Unlike a Rolling Stone
In the cultural firmament of the 1960s few figures loom quite as large as Bob Dylan. During the early years of that tumultuous decade the young folksinger made all the right moves in establishing himself at the vanguard of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements. He performed at several benefits for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and took the stage with Joan Baez at the March on Washington. Later, he performed the songs “With God on Our Side” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game” for a few hundred black farm workers at a Greenwood, Mississippi voter-registration rally.
Despite his later assertions that he was “never a protest singer,” these actions seemed calculated to establish him as exactly that. Dylan’s songs from the period, which included “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” became the de facto soundtrack for the swiftly escalating countercultural insurgency.
This material—along with the more hedonistic “electric” songs from the mid-’60s albums “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde”—is still what most people think of when they think of Bob Dylan. Yet in 1967, at the very apex of the psychedelic ’60s, a very different Bob Dylan emerged—one rooted in the “old songs” and the old ways. Some observers of a conservative bent, picking up on the singer’s later avowed fondness for Barry Goldwater, have concluded that Dylan took a decisive turn toward the political right at this point.
That is probably a case of wishful thinking, insofar as Dylan has never displayed any kind of a coherent political philosophy. (Hillsdale College historian John Willson notes that the folk singer possessed “all the political savvy of Barbie,” and Dylan himself writes in in his memoir, “I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics.”) We are on firmer ground in saying that Dylan, after leading the revolution for a time, recused himself from the movement and became something of a traditionalist—albeit an idiosyncratic one.
On a personal level this involved getting married, moving to the country, and having a lot of kids. For a time he gave up smoking, drinking, and the various other substances that had fueled his manic outpourings over the previous years and had almost led to his demise. Journalists and commentators at the time attributed this transformation to his convalescence following an alleged motorcycle accident in July 1966. Whether or not the accident actually happened (and there are no hospital records to corroborate it), the young songwriter used the story as a pretext to pull himself off the fast track.
Inevitably, with the downtime came introspection. “When I [moved to] Woodstock,” Dylan wrote years later in his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, “it became very clear to me that the whole counterculture was one big scarecrow wearing dead leaves. It had no purpose in my life.” This revelation brought with it some pretty serious implications for Dylan’s songwriting. If the “spokesman of his generation” repudiated said generation, would he have anything left to write about?
The answer turned out to be a decisive “yes”: He wrote enough to fill the albums “John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline,” “New Morning,” and “Planet Waves”—what would be a career’s worth for anyone else. Writing from a position of stability for the first time in his life, Dylan imbued his new material with warmth and melody. The incisive cruelty of such earlier songs as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street” gave way to the simple and heartfelt “If Not for You”:
If not for you my sky would fall
Rain would gather too
Without your love I’d be nowhere at all
I’d be lost if not for you
This was not the most poetic or groundbreaking stuff Dylan had ever written, but it was real and pure. The new songs were also notable for their concision. Waking from the fever dream of “Desolation Row,” with its ten verses crammed to overflowing with evocative nonsense, Dylan arrived at the poignant “Forever Young”:
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
To be fair, no one else has ever written anything quite like “Desolation Row.” But “Forever Young” has a universality that reaches far beyond the earlier song’s core audience of agitators, hipsters, and English majors. It spans the generations.
As must be evident from the lyrics, Dylan was personally and thematically preoccupied with his new roles as husband and father while making these albums. To all appearances, Bob and Sara Dylan did a remarkably good job in raising their children in an environment of stability—a Herculean feat given the insanity that continued to surround Bob: the oversized expectations of the critics, the nut jobs who made their way out to Woodstock in search of the self-exiled King of the ’60s, and the continued pressure from managers and publicists to get back on the road.
It’s a testament to the Dylans’ parenting skills that not one of their kids has written a tell-all book or appeared on a reality show. “To us, there was Bob Dylan and there was Dad,” Jakob Dylan, the most well-known of Bob’s progeny, explained to the New York Times in 2005. “As for what he meant to other people, that was never glorified in our house. There were no accolades there, no gold records. You wouldn’t know if he had a good year or not. That’s the way I try to conduct myself.”
