Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” has recently been reinterpreted with a high concept video that incorporates some technological trickery to mimic the scrolling of a multitude of cable channels on television. It is an interactive clip – the viewer can actually switch through the different stations on a simulated control on the left of the screen. Miraculously, the words and images of each station will correspond with the music no matter how the viewer wishes to manipulate the controls. So, for example, when the song reaches the line, “You used to be so amused at Napoleon in rags and the language that he used,” every channel will feature the actors acting out the words. Sports anchors, aerobic instructors, that sort of thing.
View the video here: http://video.bobdylan.com/desktop.html
As vapid, momentary web entertainment, this video is about on par with the detritus that comes rolling regularly down that muddy river of our beloved internet. In fact, it probably ranks just below the video of the cat wearing a shark costume riding around a kitchen floor on a roomba with the duckling waddling after it.
Actually, the Dylan video might be several notches below that impossibly cute little clip, particularly if one were simply turn down the sound on that video and play “Gates Of Eden” along with that adorable cat and his duckling pal. There might actually be something artistic, even meaningful in that. But this interactive video with the fake television channels – whether as an attempt at some sort of interpretation or representation of Dylan’s classic song – stinks. It’s an offensive abasement of good taste. Abrasively pedestrian, affecting the sort of creativity that might be found in a rug shampoo commercial. The creators should be ashamed and embarrassed of their participation in this travesty, this molestation of an iconic song. I wish no ill will toward the creators of the video, but I certainly hope they will stay away from Dylan’s music in the future, and perhaps stay away from video production and even computers in general for the rest of their lives. I may not openly wish for them to somehow find themselves locked in maximum security prison for the rest of their lives, but that would be a commensurate punishment for sure. This video is that bad. The fact that this is supposedly an officially sanctioned release is all the more troubling.
It’s an unfortunate development, as last year was a good one for the Bob Dylan catalog. The most recent edition of the Bootleg Series was a gem, featuring tracks from 1969’s much maligned Self-Portrait album along with a generous array of outtakes and cover versions from that era. It’s a strong, surprisingly cohesive collection from a period that has garnered an unfortunate reputation as a fallow one in his career. Dylan’s entire discography has also been re-packaged again as well, an enticement that may not be as attractive to collectors as the mono editions that were released in 2010 or the occasional gold disc remasters that crop up every few years for exorbitant prices. But the complete collection in any form is essential for a fan who does not already own these albums. Don’t bother with greatest hits packages – those are soulless exercises in consumerism that rob the music of all context. They are made for little girls. In fact, greatest hits collections are the work of the devil. Avoid them or be damned.
And yet this recently released video is much more damaging than the minor ignominies of the mere greatest hits collection. It twerks upon the legacy of Dylan’s music with the shameless trappings of consumer culture. Perhaps I’m simply missing the greater message implied by watching a sportscaster begin a line of “Like A Rolling Stone” and then switching a channel to find some effete host of a redecorating show complete the lyric. Am I not getting it? Is something happening here and I don’t know what it is? No, I suspect not: it’s just clever for the sake of being clever, with all the artistic insight of a knock knock joke. It’s not fun, it’s not funny, it’s not deep. It’s not Dylan. It just stinks.
But what do I know about Dylan’s music? Do I presume to know better than the misguided producers of this awful video? What’s the big deal with Bob Dylan anyway?
A short diversion: in the late nineties, I was working as a baseball writer for a newspaper in the Philippines. It may sound odd to the layman, but semi-professional baseball is actually big business over there. I was covering the Hyancock Giants, a team that was mired in the bottom of the Northeast Division. The struggling operation was based on the outskirts of an apathetic working town that had just recently suffered the closing of a cat toy production factory that had been the pride of the community for nearly fifty years. I didn’t cover the day-to-day operations of the team, preferring instead the higher ground of the weekly editorial commentaries. I liked to frame the team’s problems in a more literary context: one column comparing the third baseman’s hitting slump to the protagonist of Kafka’s The Castle won several office awards and was displayed on the wall in the break room for over a month. My work was later published in the collection, Notes From The Sun’s Diamond, which is currently taught in many non-fiction writing courses in community colleges in New Jersey.
