Advertising Signs: In Defense of Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl Spot

Sunday night during the Super Bowl 48, near the end of the Seahawks absolute trouncing of the Peyton Manning led Broncos (which brought me great joy as a Chiefs fan), I was hit with a moment of excitement that soon turned to incredulity and eventually anger. The moment in question came when Bob Dylan, who has long stood as one of my ultimate music “heroes” essentially stepped on screen in a Chrysler ad to brag about their “Americanness”. My initial text to a friend who holds Dylan in similarly high regards simply read “DYLAN!!!”, a response that was soon met with a painful “why?” That text soon made me realize this was the same man who once sang: “Blowin in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “With God on Our Side”, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, and countless other protest songs that intensely scrutinized dominant U.S. power structures. The man once labelled “the voice of a generation” was now using that voice to schlep for a Fortune 500 company. In short-hand, he’d “sold out.”

But the truth is, since his earliest days Bob Dylan’s been “selling out.” When 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan arrived on shelves, critic David Horowitz labelled the collection of dreamy and introspective tunes “unqualified failure of taste and self-critical awareness.” And while the folk/rock blurring Bringing It All Back Home (released in March 1965) largely escaped scorn, Dylan’s set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival wasn’t so lucky. After a scant three electrified songs, Dylan and his band left the stage amidst boos from the audience. The recently deceased Pete Seeger apocryphally was so upset by Dylan’s distorted voice he attempted to take an axe to the sound cables. He wouldn’t appear at Newport again for another 37 years after the incident.

When the monolithic Highway 61 Revisited arrived in August of ’65, the response was much more favorable though Allen Evans of NME would still say the tracks were sung in a “monotonous and tuneless way.” Such a complaint would seem tame compared to the criticism Dylan was about to receive. When he arrived in England in May of 1966 to tour Blonde on Blonde with The Band (then the Hawks), reporters continued to desperately peg him as a “folk singer”, when he’d all but moved on.

The disconnect reached a fever pitch with the infamous “Judas Moment” at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966. Audience member John Cordwell accused Dylan of being the Messianic betrayer as the critic-savaging “Ballad of a Thin Man” had drawn to a close. Clearly caught off-guard by the remark, Dylan could only scowl back “I don’t believe you”, before urging The Band to “play it f***ing loud” for closer “Like a Rolling Stone”.

In some ways, Dylan’s been wrapped in the various forms of the Judas cloak ever since. He’s been scoffed at for appearing in Victoria’s Secret ads and performing in China. His work has led writers to ask “what is this s***?”, while others wonder aloud about forays into Christmas music. One persistent reason for the lingering criticism is that some people worry such decisions taint the purity of Dylan’s career. More than almost any other 20th Century artist, Bob Dylan is idealized and romanticized to Godlike levels. So when he shows up in a Chrysler ad, we worry he’s becoming “human.” But he’s always been human. He warned us “there’s no great message,” to his songs. And the longer we try to find one, the more frustrated we’ll be.

“Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)”- Bob Dylan

Self Portrait, which Another Self Portrait the now 10th entry in the revelatory Bob Dylan Bootleg Series canonizes, could be considered the rock laureate’s first full swing and a miss. The run-up to his 1966 motorcycle accident was thoroughly unimpeachable from the folk/rock split of Bringing It All Back Home to the electric sea change of Highway 61 Revisited and finally cresting on the sublimely surreal Blonde on Blonde. No matter where the pied-piper of rock trod, an entire generation followed. When he went to sidelines after the crash, everyone waited for the timeout to be over. The inauspicious return record John Wesley Harding in late 1967 met the same feverish intensity. He pared down his lyrics, but the crowds remained. The country croon he adapted for follow-up Nashville Skyline presented a clear attempt to trim the fat; however glowing reviews by Rolling Stone prevented any weight loss. The “voice of a generation” moniker weighed on Dylan and the man himself noted, “that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots.”

Even provided that warning, few could have predicted how far Dylan would burrow to sever the roots. When Self Portrait sprouted in June 1970, Greil Marcus infamously asked “what is this shit?” in his Rolling Stone review. Traditional folk tunes elbowed  schmaltzy pop-rock. Live cuts nestled alongside studio outtakes, sequencing be damned. The tossed-off “The Boxer” cover was so tongue-in-cheek Dylan’s puffy face could be seen from miles away. The country croon of Nashville Skyline grew tenderer.  When his voice was at its softest the cries of “foul” would grow the loudest.

