Below is the version of the paper I happily delivered at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Boston, last Friday, Feb 27. My offering was sandwiched between two extraordinary talks: first, the playful, impressive, provoking erudition of David Gaines’s piece on Bob Dylan, exile, and creativity. David teaches at Southwestern University in Texas, and his invitation made it possible for me to participate in the conference. David set a tone that was grave, informed, and lighthearted. It seemed clear that the people assembled in the room were not entirely prepared for Bob Dylan to be treated with such fluid intelligence. Following me was Nick Smart, of the College of New Rochelle, who offered an exhilarating ride through Bob Dylan’s literary Hall of Mirrors: Nick traveled through tropes, influences, references to demonstrate Bob the mercurial, Bob the protean, Bob the conscious literary artist. The talk was chaired by Adam Lifshey of Georgetown, and his enthusiasm and professionalism made the whole experience seamless and extremely enjoyable.
Only on other universes, academic conferences are merry, friendly experiences where participants come together in a happy collaborative spirit.
Somehow we managed to bring that experience to the Lexington Room of the Hyatt Regency in Boston last Friday afternoon. Don’t you want to read David’s and Nick’s papers? Better, don’t you want to meet them? I will ask them if they would be able to let me print their talks here, but of course nothing obliges them to.
The beginning of my talk required a bit of stagecraft that can’t be translated into text: I had taped a map of the world to the wall behind me, on the map I’d placed little red stickers on each location Bob played with the NET in 2008. This came to 90 venues, and, if I counted right, 99 shows. So that’s what starts the talk, just gesturing to the map behind me. I know that this version isn’t up to snuff for academic citation and all, but the text is there.
Show Me All Around The World, or The Whole Wide World Which People Say Is Round. Talk delivered at NEMLA 2009 conference, Boston. 2/27/09. By Nina Goss.
The map: Here are the 90 places Bob Dylan took his show in 2008. In Lee Marshall’s sociological study of the Never Ending Tour, he writes about Dylan’s being unique among contemporary artists in setting out to create a new audience for himself in the latter period of his career and then actually doing it. He is accomplishing this by using a strategy of small venues, repeated itineraries, and the unwillingness to provide nostalgic experiences to audience members who are his contemporaries. The result is this map, which is typical of one year of the NET. I want to talk about the clever and the profound ways that Dylan manipulates the conditions of global culture that make this possible. I want to read you a definition of globality, which would be the condition that is created by the forces of globalization. Globality is a “social condition characterized by the existence of global, economic political, cultural and environmental interconnections and flows that make many of the currently existing borders and boundaries irrelevant.” (Manfred Steger 7). Globalization is the creation of new and the multiplication of existing social networks and activities that increasingly overcome traditional political, economical, cultural and geographical boundaries” (Steger 9).
How does the NET work? I think it is best summarises as the creation of an ongoing environment which enables the performer to reach inspired moments in performance. (Marshall 20809)
Perhaps an unintended pun here is the phrase “NET work.” The NET could actually be held up as a model of a cultural product that has finessed the mechanisms of globality with extraordinary effectiveness. Consider what the ongoing creation and sustaining of this new audience entails: the management of labor, currency exchange, communication, contractual legal concerns, the need for consistent technologies in each venue, language issues, transporting people and equipment. Concerts that have been cancelled, greatly delayed, or interrupted because of some glitch in these interconnections and flows, are rare exceptions that prove the rule. “Don’t you dare miss it!” his concert posters read and that’s the point–it’s up to me to get there on time. He’ll be there, and he’ll be there because he’s manipulated this set of conditions we call globality in order to sing Like A Rolling Stone in Estonia one night and Oklahoma another.
The slickness of the machine behind the NET makes the work invisible, and does not mean that Bob Dylan pretends to be above or outside the machine that transports and transmits and reproduces him to a level of perhaps greater visibility than he’s ever enjoyed. He plays with his identity as a commodity in sly and clever ways. For example, every night, a live offstage announcer introduces him ultimately as “Columbia Recording Artist Bob Dylan.” On the one hand, he seems to submit to being declared the contracted property of a multinational corporation, appearing before his audience according to the terms of his sponsor. On the other hand, everyone there knows that the performance is being recorded more or less clandestinely by bootleggers, using technology that trumps the hegemony of the corporate sponsorship that Dylan acknowledges. The Columbia recording artist will be reproduced by any number of anonymous pirates every evening. Indeed, audience recordings show up on Columbia’s “official bootlegs”, thus confounding Dylan’s identity as “Columbia Recording artist,” and the legitimacy of corporate control of performing art even further.
But he plays with this new world in more profound and provocative ways, as in 2 performances he gave in Japan in 1994. One show took place in Hiroshima, and one in Nara. In both cases he performed songs from his early youth: Masters of War in Hiroshima, and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in Nara. Andrew Muir’s book, Razor’s Edge, follows the Never Ending Tour from 1988 to 1999. Muir gives informed overviews, as well as detailed personal accounts of shows flung far about the globe. He describes a show in 1994, in Hiroshima, where Bob played the first acoustic version of Masters of War since 1963. I regret I’ve never heard a recording of this performance. Muir writes:
Here he was in Hiroshima, an American in the first Japanese city obliterated when the U.S. dropped The Bomb, singing out against the terrible sufferings of the innocent in war. I have rarely been as moved. How strange that such a blunt, unforgiving, adolescent piece should achieve that effect. Or rather how strange it would have been in almost any other location (109).
