The view that Bob Dylan has recorded some marvellous songs is one rarely contested in public. This view will not be contested here, as your reporter is not up to it. The first Dylan record I heard was Empire Burlesque; an act of ‘80s barbarism which sounded so much like John Cougar Mellencamp getting mugged by a Yamaha keyboard, it became the last Dylan record to which I would willingly listen.

I can’t assess Bob’s music. But on his work as a rebel spokesmodel, I can oblige.

Bob Dylan is a very keen salesman. He has given his dissenting voice and outlaw appearance to yoghurt, cola, lingerie, IBM, Google, Apple, and Cadillac. In 2014, he appeared in a Super Bowl commercial to praise Americans “workin’ on the line” in Detroit for America. But, Chrysler is not a US company, Detroit is a city in ruins and Bob may soon sell the rights to Masters of War to Lockheed Martin.  

This is not a moral verdict, but a fact: Bob flogs an awful lot of stuff. He is not diminished in my view by his sale of finance, fizzy drink or Jeep. It makes sense for Zimmy to claim all the cash he can. But it makes no immediate sense for liberal outlets — the Chrysler ad was: a bid to save Michigan; a trick to defy expectation; among “the most overtly political acts he’s committed in years”– to claim him as some sort of Guthrie. A fiction the The Guardian boosted with the insinuation that Dylan held this machine that kills fascists.

When news came last month that Dylan had put his name to a whiskey distillery, press resumed their work of pickling him in false memories of protest. A peppy piece in The New York Times redeems the outsider from charges of selling out or opting in with his new whiskey venture, while Billboard warns that any “fan backlash” is just a failure to understand his daring. He’s an unpredictable maverick. A true American son.

You’d think newspapers would’ve retired their times-they-are a-changin’ revival of Bob after The Times They Are a-Changin’  had advertised a US healthcare giant. Or when its use was granted by Bob to the Bank of Montreal, or popped up to promote a large accountancy firm. When that happened, Time ran with the headline “Just in case you hadn’t heard the ’60s are over. Journalists would still call the guy a phony in 1994.

In 2018, though, the Times reassures itself that Dylan’s commercial ventures, “have barely grazed his reputation”. This presupposes that Bob’s reputation as Mr Protest survives outside the anxiety of liberal writers, so ready so often to declare him Guthrie-pure. The New Yorker argues that any man denounced as a “sell-out” for so long could not possibly have sold out.

Well, the guy made a Christmas album then distributed it through Citigroup. He flogged one old bootleg through Starbucks and another compilation through Victoria’s Secret. The Sydney Morning Herald claimed the coffee chain release was bound to annoy “purists”, and Reuters claimed the thing force-fed to lingerie customers had prompted “some critics to say he had sold out”. These purists and critics are rarely named. (Unless they’re Palestinian. Old No-Sell-Out once offered a song of praise to Israel’s military strength and continues to withhold support for the BDS movement.)

The Times piece claims that Dylan’s “talent for provocation” can explain his decision to sell whiskey, and that the career of Hank Williams can justify it. What the great country artist, whose death from liquor came at 29 and decades before our age of celebrity endorsement, tells us about the price of Bob’s special reserve is unclear.

But, clarity is no priority when it comes to writing about Dylan. I mean, why defend his small batch whiskies, when these surely represent his most useful labour in years? Surely it is better to make a whiskey than (allegedly) lift sections of a 2017 Nobel lecture from a study guide. But, even this was, as Vanity Fair had it, “subtle commentary on the complex history of art and theft”.

Right. And driving CDs into the hands of twenty-somethings who’d popped in for a new bra is not a marketing deceit, but the act of a provocateur. And Pepsi ads are what Woody would do.

We can’t really blame Bob for his presence in a New York Times-type fantasy. If Zimmy wasn’t the star of protest pornography, someone else would get the gig. Some other rebel spirit would inebriate the liberal unconscious; would regenerate conscious order with a mild performance of dissent.

When Bob ceases to exist, he’ll just be re-invented. Those Manhattan critics would be truly lost without their resistance simulation and dirty daydreams of dissent.

Peter Fray

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