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20lbs of Headlines

by MARK CARTER

This month there are two main topics as we examine the (mainly American) press reaction to all things Bob Dylan during the months of April and May 2004. These are reviews of Live 1964 and the critical fallout (no pun intended!) afforded the Victoria's Secret jaunt. The latter outweighs the former by probably 75%. Now, this may be that I simply managed to collect more press coverage about the advert than I did for the album, but, whatever, it does tend to reinforce my notion that the press in the good ol' US of A has it's collective head up it's arse and simply cannot tell what's important any more. This should not, I suppose, come as any great surprise - we are, after all, talking about a country that is fast outlawing being able to smoke a cigarette anywhere at all in public - even on the street, for fuck's sake - yet will happily sell a rifle and several tons of ammunition to anyone who has the money to buy it, even if they're ranting and raving, foaming at the mouth and wearing a t-shirt with "KILL!" emblazoned on it. It is, so I understand, every American's right to own as many guns as he or she wishes to but it is not, by all accounts, Bob Dylan's right to do what he wants with his own career. I love America and much of what it produces, and have done so since I first discovered Marvel comics at age 6 or thereabouts, but I understand it less and less and perhaps will continue to do so, at least until it turfs that moron out of the White House and replaces him with someone who can wipe their own bottom without the aid of detailed instructions. 

Anyway, come with me now on this month's journey and you too will perhaps end up thinking that's it's an outrage of cataclysmic proportions  that a 1960s protest singer has agreed to promote ladies frilly undergarments in his old age. 

An unknown columnist for Cleveland's The Plain Dealer gets things off to a great start by describing the ad thus; "...(it) shows Dylan leering while model Adriana Lima cavorts through Venice in spike heels, lingerie and wings...It's seriously creepy." Still, he/she does at least try to see the funny side (something that happened very rarely, I'm afraid); "...the best thing about the ad is that it provides it's own punchline: Bob Dylan is now in women's underwear." Boom boom. 

No less a celebrity than Bob's cousin Steve Zimmerman pitched in with his own comments in his regular "Zimmy Sez" column in the Ashland Daily Tidings. Essentially, despite being bombarded with e-mails from hundreds of people who presumably think that he and Bob are as close as this, he has to admit that he has no idea why Bob agreed to do the advert. He does reveal, however, that Bob's career has at times veered off on strange tangents and he even used to tell little fibs when he was first starting out, claiming, for instance, that he ran away from home thirteen times when, in reality - gasp! - he would have been too frightened to run away anywhere. What a scoop, huh? Anyway, his best guess is that because Bob did a lot of "crazy stuff" in the 1960s and 70s, he now secretly wears Victoria's Secret underwear. "...He is one of those rock stars, after all" Zimmy concludes. I really do hope that blood is thicker than water, otherwise the next Zimmerman family get-together could prove to be interesting. 

Peter Popham, writing for the UK's Independent, decides that there could be two reasons to explain why Bob has decided to delve into women's underwear (if you'll excuse the expression); one could be that he is merely trying to attract new fans and that this is a way of getting his music across to a wider audience, given that he is rarely heard on the radio any more, though Popham evidently hopes that this is not the case ("could the truth about Dylan be that dreary?") and the other is that he has fallen in love with an Italian woman, and this is why he jumped at the chance to film in Venice and why he has also chosen to endorse an Italian wine named Planet Waves ("after one of his lesser albums") which comes from Ancona. Both interesting theories - and I would love the latter to be correct for Bob's sake - but I wouldn't bet on either of them being anywhere near the truth. I should perhaps say here that I have my own theory as to why he did what he did, but this is probably not the place to view it. 

Roger Catlin of The Hartford Courant reports that internet chat groups have been full of cries of "sellout" but that others have expressed an interest in Love Sick - a song they might otherwise never had heard. Fine so far, but then Catlin goes on to quote the "Advertising signs that con" line from It's Alright Ma (by no means the only journalist to do so, you'll be unsurprised to learn) and then suggests that Bob's closest link to Victoria's Secret might be the line from Like A Rolling Stone that goes; "You're invisible now, you've got no secrets to conceal". Oh dear, and he started his article so well, too. 

