Have you seen Integrity?

Visions of Victoria, Jokerman and Eyes of the Idol

by Trev Gibb

I thought I’d start my first piece for Freewheelin’ Magazine with an air of controversy, and I guess I’ve learned from the best – Bob Dylan. 

Originally my first piece was going to be about Freddy Koella and his effects on Dylan’s current touring band, however, in recent days I have been drawn into rather heated discussions on various Dylan forums regarding Bob’s appearance on the Victoria’s Secret’s commercial and a possible forthcoming appearance on looking-for-a-talentless-popstar-to-exploit-in-the-shortterm-for-corporate-financial-gain, reality TV show American Idol. Although the latter may turn out to be nothing more than the dust of rumour, the whole idea of ‘our hero’ appearing on such a show has caused quite a stir among his fans, something I’m sure Dylan finds hilarious. In this piece I intend to explore the whole issue ‘in character’, and that is, in the character of someone defending Dylan’s supposed decision to appear. Basically I don’t really want you to know what I think, because no doubt it would result in unpleasant backlash, however that aside, tongue remains firmly in cheek and I’m sure people will work out for themselves what I really think on the matter. 

My first reaction to Dylan’s appearance on American Idol, I guess was like everyone else’s: “Bob what the hell are you doing?” However, I began to sit back and try to think of a rational reason why Bob Dylan of all people – the least person you’d ever expect to do this – would even consider agreeing. Part of the answer is perhaps in the question itself. Bob Dylan knows the controversy it would cause and no doubt that was part of the attraction and after his appearance in Victoria’s Secret’s which stirred up enough peoples tempers I’m not at all surprised. Ok, so what’s Dylan’s main reason for pursuing such an appearance? The absurdity of the whole thing basically. 

For me – if this appears to be true – it is Dylan heading into the extremes of irony and him being completely post-modern. What I’m essentially trying to convey in calling it post-modern is the idea of pastiche and of an alignment of absurd and perhaps contradictory notions, ideas and themes. Dylan has been exploring this vaguely for most of his recording career. However, “Love And Theft” is one such recent and successful example, as are both his film masked and anonymous and his appearance in Victoria's Secret. They’re bold and contradictory and at the same time, in their own way, quite wonderful. We see a man who stands for, signifies and symbolises so much, appearing in what would appear to be the anti-thesis of who he is and what he stands for, and the reason he is doing this is to create this tension and this contradiction... this irony. Dylan has always been attracted to, and even used aspects of, the carnivalesque in his songs throughout his career and to me this is him further exploring that notion, that chaos and that absurdity in current culture and society. 

In a sense, Dylan’s most recent creative efforts fall in line with his appearances on Victoria’s Secret and American Idol, they’re all interlinked, and as I’ve said, it’s Dylan being ironic and post-modern. For me that is the defence of his actions, because if he were Paul McCartney or Sting or even Craig David then we would come to expect it and we would be fully aware that there would be a catch or an ulterior motive. A vain and egotistical one, such as, “I have a new record out, buy it!” or “I’m cool really, because I appeared on American Idol and I’m buddies with Simon Cowell”. With Dylan this is certainly not the case, he has no other motivation to do this other than to be absurd, he doesn’t need the publicity, he doesn’t need the money, Dylan is in many ways so impenetrable that such an appearance will only further assert this notion. 

Another reported appearance as guest judge on American Idol is – surprise, surprise - Paul McCartney, and in one sense there’s no shock in someone such as him appearing on such a show. This is something I would expect from McCartney and therefore there is no real surprise or uproar concerning his appearance. Whereas with Dylan - and considering his track record - this gives much fuel to the fire currently burning around his artistic and personal integrity. However, the simple fact that one would expect it from McCartney should be enough to dispel all this controversy surrounding Dylan. Dylan is probably only agreeing with this because he knows that, a). it isn’t expected of him and b). people would be in uproar. It’s absurd and completely contrary to what one would expect of Dylan and essentially that’s why I believe he’s considering it. 

Many who read this defence may be asking themselves, “Trev, this is Dylan selling out big time, what the hell are you thinking?!?” 

Well I’m thinking: I like Bob Dylan's words, his music, and all the things he's done and continues to do, however perverse they may be. In fact I love them. Jack Nicholson called Dylan “a disturber of the peace” and he was right and we as fans are well aware of how perverse Dylan can be. I find his actions and his character bizarre as I’m sure many do, but this is part of my attraction to him. If he wishes to appear in a lingerie ad, or on American Idol or whatever it may be, I personally don’t give a damn and I’m not going start looking at this as hypocritical or trying to hold him up for judgement. Dylan is an intelligent man, I’m sure he knows exactly what he’s doing and I’m convinced he’s loving the controversy it’s causing. In the end he’s still going to be an enigma, because he never comes at anything straight – this recent occurrence being a perfect example. Bob Dylan can do whatever he likes in my opinion and if he were answerable to me or his fans then where would he be today? He most certainly wouldn’t have achieved as much as he has. Dylan isn’t out to please people, he never cared about that. As fans we have to get over the fact that at times he will disappoint us and we must deal with that. I really believe Dylan understands the absurdity of what this means to many of his fans, the thing is, as fans we appear not to be in on the joke. 

