Last Thoughts On Bob Dylan

February 04, 2014, 3:45 AM

Bob Dylan was in a Chrysler commercial during the Super Bowl. Like all local pundits, I’ve felt the need to write some trite little column about it. But I couldn’t do it. I wrote out four pages. It kind of rambles, but hopefully you can roll along with it here…

If you really deconstruct Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl Chrysler ad, Greil Marcus’ assessment of “Self Portrait” applies: “What is this shit?

Things Have Changed,” one of Dylan’s great later masterpieces, was for no good reason the commercial’s music bed. The song isn’t about things changing for the better. It’s about apathy.

“I used to care, but things have changed” is literally the opposite of everything Chrysler wants to say about itself.

Of course, if we expected thematic consistency from musical presentations, Springsteen’s “Glory Days” wouldn’t fill the air at high school reunions.

Most viewers probably didn’t even recognize the music choice as a faux pas.

What people have noticed was the claptrap copy read by Dylan: “There’s nothing more American than America.”

Despite everything that was wrong with the ad on a technical level, somehow the whole thing was weirdly captivating and, as much as a sales pitch can be, even inspiring in the moment.

From a lesser voice, the “nothing more American than America” thing is pretentious drivel masquerading as profundity. Somehow Dylan breathed life into that third-rate prose.

There exists in our national literature this great yearning to define our American-ness. Writers, think David Foster Wallace, have long struggled often to the point of madness to pin down the existential nature of our national experience.

Dylan reading that seemingly silly line rendered that entire literary canard irrelevant. We no longer need to wonder about Whitman and Ginsberg shopping for produce in a supermarket to contemplate America.

In a short simple statement in the aid of selling a compact car during that most superficial of American cultural experiences, Dylan offered a definition of America that is both elegant and inspired: This nation is what we as Americans make of it, and even more importantly, what we make and what we have made.

The Swiss have watches, and Germans beer, but the car is America’s legacy.

This may be a debatable concept, though it is not without some merit. Of course, it’s also a self-serving conclusion for a car commercial. But these things are supposed to be self-serving. And as he told us in “Brownsville Girl,” so is Bob Dylan.

You always said people don't do what they believe in,
They just do what's most convenient, then they repent.
And I always said,
"Hang on to me, baby, and let's hope that the roof stays on."

I must confess that I don’t really care about the auto industry’s existential connection to our American identity at the moment.

Right now, I only care about Bob Dylan.

I care about him because whatever merit Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad has, whatever emotional connection it made with viewers, came entirely from the fact that Bob Dylan was the ad’s voice and face. Any lesser spokesperson and scores of advertising executives would've summarily fired for delivering such a pedestrian Super Bowl commercial.

Long ago, in a time and place that only exists in our hazy collective nostalgia, a young Dylan was asked if he thought of himself primarily as a singer or a poet. He replied, mischievously enough, that he was a song-and-dance man.

In truth, Bob Dylan is first and foremost a storyteller. That’s why in an era of three-minute pop songs he could captivate with six-minute singles  ("Like A Rolling Stone") and epic ten-minute tracks like “Desolation Row” and “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.”

Whatever the peculiar chemistry of Bob Dylan as performer and writer, it has a hypnotic hold upon an audience. Even when he’s doing a dumb car commercial for money.

The secret of Dylan’s success, I think, is this inscrutable public persona that has somehow de-couples our idea of Bob Dylan from the actual man.

As unlikely as it might be, one could somehow imagine waiting in a Starbucks behind with Madonna or sitting next to Paul McCartney on an airplane because you imagine these people doing ordinary things like ordering coffee and taking plane rides.

Bob Dylan is a husband and father who probably wakes up needing to piss every morning. We know this on an intellectual level, but it’s just hard to imagine any of it is true.

Dylan, as a public figure, is a kind of god more than a human being. He’s not the omnipresent, monotheistic God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, obviously. He is a fallible and venial god that was supposed to have lived on Mount Olympus. When gods speak, we listen.

Sure, he stole “House of the Rising Sun” from a friend. Yes, he churned out some dreadful songs in the 1980s. And, yes, “Ballad In Plain D,” was probably unnecessarily cruel bit of score-settling.

But Dylan is absolved of those sins because from on high he has delivered album after album of incredible songs that are at once timeless and define their time.

His catalogue chronicles the arc of modern American adulthood—from idealistic youth (For the loser now/Will be later to win…), to disillusioned and/or angry young adult (You better take a diamond ring/You better pawn it, babe), to the remorse of middle age (Idiot wind blowing through the buttons of our coats), to the seemingly futile quest for meaning (Gotta serve somebody), to resignation and acceptance (I can survive and I can endure/And I don't even think about her, most of the time), to facing one’s own mortality (I was born here and I'll die here against my will/I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still).

Even that infamous “Ballad In Plain D,” however unfair it may have been to Suze Rotolo, speaks to a rage we have all felt at some time when love went wrong. To hear Dylan spit venom is to know you aren’t alone dealing with such emotions.

And, if you want to know the truth, Knocked Out Loaded wasn’t a bad album really. Most artists would kill to have something that good count as catalogue filler.

A great artist might, once or twice, create something truly transcendent. Such is his genius that Dylan does it again and again and again. He has more often and for longer than any other artist in American history said what the rest of us were feeling, often before we feel it.

This is not the prescience of a mortal man. Bob Dylan is something else. If he isn’t a god among men, then at least acknowledge that Dylan’s persona as a ghost-troubadour from that “old, weird America” is something more than just affect.

“You can’t fake true cool,” he who told us Super Bowl Sunday.

Dylan would know.

Everything about Bob Dylan is fake—the only thing we know for sure about Henry Porter is his name wasn’t Henry Porter—on some level. This son of petit bourgeoisie Minnesota Jews has, at times, played an Okie hobo, Yankee country gentleman, evangelical Christian, and lone wolf cowboy-poet.

About the only thing true about Bob Dylan is his irrepressible coolness.

Even when he’s pitching the Chrysler 200 as the grand creation of a great American tradition, he has more style than most artists can muster during their best performances. Orson Welles peddling cheap wine looked pathetic. Bob Dylan peddling cars looked like Bob Dylan.

It’s ironic, but by seemingly selling out and doing car commercials, Dylan affirmed his artistic greatness and his place, not just amongst America’s greatest artists, but as the first among legends.

You'll find God in the church of your choice
You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

America had an opportunity to find Bob Dylan in Chrysler’s Super Bowl commercial. If they missed him Sunday night, believe me, he too will be in the Grand Canyon at sundown.

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