Don’t ever suppose that Bob Dylan wrote or recorded inferior music in the era immediately after the famed mid-60s explosion.
What Dylan wrote in the late 60s and early 70s was more country than rock, more Southern than Yankee, and more happiness or regret than strife or rebellion; for these and other reasons it alienated many in the New York crowd. But it was still excellent songwriting. Both Nashville Skyline and New Morning are very fine albums. That they supply the bookends to Dylan’s season of artistic indifference to anti-Vietnam agitation, social radicalism, and personal narcissism, only demonstrates conclusively that, contrary to representations, his 60s diehards do not believe in “art for art’s sake,” that in other words they cannot separate their principles of life from their estimate of art. This is no strike, mind you, against the 60s diehards. We traditionalists have long insisted that “art for art’s sake” detachment is not possible; that what Richard Weaver called a man’s “metaphysical dreams” have constant and discernible impact on everything he does, including his art. Pure aesthetic detachment is not a power that we mortal men possess.
Were the 60s diehards to just abandon their mandarin pretense that they alone, cast as they are among the proles of America, can attain sufficient artistic detachment to profoundly grasp Bob Dylan, we could get down to the business of proving their politico-artistic judgment of his late 60s/early70s production wrong.
Have you ever given “If Not for You” a careful listen? That dates from 1970. Wikipedia, in an unusual burst of dry elegance, describes it as a “sentimental love song” of “modest ambitions.” Well after all, what is wrong with that? This is the character of a great many outstanding blues, pop, country, rock, or R&B songs. From simplicity and earnestness the best of these songs derive their charm.
Try out “I Threw It All Away.” Below a live version, introduced by Johnny Cash, but the newly-released recording is better. Take a listen. That song came out in 1969. It’s flatly penitential.
What is the particular character of these Bob Dylan tunes? Why, they are wholesome, traditional, rhythmic, modest, repentant. As a contrast, the very antithesis of that era.
Here then is Dylan’s surest send-off to 60s radicalism. Not what he did, but what he declined to do.
In the latter song, at the height of the 60s triumph, he sang, “I must have been mad, I never knew what I had, until I threw it all away” and “one thing for certain, you will surely be a-hurting, if you throw it all away.”
This song of modest ambitions, it turns out, is adjudged nearly among the top 50 of Dylan’s whole prodigious career — by Rolling Stone magazine, no less — which means that the radicals of the 60s can be taught. Experience is school sufficient even for this unruly tribe of mankind.
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In related news, readers alert to the bewildering enthusiasms of social media will have noted a surprise entrant to the field. In a small masterpiece of video production, Bob Dylan has introduced a new generation to his most famous song:
The subtleties here belie more artistry and brilliance than most laymen will be privy to — frequent integration of video pantomiming and lyrical punctuation, careful adjustments in the style of editing, excellent choreography, ironical transitions, and suchlike.
A writer at Forbes fittingly praises Dylan’s astute business sense. King Bob Capitalistically. Meanwhile, Sean Curnyn, formerly of Right Wing Bob fame, stands austere and curmudgeonly against it.
“Like a Rolling Stone” is occasionally mentioned as The Greatest Song of All Time. I hardly suspect it is even the greatest Bob Dylan song of all time. Its languid rhythm, infectious hooks, and legendary refrains give solidity to some lines that are many of them duds. I’m too young to have much connection with the real tempest of the “going electric” era; and too historical to think the defiance that marked Dylan’s decision to cut loose at a folk concert with a blues band, was any less marked than the defiance that marked his decision to cut loose with apocalyptic Christian hard rock in the late 1970s.
Well, nearly a half-century later, we finally have a video worthy of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Play around with it. It's interactive. Lots of fun.