His appearance will be bizarre, strange and unnerving to see, it will create fanatic reactions from press and fans alike and what more does Bob Dylan like to do than stir things? Bob has always been a put-on artist... Bob Dylan has almost consistently wrote some of the greatest music of our times, he has consistently been subversive, he is certainly not a publicly popular artist in the sense that a lot of others are, but publicly popular and culturally important are slightly different and appearing on American Idol or whatever else wont necessarily change that. I think Dylan transcends that. His contribution to our times is without doubt immeasurably important and people are either going to like his music or not and appearing on American Idol or Victoria’s Secret isn’t going to alter that. I hope, yet feel somehow that in Bob appearing on American Idol, he will turn the whole reality TV mould on its head and add his own subversive touch to it. People only see what they want to see and if they see this or the Victoria’s Secret’s commercial as selling out then that’s their decision, but if we’re going to look at the term ‘selling-out’ then you can align that with a certain type of person also. There are certain people who are natural “sell-out’s” because they are ego driven creatures who follow fashion trends, and commercial interests. Dylan is not naturally one of those people, he has never followed, and these two recent occurrences are not examples of Dylan following any sort of trend or fad, the trend and fad that American Idol and Victoria’s Secret’s represent are no longer new or even necessarily ‘in’, although they will continue until their appeal burns out. They are not examples of Dylan propping up his ego and trying to look cool, as far as I’m concerned they are examples of Dylan thinking, “wait how weird would it be if I appeared on these shows, it would be totally insane, Ok I’ll do it and see what happens”. He’s not thinking, “hmm yeah well I’ve got that duet with Sting coming up and that J-Lo photo shoot, this will do wonders for my reputation and my coolness”. If we think Dylan cares about these things then we truly don’t understand him, if we think he is truly selling out or losing his integrity in appearing on American Idol, then maybe we’ve never really understood what Dylan is about.

We have Masked And Anonymous as an example of his world view and so in many ways we know how he truly feels, as opposed to the insane things he does for effect. This whole reality TV fad has been over-exploited and is on a slow burn-out right now as far as I’m concerned, its not the huge thing it was a few years back and that’s why it makes more sense for Bob to climb aboard now, He’s going to either help sink it or give it some sort of substance, I’m convinced of that much.

Larry Charles, the director of Masked And Anonymous, has said that Bob likes "to twist things" to bend them and to disfigure them, putting opposing notions together and seeing how it works. To quote Larry Charles in full:

Sometimes Bob would come in with a line and say do you think we should use that and I’d go, “You crazy!!?? It’s such an amazing line, you just changed my life with that line”, you know. But Bob is very irreverent in relation to his own work and he’s very willing to… he doesn’t like it to be pretty, he likes to twist it and push it and make it sound wrong, you know, ‘Only time will tell who has fell and who’s been left behind’. He really likes to sort of flirt with the wrongness of it, to see what might be elicited by that and with a lot of these lines he would play with them and where I might be really satisfied with the pretty version of it, he would want to push further and deeper and see if we can kind of twist it around somehow. It was a fascinating process to go through.’ 

Dylan himself said “What's wrong with being misunderstood”. And as can be seen above, Dylan often distances himself from the things he creates and the things he says and I believe he can distance himself from something he actually physically does, such as these appearances in lingerie ad’s and on pop-music contests. Dylan is constantly playing around with absurdity, yet he is also constantly distancing himself from such associations.

Dylan has read all the great poets, he’s read all the great philosophers, all the great books, and there is no doubt he has insight into the perversity of life. Dylan has quoted poets and philosophers throughout his career, even recently quoting Yeats’ The Second Coming, if even briefly, in Masked And Anonymous

A selection from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Dylan understands the above quotation and what it represents, he understands the cycles of history, and I forget where but I’m sure in one of his many interviews he’s spoken about it. He knows the hopelessness of humanity and absurdity of our repeated actions, and he as with us all is contributing to aiding and abating this massiveness that we live within. He understands that we are in this whirlpool of insanity and that within this chaos and within these contradictions and paradoxes that surround us we’re trying to create art, trying to express and within this contradiction Dylan is trying to make a statement too, he is trying to create art and on one level that’s what he’s doing with Victoria’s Secret or American Idol, he’s doing something which is expressive, that has a uniqueness to it, a strangeness, something different, something profound… 

The press tried to nail him over Confessions of a Yakuza and over many other things, but they had nothing on him, they cannot box him in, he’s too ambiguous a person and this current controversy is further example of that. American Idol or not, people will still have nothing on him, he’s 3 hours and 50 years ahead of the rest of us. The mere idea of Dylan appearing on American Idol is enough to turn such a TV show on its head and bury it up its own ass. The force of Dylan in my mind will override the commercial, short-term-exploitative-profit-making, egotistical, market-strategy, formulaic bullshit that is American Idol. Dylan understands the absurdity of our current culture and he most certainly isn’t being sucked into the worm-hole, he’s putting a spanner in the works. Dylan will make something of substance from this mess, I truly believe it. We know he has integrity, remember when he walked out on Ed Sullivan? An immensely important show at that time which potentially could’ve helped his music reach millions. Dylan could walk out on American Idol too, but I don’t think he needs to. His mere appearance on the show is enough to really subvert the mould of reality TV and what it represents. This is a game to Dylan and I’m convinced he will do something to subvert the whole fakery of what shows like this represent. In fact on the other hand he may even bring a bit of insight and actually attract real talent to come on the show. 

I know many will continue to disagree over Dylan appearing on American Idol, However it sure as hell will be interesting to see what stunts Mr Dylan will pull if he’s actually confirmed as a guest judge. 

Some wise words from Mr Dylan:

It will destroy your family, your happy home is gone
No one can protect you from it once you turn it on.
It will scramble up your head and drag your brain about,
Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out.

‘TV Talkin’ Song’, Under The Red Sky (1990) 

And yes, you could do like Elvis did, or alternatively just get Bob Dylan to appear on a TV Show near you and that might solve everything.