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Sunday, April 12, 2009

‘Together Through Life’: Is Dylan’s changing relationship with Barack Obama a telltale sign of things to come?

Oh well, I love you pretty baby

You’re the only love I’ve ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my throne

A perennial fixture on the American political scene for the last 40 years, he has engaged, enraged, and probably even entertained the notion a few times. But despite his entrenchment in the country's political dialogue, Bob Dylan had never outright endorsed a presidential candidate.

Then last June, seemingly out of nowhere, one of the most guarded, poker-faced figures of the 20th century laid his cards on the table—

“Right now America is in a state of upheaval,” he said in that slow, measured meter that forces you hang on his every word. “But we’ve got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up. He’s redefining what a politician is. Yes, I’m hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to.”

Ever the astute politician, the junior senator from Illinois quickly returned the accolade by telling Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone, “[there are] probably 30 Dylan songs on my iPod,” including “the entire Blood on the Tracks album.” And just like that, the fate of perhaps the most iconoclastic figure of his generation was tangled up in Bob.

Of course, we all know how the story ended. Barack Obama went on be elected the 44th president of the United States. And Dylan? Bob did the only thing he knows how to do, he just kept on keepin’ on…

Then on April 7, in a Q&A session with Bill Flanagan to promote his new album, Together Through Life, Dylan decided to break it off with Barack.

Dylan has always been dismissive of politics: “[It’s] entertainment…a sport. It’s for the well-groomed and well-heeled. The impeccably dressed. Politicians are interchangeable.” The real surprise was his response when asked if Obama would make a good president.

Rather than stick to the script that Obama is going to “redefine American politics,” Dylan started to weave a far more cautionary tale: “Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men.”

Dylan conceded to having read Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father: “His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do.” But clearly, the book had raised more issues for Dylan than it had answered: “He’s got an interesting background,” Dylan said. “He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real.”

But just when you thought Dylan might be warming back up to Barack Obama (after all, if anyone knows how to straddle that enigmatic abyss between fact and fiction, it’s Bob Dylan), Dylan resorted to one of his best known tricks— turning a compliment into cantankerous condemnation: “He probably could’ve done anything…the political world came to him. It was there to be had.” No question, the dodgy old Dylan was back.

At 67, Bob Dylan has spent a lifetime re-inventing himself. So while we shouldn’t be completely surprised by his change of heart about Barack Obama, we should take notice.

When it comes to predicting the direction of this country, Dylan may not be the end-all, be-all. He is, however, a startlingly accurate bellwether.

Even at the beginning, Dylan knew where it was at. On September 22, 1961, Dylan performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” for the first time publicly. One of Dylan’s most politically charged songs, “Hard Rain” warned (among other things) of the horrors of nuclear war.

One month later to the day, President Kennedy appeared on television to announce the discovery of missiles on the island of Cuba, initiating a 13-day cat-and-mouse game with the Soviets that brought the world to brink of nuclear holocaust.

Forty years later, Dylan’s prescient premonitions remain eerily accurate. Dylan’s 2001 album, Love and Theft, was about a country in flames, and then underwater. The record was released on September 11, the very day America saw the World Trade Center towers reduced to a mass of smoldering rubble. Four years later, a deluge of despondency washed across American as the federal government sit idly while the city of New Orleans was literally wiped off the map.

Dylan’s next album, Modern Times was, on one level, a nostalgic nod to the classic Depression-era film by Charlie Chaplin. The disc was filled with soul-searching songs of working people losing faith and losing ground. The fact that the album was released in the summer of 2006, at a time when Wall Street was flying and the housing market was humming along, the record seemed oddly out of place. That is until the markets crashed and all those workingman’s blues came true for millions of Americans.

In two weeks, Dylan will release his 33rd studio album. Titled, Together Through Life, the working moniker for the record was for a while rumored to be, I Fell A Change Coming On.

And while Bob’s predictions have more often than not been alarmingly dead on, Dylan is hardly a harbinger of doom. But based on his past track record, those of us who think and write about Dylan have to wonder exactly Dylan was thinking about when he was writing one.

