Highway 61 Reweirded: The Acid Communist Parable of When Dylan Went Electric

Since writing my previous post on “Reweirding Arcadia” — about Paul Wright’s film Arcadia and how it traces a long trajectory of folk frivolity resistant subjective impositions, calling for a reweirding of the cultural and physical landscape — I’ve wondered how such a sentiment might translate over the pond, or to Australia, or to any of our newer nation-states which seem to have kept their sense of the weird more or less in tact.

The British weird is only somewhat culturally in tact. Our consciousness of such things has been buried. You have to really dig for it. The same cannot be said of America, for instance, with its folkloric weirdness and the tourist trade being inherently entwined. What is further admirable is the way this weirdness has mutated to match new sociocultural developments. Lynchian suburbia, UFOs, cryptozoology… Weird America is very much a part of its economic system, it seems, and therefore remains close to the surface. The ghosts of its patchwork weirdness are still there for all to see.

As an outsider, every aspect of American cultural life seems to be afflicted by this symbiotic relationship between mundanity and surreality. But, viewed from within, perhaps all this is is another mode of capture.

In thinking about this, I stumbled upon what is perhaps the best and most normalised example of a proper cultural reweirding; a weird turn so quickly canonised that I bet most wouldn’t think of it as a reweirding at all. It’s not Twin Peaks or Roswell. It’s when Bob Dylan went electric.

At home over Christmas, I spotted Greil Marcus’s book Invisible Republic sat neglected on a bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. I don’t remember when or why I bought it. I like Bob Dylan — and I like The Band even more — and Greil Marcus is undoubtedly one of the greatest music writers of all time — but I don’t remember a time when I might have been enthused enough by a combination of all three to read a whole book about them.

Nevertheless, it hummed at me.

Watching Arcadia, I was struck by the film’s repeated usage of the voice of Anne Briggs. Her back catalogue of often unaccompanied folk standards, recorded during Britain’s ’60s folk revival, is a veritable treasure trove of ghostly folk.

I’ve had this obsession with Briggs ever since I first heard Grouper’s 2013 FACT mix, made whilst she was doing a residency in Bristol. She begins with three of my all-time favourite weird folk songs, combining them into such a potent trajectory it feels like she just might open up a portal to another world.

Ivor Cutler → Jandek → Anne Briggs

Ever since this mix took over my life in 2013, Briggs’ 1971 self-titled album has become, distilled through repetitive listening, the most potent vector for entering a consciousness of a haunted and haunting Britain. And so, when I heard her voice floating amongst the soundtrack to Arcadia, which features her track “Lowlands”, I got major shivers.

Over Christmas, with Briggs now back on heavy rotation in my flat, I had wanted to write a post about this usage of voice on the film’s soundtrack, somehow connecting the folk revival scene made famous by the likes of Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and others, to the rave scene in the 1990s. The film implied it but I wanted to excavate it more. However, it felt like too much of a stretch.

Then, flicking through Marcus’s book in my childhood bedroom, I saw a chapter titled “The Old, Weird America” and my curiosity was peaked. Maybe there’s something in this, I thought, and so I picked it up and brought it home to London, reading it in its entirety in a single overnight sitting. I have been blown away by it.

Immediately I was struck by Marcus’s characterisation of Dylan’s electric period, referring to the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as “a single outburst” which ranks amongst “the most intense outbreaks of twentieth-century modernism; they join the whole Gothic-romantic traverse of American self-regard.” Marcus’s focus, however, is not on the albums of that period but rather those most mythological recordings: The Basement Tapes.

Following that most infamous of tours in which he officially “went electric”, during which he was effectively booed around the world for a year, Dylan was in a motorcycle accident and ended up taking a long break from public appearances, ending up just jamming with his backing band in a Woodstock basement throughout the summer of 1967.

They recorded their efforts, for whatever reason — audio note-taking perhaps — but never intended to release a sound from them.

Nevertheless, they got out. The heavily bootlegged tapes were — and somewhat remain — the stuff of legend and Marcus describes them as these ahistorical records of moment in which both Bob Dylan and America at large are on the brink of tearing themselves apart in their odd reflection of one another at the height of his folk fame.

