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Winter 2006

Stories of a Bad Song

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Greil Marcus

I'm going to talk about how meaning is generated in cultural work, over time; I'm going to talk about how it is that bad art, a bad song, can make its way through time so persistently that questions of good and bad may become absolutely moot. I'm going to talk about a very old song by Bob Dylan.

Last year Mojo magazine ranked Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," his 1963 song about arms merchants, number one on a chart of "The 100 Greatest Protest Songs." It was followed by Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, by James Brown's "Say It Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud" from 1968, an anthem of the Black Power movement, the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" from 1977, an attack on Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" from 1939, a song about the lynching of southern black men by southern whites. Not to mention Lesley Gore's 1963 "You Don't Own Me" and Eddie Cochran's 1958 "Summertime Blues" —a record about a teenager with a mean boss, mean parents, and a congressman who won't help because the kid's too young to vote.

But for "Masters of War" the lack of subtlety was perhaps the point. "Come you masters of war, you that build the big guns," Dylan begins slowly: "You that build the death planes / You that build the big bombs." He goes on, stepping on a somehow mysterious, inviting melody. "Not even Jesus would forgive what you do," the twenty-two-year-old Bob Dylan sings. And then he does something that, even for a protest song, was shocking in 1963 and is shocking now: he calls for the death of the people he's singing about. "I hope that you die," he says flatly.

And your death will come soon
I'll follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're dead

Now, no matter what Bob Dylan has done in the last forty-two years or what he will do for the rest of his life, his obituary has already been written: "Bob Dylan, best known as a protest singer from the 1960s, died yesterday..." The media loves a simple idea. No matter how famous you are, when you die you get one idea, and one only.

In 1963, in the small world of folk music, protest songs were the currency. They said that the world should be changed, even implied that songs could change it, and no one wrote better protest songs—or as many—as Bob Dylan. It was a way of getting on the train of his own career, he'd say years later—but to the tens of thousands of high school and college students who had begun to listen to Bob Dylan because, they said, he could draw on their own unshaped anger and rage, terror and fear, and make it all real, even make it poetry, that was not how the songs felt.

They felt like warnings the world couldn't turn away from, crimes that had to be paid, promises that had to be kept. Bob Dylan wrote songs about the nuclear war that in 1963 almost everyone was sure would take place sometime, somewhere—and in 1962, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, almost had: the war that, as Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in 1962, said in the recent film The Fog of War, came closer than even the most paranoid protest singer dared imagine. Dylan wrote and sang long, detailed songs about racial injustice, he wrote funny protest songs like "Talking World War III Blues," visionary protest songs like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"—but mostly he wrote and sang songs that told stories about the wrong inside a nation that believed it was always right: "With God on Our Side," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Blowin' in the Wind." These were the songs that brought Bob Dylan into the common imagination of the nation, and those were the songs that fixed him there.

But even in the heyday of the protest song, "Masters of War" seemed like too much. Too sententious, too self-righteous—stilted, as if it was less a matter of someone writing a protest song than the protest song as such spontaneously generating its own copy, or its own cartoon. "You hide in your mansion / While young people's blood / flows out of their bodies / And into the mud," Dylan sang in "Masters of War." Still, that was almost poetry compared to "You Been Hiding Too Long," another Bob Dylan protest song from the same moment. "Come all you phony super-patriotic"—OK, stop right there, we don't need to hear any more, but there is more, a lot more, no melody, no rhythm, no heart, no conviction, but press a button and the protest song comes out: "You lie and mislead / You—for your aims and your selfish greed...Don't think that I'll ever stand on your side..." and on, and on. It's so awful it's been erased from Dylan's song collections; he probably never recorded it. He may have only performed it once, at a concert in New York in 1963, when he also sang "Masters of War"—but this horrible song is inside "Masters of War," and for one night at least it got out.

