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Musique et écrits

Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine”: A Rock Star’s Guide to Abandoning your Audience

Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine”, ou comment abandonner son public lorsqu’on est une star du rock
Adrian Smith
p. 90-106

Résumé

L’analyse du roman de Don DeLillo Great Jones Street constituera le fil conducteur de ce travail. Elle nous permettra de confronter la réclusion du personnage de Bucky Wunderlick et la retraite de Bob Dylan dans la maison appelée « Big Pink », à West Saugerties, New York, où l’auteur- compositeur-interprète enregistre avec The Band les fameuses Basement Tapes. À la recherche d’oubli et d’annihilation que motive le retrait de la scène rock protestataire du personnage de DeLillo, nous comparerons la volonté de Dylan et ses musiciens de s’éloigner de l’industrie de la musique pour mieux renouveler leur inspiration en inscrivant leurs morceaux dans l’héritage musical américain. Nous verrons également qu’en s’éloignant du milieu de la musique folk, Dylan, loin d’avoir tourné le dos au radicalisme politique, a poursuivi sa démarche de contestation dans son mode d’expression artistique.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

20th century, XXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

États-Unis, histoire, history, music, musique, société, society, United States
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Texte intégral

1Don DeLillo’s novel Great Jones Street raises the important question of how an audience receives an artist’s work. DeLillo uses the character of Bucky Wunderlick to explore the misconceptions an audience can read into a celebrity’s intentions, and the inability of the famous person, confined by such misreadings, to engage fully in any kind of meaningful act without the danger of being misunderstood. Given the suggestion that the character of Wunderlick was based, in part, on the figure of Bob Dylan, a comparison of the two can open up a rereading of DeLillo’s text, and also provide an interesting lens through which to view Dylan’s career in the late 1960s.

  • 1 DeLillo’s treatment of the years in this time frame differs from the writing of rock critics that a (...)

2The periodisation of the novel is of further interest, as DeLillo uses his work as a means to explore the decline of the counterculture in the years between 1965 and 1975 1. When examining DeLillo’s lament for the death of the counterculture, a comparison with the career of Bob Dylan during this period is enlightening. Not only does Dylan remain one of the most memorable figures of the 1960s folk revival; his subsequent repudiation of the scene which he helped to create (in a parallel with Bucky Wunderlick) also caused a reappraisal of the role of politics in popular music.

  • 2 Mark Mazullo notes that “the way a music scholar and/or critic fulfills the roles of fan, critic, a (...)
  • 3 Marcus states in Mystery Train that “this is a book about rock ‘n’ roll—some of it—and America. It (...)

3Of further interest is the way in which DeLillo writes as an outsider from the rock culture that he describes 2. Great Jones Street, as an observation of America’s post-counterculture years, offers little of the optimism that is to be found in the writing of Greil Marcus, for instance, in his 1975 text Mystery Train. Whereas Great Jones Street signals the death of the counterculture, Marcus manages to circumvent the apparent failure of radical politics in the 1960s by transcending a political and historically specific reading of rock music, and attempting to situate it in the wider context of American culture in general 3. Marcus also emphasises rock music’s ability to form a community that invites audience participation (Mazullo 154), a perception that is at odds with DeLillo’s tale of Bucky Wunderlick, who is isolated and withdrawn. A close analysis of the character of Wunderlick provides a useful starting point in examining how different perspectives on rock music were born out of the remnants of the sixties counterculture.

Wunderlick’s unfulfilled desire for self-annihilation

4Whilst Mystery Train attempts to broaden the cultural context of rock music by claiming it as belonging generally to American culture, rather than specifically to youth culture, or oppositional culture, Great Jones Street offers a reductive reading of rock, letting Bucky Wunderlick stand as a symbol for the wider culture he represents. As DeLillo charts Bucky’s withdrawal from the world of rock music, the message is plain—rock music, after the counterculture, has nowhere left to go.

5The story of Bucky Wunderlick is, in many ways, the story of a man who wishes to attain the status of a thing, an object, by withdrawing from the world of rock stardom, an act that he will come to find is not as easy as it seems. He wishes to replace his band’s abrasive rock noise with silence, signalling the lack of rock music’s ability to communicate meaningfully after the sixties. This desire to achieve objecthood through silence is emphasised by Bucky’s observation of his disconnected telephone: “the fact that it will not speak (although made to speak, made for no other reason) enables us to see it in a new way, as an object rather than an instrument ... The phone has made the descent into total dumbness, and so becomes beautiful” (Great Jones Street 31). It is through muteness and immobility that Bucky intends to withdraw from a world that no longer has any meaning for him, and to obtain beauty through uselessness and inactivity.

  • 4 Bucky’s immobility, his confinement in a small apartment, and his attempt at asceticism are in oppo (...)

