Guthrie moment to inspire them, they knew where to go. He was an image now, an idea and an emotional presence in music and America’s psyche forever.
His Bobness burrowed into my consciousness surreptitiously in my grade school days, thanks to the progressive principal at my elementary school in Bangalore. Morning school assemblies involved singing a selection of songs (the keen insights that had gone into the selection of the song pool was to dawn on me only years later). “We shall overcome” would be followed by “Vaishnav jana to” or “Hum ko man ki shakti dena” – only to be finished off with the strangely haunting tune: “Blowin’ in the wind”. Memorized the lyrics, sang it with gusto and marched off to the classrooms. He and that song would be rediscovered years later and captivate. And become the soundtrack to the history of an American revolution. The jolt of encountering “A Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, “Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m only bleeding)” and countless others will never fade. And the need to replay his songs in the head in his voice alone and no one else’s will never die. (Alright, Hendrix doing “All along the Watchtower” is exempted). No cultured and refined voice needed please – it had to be his nasal whine, sneering “How does it feeeeeeeeeeel?” Thank you.
But the idea of Bob Dylan was to engulf me in the wake of a storm just after I landed in Phoenix, Arizona years later – this time to inhabit the classrooms for my graduate studies. The local senator was John McCain even then. But the governor, Evan Mecham, was the one who was the piece of work – one who could make Sarah Palin look like a choirgirl. How this yeehaw, ex-car salesman, hillbilly, redneck, racist wacko minus the pointy hat came to that office is inexplicable to me to this day. And he revealed himself in all his glory soon – not just when he referred to African-American children using the term “pickaninnies”, a term originally coined in the plantations of the south during the slave trade days. But when he squashed and vetoed a bill in the state capitol that would have passed legislation mandating Martin Luther King Day in January as a state holiday.
Gobsmacked I was and ashamed that I even resided in that state. I could hear dueling banjos in the air. But the worst was yet to come. The uproar over it was still picking up steam when the front pages plastered the news that Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead who were scheduled to play a concert together in Phoenix soon (I freakin’ had hard earned tickets for it!!) were cancelling it – in protest. Of course, it was national news that same day – and Arizona’s shame was in the stratosphere now. Dylan and a protest again! Though I was convinced that it was Jerry Garcia and gang who would have decided on this in a flash, did it matter? Dylan had entered the picture and the uproar could not be contained anymore. Things happened fast – Arizona got its MLK day, Mecham was impeached and put out to hillbilly pasture and all was smoothed over. (Except for me. That redneck deprived me of the best chance I had to see the Dead in concert. The Dylan habit was fed multiple times in years to come but the next time I had tickets to see the Grateful Dead in my hands, Garcia passed away with just a month to go. Damn racist pig!)
Well, it looks like the times they haven’t been a changin’ much after all. On good days Dylan’s singing grates like a man gargling with gravel. On bad ones, he can still beckon coyotes from the wild. Long in the tooth is the old dog. But Hendrix is dead and I still do not want to hear Dylan’s songs sung by anybody else. And it is evident that the puppeteers in China don’t want anyone to hear him sing his own songs either. Lest he plays Pied Piper and leads the asses of the masses astray…following their drifting and contemplating minds. Therein lies the crux. The prospect of him blowing open the doors to the mind and allowing one to gaze into the vast openness of possibilities, to glance at the fringes, question the unquestionable and to venture forth into grappling with conflict hasn’t dimmed. What he once personified raises more fear than what he may do or say. The idea of His Bobness still endures. And terrifies, it looks like. For black is still the colour and none is still the number in too many places in our world.
His quirky chemical experiments aside, George Clinton was onto somethin’ after all.