Author's Note: This will almost certainly be the most controversial post of mine to date; I'm fully expecting criticism and vehement disagreement, and I'm psychically prepared for this (at least, I hope I am). In that sense, I'm doing things a little different - the criticism of the song proper will come first, followed by my usual charming (?) ramblings on what fancy the song has struck within me. Only this time, it's not exactly a fancy. Hopefully any criticism slung my way will be civil - it has been, so far, more or less - and I will make every effort to keep my responses civil as well. Life's too short.
This is a very simplified view of things, of course; that same curious person can dig up just as many examples of extreme poverty amongst white Americans, all across the country. Whites may have more chances to succeed in America, but those chances aren't always taken, and in some cases aren't even introduced. Think about Mississippi (where "Only A Pawn In Their Game" was introduced in public), a state whose antebellum wealth was almost entirely tied into slavery, and nearly 150 years later still hasn't entirely caught up; the state's per-capita income is the lowest of all 50. Public schooling is a joke there, industry is a weak presence, and many people struggle just to pay the rent. It is one of the few states where poor whites suffer as badly as poor blacks, and although it's an extreme example, Mississippi is hardly the only state where these conditions exist.
These conditions, if anything, were even worse 40 years ago, and Bob Dylan knew that. When Medgar Evers was shot in June 1963, his killing (and the resulting deadlocked trials of his KKK-member assassin) spoke volumes about the vast racial divide that existed in the 1960s and still exists today. Dylan could very easily have written a song simply about that, about centuries of slavery and of the collapse of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and the vicious segregation that took place all over America for 100 years. That he didn't is entirely to his credit (there's enough white guilt to go around without him adding to it); that he chose to write instead about the man that felled Evers and the society that brought him to do it is also to his credit. The song itself isn't so great, but that's hardly the point, now is it?
What strikes me, 40 years after the song's release and its performance at the March on Washington (where, I imagine, its social importance outweighed any clunkiness in the song structure), is how Dylan wrote the song in a way that could actually come across humorously, simply because the rhyming structure is so ungainly and repetitive. Dylan's ever-constant hammering of the rhymes and odd tempo (there are moments where his lines are overwhelming the chord changes) make the song sound less serious than it should be, and this is just about the most serious song on the whole album. Dylan, who apparently had forgotten the subtleties that marked his best work on Freewheelin', fires away with a number of broad generalities - so every Southern politician rose to power on the back of the black man? And every poor white man is trained like a dog to hate blacks? Doesn't speak too well about the intelligence or independent thought of poor white men in the South, now does it? Surely not every man or woman in Alabama or Louisiana was born with strings attached, waiting to be just another puppet?
It is certainly no stretch of the imagination to feel like the corridors of power in the South, especially as the civil rights movement began to grow and foment, had particular hatred towards black men, and had this hatred ever since Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox Court House (I imagine there was less hatred before then as there was a condescending acceptance - after all, these men are doing our jobs for us). It is also no stretch to suggest that the massive pressures of poverty and Southern society upon an uneducated head could poison his way of thinking. But we already knew that, even back then, and nobody needs a song that delivers that point with a lack of subtletly that can make a jaw drop (that fifth verse, in particular, doesn't so much lay it on thick as it slathers it on with a trowel). Few things in song are worse than obvious generalities presented as The Holy Truth, no matter how sincere the performer tries to be.
Perhaps in the 1960s that lack of subtlety was needed; maybe that was the only way to really get the point across, to show us that it wasn't just a man that shot Medgar Evers, but a whole way of life, as though every white-on-black crime has to be that way because the centuries of inequality dictated it to be so. All I know is that I hear the song today, hear the clumsiness and the cliches, and I bemoan the fact that "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" was tossed to the wayside so Dylan could slot in another song that takes the Important Issues of the Day, fashions them into a club, and beats us about the head with them. I should note Dylan hasn't played the song live for 40 years - maybe he knew how hard he was swinging that club back then.
I couldn't quite follow his argument because I was legitimately shocked by his statement, but this is what I think his gist was: as much as any era before or since, the 1960s was a time where real change could be made, where real steps to erase inequality and conservatism and the problems that befall us as a society, creating something new and better for all of us. But, through a combination of tragedy, shortsightedness, and in-fighting, the Peace Generation let that opportunity slip through their fingers, leading to Nixon's two election victories and a further deepening of cultural divides that exists to this day. And that very baby boomer generation, stunned by the collapse of their hopes and dreams, turned bitter and eventually became what they swore they would never become. And THAT is why we have the "Parental Advisory - Explicit Content" sticker, eight years of Ronald Reagan, the curtain over Lady Justice, and those goddamn Viagra ads that glom off the Summer of Love to sell penis-enlarging pills.
