Something a little bit different on Nitelife today with our newest wordsmith, Arthur O’Dea. O’ Dea is currently undertaking a doctoral study on the subject of lateness/late style in the work of industry icon Bob Dylan.
Lateness itself possesses a peculiar economy. Broadly speaking, late style is representative of an artist stepping out of kilter with what has come to generally be accepted as their artistic mode of expression. Keeping in mind Said’s specification of late style being a passage of creativity limited only to great artists, the very nature of witnessing a ‘late’ event continually indulges our desire for spectacle. In shortly over one week’s time, a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, two great boxers both approaching their fortieth birthday, will take the notion of a spectacle onto another level of professional boxing. Although arguably bereft of any real sporting relevance, it is to be the highest grossing fight financially that boxing has ever witnessed, with more people than ever before willing to embrace the pay-per-view option. With two great careers firmly established already, the biggest event boxing will ever embrace will arguably occur too late.
Bob Dylan’s appreciation for the latent potential within the visual and visceral reality of boxing goes deeper than his famous song for Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. Showmanship and stage-management are facets of his intrigue that bore written concern in his autobiography, Chronicles. Although a professional wrestler, the influential presence of Gorgeous George in Dylan’s formative years informs us of Dylan’s potential for embracing the show though the game may be rigged. Few would doubt the sincerity of Mayweather and Pacquiao, yet, in a boxing world so strenuously dictated by money, that their bout will leverage little in the way of sporting satisfaction is brought to the fore on account of how extreme their fee for this fight shall truly be. Keeping in mind this potential to peak in terms of public appeal beyond your period of prime performance, Dylan’s decision to enhance his visibility and redefine himself in the hope of discovering a new audience takes on a late profile due to the fact that he appropriates an old song of his own in the process. The music video recording of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is the product of this effort.
Released as a single in 1965, it was not until 1967 that this pioneering take on a music video would emerge. Prior to the commercial incentive that would elevate the music video to an integral element of an artist’s latest release in the 1980s, for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ the only people who would see it were those who specifically sought out the documentary Dont Look Back, in which the video was the opening attraction. These were exactly the sort of people Dylan was attempting to address. That the video itself was created in 1965, released in 1967, and intended to detach Dylan from the ‘protest song’ enthusiasts that had engulfed him in 1963, indicates broadly the rapidity of Dylan’s transformation from one mind frame to the next, from one scene to another. By the middle of 1967 as the documentary and its music video became commonly available, a Bob Dylan only a few days shy of his 26th birthday was standing amid ‘the rest’ of a career that could already be described as vast in its output. For what will soon become a half-century of artistically active years in lieu of this first major emergence, the relevance of revision will become a key method of moving forward for Dylan. In these primary years of social importance, he had created songs that would still resonate with importance half-a-century onward. Although ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘The Times They Are-A Changin’’, or ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ have hardly dimmed in their applicability to various social causes, the songs which emerged in the immediate wake of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ enacted a manifest alteration of what a song could be, not what it could be used for. In subsequently releasing the music video recording of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, Dylan facilitates our means of understanding how he legitimised such freedom and drew on it creatively.
In the course of her dialogue throughout Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan biopic, No Direction Home, Joan Baez reiterates the confusion of half-a-century before, recalling the queries directed at her of the whereabouts of her fellow folk-singer Bob Dylan on any given picket-line or rally of the early 1960s. Greil Marcus, Dylan’s foremost serial analyst, believes Dylan to be a figure primarily remembered for his early songs of protest. That Dylan tended to inhabit the furthest periphery of organised dissent appears not to dampen the legitimacy of this claim. Though his lyrics provided sufficient fuel for the growing sense of angst in different pockets of keen teens, in body, Dylan was anything but a fervent figure of protest. Presenting this private indifference on a public scale, Dylan would soon display his quick creative escalation beyond sixties ‘protest songs’. However, the quick manner in which he had appropriated the genre and redefined it would ultimately leave an indelible mark on his legacy. This misperception of Dylan being an artist primed to protest against social injustice exhibits reason enough why the video recording of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is so important to the Dylan narrative. Enacting what can be seen as a brash artistic side-step or a calculated move at orchestrating a new audience for himself to appeal to, stood in the back alley of London’s Savoy Hotel, dropping cue cards as an angelically dressed Allen Ginsberg talks to Bob Neuwirth carrying a cane in the corner, Bob Dylan can be seen standing still, not moving his mouth. As crowds heard the song from two years before now playing again it becomes clear that these words have already been sung, interpreted and analysed. Dylan is finished talking and he wants you to see as much.
