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Dreams from Our Avatars

By Benj DeMott

“You should be asking what his wife thinks of him.” That was Bob Dylan last month stiffing a Rolling Stone interviewer who entreated him to endorse Obama or at least concede racism was at the root of right-wing rage against the President. Dylan’s evasions got me thinking about who he is now and how he became an American avatar. I've gone on to consider the aspirations of other pop artists who've dreamed big in the Age of Obama.

A critic in the rightist Reason magazine picked up on the pathos of the RS Q&A between that “desperate” Obama supporter and Dylan. He teased the Stoner for coming on “like Dylan’s his cultural dad whose approval must be sought for a political love…based in little concrete.” That rightist’s mockery was clunky. But it cuts pretty close to the bone this morning after Obama’s dead-dog-dead performance in Debate #1. While Dylan’s not my father figure, I can’t pretend I didn’t wish in September he’d gone all in for Obama. And I worry my frustration last month at Dylan’s recusal in that RS interview means I’m a celeb-monger.

Then again, I do some things for love (pace Thoreau). Maybe I can be forgiven for wanting Dylan to be down for Obama. It’s not exactly like hoping for the endorsement of the Donald. I’m recalling just now that rightist in Reason skipped over a moment in the RS interview when Dylan dissed “hedge-fund hucksters.” And that, in turn, reminds me of a 2009 interview where Dylan laid down how he’d come to have values that trump Trump's:

I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers - bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn't make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was.

Let me play avatar’s advocate for a moment and note Dylan’s early clarity about the dignity of the deformed and the bent forever distances him from young Mitt Romney – that handsome bully-boy with scissors who targeted long-haired “freaks.” Dylan’s songs are a series of dreams but he gets real too. And that’s one reason why he’s never going to be a favorite of genteel, fact-challenged Country Club for Growth Republicans.

“So set ‘em up Joe/play ‘Walking the Floor’/play it for that flat-chested junkie whore.” Dylan’s nod on his new CD to Sinatra’s “One for My Baby” and a honky-tonk classic sets up a rough goof that nails his own add-on to the vernacular tradition of American song. Franker than Frank, Dylan punches to (and from) the heart, cultivating “force of reality,” singing straight out rage, pain, and pity. A lifetime learner in the school of hard knocks (who’s at home in books too), he’s swung his way to phrases that stick and move other students of life. Writing his own scripts, he’s become the great rock and roll method actor of his generation.

Dylan’s Tempest shows he’s still full of piss, vinegar and la douceur (to use Depardieu’s term of art). Serving as his own producer (“Jack Frost”), as he did through the aughts, Dylan remains a proud anti-perfectionist. But who can complain about his double-quick aesthetic when he’s come up with melodies like the chiming ones on “Long and Wasted Years“ – his lovely coda to “Brownsville Girl’s” 80s rap on how it felt to become an iconic nada – and “Roll on John” – his tribute to Lennon (and Donne). Dylan knows he can squeeze out a spark just by singing lyrics of that other Voice of his cohort, but he doesn’t stay on the surface in “Roll on John.” The Iron Ranger has a deep connection to the Quarryman. He slides inside Lennon singing “to the cheap seats” and on the gurney with mouth clamped fading out “in the deep dark cave.” The other group in the 60s’s big three gets play on Tempest too. “Pay in Blood,” which riffs on Keith Richard’s chords – as it offers a mixed review of his Life? – may be the catchiest Rolling Stones song since “Black or White."

I doubt any of Dylan’s exes – and that might mean any of us who wavered when he released a lousy record – will be taken in when he sings: “come back baby/ if I hurt your feelings/ I apologize.” But I got a feeling each of them/us will be interested. (As per Robert De Niro on another actor: “No matter what Brando did he was always interesting.”) I’ll admit I’m not grabbed by Tempest’s wannabe epic on the Titanic (yet). But I take it as evidence Dylan is tuned into his muse as he was on Time Out of Mind – the long song on that CD, “Highlands,” was one sign he was peaking again.