6Bucky’s is also a tale of immobility 4. He is a man who (for the greater part of the novel) is sequestered in one room, an inactive centre around which the action of the story takes place. He is the eye of the storm of financial activity that drives the consumer economy. By placing Wunderlick squarely in its centre, DeLillo highlights the dichotomy that exists between rock’s perceived status as an art form, as well as a commercial product. Fenig, the writer who lives upstairs from Wunderlick, uses the image of a wheel to describe the financial economy that surrounds Bucky, and of which Fenig is desperate to become a part:

the market is a strange thing, almost a living organism. It changes, it palpates, it grows, it excretes. It sucks things in and spews them up. It’s a living wheel that turns and crackles ... The big wheel spins and gyrates and makes firecracker noises, going faster and faster and throwing off anybody who can’t hold on ... The market is phenomenal, bright as a hundred cities, turning and turning, and there are little figures everywhere trying to hold on with one hand but they’re getting thrown off into the surrounding night, the silence, the emptiness, the darkness, the basin, the crater, the pit. (GJS 27, 141)

7DeLillo also uses the symbol of a spinning record to represent the nature of commerce in the music industry, as a visual metaphor to complement to Fenig’s spinning wheel that is the market. Furthermore, the spinning record also stands as a symbol of Bucky Wunderlick himself, albeit a Bucky who views himself, and is viewed by others, as product.

8In a section of the novel entitled “Superslick Mind Contracting Media Kit” which contains interviews with Bucky and transcripts of the lyrics to some of his songs, DeLillo demonstrates further how Bucky is trapped inside an economy of his own making. The reproduced lyrics to “Diamond Stylus” demonstrate how the spinning market, the performer and his product (the record) have blended into one (Osteen 52):

Songs I touch/ Wheeling through the soft night/ Tracking force/ Is the way I die/ It scratched out lines on my face/ Test pressing time ... Turning into burning thing/ Circling into wordtime ... Re-volve/ Is the time I have to live/ Ma-trix/ Is the mother- cut/ They give me five hundred hours/ One thousand sides/ Numbering down the broken sounds/ Scratching out a life. (GJS 112)

9Considering the fact that Bucky is unmoving, yet at the centre of motion throughout the novel, we could compare him to the hole in the centre of the spinning record. The hole itself produces no sound, yet without it the record could not be placed on the turntable, and no sounds would be produced. This draws a parallel with his central role in the Transparanoia Corporation, a company that exists purely on money made through Bucky’s music, but also a company that is diversified to the extent that Bucky cannot lay his hands on any of his earnings, demonstrating that even whilst immobile, Bucky is still a driving force in the economy from which he wishes to escape.

  • 5 For more on this see Osteen 46-60.

10This idea is further reinforced by returning to the image of the spinning record. One could consider the stylus to represent Bucky. “They give me five hundred hours/ One thousand sides” demonstrates that the stylus can be picked up and placed back at the beginning of the record. One thousand times, if necessary. Bucky’s wish to enter the void (or the hole at the centre of the record) will never come true as long as he “Circl[es] into wordtime”; as long as he can be manipulated to rejoin the consumer economy, neither his silence, nor his departure, will ever be viable possibilities 5. This is emphasised by the fact that, despite his absence from the public eye, public interest in him increases, rather than fades away, driving rumours about his whereabouts. In much the same way, the mythical stature of Bob Dylan was enhanced in the mid-1960s, when he disappeared from public view for eighteen months, during which period he recorded the famous Basement Tapes with The Band.

Parallels and Points of Departure: Bucky Wunderlick and Bob Dylan

11In order to interrogate DeLillo’s construction of Bucky Wunderlick, Bob Dylan can serve as a useful point of comparison, especially if one considers the ways in which music critics and academics have received his work. DeLillo’s use of Wunderlick to demonstrate the failure of the counterculture (and by extension the failure of oppositional rock music to make a difference) represents a far different treatment of this music form than was applied in Mystery Train and The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, to name but two books that were published around the same time as Great Jones Street. Although Greil Marcus does not tackle the career of Dylan in much depth until 1997, with Invisible Republic, his retrospective take on Dylan still represents an attempt to credit the counterculture with exemplifying American, rather than oppositional, culture.

  • 6 In the documentary Eat the Document which was filmed during the 1966 tour, Dylan is noted to be “pa (...)
  • 7 At this point in his career, not only was Dylan’s record company pressing him to record more albums (...)
  • 8 Nigel Williamson states that “Mystery still surrounds Dylan’s fabled motorcycle accident and the tr (...)

12Anthony DeCurtis and Mark Osteen have each suggested that Bucky Wunderlick is based, in part, upon Bob Dylan. Among other things, DeCurtis makes the link between Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes, and Bucky Wunderlick’s mountain tapes, each set having been recorded in isolation amid mountainous terrain. Secondly, for a part of Dylan’s career at least, the folk singer turned rock ‘n’ roller seemed to be propelled (in a parallel with Bucky Wunderlick) toward self-destruction. His increasing drug-use and lack of sleep whilst on tour led some people who knew him to presume that Dylan was on the verge of death 6, whilst publishing obligations were weighing heavily on Dylan’s mind 7. This was a personal trajectory that lasted until a supposedly serious motorcycle accident left Dylan allegedly convalescing in Woodstock. The details of this accident are sketchy, to say the least, and there is even the contention that no accident even occurred 8. If Dylan’s motorcycle accident was just a ruse to enable him to escape from his commitments, as is suggested by Simon Goddard, then his disappearing act is all too similar to that of Bucky Wunderlick. To an extent, then, it seems as though Dylan’s career from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival until the end of his stay in Big Pink was heading in a similar direction to Bucky Wunderlick’s.