Not everyone was quite so horrified, however, and a few even found the whole thing highly amusing. The Boston Globe's lead editorial suggested that those people throwing their hands up in abject disgust should lighten up; "...A ladies' underwear ad cannot possibly define this cultural chameleon. And if one looks closely at the well-lined face staring into the camera, there seems to be just the hint of a smirk at the whole silly sell. Dylan's public should share the laugh, and the music, with a satisfied mind." 

Michael Walter of the North Texas Daily was equally puzzled at the mass hysteria; "...I'm laughing and cheering Dylan on. Just what, exactly, is so bad about getting a little exposure and having a good time?" His own theory as to why Dylan inked the contract is that it was, in part at least, one of Dylan's "quirky jokes", and he goes on to quote (as would dozens more, either seriously or ironically) the 1965 San Francisco press conference section where, after being quizzed about what he would sell out to for commercial interest, Dylan responds; "Ladies' garments". One only hopes that Walter was savvy enough to make this connection with his tongue firmly wedged in his cheek. Not everyone who quoted that same press conference would be similarly blessed with common sense. 

Meanwhile, The Slate's Seth Stevenson was having a hard time working out how Victoria's Secret benefitted from the partnership. Dylan, he decides (after quoting the '65 press conference) probably did it for the wider exposure of his music. "But," he asks, "what about Vicky? Why would a brand that's about sexiness, youth and glamour want any connection at all with a decrepit, sixtysomething folksinger?" 

Phil Kloer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution peppers his fairly straight report with a few gags that even Dylan would balk at. Not convinced? Try these; "Hey, Mr.Lingerie Man, play a song for me" (bad) or "At least they didn't have him singing "Everybody must get thonged"." (much, much worse). Suddenly, Bob's legendary onstage jokes begin to sound like Woody Allen in his prime. 

The Houston Chronicle's Clifford Pugh refrained from sharing his personal views with us, though he also inflicts a feeble attempt at humour on us, suggesting that future "grizzled rock star/product pairings" could include Aerosmith's Steve Tyler flogging L'Oreal hair-care products and Neil Young promoting Maybelline. Hilarious. 

It's cards-on-the-table time for Leslie Bennetts of the Los Angeles Times, who headlines her piece "Bob Dylan sullies his legacy with Victoria's Secret ads". So, no prizes for guessing which side of the fence she's standing. Sure enough, beginning with telling us how shocked she was at seeing Bob's "craggy, hawklike face" glaring out of her t.v. screen, she was, within a matter of seconds, horrified to learn that Dylan had agreed to appear in an ad that "looks like a recruiting tool for a paedophilia group". Mmmm, nice turn of phrase, Leslie. But she's not finished yet and proceeds to ram home Dylan's motivations for those of us naive enough to think that he did it for artistic reasons (and if anyone out there does think that; well, your nice rubber room awaits, where you will be able to write letters home with wax crayons and eat with a plastic spoon); "...It's the money, stupid". Furthermore, "...I suppose even Dylan has the right to pad his retirement account, but it's hard to defend his status as an enduring icon of moral outrage and political integrity when he's shilling for bras and panties." And, Bob, in case you're reading this, she has a bit of advice, should you be considering Victoria's Secret 2; "...Nymphets are not lusting after Bob Dylan these days. Even 60-year old grandmothers are not lusting after Bob Dylan these days." Sorry, Bob, but there it is. Finally, Bennetts concludes that loveable Bobby is nothing but a filthy, money-grabbing pervert and is no longer the voice of her generation or the questioning seer for every lost and lonely voice in the whole wide world, and - what's worse - the torch hasn't been passed to a younger generation, either (I hear Courtney Love is looking for a job). As you'll probably have surmised, Bennett's foam-flecked rant makes Bob's 1979/80 onstage sermons sound like lines from old On The Buses scripts. File her under "ex-fan". 

