Dylan’s Great Rainbow Revisited
“I didn’t choose rock, rock chose me” ~ Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s masterpiece, Highway 61 Revisited, turned fifty this year. After all this time, “the sweet pretty things” remain in bed, driven further into an affective malaise. The album was a cultural milestone, one that nudged open the aperture on social criticism, broadening the possibilities of how pop could comment on the trajectory of current events.
By 1965, Dylan had already been pushing this vision for a few years. His first three albums had blown open the stale genre of “folk music” with such “protest songs” (scare quotes intentional) as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” While side one of Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s fifth long player, was recorded with electric instruments, including “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which reached the UK charts in March of ’65, followed by “Maggie’s Farm” in June, he had yet to fully conquer the jukebox. Highway 61 Revisited changed all that. “Like a Rolling Stone” climbed to number two on Billboard in the summer of ’65 and transformed Dylan into an international superstar, or simply “Judas” to traditional fans.
Opening with the crack of a gavel, Dylan takes the stage like Holden Caulfield spitting venom in the faces of all the phonies. Court is now in session on desolation row and a motley gang of savage priests and apocalyptic hustlers play for the gods. “Like a Rolling Stone” packs rock’s emancipatory promise into its 6:13 length, which was revolutionary in itself. The kids wouldn’t buy it, thought radio and the suits at Columbia, they couldn’t pay attention for that long. Before the song was even released it was doing its business to change the business.
Listening fifty years on, the ultimate question – “How does it feel?” – still resonates, but with a radical difference. Composed within the context of Andy Warhol’s explorations of the culture industry, Dylan’s stinging cross-examination strikes a defiant chord, one designed to chase away any numbness that may have been intoxicating his peers.
“Screen Test” at Andy Warhol’s Factory
In today’s selfie-saturated context, Dylan’s challenge to express a feeling – to exorcise the “sin” of lifelessness – has been transformed into an ontological confabulation: “How should it feel?” The ubiquitous mirror-screens of our laptops and phones mediating experience fuel a precarity that undermines any sense of intuitive agency. Trusting the feels to deliver an authentic response isn’t good enough: the afffective gesture is to crowdsource for cues.
In 2015, Dylan’s work still does its work. It exposes a vacuum, not in the eyes of the “mystery tramp,” but at the heart of our spectacle affliction. Giving Dylan an affective twist reveals a deeper, more sinister form of alienation animating the cultural logic of late capitalism. The sun may not be yellow, but it’s hypnotizing the chickens.