In addition to the inevitable shift in lyrical subject matter, fatherhood brought a shift in priorities. Dylan no longer sought to bottle the zeitgeist in his music; he simply aimed to write solid songs and bring in money for his family. The domesticated Dylan did not, however, abandon his love of creative experimentation entirely. Alongside the contents of his “official” albums, Dylan recorded over a hundred freewheeling songs with his sometime-backing group The Band in the basement of their rented house in West Saugerties, New York. These ranged from originals to traditional folk songs to obscure country chestnuts to improvisational genre-bending hodgepodges—what we might now call “mash-ups.”
None of the songs were ever intended for release, though most leaked out onto bootlegs. (A somewhat arbitrary roundup of a number of these tunes eventually saw official release on the “Basement Tapes” album.) Freed from the obligation to be an Important Artist, with Big Things To Say, Dylan just let his stream-of-consciousness flow right out onto the tape. A good half of the material was pure gibberish, but some of it was brilliant. He sang it all in a relaxed, unforced manner quite different from his characteristic nasal whine.
Virtually all of Dylan’s work during this period was inspired by what he called the “lexicon”—the sturdy old songs of the public domain. This was not a new obsession. As he had told Nora Ephron back in 1965, “I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs. They were out of sight.”
“Like what songs?” Ephron asked.
“‘Little Brown Dog,’” Dylan said. “And ‘Nottamun Town’: That’s like a herd of ghosts passing through on the way to Tangiers. ‘Lord Edward,’ ‘Barbara Allen’: they’re full of myth.”
By 1970, Bob Dylan—the most acclaimed songwriter of his time—decided to showcase the classic old songs that he felt left his own work in the dust. The resulting project, titled “Self Portrait,” nearly ended his career. For reasons that remain obscure, Dylan included only a few of the many traditionals he had recorded and padded these with lackluster live tracks and covers of contemporary songs by the likes of Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot, releasing the whole sprawling mess as a double-LP. Further deepening the self-inflicted wound, producer Bob Johnston coated the proceedings in syrupy-sweet orchestration and needless overdubs.
This led many listeners to conclude that Dylan had lost his direction and domesticity had rendered him soft and inconsequential. That narrative has persisted to the present day and has colored impressions of the two succeeding albums—“New Morning” and “Planet Waves”—as if the stink of “Self Portrait” had somehow managed to foul everything in its wake. (I can still recall the clerk at Wuxtry Records in Athens, Georgia snorting in derision when I brought “New Morning” to the counter. “Not my favorite album of his,” he said.)
It came as a surprise to many people when the original, unadorned “Self Portrait” sessions were released in 2013 as “Another Self Portrait.” As it turned out, the problem had never been with the content but with the production and sequencing. On those original recordings—many of which featured just Dylan, guitarist David Bromberg, and keyboardist Al Kooper—the “lexicon” came through loud and clear: “Little Sadie,” “Railroad Bill,” “This Evening So Soon,” “House Carpenter,” “Tattle O’ Day,” and the luminescent “Belle Isle,” all performed with passion and conviction.
The troubadour had not gone soft after all; he had been digging down to his roots to orient himself for the way forward. These were songs of sin and redemption, of hard lives lived below the poverty line and/or outside of the law. They were indeed more exciting than much of what had been written in the 1960s.
A good friend of mine once asked if I believed it was possible to be a “conservative” artist. He was speaking of something deeper than politics. Could an artist, he wondered, live a quiet, ordered life surrounded by family, friends, and hard-won comfort and still produce work that was vital? Surveying his own favorite writers—William Butler Yeats, James Dickey, and William Faulkner—my friend concluded that the prognosis didn’t look good.
