Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album – Tempest
– was released on Tuesday, smack dab in the middle of a stormy political season. But it isn’t a political album, of course. Bob Dylan is not a political artist. He is a bluesman, borrowing what he needs from an array of elements and spinning them into songs that transcend the original source, resulting in some of the more poignant, introspective songs of the modern age. In the late 1960’s, for example, during the height of the Woodstock-era, rock ‘n’ roll, anti-war counter-culture, Bob Dylan was making quiet country records in Nashville. In fact, Bob Dylan has written precisely zero songs protesting, or even referencing, the Vietnam War. His brush with “protest” music at the beginning of his career was simply a vehicle – one more riff to borrow as he found his voice. Dave Van Ronk, the legendary folk singer who worked the same Greenwich Village clubs in those early days, remembers Dylan as being “politically naïve.”
He can also be a very funny songwriter and entertainer – a self described “song and dance man.”
Don’t misunderstand me, I am well aware of the impact of landmark songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “With God on Our Side,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Masters of War” (which Dylan claims is “not an anti-war song,” but instead an attempt to capture a collective mood from a specific time). An artist can be non-political and still write the occasional topical song. After all, topical songs are a part of the American folk music canon – which Dylan understands and emulates perhaps better than any other artist. But the simple number of these songs pales in comparison to the rest of his vast and monumental catalog. For each topical song from this brief, albeit significant, period of his career, there is a sad and lonesome love song like “Boots of Spanish Leather” or “One Too Many Mornings,” or a comical absurdist tale like “Motorpsycho Nitemare” or “I Shall be Free.”
Well I took me a woman late last night
I was three-fourths drunk, she looked all right
Till she started peelin’ off her onion gook
Took off her wig said, “How do I look?”
I was high flyin’
Out the window
While the 1964 album “The Times They Are A-Changin’” most certainly has political overtones, many of the songs, such as the title track or “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” are about the civil rights struggle. This makes them songs about humanity, not politics. They are bigger than politics, which is why they resonate even today. “People focus on the senators and congressmen in The Times They Are A-Changin’ but never the Nietzschean aspects,” Dylan said in a September 10, 2001 USA Today interview. “The spirit of ‘God is dead’ was in the air, but Nietzsche was the son of a bourgeois pastor. That turns the rationale on its head.” In a brand new Rolling Stone interview that hits shelves Friday, he openly discusses the effects of slavery on race relations, as well as his disdain for the detractors that refused to let him move away from topical music in the 1960’s. But when asked to elaborate on his thoughts about the current president, he replied, “I don’t have any opinion on that.”
This reluctance to be cast as a political artist is evident throughout a now-famous press conference held at the KQED studios in San Francisco on December 3, 1965, amidst the backdrop of a sweeping youth and counter-culture movement in America. It is a bizarre mixture of performance art and stand-up comedy in which the cultural icon boldly and humorously (and repeatedly) dismisses the idea he is a political spokesman. There are awkward moments and Dylan is clearly agitated and evasive at times, but also charming and very funny.
When asked to explain his attraction, he responds, almost lawyerly, “Attraction to what?”
When asked what poets he digs, Dylan replies, “W.C. Fields.”
The former got a good laugh. The latter, perhaps a bit over the heads of many in the small audience, received a small, polite chuckle.
When asked what he – “The Spokesman of a Generation” – would do if he were to be drafted, his answer was sober and honest, “I’d probably just do what had to be done.”
This was followed by a question asking if he would be participating in the Vietnam Day Committee demonstration that night. Dylan answered with a smirk, “No. I’ll be busy tonight.”
Regarding the shift away from the acoustic folk music of his early career, Dylan’s answers are telling.
“Concerts are much more fun than they used to be.”
And about those “protest” songs he used to sing:
“It would be kind of dishonest for me to sing them now because I wouldn’t really feel like singing them.”
Despite Dylan’s clear attempt to move away from the false label of protesting prophet, the questions about his “message” kept coming. The funniest exchange came when a young but well-meaning high school student asked if he prefers music with “a subtle or obvious message.” It is a ridiculous question and one senses that had it been posed by one of the stuffy suit-and-tie journalists asking similarly silly questions that day, Dylan would have torn into her. He doesn’t, but he also doesn’t let her get away with it, following up and forcing her to refine her point. She finally caves with a burst of laughter and admits she only asked because she read in a “movie magazine” that his songs are “supposed to have a subtle message.” The room erupts in laughter and Dylan seems to enjoy this exchange as much as anyone.
In a moment foreshadowing current political trends, one journalist who clearly hasn’t been paying attention to the tone of Dylan’s answers thus far asks, “What are your own personal hopes for the future and what do you hope to change in the world?”
Was he expecting Bob Dylan to say he hopes for a world full of peace and love? That he hopes for an end to all war and violence? Perhaps he will attend that Vietnam Day Committee demonstration after all in an earnest call for change?
Dylan’s answer: “To be honest, you know, I don’t have any hopes for the future and I just hope to have enough boots to be able to change them” [emphasis added].
Boots. The “Blowin’ in the Wind” author’s hope for the future is to have more than one pair of boots.
This was met with awkward silence, although Dylan’s eyes reveal how much he personally enjoyed his answer.
Dylan’s struggle to shed the “Spokesman of a Generation” label – a label he never wanted – is perhaps best documented in the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, which uses several clips from this press conference. For those interested in the subject, it is well worth seeking out the entire hour-long press conference, which is commercially available on DVD as well as in ten-minute segments on YouTube. Dylan does not seem nearly as tired and agitated as he often does in other press interviews from the time. He is mostly jovial and seems to be in good spirits, yet he still displays little tolerance for those attempting to cast him as something he isn’t or associate him with people and ideals he has very little interest in.
Another recurring theme of the press conference is Dylan’s urging that he not be taken so seriously. One especially moving moment in No Direction Home contains rare footage of a very young Bob Dylan freshly arrived in New York City. The black and white home movie contains no sound. Dylan’s gracefully animated movements, scaling walls and pulling a hat from his guitar case, evoke that of the great silent film stars, especially Chaplin’s Little Tramp. He is charming and funny without saying a word or playing a note. Watch just a few moments of this footage and it doesn’t seem so ridiculous that when asked, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or as a poet?” he replied without missing a beat, “I think of myself more of a song and dance man.”
The audience laughter indicates they thought this was a pretty good joke. But was it?
Matt Powell is a writer, musician, lawyer and entrepreneur living in Venice Beach, California. He has a Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. He is the guitarist and songwriter for The Incredible Heavies and The Sharbettes, as well as the co-founder and designer at Plecas Powell Design, a mid-century modern furniture design company. He often writes about music as a means to explore the interconnectivity of broader issues and themes.