Bob Dylan's 'Nashville Skyline' -- People Are Missing the Point!
by Robert Christgau
I think people are missing the point of "Nashville Skyline," which is as it should be, since they were probably supposed to. The beauty of the album is that it is totally undemanding. In the past, it was always possible to enjoy Dylan without trying to understand him; I don't think he would have achieved his post-folk popularity otherwise. Even if you found his metaphors opaque and his situations sursurreal, you could still dig him -- Dylan-himself in the that-man-himself sense, Dylan the presentation -- for, comprehensible or not, Bob Superstar was always lurking in the inflections of that endless wit as well as out front in the persona shifts that have always defined his career.
But you never felt you had him pinned down. Granting the two obvious exceptions, the songs on that great blow for simplicity (and it was, it was), "John Wesley Harding," were as gnomic as any of his previous work -- less action-packed, less grandiloquent, but finally elusive. Only the kind of know-nothing know-it-all that Dylan and his epigones seem to attract by the thousands could ever believe he had held that album for the count of three. But as everyone knows, this record is different. The songs are so one-dimensional they seem contrived, as if daring the know-it-alls to search out the symbolism. Unfortunately, even though Dylan seems in too genial a mood to actually be daring anybody, the know-it-alls can be expected to take him up on it.
This time they will be ignored, which is good because stupidity should always be ignored, but bad because there is still some trickery going on and I get the feeling nobody wants to know about it. As usual, it has to do with image. For the past four years, since the traumatic turn to rock, Dylan has been s private a celebrity as J.D. Salinger. In the beginning he was shy, perhaps wary of his own fame, but at the same time a funny and engaging, hence beloved performer. After Newport 1965, however, he stopped doing his half. Public appearances became rare, and because he was in demand as a profile subject, his distaste for reporters became notorious. Even before the accident he was difficult to reach; afterward he became a pure recluse, but though none of his fans were sure he would ever be heard from again, they continued and in fact intensified the one-sided affair. Then, after two-and-a-half years, the ice began to crack. The last songs on "John Wesley Harding" presaged a new Dylan, and at the Woody Guthrie memorial in Carnegie Hall we got a glimpse of him -- bearded, smiling, neighborly, one-upping everyone with lively electric versions of Guthrie songs, but doing it in a really nice way. "Music from Big Pink," with its new songs, was another message of love, and they kept coming. Before "JWH," even Dylan anecdotes were precious, but now they became common, and what's more, credible -- Dylan at the Woodstock PTA, Dylan offering the Everly Brothers a song at the Bitter End. He began to grant sparing, somewhat impersonal interviews -- one to Hurbart Saal of Newsweek, a long one to some friends at Sing Out! And while the recording sessions for "JWH" had been top secret, the music press offered a virtual play-by-play on "Nashville Skyline." We heard of television appearances with Johnny Cash and a projected tour. After all the Cash stories, no one was surprised when "Nashville Skyline" turned out to be an extension of "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."
A new version of Dylan is emerging, if not from Toby Thompson's recent Voice series, then from Dylan himself. In a second interview with Hubert Saal, Dylan revealed that he had never really identified with folk music; it was just something he latched on to: "I suppose there was some ambition in what I did. But I tried to make the songs genuine." Self-expression? He says of "Nashville Skyline": "These are the type of songs that I always felt like writing when I've been alone to do so. The songs reflect more of the inner me than the songs of the past." After eight years as psychic wanderer, Dylan is transmuted into man-about-the-house -- friendly, stable, secure, and promising not to vomit it back in our face next year. Wayull now, I don't know. I am certain Dylan is sincere, but I am also certain he was sincere about protest music when he was into that. He is a master image manipulator, but his mastery has always been purely instinctual -- his dislike of the press is sincere, too. I don't even think Dylan wants to have an image, but as an entertainer he can't avoid it, and his sense of what he must do is so acute that he just naturally comes up one step ahead, race or no race.
In "Lay Lady Lay," Dylan asks: "Why wait any longer for the world to begin?/ You can have your cake and eat it too./ Why wait any longer for the one you love/ When he's standing here in front of you?" I quote all four lines to make clear how well the first two fit the love song. Yet, just like many Beatle fragments, they get better all the time. "Why wait any longer for the world to begin?" is the world's most beautiful cop-out, beautiful because it is true. Why wait, when it is possible to create within your own world (a world of love, completely insular -- according to one rumor, Dylan has four kids, but you never hear about them from Hubert Saal) and still anticipate that better one?