"Masters of War" does have a melody—the melody of "Nottamun Town," an ancient British folk song. It's often described as a nonsense song; that's the last thing it is. Today it communicates as twentieth-century surrealism in sixteenth-century clothes: "Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down...Come a stark-naked drummer a-beating the drum...Ten thousand stood round me, yet I was alone...Ten thousand got drownded that never was born." This is the first protest song, and the last; this is the end of world. Traditional versions found in Kentucky or North Carolina were in a major key, which put a sardonic smile in the music, but around "the green pastures of Harvard University," as Dylan once put it, he heard a version in a minor key by the Cambridge folk singer Jackie Washington. That put a chill on the melody, gave him an opening into the bad dream he was after: shadowed, doomstruck, the sound of funeral procession, or a line of flagellants in the plague years.

Dylan had stopped singing "Masters of War" by 1964. Songs like that were "lies that life is black and white," he sang that year. He brought it back into his repertoire in the 1980s; he was playing more than a hundred shows a year, and to fill the nights he brought back everything. It was a crowd-pleaser, the number one protest song. But nothing in the song hinted at what it would turn into on February 21, 1991, at the Grammy Awards telecast, where Dylan was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.

The show came square in the middle of the first Iraqi-American War—a break from round-the-clock footage of the bombing of Baghdad. "Uncle Bobby," Jack Nicholson said, introducing Dylan, as Dylan and his four-piece band came onstage to play one song. In dark suits, with fedoras pulled down over their faces, the musicians looked like small-time hipster gangsters who'd spent the previous ten years in the same bar waiting for the right deal to break and finally said the hell with it; Dylan held himself with authority, like the bartender.

It was an instantly infamous performance, and one of the greatest of Dylan's career. He sang the song in disguise; at first, you couldn't tell what it was. He slurred the words as if their narrative was irrelevant and the performance had to communicate as a symbol or not at all. He broke the words down and smashed them up until they worked as pure excitement, until the appearance of a single, whole signifier—"Jesus," "Guns," "Die"—lit up the night like tracer bullets. The performance was faster, the beat snapping back on itself, then fragmenting as guitar lines shot out of the music as if without human agency—and it might have been a minute, it might have been two, it might have been as long as the performance lasted for the melody to creep out of the noise and the song to reveal itself for what it was.

Dylan was asked why, on this night of all nights, he chose to sing "Masters of War."

"The war going on," he said.

Why did he slur the words, he was asked.

"I had a cold," he said.

With that night, the song began its second life. In the fall of 2002, when George W. Bush made plain his intent to launch a second Iraq war—on November 11, just after the midterm elections that Bush had used the specter of war to win—Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden and again offered "Masters of War" as an answer record to real life. He gathered three musicians in a circle, with himself at the center: playing acoustic guitars and a bass fiddle, seated on chairs, they looked like a coven, and the song sounded like a curse dug out of the ground.

The song began to travel. In May of 2003, with the war under way, Scott Amendola and Carla Bozulich of Berkeley put a nine-minute version on the Internet. They made a storm; they took the song's rage into the realm of abstraction, until the end, when there was nothing left but drum taps, silence, and a single voice, letting you imagine that this was all that was left, after the war.

More than a year later, in October 2004, with Bush and John Kerry battling for the presidency and Minnesota up for grabs, a Minneapolis record-store owner named Mark Treehouse put out a version of the song out as a pure rant—with, on the cover, Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft in red, white, and blue. A month after that, on election night, November 2, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with the votes cast but the outcome still unknown, Dylan offered the song once more, again in the middle of a war—a middle, that night, without an end. At first his delivery was clipped, the words rushed and stuttered. As certain lines seemed to draw more from Dylan, the song seemed to rewrite itself. "You put a gun in my hand," Dylan sang to the arms merchants in an old-cowboy voice; it sounded like "You put a gun to my head." An electric guitar came down hard, and the music turned fierce. "I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're dead"—as the words came out of Dylan's mouth his voice was shaking. And none of this matched what happened at Boulder High School, in Boulder, Colorado, the very next day.

On November 3, students staged a sit-in in the school library: "Bush will directly affect our generation's future," one Boulder freshman said, "and we were upset we didn't have a voice in that." The principal refused to have the students removed; Congressman Mark Udall came to the school to speak; so did Senator-elect Ken Salazar. TV crews arrived. And then the stakes were raised.