Back in the time of Dylan’s first come-back at the Isle of Wight concert in 1969, he once copped to the nature of his highest ambition. He was backstage, steaming and cursing as his former back-up group, The Band, took forever to go on as their sound-man sought aural excellence in a wind tunnel. Dylan’s manager at the time was bearing up under his spite and he finally asked the boss why he’d chosen to return to performing given all the frustrations of live shows. Dylan’s reply fused a Christer’s imperatives, Dionysus in ’69, and a killer performer’s competitiveness: “I want to be exalted.”

Dylan hasn’t lost his lust. He speaks to it in that Rolling Stone interview: “I’m not like you.” He invokes his Transfiguration(s) in cracked exchanges about the spiritual testament of Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger, pressing a parallel between a motorcycle accident that caused the death of another Angel named Bob Zimmerman early in 1964 and the fateful crash he himself survived in ‘66. (Talk about change you can believe in!) Hubris is a bitch. And, thankfully, Dylan’s sense he’s one of the chosen comes and goes. It’s at odds, for example, with the tone of his memoir, Chronicles, or recent songs like “Mississippi” – “I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me.”

Such generosity of spirit, though, is not so apparent on Tempest. And it’s surely not in the video for the CD’s jaunty opening track, “Duquesne Whistle,” which becomes a sort of 2012 soundtrack for cynicism. A poor boy tries to give a rose to a new love but ends up getting maced by his crush, busted by cops and beat down by gangsters. When one of the leg-breakers takes a bat to the boy’s knee, I flashed on a moment of violence in Andre Techine’s new move, Unforgivable, which critic Armond White has suggested might be the most shocking image in a film this year. Neither Techine nor Dylan are playing with – or justifying – brutalism. But Techine’s out to comprehend his character’s mad scenes (without denying the mystery of personality). Absolution may not be in his picture but the meanest acts of Unforgivable’s characters turn out to be…forgivable. I’m reminded of one of Dylan’s sweeter and wiser lines on the human stain – “the best you can do is forgive.”[1] But the video for “Duquesne Whistle" isn't a sympathetic construct. Amidst carnage, Dylan walks on, keeping his cool distance from a fallen world and proving his current moral code isn’t worthy of Techine’s. Or that former community organizer who often makes a case for empathy and political engagement?

I don’t think Dylan deserves a pass for stepping off from Obama. Last night’s debate and that right-winger in Reason to the contrary notwithstanding, Dylan’s stance isn’t simply a replay of his 60s resistance to p.c. folkies. Dylan put his head up the memory hole in that RS interview when he got shifty about his prior allegiances. Back in 2008, Dylan came out as a fan of Obama’s autobiography and affirmed he was “hopeful” about “this guy who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up.” This time, though, he gives Obama zip: “What the fuck do you want me to say.”

But Dylan does ego on about having been chosen as one of the recipients of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.[2] I wish his eyes weren’t on such prizes, but as long as he's getting happy, it’s good to see Aretha Franklin was the first name out of his mouth when he was listing his “peers” in RS.[3] Especially since I’ve been listening to her Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign. It’s something like Dylan’s Telltale Signs collection. There are first takes on Aretha’s classic songs and unreleased things as fine as anything in her canon. I’ve never yearned to hear Aretha do standards. Who really needs more, on that score, than Billie, Ella with Ellis Larkin, Johnny Hartman with Coltrane? But one listen to Aretha’s “I Want to be With You” and you know Ray Charles had it right: “There are singers, then there’s Aretha.” I doubt there’s anyone who can touch her voice/piano on this song. (Comparisons are odious, but Aretha gets Sassy for a few bars in a way that throws shade on that diva for all time.) My favorite track on Golden Reign is “Tree of Life” – an unreleased wonder produced by Quincy Jones, with a Churchy melody and a slow burning groove that cooks like the Stones’ “Worried About You.” (Maybe Ahmet Ertegun gave Mick Jagger a taste of “Life” since it was in the Atlantic vaults back in the mid-70s.) The song grows from down home to the Global South. “Gather round…the Tree of Life…sharing the sunshine…calling the ones we love.” It’s a funky, Pan-African, univeralist, pantheist promesse de bonne heure. Aretha images a “tree of humanity” and climbs high for us all, meshing her piano with Billy Preston’s gospel organ. A choppy guitar riffs up the intensity. Then the band drops out. Aretha swoops down like Sonny Rollins getting low. Back-up singers fade out and everything goes still as the grave…until Aretha comes back all the way live with true faith (and Black Atlantic feeling for ancestors): “There ain’t gonna be no Last Time!”

