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by David Yearsley, February 19, 2014
Given the youth movement charged with energizing the Super Bowl’s non-football offerings — a trend embodied by Bruno Mars at this year’s halftime show — it was only fair that the old folks should make a counterattack in the ads, long held to be the true locus of entertainment value at the annual orgy of sex and violence, consumerism and military display. Thus we were treated to the unsavory vision of Bob Dylan sliding into Chevrolet’s latest sedan and gurgling patriotic garbage about American pride above ambient guitar chords.
If not for the fussy make-up and hair-styling, one might have surmised — or at least hoped — that this one-time countercultural figurehead and voice of protest was not pitching Chrysler’s cars in a multi-million-dollar commercial, but was instead doing public service announcements for the last vestiges of American industry. Indeed, since there’s no way that Dylan needs the money, one could have been forgiven for assuming this was his gift to the American people, a gratis boost of confidence during a long stretch of crisis.
But Dylan had clearly cashed the check for this paean so mendacious that it achieved a melancholy far beyond and below that of “Song to Woody” or “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
That the spectacle was wrapped so tightly in cliché made it all the more depressing, from the opening line of unprecedented banality (“Is there anything more American than America?”) to the infantile stereotypes of its coda: “Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watches,” intoned the aged bard. “Let Detroit make your cars.” Sandwiched in between were the grimmest two minutes of fakery in Super Bowl advertising history — platitudes delivered to shots of diners and steaming coffee; bucking broncos; cheerleaders; a Route 66 road sign; James Dean; Marilyn Monroe; Dr. J; Gordian knots of freeway interchanges; assembly line auto workers; defunct downtown Detroit; the ancient Dylan teetering into a guitar shop and leaning down to cast a rheumy eye at earlier photographs of himself, these images of the young sleek musician staring back at the babushka doll of today with even more disbelief than did his television audience. So surreal was this tableau that many viewers of a certain age must have thought that their Super Bowl party host had slipped LSD into the Bud.
The most encompassing of these concentric circles of lies was the nonsense Dylan spouted about how you can’t import true American cool or legacy or the heart and soul of American workers. Chrysler is owned by Fiat, not even Italian in any legal sense but soon to be incorporated in The Netherlands. That this transnational corporation was revivifying the Motor City was sadly laughable. Detroit has lost two-thirds of its population and even the streetlights are being turned off in the most forsaken districts of the city. Dylan’s chords strummed on hypnotically, lulling reason to sleep amidst the blitz of banality.
American history is full of telling correspondences, watersheds that illuminate the drift of the country: Custer dies at Little Bighorn in 1876, 100 years almost to the day after the American break with Britain. In the realm of music and politics, the end of World War II in Europe is announced all over the front page of New York Times of May 8, 1945, and tucked in among these headlines is an article that tells us that Aaron Copland has won the Pulitzer prize for Appalachian Spring — an optimistic musical accounting of American innocence as the nation emerges from the war as the world’s greatest Super Power.
Likewise Dylan’s shameless descent into Super Bowl madness was aired less than a week after the death of Pete Seeger, that rock of musical and moral integrity. The closest Seeger ever got to the Super Bowl was refusing former half-time show eruption, Madonna, the permission to cover his “If I Had Hammer” since, as Dave Marsh reported in CounterPunch, she planned to change the words to “If I had a hammer / I’d smash your fuckin’ head in.” Maybe it’s a good thing that Pete wasn’t around to see and hear his former protégé, Dylan sell-out in such ridiculous fashion on the world stage.
A fictionalized version of the young Dylan makes a phantomy cameo at the close of the Coen brothers’ latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis fortuitously — at least for the filmmakers — released earlier in the very month that Seeger died. Set mainly in the Greenwich Village of 1961, the film follows the couch-surfing, hitchhiking peregrinations of the eponymous main character, and the Brothers dutifully bathe the proceedings in forlorn grey-green light and allow space for capable performances of folk ballads by the singing, guitar-playing actor who stars, Oscar Isaac. Perhaps the most solipsistic of a long succession of studies in style, this Coen production is uncannily prescient about a strand of the American folk revival that ultimately follows Dylan to his Super Bowl debacle.
The Coens’ Llewyn Davis is a self-seeking, sexually irresponsible, childish brute, who cares only about himself. There is talent and a dash of authenticity in what he does, but Davis serves in the film merely as an object lesson in the truth that success, even celebrity, is bestowed almost randomly. While seeking out gigs and places to sleep, Davis participates in a studio session for some silly pseudo-hillbilly song, but is so desperate for cash and dismissive of the merits of the music he has made that he signs away his claim on royalties. In the course of the film’s week-long action, the song is already threatening to become a hit, leaving the impoverished Davis literally out in the cold. Butting repeatedly up against the brick wall of failure, Davis decides at last to go back to his job as a seaman, waving goodbye not only to his musical career but also America itself. At his Village folk-music haunt, the Gaslight, Davis gives a final heartfelt performance before heading out the door, where a brutal beating by the husband of a singer he had drunkenly heckled the night before awaits. As Davis leaves the club we hear and see in silhouette the next act, a gravelly voiced guitarist — Dylan himself — doing “Farewell,” his version of the “Leaving of Liverpool.” With the passing of ships in the Greenwich Village night, the Coens try to squeeze a few drops of poignancy out of Davis’s defeat — though it’s hard to imagine why anyone would really care about his final exit from music history. More than that they want to evoke the magical, intimate moments before a star was born.
But the Coens captured a truth about Dylan and his collision course with the Super Bowl: that for the right price humble beginnings can always be forgotten.