Thinking of Bob Dylan in his homebound years, I countered that it was possible. It is true that great artists must be on intimate terms with both darkness and light, but most of us do not need to court darkness; it comes to us in unbidden tragedies large and small. In Dylan’s case, his tranquil existence in Woodstock was shaken by the death of his father, from whom he had been estranged for a number of years. “Now there would be no way to say what I was never capable of saying before,” he wrote in Chronicles, Volume One. Such regret is fuel enough for a hundred songs. And so, even amidst the buoyant melodies of “New Morning” and “Planet Waves,” sad breezes blow. These can be heard in the occasional minor chord, or in the encroaching doubt in the lyrics of “Time Passes Slowly” or “Going, Going, Gone.”
Ultimately, Bob Dylan was not able to sustain his domestic idyll. “The snake in the garden was the artist himself,” writes biographer Daniel Mark Epstein in The Ballad of Bob Dylan. A fundamentally restless soul, Dylan finally succumbed to the siren’s call of a life on the road and its attendant romantic flings. As a result, his marriage endured a slow, agonizing death that was captured for posterity on Dylan’s masterwork, “Blood on the Tracks.”
Just a few years previously the venerable poet Archibald MacLeish had warned the young musician, “If anything costs you your faith or your family, then the price is too high.” “Blood on the Tracks,” while cementing his immortality, had cost the songwriter the latter, and the fact that he included MacLeish’s admonition in his memoir can be viewed as a tacit admission that the price was indeed too high. In fact, Dylan seemed to realize this even in the midst of the meltdown. In a live recording of the song “Sara” from 1975— during the very public twilight of his marriage—the singer inserted a verse that had not appeared in the official album version:
Sleeping in the woods by a fire in the night
Where you fought for my
soul and went up against the odds
I was too young to know you were doing it right
And you did it with strength
that belonged to the gods
Sara, Sara, wherever we travel, we’re never apart
Sara, Sara, beautiful lady so dear to my heart
What I find most bracing about this lyric is its casting of marriage as a heroic endeavor. Dylan did not have the fortitude to sustain such an enterprise, but he at least had the poetic ability to capture it in song—even if this particular verse, which perhaps hit a little too close to home, didn’t make it onto the album.
Now that we are almost 40 years on from “Blood on the Tracks,” it is tempting to view Dylan’s “back to the land” period as just another phase he grew out of, akin to the protest period from the early ’60s or the acerbic “electric” phase characterized by “Like a Rolling Stone.” Yet I find it telling that in subsequent years Dylan kept trying to recapture certain aspects of his lost Eden. In 1978, reeling at the tail end of a drug- and alcohol-fueled downward spiral, he became a born-again Christian—a move that was perhaps even more polarizing for his fans than his transition to the electric guitar had been back in 1965.
Later, suffering from a different sort of malaise—this time of the creative variety—he retreated once more into the comforting embrace of the “lexicon,” releasing two albums of traditional folk music: “Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong.” On subsequent albums, his fetish for all things old-fashioned insinuated itself so thoroughly into his original work that at least one critic, Alexis Petridis of the Guardian, groused that Dylan was “determined to see out his days playing pop music from the era before [he] changed pop music for good, as if he’d rather forget that he ever did so.”
A life of perpetual motion, not rootedness, is obviously Bob Dylan’s default condition. His “Never Ending Tour,” which has been in full swing since 1988, has made that abundantly clear. But those eight years of domesticity in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the treasure trove of fine music they produced, point the way for those of us who do yearn to be, in my friend’s words, “conservative” artists. Bob Dylan may not have had the disposition for such a life in the long run, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Glancing at my bookshelf, I can see, peeking out here and there, the names of those who have succeeded: the Tolkiens, the Berrys, the Percys. Comparable examples are fewer and farther between in the field of songwriting, but perhaps that is because the values of home and hearth are just not as celebrated in that milieu as they ought to be. (Let’s face it: “Ramblin’ Man” will always get more play than “Our House.”)
Still, as a husband, father, and songwriter myself, I want to believe—I need to believe—that such a life is possible. And for a not-insubstantial period of time at the very height of his popularity, Bob Dylan demonstrated that it could be done.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.