Saturday, May 28, 2011
Today's guest post is by Tommy Swerdlow. Tommy is a poet, actor, producer and screenplay writer, whose writing credits include: Cool Runnings, Snow Dogs, Little Giants, Bushwhacked as well as espisodes of the TV series Brutally Normal.
Here's his take on Bob Dylan:
"Bob Dylan is the great Hebrew of the northern plains… That some chubby faced (gleaned from the classic adolescent Dylan pic) Jewish boy of 15 could make not only sense, but create one of the great and most influential American destiny's of the 20th century out of the frozen isolation (cultural if not literal) of small town Minnesota is both miraculous, and probably the only way possible it could have happened. A Jew growing up among Jews in the cities of the east, could never cast his net as wide as Dylan dared to. City Jews are too steeped in the heavy anchor of European urban/ghetto culture, a culture that is either basking in or rejecting its past. No boy from Brooklyn or the Upper West Side could have the innocence or big sky freedom to imagine a creative flight so original and American…, And even if, say, Paul Simon, a supremely talented boy from Queens, could wipe his slate blank enough to understand and ingest the idiom of rural song-speak (the unique bitter-sweetness of wide open spaces), he could never own it and redefine it as Dylan did. You cannot come from the Jewish section of Baltimore and with a straight 20 year old face (not to mention the guileless conviction of both destiny and desperation), write the lines “and the empire state is high as a bird and Old Mr. Rockefeller never says a word, it’s a hard times, hard times livin’ in a New York town,” nor sing it with that coal miner Jew-hick bluff if you’ve been riding the subway your whole life.
Aside from Walt Whitman, Dylan is the most American writer/singer thing there is. They both sing the “Song of the Open Road” as Whitman put it, but Whitman’s “open road” is pre-records and radio and electricity so he must walk that open road to see and experience what becomes his “song.” He also cannot imagine a rapt and massive American audience hearing him on record or seeing him all at once on TV. Dylan has radio and records and movies and television and none are even self-aware enough to realize it’s (or just passed) their golden age. He is a boy-man who leaves home and recreates himself out of shards of the myths he’s heard or seen. Out of James Dean and licorice black, blues 78’s, Woody Guthrie warbles, freight train visions, Jack Kerouac, paper clips and spit and who knows what else. He’s at the right place at the right time and with Diaspora and the ghost of persecution in his blood, he is a sponge to all influences, not to mention, serious student and shrewd thief of everything he encounters. It is also programmed in his awakening song-poet genes to be awed and identify with those more persecuted than he, and also the sweet delusion of glorious self-persecution, something it is good to have if you’re gonna rip yourself open and put it all on the line.
One of his Dylan’s well known angelic underdogs is Woody Guthrie and also the Woody Guthrie notion of one man with a guitar as social agitator and holy spokesman of the voiceless (By the way I don’t think Dylan was ever a protest singer, but a natural hustler and his own best PR man… He wanted a reaction, knew the urgent causes of the day and wrote inspired and accessible songs that utilized the seething energy of the great struggles and questions of his times. That’s not political, that’s just savvy). The future he saw for himself is a future only an innocent can see, an innocent with the vicious cunning of a huckster. And somehow, the huckster always steps back when the artist needs to be awed or inspired or educated as Dylan was profoundly by the great black bluesmen, figures (dead or alive) who still had flesh on their bones and were not just shadow as they are today. Dylan picks and chooses from the world Alan Lomax brought to white America, but Dylan’s theft somehow comes off as a sincere gesture, because he doesn’t ape the vocal stylings. He doesn’t imitate as so many have, he regenerates. He takes it somewhere else… It’s just more flavor in the stew, it ain’t the whole pot. An urban white kid contemporary could never be outsider enough to handle that particular “influence” this way. He either over identifies from the hipster-be bop jazz cat culture he has seen but not entered or he’s watched too many black women coming to clean the house twice a week or he just channels black culture as reaction or rejection of something else… But what makes Dylan transcend his bumpkin surroundings is not just the radio reaching him from the cities like an alien ray-beam, but that all that ,… As they say in the Matrix, “he is the one” and more than all the other “the ones” he has something to say, even before he fully knows how to say it. He’s got a lot of so called “its,” but for sure one is the holy chip on the shoulder, the savage combination of daring and self loathing that is the ego-soul battle of all radical self expression."
There is nothing more American than scrapping who you are and becoming someone else.