“I want to be exalted”? It was Aretha who lived Dylan’s dream. Her “Tree of Life” is up there with her essential hits. The Obama campaign used to play Aretha’s “Think” (with its unforgettable chorus “Freedom!…Freedom!”) at rallies in 2008. They should try “Tree of Life” this time around.


They won’t find much grist in Dylan’s new stuff. Hope and change isn’t in the wind in Tempest. But a fictional scene in Michael Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, hints there’s still a brotherly connection between Dylan’s persona and Obama’s. Chabon’s Obama enters the book when one of the novel’s chief male characters – a musician who's also part-owner of a failing record store – plays a gig at a fundraiser for the 2004 Kerry campaign. This bass player has just lost a father figure, but his pregnant wife who’s come to the gig with him isn’t all sympathy. She knows he’s been screwing up (and a little on down the line it’s going to get much worse before it gets better).

Chabon’s imagined Obama eases into repartee with this Sister, recognizing her in a room where there are few women of color, even as he's picking up on emotion in the Stevie Wonder song (“Higher Ground”) her husband’s band is playing – “Brother’s putting a lot of heart into it.” This Obama is the One on whom nothing is lost. He zeroes in on the purple suit the bassist is wearing.

“That’s quite a suit, “Obama said. “Takes a special kind of man to go around wearing a suit like that.”

“You know he isn’t even aware of that. – man doesn’t feel self-conscious, not one little bit embarrassed, walking around in that thing.” Scorn and admiration in her tone in about equal measure. “The outside of him matches perfectly with the inside. It’s like I can’t even tell you. Not stubborn. I mean, yes he can be stubborn as hell, stubborn and full of pride, but to walk around looking like that. I mean, a purple suit even a pimp might have doubts about it, and saddle shoes…you have to have…"


At the sound of the word, the pregnant woman looked at [Obama]. A strange expression passed over her face as if she might be having a contraction.

The novelist feels what Obama shares with Bob Dylan, but, as we’ve just learned in this election season, it’s busy being born or it’s busy dying.

Telegraph Avenue is, in part, about black sons and missing fathers. The real Obama’s story is on deep background here (according to Chabon himself). I’d bet it’s in the equation in R&B singer Frank Ocean’s song to his lost father, “There Will Be Tears,” which has nearly 3,000,000 views on Youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m24b1gMc4sU. (Ocean shares more than the experience of fatherlessness with Obama. His “Pink Matter” – which has Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” in its genes – proves he’s a Green lover like the President.) Ocean’s aching voice speaks to all the sad young-bloods whose pops have gone missing: “My friends say it ain’t so bad/You can’t miss what you ain’t had/But I can…” Auto-tuned sequences hint at how a son switches into autopilot emotionally when a father fails to prep him for life (and loss): “You could’ve warned me you wouldn’t be there…” But Ocean isn’t a whiner. Hope has a heartbeat in “There Will Be Tears": “Still I can dream, dream, dream…”

Ocean has recently told the world more about his heart. He came out this summer in a now famous letter to his fans, acknowledging his first (unrequited) love was a man. The title of his new CD, Channel Orange, may be (per Wikipedia) a pop aesthete’s nod to a form of color-bound synesthesia (which he shares with one of his collaborators, Pharrell of N.E.R.D.) but it surely evokes the state of alarm that became Ocean’s default condition once he realized he was gay.

