The '60s Trap
Why critics ignore the rest of Dylan's career.
No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's documentary about Bob Dylan's early years, is but the latest item in a flood tide of Dylanalia that, in trying to pay due homage to America's most important rock artist, constricts his four-decade career to its first six years. (The film is reviewed today in Slate by David Yaffe.) Though delightful to watch—it's artfully made and studded with revealing tidbits—the documentary wallows in baby boomer nostalgia, replete with loving shots of bustling Greenwich Village and period footage of JFK romping with Caroline and John-John. Even the film's literary companion—a book released simultaneously but sold separately—is not a new biography or oral history, but a precious "scrapbook" festooned with pullout and pop-up reproductions of lyric sheets, concert tickets, newspaper articles, and similar memorabilia. Ironically, all the hoopla ends up reducing Dylan to the avatar of the 1960s that the film makes clear he has never pretended to be.
To be fair, Scorsese's not alone. Most recent Dylan material has focused exclusively on the 1960s. Sony has released albums of classic concerts, including the 1966 Royal Albert Hall show that's excerpted at length in the film. David Hajdu published Positively 4th Street (2001), a well-regarded history of the Greenwich Village folk scene that perpetuated the idea that Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" years mattered above all else. Even reviews of Dylan's 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Vol. I, dwelled inordinately on the sections about his coming of age and short-changed one of the most revealing chapters, which explained how he snapped a bout of writer's block to record his 1989 comeback album Oh Mercy. No less incisive a critic than Luc Sante allowed wistfulness to overwhelm critical acumen on the subject of Dylan when he asserted in the New York Review of Books that between roughly 1972 and 1997, Dylan "lost or at least misplaced parts of his power and inspiration."
Something is happening here. To be sure, few Dylanologists would deny that, except for Blood on the Tracks (1975), Dylan created his very best music between 1965 (the year of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited) and 1967 (when he issued John Wesley Harding and recorded The Basement Tapes). Nonetheless, despite subsequent droughts and misfires, Dylan has since turned out some brilliant albums—from Desire in the 1970s to Infidels and Oh Mercy at either end of the 1980s to Time Out of Mind a few years ago—that approach his greatest work and surpass much of the folkie stuff that still draws so much giddy attention. So, why have we been so quick to ignore the bulk of his career?
One part of the answer is that Dylan shares a problem with the 1960s as a whole: Scholarship and popular commentary alike are shaped by the baby boomers who lived through the period and have never quite transcended their own youthful enthusiasms. As Rick Perlstein noted in Lingua Franca several years ago, the preponderance of boomers in the historical profession—and, he might have added, in the culture overall—has made it hard for younger voices to gain a hearing for ideas that argue with the prevailing, familiar tale of the decade: Rebellious student youth challenges the conformity of establishment liberalism. Although some boomer accounts of the decade, such as Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and James Miller's Democracy Is in the Streets, remain as indispensable to studying the politics of the era as the '60s-centered writings of Christopher Ricks and Greil Marcus are to studying Dylan, they don't tell the full story.
But the problem isn't just that boomers are influential. Even historians of the post-boomer generation (i.e., mine) don't usually assume deeply critical attitudes toward the 1960s. Although a few historians have recently done admirable spadework in such new research areas as how conservatism in these years gained strength (as the news media were looking the other way) and the international dimension of the youth revolt, such efforts are not the norm. Revisionist scholarship about the student left, for example, tends to be minor and esoteric—contesting, say, precisely which social groups or political organizations formed the center of the era's social activism.
Our generation has envied our elders' experiences more often than we've questioned them. Growing up in the shadow of the '60s, we couldn't help viewing the political involvement of the age as nobler, the culture and the music as more vital, the shattering of social norms more exciting, than the zeitgeist of our own formative years. Besides, bashing the '60s seemed the province of conservative cranks like William Bennett (and even he always seemed to be making it known that he once dated Janis Joplin). Younger Dylan fans today, similarly, are often more eager to revel in the chapters of his fabled story that we missed out on than we are to engage with the songs and albums of his that we ourselves grew up with.
The central role that personal feeling and recollection continue to play in our thinking and writing about the 1960s suggests that nostalgia will be hard to push aside. A cousin of what the British call heritage, nostalgia is romantic, rooted in personal perspective; it doesn't admit easily to critical scrutiny. Literally meaning "homesickness," it embodies precisely the opposite ideal of the rootless, relentlessly forward-moving Dylan, who always felt he had "no direction home."
Nostalgia is also sentimental and thus meshes well with the machinery of mass culture, which, as Dwight Macdonald wrote years ago, tends to produce prepackaged cultural artifacts not dissimilar from chewing gum. More than any individual historians or critics, it's the leveling tendencies of mass culture that are really to blame for perpetuating our flattened, idealized images of the 1960s.
We've been drenched for so long in so much mass-produced 1960s kitsch that our Pavlovian responses to the music, words, and images of the time override critical assessments of it. And at bottom, today's cultural climate doesn't much distinguish between history and nostalgia. (Billy Joel once explained the genesis of his song "We Didn't Start the Fire"—the one that reels off proper nouns from the postwar years, as in "Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television/North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe"—by saying that he had always been interested in "history.") So, maybe we have to resign ourselves to accepting "the 1960s" as it's purveyed in mass culture—and to concede, with the postmodernists, that ultimately there's no real way to separate the 1960s from our myths of it.
In any case, Dylan, for all his efforts to keep living his life and making new music, remains trapped by our '60s fetish, with even serious, well-intentioned directors like Martin Scorsese complicit. In one scene in No Direction Home, a young folkie, peeved that Dylan has gone electric, sniffs: "I like his earlier records … but this I just can't stick." The audience is meant to feel superior to this shortsighted purist, knowing as we do that Dylan was then creating his greatest work. But although the film can offer ironic distance on this stooge, it betrays no awareness that at some level it shares the same blinkered vision.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Bob Dylan by Getty Images.