The most important implications of this sentiment are political, not because it doesn't apply equally well to ye olde artistic/religious/identity search, but because Dylan retains political importance not just for the folk diehards but for everyone who cares about both him and politics. "John Wesley Harding" was political though ambivalent -- if "All Along the Watchtower" was ominous, "Dear Landlord" was conciliatory -- and many of us would not have been surprised, before the Nashville stories, if the follow-up had been more so. But "Nashville Skyline," as we are told, is apolitical, and has been the source of some nasty gloating by the good but faint-hearted types who are beginning to fear the radicals -- for shame, those nasty war toys are real. They're glad the radical culture hero has turned into a a good old boy.
Country music, based in the white South, the Midwest, and the nouveau suburbs, is naturally conservative, although the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers (more a-comin', cousins!) have dissociated themselves explicitly from the yahoo reaction of the drug store truck drivin' man. Such an interpretation is possible because the basic impulse of the music seems Jeffersonian: ruggedly individualistic, anti-statist, full of man-to-man charity, what Gram Parsons has called white soul: "If there's a poor boy on the street/ Then let him have my seat." It would be fair to say that Barry Goldwater is more sympathetic to this configuration than Jacob Javits, but equally fair to say that Paul Goodman is more sympathetic than either. The Jeffersonian impulse infused the movement when Dylan was its minstrel, but because the state has proven more brutally implacable than such idealism could predict, the movement has responded comparably. In a more formal way than before, it has come to insist on organizational solidarity. If there is anything clear about Dylan, it is that he doesn't like organizations. He insists on being his own man. He has gone to country music because it is the repository of such values, and he has no apparent interest in exposing, or even understanding, their subversion. For while country music appears Jeffersonian it is really Jacksonian -- intensely chauvinistic, racist, majority-oriented, and anti-aristocratic in the worst as well as the best sense. That is to say, it voices both sides of populism -- the democratic and the fascistic.
The Sing Out! interview, conducted in Woodstock, ended strangely, with Dylan defending not the war, but a painter friend who supported it: "I've known him for a long time, he's a gentleman and I admire him, he's a friend of mine. People just have their views. Anyway, how do you know I'm not, as you say, for the war?" Shocking. But just for fun, let me suggest the possibility that Dylan is for the war. It is fatuous to believe that good art and good politics go together, and if Dylan isn't a political conservative, he is certainly becoming an aesthetic conservative. More and more his work emphasizes formal discipline, concision, understatement. His music has become markedly more complex. He has experimented with the pop-song break instead of chug-chugging from stanza to stanza. This kind of distillation can only take place in a controlled environment, and Dylan obviously cherishes his privacy for more than scientific reasons. In Sing Out!, Happy Traum told Dylan, "I think that events of the world are getting closer to us, they're as close as the nearest ghetto," and Dylan responded, "Where's the nearest ghetto?" How long will it take the Panthers to reach Woodstock from Albany? A hundred years, maybe, or maybe five. And if it's five, what will Dylan do then? He says he only writes songs because he has a contract; as long as he must, he does them as well as he can. So perhaps he wouldn't miss his art. But he would miss his privacy terribly. A disinclination to go out among men -- that tour keeps being delayed -- is the mark of the aristocrat, self-appointed or otherwise.
Has Bobby really turned into T. S. Eliot, fighting his own tower? I don't think so, but I know my own detestation of the war affects my objectivity. I don't believe any man could write "Tell Me That It Isn't True" and countenance Vietnam. And though Dylan's artistic direction has become more rhetorical and less revolutionary -- moving from Apollinaire to Yeats -- the devices of his rhetoric are significant. He is a private man, but a public artist. "The most you can do is satisfy yourself," he told Sing Out!, but also, "If you're doing it for them instead of you, you''re likely not in contact with them." Finally, despite the shyness, he knows audience contact is crucial. And he wants to reach everyone. SO!: "Why do you think your music appeals to American Indians?" BD: "I would hope that it appeals to everybody." SO!: "I know suburban people who can't stand it." BD: "Well, I wish there was more I could do about that."
So here he is, folks, Homebody Bob, singin' ten songs for your listenin' pleasure -- well, nine, actually one is a hoedown sort o' thing. Everyone knows by now, I hope, how intense that pleasure is. But hasn't anyone noticed something odd? All of those leaks from Nashville, we all knew for certain what it would be, we even knew the details of the duet, and when we put it on the turntable there was only one bug: Dylan wasn't singing. It was someone else, some cowboy tenor who sounded familiar. Everyone remarked upon this, of course, but no one mentioned that by the mere trick of changing his entire vocal style, Dylan had crossed us up again, that "Nashville Skyline" was a bigger switcheroo than "John Wesley Harding." It is touching that everyone wants to believe Bobby has settled down, but don't bet on it. All those protestations of easy innocence may be just one more shuck.
Or maybe they're not. Which would make them the biggest shuck of all.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]