I had to be careful with criticisms each week, as my relationship with the team and its owners was precarious. The manager, a stout former catcher named Wan Hu-Suak, was notoriously short tempered in addition to being physically quite short. He was less than five feet tall and sported a thin mustache that made him look like some minor military figure. He actually ran the team with a militaristic bent, as players were trained to exhaustion in daily drills that strained all logic. Morning practices often consisted of punishing sprints around a labyrinthine maze of cones set about the muddy field, an operation made all the more punishing by the music of Coldplay that would be heard blaring from the speakers. (Hu-Suak was a fan and close friend of several members of the band, and is even credited with “background choir vocals” on one of their albums.) Other drills were even more bizarre, involving chasing roosters around wooden pens to increase base running dexterity and participating in underground mixed martial arts tournaments in order to improve effectiveness in the brawls that would invariably break out in later innings of close games. And these were only the publicized examples – rumors of more extreme practices often circulated, including one unfortunate incident of a suicide in which the poor player was heard to scream, “No more Coldplay!” as he garroted himself in the dugout. All of this might have been defensible if the team had any measure of success, but struggling mediocrity was the norm.
Then again the team’s performance didn’t really matter at all. Filipino semi-professional baseball is notoriously controlled by local mob outlets, acting as a money laundering scam for their criminal activities. Illegal money generated by criminal activity is used to purchase teams and finance operations, which are in turn supported with government grants. This money is then funneled back into the criminal enterprise, forming a nice cohesive circle of fraud, not unlike the operations of our own federal government. Not a bad deal for the mob either, or the teams themselves. But it gave the whole business an existential emptiness. Why should any of us really care about the outcome of the games? Of course the regular sports writers were superfluous, the grunts of the writing industry who were looked down upon by even the janitors and laundresses at the stadium. But now my own job was starting to feel ridiculous, as I began to recognize the insignificance of a week spent combing through passages from Timon of Athens to shore up a point about the team’s bullpen woes.
My personal life was crumbling around this time as well. I lived in the top floor of a shoddy apartment building with a view overlooking the seedier part of town: a rundown barn inhabited by a cadre of howler monkeys, a foul smelling fish market, and two dive bars. A large family lived just below me and I could hear their screaming children and unintelligible arguments at all hours of the day. To be fair, they were probably not too enamored of my own penchant for playing the recently released Ghostface Killah album Supreme Clientele at top volume all night as I worked on my column, but I didn’t worry much about that. I had my own problems. I wasn’t making much money anyway at the time, barely enough for rent, food, liquor, hashish, cocaine, and prostitutes each week. But it was the nineties – everyone from Scott Weiland to Madeleine Albright were setting the example for the culture with regard to prodigious whoring and drug use.
One night I was completely blocked on that week’s column. The Giants had lost nine games in a row and I had grown weary with finding ways to complain about the team’s performance. My inspiration was further hampered by threats I had received from a relief pitcher who was angry about a previous column in which I’d quoted extensively from Flaubert in order to lambaste his late game bungling of a save. (As it turned out, the player was something of a Flaubert buff and his contention was not with the text of my column but rather the translation I had used as a source, as the lengthy passage I’d quoted had included several grammatical inaccuracies.) The apartment was hot and infested with bugs, and all the water taps ran a dusky shade of brown. Downstairs, the family was watching an old episode of “Happy Days” dubbed in Filipino, so all I could hear were the unintelligible voices and the occasional bursts of canned laughter. I was drinking scotch and smoking damp hash, a combination that normally opened all barriers of inspiration. But on this night, I just felt flat, empty.