A few lucky journalists have gotten a sneak peek. The rest of us, however, will just have to wait. But one thing is for sure—

Considering Dylan’s abrupt about face on the man who will be leading us over the next few years, I wouldn’t take anything for granted…

Listen to me, pretty baby
Lay your hand upon my head
Beyond here lies nothin’
Nothin’ done and nothin’ said

For a full transcript of Dylan’s recent interview with Bill Flanagan, click here.
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Anonymous said...

Uh, excuse me, but do you maybe think Bob is talking/singing about something bigger than current events and the pop idol of the day? 90% of his songs have some religious connotation (you should know that).

Exchange "baby", "my love", even "you" and maybe (cuz you & I don't really know) Bobby's referencing the Almighty. Maybe.

el meny said...

yeap, i think everyone reads too much into Bob's writing. all these religious n social commentaries have always been present. everyone's hung up in connecting obama to dylan. dylan's forever, obama is a politician. only vultures master the art of politics, everyone else pays the price. the few, the good ones have always been sacrificed to that high and powerful mighty dollar! dylan's one thing, obama's another. u probably expect him to show up and picket too. just enjoy the music, n it's art.

Anonymous said...

The Interviewer did his best to get Dylan to support Barak Obama (now also known as Bo), but Dylan would not bite. It was a juvenile interview; a straw man that dylan lit a match to.

Your article was interesting and I think YOU would have done a better job interviewing Dylan! At least you respect the distance he keeps. We all know that Dylan won't be carrying a sign and walking in circles any time soon.

But to the music: I think he is at the top of his game. I will post up, song against song, his vocals on WorkingMan Blues#2 to anything Bing Crosby, or anything Bob Dylan of the 60's.

Although a fan since the early days, I love his latest releases more than anything---And "Standing in the Doorway" could have been on "The New York Sessions"!

His voice has improved and is lovely. Any time a friend will take a shot at the voice, I ask the friend to imitate it....or hold a note that dylan holds, or get 1/10th the emotion into a note that he does.

After a time when many retire, he has published a bestseller, sold top selling albums, had film appearances, and his own radio program.

what will he do in his 70's?

He has done more since retirement age than most artists can do in a lifetime. Long after politician's promises are broken, and then forgotten, we will remember Dylan.

Anonymous said...

all Bob Dylan was saying was lets see how things work out, the man has only been in office for 3 months, he will work hard and try to do his best. do you or i really know the future, what ever it might be there are as many theories for that as there are people on this planet.

Anonymous said...

I don't see Dylan as being more prophetic than anyone else who has been around for a while and follows current events. I'd pay more attention to a Daniel Schorr commentary on NPR than a Dylan song when it comes to predicting the future of our current political stage. I think Obama aspires to be a different kind of politician, whether or not he can navigate unscathed through the mire of Washington politics remains to be seen.
Like Dylan, (assuming that he meant it), 'I'm starting to believe in what the scriptures tell' - doesn't make the songwriter a prophet - any Jehovah's Witness could predict that.

jan sevastakis said...

It's all so predictable it's scary!When Jesus said,"turn the other cheek",he really meant"don't think twice it's alright."

Clark said...

I'm relatively new to Dylanology, but if there's anything I've come to understand about the man, it's that he has always stayed one step ahead of his critics. Dylan's an observer, and Obama is the observed. "Ain't talkin', just walkin'." Let's back off of the idea that the two are attached at the hip philosophically- it's apples and oranges.

By the way, kudos to Barack for the "Blood on the Tracks" nod. I just hope that "Idiot Wind" won't seem so appropriate in four years.

mloewen said...

I don't think the the comments reflect what Dylan says in the interview. Go to the link and read the whole interview. I don't see him distancing himself from Obama I think he is honest about the office being a hard thing that changes a man. He does say "I think he will do the best he can". That is the most anybody can do.

mloewen said...

Read the whole interview. This version is cut up and I don't agree with the conclusions of the author.Dylan is never gonna be simple and that easy to read. You can read what you want into a lot of it but read the whole interview.


Artie King said...

Dylan's a tricky dicky, fo show

jan sevastakis said...

"It's all good!"--Just don't think twice and we'll be alright.Actually it's much to late to think,so maybe all you dylanites,ought to come up with something new...........?