Juiced In It: Bob Dylan and the Consequences of Electricity
Bob Dylan, synonymous with plugging in, has much to say about electronically mediated music.
Bob Dylan is by no means a key participant in the history of electronic music. But as rock figures go, none may be more closely affiliated with the consequences of electricity. His performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when he traded his acoustic guitar for an electric one, is widely recognized as a milestone in the evolution of rock music. Of course, to die-hard fans at the time, the act seemed traitorous, signifying an end to innocence that resonated with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination two years prior. At least rockists and folkies agreed on one thing: plugging in was transformative.
As for electronicists, the hindsight of 40-plus years provides context. We are talking about 1965: the year Robert Moog’s namesake invention became commercially available, the year Poème Électronique composer Edgard Varèse died at age 81, the year the newly formed Grateful Dead began experimenting during Acid Test shows, the year Steve Reich (graduate-school friend of the Dead’s Phil Lesh) composed his tape-loop landmark It’s Gonna Rain. Dylan’s decision was, no doubt, a watershed moment, but an anomaly of its times it was not. Electricity was in the air.
The Dylan-Newport hoopla, as with most theological debates, has long been lost on me. I have one good friend 20 years my senior, Robert Levine, a classical music critic and editor, who attended that fateful show in 1965. He was 20 years old at the time and watched everything from backstage. A Joan Baez fan, he’d also been at Newport the previous year. I once asked him about the audience’s reaction to Dylan in 1965, and he said it was “as if someone had been invited to a fancy Thanksgiving dinner and taken a dump on the table.”
A few generations later, the goal posts have been moved. The major cultural divide is no longer between acoustic instruments and electric ones, but between conventionally recognized instruments and computerized ones. Critiques today of digitally processed music, from academic to film scores to electronica to hip-hop, can trace back their language and their cultural assumptions—the suspicion of technology, the invocation of a halcyon era, the emphasis on authenticity—to the hysteria that greeted Dylan’s decision to trade in folk music for rock’n’roll.
Last year in the pages of L.A. Weekly, the novelists Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody, along with John Darnielle (a musician who goes by the name Mountain Goats), discussed the influence of rock on novels and vice versa, and the talk, moderated by Alec Hanley Bemis, hinged on a proposed duality: text versus texture, rock’s great wordsmith (Bob Dylan) versus its preeminent sonic inventor (Brian Eno), rock-as-literature versus music-as-atmosphere. Dylanist versus Enoid. Lethem didn’t subscribe fully to the dualism in the first place, and he distanced himself from it even further earlier this year. In an essay in the February 2007 issue of Harper’s, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” on the subject of copyright and creativity, he refers to Eno and Dylan in tandem, drawing parallels between their creative modes: “To live outside the law, you must be honest: perhaps it was this, in part, that spurred David Byrne and Brian Eno to recently launch a ‘remix’ website, where anyone can download easily disassembled versions of two songs from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album reliant on vernacular speech sampled from a host of sources. Perhaps it also explains why Bob Dylan has never refused a request for a sample.” Lethem portrays both musicians, for all their differences, at ease with technological progress.
That initial proposed polarity between Dylan and Eno lingered with me in the year that followed, and the subsequent qualification by Lethem (in whose 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude the two musicians serve as touchstones) kept me pondering it even longer than I might have. Certainly, Dylan has interacted with electronic music far less than have some of his peers. And unlike fellow ’60s-era folk-rock songsmiths Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, he never allowed his sound to be radically rewired by a major minimalist (Philip Glass for Cohen) or an ambient maestro (Eno himself for Simon).
My fixation on the supposed Dylan/Eno distinction came down to two issues with which I couldn’t make peace: first, that Dylan, whom I consider inherently (heck, concertedly and willfully) ambiguous, can be used as a synonym for any artistic trait aside, perhaps, from a gravelly drawl; second, that Dylan is so distant from what has been depicted as “Enoid” that he has nothing to say about electronically mediated music. The two concerns were brought to a head as news accumulated, in recent months, about director Todd Haynes’s feature-length film, I’m Not There, in which seven different actors, including Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere, depict Bob Dylan over the course of his career. On the one hand, I was relieved that a film had been founded on a shared belief that Dylan is anything but singular (these are the “versions of his persona” as Lethem put it in his Dylan interview in Rolling Stone August 2006). On the other, I sensed that I had better get a real grip on “my” Dylan before being forced to reconcile seven additional ones.
I listened for this electronically mediated Dylan in his commercial recordings, tracked down various bootlegs, and parsed the loopy intros and outros that he provides to pop songs on the XM Satellite Radio show that he hosts. I slowly came to realize that the Dylan on whom I was fixated, “my” Dylan, wasn’t the Dylan I’d heard—it was the Dylan I’d read. I’d eagerly consumed Dylan’s 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, when it was first released, and it had been this Dylan who was stuck in my imagination. I read Chronicles again, in search of “my” little Dylan. Now, if only due to his legendary act of having plugged in, Dylan’s autobiographical musings would be worth parsing for their electric content. And as it turns out, the exercise rewards Brian Eno completists, copyleft advocates, and, especially, students of the recording studio as musical instrument.
Early on in the book, Dylan likens himself to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, another musician who traded one audience for a second when he went electric. That parallel is precisely Dylan’s point: “Miles Davis would be accused of something similar when he made the album Bitches Brew, a piece of music that didn’t follow the rules of modern jazz, which had been on the verge of breaking into the popular marketplace, until Miles’s record came along and killed its chances. Miles was put down by the jazz community. I couldn’t imagine Miles being too upset.” Dylan reiterates the personal affinity 100 or so pages later when describing a first meeting with a potential producer: “He told me that hit records don’t matter to him, ‘Miles Davis never made any.’ That was fine by me.”
The comparison doesn’t quite do Dylan justice, since in 1965 Davis’s quintet was still playing “Stella by Starlight” and “My Funny Valentine” at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, while Dylan was infuriating purists with his newly electric guitar. Three more years would pass before Davis and producer Teo Macero got Herbie Hancock to try out an electric piano in a Manhattan recording studio, yielding the first album of Davis’s own so-called “electric period,” Filles de Kilimanjaro. (Both Dylan and Davis recorded for Columbia Records, a shared experience that, unfortunately, goes largely unexplored in the book.)
The producer who breaks the ice with Dylan in New Orleans by name-checking Miles Davis was Daniel Lanois. In Dylan’s telling, the two were introduced by U2 singer Bono. It is not a case of love at first sight. “He’s got ideas about overdubbing and tape manipulation theories that he’s developed with the English producer Brian Eno on how to make a record,” writes Dylan, “and he’s got strong convictions.” Bono made the recommendation having worked with Lanois and Eno on such albums as The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire, albums that helped drive U2’s pub-rock anthems into arenas.
The partnership begins ominously. When Dylan and Lanois first meet in the courtyard of a New Orleans hotel, Dylan’s longtime guitarist, G.E. Smith, leaves them alone, saying, “See ya in a moment.” He’s not mentioned again for the remainder of the book (though he and Dylan will work together occasionally in the future). Dylan and Lanois go on to record Oh Mercy, released in 1989, and that album’s production receives the most sustained narration of any single event recollected in this book—and in Chronicles, a tale told anything but straight (it jumps between time periods like a William Faulkner novel), that is indeed saying something. For a Lanois enthusiast, the chapter is a valuable window into the working habits of the man whose collaborations with Brian Eno include the ambient milestones On Land and Apollo. Dylan describes at length Lanois’s “makeshift” studios, which he sets up in rented homes; his use of layering to achieve moods; and, for all the bliss of the end product, his strong personality.
I went back to Oh Mercy repeatedly during this reading, and to my other favorite Dylan albums, the usual combination of his eponymous debut, John Wesley Harding, Blonde on Blonde, “Love and Theft”, and so on. Nothing in those albums spoke to me about their electronic mediation, about the facts of their recording processes, as did Dylan’s own writing—though I do deeply desire vocal-free dubs of Oh Mercy and “Love and Theft” for the opportunity to relish the atmospheric grooves perpetrated on those two albums. Sadly for me, they probably don’t exist.
Dylan was by no means unprepared to work with a studio maven like Lanois—nor is it a surprise that it’s a Lanois album, Oh Mercy, that Dylan’s own production work (under the pseudonym Jack Frost) on “Love and Theft” most closely resembles. (“I didn’t feel like I wanted to be overproduced any more,” he told Lethem for the article in Rolling Stone, where he talked quite a bit about the recording process and his decision to produce himself.) By the late 1980s, he’d already developed his own head full of ideas, through experience, about the role of recording in the production of pop music. In the years leading up to his collaboration with Lanois, he played a tour with the Grateful Dead, and the band prodded him to perform esoteric items from the back pages of his catalog. Dylan, who was less than enthusiastic about this C-list set list, recalls in his book, “A lot of them might only have been sung once anyway, the time that they’d been recorded.”
This notion of songwriting as a spontaneous experience mediated in the studio is echoed later still in Chronicles (or earlier, depending on whether you gauge time by page numbers or years), as Dylan thinks back to some of his first recordings, singing into the tape recorder of Lou Levy, his original publisher before moving to Columbia. Levy came from an earlier generation, and Dylan’s improvisatory style was new to him. “Once in a while [Levy] would stop the machine and have me start over on something,” recalls Dylan. “When that happened, I usually did something different because I hadn’t paid attention to whatever I had just sung, so I couldn’t repeat it like he just heard.” Levy, attuned to the craftsmanship of Brill Building songwriters, like Gerry Goffin and Carole King, doesn’t know what to make of Dylan’s fluidity with words and meaning. The difference in opinions between Dylan and Levy about the role of the tape recorder sets the stage for the generation-gap-inducing events of Newport.