  • 9 “The Old Weird America” is a phrase coined by Greil Marcus to describe the spirit of the songs from (...)

13As DeLillo himself has testified, Great Jones Street “defines the period between 1965 and 1975,” a period “best exemplified in a rock-music star,” and a significant period for this study, because it was within this time frame that Dylan turned his back on folk music, turned to electric rock music with The Band as his musicians, before turning away from rock music, and with the assistance of the members of The Band helped to reinscribe folk music with the spirit of “The Old Weird America” (Marcus, Invisible Republic 87-126) that could be found in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music 9.

  • 10 DeCurtis, “An Outsider…” 57. This quote is further elucidated in DeCurtis’s “The Product: Bucky Wun (...)

14For DeLillo, the thing that Wunderlick most captures about this period is “that [this] particular character ... seems to be at a crossroad between murder and suicide.” 10 Certainly the period in question was a turbulent time, and also a time of transition in America. In the words of Greil Marcus,

In 1967 the orderly assumptions and good-natured disruptions that in the 1950s bordered real life were melting down in riot and war; the civil rights movement, the great wave of belief in a republic fulfilling its own promises, disappeared into the Summer of Love, into the undertow of belief in a world where everyone was his or her own Christ. (IR 68-9)

15If Wunderlick is based on Bob Dylan, then DeLillo’s version of Dylan is, in places, different from the Dylan about whom Greil Marcus wrote in Invisible Republic. Marcus’s Dylan, although withdrawn from the public eye, was incredibly active and recording a considerable number of songs. The quantity was often matched by quality too, as Dylan and The Band plundered America’s musical past, blending an eclectic array of roots music to come up with a sound that was resonant with the past at the same time as it was unique.

  • 11 Among other works licensed to, and performed by, other singers in this period, Bob Dylan’s Greatest (...)

16Unlike DeLillo’s view of the period 1965 to 1975 as being exemplified by the spirit of suicide and murder, Marcus would suggest that in the basement of Big Pink, Dylan and The Band found a sense of community, a sense of roots, and a sense of America. Moreover, although in seclusion, Dylan and The Band were still taking time to make sure that their songs were getting published, and Dylan (unlike Wunderlick) made sure that at least some of the material he had been working on was released by his record company 11.

17Before moving too deeply into the differences between Dylan and Wunderlick, I wish first to examine some of the places where the two figures overlap. The circumstances leading to Dylan’s self-imposed exile from the public, and Wunderlick’s withdrawal from the public eye are both rooted, to an extent, in audience response. Although Dylan’s seclusion may have resulted directly from his need to recover from a motorcycle accident on the morning of 29 July 1966, whereas Wunderlick’s desire for privacy was seemingly more arbitrary, both characters turned their backs on their audience because neither of them had been receiving from their listeners what they required. For Wunderlick, his audience fails to respond to his music with their customary violence:

Toward the end of that final tour it became apparent that our audience wanted more than music, more even than its own reduplicated noise ... There was less sense of simple visceral abandon at our concerts during these last weeks. Few cases of arson and vandalism. Fewer still of rape. No smoke bombs or threats of worse explosives ... Those without tickets didn’t storm the barricades, and during a performance the boys and girls below us, scratching at the stage, were less murderous in their love of me. (GJS 2)

18For Dylan, the hostility his audience showed towards him and the members of The Band (known then as The Hawks) as he turned his back on folk to explore rock and roll was an inversion of Wunderlick’s failed expectations of violence. Greil Marcus recalls Dylan and The Band’s May 26 1966 show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Caught on tape, one outraged fan can be heard to yell “TRAITOR. MOTHERFUCKER. YOU ARE NOT BOB DYLAN” (IR 7). These mirror responses—one of too little violence, the other of too much—each contributed to Wunderlick’s and Dylan’s disappearances from the public eye.

19Dylan’s self-imposed exile from the scrutiny of his fans seems, on the face of it, more striking as a political act than does Bucky Wunderlick’s apparently personal quest for self-annihilation. As the darling of the folk-music scene, Dylan achieved fame through his protest music. Having already turned his back on the folk scene by strapping on an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, his almost complete repudiation of the public music scene can be read as an unwillingness to engage politically with the events of a particularly turbulent time in recent American history, “like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, mired in the problems of Cold War culture, but preferring to sleep, perchance to dream of a more tolerant and equitable America” (Gray 624). Due to his change in musical direction, “Dylan found himself vulnerable to charges of opportunism and perfidy” (Hajdu 276) from folk loyalists, who believed he had sold out his political ideals to become “an Elvis of the mind” (Hajdu 277).

20There is every chance that the folk community overreacted to Dylan’s flirtation with rock music. This overreaction was based on their perception of what rock and roll stood for. Rock music was commercial pop, aimed at teenagers, whereas folk music was supposedly pure and authentic. Robbie Robertson explains the folksters’ manichean view of events when he states that “[e]veryone was telling [Dylan] to get rid of us ... They said we were sent from the devil and were putting this dirty, vulgar music on a pure folkloric tradition” (Quoted in Hoskyns 101). This overreaction was also driven, in part, by the misperception of what Dylan himself was bringing to electric music. In turning to rock music as a vehicle for his songs, far from turning away from politics, Dylan remained as political as ever, yet much of the criticism that came from the political left was blinkered to the fact that folk music was not the only means of disseminating political protest through song.

