Saturday, 8 February 2014

Things Have Changed - Not

I am officially, unreservedly, unashamedly in love with Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl commercial. The YouTube version of this spot has, within seven days of its initial airing, earned close to eight million views; I personally have accounted for at least a dozen of this number.
The two minute piece aired during the third quarter of Seattle’s dismantling of Denver’s Broncos, by which point much of the slot’s target audience was presumably drinking Coors and munching buffalo wings whilst cheering along to Bon Jovi’s ‘Dead or Alive’ for the fourth or fifth time. In other words, the ad ran well after the game’s outcome had become a certainty, and after a fair sized chunk of it’s audience had likely given up on the television spectacle and moved their attentions elsewhere.
A diminished viewership did not, however, slow Dylan’s detractors from tossing their penalty flags and raising their grievances like a howl of ready protest singers the moment the piece entered our shared consciousness. The spot was dismissed as “outlandish” and a “betrayal”. Dylan himself had been reduced to the level of “huckster’ and ”shill”. He was, of course, a “sell out” many decried. “Pete Seeger would never do this…” I read somewhere. Well.
The ad, if you have not yet seen it, is for Chrysler. Chrysler the car company. Over scenes of the road and snapshots from a time gone by - a time of state fairs and blue plate diners, noir nights and kids at the ball park - Dylan delivers a message that begins with the cyclical crackle of a phonograph. Over this he drawls, “Is there anything more American than America?” Through the next one hundred and ten seconds, while we are supposedly being sold a certain make of automobile, we are given a stunning glimpse into the world Bob Dylan both sees and inhabits.
And it’s always been like this.
From the very beginning, Dylan has been a creature of the environment we are shown time and again in this advert. In early interviews, he claimed to have run away from home at twelve or thirteen, to have hitchhiked and ridden the rails, joined the circus, and learned guitar techniques from street corner blues legends. That these statements were untruths matters little given what the they reveal about the mind of the teller. And every one of these images echoes throughout the Chrysler ad, most times in ghostlike fashion, once or twice - as with the carnival scenes - in more corporeal form.
In pictures dating back to his years as a so-called “protest singer”, the “voice” and “conscience of a generation”, Dylan’s stance often communicates a sullen James Dean (who appears in the advertisement) as much as, if not more than, the politically charged Woody Guthrie (who does not). And while his words do sometimes seem consistent with the above labels, often as not listening to them will uncover not a thorough compendium of social causes, but a shadowy who’s who of Greil Marcus’ Old Weird America, exactly the type of characters one might encounter in the Chrysler piece: Billy the Kid, Blind Willie McTell, Alfred Bello, Saxophone Joe.   
There’s always been a sense of the open road in Dylan’s work. His lyrics often seem like a roll call of US geography: Chaynee County, Kansas; Las Vegas, Nevada; Delacroix, Louisiana; Cumberland River, Kentucky; Detroit, Michigan; Tularosa, New Mexico; and on it goes…
Then there is the fact this is a man who, for the last twenty five years of his aptly nick-named ‘Never Ending Tour’, has spent up to half the year on the road, traveling over one million accumulated miles by, more often than not, bus. And what landscape does Dylan criss-cross most frequently in making this journey? Here’s a quote from a wonderful and revealing ‘Atlantic Cities’ article by Eric Jaffe:
“He's played Big Sky and Little Rock, Mountain View and Long Beach, Great Falls and Lake Placid, Palm Desert and Thunder Bay. He's played Eastlake and West Point and South Bend and Middletown and Northampton. He's played Providence and Christchurch and Las Cruces, and at least 20 different Saints or Sans or Santas, and Bethlehem (Pennsylvania).
"He's played Forts Lauderdale and Myers and Pierce and Wayne and Worth. And Esch-sur-Alzette and Juan-les-Pins and Winston-Salem and Stratford-upon-Avon. And Elizabeth (Indiana) and Murray (Kentucky) and Eugene (Oregon) and Salina (Kansas) and Wayne (New Jersey) and George, Washington. And Altoona and Alpharetta, Chattanooga and Chula Vista, Kalamazoo and Kissimmee, Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee, Yspilanti and Waikiki, and Normal, Illinois.” 
