Five Theses on Shakespeare in the
Alley/or Bob Dylan and Anti-Imperialism

by Jordy Cummings
March 27, 2004

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1. “I was thinking of a series of dreams”

I attended this weekend’s rainy but inspiring antiwar march in Toronto - the “World still says no to war”…as diverse a crowd as you could find, and surprisingly large considering the weather and lack of publicity, compared to in other cities. What it lacked in mass, it made up for as a veritable sea of humanity, in the city that the UN referred to as the most multicultural on this small planet. There was a large contingent of Jewish peace activists, always a good sign given our community’s decentralized totalitarianism. Jamaicans and “Trinnies” mingled with Punjabis and Tamils, all discussing what was in store for their people after Haiti. Serbs tried to inform everyone possible about the blowback in their homeland. I saw tie-dyed Hijabs with peace-signs, bringing a smile to the face of the beefy contingent of automobile workers, some of whom I had enjoyed some revelry the night before at the first of three Bob Dylan concerts in Toronto. An old Leninist of my acquaintance who, aside from the Christian years, has seen Dylan just about every year for the last 40 years claimed that the last time he saw Bob so lucid, so genuine was when he was playing with The Band. To paraphrase the aforementioned Canadian legends, this weekend was a radical’s dream if I ever did see one.

2. “The order is rapidly fading”

As a second generation lefty-hippy, my political awakening came from, among others, early Bob Dylan. My youthful involvement in No Nukes and Antiapartheid movements gave me a lifelong interest in protest music. Dylan was the ultimate hybrid of the true Jewish archetype, poet and radical, theologian and joker man. I was still quite religious as a kid, and participated in what was called a “twinning program” with youth in the Soviet Union - my Bar Mitzvah would symbolically be Misha Farberov’s Bar Mitzvah. I communicated regularly with Misha, who didn’t so much hate communism as he hated the lack of availability of good music. Misha loved heavy metal, but he also liked my Dylan tapes. After the fall of the Soviet Union, unlike many Jews who chose to move to Israel and be put directly in harm’s way, the Farberovs moved to Finland. As Misha said to me in a letter at the time “Israel is not my home, it is the home of the Palestinian people…I am Russian - like you.” This! itself provoked a lifelong interest in my Russian roots in the Pale of Settlement, and an intense interest in Jewish genealogy.

3. ”Propaganda, all is phony”

Dylan’s early work is that of a man younger than me, struggling both for individual autonomy within the mass of movements, and for the mass of movements itself. As the antiwar activist/musicologist Mike Marqusee points out in his magisterial study of the politics of Dylan’s art, Chimes of Freedom, (the first thoroughly non-bourgeois study of Dylan.) Dylan’s directly political art, from “Masters of War” to “George Jackson,” are as inspiring as his anti-political songs of frustration with liberal dogmatism, “My Back Pages” in which he sings of reformists who think “liberty is equality in school.“ Dylan instinctively sided with the more militant sectors of the Civil Rights movement, he laughed at LBJ saying “We Shall Overcome” on television and to him, liberty was more than just desegregation. It is not surprising that the Black Panther party took an intense interest in Bob Dylan, and particularly the Highway 61 Revisited album, which is not often considered political. To Huey Newton in particular, and his comrades in arms, “Ballad of a Thin Man” said it all about America’s race and class structures.

Notwithstanding his flirtations with Jesus, the Likud and the Rebbe Scnierson, a period of his life that he now pokes fun at on stage, Dylan is still an instinctive Anti-Imperialist. Take the recent flawed, if brilliant piece of cinema that he co-wrote last years, Masked and Anonymous, in which he portrays himself as an unwitting tool of a police state that resembles a combination of Post-911 America, Pinochet’s Chile and some unimaginable place where “at midnight, all the agents, and the superhuman crew go out and round up all the folks who know more than they do.” Likewise, while Bruce Springsteen, and to an extent the great Steve Earle were he liberal voices of choice after Sept. 11, with their direct approach, Dylan’s album Love and Theft, his best in nearly three decades, was released on that day, and paints a prophetic picture of the America that Dylan always saw coming, the negation of Jefferson. High Water everywhere. As the United States started slaughtering as many people in Afghanistan as had been killed in the Twin Towers, Dylan regularly performed a fierce version of “Masters of War,” including the great anti-liberal, decisively radical stanza: (addressed to the McNamara-ites just as “liberal” Kennedy started to escalate in Vietnam, Cuba and elsewhere.”)

I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket on a pale afternoon
I’ll watch as your lowered
Into your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

This is not John Lennon singing Give Peace a Chance, or even Bruce Springsteen’s wonderful, if misinformed retrieval of “social patriotism.” This is a call for revolution, an all-encompassing critique - also found in songs/poems such as “Chimes of Freedom,” “God on Our Side,” “Only a Pawn in their game” and more obliquely “All Along the Watchtower.”