The annual school talent show was scheduled for November 12; a teacher named Jim Kavanagh helped bring a group of students together as a band. "Your basic juvenile delinquent types," he said in plain English, then dropping into teacher's language: "at risk." Fooling around on guitar, someone began playing in D minor. "That sounds like 'Masters of War,'" one student said. That wasn't what the guitar player thought he was doing, but in a moment it was what the group was doing.

The students came up with name for their group: the Taliband. A singer came forward, a student named Allyse Wojtanek: "not a singer," Kavanagh says, "a very brave kid." The group went to the audition, which was filled with Britney Spears imitations. "Nobody did anything close to what we did," Kavanagh said—at the start, he and another teacher were in the group—"and we really sucked. I never heard such a horrible sound. We found out the next day that not only did we make the show, we were the last act. And at this point, one of the kids who was doing karaoke stuff went home, and said to her mother, 'I didn't make the show, but this other band that wants to kill Bush did.'" Instead of "I hope that you die," the student had heard "Die, Bush, Die." The mother got on the phone to the local Clear Channel AM stations—and once again news trucks hit the school. Talk show hosts called for the Taliband to be kicked out of the talent show. The Secret Service arrived —they took the lyrics to "Masters of War" and left—and the story went over the AP wire.

The band changed its name—to Coalition of the Willing. They negotiated with the school administration over video footage to be projected onto the musicians as they played: first, footage of Bush and Iraq. Does it have to be Bush, the principal asked. "Why not lots of masters of war," a student suggested: Bush, Hitler, and Stalin. Why do there have to be any faces? the administration begged. They settled for generic war footage and the American flag.

As the talent show began, three gangly boys came on to MC the show, miming to ZZ Top's "Sharp-Dressed Man." They didn't miss a step all night.

A twelve-student assemblage did the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." A student played a Debussy piano piece. Another danced. The crowd gave everyone wild applause.

As one of the MCs began a routine, an off-stage electric guitar drowned him out. "I can't work under these conditions!" he shouted. "I'm going to protest this next act!" "Oh my God," said a second MC. "You're protesting it? Can you do that? This is national-newsworthy!" Dressed now in a black suit, the third MC pulled out a video camera and began filming the other two. The three accused each other of planning to burn down the school-not a casual joke, thirty-five miles from Columbine. "This next act," said one MC, "is the controversial act you've been waiting for—the Russian Jugglers!"

Aside from Coalition of the Willing, brother and sister Olga and Vova Galdrenko were the highlight of the show. There were ten more acts—and then the seven-student Coalition came out, with Allyse Wojtanek in a black halter. The sound was big and atonal, with guitar and saxophone on the top and Wojtanek screaming. When she got to "I hope that you die," she talked the line, making each word stand alone. When she hit "SURE THAT YOU'RE DEAD," she all but tore her throat out.

There were video battlefield images of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq then, Iraq now. For the moment, for the students, the war was theirs, perhaps waiting for them six months or a year down the line, and the song was theirs, waiting for them for more than forty years.

It became clear that, beyond new wars, what has kept the song alive is its melody, and its vehemence: that final "I hope that you die." It's the elegance of the melody and the extremism of the words that attract people—the way the song does go too far, to the limits of free speech. It's a scary line to sing; you need courage to do it. You can't come to the song as if it's a joke; you can't come away from it pretending you didn't mean what you've just said. That's what people want: a chance to go that far. Because "Masters of War" gives people permission to go that far, the song continues to make meaning, to find new bodies to inhabit, new voices to ride.

Last month, at the Berkeley Farmers' Market, there was a black man in his sixties or seventies singing versions of folk ballads like "Stagger Lee"; there was a black man in his fifties singing deep versions of soul hits like "He Will Break Your Heart"; and there was a toothless white singer who never sings anything but Bob Dylan songs. So ruined he could be anything from thirty to sixty, he's been there for years, butchering one tune after another-but this day he was singing "Masters of War," which I'd never heard him sing before, and it changed him. The melody erased the cracks in his voice. And it was so queer: when he got to the lines, "But there's one thing I know / Though I'm younger than you / Even Jesus would never forgive what you do," you realized that he was probably at least as old as the arms merchants who, today, are doing the work he was singing about. As old as some, and probably older than most.

Greil Marcus is the author of The Old, Weird America and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads, among other books. This essay was originally delivered as a commencement address to the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

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