Compared to that tirade, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial was positively tame, merely commenting that "since Mr. Dylan has always tried to undermine any claim that he's a spokesman for his generation, this apparent heresy may be consistent with that. The problem is that you can't tell whether he's mocking commercialism or embracing it." 

One feeble light of sanity amidst a dense fog of crass stupidity shines courtesy of City Page's Jim Walsh, who takes The Star Tribune's gossip columnist C.J. to task for criticising Dylan ("...Bob Dylan in a lingerie commercial is offensive on soooo many levels that it's hard to know where to start"). He accuses her of never writing anything about the arts or music that would offend her readership's "tacit normalcy" and further accuses her of not following up her claim that she was offended by the ad by offering one reason why it offends her. Instead, she merely quotes from Time magazine's earlier barbed comments. Her accusation that the commercial is offensive on so - sorry, soooo- many levels cuts no ice with Walsh, who admits that, "speaking as a great admirer of women, lingerie, newspapers, and Dylan, the only thing I find offensive about any of it is the response typified by C.J. and Time...It's a small thing, but the C.J. item represents the sort of self-censorship and knee-jerk moralising that has smothered this country in the past year." Nobody, he continues at length, knows Dylan's motives, and he suggests that perhaps Bob was delving beneath the surface of something he thought was evil and corrupt in order to better understand it. "Which," Walsh decides, "might be giving Dylan too much credit this time, but how would we know? How would we know if anyone at all was going beneath the surface, conditioned as we are now to stay away from there ourselves? Maybe Dylan deemed it a 60-second wink at "love" as defined by the media. Or maybe he was simply having fun, being a dirty old man, making art."  To my mind, his arguments and defence of Dylan do not really convince, but I applaud his stance - refreshing and solitary as it was - amidst the craziness, poison and sheer madness that went down during April 2004. 

Defence of a weedier kind comes from the editorial page of The Jackson Citizen Patriot, which concedes that, while the ad may be offensive etc. etc. etc. blah blah blah, you at least can't accuse Dylan of getting stuck in a rut; "...There's nothing more dismal than an aging singer stuck in a 40-year time warp. So whatever you think of Dylan and the lingerie, at least he's keeping up with the times. And, yes, they certainly are a-changin'." 

We're back on more familiar vitriolic ground with Bob Garfield's ad review for AdAge.com, which considers the advert to be "one of the most disconcerting matches of celebrity and product in advertising history". His brief description of the plot ("...Dylan saunters into an opulent Venice ballroom making goo-goo eyes at a winged lingerie model") soon gives way to his disgust at what he has witnessed; "...What a disturbing scenario...(Dylan) doesn't look healthy. And no wonder; the man is 173 years old. Whereas the model in the ad seems to be in her upper teens. The exchange of glances, if not actually criminal, is certainly repulsive." So far so bad - and if this is the kind of media attention that some have speculated Dylan at least partly hoped to get out of the deal, then I hope he thinks it was worth it - but there is more to come, as Garfield really lets the bile fly and gets to the nub of why he - and dozens like him - are really upset; "...apart from the grossness, there is the wrongness of it all. Folk rockers who burst into our consciousness singing war protests should not be doing lingerie commercials in the middle of a war. It's discordant, unseemly, a betrayal. Yes, maybe the times are a-changin', but must he throw it in our face like this?" Finally, presumably shaking with so much indignant rage that he can barely put finger to keyboard, Garfield advises anyone still interested that Dylan is not - and never was - a sex symbol, and that Victoria's Secret could have picked a more suitable rock star to peddle their skivvies. Yes, but I hear that Leonard Cohen was busy. 

Phew, how to win friends and influence strangers, hey, Bob? The old cliche that "there's no such thing as bad press" simply isn't true - just ask Pete Townsend a few months ago. Sometimes being (masked and) anonymous is best. 