The strangeness Muir mentions is key. It would seem an obvious, benevolent gesture of solidarity to sing an anti-war song in Hiroshima. But Masters of War is not an anti-war song, (Bob himself says this in an interview following his outrageous performance of it before receiving his Lifetime Achievement Grammy.) It is not a song begging for peace or even advocating peace. It is adolescent and blunt as it indicts the elders, the Masters, who remain safe, their power reinforced by the destruction of innocents who may be manipulated to believe that their sacrifices are for the general good, but who will be sacrificed regardless. The song’s voice expresses vengefulness and a righteous morality. He would set these Masters of War outside the embrace of the mythical lord of forgiveness, Christ himself. He fantasizes gloating over their deaths. He accuses them of manufacturing such terror in their pawns, that young people will choose not to bring children into a world so treacherous. These are not mature philosophies that offer a vision of a pacifist utopia. They are the violent rages of youth against its own exploitation.
He sang this in a pointed gesture of historical significance, the first acoustic performance since the song’s earliest life; note also the peculiar modern novelty of a traditional, low-tech acoustic performance. Decades of the forces of globaization brought this moment to an audience that might have contained survivors of the bomb, and that almost certainly contained the children and perhaps grandchildren of the survivors, and relatives or descendants of those who did not survive. In a voice that is like a sharp clear whisper, patient and emphatic, he offered the song’s pitiless judgment, its fantasy of revenge, to people whose country suffered the worst single moment of destruction in history, and who lost the war as well as a military presence in the world, defeated by the nation that is the home of the singer. Within Bob Dylan’s lifetime, the city of Hiroshima saw destruction, defeat, renovation, security, and peace. And still, the song does not celebrate healing; it does not offer unity and reconciliation. It admits different kinds of violence, and different ways the human heart darkens against others. Muir was absolutely right to find it “strange” that he was moved by this performance, which reminds us that war destroys the spirit.
In 1994 Bob Dylan also performed at The Great Music Experience in Japan, in the city of Nara. There is excellent film footage of this. He stands in the center of a large stage, with a full orchestra behind him. When the performance begins, instead of Dylan’s being overwhelmed by the arramgement, or the song diluted by it, he creates a new voic suited to this situation. Inside the lush sound of the orchestra, his voice seems to grow, to become sonically larger. Not louder, but more expansive. The vocals are not foreground and the orchestra is not background, and the orchestra does not complement the vocals–instead, his voice becomes capacious enough to hold the orchestra within his song.
Although Hard Rain was not composed on the occasion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, (See Marqusee p 60.) It has still often been heard as a ballad for the anxious spirit of the atomic age, a boy’s journey through a world that has become shards of horror and of hope because of the threat of perfectly feasible destruction. Dylan singing this in Japan could be a We Are The World bit of kitsch, and it is not. Because of his performance, his awareness of the musicians behind him, and some intrinsic majesty to the song, the performance is a peculiar and comeplling collaboration.
Bob Dylan performing Hard Rain in Nara, and Bob Dylan performing Masters of War in Hiroshima, can only be thought about, and felt, as a coming-together of so many stories that took decades to develop: political, biographical, technological, economic. It is puerile and sentimental to ascribe some quality of *transcendence* and *timelessness* to the songs themselves. It is foolish to find a *closure* to anything at all in seeing and hearing Bob Dylan perform these songs in Japan. It is Philistine to reduce these events to effects of globalized culture that is erasing traditional boundaries of time and space. Better to stick with Andrew Muir’s “strangeness.” The peculiar availability of these songs to new settings, the peculiar adaptability of Dylan’s performing self to new settings, our capacity for emotions that are not familiar and not comfortable–I believe that the conditions we call globality, globalization, provoke us to facilitate new relations with the art.
I want to end with one of Bob’s more remarkable world-visions. This is from Chronicles, published in 2004, and describes an incident Bob fashioned from events of 1989. An entire chapter in Chronicles is devoted to the making of the 1989 album Oh Mercy, conventionally considered the launching of the late great flowering period of his career. The album was recorded in New Orleans, and Dylan’s descriptions of the city are among the most artful moments in that beautiful book. He shows you a city where past elides with present. “In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions…After a while you start to feel like a ghost from one of the tombs, like you’re in a wax museum below crimson clouds.” In the center of this place out of time, hidden in the woods, he finds a character who seems just right for the world Bob Dylan is going to exploit/create with his new art. This is Sun Pie, a man who’s set up a marketplace called King Tut’s Museum in the middle of the wilderness. He sells not only the vernacular fetishes of his part of the world, but generic, clichéd souvenirs of nothing-and it’s one of these trifles that he gives Bob Dylan for free (a bumpersticker reading “World’s Greatest Grandpa”. But Sun Pie is also a voice of an eccentric vision of global history. He explains that Native Americans were originally Chinese who across the land bridge from Asia. He prophesizes an apocalypse involving Chinese dominance, and displays a Mao and a Bruce Lee poster. He offers dark moral pronouncements. (It seems that from this fiction we get Man in the Long Black Coat, or vice versa.) There is a global vision, and a moral vision inside King Tut’s museum, where everything is for sale. Dylan writes, “Sun Pie talked in a language you can’t misunderstand” (207). And at the end of the episode he writes, “I was thinking that if Sun Pie was an active man, I’d go to great lengths to get out of his way” (209). Sun Pie is an important fictional identity for Bob: “He had an odd way of talking, made me feel like I wasn’t in his place at all, like he had just strolled into my place” (204-5). Ultimately, intimidated and bewildered by his own creation, our hero flees back into the world he’ll continually bring us closer to, as it changes around all of us.
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles, Volume One. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Marqusee, Mike. Chimes of Freedom: the politics of Bob Dylan’s art. New York: The New Press, 2003.
Marshall, Lee. Bob Dylan: The never ending star. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
Muir, Andrew. Razor’s Edge: Bob Dylan and the Never Ending Tour. London: Helter Skelter Publishng, 2001.
Steger, Manfred B. Globalization: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.