Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

In November 1980, when the LRB was still in its infancy, barely a year old and only six months independent of the New York Review, Ronald Reagan didn’t simply take the US presidency from Jimmy Carter: he also, as Danny Goldberg argues in Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit (Miramax, $23.95), wrested political access to pop culture from the Democrats. Reagan overstepped the mark in 1984, however, when he tried to appropriate Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ as the anthem of his re-election campaign, having failed to pay attention either to the song’s lyrics (which are kind of ironic) or to the general thrust of Springsteen’s blue-collar rock. Bob Dole, having failed to pay attention to Reagan’s mistake, wanted to use the song during his unsuccessful campaign in 1988. Springsteen, co-opting a slogan of Nancy Reagan’s, just said no.

Now the Boss is doing more than merely refusing Republicans: he’s gone so far as to offer his support to John Kerry. Other ageing rockers joining him on the Vote for Change tour of battleground states include R.E.M., James Taylor and Jackson Browne, with the Dixie Chicks – whose lead singer, Natalie Maines, got into trouble for saying that they were ashamed of George W. Bush’s Texas connections, though she later apologised for the remark – bringing some relative youth to the proceedings. The Vote for Change movement joins an unlikely coalition of Kerry campaigners, including a pair of Jennifer Lopez’s exes (Ben Affleck, Hollywood’s least charismatic leading man, and rap mogul Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs) and supporters who openly dislike their candidate (at www.kerryhatersforkerry.com you can download a bumper sticker that says: ‘He’ll Do’). In Britain, meanwhile, ageing rocker Bono of U2 addressed the Labour Party Conference on the subject of Third World debt, and in Bournemouth Tory MPs tried to show they had a hip – or maybe merely a human – side by talking about which bands they liked. The only group so far to have returned the compliment, admitting to being Tory, is Busted – possibly the saddest band on the planet.

A notable if unsurprising absence from the Vote for Change parade is Bob Dylan, who was misquoted by Jimmy Carter when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1976, and who hasn’t said a straight word about politics for forty years. In a recent interview in the Sunday Telegraph, Dylan said he ‘wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation’. He was quoting from his first book of memoirs. Chronicles: Volume One (Simon and Schuster, £16.99) is a freewheeling narrative, put together with the same storytelling skill and verve as ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ or ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. It is also self-evidently and self-consciously fictive. Many of the recollections are too detailed to be plausible as unadorned memories (whatever they are). Before explaining that he’d travelled to New York from the Midwest in the back of a ‘four-door sedan’, Dylan says he told the PR man at Columbia Records that he’d come in on a freight train: if he lied about it then, can we believe him now? At the very least he’s drawing attention to and asking questions about what it means to be making up stories. Of Izzy Young, the proprietor of the Folklore Center on MacDougal St, Dylan writes that ‘Moby-Dick, the ultimate fish story, was his favourite tall tale.’

Allusions to the lyrics of his songs suggest spurious biographical explanations for what they might really be ‘about’: ‘Once on a cold winter day near Thompson and 3rd, in a flurry of light snow when the feeble sun was filtering through the haze, I saw him’ – Dave Van Ronk, who would later get Dylan a breakthrough gig at the Gaslight – ‘walking towards me in a frosty silence. It was like the wind was blowing him my way.’ And could ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ be about Balzac? ‘You can learn a lot from Mr B. It’s funny to have him as a companion. He wears a monk’s robe and drinks endless cups of coffee. Too much sleep clogs up his mind. One of his teeth falls out, and he says: "What does this mean?"’

He writes tremendously about the songs and music and singers that mattered to him. Of Roy Orbison, for example, he says: ‘With him, it was all about fat and blood . . . He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal.’ That he was and is so passionate a fan himself ought, you might think, to make him more tolerant of his own fans (describing the way his house in Woodstock was besieged in the late 1960s he says: ‘I wanted to set fire to these people’). But what he seems to object to most is the overidentification of the songs with their singer. As he wrote in the sleevenotes to The Times They Are A-Changin’, ‘Woody Guthrie was my last idol . . . because he . . . taught me/face to face/that men are men/shatterin’ even himself/as an idol.’ Or in Chronicles: a song ‘might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening.’ Think of Reagan or Dole’s response to ‘Born in the USA’, politicians being especially good at listening only to what they want to hear.