Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art

Reviewed by Stefan

Mike Marqusee - Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art

The demand to abandon illusions about our condition is a demand to abandon the conditions which require illusion.
-- Karl Marx

In the 1960s, Bob Dylan was the Noam Chomsky of rock'n'roll. Now that America is in the killing season again, it is timely that Mike Marqusee's new book, Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art, begins with a line from "Highway 61:" "Where do you want this killing done?"

"A hard rain's a-gonna fall," Dylan sang in the sixties. America doesn't heed her troubadours; so 9-11 happened. That's how I see it, so I'm sympathetic to Marqusee's hermeneutics of Dylan's lyrics, even if he does boomerang the metaphor: "I wrote this book with the hard rain headed Iraq's way."

As in his earlier Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties [reviewed in S&D #27], Marqusee's new work uses a shape-shifting cultural icon to mirror the sixties' Zeitgeist. Ali and Dylan helped shape the times they were shaped by, reflecting and prodding a tempest of revolutionary consciousness. Marqusee has written a worthy sequel to his book on Ali; another portrait of an artist as a young man. He shows Dylan's evolution in, and contribution to, a time of promise and tumult; a time whose chimes of freedom still ring. The lessons of the sixties-courage, lucidity, love, struggle, humor through the absurd-remain as relevant as the next attack and the next installment of the Patriot Act.

Marqusee says of Dylan: "Enigma has long been his stock-in-trade." Nevertheless, an Ariadne's thread of revolt runs through Dylan's lyrics; an iconoclastic probing of existential depths, mind control, war, exploitation and racism.

For example, in July 1963, three months after Martin Luther King wrote his famous letter from a Birmingham jail and a month after black activist Fanny Lou Hamer was jailed and beaten for participating in a voter registration drive, Dylan went to Greenwood, Mississippi, to join Pete Seeger in lending support to the civil rights movement, playing for 300 black folk from the back of a truck in a farm field surrounded by police and Klansmen. The following month, on August 28 in Washington, D.C., Dylan appeared on stage in front of 200,000 people, prior to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, and sang two songs. The second song, "Only a Pawn in Their Game," Dylan wrote after the assassination early that summer of NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Marqusee guides us into understanding Dylan's choice: "The focus of the song is not, in fact, Medgar Evers . but the man who shot him, and above all the system that generated the murder." This 22-year old upstart folkie with strangled voice and weird hair on national stage in historic moment delivers a haunting, balladic, class-based analysis of American racism.

Upon meeting Woody Guthrie, Dylan must have noticed Guthrie's guitar with its splashy motto: "This Machine Kills Fascists." Though Dylan's D.C. performance was not yet Allen Ginsberg's "America, go fuck yourself with your atom bomb," it bridged Woody and Allen. With shades of Camus-"It is necessary not to side with executioners"-Dylan's indictment also invites: You, we, don't have to be pawns in their game. In the song "John Brown," Marqusee observes, "Dylan told the story of Ron Kovic-disabled Vietnam veteran, antiwar crusader and author of Born on the Fourth of July-some seven years before Kovic lived through the nightmare and drew the lesson of the song from his own experience." Dylan vows to "tell it and think and speak it and breathe it."

He would then refuse to speak out against the Vietnam war; go electric and chemical; crash his motorcycle; retreat into a long night like Jonah in the whale, and emerge wanting "to kiss your cracked country lips, as to be by the strength of your skin"-immensity and intensity seeking completion in intimacy.

Dylan's artistic journey exhibits four stages: folk singer, protest icon, rock'n'roll poet, crooning country sage. Already steeped in Robert Johnson's blues and the vagabond folk-revolt of Woody Guthrie's musical democratic socialism, Dylan left his northern Minnesota roots in 1961 for a bohemian sojourn in Greenwich Village at the age of 19. Among his friends, and lyric and political influences, were Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Allen Ginsberg.

Dylan's song-writing gifts were perfectly suited to the temper of the times. He penned "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" just a few weeks before the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the closest moment to self-extinction in human history. When the song hit the airwaves, it captured the mood of a world on the edge of apocalyptic nightmare. Nuclear lunacy? The irrationality of cold-war mentality? The oxymoronic militarization of civilization? Dylan expressed it all, in a song more relevant to the present than any time since, now that President Bush's pre-emptive nuclear first-strike option is established policy. Noam Chomsky's major book of 2003, Hegemony or Survival-following closely upon America's invasion of Iraq and the Bush-Cheney junta's plan for world domination backed by a new breed of tactical nuclear and space-based weapons-is a rigorous, frightening, prose political update of Dylan's poetic pro- phecy.

