To read Mike Marqusee’s Chimes of Freedom with little prior knowledge of Bob Dylan is to come away with an intimidating impression: Marqusee offers a portrait of a young man who for about 7 years seemed to exist on a transcendent plane in which artistic ability, self-scrutiny, and sensitivity to the currents of political and social feeling around him were all working together at a remarkable intensity. We have all read sentences many times like my previous sentence; we are used to these cliched hyperbolic summaries of Bob Dylan’s 60s output. I believe that while it adds to the chorus of these common readings of Dylan in the 60s, Marqusee’s book is more deft than many. He really does compose a sophisticated and engrossing political-artistic biography, in which Bob Dylan’s art is examined and framed according to Dylan’s mercurial political identity. Marqusee’s readings of class and race in the familiar early songs refresh our appreciation of them, and he is among the few writers who do some justice to Dylan’s voice.
I’ve no desire to argue with Marqusee’s analysis of Dylan’s ability to articulate–in fact, his ability to create–states of being in which moral outrage, social critique, confession, anti-intellectualism, erudtion, spontaneity, artfulness all participate. By the time Bob cuts off his hair and rides straight away, falls off his motorcycle, retreats to the basement, Marqusee’s critical knife-set is ready for him: Marqusee contrasts the whimsical playfulness in the basement with the psychedelia of the lowlands. He examines the unnerving, complex withdrawal from political consciousness and public life, partly by giving Clothes Line Saga the scrutiny it deserves. He examines the unnerving, complex disavowal of the topical and the revolutionary in John Wesley Harding’s songs. It is a tour de force of critical biography that Marqusee is able to sustain the narrative of Dylan’s political development into the shuttered and cryptic series of dreams that is John Wesley Harding. He pulls it off and I applaud him. And he employs very very high standards that are familiar to us: Bob Dylan is a genius when he channels the unruly and mighty currents of thought, awareness, social change of the mid 1960s. When he gets into that basement in that quiet hamlet in upstate New York, how can the wild boy-genius maintain the relevance, the one-step-ahead-of-everythingness he himself set the bar for in 1966? He can do some fascinating and maybe brilliant things, but not quite the one-step-ahead-of-everything things that he did 64-66.
It’s really this Bob Dylan Story that I want to crusade against to my last breath. The story in which some kind of falling-off takes place beginning in 1967. The falling-off in which Bob Dylan stops promising his fans that he is leading them into a new universe that he has designed just for them. In this story, John Wesley Harding is a response to its predecessors, it’s “an arrested moment, as Dylan sought to refine the lessons of previous years.” Marqusee grants the album “stylistic coherence.” He gives insightful readings of the songs I mentioned above, and I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine and Drifter’s Escape, because they participate in the story Marqusee is telling with such skill: the development of a self-conscious artist.
As I Went Out One Morning gets short shrift. Marqusee says it “fails to satisfy….There is nothing here but allegory and not a very illuminating one at that.” (This was the most un-illuminating allegory I could find at short notice.) He links the Tom Paine reference to the beloved fiasco of Dylan’s appearance at the Thomas Paine award ceremony, and then claims the link is too weak to sustain the song. The song doesn’t work for him, and I see how it does not.
But I’d like to wrench the song away from Mike Marqusee and look at it. The song clocks in at 2 minutes 49 seconds, a mere heartbeat for a Dylan song. The lyrics total 140 words. Three characters appear, there are five spoken lines–complete with dialogue tags that should but do not weigh down lyrics that are already pared down. There is an exchange of four spoken lines alone in the second verse. There are only two adjectives in the song, both describe the girl who is the occasion for the song’s drama. There is one adverb in the song, the girl’s “secretly”–a word that is temptation and confession and plea all at once. Look at the precision with which the verbs carry the song’s plot and also carry its themes: the singer is free, he merely went to breathe the air around Tom Paine’s–he is free to move about in the world, even upon another man’s land, to take the air at his leisure. All very well until he spied the girl–spying implies something is hidden. She walks in chains–unlike the singer, she is not free, but her beauty is his snare. He offers her his hand–a gallant and intimate gesture that belies the truth of the encounter: his own freedom permits him gallantry, but her enslavement forbids her to respond with the same code. She took his arm, she is violent and possessive in her bid for freedom. The man can afford to be courtly with his desire. All they’ve got out in that field is their bodies and voices, and the 2nd verse is a compact dance of power and powerlessness: the man asserts the authority that’s his to begin with, and formally insists she “depart”–as though he is now the one enslaved and she controls his freedom. The lyrics give her the vocabulary of supplication “wish…beg….pleaded.” The singer speaks only the language of authority “you have no choice,” he says simply. She tries to tempt him by reversing the roles, she’ll “accept him”. It’s worth noting that at this point Dylan chooses the South as the destination of freedom for this woman who walks in chains. The world of John Wesley Harding is indeed not the same as the world of Oxford Town.
Christopher Hitchens uses the first 2 lines of the song as an epigraph for his book on Thomas Paine. Tom Paine, the voice of reason against power, egalitarianism, Common Sense. But the language assigned him in this song is the language of authority and power. He runs, shouts, and commands. He hastens to take control of the situation. He addresses the singer with deference. He claims responsibility for the woman’s actions. Now the singer does not seem quite the carefree simple character who merely wants to breathe air belonging to all men, and spy beautiful women who are also the property of men. He seems at the end to be a figure who can demand respect and to whom others are responsible. The woman is silent at the song’s end, she’s let go of the singer, her bid for freedom is over. The song is over.
The singer is ultimately absolved of his own desire, it’s the woman’s urgent plea for freedom that intimidates him, and he’s rescued by another man’s power over the woman. The singer is free again at the end, the woman’s still walking in her chains. You can see it all: the field, the woman in the distance and then in the foreground, the hands, the arm, the woman’s urgent and seductive face as she pleads, the man now frightened and repulsed, another man running, the woman knows she is truly powerless and drops her hand. A drama of desire, freedom, authority, powerlessness, will, subordination, intimidation, order restored: it’s all there in the 24 (I think i got that right) verbs.
It’s the restoration of order that’s so troubling here. The singer remains free, absolved of having approached an enslaved woman with disingenuous courtesy. Dylan’s vocals just make the story more morally troubling. The meticulous enunciation, the way “hand” and “grip” are high, sustained, and imploring notes–the singer just seems so convincing and sympathetic.
Am I just exchanging one politics for another, by giving this delicate and barbed and rich song a *gendered* reading? Like Bob himself, I don’t want to pose any question that I already have the answer for. I don’t have the answer for that question. But I want to reclaim what I think is a marvelous impressionistic moral drama from Mike Marqusee dismissal of it.