So I decided to hit the town. I stumbled into the sticky summer night air, making my way toward my favorite bar. Primetime Tavern was an Americanized sports bar with a local twist: a great place to have a few pints, share a few laughs, and pick up a prostitute on a lonely night. The bar only charged a quarter for their draft beer, a tangy brew whose name translates loosely to Drowned Rat and unfortunately cannot be purchased here due to a health department ban. Then it was only about five dollars for the company of one of the women who lingered around the back rooms just past the main bar. I got to know a few of those women quite well in those days, and I’m actually Facebook friends with one who has since settled down and started her own personal finance company. Of course some of these available “women” must be referred to in quotational form, but that is another story entirely.
It was karaoke night at the bar. I stumbled in to the echoing strains of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” being warbled out by a farmer on the tiny stage. His accent and unfamiliarity with the language lent an unintentionally comic element to the performance, but otherwise it was quite earnestly sung and I gladly joined with the round of applause that greeted the final note. The room was packed, much more so than usual. There was a long bar along one wall that peered out onto the main floor scattered with tables and chairs, and then a second floor veranda for opium smokers and chess players. The stage itself was small but garishly decorated with tinsel and spinning plastic pinwheels. I recognized some of the regulars, all grizzled drunks and hardened women who worked on the farms around town. Many nights I would engage them in small conversation despite the language barrier, affecting particular popularity with my impressions and recitations of scenes from “Goodfellas.” And we could also always communicate through music, that eternal human language. My karaoke repertoire normally focused on classic rock – Stones, Dead, Monkees – but there were nights I would find myself with my arm around some equally drunken farmer belting out a ragged version of Billy Joel’s “Allentown” or The Go-Go’s “How Much More.”
I ordered a scotch and tequila with a rum chaser. Actually I didn’t even have to order it, as it was set down by Armando, the one-armed bartender who always greeted me with a familiar nod. He was a good bartender, fast and attentive, although he obviously had his difficulties with shaken martinis and the like. I also received a paper napkin with two Valium knockoffs set upon it – this was part of my standing order.
The first song I sang that night was “Lola” by The Kinks, which always elicited a spirited response from the crowd. It was a strong performance and the unusually crowded bar offered a wild round of applause that I acknowledged with the traditional bow. But I wanted something more, something that would really impress the audience, that would give some meaning to my own waning spirit. I walked over to the song selection booth, which was actually operated by a rooster with enough sentience to discern the correct number of your choice and then peck about the music equipment to cue up the tracks. It was a complicated operation that involved pellets of food that would slide down into corresponding slots, and so on. I pressed the levers for my next song and watched the rooster peck at the pellets to set up my next song: Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.”
I don’t usually get nervous before performances, particularly when I’m sustained by copious amounts of liquor, hash, and painkillers. But as I went back to the bar to wait for my cue, I felt the already brimming ripples of anxiety crash into a great wave of sudden fear. For there at the back of the bar stood the entire front office of the Hyancock Giants – and by “front office” I mean to say that these were the elite of the local mafioso, a scary collection of gun toting thugs with slicked hair and scarred faces. I recognized the manager Hu-Suak, who would surely offer a rendition of some tortuous Coldplay song once the sake started flowing, along with the other trainers and various assassins and drug dealers that comprised the majority of the office staff. But it was the sight of one figure that shook me with terror: Chin “The Chin” Sian-Ku. He was the notorious owner of the Giants as well as their more lucrative street operations, like a combination of George Steinbrenner and John Gotti. And he was also notoriously short; he was well under five feet tall, and though he may not have technically been a midget but he certainly straddled the working definition of the term in a Devito-like manner. He was a proud, dangerous man prone to all manner of grim eccentricities, including random killing of subordinates and reading Christian romance novels. But his most brazen offense to any semblance of normalcy was his obsession with Napoleon, which manifested in his style of dress and his entire demeanor. He stood now in complete French military regalia with one arm inside his coat and a frilly hat resting precariously on his head. No one dared to question this eccentricity, both out of fear of his reputation and the fact that the bar was filled with all sorts of wildly dressed figures in varying states of intoxication.
But that was when I really started to panic, as I thought about the line in the song as I was about to sing: “You used to be so amused at Napoleon in rags and the language that he used.” What if he took that as a challenge, as a personal attack? I was already an unpopular figure for my weekly column, now I would be openly mocking the president of the team in musical form.