In February 1962, Dylan premiered his new composition "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," a blistering satire of America's right-wing, red-baiting, cold-war, anticommunist hysteria. The lives, lyrics and music of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, combusting with Minnesota back-street and socialist Greenwich Village be-bop, birthed a poet whose authenticity backed his critique: "In 1963, when Dylan turned up at a CBS studio to rehearse for his first national network TV appearance-on the Ed Sullivan show-he played the John Birch satire. He was asked to play something else. He refused. His appearance was canceled."

Dylan wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" in the Village in the spring of 1962, introducing his performance with a caution against turning him into an icon, a basket for projections he had no intention of playing-out in anybody's politics: "This here ain't a protest song or anything like that, 'cause I don't write protest songs. I'm just writing it as something to be said for somebody, by somebody." John Lennon would say the same for his post-revolutionary odes to Yoko and Sean. Dylan sensed the destination early, constantly deconstructing his persona to make space for the existential Urgrund without which there is no chance to give peace a chance.

"The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind"-here but not here; pervasive but elusive; absent presence. If life is a tightrope stretched across Nietzsche's abyss, Dylan is poised like a gyroscope in the in-between, spinning the dialectic of angst and gnosis in a variation on the Gospel of Thomas: "The Kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it." As Sarah Vowell observed: "It usually takes a real Guernica to remind us of the meaning of the painting."

In the early summer of 1963, prior to his excursion to Mississippi and his Washington, D.C., performance, Dylan wrote "North Country Blues," one of the earliest musical protests against what is now known as globalization, doing in song for Minnesota what Michael Moore would do in film 30 years later for Flint, Michigan: engaging in a libertarian critique of capitalism's dehumanizing indifference to blue-collar working folk.

Dylan defies the role of prophet even as he speaks it: "I came to tell everybody / but I could not get across.. Don't say I didn't warn you / when your train gets lost." In 1964, after his gritty and spectacular "The Times They Are A-Changin'"-with America still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy in late November '63, and with Lyndon Johnson claiming to be the presidential peace candidate in contrast to Barry Goldwater's "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice"-Dylan withdraws from events, wanting nothing more to do with the storms of social protest, writing Socratic assertions: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."

This political apostasy was a poetic blessing for those scorched by, and recoiling from, the violence with which the national security state met civil rights and anti-nuclear protest, and for those eager to explore brave new worlds of anti-establishment sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Dylan is, after all, the man who turned the Beatles on. Deep in his alchemical egg, he penned "Mr. Tambourine Man," a magical mystery tour for the many ready to say "I'm ready to go anywhere, cast your dancing spell my way, take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind, down the foggy ruins of time, out to the windy beach, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow."

But if Dylan defies the role of protest icon, refusing to meet anybody's expectations but his own-resisting values reification while insisting on the primacy of artistic process-his retreat into the existential doesn't prevent him from touching his torch to the social crust. In November 1964, in "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," he sings: "he not busy being born is busy dying"-seeing through the eyes of Orwell and Eliot the Matrix-enchanted coppertops eager to serve a system feeding on them, products of what one wit called "the American system of compulsory miseducation."

In what Gore Vidal calls "The United States of Amnesia," the lesson remains acute. Marqusee connects the existential Dylan vision to the flame still carried by Springsteen: "'It's Alright Ma' is filled with a Gramscian conviction that the most insidious means of domination are those that secure the 'spontaneous consent' of the dominated. It's a song about the 'mind-forged manacles' that Blake heard clanging as he walked the streets of London in 1792."

In July 1965, after the launching of President Johnson's invasion of Vietnam in March and the first national upsurge of anti-war protest in April, Dylan created a national moment of astonishment and catalyzed a wave of musical experiment with his song "Like a Rolling Stone." Said Allen Ginsberg: "It was an artistic challenge to see if great art can be done on a jukebox, and [Dylan] proved it can." Perhaps only Dylan put it better: "I don't call myself a poet because I don't like the word. I'm a trapeze artist."

In "Subterranean Homesick Blues"-"Twenty years of schoolin' / And they put you on the day shift"-Dylan's Marxist critique of the wage-labor slave-labor education equation anticipates Lennon: "They torture and scare you for twenty odd years / Then they expect you to pick a career." Is the situation so different now? The primary function of education is to ignorate, producing coppertop-munchkins eager to prance like pawns in the economic game. In "Tombstone Blues," Dylan reminds us that it's "Jack the Ripper who sits / At the head of the chamber of commerce."

From the spring of 1966 to early 1968, between the release of Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, Dylan-suddenly silent and invisible-camped out in a communal musical workshop in the Catskills producing the Basement Tapes, reinventing himself as a country-ballad outlaw heading toward Nashville Skyline. Yet because of his songs, Dylan was politically more present than ever. He was internationally famous and viewed abroad as the voice of dissident America. With the Vietnam quagmire turning into LBJ's Indochina holocaust, Dylan's earlier protest ballads fueled the anti-war movement, and bridged a variety of disaffections: with stupefying education, with racial and economic apartheid, with commodified experience, with nuclear insanity, with a lapdog press, with government hypocrisy, hubris, secrecy, violence and contempt.

