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C H A P T E R F O U R BOB DYLAN The Artist I first started waking up to the possibilities of rock lyrics being serious with Blonde on Blonde. . . . It said it was okay to be as serious as you wanted in rock. Robert Hunter Bob Dylan may not have Clark Gable’s ears, but you can bet he’s going to have as powerful an impact upon his generation as Gable did upon his. Don Heckman Bob Dylan emerged in 1965 as a rock star.1 The story is by now well known. It has been told in numerous biographies and several documentary films, most recently Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home. “Dylan’s electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival may well be the most written-about performance in the history of rock & roll.”2 Though the previous March Dylan had released Bringing It All Back Home with one entire side of electrified songs, and his new rock & roll single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” had already entered the pop charts, the folkies at Newport didn’t expect this new Dylan to show up. And he did not show up with a rock band. Rather, Dylan had put together a pickup band of musicians at Newport and, as Robert Shelton describes it “rehearsed this instant group until dawn. They kept their plan secret until they walked on stage, Dylan, in a matador-outlaw orange shirt and black leather, carrying an electric guitar. From the moment they swung into a rocking electric version of ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ the Newport audience registered hostility. . . . As Dylan led his band into ‘Rolling Stone,’ the audience grew shriller: ‘Play folk music! . . . Sell out! . . . This is a folk festival! . . . Get rid of the band!’”3 Dylan’s apostasy again met with now famous rejection at Forest Hills a month later and during his 1966 tour of England, where the electric portion of his concerts was routinely booed and where he was called “traitor” and “Judas.” Yet the backlash in response to Dylan’s changes was confined to a coterie of devoted folk music enthusiasts. For the rest of his ever-expanding audience, Dylan’s earlier persona was understood to be an element of the new one. What to the Old Left and to folk purists was an incomprehensible abandonment of the authentic for the commercial was to the New Left and Bob Dylan: The Artist 71 legions of young rock fans the embrace of their culture by one who had previously shared only their politics.4 What Dylan became during this period is “the artist.” He was the first rock star to present himself as if he were in the same kind of business as Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, or Igor Stravinsky. His main medium was at first the song, but it quickly became the album, and, perhaps in the long run, it will have been his persona. After Dylan, it would be impossible to simply assume that a rock star must be culturally ephemeral. Dylan’s artist persona enabled him to continue to comment on political and social issues without being classified as a “protest singer.” Moreover, because since the mid-nineteenth century artists had styled themselves as opponents of the bourgeoisie, Dylan’s new persona continued to register as a form of opposition or radicalism.5 As We See Him Now It is hard even for those of us who lived through the period to recapture the Dylan who emerged in the mid-1960s. Those to whom Dylan still matters are probably much more aware of the details of his life than his fans were at the Bob Dylan, still the committed folksinger, with Joan Baez at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. (U.S. Information Agency/National Archives) 72 Rock Star time. “In the faxless ’60s, when TVs were still steam-driven and urgent correspondence was carried in the saddlebags of the Pony Express, news of Dylan’s doings would often come limping along months after the event.”6 There was very little intelligent coverage of popular music back then, as the journalists captured in D. A. Pennebaker’s cinema verité–style documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, Don’t Look Back, attest. Unlike Elvis, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, Dylan’s star did not rise on television. He made his mark first through his songs and later through his records and coverage in mass-circulation magazines. Of all rock stars, only the...


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