Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan And the 1960s
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Bob Dylan’s abrupt abandonment of overtly political songwriting in the mid-1960s caused an uproar among critics and fans. In Wicked Messenger, acclaimed cultural-political commentator Mike Marqusee advances the new thesis that Dylan did not drop politics from his songs but changed the manner of his critique to address the changing political and cultural climate and, more importantly, his own evolving aesthetic.
Wicked Messenger is also a riveting political history of the United States in the 1960s. Tracing the development of the decade’s political and cultural dissent movements, Marqusee shows how their twists and turns were anticipated in the poetic aesthetic—anarchic, unaccountable, contradictory, punk— of Dylan's mid-sixties albums, as well as in his recent artistic ventures in Chronicles, Vol. I and Masked and Anonymous.
Dylan’s anguished, self-obsessed, prickly artistic evolution, Marqusee asserts, was a deeply creative response to a deeply disturbing situation. "He can no longer tell the story straight," Marqusee concludes, "because any story told straight is a false one."
history; it cannot be rendered historically innocent (as Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist discovered when he sang it at a lawyers’ conference in 2000). Here another paradox emerges. Emmett was not a southerner; he supported the north in the civil war and was dismayed to find his song adopted by the enemy, an experience that may have resonated with Dylan. One of the core themes of Masked and Anonymous is precisely the way in which songs can be made to serve purposes other than those for
Spirituals to Swing gig in 1938. As Raphael Samuel recalled, the early British folk revival displayed a relaxed and innovative attitude toward heritage. It broke from the conservative pastoralism of the old Cecil Sharpj societies and preferred smoky pubs to concert halls.65 It was out of this new interest in old American music—especially New Orleans jazz—that the skiffle fad emerged in the mid-fifties. Lonnie Donegan had a hit with a thumping version of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” and across
heart,” an old saying goes, “he who remains a radical when old has no head.”) Dylan reverses the polarity. The retreat from politics is a retreat from false and stale categories and acquired, secondhand attitudes. The antidote is a proud embrace of innocence and spontaneity. The refrain encapsulates the movement from the pretense of knowing it all to the confession of knowing nothing. In the song’s opening verse, Dylan ridicules his earlier, protest-phase self. With the “crimson flames” of
sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind: “Like a Rolling Stone.” My mother—she was no stiff with rock ’n’ roll, she liked the music—sat there for a minute, then looked at me and said, “That guy can’t sing.” But I knew she was wrong. I sat there and I didn’t say nothing but I knew that I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean and it sounded somehow simultaneously young and adult.11 Whatever you say, don’t say it twice If you find your ideas
Harding does break from the Dylan of the mid-sixties is its repudiation of self-righteousness. The need for a more tempered and understanding engagement with a hostile world fills “Dear Landlord,” usually read as Dylan’s message to Albert Grossman, the manager with whom he had recently quarreled. The song’s marvelous opening salvo—“Please don’t put a price on my soul”—is the eternal plea of the creative artist to the moneyman. Though the artist’s “burden is heavy” and his “dreams are beyond