21As Mike Marqusee correctly observes,

Dylan’s songs of the mid-60s depict a private universe, but one forged in response to tumultuous public events ... “Maggie’s Farm”—booed at Newport—combines class and generational rage in a renunciation of wage labour. Here the power of the employers is propped up by ideology ("She talks to all the servants about man and God and law") and the state (‘the National Guard stands around his door.”) (25)

22Marqusee adds that the “allegedly apolitical” Dylan wrote “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, an epic indictment of a social order built on hypocrisy and greed (“money doesn’t talk it swears”). Its lacerating depiction of an individual marooned in a society ruled by commodities seems more up-to- date now than when first written, as does the final verse of the mordant “Highway 61 Revisited,” in which the military-industrial complex has mutated into a “military-industrial-entertainment complex” (25). Instead of abandoning politics, Dylan was merely trying to find a new way to put his messages across.

23On the other hand, Dylan’s disappearance, like Wunderlick’s, can be read as a personal act. Having been routinely booed at every concert he played with The Hawks between July 1965 and May 1966 it seems natural that Dylan would want to spend some time away from his fans, especially whilst either convalescing from a motorcycle accident which required him to have spinal surgery, or needing an excuse to escape from the weight of too many commitments and too much drug abuse, depending on which story one chooses to believe. Unlike Wunderlick, however, Dylan continued to work during his absence. Whereas Wunderlick embodied the essence of inactivity and lacked a sense of direction (except maybe for turning inwards), Dylan was moving back away from his flirtation with rock music towards a different kind of folk music than any he had played before—the music of the Old Weird America.

  • 12 Marcus alludes to this idea throughout Invisible Republic. The strongest suggestion that Dylan was (...)
  • 13 Quoted in Hoskyns 165.

24According to Greil Marcus, and in contradistinction to DeLillo, rather than backing away from protest music, Dylan was moving towards a more American form of folk music 12. This distinction is a crucial one. In pulling away from overtly political folk music, Dylan and The Band can be accused of being conservative, of burying their heads in the sand as the world around them tried to shake itself apart. Moving towards the roots of American music, however, can be read as a move fuelled by a more populist spirit. Heading into the past can, from a certain point of view (and certainly from Marcus’s), be read as a more radical critique of the present. As The Band’s Robbie Robertson said, “We were rebelling against the rebellion.” 13

25One can also read Dylan’s experimentation as having its genesis in artistic frustration. The folk music scene, whilst politically progressive, was creatively stultifying and did not easily lend itself to experimental artistic impulses. Richie Unterberger’s text Turn! Turn! Turn! celebrates the pioneers of folk-rock, among whom Dylan features prominently, and points to creative restrictions as among the impulses which led performers such as Dylan to repudiate the folk music scene (xvi). For Unterberger, the political and social aspects of the music were secondary to folk-rock’s underlying ethos which was “to disobey unwritten laws, be willing to crash barriers, and refuse to be pigeonholed into any one bag” (xiv).

  • 14 Richard Christgau, The Village Voice (date unknown), quoted in Doggett 15-16.
  • 15 ibid.

26After so offending the folk establishment, who “tore into him with ravaging essays and critical reviews” (Hajdu 277), Dylan disappeared from their view, leaving them to inscribe their own meanings onto his (in)actions. By attempting to avoid the limelight Dylan, in his absence, merely made interest (both positive and negative) about him peak. For instance, after the April 1969 release of Nashville Skyline, the political side of Bob Dylan was still up for debate: “A year and a half ago, remember, Dylan released his most political album in years, John Wesley Harding, he also put in a rare public appearance at a Woody Guthrie memorial. Now, after Nashville Skyline, he guests for Johnny Cash, an enthusiastic Nixon supporter.” 14 The problem, as far as Christgau saw it, was the reputation that country music had as being “naturally conservative ... intensely chauvinistic, racist, majority-oriented and anti-aristocratic in the worst as well as the best sense.” 15 What was Dylan up to, playing this socially regressive form of music? What had he been up to in Woodstock with his Canadian hillbilly friends? Richie Unterberger writes that

[f]or the year and a half following his serious, then mysterious motorcycle crash in July 1966, Dylan virtually disappeared from public view. Rumors that he was near death, that he was disfigured, or even that the mishap had never taken place ran rampant. Rumors about how the motorcycle crashed, what exactly Dylan did over the next few weeks and months, and indeed whether the accident happened still continue to circulate" (266-7).

27Such conjectures as to Dylan’s state of mind and body are strongly reflected by those that surround Bucky Wunderlick’s whereabouts in Great Jones Street. The value of such speculation is not only that it demonstrates substantial media interest in either character, but also that it stands for another form of entrapment:

“[O]nce Wunderlick retreats to the room on Great Jones Street, having reached his own limit within the context of the general cultural dissolution, it quickly becomes clear that the forces that really control events – quite independent of the whims of pop stars – have not relaxed their grip simply because he has decided to drop out. What happens is that the void he creates by his withdrawal makes the functioning of those forces more apparent – and more frightening – to him” (DeCurtis “The Product”, 135. Italics mine).

