Dylan versus the Sixties
often talk as if the Sixties were the craziest decade in American
history. Liberals talk as if the Sixties were a renaissance, after
the silent conformity of the Fifties. I dont recognize either
description. Having been a college student in the thick of campus
unrest, I remember the Sixties as a mix of silly fads and
raucous conformity. Consider the most durable icon of the Sixties,
folk minstrel of the youth rebellion of the Sixties,
has just turned 60 himself, a milestone celebrated even in the conservative
Wall Street Journal. Dylan started out singing mildly left-wing
ditties, and he was adopted and promoted by his leftist elders long
before he was very popular with younger audiences. As his early
career illustrates, the youth rebellion was actually
a triumph of marketing commercial marketing by the record
companies, and political marketing by the veteran Left, which had
learned to manipulate youngsters through Communist front groups
in the Thirties: the American Student Union, the American Youth
Congress, the National Negro Youth Congress, the Student Congress
against War and Fascism, and so on.
always an individualist, muted his leftist politics as his career
progressed and he succeeded in unimpeachably capitalistic terms.
But the New Left of the Sixties bore a huge debt to the Old Left
that had thrived in the Thirties. In fact, the pretense that the
New Left was new was only a useful fiction to dissociate
it publicly from its Stalin-era forebears, who had been discredited
by their servility to the Soviet Union.
Sixties mythology, the New Left was composed of pure and idealistic
young people, spontaneously united by revulsion against war and
other bad stuff and needing no prompting from their elders. Theyd
discovered Marx on their own, we were assured, and it was absurd
to think they were under any Muscovite influence.
As a college
student in the Sixties, I was always struck by the uniformity of
all those alleged nonconformists. Since when did joining all the
latest fads and bullying those who refused to join
make you an independent thinker? Why was there so much unanimity,
and so little tolerance, among people who styled themselves protestors?
You could find so many things you could protest, if you had a mind
to, but these kids of my own generation always seemed to protest
the same few things. It was as if you needed authorization from
liberal grown-ups as to which evils were suitable topics of mass
I liked Dylan,
in spite of his leftist protest phase, because I sensed
that he was uneasy with the groupthink of his admirers and promoters.
He was original enough not to imitate others, and he didnt
enjoy being imitated. His restless sense of irony wouldnt
allow him to repeat himself; he discarded the formula of his own
success. He was willing to outrage his own fans by adopting the
electric guitar, a taboo in the world of lefty folk
music. When he made himself the target of furious protest, I decided
he was my kind of leftist if such a free spirit could ever
really be a leftist at heart.
creation of folk rock turned out to be an utterly brilliant
career move, but he couldnt have known that at the time. All
he knew was that he was risking a very lucrative career and breaking
with the people who had made him a success. He was even turning
his back on the musical tradition that had influenced him most.
That took a lot more guts than, say, switching from the Republicans
to the Democrats.
It was also
a daring repudiation of the fake-prole authenticity
of the commercial folk revival. And it was a highly symbolic rejection
of the new orthodoxies of the Sixties. He realized you can only
be authentic on your own terms.
When an interviewer
tried to prod Dylan to utter pompous liberal platitudes, he demurred,
insisting he was only a singer, not a prophet. When the interviewer
persisted, the exasperated Dylan replied with an exquisite put-down:
I wonder if Tony Bennett has to answer questions like this.
he was, Dylan was his own man. That was a rare thing in the Sixties,
and its rarer now.
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