When He Was Just a Little Rolling Stone
"Like a Rolling Stone" is for my money not just the greatest rock & roll song ever, but also one of the big cultural moments of the past century. It's about being free and it's about being alone—the twin sides of that warped coin stamped "modernity"—and if it's a complex kiss-off to a rich girl who's gonna have to learn to live on her own, with no direction home, it's—as the best Bob Dylan songs always are—also about Bob Dylan. Dylan has always been spiritually homeless, and what's amazing about the song is that when he howls "How does it feel?" it signifies differently every time: sometimes it makes homelessness feel like a desolate curse and a condemnation, sometimes it sounds like a thrilling windblown adventure, and sometimes it insists on seeing the curse and the adventure as exactly the same thing. There's no more concise expression of American existentialism; the radical ambiguity of the song's refrain almost makes Sartre's reading of "freedom" superfluous.
In retrospect, it's clear that Dylan has stayed truer to the spirit of that song, which is the dark specter of rock & roll, than any other great rocker. (All the surviving contenders—Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton—seem to have found consolation or accommodation, be it in family, rock tradition, genially deflated self-expectation or selling out.) But Dylan still seems bereft, he's remained homeless —60 years on, he's still gathered no moss—and the isolation of it shows, the once-piercing blue eyes now withdrawn into that puffy, woebegone face, the constant aimless touring making him often look frantic and lost, the occasional gnomic public statement making him seem dissociated, even tragic. It's no wonder that writers (me included) jumped all over themselves in praise of his last studio album, Time out of Mind: for the first time in two decades, he had coaxed some measure of beauty from his self-pity and despair.
Early Dylan is a group of 73 shots by three of Dylan's favorite photographers during the period from 1963 through 1966, taking Dylan from his early appearances at the Newport Folk Festival through his insane British tour of 1966, when he unleashed his electric guitar on his folk audience with a chutzpah that virtually defined rock attitude for the 1960s. The whole book is a portrait of a high-wire artist drunk on altitude, ecstatically enthralled by his homelessness. The idea of falling to Earth, or even wanting to touch base with terra firma, seems beside the point: during these years, Dylan improvised himself into one incarnation and then out into another, conquering world after world and spinning everyone dizzy in his path.
Along the way, he pulled off rock's greatest hat trick (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde), not just by incorporating rock into folk but by, virtually alone, making the language of rock multivalent, ambiguous, allusive, aleatory: in a word, modernist. In the process, he was instrumental in revolutionizing popular culture. The early photos show an impossibly thin, flat-assed, halo-haired 21-year-old Dylan at the '63 Newport Folk Festival, giving music workshops to young folkies. (It's a measure of folk's earnest democratic impulses that they gave workshops at their festivals; it's some kind of comment on us that we find this laughable. Can you imagine Perry Farrell giving little how-to demonstrations at Lollapalooza?)
But the more instructive early photographs are of Dylan walking around by himself before a show, already suffering claustrophobia from folk's communal vibe. He'd join hands with Peter, Paul and Mary for a round of "We Shall Overcome," but you can tell his heart wasn't in it. Besides Woody Guthrie, the 21-year-old Dylan didn't seem intimidated by anybody: there are photographs of him with Pete Seeger or Joan Baez, or with country legend Johnny Cash, or with Allen Ginsberg, and you can tell he knows they're learning as much from him as vice versa.
Where the self-confidence of this college dropout from Hibbing, Minnesota, came from is mysterious, but the upshot of it is that almost as soon as he conquered folk (by writing an anthem, "Blowin' in the Wind," that immediately rivaled "This Land Is Your Land" as a folk standard), he blew it off, re-embracing the blues and rock he loved and transforming them entirely by injecting them with a post-symbolist, nuclear-world absurdism.
The Dylan that was liberated from the emotionally sincere, politically dedicated, monological world of folk music takes up most of the second half of the book, and it shows him trying out personas in ways that clearly show how his manipulations of the pop/mass-media world of the '60s influenced later identity tricksters like David Bowie and Madonna. Dylan dresses up like a jester in checkered Alice-in-Wonderland shirts, starts wearing a top hat, and dons the boots and dark glasses that he knows make him look cooler than shit. And the more famous he gets, the more hemmed-in by interviewers and photographers, the more evasive he is, so his various public images become as dodgy and ambiguous as the lyrics of his increasingly mercurial records.
And he certainly seems to be having a good old time. Part of his pleasure seems to reside in just fucking with people's expectations, with the categories they wanted to put him in, but he wasn't just being malicious: he was making up the rules for how to survive as a compelling and responsive artist in the pop sphere as he went along, and there weren't any relevant models for him to follow. (Sinatra? Presley? They didn't write their own music. Lennon? He was behind the curve whose arc Dylan was busy tracing.)
How long Dylan could have kept up the crazed pace documented in these photographs is something we can only speculate about because in 1966, he had the motorcycle accident that took him out of public circulation for two years. When he re-emerged, he seemed uninterested in, or exhausted by, or simply bemused by the modern pop world he had helped forge. He disengaged from it, internalized and for a while became a folk fabulist (John Wesley Harding) and a happy country picker (Nashville Skyline). At the time, these new incarnations seemed "authentic," "natural" responses to "plastic" popular culture, but they turned out to be simply the first in a new line of Dylan identities, some of which led to great work (Blood on the Tracks, part of Desire, Infidels, Oh Mercy and Time out of Mind, and some things like "Series of Dreams" from The Bootleg Series) and most of which led to dead ends, bad lifeless records, an aesthetically disastrous religious conversion and general flailing about in the void.
But then again, Dylan helped define what the void means for us. He looked at the vacuum in the eyes of the mystery tramp, and it hooked him like the eye of the Ancient Mariner. It blasted something out of him like lightning blasts a tree, left him permanently rootless, grasping for some kind of hold on himself and his music.
"The pure products of America go crazy," wrote William Carlos Williams. Yes, and if they're lucky, their madness takes the form of Bob Dylan's.
Early Dylan, photographs by Barry Feinstein, Daniel Kramer and Jim Marshall; foreword by Arlo Guthrie. Little Brown & Co. 96 pages. $35 hardcover.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.