Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dylan and some of the politics of Infidels

In a comment to my post about the movie I'm Not There, Ellis Sharp wrote: "I don't mind Dylan's Born Again phase, it's the Zionist bit I detest." Ellis is referring, of course, primarily to the song "Neighborhood Bully" from 1983's Infidels album. More than two years ago, Ellis wrote an excellent post detailing the total wrongness of this indefensible song (and here is a follow-up post from Ellis about Dylan and allusions, including an argument about why it matters whether Dylan's references to facts in this song, and others, are accurate).

It so happens that I've been listening to Infidels lately. Ellis says that the song "is generally passed over by commentators as musically a poor song from a disappointing album", but that doesn't fit in with my knowledge of the history of Dylan's albums. It's always seemed to me that Infidels was seen as something of a return to (secular) form, coming on the heels of Dylan's three "born again" albums. When the album came out, I suspect that critics were relieved that the Christian phase was apparently over and that Dylan seemed committed to his songs again (for the first time since the first Christian album, Slow Train Coming, which no one can say Dylan wasn't commited to). And in the context of his Eighties music overall, it looks especially good. Other than Oh Mercy, from 1989 (a particular favorite of mine), it's really the only album from the decade that holds up at all.

I generally have a positive feeling about the album, but I think that has more to do with its sound and, again, Dylan's commitment. But I have to admit that it's pretty uneven. It has some great stuff on it ("Jokerman" in particular) and was recorded during one of Dylan's few periods of intense creative activity after the 1960s, with several non-album tracks rivaling or even exceeding the quality of the songs that made it on the album (the utterly wonderful "Blind Willie McTell", for one; a song used to great effect in I'm Not There). Another interesting thing about the album is that many of its songs are overtly political, a rarity for Dylan since the 60s, one-offs like Desire's "Hurricane" aside. Unfortunately, the politics found in these songs is either hamfisted or odious. Ellis is right to be appalled about "Neighborhood Bully" and he handles its problems nicely. The only thing I could say in its defense is that it rocks. If you pay the slightest attention to the lyrics, or Dylan's rant-y delivery, then it's over.

But the other political songs, while sporting more defensible politics, aren't that great either. In fact, it hardly seems possible that they came from the same songwriter who gave us his great politically charged music of the 1960s. Let me take a brief look at one. "Union Sundown" starts like this (lyrics):
Well, my shoes, they come from Singapore,
My flashlight's from Taiwan,
My tablecloth's from Malaysia,
My belt buckle's from the Amazon.
You know, this shirt I wear comes from the Philippines
Nearly all the words are like this: a man listing where all of his consumer items came from, later noting that nothing gets made in the U.S. anymore. It could easily descend into right-wing demagoguery (thus fitting in just fine with "Neighborhood Bully"), but it pulls back to reveal something that could have been written by someone like Naomi Klein:
And the car I drive is a Chevrolet,
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy makin' thirty cents a day.
Each verse is similar. Not very interesting or artful; an almost perfunctory litany of the ills of the first decade-plus of the neo-liberalization of capital. Then, the chorus:
Well, it's sundown on the union
And what's made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
'Til greed got in the way.
Ok. He's concerned about the unions and American workers, and he's hip to the fact that jobs have been exported and that the people who now have them aren't exactly doing so well with them. Not so terrible a sentiment (though still not what I would call good lyrics). But in this chorus Dylan veers between a weird patriotism (which I guess I can let pass, though it makes me itch) and lunkheaded naivete. "Sure was a good idea/'Til greed got in the way"? This is what he's going with? My problem with this is that the word "greed" plays the role of reducing capitalism to personalities. Granted, he doesn't specify anybody. He seems to be referring to an all-encompassing, placeless, faceless greed. But "greed" is one of those words that implies an individual, or individuals. It's also one of those words that makes the listener think the speaker isn't being serious. It sounds like adolescent phrase-mongering. I don't expect a trenchant critique of neo-liberal capitalism in a song, but Dylan's been capable of much better in the past. ("Masters of War", for example, is direct and unsubtle, but fucking powerful as hell.)

I have to admit that a more charitable interpretation of the chorus has just occurred to me, as I was writing. Dylan could be using "greed" to stand in for the complex practices of the system as a whole. In fact, a short version of the decisions that led to the disaster of neo-liberalism (over and above the disaster of capitalism) could go something like this: "Well, we tried sharing with the workers. They forced us into it, and it was worth trying. And for a while there, it was working for all of us. We made the unions our partners. We got richer, workers got part of the pie, wages increased, everyone was happy. But now the economy is slowing down and they want too much, they won't work within the union framework, they're making everything messy, and our profits have suffered. Time to take everything back, and then some. They want a bigger slice of the pie? We'll move the fucking pie. Let them chew on that." Enter the service economy and the energy crisis, exit manufacturing jobs and decent wages and social programs and spending. A very truncated and simple account (obviously!!). But maybe, just possibly, Dylan means to roll all of this into those two lines. And perhaps "it's sundown on the union" could mean more than just a lament about the reduced power of the labor unions. Maybe it's an acknowledgment that the country (the "union") is not going to last when nothing it uses is produced within its own borders. A sly recognition that moving the pie will ultimately spell the end for everybody. It would be nice to think he meant something like this. Somehow I doubt it.

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Blogger Ellis said...

Dylan's output after the 'Street-Legal' sessions (April 1978) has always struck me as generally dismal for almost exactly a decade, until he got back on track with the Traveling Wilburys in 1988. Apart from rare moments like 'Every Grain of Sand', 'Dark Eyes' and 'Blind Willie McTell'.

December 18, 2007 5:08 AM  

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