“Is there anything more American than America?” Dylan growls. In many ways, he’s the one who would know, the one who has seen it. Don’t forget, this the artist who once, on the cover of his landmark album Highway 61 Revisited - yes, Highway 61 - glowered out at us wearing a Triumph Motorcycles t-shirt.
And people feel the Chrysler piece is inconsistent?
I dropped into a coffee shop recently. The barrista was someone I have become familiar with over the last year or so, someone I glimpsed in passing a few days earlier. “I saw you in the parking lot,” I noted. “All dressed up in your gear, moving like you’ve been around such machines from birth. I was shocked though, watching you climb on a big old motorcycle.”
The woman chuckled at this. “Well, I do wear a lot of protective stuff,” she admitted. “And I have been around bikes all my life. But what I climbed onto, what you saw and what I ride was a cute little scooter.”
We both shook our heads. She as a theatre person and me as a meditator, we were amused at how expectations so influence perception. Based on her garb and body language, I expected a big bike - and this is what I saw. Tellingly, even having been informed otherwise by her, this is still what comes into my mind when I recall the incident now. Big shoulder pads. Familiar movements. Enormous motorcycle.
So too with Bob Dylan. A huge amount of cultural expectation has been weighted upon this man over the past fifty years. Many of us hold onto an image of him that seems more resistant to change than the gravel and blacktop lining America’s roadways - and we damn well demand he offer this back to us whether it be accurate or not.
This burden, he admits, has nearly crushed him on several occasions. It certainly obscures our ability to see who he is and what he’s up to at any given moment, in the same way my expectation of ‘motorcycle’ clouded the truth of ‘scooter’.
In the present circumstance, in the case of this two minute ad for Chrysler, it’s like the Wizard of Oz has suddenly - and most unexpectedly - pulled back the curtain and said, “Well folks, here I am!” The assembled crowd stares for a moment, narrows their gaze as if to focus, then waves a single hand in group dismissal. “Nah,” is all they seem able to say. “That’s not him.”
It’s a real shame.
For the most part, the backing track to the ad, if you have not noticed, is Dylan’s own ‘Things Have Changed’. This song was written and recorded for the film Wonder Years, and released in 2000. While Dylan has done a lot of notable work in the years since this single appeared - Theme Time Radio, Chronicles Volume One, ‘Highwater’, ‘Forgetful Heart’, an absolutely riotous Christmas video, among much else - ‘Things Have Changed’ stands out, for me, as a peak across the stretch of his career.
Which in my mind is fitting. Because this Chrysler ad, this Super Bowl commercial, this “corporate sell out” in which over two glorious minutes an American icon shares with us his world, is the best thing he’s done since.



Chris Floyd said...

Excellent comment, and very true, I think. Watching the ad, I was also reminded of the road scenes in Renaldo and Clara, very similar shots of riding down long stretches of highway, with various glimpses of America flashing past. Although I do think the odd mask-like make-up he had on was not to say, "Here I am," but to show, once again, "I'm Not Here." The ad is absolutely a glimpse into one of Dylan's bedrock visions (of that weird, old and to him truer America); but I think it also leaves him where he (whoever he is in his inner core) where he's always been: Masked and Anonymous. Thanks again for these great insights.

Martin Blank said...

dylan's world has been best encapsulated in the liner notes to planet waves. he is a creature of the old and real america.

nice essay

Martin Blank said...

bob dylan's world has been best encapsulated on the notes to planet waves. he has and always will be a creature of the 1950s and the old and real america that existed then.

nice essay

Anonymous said...

Interesting you write this now. I thought at times that the sangha response to the introduction of shikantaza at this past winter's dharma ocean dathun bore some resemblance to the audience reaction when Dylan went electric. Heresy!