FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Shameless Descent of Bob Dylan

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Given the youth movement charged with energizing the Super Bowl’s non-football offerings—a trend embodied by Bruno Mars at this year’s halftime show—it was only fair that the old folks should make a counterattack in the ads, long held to be the true locus of entertainment value at the annual orgy of sex and violence, consumerism and military display.  Thus we were treated to the unsavory vision of Bob Dylan sliding into Chevrolet’s latest sedan and gurgling patriotic garbage about American pride above ambient guitar chords.

If not for the fussy make-up and hair-styling, one might have surmised—or at least hoped—that this one-time countercultural figurehead and voice of protest was not pitching Chrysler’s cars in a multi-million-dollar commercial, but was instead doing public service announcements for the last vestiges of American industry. Indeed, since there’s no way that Dylan needs the money, one could have been forgiven for assuming this was his gift to the American people, a gratis boost of confidence during a long stretch of crisis.

But Dylan had clearly cashed the check for this paean so mendacious that it achieved a melancholy far beyond and below that of “Song to Woody” or “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

That the spectacle was wrapped so tightly in cliché made it all the more depressing, from the opening line of unprecedented banality (“Is there anything more American than America?”) to the infantile stereotypes of its coda: “Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watches,” intoned the aged bard.  “Let Detroit make your cars.” Sandwiched in between were the grimmest two minutes of fakery in Super Bowl advertising history—platitudes delivered to shots of diners and steaming coffee; bucking broncos; cheerleaders; a Route 66 road sign; James Dean; Marilyn Monroe; Dr. J; Gordian knots of freeway interchanges; assembly line auto workers; defunct downtown Detroit; the ancient Dylan teetering into a guitar shop and leaning down to cast a rheumy eye at earlier photographs of himself, these images of the young sleek musician staring back at the babushka doll of today with even more disbelief than did his television audience. So surreal was this tableau that many viewers of a certain age must have thought that their Super Bowl party host had slipped LSD into the Bud.

The most encompassing of these concentric circles of lies was the nonsense Dylan spouted about how you can’t import true American cool or legacy or the heart and soul of American workers. Chrysler is owned by Fiat, not even Italian in any legal sense but soon to be incorporated in The Netherlands. That this transnational corporation was revivifying the Motor City was sadly laughable. Detroit has lost two-thirds of its population and even the street lights are being turned off in the most forsaken districts of the city. Dylan’s chords strummed on hypnotically, lulling reason to sleep amidst the blitz of banality.

American history is full of telling correspondances, watersheds that illuminate the drift of the country: Custer dies at Little Bighorn in 1876 one hundred years almost to the day after the American break with Britain. In the realm of music and politics, the end of World War II in Europe is announced all over the front page of New York Times of May 8th, 1945,  and tucked in among these headlines is an article that tells us that Aaron Copland has won the Pulitzer prize for Appalachian Spring—an optimistic musical accounting of American innocence as the nation emerges from the war as the world’s greatest Super Power.

Likewise Dylan’s shameless descent into Super Bowl madness was aired less than a week after the death of Pete Seeger, that rock of musical and moral integrity. The closest Seeger ever got to the Super Bowl was refusing former half-time show eruption, Madonna, the permission to cover his “If I Had Hammer” since, as Dave Marsh reported in CounterPunch she planned to change the words to “If I had a hammer / I’d smash your fuckin’ head in.” Maybe it’s a good thing that Pete wasn’t around to see and hear his former protégé, Dylan sell-out in such ridiculous fashion on the world stage.

A fictionalized version of the young Dylan makes a phantomy cameo at the close of the Coen brothers’ latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis fortuitously—at least for the filmmakers—released earlier in the very month that Seeger died. Set mainly in the Greenwich Village of 1961, the film follows the couch-surfing, hitchhiking peregrinations of the eponymous main character, and the Brothers dutifully bathe the proceedings in forlorn grey-green light and allow space for capable performances of folk ballads by the singing, guitar-playing actor who stars, Oscar Isaac. Perhaps the most solipsistic of a long succession of studies in style, this Coen production is uncannily prescient about a strand of the American folk revival that ultimately follows Dylan to his Super Bowl debacle.

The Coens’ Llewyn Davis is a self-seeking, sexually irresponsible, childish brute, who cares only about himself.  Though there is talent and a dash of authenticity in what he does, Davis serves in the film merely as an object lesson in the truth that success, even celebrity, is bestowed almost randomly. While seeking out gigs and places to sleep, Davis participates in a studio session for some silly pseudo-hillbilly song, but is so desperate for cash and dismissive of the merits of the music he has just made that he signs away his claim on royalties.  In the course of the film’s week-long action, the song is already threatening to become a hit, leaving the impoverished Davis literally out in the cold. Butting repeatedly up against the brick wall of failure, Davis decides at last to go back to his job as a seaman, waving goodbye not only to his musical career but also America itself. At his Village folk-music haunt, the Gaslight, Davis gives a final heartfelt performance before heading out the door, beyond which is awaiting a brutal beating by the husband of a singer he had drunkenly heckled the night before.  As Davis leaves the club we hear and see in silhouette the next act, a gravelly voiced guitarist—Dylan himself—doing “Farewell,” his version of the “Leaving of Liverpool.”  With the passing of ships in the Greenwich Village night, the Coens try to squeeze a few drops of poignancy out of Davis’s defeat—though it’s hard to imagine why anyone would really care about his final exit from music history. More than that they want to evoke the magical, intimate moments before a star was born.

But the Coens captured a truth about Dylan and his collision course with the  Super Bowl: that for the right price humble beginnings can always be forgotten.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

 

 

More articles by:

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

November 21, 2017
Gregory Elich
What is Behind the Military Coup in Zimbabwe?
Louisa Willcox
Rising Grizzly Bear Deaths Raise Red Flag About Delisting
David Macaray
My Encounter With Charles Manson
Patrick Cockburn
The Greatest Threats to the Middle East are Jared Kushner and Mohamed bin Salman
Stephen Corry
OECD Fails to Recognize WWF Conservation Abuses
James Rothenberg
We All Know the Rich Don’t Need Tax Cuts
Elizabeth Keyes
Let There be a Benign Reason For Someone to be Crawling Through My Window at 3AM!
L. Ali Khan
The Merchant of Weapons
Thomas Knapp
How to Stop a Rogue President From Ordering a Nuclear First Strike
Lee Ballinger
Trump v. Marshawn Lynch
Michael Eisenscher
Donald Trump, Congress, and War with North Korea
Tom H. Hastings
Reckless
Franklin Lamb
Will Lebanon’s Economy Be Crippled?
Linn Washington Jr.
Forced Anthem Adherence Antithetical to Justice
Nicolas J S Davies
Why Do Civilians Become Combatants In Wars Against America?
November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Patrick Bond
Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail