Saturday, March 8, 2008


John Chaffee was elected governor of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1962 serving with great distinction to 1969. Chaffee later went on to serve as Secretary of the Navy and as a United States Senator. The great benefit to the Buxton Family was threefold. First, my Mother, Betty Buxton, as she had served under Republican governor Christopher Del Sesto, became Chaffee’s private secretary and literally created and administered his agenda during his entire term as Governor. Secondly, Mother got the opportunity to serve the interests of a great Family Friend. Thirdly, she reaped the reward of all those benefits that Chaffee didn’t care about, namely tickets to the Governor’s box at the annual Newport, RI Folk Festival. And, that leads to the topic of this commentary – Bob Dylan – a man with whom I share little save some political sentiments, a May 24 natal day, a love of the Highlands of Scotland and who I saw live in concert on two occasions. Gees, I guess we have a lot in common.

In 2007 with the help of PBS, some over the top nostalgic music buffs and some absolutely absurd, farcical academics, Dylan’s legacy is now being laid down in concrete for posterity’s sake. I feel, the way it’s been contrived, beneath a concrete headstone would have been far more appropriate. Let’s go back to the 1960’s.

In the early 1960’s folk music was being revived on the American scene by the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, Joan Baez and later by the Mamas and the Papas, Joni Mitchell and many others. The Vietnam War and issues of social injustice served to fill their agendas, and their pocketbooks.

Bob Dylan arrived on the New York folk scene in early 1961 and became known for his off center style and lyrics that would better qualify him as a poet rather than singer. He made his reputation as a pure acoustic folk singer and his fans seized on what they thought was the purity of his message though not necessarily his musical talent (more later).

Dylan was admirably committed to his causes though many of his songs were ultimately appropriated (hijacked) by the civil rights and anti-war movements. Dylan did participate in a voter registration rally in Greenwood Mississippi in July of 1963 with Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel and later that year performed on the occasion of the great Civil Rights March on Washington.

Dylan’s first appearance at Newport in 1963 is regarded as his best national performance. He was accompanied by close Friend Joan Baez in 1963 and 1964 and became associated with the festival from that point. I was there for both those performances and wondered even then about his style and demeanor.

I wasn’t there in 1965 when Dylan was booed for what most folks thought was his traitorous venture into the world of Rock and Roll and the abandonment of the folk genre via his use of the electric guitar. That observation was validated in the recent PBS program on Dylan.

Frankly, I still think that observation absurd. Dylan was and is what he is, nothing more. I still loved his lyrics and was at that time held mesmerized with the folk music scene probably due to frequenting too many coffee houses on Thayer Street in Providence which catered to the students at Brown University. The reality is that Dylan’s voice, then and now, really sucks. It was and remains a surly nasal whine often delivered with a sarcastic tone of voice that offended critics in Dylan’s folk, rock and country venues. One critic in 2006 described Dylan’s voice as, “a catarrhal death rattle.” Where has that critic been for the last forty years? The pace of Dylan’s music has often been fast, anxious, and chaotic. He rarely sang a song the same way twice and I attribute that either to a lack of discipline or an ever recurring bout of total creativity.

We hear that Steven Stills, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney and The Beatles, David Bowie, U2 singer Bono and other luminaries have all been influenced by our less than talented musician. Maybe they figured that if Dylan could do it, then they sure as hell could!

In 1973 Dylan at the insistence of long time fan Kris Kristofferson was tapped by legendary filmmaker and director “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah to write the score for and act in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”, a moody western that showcased Rock & Roll’s iconic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan played the role of the enigmatic, knife wielding “Alias” a quiet and fittingly nonconformist member of Billy the Kid's gang. I liked his character and liked Dylan in that role.

As a sidebar, Peckinpah engaged a star studded company for the film by casting legendary Western character actors such as Chill Wills, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Barry Sullivan, Dub Taylor, R.G. Armstrong, Katy Jurado, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Paul Fix to compliment stars James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and Jason Robards. It was a good though disjointed flick. See it if you can.

In the 1970’s Dylan seemed to get his cinematic juices and confidence flowing again (ill advised) making his directorial and writing debut as well as acting in “Renaldo and Clara” (1978), a surrealistic disastrous counterculture film that flopped and Dylan eventually pulled from circulation. One major film critic opined, “The single biggest waste of celluloid in the entire history of motion pictures” and “The very, very, very worst thing ever made.”

