Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Forty Miles of Bad Road: Bob Dylan’s Chrysler Ad

            (I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Sometimes I like to wait for all the initial reactions to a new Dylan story to die down. Usually time offers a clearer perspective. I haven’t seen any blogs accusing Dylan of being a “fascist” lately, so hopefully the stupidity has ebbed.)

The few of you who have read this blog in the past might notice I have been long absent. Last time around I wrote about my trip to Minnesota in July to see Bob Dylan in his home town, Duluth, and in mine, St. Paul. I’m a public school teacher so in the summer I have time to make trips like that, and write about them. This time of year, not so much, although I have just made plans to go to Hawaii (!!!) at the end of April for two more shows of the Someday-It-Actually-Will-End-Tour.
            In the meantime, I was happy to get a glimpse of the man during a timeout while my Seahawks were busily thrashing the Broncos in the huge spectacle sporting event of the year. So I was already in a good mood when I got to hear that voice I love. We don’t usually do sports championships here in Seattle, but this team was the real thing from the get-go. These Hawks had the power and the confidence and skill that went some distance toward healing decades of Seattle sports pain.
            I shushed the teenagers and we all listened in. Oh man. Bob said more in two minutes than he’s said from the stage in the last two years. My seventeen year old boy’s only reaction was “that was a really long commercial.”  I was still turning over the images of middle America in my head when Joe Buck came back on screen and tried to make the blowout football game more interesting to middle America. I was thinking about Dylan saying, “we believe in the zoom and the roar and the thrust.” It seemed to capture perfectly my adrenaline filled, Seahawks pumped, American moment. Never mind that the car I just bought was made in Austria; I immediately wanted to drive out on some back road that doesn’t even exist around here on Seattle’s traffic choked streets, that hasn’t existed since 1953, and take it up to ninety.
            That’s what Bob makes me think I can do. Time travel. Limitless possibilities. One hand waving free. That’s what I’m inspired to imagine. Now I might have it a little backwards, because I was drinking a delicious locally made American beer and I am quite happy with my sporty little Austrian car, but frankly I don’t think it matters one bit. I don’t think Bob is quite as literal about his American products as some might have you believe.  I hear some Michigan brewers are upset because Dylan said “Let Germany brew your beer.” Come on. It’s just a verbal device to set up a great line, that Dylan, an American worker himself, a maker of songs, says in stutter speak: “WE will build your cars.” To me, that line promises a mythic America, where there are plenty of good jobs making real things that earn a real wage and real respect. But did it ever really exist? Is Bob Dylan ever describing a reality that exists outside the story-time? Even the when Motor City was thriving, when it was also Motown, I bet it was also a racist, sexist, desperate place for many people. Parts of that American dream existed and parts still exist. But whether it’s cars or beer or another craft, it’s what you build in your own head that counts. Some people see that ad, and all they see is the darkness. Yes, it’s there, of course it is. God knows Dylan has explored that side of things plenty in his tunes, even about the fall of the auto industry.  “I was up on Black Mountain the day Detroit fell. They killed them all off and they sent them to hell.” But for some reason then they pin that darkness on Dylan, when all he is doing here is talking decent work, open roads and imagination. And earning a check. Why would anyone take the ad so literally, that Dylan wants you to buy a certain car?
Honestly, let’s just pretend the ad was for some Michigan microbrew and Bob was standing in their facility next to a big vat of mash. He’s surrounded by dedicated and happy American brewery workers and he says, “Let Austria build your cars. WE will brew your beer.” Just as moving for me personally and it could have happened.  
            Maybe I am being a little funny, but I am not joking. I was thrilled to see Bob selling Chryslers and I was thrilled to see him selling ladies undergarments and I would be pretty darn happy to see him selling beer. Not everyday of course, but on special occasions. I have always been happy to see him: on my little black and white TV in “Hard Rain” in 1976, in the rare commercial, or in the parking lot outside the Moore theater here in Seattle a few years ago getting into a SUV (not sure, but I think it was an American model) and most especially on a stage singing the tune they used in that particular ad: “Things Have Changed.” That one always rocks and it is a consistent acknowledgment in this particular age of Bob that it’s all a dream. That you can be sincere as you like that you love your mother and half the people will swear you hate her. The images are not to be taken literally as a political statement. They do not exist in your political world.