Levy makes two appearances in Chronicles—one at the opening and one at the close, book-ending three decades of Dylan’s music-making. The click of his tape recorder is something like Proust’s madeleine to Dylan. It’s the very act of recording that triggers his book-length reminiscence. (If anything, it brings to mind another New Orleans concoction, the narrative structure of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.)
At the end of that extended section on the making of Oh Mercy, Dylan writes, “Danny and I would see each other again in ten years,” when they’d record Time Out of Mind, which would have made a good title for his book. When you turn the page to the next (and final) chapter, it isn’t the next day, let alone the next decade. You’re back in Levy’s old-school office at Leeds Music Publishing, essentially the moment when the book began, some 220 pages earlier—before Lanois, before the Dead, before Newport.
Though the closing chapter is rich with business details—in virtually the same breath, Dylan blindly signs a contract with Hammond while negotiating himself out of his standing agreement with Levy—the real focus is Dylan’s appreciation for how the production of folk music was unlike that of the Brill Building songwriters who preceded him: “I didn’t have many songs, but I was making up some compositions on the spot, rearranging verses to old blues ballads, adding an original line here or there, anything that came into my mind—slapping a title on it. I was doing my best, had to thoroughly feel like I was earning my fee. … Into Lou’s tape recorder I could make things up on the spot all based on folk music structure, and it came out natural. … I changed words around and added something of my own here or there. … You could write twenty or more songs off that one melody by slightly altering it. I could slip in verses or lines from old spirituals or blues.” This is the Dylan who figures in novelist Lethem’s Harper’s exercise in Dylan-ology, in which he distinguishes plagiarism from plumbing, theft from love.
What Dylan writes isn’t self-incrimination, nor is he selling any alibis. It’s a description of craft that cuts across musical genres. The cut’n’paste method of adoption that served as Dylan’s initial songwriting strategy sounds all the more familiar some four decades later, when rhymin’ and stealin’, to borrow a phrase from the Beastie Boys, is the norm. You wouldn’t have to change many of those words for them to resonate with a remixer, DJ, or laptop musician.
Understand, Chronicles is by no means a book focused on music and technology. When Dylan speaks of field recordings, he’s talking about Alan Lomax tracking down blues singers in the Delta. When he says of Lanois’s work on the song “Most of the Time” that “Danny put as much ambiance in this song as he could,” he is at best secondarily referencing the ambient music of Lanois and Lanois’s influential colleague, Brian Eno. Still, of all the songs waxed by blues legend Robert Johnson, the one that Dylan singles out for exegesis is “Phonograph Blues,” which he calls “an homage to a record player with a rusty needle.” It’s also a song about sexual impotency, but more than anything, it’s among the most modern of classic blues songs. It’s one thing for a bluesman to sing of trains, but a lyric about a phonograph punctures the veil of rural antiquity that many folk fans foist on the blues. “Phonograph Blues” is an apt choice for a musician, like Dylan, who, ever conscious of technology, intends on dispelling romantic illusions.
One of the last things Dylan does in the book is to state the following: “First thing I did was go trade in my electric guitar, which would have been useless to me.” It’s page 237, but he’s still living in Minneapolis—his life has proceeded in the book, all the way up to his stint in the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, but now it’s looped back to Dinkytown, a neighborhood near the local university, where he was first getting into folk music and developing his performing persona. Dates are hard to come by in Chronicles, but it’s likely between 1959, when he entered the University of Minnesota, and 1961, when he relocated to Manhattan. It’s a Rosebud kinda moment. The man famous for going electric recounts when, years earlier, a child of rock’n’roll newly smitten with folk, he’d first unplugged.
Marc Weidenbaum is an editor and writer based in San Francisco. He was an editor at Pulse! and a co-founding editor at Classical Pulse!, and he consulted on the launch of Andante.com. Among the publications for which he has written are Down Beat, e/i, Jazziz, Stereophile, Salon.com, Amazon.com, Classicstoday.com, Big, Make, and The Ukulele Occasional. Comics he edited have appeared in various books, including Justin Green’s Musical Legends (Last Gasp) and Adrian Tomine’s Scrapbook (Drawn & Quarterly). He has self-published Disquiet.com, a website about ambient/electronic music, since 1996; it features interviews with, among others, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Gavin Bryars, Zbigniew Karkowski, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, and the creators of the Buddha Machine.