Aidin Vaziri of SFGate.com announced that Dylan had stolen Janet "whoops, there goes one of my jugs" Jackson's mantle of most controversial pop star on television and had instigated a veritable flood of electronic gnashing and wailing on various Internet chat rooms, while the New York Post had simply labelled him "sellout of the week" (only the week? What about the rest of the month, then?). Creative Director at Victoria's Secret Ed Razek reckons that the decision to use Bob was a "stunningly bold idea" and that his management simply found a hole in his schedule and off they all went to Venice." Dylan was (and probably still is) unavailable for comment - surprise! - but Razek concludes that "I can't speak for his motivation, but it certainly wouldn't be commercial."  Whoosh!! Another pig goes flying over his head. 

Alan of Acme Music Blog has seen the ad and sums up the plot thus; "The effect is that Bob knows that he shouldn't be with the dolly bird, but won't be able to help himself if she's got on that get-up. It's quite sweet". Yes, folks, you read it correctly; and this will probably be the only time you ever see the words "Bob Dylan", "Victoria's Secret" and "quite sweet" together in one paragraph. Alan is, however, less impressed with the tie-in CD, the track list of which he considers to be "successfully soppy and romantic". Probably this is because ladies don't want to be trying on their recently-puchased lace bras and thongs to Idiot Wind or that evergreen party favourite Death Is Not The End. 

The IrelandOn-Line website refrained from comment and instead quoted New York DJ Dennis Elsas; "I would be hesitant to say it's awful or wonderful. It's just strange." 

Meanwhile, over at the Common Dreams News Center, Thomas G. Palaima sprang to Bob's defence, beginning by addressing Leslie Bennetts' earlier tirade, in which he suggests that her and her daughter's image of Bob Dylan that has now been marred for eternity is a "false, nostalgic one". Their Bob Dylan, he proposes, only existed between 1962 and 1964 and, by 1965, he had already been accused of "selling out" at least a couple of times; "...it is a Dylan who has only been seen in rare flashes on his next 40 albums from Highway 61 onward". What Dylan is doing now, he reckons, is what he's done for most of his career; exactly what he wants, and, anyway, companies like Victoria's Secret use young women in underwear to sell their wares because many men and women find that attractive (I would also like to add - if I may be so bold - that they use women in underwear because they're actually selling womens underwear. An excuse that, say, KP Peanuts could not use in all honesty, yet images of young women in wet t-shirts still adorn their display cards behind many pub bars). Furthermore, according to Palaima, "this is why Hollywood uses starlets in it's films and why Leslie Bennetts' own Vanity Fair magazine for May 2004 runs ads for Yves St. Laurent's Opium perfume and Guess clothing featuring beautiful semi-nude models."  Good point, Mr. Palaima. It is, as Alan Partridge would say, a hot potato - Leslie Bennetts, catch!  Finally, Palaima informs us that a 20-something student of his found the ad weird, but her and her boyfriend listened to the promo CD and found the music "beautiful, sad and depressing". At least two more young people have been exposed to his music who might never have done so if not for all this fuss. Is that not a good thing? 

Finally, before we leave all of this behind (for a while, at least), let's have a look at a token press cutting from Germany, in which Heinrich Detering of the Frankfurter Allgemeine reveals that he doesn't know why Dylan took part in the ad ("...the answer is blowin' in the wind" - good one, accept the Corny Old Hack of the Month award, Mr. Detering) but that he is still shocked. Then again, I can't fathom out why he should be shocked because, as he reminds us; "it's well known that betrayal is one of his trademarks" (what like the big nose and the croaky voice, you mean?) and that "the trickster and romantic of rock 'n' roll declared ironic self-denial as his principle when he was called "Judas" for the first time."  Still, you have to laugh, hey? 

Wowee! After all of that I suppose a few reviews of Live 1964 seems a little bit tame and - dare I say it? - dull, but, in the great scheme of things, the 40-years-in-the-making latest volume of The Bootleg Series will probably be of greater importance once the history books are all written up than Bob's dalliance with lingerie chic. 