Marcus frames this period in America’s and Dylan’s histories not as the rupturing shock of the new but as a wrestling match between a contemporary American moment and the romanticised vision of America’s self which was allowing it to disregard itself. As such, Marcus writes that the “music carried an aura of familiarity, of unwritten histories, and as deep a sense of self-recognition, the recognition of the self — the singer’s? the listener’s? — that was both historical and sui generis.”

Marcus later notes that, as you listen to these songs, recorded in a time warp, unintended for public consumption, they soon “begin to sound like a map; but if they are a map, what country, what lost mine, is it that they centre and fix?” For Marcus, what we hear are “certain bedrock strains of American cultural language … retrieved and reinvented.”

This sense of a time warp is both the result of the events of the year itself and the circumstances of their recording — transitory, shifting, violent. That is not to say that they are these things in themselves, however. They are the product of waiting out the storm overhead. The Basement Tapes, for many, were the sound of killing time. As Marcus continues:

Music made to kill time ended up dissolving it. As one listens, no date adheres to the basement tapes, made as the war in Vietnam, mass deaths in black riots in Newark and Detroit, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Summer of Love all insisted, in their different ways, on the year 1967 as Millennium or Apocalypse, or both. The year “America fell apart,” Newt Gingrich has said; “deserter’s songs,” a skeptic called the basement tapes in 1994, catching an echo of a few people holed up to wait out the end of the world.

But what Marcus hears on these tapes is a foreseen Dylan who would not emerge onto the public stage until the early 1990s. A Dylan returning to a mode of expression that was wholly unpopular so as to reweird his beloved folk tradition. In the 1990s, “Bob Dylan, then in his early fifties, suddenly recast what had come to seem an inexorably decaying public life with two albums of old blues and folk songs, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong.” This moment is cast as an inversion; the moment Dylan went folk (again).

“It is almost inconceivable that this is the man who once broke rock — as a form, as a mode of experience — in half,” critic Howard Hampton had written of one of Dylan’s albums a few years before. “Now he’s the dutiful repairman. ‘Everything is broken,’ he sings, but promises the pieces can be put back together in his art as assuredly as they cannot be in the world. This is an inversion of what his work once meant, but it is also a continuation of the political world of the last twenty years. Society has structured itself around the suppression of the kinds of demands Dylan’s music once made, that it might make such speed unimaginable all over again.” But it seemed as if it were precisely an unimaginable form of speech — a once-common, now-unknown tongue — that Dylan had found, or was now proffering, in ancient songs.

Marcus paints the entirely of Dylan’s career as a meandering quest to keep folk weird, to keep life and art weird, restless and non-conforming — a quest uncommon to much of the folk revivals of that time, particularly the more classical, British attempts at instilling new life in folk oldies.

Where Dylan prevailed, much to the upset of his audiences, and just like when he went electric, and then back again, “his old-timey albums were bereft of any nostalgia.” For Marcus, his work is violently recursive. “If they were a look back they were a look that circled back, all the way round to where the singer and whoever might be listening now stood.”

Marcus’s book begins properly with an anecdote about Dylan’s fondness for a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day”. He recounts an anecdote from backstage at the Royal Albert Hall on Dylan’s tour of Britain in 1966 where he was actively protested by disgruntled fans who bought tickets only so that they could walk out on their former idol. Sister Rosetta must have been perpetually on Dylan’s mind those days.

Such strange things went unnoticed, however. Dylan’s fans didn’t want strange. They wanted tradition. They wanted to hear a man transduce what they saw as their own identity back to them as a pill that was easy to swallow. Instead, they were ready to riot.

Dylan’s backing band was likewise unstable at this time. Whilst Dylan weathered the storm of doubt and persevered through his audience’s anger, his band members came and went, less assuaged to their new direction and the threats they received for it. Assassinations, after all, were a frequent occurrence in 1960s America. JFK. Medgar Evans. Martin Luther King Jr. Andy Warhol. Malcolm X. It was also the decade when the “one-day mass murder” became common-place and began to increase exponentially every year afterwards. It’s not unreasonable that many of Dylan’s backing band members feared for their lives, not least because what Dylan was doing was tearing apart their sense of self before their very eyes.