28DeCurtis notes the significance of the specific historical circumstances about which DeLillo writes. He is the residual product of the dissolving cultural force of the counterculture. For the novelist, Wunderlick, like the counterculture in general, has lost momentum, and is trapped by the pervasiveness of the military-industrial complex. Far from Marcus’s ahistorical writings on Dylan, DeLillo attempts to capture the spirit of upheaval that bridged the late 1960s and the early 1970s, using Wunderlick as a symbol for that era.

29Wunderlick’s disappearance then, like Dylan’s, throws the press and his fans alike into a frenzy of speculation. Even as he tries to turn inwards and become an object, free from scrutiny, his marketing department manage to create various facsimiles of Bucky by circulating rumours of his whereabouts in order to keep up public interest in his music, thus maximising the potential profits to be made from Bucky’s return to the limelight. This reinforces DeLillo’s emphasis on the power of the military-industrial complex over that of the individual. The hold of the corporation over Bucky is such that they can control information on his whereabouts, even when he remains shut in his apartment on Great Jones Street.

30According to press reports in the novel, in the time Bucky has remained sequestered in his Great Jones Street apartment, he is variously seen “in a drive-in restaurant in Florida” (GJS 14) and “at the airport in Benton Harbor, Michigan” (14); he is said to be financially involved “in a planeload of arms confiscated in Brussels that was supposedly on its way to either this or that trouble-spot” (21) and has suffered “damage to [his] vocal chords from the continuous strain” (21), meaning that he’ll never perform again; he has been seen “in an accident and [is] hidden away in some rich private clinic in South Central Maryland” (22), is now “deceased, maimed or in Philadelphia” (43), and has been spotted “in three different cities in England” (131) on the same day. He is presumed to have been “buried in an unmarked grave in rural Montana” (131), has also been “seen stealing a can of pineapple chunks in a supermarket in Fresno” (146) and rumour has it that “[he’s] in New York living in an old building on some obscure street” (210). When Bucky points out that “the rumours have been getting a little sloppy,” the response from Hanes (a minion in Bucky’s Transparanoia Corporation) informs him that “things keep going. Things haven’t let up at all. The press is still having the dry heaves over your disappearance. The underground press. The radical press. The trade press. The straight press. The revolutionary press” (131) are all speculating as to Bucky’s whereabouts. Despite Bucky’s apathy, the world continues to rotate around him.

31Hence, despite Bucky’s attempts to close himself off from the world, the world (via the Transparanoia Corporation) keeps inscribing its own meanings and interpretations as to what has really happened to him, creating fictional versions of him that circulate outside of his control. This means that, ultimately, any move he makes, even if the move is to remain still, becomes robbed of all meaning:

Bucky’s economy of silence comes to be seen as just another form of excess. As his silence and even his suicidal impulses are appropriated by a commodity culture hungry for violence, he becomes the victim of his own and the audience’s craving for sacrifices. In this economy, even purity becomes a product. (Osteen 47)

  • 16 For more on this see Frith.

32The reduction of Bucky and his purity to the status of products represents DeLillo’s sweeping indictment of the inability of the counterculture to operate outside the framework of the consumer economy. Discourses on rock music have emphasised the link between rock and folk, especially after the folk revival of the 1960s. The greater part of this emphasis is on the integrity of rock music, which stands as a counterpoint to the facile, commercial properties of pop 16. By turning Bucky’s purity into a product, by association the perceived integrity of rock also becomes suspect. All that matters is Bucky’s image, which is circulated through rumours that have been mediated by the press. Bucky becomes readable only on the surface, all possibility of purity usurped by Transparanoia.

33Before his stay in Great Jones Street, Bucky had made a previous attempt at withdrawal, recording a set of tapes in an unspecified mountain location in the Northeast of the United States. Bucky’s “Mountain Tapes” see Bucky’s lyrics becoming increasingly childlike, reduced to nonsensical babbling. The implication here is clear—by becoming childlike, Bucky is trying to regain a sense of innocence, through which he may be able to attain the purity he later unsuccessfully seeks in his Great Jones Street apartment. Having returned to New York, Bucky is unable to decide what he should do with this set of tapes. The regression in Bucky’s “Mountain Tapes” is driven by an attempt to destroy language through the use of childish babble in the lyrics that are partially transcripted by Don DeLillo and are described as “genuinely infantile” (GJS 148). Bucky attempts to escape his own personal present of suffering and torment by uttering indecipherable nonsense — “Wunderlick’s desire to strip away the rational meanings of language is related to his urge for self-attenuation — a response to the failure of the sixties’ promise for ever- expanding utopian possibilities” (DeCurtis 134). In his seclusion in the mountains, he records by stream of consciousness a set of tapes which were designed to propel his career along the middle leg of its journey “from activism toward babbling and silence” (Osteen 47). Having recorded them, the tapes sit in Bucky’s apartment room on Great Jones Street, along with a similar package containing a drug that kills the user’s ability to communicate verbally. Bucky does not feel any impetus to release the tapes to a public who seemingly wish him to self-destruct in order to vindicate their own wishes for his martyrdom. Bucky Wunderlick muses on the nature of celebrity and destruction at the hands of his audience at the start of Great Jones Street, highlighting the bind in which the famous man finds himself:

Even if he is half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors. Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counsellors of lesser men would consider bad publicity—hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs. Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to suicide. (GJS 1)

34More to the point, for the greater part of the novel, Bucky does not feel the drive to do anything, let alone give in to his fans’ murderous love for him. There is a clear feeling in Great Jones Street that Bucky is not the agent of his own fate. This leads one to wonder if his seclusion is more a form of imprisonment than of withdrawal. Insofar as Bucky has any options (either die by his own hand, give in to his fans’ murderous love, or do nothing), they are not the choices that one would typically expect a free man to face.

  • 17 Whilst in Big Pink, Dylan would rush upstairs to write songs on a typewriter before rushing back do (...)

35Clearly therefore, the story of Bucky Wunderlick and the story of Dylan’s eighteen months away from the limelight revolve in similar ways around the notions of freedom and privacy. One major difference between Dylan and Wunderlick, however, manifests itself in the radically different ways each rock star utilises this privacy. Having turned his back on the world, Wunderlick remains static, hell-bent on suicide, atrophy or murder. For Wunderlick there remains nothing but to turn inwards, and attempt to avoid becoming a product of the global economy. Bucky wishes to become, through immobility and silence, an object like his dead telephone: “A telephone that’s disconnected, deprived of its sources, becomes in time an intriguing piece of sculpture” (GJS 31), or in other words, “[l]acking both use-value and exchange-value, the dead phone achieves perfection” (Osteen 47). Wunderlick’s idea of perfection is immobility, uselessness and silence. Dylan, on the other hand, retreated first to Woodstock and then to Big Pink to convalesce, to seek an alternative form of community from that which he had spurned, and to refashion an idea of what it could mean to be an American folk artist. In contrast to Bucky Wunderlick’s stasis in seclusion, Dylan’s time spent in Big Pink was a busy, often frenetic one 17, during which he was still actively engaged in the financial world of the music industry, licensing some of his songs for other performers to sing, and cutting an album in Nashville.

36It was also during his stay in Big Pink that the legendary Basement Tapes were recorded. Although never intended for release, bootlegged versions of some of the basement recordings were leaked out onto the market although, according to Levon Helm of The Band, most of these recordings have never been officially released (157). This private set of recordings which evoked the spirit of the Old Weird America alongside other recordings by Dylan, and The Band’s Music From Big Pink eventually broke through into the market economy, achieving (unlike Bucky’s telephone, and by extension, Bucky himself) both use-value and exchange-value. The Basement Tapes were finally officially released in 1975, retrospectively providing consumers access to the insights which could be gleaned from a mere handful of the songs which Dylan and The Band had recorded in the basement of Big Pink, unlike Bucky’s Mountain Tapes which were destroyed by a petulant drug dealer, and therefore never saw the light of day.

  • 18 “Tears of Rage,” as well as the instruments mentioned above, carries a trace of electric guitar pla (...)

37The Basement Tapes and The Mountain Tapes can be seen as offering an interesting parallel to one another. Both sets of recordings encapsulate a form of regression. With The Basement Tapes, Dylan and The Band utilised an array of old-time instruments, including the mandolin, the accordion, and the violin, which provide the recordings with a sense of timelessness. Greil Marcus asserts that “[a]s one listens, no date adheres to the Basement Tapes” (IR xvi), and that “the Basement Tapes could carry the date 1932 and it would be as convincing, as one listens, as 1967” (IR xvi). Serving as a counterpoint to the histrionic and densely layered psychedelic rock coming out of San Francisco at the time, Basement songs such as “Tears of Rage” or “Lo and Behold!” have a stripped down, simple quality. “Lo and Behold!”, in a similar manner to the slower tempo “Tears of Rage”, carries the faintest trace of Garth Hudson’s organ hiding behind Dylan’s vocals and acoustic guitar playing, adding the only modern sounding instrument to the bass and piano which accompany Dylan’s performance 18. In terms of performance, this song could easily sit alongside the folk songs of the 1920s and 1930s that one can find on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Lyrically “Lo and Behold!” refuses to let the listener set a date to the themes therein. A conversation with a coachman, in which he asks the singer for his name, could have taken place in the 1800s. The lines “I’m goin’ down to Tennessee/ Get me a truck or somethin’ ” could apply as easily to the 1920s as to the 1960s. Even as the music draws the listener back to the past, Dylan’s lyrics refuse to let him put a precise date on that past.