Revolt met increasing force from the national security state. If 1967 was "the summer of love," it was also prelude to 1968: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the slaughter of 300 students by Mexican military and police at a pre-Olympic protest in Mexico City; the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where the people's movement was turned into a teargassed nightmare by Nixon's hired thugs and Mayor Daley's uniformed brutes. Ginsberg says of Chicago: "Crowds of strange children were demanding reality and truth from business-delegates who were walking around in upstairs Hilton rooms scared of the stink of their own karma. Teargassed! That scene was, literally, blowing in the wind."

If Dylan was present even in his absence, he was also missed. The release of John Wesley Harding in 1968 disappointed many who wanted more fuel for the fire. Marqusee concedes they had a point: "If public life is an ongoing test for the artist, then when it came to Vietnam, Dylan failed." It is the most morally problematic phase of Dylan's career. Yet, as Marqusee notes, John Wesley Harding is deeply political, even if its action-at-a-distance is veiled by a country-ballad sound. If Vietnam and civil rights go unmentioned, there are, nevertheless, immigrants, hobos, drifters, rich and poor people, landlords and outlaws. In the song "I Am a Lonesome Hobo," Dylan makes explicit the incompatibility of wealth and human solidarity. He may not talk about war specifically, but "All Along the Watchtower" became an anthem for soldiers in Vietnam: "There must be some way out of here. I can't get no relief."

In 1969, Dylan refuses to participate in the musical festival at Woodstock, feeling crowded by hippies, yippies and the movement, and trying to claim some unbroken space for his family, his art, his head. But he cannot fully extricate himself from a movement he helped create. Richard Nixon is president, the bombing of Indochina escalates, and a disenchanted radical sector of Students for a Democratic Society-the Weathermen-urges the violent overthrow of an American militaristic megalomania impervious to reason or conscience. In "Subterranean Homesick Blues," arguably the first rap song, Dylan had said: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." The Weathermen hitched a ride on Dylan's fame; and then, says Marqusee, "the gentle political urgency of 'Blowin' in the Wind' [was] given a savage twist." The decade came to its dark, fevered, unfinished close with astronauts walking on the moon and the chimes of freedom flashing through the smoke of the civil war on America's streets.

Over the next two decades, from Kent State to Watergate through the Reagan counter-revolution, Dylan would go through a self-indulgent Self-Portrait stage, the title of his worst album; join Phil Ochs for a 1974 benefit concert for the victims of the 1973 U.S.-sponsored military coup in Chile; startle and amaze again with the romantically robust masterpiece Blood on the Tracks; take a rapier swipe at America's judicial racism with his song for "Hurricane" Carter; delight, confuse and disappoint with his Christian-based A Slow Train Coming; then drift into middle-age as the most famous rock'n'roll poet of the 20th century, often playing live too loudly, but achieving acoustic perfection with solo renditions of his earlier ballads.

In the 1990s, Dylan dusted off his '60s-era protest songs and integrated them into his touring repertoire, once again acting as the caustic conscience of a nation still betraying its dearest ideals. He occasionally plays at benefit concerts, and still wins music awards.

Marqusee notes that "Dylan was never an activist. He absorbed his politics, like much else, by osmosis. His contribution to the movement was limited to a small number of personal appearances, a few donations-and the songs. These, however, were inestimable." And the songs live on. In 1988, Bruce Springsteen played "The Chimes of Freedom" to promote an Amnesty International tour commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. Springsteen finds the pulse of compassion, says Marqusee, that "drives home not only the [still relevant tribute] to 'each unharmful gentle soul misplaced inside a jail' [think Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal], but Amnesty's core concept-the universality of human rights."

By focusing on the politics of Dylan's art, Marqusee ties Dylan to his times, thereby writing less a biography than a historical portrait; indeed, a hymn to the spirit of the sixties. A reminder of the roots of our war-torn present. The lyrics fairly sing from the page. "Look out kid / It's something you did / God knows what / But you're doin' it again."

What is especially fresh about Marqusee's book is its astonishing relevance. It's a journey into the smoldering fissures that still inform our collective psyche: globalized, militarized, terror-edged, led by lunatics. Marqusee makes exactly the right point when he suggests that "the sixties might someday come to seem merely an early skirmish in a conflict whose real dimensions we have yet to grasp." As William Faulkner said: "The past is not dead. It's not even past."

Reviewed by Stefan Schindler Department of Philosophy La Salle University