My time with Dylan is up and we stand in preparation for my leaving the room. As a last aside, I ask for his take on the US political situation in the run-up to November's presidential election.I've been listening to the words of Bob Dylan, taking them seriously, and trying to interpret them since the 1960s, so I'm ready to analyze this. In typical Dylan style, it's enigmatic. Let's study it line by line.
“Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval,” he says. “Poverty is demoralising. You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor. But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up...Barack Obama. He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to.” He offers a parting handshake. “You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future,” he notes as the door closes between us.
“Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval. Poverty is demoralising."
This is a broad statement about the problems and the mood in the country, with a focus on one thing: poverty. Poverty has not been a central issue in the campaign. Except for John Edwards, the candidates are careful to talk about economics in terms of the middle class and families.
Then there's the notion that poverty is demoralizing, which leads, somewhat mysteriously, to thoughts about virtue: "You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor." And the virtue is purity. Purity! What candidate has spoken about purity?
I'm seeing a swirl of left- and right-wing thoughts here. Conservatives care about individuals taking responsibility for themselves. They stress personal initiative and — particularly if they are social conservations — "virtue." "Purity" may seem to refer to the sexual virtues. To go from purity to poverty is easy for the poet. The words loosely rhyme. Maybe Dylan is bullshitting and stalling for time. (You can sing the previous 2 sentences in your imitation Dylan voice.)
But a conservative might tie purity to poverty: If you abstain from sex until you can marry and form a stable family, you will probably not be poor — if you take personal initiative and work hard. But the left-wing theme is there too. What if people can't do that because the poverty has demoralized them? There's sympathy and not judgment for the people who haven't followed the prescription for avoiding poverty.
This prelude ends with his naming one candidate, Barack Obama: "But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up...Barack Obama."
"But we've got this guy out there now" is funny. Barack Obama is supremely famous at this point, but Dylan talks about him as though he's just appeared on the horizon: "this guy out there now." I think talking like that is being cagey and distancing himself from the subject of politics. But "this guy" is "redefining the nature of politics." Dylan doesn't like politics, perhaps, and wouldn't it be cool if some guy changed what politics are? Yet "redefining the nature of politics from the ground up" is a hack phrase — something the politicians themselves would say. I sense that he's putting up a wall, being vague and unrevealing.
"He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out."
He repeats the redefinition idea, then reverts to the most noncommittal statement possible. We'll see what happens.
"Am I hopeful?"
I can't tell whether the interviewer pushed him with a question here. If not, then Dylan recognized the necessity of asking this. You can "redefine" something, but does anything change in the real world? And "so we'll have to see how things play out" was specifically declining to express either optimism or pessimism.
"Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to."
He goes with the optimism. Not too much, though. An optimist would say "Yes, I'm hopeful that things will change." The "might" is the tinge of pessimism. And then there's the added "Some things are going to have to." Which things? And if they "have to," what does any particular politician have to do with it? Again, it's enigmatic, noncommittal — we'll have to see how things play out.
He "offers a parting handshake." He doesn't really want to talk about this. He shuts the door on his interlocutor, with one last point: "You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future."
Why talk about the past here? "Some things" must change, he just said, but then he feels the need to bring up the past, to tell us to value the past and keep what is good. That's a conservative impulse — though not terribly conservative. He's only advising us to take "the best" from the past, while a hardcore conservative would want to keep as much tradition as possible and would believe that good naturally inheres in tradition. And yet, Dylan advises us to leave "the worst" behind, which would mean that we could continue with everything but what is shown to be actively bad — and that is what a hardcore conservative would say.
Finally, "go forward into the future." That is the most banal statement in the world. It's a ridiculous hack phrase, and maybe he meant it as a joke — because he is ousting the reporter from the room. "Go forward into the future" = Now, get out of here. But "go forward into the future" is the language of progressivism. He's swirling those left and right statements together, being enigmatic and cagey. It's a way that works for him, making him sound wise, funny, different — Dylanesque.
The subject of Dylan and Barack Obama came up in the comments on the Hillary post yesterday, when L.E. Lee wrote:
I was even more surprised that Bob Dylan said that he supports Barack Obama this past week. I do not remember Dylan ever endorsing a candidate for political office before.Then Meade said:
L.E.Lee, It's widely known that, like Hillary was, Bob Dylan was a supporter of Barry Goldwater in 1964.Lee had trouble believing that, and Meade told him to look it up. It's in Dylan's book "Chronicles." This was a cue to me, because I blogged "Chronicles" chapter by chapter in 2004 — click the "Dylan's Chronicles" label — and I knew I had something on Goldwater. Yes, here:
Dylan's favorite politician: Barry Goldwater. P. 283.So, what does all this add to the analysis of his "endorsement" of Barrack Obama? I think we can say that door-closing Dylan is not that comfortable with talk about politics. In the book, that statement "I liked the old news better" got him to talking about his interest in reading history. His love of Barry Goldwater had something to do with style and cowboys. Here's Tom Mix. I can see the Goldwater resemblance. But why would Dylan say he liked Goldwater and give that as the reason? He's playing with us, hiding again, letting us know he's different from other people — he thinks with a poet's logic. Ordinary political people bother him. (So a politician who could "redefine" politics might appeal to him in a special way.)
Why: "[he] reminded me of Tom Mix."
Bob Dylan song that mentions Goldwater: "I Shall Be Free, No. 10."
Now, I'm liberal, but to a degreeA Bob Dylan political opinion: "I wasn't that comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble. It wasn't my particular feast of food. Even the current news made me nervous. I liked the old news better." P. 283.
I want ev'rybody to be free
But if you think that I'll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I'm crazy!
I wouldn't let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.
And what do we make of the reference to Goldwater in "I Shall Be Free No. 10"? Read the lyrics. It begins:
I'm just average, common tooSo he's playing a character. Obviously, not Bob Dylan, who's very different from us and whom there is use in talking to, because it's not at all the same as talking to yourself. The "I" here is a comical everyman — the ultimate conformist. But then the lyrics proceed in lots of different directions, and sometimes the "I" is Dylan, but I think the Goldwater verse is not Dylan. It's a hypocritical liberal whom Dylan mocks. The liberal wants freedom for all, but is ready to discriminate against the conservative: "I want ev'rybody to be free/But if you think that I'll let Barry Goldwater/Move in next door and marry my daughter/You must think I'm crazy!"
I'm just like him, the same as you
I'm everybody's brother and son
I ain't different from anyone
It ain't no use a-talking to me
It's just the same as talking to you.
To use "all the farms in Cuba" as the thing of great value to the character speaking these lines is to suggest that the liberal is really a Communist and to show an even darker side to his desire to repress the conservative. It's also part of the silliness and nonsense of this song, which shifts all over the place, changing points of view and flipping around absurdly.
That's just something he figured out how to do to keep us guessing what he's really talking about.
Now you're probably wondering by nowSo if you're probably wondering by now just what his "endorsement" of Barack Obama is all about... it's nothing. It's something he said over in Denmark.
Just what this song is all about...