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.