Peter Hitchens has been slagging off Bob Dylan, here.
I felt moved to reply:
I note that Hitchens makes no mention of Dylan’s Damascene conversion to Old Time Religion (something, along with a mid-60s motorcycle crash, they both have in common). It isn’t mentioned because it doesn’t sit well with Hitchens’ thesis that Dylan is some kind of lefty. Well, of course he isn’t and I don’t think he ever was particularly. Joan Baez noted that she could rarely get him involved with her political campaigns. Dylan’s soul and imagination were matters of first importance to him, rather than fighting international capital and the Patriarchy.
I would love to have a recording of Noel Coward singing Subterranean Homesick Blues; but I would ALSO love to have a recording of Dylan singing Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Both would be good records that showed off each artist’s talents.
Peter Hitchens, like his vastly more intellectually capable fellow conservative Roger Scruton, is at his very weakest when dealing with rock and roll. Both men obviously have a vestigial regard for the music of their youth (Scruton admits to a great liking for Jailhouse Rock and Hitchens admits he can’t get Tambourine Man out of his mind) but it appears to clash with so much they have settled on believing in middle age (though Scruton’s conservatism started at school with a war on kitsch) that they snatch at weak arguments to invalidate it, even when the ordinary people they purport to speak for absolutely love it.
Vast stretches of Dylan’s work are lazy and rather rubbishy; he is also hellishly overrated. But in answer to ‘is any of it any good’: yes: the good sections are very good indeed, and this is why it lives on; it is memorable, musical and it touches people somewhere deep.
Had George Orwell lived on another twenty years I feel he might have written a rather good essay on the Dylan phenomenon. Starting from the default Orwell position of refusing to be impressed by what the ‘fruit-juice drinkers’ were raving about, I feel he might well have concluded that though a fair bit was pretentious humbug with a bit of canting, there was also a lot that retained what he would probably have called ‘a queer power to move’. Orwell would also have noted that something unusually complex and literary had proved so popular and commanded so much public interest. Hitchens laughs at Shelter From the Storm but lyrically it could almost be one of Kipling’s more eccentric works. Shelter from the Storm does nothing for me, but you can’t help thinking Hitchens’ laughter at it is the slightly hollow, trying-to-convince-oneself-it-is-rubbish laughter that must have rung through suburbia in the 60s.
The electric guitar changed the world, possibly not for the better but it changed it. As an instrument it can have an elemental power, despite sounding, as Scruton notes, like a machine singing, if a machine could sing. Dylan at his best has that power, as do other rock and roll acts, and this is why conservatives don’t like it. It cannot be dismissed as easily as television or drugs and the best of it – and I feel the best of it is now long behind us – was out of official control and conservatives, like socialists, have a secret horror of anything out of official control. It is one of the hidden contradictions of conservatism that they like liberty until it offends them. I dare say Mill has all this covered enough to satisfy Hitchens, but he really ought to ask himself WHY people find more solace in this stuff than in the Book of Common Prayer or Wagner. Benedict XVI recently lamented young people’s interest in rock and roll it but admitted they got something spiritual from it – he just wanted them getting their spiritual jollies from his organisation.
As for self-pity, what’s wrong with a little self-pity? I think it’s been the subject and motivation of some major art and furthermore I fully expect a scientific study to prove that a moderate amount of self-pity each month reduces one’s risk of heart disease, stroke and suicide by ten per cent – oily fish for the soul.
Hitchens seems a hair’s breadth away from yelling ‘DEVIL’S MUSIC’ at the top of his voice, like some Alabaman church worthy in 1955 – or maybe yet another conversion is on its way – to one of the more prominent eastern religions…?
The charge that Dylan has never grown up is also pretty silly: Hitchens should study Dylan’s last few albums, which have been refreshingly mature, lyrically and musically. What Hitchens is doing is a cheap bit of op-ed – use Dylan’s new album as a way of playing a well-worn rhetorical record one more time: 60s people never grew up. (Most people don’t grow up now because they literally cannot afford to – I would like to hear more from Hitchens on this subject)
I think Dylan will still be played in 100 years time. Of course, England then will be an Islamo-Rainbow-Pluralist state with climate change and nuclear fall-out problems, so Shelter from the Storm will be quite apposite for those times. I feel confident Dylan will outlast Hitchens – as he has outlasted Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse and Gerald Nabarro.