But Dylan didn’t want to be a part of the folk revival any longer, at least not what it had become. The politics of the folk revival’s tandem revival of class consciousness had become deeply problematic in that decade of war and violence. That is not to say that it had not started well and well-meaning, with an internal ideology that was intrinsically aligned with the civil rights movement.

Marcus quotes Robert Cantwell who writes that the Folk Revival wanted to claim folk culture — “oral, immediate, traditional, idiomatic, communal, a culture of characters, of rights, obligations, and beliefs” — and place it in direct opposition to the new capitalist culture of the time: “a centrist, specialist, impersonal, technocratic culture, a culture of types, functions, jobs, and goals.” He also quotes Robert Shelton, who writes:

What the folk revivalists were saying, in effect, was: “There’s another way out of the dilemma of modern urban society that will teach us all about who we are. […] Long before the Kennedy Administration posited the slogan, “The New Frontier,” the folk revivalists were exploring their own new frontier, traveling to the country, in actuality or imagination, trying to find out if there was truly a more exciting life in America’s continuing past.

The folk revival was hugely successful in providing people — but also primarily a burgeoning new leftism — with an retooled identity to carry forwards into a new world. It was patriotic but likewise revisionist. It wanted an America that stood by its own founding values, that stood by its declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was the true music of “We the people…”

This is a familiar sentiment with many musics since this time. We might likewise note that A Tribe Called Quest, as a bastion of a “classic” and politicised hip hop, seized this sentiment for themselves very recently, in the age of Trump — making a comeback to fill a void they felt had been opened up with Trump’s election, a void that made an old voice worthy of renewal, but a voice that was nonetheless infused with a new and vibrant afrofuturist call for the new.

Marcus continues:

As Bob Dylan sang — like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, or any of hundreds of other folk singers, but more powerfully, and more nakedly — or as he was heard, he embodied a yearning for peace and home in the midst of noise and upheaval, and in the aesthetic reflection of that embodiment located both peace and home in the purity, the essential goodness, of each listener’s heart. It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by people mostly from small towns and tiny settlements in the South, a strange and foreign place to most who were now listening — music that seemed the product of no ego but of the inherent genius of a people — the people — people one could embrace and, perhaps, become. It was the sound of another country — a country that, once glimpsed from afar, could be felt within oneself. That was the folk revival.

We might acknowledge that this was not just the folk revival but also the thriving world of jazz, taken to cosmic heights with the dawn of afrofuturism, but also the world of rave too. The music of a people that contains within it the atemporal echoes of a people to come.

Unfortunately, like all scenes and genres of its kind, this beating heart was stopped, arrested by the creeping fingers of commerce and false consciousness. The Folk Revival — or any other more explicit form of popular modernism — may not have begun this way but this is where it was inevitably led. For Marcus, what must be acknowledged here is the romanticised understanding of this music and how, for Dylan especially, it had begun to starve itself of oxygen. This equivalence of a sound and its people led to the sort of life = art philosophy that killed a young sociocultural movement. He writes:

The kind of life that equaled art was life defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion. In folklore this was nothing new. “Thanks to folksong collectors’ preconceptions and judicious selectivity, artwork and life were found to be identical,” historian Georgina Boyes writes in The Imagined Village. “The ideological innocence which was the essence of the immemorial peasant was also a ‘natural’ characteristic of the Folk and their song.” A complete dissolution of art and life is present in such a point of view: the poor are art because they sing their lives without mediation and without reflection, without the false consciousness of capitalism and the false desires of advertising.

Marcus goes on to cite Ellen J. Stekert, who saw the New York City folk revival through which Dylan made his name as the direct descendent of the Communist folk music circles found in the city in the 1930s. However, for Stekert, the romantic equivalence of art and life that soon defined the revival was a “pitiful confusion”. She once wrote that it was “monstrous for urbanites to confuse poverty with art.” (This is, of course, something you’ll find in every city in the West these days, although it is a poverty that is generally only pursued by those who can afford it.) Marcus himself writes:

When art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people.

When Bob Dylan went electric, rupturing his now famous troubadour image, it was this — says Marcus — that he was turning away from and “in the most spectacular way.”