Now, let it be known that, for the record, I do not entirely agree with this. After all, those tragedies that befell the change-makers of the 60s were not their fault; imagine losing men as important as MLK, Jr., RFK, JFK, and Malcolm X in the span of five years? Imagine being confronted by a "Silent Majority" that viewed you as filthy hippies, hate-spewing Negroes, and ungrateful long-haired college punks, blamed you for the ills that the country suffered, and wanted nothing more than a President who promised the status quo and the occasional bashing of said hippie heads? Imagine living in a time where everything was changing, from the clothing we wore to the music we played on our hi-fis to the movies we watched to the way the youth of America viewed, well, everything? And imagine seeing a pointless war in Vietnam, knowing you could be next on the chopping block, and realizing that the men in charge of your country, your life, didn't give two shits about you. And imagine that you grew up through all that, are still alive today, and see a world that didn't change, the same assholes in charge, and society changing in a way that even the accepting kids of the 60s would have trouble swallowing. That'd bother you quite a bit, wouldn't you think?
On the other hand...in a way, my friend was right. The 1960s, in many ways, outright failed. We didn't get Gene McCarthy or George McGovern in the White House. The civil rights movement, which gave so much to the black community, also helped drive an even deeper wedge in racial relationships, to the point that even 40 years later we still aren't ready for a black President (and we're not - it's getting more clear at this point). The era of free love has given us waves of Internet porn and a society too straitlaced to deal with sexuality head-on. Our political system remains damaged perhaps beyond repair, and our culture has not so much learned anything from those turbulent times as they've learned how to take those times and mold them into something that can be packaged and sold. Remember how I talked about how the mainstream tends to take something truly original, suck the life out of it, and spit it back out to the masses? The 1960s are the textbook case of this odious practice; think of those Time-Life compilations, or C-list celebrities glomming off 60s fashion trends, or the cottage industry that's sprung around Muhammad Ali, or the 4 billion books that tell us "the 60s were where it was at, maaaaaaaaan" or "hey, baby boomers! You're the generation that mattered! Peace and love!" It'd be incredibly disgusting, if it wasn't so predictable.
And the worst thing is that, for many (not all) people that grew up in that time, all the attention and marketing and nonsense has fostered the belief that, yes, the 1960s WERE the only time that mattered, and that we must all strive to return to an era where nothing was solved and where the generation that wanted change only wanted change, with the occasional idea of what to do next and how the generation after them would exist. Never mind that every decade was one of great historical importance, or that immeasurable strides have been made in cultural, technological, and intellectual ways in the last 40 years, or that maybe The Velvet Underground isn't quite as good as everybody thinks they are. Never mind that people thought Shirley Chisholm was a joke when she ran for office, while Barack Obama has been feted as a potential President for nearly 4 years. Never mind that the baby boomers, through their own short-sighted selfishness, have consigned us to decades of "red vs blue" elections, and to a never-ending war between those that still uphold the (valid) ideals of the 60s and those that despise what those smelly hippies stood for. Never mind that maybe all this would've happened anyway, and the baby boomer generation was just as much "right place, right time" as anything else.
There is a small part of that generation that hasn't left the Sixties, that constantly brings everything back to that time, and constantly reminds us that Things Aren't As Good As They Used To Be. I can't help, when I think of those people, thinking about the aging hipsters James Murphy (aka LCD Soundsystem) took to task in "Losing My Edge", one of the best songs of this decade. Murphy's lyrics are a hilarious shot at every cat who strives for legitimacy and the ability to say "I was there at the start, so don't tell ME about The Smiths, jerkoff", at those who wield their musical knowledge like Excalibur (I'm sad to say that I must include myself in this group), and those that turn up their noses at the sad lost souls that suggest that Pearl Jam and Aerosmith really aren't that bad. He ends the song by firing off a litany of artists and bands name-checked by hipsters the world over, both well-known (Eric B. & Rakim, Joy Division, Lou Reed) and more obscure (the Sonics, the Swans, Gil-Scott Heron). Murphy is obviously including himself in this crowd, but he does not spare himself and his pretentions, and the result's an incredible song that punctures many an overinflated balloon.
There's few things worse than an aging hipster, one that snorts at your Unknown Pleasures t-shirt and says "Listen, pal, not only did I wear an armband when Ian Curtis died, not only did I buy the Licht Und Blindheit single as an import when it came out, I didn't even listen to New Order for 4 years!" And there's nothing worse than somebody who crams the 60s down your throat, who can't wait to tell you that if we had another Jerry Rubin the world wouldn't be turning to shit, and who simply has to force another history lesson upon us every time something of import happens. As I've said, these people are a minority; many of the 60s generation have managed to move on, incorporating their experiences into their modern lives, and we are better for it. And there are the people that have turned the 60s into a horrible beast that feeds off of rose-colored nostalgia, people that sneer with glee at how they've perverted the strides that generation made into a punch line or a Fox News insult, and people whose bitterness consumes them and feel that, because they ended up having a shitty time, we ALL must have a shitty time. One wonders if the world that generation helped spawn was worth the trouble...even if we did get Bonnie and Clyde and The Gilded Palace of Sin out of it.