38 “Tears of Rage” is more difficult to categorise than “Lo And Behold!”. Hudson’s organ is a little more prominent in this song, and combines with the sound of a slide guitar to make this song sound a little more contemporary than “Lo and Behold!”. The complexity in this song is derived from the vocals. Dylan’s plaintive, deep-voiced singing is counterpointed by a higher-toned harmony sung by Richard Manuel, the two voices mixing to sound like an anachronistic folk duet. Lyrically, “Tears of Rage” gives voice to the historical resonance of Independence Day: “We carried you in our arms/ On Independence Day/ And now you’d throw us all aside/ And put us on our way/ Oh, what dear daughter ‘neath the sun/ Would treat a father so.” Dylan’s words here are clearly not a celebration of America’s day of naming. The song demonstrates that certain significant events upon which the United States’ national psyche was built continue to echo through the years, even if the intervening time between then and now has changed the meaning and significance of July 4th. With this in mind, the events described in the song only place the listener somewhere between 1776 and today. According to Marcus, there is a refusal to adhere to a specific time-period in this song, which is indicative of the sense of regression in the Basement Tapes as a whole.

39By taking an ahistorical approach to his examination of Bob Dylan and The Band, Marcus allows for post-counterculture rock music to stand as a totalising symbol for American culture and history, dating back to the revolution. This sweeping analysis is not, however, without its limitations. By stripping the historical context away from the making of the Basement Tapes, Marcus does not allow for an interpretation of how such specific historical circumstances affected the creative process of these songs, which were certainly a product of their time, despite the spirit of regression that they encapsulate. By transcending this context, Marcus fails to allow for an interrogation of the political upheaval of the immediate post-counterculture years.

Conclusion: how to perform an act of escapology

40In the final analysis, Marcus’s construction of Dylan allows for a greater sense of artistic agency and freedom, precisely because Marcus (somewhat successfully) manages to wrest Dylan’s late counterculture era career free from the historical context that, in another analysis, may have proven to inhibit such a utopian discourse. One could argue that Marcus, when writing Invisible Republic in the early 1990s, had greater recourse to the benefit of hindsight than DeLillo had when writing Great Jones Street in the early 1970s. One should not forget, however, that Marcus also took a dehistoricised approach to writing about rock music with his 1975 text Mystery Train, written at the tail end of the historical period that Great Jones Street evokes. The difference of approach taken by DeLillo and Marcus must be accounted for by their positioning as authors. As a novelist, DeLillo’s agenda was to highlight the personal and political tensions that epitomised late 1960s America. As a rock critic, Marcus had an obligation to his trade to try to rescue rock music from its perceived period of crisis.

41This difference of agenda is played out neatly by a final comparison between Wunderlick and Dylan. Fundamentally, they face the same dilemma:

If the audience demands only more of what it has already accepted, the artist has a choice. He can move on, and perhaps cut himself off from his audience; if he does, his work will lose all the vitality and strength it had when he knew it mattered to other people. Or the artist can accept the audience’s image of himself, pretend that his audience is his shadowy ideal, and lose himself in his audience. Then he will only be able to confirm; he will never be able to create. (Marcus, Mystery Train 6)

42The dissimilarity between Wunderlick and Dylan lies in the fact that Wunderlick sees no means of escape beyond trying to disappear completely, whereas Dylan managed to redirect his career, and still remains a vital and creative artist. Conversely, Great Jones Street in its pessimism borders on nihilism. Bucky wishes to escape not only from the failed dreams of the 1960s, but also from his audience’s misconception of what Bucky’s music means. Ultimately, he is unable to achieve these goals whilst remaining creatively active. At the end of the novel it appears as though Bucky’s career as an artist is over, but that this is possibly what he wanted. DeLillo’s story is ultimately one of failure—the failure of radical politics, and the failure of one man, Bucky Wunderlick, to make a difference.

43Greil Marcus’s Bob Dylan, on the other hand, made his escape from the broken promises of sixties utopia, backed away from the folk scene, yet still remained able to interweave political dissent into his work. With help from The Band and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Dylan found his escape in the Old Weird America. This act of escapology demonstrates that he understood something that DeLillo’s Wunderlick did not, namely that escape was possible through recreating one’s self, by looking towards an alternative milieu through which to express oneself, whilst remaining an active part of the consumer economy. Dylan managed to come through his own time of personal grief, amid criticism from his former peers in the folk community, and managed to hold on to a huge audience for his work.

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Notes

1 DeLillo’s treatment of the years in this time frame differs from the writing of rock critics that appeared around the same time Great Jones Street was written. Texts such as Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train (1975) and The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (1976) attempted to invoke a sense of history, but only within rock music, which suggested that it existed as part of a continuum of American culture. By situating the music in this strictly cultural context, these books managed to avoid having to make the same kind of criticisms of the counterculture’s failure that are at the heart of DeLillo’s appraisal of the same period.

2 Mark Mazullo notes that “the way a music scholar and/or critic fulfills the roles of fan, critic, and historian will determine the kind of history being written“ (147). Clearly, one’s perspective of the counterculture will be coloured by the position from which one is writing. Anthony DeCurtis notes that a friend of his dismissed the section of Great Jones Street that featured an interview with Bucky Wunderlick by stating “That’s exactly what a writer would think a rock star thinks like“ (“The Product“, 132). The “outsider” status of DeLillo, compared with the “insider” status of critics such as Greil Marcus goes a long way towards explaining the differences in their approach.