Released four months later, New Morning fared demonstrably better, receiving the label of “his best album since…” an honor now bestowed to any marginally successful album post-Blood on the Tracks. He slid back into the nasal tone and critics rested their weary heads on a bed of familiarity. However, New Morning shares rent with the critic-baiting hodgepodge of Self Portrait. There were songs like “Winterlude” featuring choruses of “winterlude, this dude thinks your fine.” The tongue was still firmly in cheek.

The true beauty of the Bootleg Series is the opportunity it affords for re-evaluation of the Dylan discography and no period more desperately needed a new dissection than 1969-1971. Disc 1 opener “Went to See the Gypsy” (Demo Version) at first scans as a turgid recounting of Dylan’s meeting of Elvis Presley. However, lines preoccupied by pretty girls dancing in lobbies shouting to “go see the gypsy” assure this is no straightforward autobiographical retelling. The song’s bridge poignantly conveys Dylan’s state-of-mind at the time, “the lights were on the river, shining from outside, I contemplated every move or at least I tried.” Even the missteps of a high-profile artist like Dylan become calculated.

“Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” and “I Threw It All Away” evince a blend of two Dylan strands, winsome folk melodies intertwining with the more surreal lyrics of his “rock” period. “Nights go a flyin,” in the carefully considered piano playing of the former, while the latter finds Dylan cradling mountains in the palm of his hand. “Love is all there is,” he confesses. In all its glory love can still beating hearts and stop time; thrown away it ensures agony.

Dylan is in full-flight on the traditional folk tunes, the jaunty “Railroad Bill” sees the harmonica return and Dylan rambles in a way he hadn’t since ’63’s The Freewheelin Bob Dylan. The ancient “Pretty Saro” is reinvigorated; Dylan’s shy warbling adeptly reflecting the title figure resting “down in some lonesome valley.” The previously unreleased “House Carpenter” is a far-cry from the lightning take bottled up on the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. Dylan outran the spirit on the water in the earlier version; here he and a specter walk side-by-side. “Days of ’49” is similarly haunted, Dylan playing the ghost “Tom Moore from the bummer shore”. If the “House Carpenter” was unfairly forsaken, the “ginsot” Moore and his “jolly saucy crew” receive their just desserts. The Dylan songbook is lousy with tragic characters (“Hurricane”, “Catfish”, “Blind Willie McTell”) “repining” the glory years, and few look to the past as longingly as Tom Moore.

The much maligned Isle of Wight recordings (Dylan would scrap a concert album) are re-contextualized on the second disc. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”s country waltz only skirts the edges of the masterpieces Dylan and The Band would paint on 1975’s The Basement Tapes. A herky-jerky “Highway 61 Revisited” finds Robbie Robertson’s guitar going in and out of gallop, while Levon Helm’s drum-set drops out of frame to spotlight crucial lines. The concert doesn’t provoke in the same way Live 1966’s electric half did, however its laconic country grooves reward just the same.

Many cuts here find success in addition by subtraction; tracks like “If Not For You” (Alternate Version) tip the scales in the other direction. A redolent violin part tiptoes on a snow covered rooftop while Dylan waits for the promise of his love’s spring to begin the melting. His is a world where an absence of love cause robins to cease their singing. Sleepless nights are spent desperately trying to see the morning light. We lose sight of what’s right in front of us when love vanishes and on “If Not For You” Dylan’s gone blind.

Another Self Portrait arguably saves the best for last, a piano demo version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. Dylan’s weathered vocals evoke “a long hard climb”, one laboring from the Mesabi Iron Range of Hibbing, Minnesota to the pinnacle of popular music. He retraces Roman footsteps until he and his “old Victrola” are reunited and spends hours inside the Coliseum in the name of “wasting time.” “Someday, everything is gonna be diff’rent when I paint my masterpiece,” he belts near the end. Self-Portrait is certainly “different”, in terms of audience-shedding it sits comfortably alongside: Metal Machine Music, In Utero, Kid A, and Yeezus  in the pantheon. If Self-Portrait is any kind of a painting, it’s an abstraction. This edition of the Bootleg Series reveals a rudimentary canvas to be an ornately crafted work. A piercing shrill curls into a pleasing rhapsody. The voice of a generation hadn’t gone mute, it was singing in a tone no one had heard before.