Ocean’s new songs make his own pursuit of pleasure seem pretty mindful. When he updates Antony and Cleopatra’s “immortal longings” in a 9 minute track that jumps from Ancient Egypt to a Strip Club: “She’s working at the Pyramid tonight” – he trips over the id in that Pyramid. His stutter gets at instinctive sources of the song’s oceanic feelings.

Hap-penis rules for an unforgettable minute at the end of “Pyramids,” which is given over to a trippy phallic guitar solo – light and heavy like a lead weight with wings on it (to lift Henry Miller’s line on his own erection). The un-credited player here is John Mayer, which adds a kink to the track since Mayer is known for his id-y “stupid mouth.” (Speaking of his own attraction to blondes, Mayer once wondered if his prick was a white supremacist.)

Ocean’s own “confession” of homoerotic desire has been welcomed by R&B people and spokesmen for the hip hop nation, but one smart pop critic has implied Ocean’s letter was a calculated move designed to sell CDs. In a twitter world, your B.S. detector must always be online. But it probably makes more sense to place Ocean’s coming out inside a larger movement of mind that encompasses Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage – a cultural flow that’s amped up support for gay rights among Afro-Americans. (Two weeks after Obama’s announcement, polls showed a majority of them supported his new position, which represented a 20% shift on this issue.)

Of course there are those who deride Obama’s “evolution” too, trashing it as opportunistic. They forget Obama has not always led from behind on gay rights. During the 2008 campaign in a “big” speech in Martin Luther King’s pulpit, he challenged black church folks to overcome homophobia. (Obama’s link to Jeremiah Wright wasn't unrelated to Reverend Wright’s readiness to take progressive positions on gay rights.)

Frank Ocean’s letter from a region in his mind and Channel Orange’s homosexual love objects (“you’re so buff and so strong”) are in the tradition of Pet Shop Boys who have been dancing outside the closet for more than a generation. The soft power of the duo’s disco – and Neil Tennant’s yearning voice – have long been the bane of pop life’s macho blowhards (and hard gals). PSB’s commissioned anthem for the Olympics this summer implicitly celebrated progress gays have made under Obama (and Cameron): “I’m a winner. You’re a winner. – It’s all happening so fast.” The song isn’t for the Ages – it’s glee seems a little too made to order. But it serves as a nice coda to songs in the key of Obama on PSB’s Yes (2009), such as “More Than a Dream.” That track, according to PSB’s Chris Lowe, “was written when Obama was slugging it out with Hillary in the primaries, and you could feel the potential for the world to change away from the sort of paranoia – justified as it may be – to something different. And that spirit is what we’re riding at the moment.”

I don’t know anyone who’s riding it right now. I was late for the debate last night, but I started cursing to myself and gritting my teeth a couple minutes after I started watching. My little boy and my wife were worried. She’s called me three times at work this morning to buck me up. My wife proposed to have me help her write a letter to Obama. Forgive her presumption, but in Senegal, the small country where she’s from, somebody might actually have a shot at reaching a president. My wife wants to tell Obama she’s scheduled to take a test that will allow her to become an American citizen later this month and she’s praying she will be able to vote for him for the first time. My wife was won over by her African homie years ago (though she’s had her issues with his State Department’s stance toward her own country’s pols). When Obama first started showing up on the tube, she used to call out to me – “Come. Ben Khadim [My son’s name.] – I mean Obama – is on tv…”

Our president didn’t do the family proud last night. But forget us. Zimmy gets the last word for now: “You should be asking what his wife thinks of him.”


1 Or that couplet from “Lay Lady Lay” (which Techine used on the soundtrack of his 2009 film The Girl on the Train): “His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean/and you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen.

2 It’s past time to say awards don’t bring out the best in Dylan – think of that notorious speech to the ACLU gathering in the 60s or that lame protest song sparked by his first honorary degree or that cheesy Oscar statue on his electric piano.

3 Not that this is exactly news. Anyone who’s read (or paged through?) Tarantula knows how Dylan was awed by Aretha in the 60s.

From October, 2012

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