Mike Marqusee is the author of a number of groundbreaking books on politics and popular culture, including Anyone But England; War Minus the Shooting; and Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the 60s. Marqusee is also a political activist, until recently serving on the stop the War Coalition Steering Committee in the United Kingdom. American born, he has lived in London for 30 years. Marqusee speaks with DAVE ZIRIN about his latest book, Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art.
DAVE ZIRIN: You’ve been a fan of Bob Dylan for forty years. What compelled you in 2003 to write Chimes of Freedom?
Mike Marqusee: The rise of the anti-war and global justice movement over the last two or three years has given me new hope and a new purpose to the protest music of the past. I did not write the book as an exercise of sixties nostalgia. There’s too much of that and it’s a disservice to those struggles, and more importantly it’s a disservice to young people today. I wrote the book so that, I hope, young people can learn from the complexity of the struggles of the sixties, the incompleteness of the struggles of the sixties, and not repeat some of our mistakes and move forward.
DZ: You also write about how he never made explicit anti-Viet-Nam war songs. Is your argument that his art ‘failed the test’ of Vietnam?
MM: I don’t think his art fails the test of Vietnam. I think he, as an individual citizen did not speak out against the Vietnam War at all. The Vietnam War was one of the great atrocities of the 20th century and any American citizen who did not stand up and speak out about it, especially Bob Dylan, failed some basic test of social solidarity. As an artist, however, I think he measures up to it because despite himself he writes a series of songs which go very deeply into the horror of the war, most famously a song called, “All Along the Watchtower,” which he writes in the very end of 1967. Jimi Hendrix’s epic cover version was a huge hit with the GI’s in Vietnam. I’m told by people who were there that it was one of the few crossover songs that were listened to by both black and white GI’s. To the GI’s of the Vietnam the meaning of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was absolutely transparent. It was about a society that was in self destruct mode and a war that had become an apocalypse and the power of the lyrics were augmented by Hendrix’s extraordinary guitar. It spoke to those who were at the very center of the war. There are other songs of Dylan’s that are explicitly political. Obviously “Masters of War” comes to mind. Also other songs like “Tombstone Blues” and “Highway 61” which take up themes of both the horrors of war and the hypocrisy of a society built on greed.
DZ: As you write in your book, the 1960s are defined by the mass movements for civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam. How do you explain that someone like Bob Dylan, who rejected the movements as they grew, is so closely tied to the struggles of the era?
MM: One thing I try not to do is to reduce Dylan to be merely a spokesperson or representative of the social movements at the time. Without the social movements of the era, there wouldn’t be the Bob Dylan that some of us love. That doesn’t mean that he can be reduced to those social movements. He was an individual who often had an antagonistic relationship with those movements…I think that it’s striking that in an age of mass politicization and mass radicalization, the greatest artist of the sixties, and I think Dylan is the greatest single individual artist of the time, is someone who interrogates the very idea of politicization often quite fiercely, and often quite unfairly. So while perhaps he is not a hero of struggle, he’s a great artist.
DZ: Do you think Dylan’s art is able to withstand being co-opted?
MM: I think there’s a constant struggle by both the artist and those of us who love the art and see it as part of a broader movement for social change to resist co-optation.
DAVE ZIRIN is the News Editor of the Prince George’s Post, Prince George’s County’s only black-owned paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He also is launching www.edgeofsports.com