Anarchy 51/"i gotta million friends"

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“i gotta million friends”


you ask: how does it feel to be an idol?
  it’d be silly of me to answer, wouldn’t it . . .”

The bril­liant young amer­ican singer bob dylan is cur­rently en­gaged in a full-blooded as­sault on the Eng­lish hit parade, to the ob­vi­ous de­light of those who be­lieve that Folk-music, to be rel­ev­ant, must be treated as an ad­junct of pop-music, and to the equally ob­vi­ous con­stern­a­tion of those who be­lieve Dylan to be the only ma­jor Amer­ican song writer since Woody Guthrie.

  It seems worth­while, there­fore, to write briefly about Dylan in this issue of anarchy—whether this piece is by way of an ob­it­u­ary re­mains to be seen. If it is, it will not be en­tirely Dylan’s fault: he has been picked up by the pop para­site as the frisson nouveau. Pop tra­di­tion­ally preys on more vir­ile mu­sical forms, either cor­rupt­ing the ori­ginal prac­ti­tion­ers to suit the market or pro­du­cing its own pre-cor­rupted copy­ists, as hap­pened in the case of rhythm ’n’ blues. It usu­ally works out best from both sides when pop pro­duces its im­it­a­tions and leaves the ori­gin­als to go their own way. In the case of Dylan both things seem to have hap­pened. The ma­nip­u­lat­ors of pop fash­ion who have for a long time been push­ing “folk” as the next teen­age rave have cre­ated their own Eng­lish Dylan, by name Donovan, who plays Tommy Steele to Dylan’s Elvis Presley. For­tun­ately Donovan does not mat­ter; he is going to earn a lot of money and keep him­self, and thou­sands of little girls, happy by im­it­at­ing Dylan. But the fate of Dylan, who is highly ori­ginal, des­pite ad­mit­ted debts to Woody Guthrie and Guth­rie’s dis­ciple, Ram­bling Jack Elliott, and whose songs have been an emo­tion­ally ar­tic­u­late vehicle for the feel­ings of the in­teg­ra­tion gen­er­a­tion in the USA and the anti-nuclear gen­er­a­tion here, is of great con­cern. The news that his cur­rent Amer­ican single Sub­ter­ranean Home­sick Blues is being sold in a sleeve bear­ing photo­graphs of the Beatles heightens this con­cern.

  The pro­cess of pop­u­lar­is­ing Dylan has been going on now for sev­eral months. He is the log­ical suc­cessor to the long-haired r ’n’ b groups—the pro­test im­pli­cit in the Pretty Things and the Roll­ing Stones is ex­pli­cit in Dylan—but re­cord­ing as he does for the Amer­ican Colum­bia com­pany, whose con­cern for the fast buck rather than for the ef­fect of over-expos­ure on their art­ists is no­tori­ous, there has al­ways been the
risk that Dylan would be stretched on the rack of the pub­li­city ma­chine, and it does in­deed look as though Dylan, al­ready strained as a writer by Colum­bia’s re­cord­ing re­quire­ments, may in­creas­ingly turn out ill-con­sid­ered, poorly con­struc­ted songs. His lat­est LP avail­able here at the time of writ­ing, An­other Side of Bob Dylan, may be symp­to­matic of his de­cline or it may be a pass­ing phase—after all he is not yet twenty-four and has not ne­ces­sar­ily reached the height of his pow­ers. But we hear oc­ca­sional sighs of dis­con­tent from Amer­ican Dylan fans that he is with­draw­ing more and more into the private world cre­ated by his suc­cess and re­fus­ing to face real life—some­thing very close to treason in a Guthrie dis­ciple. He has even been cri­ti­cised in an open letter in the most in­flu­en­tial folk maga­zine, Sing Out; this would be a blow to the ortho­dox Amer­ican singer but its prob­able ef­fect on Dylan is dif­fic­ult to as­sess. We can only hope that Dylan will sur­vive the com­mer­cial ob­stacle race in which he has be­come in­volved. It is im­pos­sible to say at this point what his chances are. If he does sur­vive it will be as big a trib­ute to him as a per­son as his best songs are to him as a seri­ous con­tem­por­ary song-writer.

  In all that has been writ­ten about Dylan, only one writer, Philip Oakes, in a valu­able and per­cept­ive art­icle which ap­peared in Queen al­most a year ago, seems to have de­scribed ac­cur­ately how Dylan is being myth­o­lo­gised: “. . . a power­ful piece of myth-making is tak­ing place. Dylan is being pro­moted not just as a folk-singer (and he is a good one) but as a folk-hero, a randy Johnny Apple­seed for this day and age.”

  This still does not fully ac­count for the rapid rise of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ in the top twenty, for the fact that tickets for his two May Albert Hall ap­pear­ances sold out in a total of under two days, or for the con­sist­ent ap­pear­ance of his LPs amongst the ten na­tional best sell­ers. Has he cap­tured this enorm­ous pub­lic as a re­sult of plugs given him by such groups as the Beatles and the Animals? Is his nasal voice, rudi­ment­ary gui­tar and un­com­fort­able har­mon­ica style really the sound the record buy­ers have been crav­ing for, hav­ing been sated on the noise of the Brit­ish “Chi­cago-line” r ’n’ b groups? Or is it pos­sible, by some chance, that his “mes­sage” cor­re­sponds with a new out­look held by all these people, that they ac­tu­ally listen to the words and not just the over­all sound? The answer seems to lie some­where be­tween the first two pos­sibil­it­ies. For if half the people who now buy Dylan’s records really listen to the words of With God on Our Side, why is rad­ical activ­ity in Brit­ain con­fined to minute local groups? If a quarter under­stand what he is say­ing in The Mas­ters of War, why aren’t the streets filled? And if but a tenth feel every emo­tion in The Hard Rain’s Are Gonna Fall, when is the re­volu­tion? Philip Oakes prob­ably has the answer: “Folk song has be­come every­one’s in­stant con­science; easy to summon, easy to settle. To ditto the mes­sage, to agree with the sen­ti­ments, is all that’s re­quired. You too can be a liberal: all you have to do is play the record”.