In a 1978 article on the fading fortunes of another boxer Muhammad Ali, Hunter S. Thompson talked of this last ‘Great Prince of the Sixties’ with an assurance that Dylan’s relevance had since dropped off. Interwoven though their lives may be on many fronts, conviction ties Dylan to Ali strongest of all. Though both men have become symbolic of a sixties spirit for rebellion that neither truly embraced in the manner it was appropriated, to put Dylan’s decision to be seen not singing on this music video in context, one should consider its significance in comparison to Ali’s tendency to be seen vocally referring to himself with such bombastic fervour. Ali heightened the level of intrigue his out-of-ring persona attracted safe in the knowledge that once he stepped into the ring and people could see him fight with a matching aplomb. Here it became clear that he was a boxer. A boxer with a lot on his mind that he was more than happy to share, but a boxer nonetheless and this brought with it a certain degree of limitation for what one could expect of Ali when not boxing. The necessity of not appearing ‘responsible’ for those who listened quite carefully for the message in Dylan’s work commanded the reverse approach as he looked to step down from the soap box. With the parameters of what a singer-songwriter could be having been largely realigned by Dylan himself, it was not yet clear to what degree Dylan’s lyrics should be considered in terms of political rhetoric. The visual result of this confusion was the subtle distinction of being seen to be silent.
Being seen in a certain light however had always been an incredibly important facet of Bob Dylan the entertainer. Sounding like a self-professed hillbilly singing Woody Guthrie songs, and possessing something akin to the on-stage mannerisms of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Tramp’, Dylan has consistently shrouded his ‘originality’ and personality in flavours of what has inspired him. As such, the attire Dylan’s appropriates in the ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ music video is of incredible importance when analysing its visual impact. Strange only in so far as his look is so drastically different from what his more carefree, straight-forward aesthetic had been in his formative years as a folk figure of protest, in terms of social standing however, what one witnesses is little more than a mainstream example of a hip, mid-sixties man with some money to spend. As a matter of protest however, sartorial alliances such as this were as equivalent a shock as the tight jacket, baggy trousers, cane, bowler hat and small moustache of Chaplin’s tramp was to the various worlds he was chosen to encounter on his travels. The Tramp, like Dylan, attired himself in clothing entirely out of time with the community that had claimed him as their own. Such distinctions therefore successfully alienate one should they seek to be alienated. Chaplin wanted his Tramp to stick out. Affecting similar traces of unease and misplacement Dylan echoes Chaplin’s intention for the Tramp to arouse a sense of confusion and distrust.
What supplemented Dylan’s act as it did Chaplin’s was the musical accompaniment that played throughout. For Chaplin and the silent movie era, the music would reflect the mood being created on screen. For Dylan however, given that his dropping of cue cards often appears to speed up or slow down depending on where the word it represents has appeared on the song, the audience is given the unusual distinction of listening to a Bob Dylan song in the knowledge that they are watching Bob Dylan do the exact same thing. Dylan’s decision to embrace the cue-card as a means of expression closely mirrors the contemporary importance of the placard as a symbol of dissent and extrapolating instant meaning from a large gathering. The careless manner in which he resultantly dispenses with each card acts as a further dig at a culture of complaint that he was appeared determined to undermine. A reluctant approach to revealing much of what constitutes the reality of his songs, that Dylan would so shamelessly disrupt the flow of what appear the song’s most significant words, while occasionally showing that the words are in fact wrong or miss-spelt on the cards to begin with, signifies perhaps a little of what Dylan felt regarding the potential for enjoying music – particularly his own music – should you insist so relentlessly to pursue its ‘large-scale message.’
The inter-changeability of words has always been a source one feels of great enjoyment for Dylan. It is a trait he explores here delicately. Anyone with experience of seeing him perform live can relate to the occasional bemusement of hearing previously unheard lyrics in a song you assumed you knew the words to. That the lyrics he would later write for the songs of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde would be amongst the most impenetrable to appear in popular music, clarity can be gleamed from the lucidity with which one can see that soon after writing this song, Dylan was already willing to toy with it, to give you cause to reconsider what you did or did not like and understand about it. He was giving you reason to distrust the validity of what appears to be a straight-forward lyric. That he would only allow this to be seen subsequent to the release of the songs that would immediately follow ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is testament to the late revision of his own narrative. Far from those songs of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde being the sole indulgence of a drug-fuelled existence, enabling us to witness a degree of his inner mind at work invites the appreciation one can have of the linguistic value on display in subsequent works. Similarly, the presence of his ‘corner man’ Allen Ginsberg only seeks to develop further the theory that what we are witnessing is not just a performer of protest songs, but a legitimate poetic voice with artistic concerns beyond what can appear to be simple intentions.
