Dylan versus the Sixties
May 24, 2001
often talk as if the Sixties were the craziest decade in American history.
Liberals talk as if the Sixties were a renaissance, after the silent conformity of
the Fifties. I dont recognize either description. Having been a college
student in the thick of campus unrest, I remember the Sixties as a
mix of silly fads and raucous conformity. Consider the most durable icon of the
Sixties, Bob Dylan.
Dylan, the folk minstrel of the youth
rebellion of the Sixties, has just turned 60 himself, a milestone
celebrated even in the conservative Wall Street Journal. Dylan
started out singing mildly left-wing ditties, and he was adopted and promoted by
his leftist elders long before he was very popular with younger audiences. As his
early career illustrates, the youth rebellion was actually a triumph
of marketing commercial marketing by the record companies, and political
marketing by the veteran Left, which had learned to manipulate youngsters through
Communist front groups in the Thirties: the American Student Union, the American
Youth Congress, the National Negro Youth Congress, the Student Congress against
War and Fascism, and so on.
Dylan himself, always an individualist, muted
his leftist politics as his career progressed and he succeeded in unimpeachably
capitalistic terms. But the New Left of the Sixties bore a huge debt to the Old Left
that had thrived in the Thirties. In fact, the pretense that the New Left was
new was only a useful fiction to dissociate it publicly from its
Stalin-era forebears, who had been discredited by their servility to the Soviet
According to Sixties
mythology, the New Left was composed of pure and idealistic young people,
spontaneously united by revulsion against war and other bad stuff and needing no
prompting from their elders. Theyd discovered Marx on their own, we were
assured, and it was absurd to think they were under any Muscovite influence.
As a college student in the Sixties, I was
always struck by the uniformity of all those alleged nonconformists. Since when
did joining all the latest fads and bullying those who refused to join
make you an independent thinker? Why was there so much unanimity, and
so little tolerance, among people who styled themselves
protestors? You could find so many things you could protest, if you
had a mind to, but these kids of my own generation always seemed to protest the
same few things. It was as if you needed authorization from liberal grown-ups as
to which evils were suitable topics of mass discontent.
I liked Dylan, in spite of his leftist
protest phase, because I sensed that he was uneasy with the
groupthink of his admirers and promoters. He was original enough not to imitate
others, and he didnt enjoy being imitated. His restless sense of irony
wouldnt allow him to repeat himself; he discarded the formula of his own
success. He was willing to outrage his own fans by adopting the electric guitar, a
taboo in the world of lefty folk music. When he made himself the
target of furious protest, I decided he was my kind of leftist if such a free
spirit could ever really be a leftist at heart.
Dylans creation of folk
rock turned out to be an utterly brilliant career move, but he
couldnt have known that at the time. All he knew was that he was risking a
very lucrative career and breaking with the people who had made him a success. He
was even turning his back on the musical tradition that had influenced him most.
That took a lot more guts than, say, switching from the Republicans to the
It was also a daring repudiation of the
fake-prole authenticity of the commercial folk revival. And it was a
highly symbolic rejection of the new orthodoxies of the Sixties. He realized you
can only be authentic on your own terms.
When an interviewer tried to prod Dylan to
utter pompous liberal platitudes, he demurred, insisting he was only a singer, not
a prophet. When the interviewer persisted, the exasperated Dylan replied with an
exquisite put-down: I wonder if Tony Bennett has to answer questions like
Whatever else he was, Dylan was his own man.
That was a rare thing in the Sixties, and its rarer now.
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