The Politically Incorrect Bob Dylan

The Cinch Review’s Dylanosophy provides a great public service in debunking the myth that Bob Dylan is a doctrinaire leftist.

Usually Dylan is silent when the left co-opts his name and music to promote their various orthodoxies. The latest is Amnesty International’s planned release in January of an album of Dylan songs titled Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International and performed by about 80 different musicians.

But as Dylanosophy indicates:

…Amnesty International has long seen fit to link their mission with the resonance of some well known Bob Dylan songs—songs that are associated with themes of freedom and justice, like “Chimes of Freedom,” and “I Shall Be Released.” As an organization, Amnesty may sometimes be perceived as indulging in sanctimony by some of us in the U.S., but if you’re a political prisoner languishing in a dungeon in China, North Korea or Iran, then they are a friend you very much want to have. Bob Dylan himself, however, has not been above tweaking Amnesty and their rock-star-spokespeople for the use of his songs.

In 1988, he played four nights at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. On each and every night, he regaled his audience with essentially the same elaborate joke, and it was a joke on Amnesty International, which was around that time promoting its message with big benefit concerts featuring the likes of Bono and Lou Reed. The joke went like this (words transcribed from a recording of the October 17th, 1988 show):

“You know this Amnesty Tour is going on and I was very honored last year they chose a Bob Dylan song to be their theme song. “I Shall Be Released” that was. This year they surprised me again by doing another Bob Dylan song as their theme song — they used “Chimes of Freedom.” Next year, the Amnesty Tour, I think they’re going to use “Jokerman.”

Anyway, I’m trying to get them to change their mind. I’m trying to get them to use this one.”

“This one” references the song he then played: “In the Garden,” from Saved. It’s about as powerful a gospel song as he ever wrote: a full-on, no-holds-barred Jesus-is-Lord number.

The joke is a dual one, obviously. First, there’s the ludicrous idea that Amnesty would adopt “Jokerman” (from the great but widely dismissed Infidels album) as their theme song. And then, of-course, there’s the suggestion that they should ditch the likes of “Chimes of Freedom” and “I Shall Be Released” and that all of those deep, socially-conscious rock stars should get up on stage and sing a great big song about Jesus instead. It’s pretty hilarious, as Bob well knew, and his repetition of the joke four nights in a row while playing gigs in the media capital of the world was hardly a random drunken impulse. He actually wanted to say something, albeit in a funny way.

What was he saying? Well, since he used the medium of a gag to express himself, it’s probably wrong to try and spell out what he was saying in literal terms, but surely he was at least alluding to the idea that there’s a bigger picture to be tapped into, beyond the political one. Also, both by making the joke and performing that song so passionately, four nights in a row, he was surely attesting that this was still where he was at. (And remember this is some years since conventional wisdom had maintained that he had “moved on” from beliefs he had espoused during his gospel epoch.)…

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