Mojo's Chris Nelson awarded it four stars and enjoyed it so much because this concert would be one of the last chances for anyone to hear Bob Dylan as troubadour and folkie, merely playing music and having fun - before too much longer the defences would begin to go up; "...unlike it's series companions, Live 1964 shows us Bob Dylan before he became God Dylan, 20th century Shakespeare, and therein lies much of the set's allure...Live 1964 is not an exclamation point in Dylan's story...(it is) Dylan on the cusp. It's the wave moving below the surface of the ocean, shifting our boats unexpectedly, gathering force before it finally breaks the plane of water and comes crashing down." 

The Japan Times' Philip Brasor also enjoyed it, claiming that Dylan was an entertainer back then - and still is - as well as a seasoned road warrior; "...people still seem amazed that more than four decades into his career, Dylan plays 100 or more shows a year, but they shouldn't be. The Neverending Tour started here."

Edna Gundersen of USA Today unsurprisingly gave it the maximum four stars and calls Dylan's delivery "sublime...(revealing) a gift for sly showmanship". 

Peter Felkel of Germany's Musikexpress went two better and lavished upon it the maximum six stars (yes - count 'em! Six!). He reckons that Dylan's future began right there at that concert and that "on the next corner rock 'n' roll is waiting - with one hand waving free." 

Still, as usual, a fly was waiting in the ointment, this one by the name of Clinton Heylin, who reckons that the Bootleg Series is actually doing Dylan a disservice. "I've never rated (the Halloween show) as a performance," he pouts, "...It's not a good performance. He's clearly stoned...The concert was a real landmark, not in the positive sense, but in the negative sense because it looked at the time like Dylan was going off the rails."  Besides, whilst Steve Berkowitz, an A&R head at Sony music who has worked on every volume of The Bootleg Series so far, reckons you have to balance the archival nature of whatever show is released with the reality that you want it to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, Heylin maintains that you cannot market decades-old concert/studio material at both collectors and casual punters. In the end, he suggests, everyone loses out, and he cites the release of The Beatles Anthology series as a good example; where each camp felt conned - the collectors because the outtakes had been cleaned up and polished too brightly, the casual fans because it wasn't a "proper" Beatles record - and each volume sold considerably less than the one before. And, he informs us, the Halloween concert bootlegs sound just as good as Sony's release - it is only an acoustic show, after all. Steve Berkowitz has never heard of Clinton Heylin. 

Onto a few Masked And Anonymous items now, as the movie received it's belated UK DVD release during May and finally gave us Brits the chance to watch it without a timing strip across the screen. Uncut featured a nice piece on it, plus an interview with Larry Charles, courtesy of Damien Love. Much of what Charles has to say will be familiar to us fanzine readers and, indeed, he covers similar territory on the Director's commentary, but he does confirm that the film is very autobiographical for Bob, even down to Jeff Bridges dressing firstly as Bob circa 1990 onwards and then later as Bob circa 1965 ("down to the shoes" he emphasises"). "In some sense," he continues, "everybody is a reflection of Bob...Bob is constantly competing with the younger versions of himself. That, I think, is one of his big issues with the media, not accepting him for what he is, whatever that might be. He's constantly fighting his own past. He can't really enjoy his own music, in a sense. He has to keep moving forward..."Don't look back" becomes a theme. Of this film, and his life." 

Another nice essay appeared in the Bright Lights Film Journal byAlan Jacobson, who seems to have enjoyed the movie more than most. He concentrates on the Desolation Row type carnival atmosphere that pervades the whole film, and is on the whole impressed with the images, characters and messages that it delivers; "...The world of Masked And Anonymous is an altogether disconcerting carnival parallel to the one the plot becomes. The colours are garish. The lighting burns. The camera tilts and sways drunkenly. Jump cuts describe how most words of certain people are wasted." Ultimately, Jacobson views the movie as one that does not provide any answers (to my mind - and this is not a criticism - it is a film with a very definate beginning, middle and end. Though not necessarily in that order) and suggests that perhaps there are not supposed to be any, or, if there are, only Dylan knows and he ain't telling; "...The credits roll to Blowin' In The Wind and in the transformative hands of Masked And Anonymous, the answer is no longer in the eyes of some greater force as the song originally seemed to suggest, but appropriated by Larry Charles, completely subjective, potentially very frightening, and possibly nonexistent." This is an important article on a criminally misunderstood and ignored movie. You could do worse than skip the reams and reams of underwear blather and search this out instead. 