In September 1965, as the juror over his replacement of object with subject was growing, he tried, at a press conference in Austin, Texas, site of his first performances with the Hawks [later known as The Band], to explain. He argued, it seems, that in a profound sense his music was still folk music, though that was a term he would refuse soon enough: “Call it historical-traditional music.” Despite the phrase, it was as if he saw traditional music as being made less by history or circumstance than by particular people, for particular unknown reasons — reasons that find their analogue in haunts and spirits. One can hear him insisting that the song he had been writing and performing over the previous year were those in which events and philosophies with which one could identify had been replaced by allegories that could dissolve received identities.

This dissolution of identity which is such a common but also a much maligned affect of the lived experience of the American West, along with its persistent place within the American psyche, is precisely a function which drew me to write about Westworld last year. This is a form of cultural production that is so intensely American and yet also a form of cultural production that America seems to largely hate about itself. What is ridiculed as a “self-disregard” aboard, may be championed in another light at home, where this self-disregard, if channeled correctly, forms a foundation for a people-to-come.

The dumbest thing America ever did for itself was to think that it had gone from a people-to-come to a people arrived, throwing away their inherent becomings for the consolidation of the nation-states most of the population had moved away from.

White America was captured by an unfortunate Robinson Crusoe logic — a logic derided by so many, from Marx to Deleuze. Most recently, however, I read a summary of this issue as articulated by Henri Bergson:

Vainly do we try to imagine an individual cut off from all social life. Even materially, Robinson Crusoe on his island remains in contact with other men, for the manufactured objects he saved from the wreck, and without which he could not get along, keep him within the bounds of civilisation, and consequently within those of society. But a moral contact is still more necessary to him, for he would be soon discouraged if he had nothing else to cope with his incessant difficulties except an individual strength of which he knows the limitations. He draws energy from the society to which he remans attached in spirit; he may not perceive it, still it is there, watching him: if the individual ego maintains alive and present the social ego, he will effect, even in isolation, what he would with the encouragement and even the suppose of the whole of society. Those whom circumstances condemn for a time to solitude, and who cannot find within themselves the resources of a deep inner life, know the penalty of “giving way,” that is to say of not stabilising the individual ego at the level prescribed by the social ego. They will therefore be careful to maintain the latter, so that it shall not relax for one moment its strictness towards the former. If necessary, they will seek for some material or artificial support for it. You remember Kipling’s Forest Officer, alone in his bungalow in the heart of the Indian rukh? He dresses every evening for dinner, so as to preserve his self-respect in isolation.

In Bergson’s diagnosis, we see the seed for Deleuze and Guattari’s later rebellion. But what is intriguing about the case of America, as Dylan himself drew attention to so controversially, is that it is not “civilisation” which the American clings to in times of isolation but what Leslie Fiedler has called the “Vanishing American” — the native, the Indian, the savage — that stereotype so oppressed by American history which every American nonetheless professes to have some ancestral genetic connection to. The wild, pre-consolidated American. This itself became a crutch for preserving American self-respect during their isolation within modernity.

I don’t think it is any coincidence, now considering this pivotal cultural moment in 1967, that Mark Fisher returned to this time for his unfinished book, Acid Communism. Indeed, he repeatedly quotes Herbert Marcuse and his book One-Dimensional Man, which was so inspirational for many within the counterculture. At one point he notes how “Marcuse worried about the popularisation of the avant-garde, not out of elitist anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture.”

Dylan’s fans were perhaps afflicted by an elitism. Electric guitars were the sound of pop. They lacked purity. But, for Dylan, this pop moment of technocultural advancement gave him visions of a new folk that was no less resistant. It may have articulated itself in the sonic language of pop — or, perhaps more accurately, pulp — but that was so it could reveal to the folk revival its own puritanical frog march into conservatism.

As Mark wrote:

The subduing of the counterculture has seemed to confirm the validity of the scepticism and hostility to the kind of position Marcuse was advancing. If “the counterculture led to neoliberalism”, better that the counterculture had not happened. In fact, the opposite argument is more convincing — that the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed.

In Marcus’s book, we can see this sentiment encapsulated in a microcosm. The year that Dylan went electric was a dreaming of a new folk future, repudiated by those supposedly on his side. History mocks them, but we should mourn the loss of such sonic challenges to our inner Crusoe’s.


Leave a Reply