Mr. J. H. Kunstler, of the Peak Oil theory fame, reviewed Bob Dylan’s first volume of memoirs some time ago. Dylan fans (of whom I doubt this website has in abundance) will find in it some insight and interest, though I only link to it reluctantly — not least because of Kunstler’s penchant for profanity. If you don’t know or like Dylan, or are repelled by the deliberate if rare use of oaths or vulgarity in critical writing, the essay will probably just fatigue you: so I’ll offer just a couple points for your notice.
(a) Kunstler concludes with a statement that I endorse, with two caveats: “The great records of the great years endure. The body of Dylan’s songwriting work is every bit as formidable as the novels of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have no doubt that Dylan will go down as the most important artist of my generation.” Now the natural reaction to a statement like that about the Sixties generation is a terse “that aint saying much, brother,” muttered under the breath. That is my first caveat. The second is, of course, that Dylan is not “of my generation” but the preceding one. Nevertheless, Dylan stature is assured, in my view. Whether the genre of rock n’ rock, which he pioneered, mastered, expanded, and bewildered, will secure a similar stature in the tableau of human art, is another question altogether: one of which I must confess my own agnosticism.
Now Kunstler, while clearly a connoisseur of exaggerated polemic (take a gander at his primary blog, the title of which I will not reproduce here, if you doubt that), is not a writer particularly given to exaggerated encomia.
(b) Kunstler confirms what was only a rumor to me before: that Dylan records in this volume of memoirs that his favorite politician in the Sixties was Barry Goldwater. Let that sink in.
It is hardly a revelation to learn that Dylan has gamely rebuffed all attempts to award him the title Spokesman of a Generation; or that he has generally resisted granting his “protest” songs over to Leftist iconography. But it does come with some surprise to discover that his actual political tendencies in the 1960s were toward a politician like Goldwater. Kunstler does not neglect to emphasize his astonishment, and he is plainly a man of the Left.
(c) With all this is mind, I am prepared to offer a qualified Conservative endorsement of Dylan:
Given that the counterculture of the Sixties, which tried to set up Dylan as its spokesman or poet-laureate, has conquered and is even now solidifying its preeminence in our society, there is a special and marvelous irony to note.
All the sneering revolt that churns through the great anthems of Dylan’s best work, “Like a Rolling Stone” being perhaps the most well-known exemplar; all the defiance, the fury of impudence; all the challenge thrown vaguely at some contemptible oppressor —
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.
How does it feel?
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
— all this may be justly hurled with equal passion against the generation, now leading our country toward ruin, which wanted it as its slogan, and which unjustly hurled it against the basically sound social order preceding it.
And Bob Dylan himself may have even meant it that way.