The Unplugged video finally received it's DVD debut during May, complete with no extra songs and no extra extras. All in all, not exactly good value for money. In fact, a shoddy and lazy rip-off might be a fair description. For all that, Uncut gave it a four-star review, neatly summing it up as a project that catches Bob "midway between the raw-boned graverobbing of World Gone Wrong and Time Out Of Mind's reurrection shuffle" and concludes that it is "not the stuff of legend, but not to be sniffed at."  Fair comment, I suppose. 

Meanwhile, Nick Fauchald of Wine Spectator was detailing Bob's latest artistic collaboration, this time with Italian wine maker Antonio Terni. Terni, a life-long Dylan fan, has produced about 415 cases of Planet Waves 2002, a blend of 75% Montepulciano and 25% Merlot, with Dylan's blessing and signature on the label. The wine, insists Terni, reflects the two sides of Dylan's personality; "It's severe and unpredictable like Montepulciano, and soft and friendly like Merlot." It seems that the partnership began when Dylan visited Milan in 2003 and Terni gave a few bottles of a wine he had produced some time earlier named Visions Of Johanna to Bob's drummer with a note enquiring whether Dylan would be interested in a joint venture. "Dylan tried it backstage and liked it," Terni reveals, "and his manager wanted to know more about my wine." The result was Planet Waves; a trial joint venture, in which Dylan's only payment for his endorsment will be a few hundred bottles. The price tag per bottle will be $65, which makes it a tad more expensive than Blue Nun, and, if it's a success then the pair will continue their partnership. What Terni fails to realise is that most of the wine will be bought by Dylan collectors who will never uncork it and drink it, so he could have just filled up all of the bottles with tap water. 

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - this month, there is the small matter of a brand new interview with Dylan, conducted in Amsterdam last November by Robert Hilburn for the Los Angeles Times' Calendar magazine. As part of a "Songwriters" series of interviews, you're not going to find out here what Bob thinks of George W Bush or, indeed, the fact that you can buy a gun in K-Mart but not smoke on the street, but you will learn a little about the process of how Bob writes a song. He talks at length about his influences and, away from the usual Woody Guthrie references, this is quite interesting in itself; "...There are so many ways you can go at something in a song. One thing is to give life to inanimate objects. Johnny Cash is good at that. He's got the line that goes; 'A freighter said, "She's been here, but she's gone, boy, she's gone".' That's great. 'A freighter says; "She's been here".' That's high art. If you do that once in a song, you usually turn it on it's head right then and there." 

As to how he forms his own songs, Dylan says that the germ of an idea can come from anywhere - an overheard conversation, a snatch of music - and then it will roll around his head, slowly growing, so much so that he can be talking to somebody and not actually listening to them, but to the song itself; "...I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate...I'll be playing Bob Nolan's Tumbling Tumbleweeds, for instance, in my head constantly - while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever...At a certain point, some of the words will change and I'll start writing a song." And that's how he's always done it; "I wrote Blowin' In The Wind in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from old Carter Family record. That's the folk music tradition. You use what's been handed down. The Times They Are A-Changin' is probably from an old Scottish folk song."  And Subterranean Homesick Blues? enquires Hilburn. "It's from Chuck Berry, a bit of Too Much Monkey Business and some of the scat songs of the '40s." 

This is probably the only really essential item I've discussed in this whole piece and, I guess, if you're reading this then you've probably already read that, too. If not, locate it immediately. That Victoria's Secret catalogue you've just ordered ("it's for my wife. Honest.") will just have to wait. 

THANKS TO; JENS WINTER AND EXPECTING RAIN (EVERYONE USED TO TELL ME THAT IT WAS A WONDERFULLY USEFUL WEBSITE - IT'S ONLY TAKEN ME FIVE OR SIX YEARS TO FIND OUT FOR MYSELF!!)

 
 
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