Rolling Stone published an article the other day about the coming release of Bob Dylan’s the complete Basement Tapes — and when released the album will stretch across six audio disks. The Basement Tapes have been an icon of Dylan-lore since their inception in Woodstock, NY around 1968. Less conclusive versions of the album have been released in both bootleg and manufactured form; in fact, I am the proud owner of what I believe is the 1975 edition of the album.
All of Dylan’s albums from the 60s have a profound aesthetic affect on me, but The Basement Tapes _impose a flavor of raw wildness that lingers on my ear drums long after I have moved out of them and enter back into civilized sounds. _The Basement Tapes embody what is perhaps the essence of Dylan: mad bum anarchy of the soul, and mystery.
For those who don’t know, Bob Dylan ran away from his home in Duluth, Minnesota. He set out, as told by his first album Bob Dylan, in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie. “Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song,” etc, etc, and all that jazz and all that smoke.
Dylan quickly diverged from Woody’s path. _Bob Dylan _is perhaps Dylan’s only album that imitates Guthrie’s aesthetic — and it was not a success. Columbia Records considered dropping Dylan from its label in the wake of the album’s failure. The patience of John Hammond, who had signed Dylan to Columbia Records, was repaid by Dylan’s second album _The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan _which propelled Dylan from the borders of Guthrie’s persona into something uniquely his own. Around 1965, Dylan completed his metamorphosis into a poet. ”Like a Rolling Stone” is a celebration of Dylan’s success.
When “Like a Rolling Stone” was first heard, many folk connoisseurs were insulted by the implications of the song’s lyrics. Consider the chorus: “How does it feel to be on your own?” And the following lyrics excerpted from the second verse: “You say you never compromise with a mystery tramp, but now you realize, he’s not selling any alibis, as you stare into the vacuum of his eyes, and say, do you want to make a deal?” And: “Ain’t it hard when you discover that he really wasn’t where it’s at [and] after he took from you everything he could steal?”
“Like a Rolling Stone” is quite simply a mean song. It is the taunt of a conqueror, a brutal unmasking of malevolent intentions, the triumphant raising of a foreign flag.
The conquering army is Bob Dylan and the Band who, upon completion of their unreleased album The Basement Tapes, claimed that if the album had been released in 1968 — when it was actually recorded — it would have been capable of destroying western civilization. Perhaps its power had been overestimated by Bob and the gang but, in the art of Bob Dylan, there exists a desire to upset and to destabilize social norms. Think of Dylan’s chilling quote: “I accept Chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me.”
Dylan’s “conquest” of folk music is mirrored by the perpetual domination of popular, non-critically political commercial music over politically-critical music. In 1964, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was criticized for being politically sterile, even before “Like a Rolling Stone” turned off many of the admirers that Dylan had found in folk music. These disillusioned fans interpreted Dylan — the tambourine man — as a sell out.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” is composed entirely out of metaphor so that its subject is pure abstraction, without a tangible reference to socio-political reality. The lyrics, “Though I know that evening’s empire has returned into sand, vanished from my hand, left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping,” refer to nothing except what the audience’s imagination will find for it as a reference. Thus, they assert nothing.
Dylan’s transformation from a social commentator to a poet is what has frustrated his folk fans because they were in need of a champion for the values of their social movement. By abandoning this movement, Dylan left the responsibility of social change to his audience — many of whom were revealed to be passive observers of a social spectacle rather than participants in actual social improvement. His frustration for their passivity was put on display with “Like a Rolling Stone.” The relationship between Dylan and his fans is plagued by a mutual weariness — a weariness of Dylan for his fans and, vice-versa, of his fans for Dylan.
I have observed that a similar weariness plagues broadcasting and journalism today. On the one hand, the public is tired of the near absence of tough, yet rational, political criticism from its major media outlets. While, on the other hand, major media outlets are weary of providing viewers with admirable political criticism because they fear losing or insulting its viewers. The media and its audience do not seem to understand each other, and so any movement toward a common interest has become static.
The reason for this is complicated and it has much to do with the celebrity status of our news broadcasters. I have a hunch that many of us in the audience of news broadcasts do not believe that we are a part of the conversation. When we tune in to news media, we assume the same position that we would assume at one of Bob Dylan’s concerts: our role, in both contexts, is to listen and not to participate. But we might be wise to keep in mind that, unlike Dylan, the role of our news media is not at all to be poetical.