3 Marcus states in Mystery Train that “this is a book about rock ‘n’ roll—some of it—and America. It is not a history, or a purely musical analysis, or a set of personality profiles. It is an attempt to broaden the context in which the music is heard; to deal with rock ‘n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture“ (4). This gives his work the benefit of being able to discuss rock in a positive light, even at a time when the music form was experiencing a time of crisis. This, of course, can be construed as a criticism of Marcus’s work just as easily as a compliment.

4 Bucky’s immobility, his confinement in a small apartment, and his attempt at asceticism are in opposition to Simon Frith’s contention that “[r]ock ‘n’ roll mastery mean[s] the mastery of movement, speed, abundance, space“ (Frith 165). DeLillo is therefore constructing Wunderlick as a character who is the antithesis of a rock ‘n’ roll star. DeLillo’s inversion of Wunderlick’s mastery of rock ‘n’ roll serves to underline the conception that the counterculture has run out of steam, and that rock, as an agency of change, has failed.

5 For more on this see Osteen 46-60.

6 In the documentary Eat the Document which was filmed during the 1966 tour, Dylan is noted to be “painfully thin and very pale” (Sounes, 253). Barney Hoskyns notes of the footage that “one sees with renewed shock just how much damage amphetamine [has] done to Dylan’s body” (117). Hoskyns also notes of Something is Happening, another documentary filmed in 1966 that “it is obvious [Dylan] has been awake for so long he is about to crash” (121).

7 At this point in his career, not only was Dylan’s record company pressing him to record more albums, but also his manager was pressuring Dylan to commit to a stadium tour of America. On top of this, the publishers MacMillan were keen for Dylan to finish the manuscript for his book Tarantula, which he had been working on for over a year (Goddard, 24).

8 Nigel Williamson states that “Mystery still surrounds Dylan’s fabled motorcycle accident and the true extent of his injuries. What is clear is reports that he had broken his neck and almost been killed were untrue” (49).

9 “The Old Weird America” is a phrase coined by Greil Marcus to describe the spirit of the songs from Smith’s Anthology, which summons up the ghosts of America’s past through Smith’s pursuit of obscure murder ballads, church songs, hillbilly songs and blues songs. For Marcus, this was an America that had hitherto been invisible, an America whose age and weirdness underlined the music of The Basement Tapes.

10 DeCurtis, “An Outsider…” 57. This quote is further elucidated in DeCurtis’s “The Product: Bucky Wunderlick, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street” in which he states that “[t]he interplay between murder and suicide that DeLillo mentions would seem to suggest the movement of American society from the political upheavals and turmoil of the late sixties to the dreadful cynicism, deep alienation, and desperate privation of the seventies” (133).

11 Among other works licensed to, and performed by, other singers in this period, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits was released March 1967, containing the new track “Positively 4th Street,” which reached number ten in the album charts (Sounes 269). John Wesley Harding was recorded in Nashville in the Autumn of 1967 (Sounes 270).

12 Marcus alludes to this idea throughout Invisible Republic. The strongest suggestion that Dylan was trying to reinscribe his idea of America comes when Marcus (70) asserts that “[i]n the basement theatre, nothing was exactly clear and nothing was obviously wide open. There were doors all around the room, a door for every worry or imagining; all you had to do was find the key. Each time a new key opened a door, America opened up into both the future and the past—and it is perhaps only a progressive nature of time that leads one to presume that when Dylan spoke of an America that was wide open, he meant open to what was to come, not to what had been, open to the question of who and what Americans might become, not the question of where they came from.” Furthermore, Timothy Gray argues that, according to Marcus, “rock and folk ‘prophets’ were among the first to recognize that America was reneging on its basic principles of freedom and equality.” Gray uses the example of Captain America (Peter Fonda) in Easy Rider (1969) sporting the American flag on his motorcycle gas tank and the back of his leather jacket to demonstrate that the two seemingly incompatible ideas of patriotism and the counterculture could, indeed, co-exist.

13 Quoted in Hoskyns 165.

14 Richard Christgau, The Village Voice (date unknown), quoted in Doggett 15-16.

15 ibid.

16 For more on this see Frith.

17 Whilst in Big Pink, Dylan would rush upstairs to write songs on a typewriter before rushing back down to the basement to record them. This activity was captured by the drunken basement recording “Stagger Blee”—“Going back upstairs/ Well, you been downstairs too long/ I’m goin’ back upstairs/ You can stay down here” (Marcus, IR 80). In contrast to this, in Great Jones Street Bucky Wunderlick informs us that he “was preoccupied with conserving [him]self for some unknown ordeal to come and did not make work by engaging in dialogues, or taking more than the minimum number of steps to get from place to place, or urinating unnecessarily.”(19)

18 “Tears of Rage,” as well as the instruments mentioned above, carries a trace of electric guitar played with a slide, but this instrument is so far down in the mix, in places, as to be undetectable.

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Adrian Smith, « “Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine”: A Rock Star’s Guide to Abandoning your Audience », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, 90-106.

Référence électronique

Adrian Smith, « “Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine”: A Rock Star’s Guide to Abandoning your Audience », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 18 novembre 2009, consulté le 20 octobre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2992 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.2992

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Adrian Smith

(University of Nottingham, United Kingdom)
Adrian Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in the school of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham, researching on country music, alternative country music and Greil Marcus’s vision of “The Old Weird America.”

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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