4. “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”

“All Along the Watchtower” is a secular hymn to me. The conversation between the joker and the thief reveals all that is wrong, all that is squalid about whatever we choose to call our way of life. Jimi Hendrix’s cover version, as Marqusee notes and many filmmakers have taken advantage of, was the song of choice for dissident GIs in Vietnam. One suspects that it may be similar in Iraq, not to mention for rock-loving Russians in Afghanistan or even one imagines, on both sides of many Middle Eastern conflicts. I quoted “let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late” in both last year’s exhortation, “Fuck the Liberal Bombers” published on Counterpunch to Americans to stop thinking about their political and sectarian differences, and get out and make it known that they oppose Bush Jr.’s adventures. This weekend, nearly a hundred thousand marched in the city that was hit on Sept. 11. Perhaps Americans “have been through that, and this is not a phase.” Perhaps Americans really do want to join the rest of the world, while the high water rises around them.

Dylan played “Watchtower” to close each of the three concerts I attended, but with some exception, played an eclectic selection of songs from the past four decades. Twice he played the great anti-capitalist (and later anti-Thatcher) anthem, “Maggie’s Farm” in an arrangement as dirty and jarring as a clash between Pinkertons and workers. Other highlights were the decisively erotic “Tom Thumb’s Blues,” a song with which my dad used to teach me about the birds and the bees, as well as the incredible new song of socio-political blues “Cold Iron Bound.” Dylan’s stage persona, as recently as three years ago nervous and perfunctory, has become warm and gracious, like the old bluesmen he flocked to see as a kid.

What is interesting about the current stage in Dylan’s career is that, having cleaned up from more serious substance problems, he sounds better than he has in ages, but he sounds his age. Dylan started out intentionally trying to sound far older than his early twenties. Listen to “Freewheelin’” or “Another Side” - it is hard to imagine that this is a 22 year old kid. Unlike most aging rockers, with the exception perhaps of the late Curtis Mayfield, Dylan’s singing voice has actually improved. He combines his mumbly, against-the-beat phrasing with an almost Josh White derived high lonesome, but soft and demure sound. Perhaps he really can hold his breath as long as Caruso.

5. “Shakespeare’s in the Alley”

During the rainy, blustery rally, in which I found myself “alone in a faceless crowd,” I went for a walk during one of the more didactic speakers, to see what I could find, so to speak. Synchronicities seem to add up when there is music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air. Walking through an alley off of John Street to get some shelter from the storm, I saw a homeless man reading a paperback copy - probably paid two bits for it at the used bookshop - of Shakespeare‘s Richard III (see Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.) Bush is not too different from Richard III. I later spoke to a group of Jewish guys of my acquaintance, construction workers from blue collar Thornhill, where neo-nazis have recently gone on a semi-rampage painting swastikas on houses, knocking over Jewish graves, etc.

“You hear a lot of talk about the new anti-Semitism…its bullshit” said one of them, “Israel’s run by the right wing, just like America….it all started when they shot Rabin….what we have in Thornhill is real Anti-Semitism” He expounded on how dangerous it is to conflate the definition of Anti-Semitism to include the opposition to Israel that even many Jews now feel, especially when his Bubbe (grandmother) just got a Swastika painted on her door. He had been at the previous night’s Dylan show as well and said exactly what I was thinking. “Dylan’s not only the Shakespeare of the last hundred years, he’s the archetype of the perfect Jew.” On reflection, I am not sure if I would go that far…since perfection should be a foreign concept to a dialectician. Still, unlike, say, Paul McCartney, Neil “Let’s Roll” Young Bono or other rockin’ imperial apologists, Dylan is still a mensch.

As I write this, I have just found out Israel has gone on done it again. Make no mistake, I think Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was a scumbag fundamentalist, and as has been pointed out repeatedly, Israel itself helped create Hamas. Still, this is the kind of thing that Sharon does when he feels like provoking a suicide attack in order to perhaps, use as leverage even against American demands. Assassinations and suicide bombings are two sides of the same brutal coin. When I ride a bus in Toronto, I think of the friends I have in Israel many of whom are afraid of public transportation, as well as the honestly brutal state that my Palestinian friends are in, and how it may not have been so bad for a suicide bombing to take place, say, in Hitler’s car or some such.


Bob Dylan music that every self-respecting Anti-Imperialist should buy, steal or download:

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: still Dylan’s most perfect work, this is the young Dylan mixing incredibly advanced protest songs with classical romanticism and scorned lover blues.

Another Side of Bob Dylan: Protest songs and romanticism are mixed with songs that declare some confusion and dissatisfaction with the Old Left, this surely was an album that inspired the formation of the New Left. As Marqusee puts it, I am paraphrasing, “My Back Pages” is both apostasy and a declaration of a deeper involvement.

Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan’s masterpiece - an album of obscure references, the invention of low fidelity rock and roll - and decidedly anti-establishment.

Greatest Hits Vol. II -- Not so much an album of hits but of unreleased and other chestnuts, featuring some of his most important renditions of his most important songs.

The Bootleg Series vol. 4 Albert Hall 1966 -- The most famous Dylan concert of all, in which his purist fans of his old linear persona (and according to Marqusee arranged by the communist party, which had not yet realized the transformational power of rock and roll) in which Dylan both invents a new genre of music and debates audience members who call him “Judas”.

Jordy Cummings is a writer and poet living in Toronto, Canada. He is co-editor of the weblog Pure Polemics. He written extensively for Counterpunch, Fellowship of Reconciliation (Quaker Peace journal) and Canadian Jewish News among other publications. He is on the board of Toronto Jewish Youth Against Occupation. He can be reached at: yorgos33ca@yahoo.ca



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