Then I thought about Bob Dylan. What would Bob do? In 1966, Dylan toured Europe with the Hawks, the tight combo led by guitarist Robbie Robertson that would later reach great heights on their own as The Band. He would perform two sets: the first, a muted acoustic performance of quiet virtuosity, was always greeted with waves of stunned applause; the second, a loud rock set of newer songs, was often met with boos and protests. He was seen as a turncoat, moving away from the honorable folk sound he had mastered to the rowdier rock that was seen by many in the audience as a lowlier venture, a passing fad. His electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival the year before was notoriously met with such derision that the power was nearly cut short by an ax-wielding Pete Seeger. (This event is of course most notable for producing the now common phrase “ax-wielding Pete Seeger.”) The 1966 European tour was greeted with the same sort of antagonism, most famously with one show in which an audience member shouted “Judas!” in reference to a character from an ancient work of fantasy fiction. Dylan responded with an impassioned performance of “Like A Rolling Stone,” which was prefaced with the audible instruction, “Play it fucking loud” to the rest of the band. This was more than a song, more than just a performance: this was a challenge, an assault on the crumbling sensibilities of the Old Guard.
So I knew what I had to do. I nodded to the rooster when my turn came up, then clucked out a series of noises that essentially translated to: “Play it fucking loud.” And I sang through the first few verses, building in intensity, eying the crowd clapping and singing along. The team – now collected in full along the back of the bar and flanked by even more security personnel openly wielding automatic weapons – were listening as well, impassive and stone faced. And there was The Chin in the center in his Napoleon hat and arm in his coat, staring right at me. Perhaps he knew as well, was familiar enough with Dylan’s mid-sixties work to know the line was coming and was silently daring me to sing it out loud. And when it came up, I did not hesitate, belting it out loud with all the force I could muster: “You used to be so amused at Napoleon in rags and the language that he used.” The entire room turned toward the Chin in shock as I continued: “Go to him now, he calls to you, you can’t refuse/When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” And I think I even saw him crack a smile, some measure of appreciation in that moment. Then came the gunshots.
I awoke three months later in a small hospital. I had been hit multiple times in the chest and legs, and it was only the serendipitous crashing of a light fixture upon one of the gunmen that probably saved me from death. My bleeding body had been dragged out of the back door by several prostitutes, who helpfully called an ambulance and stole my wallet. Nonetheless my rehabilitation – which lasted nearly seven months and consisted primarily of epic chess battles with one of the orderlies – was relatively successful, aside from a slight limp and an occasional stutter on certain reflexive adjectives. Ironically enough, the rehabilitation center had only three albums that were played constantly on a battered old boombox in the rec room: The Best of German Sousa Marches, NWA’s A Hundred Miles and Runnin’ EP, and Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves. I actually gained a new appreciation for that overlooked title in Dylan’s discography, which was recorded – perhaps not coincidentally – with his old pals from The Band. I could sense that they were with me, supporting me in my rehabilitation process, so that when I heard Dylan’s off-key warbling on a song like “Dirge” for the thousandth time, it was as if that off-key warbling was giving me strength to continue. I hold no ill will toward The Chin and his minions – this of course I must reiterate for legal purposes after the massively bloody “retaliation” attacks on certain members of that group for which I hold no responsibility.
So: there can really be little question as to my credentials for evaluating the music of Bob Dylan. I own all the albums, many on the original vinyl. Can play all the licks, sing the lyrics, including every verse of “Lily, Rosemary, And Jack Of Hearts.” And I’ve been shot multiple times, nearly assassinated, for publicly performing one of his songs. So I can say unequivocally that this bastardized video of “Like A Rolling Stone” is not a real representation of Bob Dylan’s music. Perhaps this review has veered off into personal reflections but I cannot help but share my personal connections – next week perhaps I’ll offer a story about how I started a brawl at a coffee house open mic night after a particularly spirited acoustic performance of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals.” Now let’s enjoy Bob with his pal George Harrison while we watch that video of the cat and the duckling again.