In "Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art," Mike Marqusee treats us to a full-on analysis of the cultural, political and historical significance of Bob Dylan in the context of the early-to-mid 60s when Dylan was at the height of his powers. But even more, he shows how Dylan, at the vanguard of the social protest movement, was in the vanguard of the next development as well -- the turn away from the mass politics of the left, the social patriotism of Guthrie, toward the private politics of expressive individualism, the search for "authenticity" in an increasingly inauthentic world. With psychological nuance and sensitivity, he explores Dylan's defensiveness and arrogance, his sometimes convoluted and confused politics and his attempts to cope with nearly overwhelming fame and notoriety in the midst of social and political turmoil.
Essentially, Dylan is the core around which the story of the decline of the American Left is told. Marqusee provides insight in the factors that gave rise to the sense of hopefulness of the early 60s, a hopefulness that could not be sustained by most of the new white college kid converts to the civil rights and other social justice movements. Dense, packed with insight, this is a cogent corrective to the many misconceptions and platitudes that have come to describe this turbulent time in American history. In Marqusee's reading of the time, in the contextual backdrops he weaves, rescues a complex era from the oversimplifications of the media, e.g., the Woodstock Nation.
Emblematic of Dylan's break with the Old Left was his adoption of rock and roll instrumentation at Newport. Launched into new sonic and social spaces, Dylan cleared the way for all kinds of experimentation, the explosion of creativity that ensued in such performers as Hendrix. But in the explosion, Marqusee insists, the consumer state, sniffing around for new game, created an entire new marketing segment out of the excitement and wild extravagance of the ethos of personal freedom. Soon, he shows, protests were uncool. The struggle did not provide the instant gratification that young white America had come to expect from the consumer state. Soon, the enormous wave of civil disobedience and protest against the Vietnam War subsided into the cynical selling of rebellious culture and its many accoutrements.
Marqusee suggests, perhaps a bit too patly, that consumer culture and its mechanisms swamped the last vestiges of leftist New Deal politics. Still, he convincingly defends the notion that Dylan after emulating the social patriotism of the folk-singers in the generation before his, began to form a more profound and more withering critique of the "system," a critique which eventually pitted him against the Old Left, who still believed in the possiblity of the Popular Front. Eventually, the New Left took up the notion of a revolution in consciousness as the only way to defeat the Establishment -- and as they did mimicked Dylan's search for the authentic. A vexed notion, authenticity, as Marqusee notes, all the more sought after as it become harder and harder to find in the midst of the expolsion of the consumer state. He shows us this tension in Dylan, who, after his early anthemic songs in the style of Guthrie, moved toward the imagistic, the satirical, the non-sequitur, the private hipster moves of Kerouac and Ginsberg and their in-crowd critique of (consumer) society as a way to distance himself from the Seeger and Baez crowd.
Another strategy Marqusee employs well is the examination of Dylan's evolution against other music and other performers. He does a particularly insightful job with Curtis Mayfield, showing how the music of protest came from gospel and was given new life by artists like Mayfield. He also contrasts Phil Ochs with Dylan, who remained until the end a protest singer in the more generally accepted mold. In the epilogue, he cannily examines Dylan's decline through the rise of one of John Hammonds "New Dylan" -- Springsteen. He suggest that Springsteen started out by aping the moves of the imagistic, stream-of-consciousness era Dylan, then, after studying some history and the some of the roots of popular music, began to align himself with the older stream of social protest music in the "Tom Joad" album.
No book of left social criticism is able to avoid mentioning Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Thus Marquesee cites Adorno's views on popular music in his analysis. Quite rightly disputes Adorno's views on the exploitation by capital of "popular" music in the case of early Dylan, but suggests Adorno's view of the impossibility of popular music remaining truly of the people in a consumer state. Adorno's grand and paranoid theories still a bit redolent of the determinism of his Marxist heritage, but there is more than a little truth in his theory. Still, more to my taste are the citations from Adorno's sometime friend and colleague, Walter Benjamin. More Dylanesque, more elliptical, more paradoxical, less programmatic.
Dylan, an unwilling accomplice of the exploitation of rebel culture, troubled by his fame and its implications, grew conservative after "John Wesley Harding." His great period came to an end just as the mass of young people began to experience the 60s, to "question authority." Marqusee has gone deep into this chaotic, watershed time, and pulled from it through his examination of Dylan, an historical and cultural vision which is bracing, balanced, and thoughtful. Incidentally, a good companion read is "Power and Protest" by Jeremi Suri which shows how the leaders of both the free and unfree worlds after promising good times in the late 50s and early 60s, all moved toward conservative agendas in the face of a protest movement among youth, a movement in some ways fueled by the grand gestures and promises made -- "The New Frontier" and "The Great Leap Forward" -- and upon which they had not been able to deliver during the nuclear stalemate.