That so much of the rebelliousness of this music video is positioned retrospectively would perhaps be problematic if not for the fact that the song itself remains a curiosity of Dylan’s vast back-catalogue. Considering its stance as his most successful song to date upon its release in 1965, it was not performed before a live audience by Dylan until June, 1988. Over two decades later than its release, it was nonetheless deemed an appropriate opening track on night one of what would become his ‘Never Ending Tour’, the single most significant attempt Dylan made at reinvigorating what appeared to be a grave dissatisfaction, but relentless relationship with live performance. The marketability present in this decision echoes once again of the Said-ian lateness at work throughout. Once again, the prospect of the spectacle becomes apparent when you consider that the immediate visual performance of this song would be seen two years after its initial recording and held in that light for another twenty-one years again. The fragmentary positioning of Bob Neuwirth, the figure we see conversing with Ginsberg and a close friend of Bob Dylan’s at the time, elaborates the similar presence of Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown at the side of Muhammad Ali as he engaged his dual presence as a speaker and a boxer. Brown, the man behind ‘Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee’, resembles Neuwirth in the ‘hype’ that both men could conjure so as to make their respective great artist impossible to ignore. For the likes of Dylan and Ali in this scenario, the source of such raw material becomes the cause and effect of the momentum generated. Dylan, standing there with his cue card becomes both the beautiful woman signalling the beginning of the next round and the boxer who must now compose himself for the next gruelling three minutes of mayhem. Revising and reshaping his position in this manner, the Dylan present within the confines of this video represents the entirety of what would become a career continually dichotomised by thoughts of ‘art’ and how you can sell it without selling yourself.
Hindsight aids our realisation that any social limitations withholding his artistic progression were overcome before the public would witness this minor revolution in 1967. By this stage the sixties were already over for a married-with-children-rural-dwelling Dylan. To put it in finer context, by the time Woodstock – that beaconing moment of sixties counter-culture expression – would occur two years further on again, Dylan would be there only as a resident of the nearby small town, nowhere to be seen performing the songs that had been foundational in giving voice to a generation already waning. Akin to Mayweather and Pacquiao and the gargantuan pay-day they cemented at a point where either boxer has little left to give the sport, by the time this music video emerged Dylan had already extrapolated what he could from the 1960s and was firmly looking beyond the limitations of what had become a conservative outlook on how social liberalism should take effect.
There was no great social injustice in mind when this video was created and released. It was a statement of personal intent. Joe Louis, the great African-American boxer of the 1930s and 40s had, according to Richard Wright, enabled his majority of minority followers to feel like they too were a part of the ‘meaningful process of American life.’ Dylan was accredited a social position that enabled his work to leverage some of the same sense of hope and genius that Louis had once evoked in a minority of his majority followers. That he did not keep performing this role as expected is mirrored by the fact that Louis and any other boxer who has become a figure of social dominance on the American scene must eventually step finally from the ring.
Representative of the interior dialogue between mind and body, the coalescence of mental and physical experience determined that a change was required for Dylan in 1965. It is such bodily alterations that aid the development of a late style in an artist. That it did not embrace Dylan at a point where his physical life was approaching an end does not detract from the point that mentally he was approaching a degree of exhaustion that would soon see him depart from touring for eight years. The retrospective release of this music video indicates a definite intention on Dylan’s part that he was not to be rendered complete. From what had appeared to be his peak as a folk singer emerged his importance as a singer of protest songs. An experimental indulgence of adding electricity to the mix was capped off with a series of albums that ultimately re-established the boundaries of what song-writing and popular music could be when pursued in conjunction. In the space of half a decade Dylan had done all this. That he ultimately chose as his last ‘release’ of that period of creativity a music video illustrates definitely Dylan’s determination to be perceived in an unpredictable light. The constant revision and reworking of what has come before is by now a tenet of Dylan’s style so important as to suggest that from a very early age he has always been late. As with all great artists however, being late becomes a virtue should you be shaping your time.