            I doubt Dylan cares exactly what the product is, as long as it’s decent. I’m sure he’s intrigued by quality lingerie and cars and yogurt. Why not? One thing he  seems to be doing in that commercial is offering Americans another reflection. What do you see? What do you see, during the Super Bowl — the ultimate American entertainment/recreational event of the year — when Bob Dylan try to sells you a car? When he talks about the originality and vigor of Americans? A lot of people that I’ve been reading on the internet see something busted, something corrupt, something old, something laughable, something just a little bit sick. I’m not sure why. It’s not what not Dylan is talking about. He is talking some mythic America, again. How does a car ad indict the singer as a hypocrite? What does Dylan betray by this vision? Why is he Judas again, because he like cars and American iconography? Again, I think these critics are seeing something in themselves and in their country, perhaps something valid, but it’s not Dylan’s fault.
            It’s interesting how some folks are finding such disturbing images in the Chrysler commercial. I saw a cowboy and a weathered man in a diner. I saw a woman laughing in a moving car and man playing pool and some folks on assembly lines. Of course none of these symbols are very original or cutting edge. Some people say they are “banal.” Some people must be so hip that any image of regular American shit must be “banal.” It must be a burden to be so hip. It was only an advertisement, but I liked the pictures. What pulled them together was Dylan describing an idea of the America he loves, the America of the people he grew up among on the iron range in his home state, my home state. Here is Bob talking to us, one of the largest television crowds in history, about the basic decency of working people and the heart that they put into their work. He extols the automobile and its historical significance to that worker, and its current significance in that same Midwestern heartland he grew up in. He never mentions Chrysler by name. It seems to be at least in part an ad for the integrity of a laborer, and for the necessity of supporting those labors. But I think Dylan trusts that any thoughtful, feeling listener knows that history is more complicated and terrible than any single romantic image. It was in Duluth, Dylan’s place of birth, that the postcards of the hanging were sold. Home, in a Bob Dylan song, is not the America of the cynics and literalists. It is a far more mysterious place, an older place, a place of the imagination.  What’s more American than America is a complex question, involving brotherhood and slavery both.  
            The scenes in Bob Dylan’s Chrysler commercial are similar to the pictures that Dylan has been singing about for fifty years, realities that live in libraries and forgotten manuscripts and folk songs, even if they no longer exist on our streets. “Things Have Changed,” the signature song of latter day Dylan, plays in the background, because Dylan is aware that the America he extols no longer exists except in the sacred space of his childhood. It only lives where he hears the whistle of that Duquesne train. According to one commentator on the internet, these ideas are “protectionist.” Another says the entertainer is selling cars with images of “exceptional” America. Those politics have nothing to do with the songwriter. These people accuse Bob of being the cynic, but they only projecting their own callousness. On the ground level, Dylan is sometimes as straightforward as it comes, as direct as his Christian gospel: I Believe in You. In one vital sense, you CAN take him at his word: this ad contains a sincere concern about the value and integrity of the American worker. And what is more American than advertising, anyway?
But Dylan questions our ideas of time itself, and whether an individual life should be viewed in the context of a single historical period only, or in the more limitless world of the imagination and folk story. We know he steals sometimes, from the past and distant lands, and he makes you doubt his own authorship. He makes us doubt our own authorship of anything. What new art do we really create in this age? He makes you know you don’t know who he is.  He might be someone else. At some point we all will change into someone else.
Have the critics ever listened to “Cross the Green Mountain,” Dylan’s civil war dirge? Pretty much everything you ever want to know about America is in that song. I remember saying the same thing once about “Desolation Row,” but that’s true as well. How dare these two-bit writers tell Dylan that a simple tribute to his country is banal when his entire body of work has shown the complexities of his nation? If folks are going to cry sell-out again, we better go a few songs deeper than “The Times They are a Changing.” In Dylan’s music, the times have changed so much that time itself is often moving backwards.
In “Cross the Green Mountain,” a soldier, a lone survivor of a terrible battle, stands on the “dim Atlantic line,” watching the enemy advance upon his position, contemplating his coming death. We don’t know if he is Union or Confederate. He sees the soldiers across the ridge not as enemies but as brothers in arms. All are pawns in the game. As the “foe crosses over from the other side,”  they “tip their caps.”

“I dreamt a monstrous dream. Something rose up out of the sea. Swept through the land of the rich and the free.”

“Pride will vanish and glory will rot, but virtue lives, cannot be forgot.”

Dylan’s  vision of America cannot be sold out.  A Bob Dylan song may take a point of view, it may even articulate that point of view better than anyone else has done, it may be sincere, but we make a mistake to raise it up the flagpole. It is a dream and everyone is fallible, including the singer. From “Rolling Stone” to “Idiot Wind,” the finger points not at the other, but at the human heart. The enemy is within.

“The bells of evening have rung, there’s blasphemy on every tongue.”

“You’re walking in dreams, whoever you are.”

I’m dreaming about Maui in late April. Time travel. Limitless possibilities. One hand waving free.