Later in 1978 Dylan was featured with other guest singers in “The Last Waltz”, a concert documentary directed by Martin Scorsese that showcased The Band’s (previously The Hawks) final performance at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom. The only real energy that Dylan brought to the film were his conniptions about which of his songs could be filmed and then tried to dictate the release date of the film afraid that it would detract from his Renaldo and Clara. No such luck…

Having apparently forgotten about his previous film disasters the often reclusive Dylan returned to acting in 2003 in the lead role of a wandering troubadour in the musical satire, "Masked & Anonymous." Well, three down, one to go.

No, Dylan did not have an active acting role in the 2007 Todd Haynes film, “I’m Not There” save provide inspiration and some of his songs for the film. Despite winning a Golden Globe and being nominated for an Academy Award, in the estimation of this writer this film did nothing except add insult to injury to his already vulnerable persona.

Interestingly, the film represents the different aspects or better yet, incarnations of Dylan's life as portrayed by six different actors including a 13-year-old African-American boy, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and even actress Cate Blanchett? Topping it all off, director Todd Haynes in a fit of faux hedonism morphs all his Dylan characters into Dylan who in turn morphs into Haynes. Wishful thinking…

As one astute reviewer stated, the reality is that “to expect any film about Dylan to make sense would make no sense.” Indeed Dylan once said, “If I told you what our music is really about, we’d probably all get arrested.” I suspect that he would incur the wrath of a lot of folks who took his lyrics as gospel in the pursuit of a higher cause…

Then we have the academics who have dissected poor Bob ascribing flowering ethereal qualities probably to the degree that these analyses surely earned a Masters or PhD or two pushing Dylan into a netherworld where he is now beyond all hope of comprehension by future generations.

Once such academic offers this observation about Dylan. “With these juxtapositions Dylan thus creates an “open structure” that conveys in the song a powerful textual dynamism that is reinforced by the quick succession of characters.

Even though the manifold pleasures conveyed by Dylan’s songs can certainly not be boiled down to literary pleasure alone, Dylan––alongside many of the other folksong revival musicians and poets of the ’50s and ’60s – redefines lyricism as a mode that explores all forms of tension: his lyricism is thrust towards the listener with the sheer power of Dylan’s voice and interpellation; it is strained in the inner workings of a problematic subjectivity; and it provides an infinitely enjoyable tonal tension, caught as it is between irony and pathos.”

Or how about, “Indeed, the semantic openness and sophisticated imagery in most Dylan songs, as well as the constant blending of poetic idioms of various origins, requires a great deal of hermeneutic activity on the part of any listener even remotely interested in the lyrics. This active engagement with meaning and with the poetic fabric of the words is what Barthes sees as a writerly activity that draws on the reader’s - or, in this case, the listener’s - creative faculties and imagination, thus empowering him and replacing the reassuring reading pleasure provided by closed forms with a more unsettling, though rewarding, literary bliss.”

All that may be true, and while this particular author seems to key on Dylan’s words, this is a load of hooey! Some folks say they can’t figure him out while pseudo intellectuals pontificate on and complicate something that’s as plain as the nose on our collective faces. Dylan was and is a poet, a simple country boy from Minnesota who had a message. Words and ideas are the essence of this man and his work. Even though he was many times scared to death, he got up in front of his fans and screeched out his poetry and changed the consciousness of a nation. He sang with little emotion and a sophomoric dead pan expression that lent little to his work save to turn him into a caricature and “counterculture valedictorian of the '60s”.

Dylan’s music remains the stuff of legends with Rolling Stone magazine in 2004 ranking Dylan as #2 on their list of "Greatest Artists of All Time", second only to The Beatles. Some of my personal Dylan favorites, among many others, includes Blowing in the Wind; The Times They Are a-Changing; Mr. Tambourine Man; Like a Rolling Stone; It Ain't Me Babe; A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall; Knocking on Heaven’s Door; Don't Think Twice, Its All Right and Lay Lady Lay. I especially liked Dylan’s contribution to the often parodied 1985 Belafonte-inspired project We are the World, written by Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson.

The bottom line is that Dylan is far from contradictory. There is no attempt at evasion or great mystery as speculated by some. We are witnessing nothing more than the evolution of a man grappling with his past, present and future on his own terms. Dylan both enjoys and detests the fame that he has earned and appropriately holds many of his more fanatical fans and those outrageous academics in contempt. I believe that Dylan is happiest just being one of the gang and jamming with his Friends on a Saturday night.

Those who didn’t have the opportunity to kick back in the Governor’s Box in the front row at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1964 all the while quaffing down a Heineken and just enjoying someone singing from his heart and soul and mostly for himself, will just never get it. Yea, I really like the guy…


Ned Buxton

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