Mike's Blogs

25/2/14 Bob Dylan, Chrysler, and the Carbon Culture.

By Mike Johnson

The air burns, and I’m trying to think straight
— Bob Dylan, Can't Wait, 1997

There has been a kerfuffle recently in the blogosphere over Bob Dylan’s two minute TV Super Bowl ad for Chrysler. ‘Is there anything more American than America,’ the old Master of Cliché croons as he opens the ad for the iconic motor car brand, even though Dylan was merely doing what Eminem, who once promised to march at the head of army 35 thousand strong to unseat Bush and Co, did in 2011.

‘Sell out! Sell out!’ the voices chorus, an accusation which echoes through the years right back of 1964 when Dylan betrayed the folkies and the hearts-on-their-sleeves brigade. The best of these finger-pointing articles, Bob Dylan and The Ethics of Market Fascism by Tony Kashani of Truthout, quite rightly points to the commodification of everything in our current culture. The triumph of commodification, in fact.

All well and good, but nobody seems to have noticed the deeper link here to the gas-guzzling, non-negotiable American way,  and the role of the motor car in the Beat culture out of which the young Dylan emerged.

The On the Road Beat culture was a car culture despite its nostalgia for jumping trains.

Rebel Without a Cause, the great James Dean youthful rebellion movie of the mid fifties, a movie which had a profound effect on the young Dylan, was as much about a young man’s relationship to his car as it was about dysfunctional parents.

Like the cigarette that hung perpetually out of the side of Jame’s Dean’s mouth, the motor car was synonymous with freedom and rebellion – and the rite of passage into adulthood.

While the Easy Rider life style of the road was as much a myth as it was reality, it was fueled with American gasoline and conducted in cars like Chrysler whose steel came from iron-ore mining towns like Hibbing, where Dylan grew up.

One of his best early ‘protest’ songs, North Country Blues, a song much admired for its sensitive portrayal of a miner’s wife from the woman’s point of view, charts the decline of iron ore mining under the impact of imported ore from places like South America ‘where the miners work almost for nothing.’

The underlying nationalism of the American Beats might have been missed, but it’s clear from ‘North Country Blues’ that what Dylan is lamenting is the decline of American industry, of American productivity – an early patriotic reaction to globalisation.

Of course with Dylan its very easy to confuse authenticity with the performance of authenticity, perhaps because for him these two things are one and the same. Here’s Dylan in 1963 authentically performing North Country Blues.

Note: This clip has been around for many years on You Tube, hope I don’t get whipped for uploading it here.

He picks up on the same theme in 1984 in the song ‘Union Sundown’, in which he laments, ‘they don’t make nothin’ here no more.’ Making things has always been a primal American virtue, and again what Dylan laments in ‘Union Sundown’ is not the situation of the poor woman ‘down in Argentina making‘50 cents a day’ but the loss of American preeminence in industrial production.

We often talk glibly of a ‘post carbon culture’, but this is not just a matter of energy use, and motor cars are a lot more than just a means of transportation. Image and self-image, culture and its reflection are all bound up in the gas-guzzling vehicles Dylan is celebrating. Separating the auto industry from Big Oil cuts deep into cultural roots.

Some commentators have detected a deeper ironical purpose in Dylan’s Chrysler ad clichés, but I don’t know that we need it – unless he was aware that Chrysler is now owned by Fiat, a European company, and is taking the piss.

We are indeed a carbon based culture, and we paying the price for it with a warming planet. Perhaps the poet in Dylan appreciates this more than the sell-out persona he presents in the ad:

The air is getting hotter, there’s a rumbling in the sky
I’ve been wading through the high muddy water
with the heat rising in my eyes…
— Bob Dylan, ‘Trying to get to heaven before they close the door‘, 1997