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The Shameless Descent Of Bob Dylan

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.

Dylan appearing in his Chrysler commercial
Dylan appearing in his Chrysler commercial

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.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at


  1. John Sakowicz February 24, 2014

    Brilliant article by David Yearsley. I can remember watching this Dylan commercial during the Super Bowl and nearly gagging.

    I never liked Dylan.

    First there was the name change. Who in the world would have the hubris to change his name while implying a comparison to Dylan Thomas? Robert Allen Zimmerman, that’s who.

    Then, there’s all of Bob Dylan’s plagiarism.

    When asked what he thinks of people who charge him with plagiarizing song lyrics, Dylan unloaded: “Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”

    Dylan has long admitted to borrowing inspiration from old Protestant hymns or written poetry. After the release of Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times, it was shown that singer used lines and phrases from Henry Timrod, a Civil War-era poet. Dylan didn’t credit or even mention Timrod in the liner notes, however.

    Dylan faced similar charges over some paintings that he based, without credit, on previously published photographs.

    Then, there were the allegations of wife beating. Also secret marriages. And a daughter he didn’t acknowledge for 16 years.

    There’s more. Read “Accelerated Decrepitude”. Much more.

  2. Robert Massey March 6, 2014

    …for anyone dismayed by the ad or by the previous gossipy thread please be uplifted by this sequence from 1975:

    “1975 09 10 Bob Dylan Hurricane Ed Sullivan Show, John Hammond Tribute” (8:25)
    “Bob Dylan – Scarlet Rivera Part 1” (7:00)
    “Bob Dylan – Scarlet Rivera Part 2” (4:04)
    “Bob Dylan – Scarlet Rivera Part 3” (3:34)
    “Bob Dylan – Scarlet Rivera Part 4” (4:07)
    “Bob Dylan – Scarlet Rivera Part 5” (4:37)
    “Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore, you may not see me tomorrow” (8:04)

    …and I suggest his dedication in (7) was to:

    “Joan BAEZ winds of the old days (lyrics)” (3:56)
    “Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust – Live, 1975” (5:04)


    • Peter D September 25, 2022

      Super Uplifting.
      You’re an imbecile.

      • Nathan Duffy May 27, 2023

        My favorite comment ever. Thank you Peter D.

  3. Rick Weddle March 18, 2014

    The farmer and the Bard
    Have this among their common factors:
    They may measure their success
    By de number of de tractors

  4. Dan April 9, 2014

    no poet would mind inspiring, and dead poets don’t really need credit so egh, but you’d hope that this commercialism since “things have changed” and the victoria secret commercial is some final desperate attempt to punctuate an era, to smash our faces in a mirror before he takes the inevitable jump in a lake. we want some valiant looser to venerate after the fall but the bard aint dead yet.
    try anything when nothing’s worked, nobody bought a car because of Dylan anyway.

    • Dan April 9, 2014

      anybody else need inspiration, feel free

      Dirty up the language
      inlay crude

      insinuating sacrilegious innuendos now intrude
      any gay relayed relation
      ~any succeeding dictation
      ~~every innocent libation
      will provoke perverted moods

      sliding down the surreptitious slope
      pressing on the precipice of precedented choke
      hindsight ascertaining asinine
      edicts intimating serpentine
      ~~rector’s benedicting kingdom come
      prurient predilection for some sanctimonium
      there goes homo sapien again
      attenuating sanctity’s saccharine

      interdictions probing every line
      verse become perverse
      horoscopes divine
      derelicting honor from behind
      decimating missionary minds

      – See more at:

  5. Jeff Costello April 12, 2014

    Related reading: Positively Fourth St., by David Hajdu. A history of Dylan, Joan Baez, her sister Mimi Farina, and husband Richard Farina. In it Dylan is quoted as saying he wrote those protest songs not out of conviction, but because he thought they would sell records. As someone who never much cared for Dylan’s music I’ve been a traitor to my generation in a sense. And that’s all right.

  6. Larry Livermore May 27, 2023

    As a born and bred Detroiter, and a onetime laborer in its auto factories, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the reason Detroit doesn’t make (most of) your cars anymore is that by the 1960s or 70s at the latest, it had become painfully obvious that Detroit made lousy cars and that Japan, Germany (and in the following years, half a dozen other nations) could and would make far better ones.

    As a onetime near-worshiper of Bob Dylan (and still a great admirer of his mid-1960s work), I too remember how painful it was to see him cynically and dishonestly shilling for a mediocre auto company and a garbage view of American culture and history.

    I was also bewildered as to why a man who already has more money than he could possibly spend in his remaining years would debase himself and his legacy this way, but I’ve long since given up trying to decipher people’s motivations; it’s hard enough figuring why I do the things I do. However, unlike many of my friends who still regard everything Dylan does or touches as an object of awe and reverence, I consider all but a handful of his post-1960s songs to be somewhere between passable and atrocious, and his concert performances, where he deliberately mangles the melodies of the classic songs that people paid big bucks to hear, as a veritable crime against nature.

    In sum, Mr. Dylan, despite his towering accomplishments long, long ago, has been busily despoiling his legacy on many fronts for many years. In his defense, I can only add that few if any among us will ever have created such a legacy, so let him despoil away. Eventually he’ll be gone, but the truly great songs of his early years will outlive all of us.

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