Has rock grown up at last, or just sold out?

Once Dylan told us, 'don't follow leaders'; his successors are leading us to them
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The Independent Online

Suddenly, while our backs were turned, rock music has become terribly grown-up and sensible. Bono appears on the platform at the Labour Party conference and matily refers to Brown and Blair as the Lennon and McCartney of politics. Midge Ure tours the starvation zones of Africa while Bob Geldof uses a Channel 4 documentary on his life to preach old-fashioned family values. In America, a group of high-profile strummers and singers are doing their bit for John Kerry and the Democrats by travelling the swing states on the Vote for Change tour.

Suddenly, while our backs were turned, rock music has become terribly grown-up and sensible. Bono appears on the platform at the Labour Party conference and matily refers to Brown and Blair as the Lennon and McCartney of politics. Midge Ure tours the starvation zones of Africa while Bob Geldof uses a Channel 4 documentary on his life to preach old-fashioned family values. In America, a group of high-profile strummers and singers are doing their bit for John Kerry and the Democrats by travelling the swing states on the Vote for Change tour.

Alarmingly, even Bob Dylan seems to have straightened up his act. The first volume of his autobiography, which will be published next week, reveals Bob to be considerably less bonkers than the world had assumed. Not only is his memory fully intact but the prose in which he recalls his early life is crisp, precise and startlingly comprehensible. One or two echoes of the modern world are to be found in his account: back in the Sixties, he recalls, "peace was hard to come by".

But then he has a surprise for us. It is not world peace that was on his mind back then but private, domestic peace - peace, in fact, from the attentions of peaceniks. Shortly after he had bought a house in Woodstock, Bob found that he was having problems with break-ins. At first, those that plundered him were fans - "moochers" and "goons", he calls them - but they were followed by a more irritating and persistent mob. In a passage worthy of John Updike, he describes them as "rogue radicals looking for the Prince of Protest ... unaccountable-looking characters, gargoyle-looking gals, scarecrows, stragglers looking to party, raid the pantry."

How did the Prince of Protest react? By reaching for a gun. A folk-singer friend had, in the way of folkies those days, given him a couple of Colt single-shot repeaters as a present. Dylan was profoundly shocked when the local cops suggested that filling a moocher full of lead was not a good idea. "The world was absurd," he now writes.

Oddly, the fact that Bob Dylan was not quite the wispy young idealist of public image - that these days his version of a protest song would probably be "The Ballad of Tony Martin" - points up how the relationship between politics and pop culture has changed down the years. Where are the rogue radicals now? There are quite a few unaccountable-looking characters in the music business but most of them are busily and publicly supporting John Kerry just as, when it was fashionable, it was a smart move for any upwardly mobile British star to be invited to Downing Street.

The idea that Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Richie Havens or any other politically engaged singer of the Sixties would have supported a conventional political party would have been unthinkable. It was not the desire to replace one group of politicians with another that activated a poet like Allen Ginsberg, a novelist like Ken Kesey or a journalist like Hunter S Thompson, but something far more daring and subversive. Hearing Dylan's early political songs now, one is struck by the grandeur of their targets: war, greed, bigotry, misunderstanding. The protest of "With God On Our Side" may be more specifically apposite today than it was 40 years ago, but, when it was written, it was aimed not at America but at the entire grown-up world, not at one group of trigger-happy fundamentalists but the lot.

Somewhere in the intervening decades, that profound sense of youthful optimism and its attendant distrust of a compromised older generation was lost. The times were not a-changing, it turned out, the old order was not rapidly fading, and the sons and the daughters that were beyond their command grew up to be solid, politically indifferent citizens.

Now that even a Labour prime minister can join the fashionable sneers at the values of that generation, it is widely assumed that the radicalism of those days was unworldly and faintly silly. But, set beside its modern equivalent - rich pop stars telling us not to waste our votes - it looks rather good. A book called Jeff Nuttall's Wake on Paper, recently published to celebrate the life of one of the leading lights of Sixties radicalism, contains an interview that sums up the spirit of that age. "Several people came up with the idea of cultural warfare, of seeding pacifist and subversive elements in the popular culture," Nuttall recalled. "It looked as though it were bloody near inevitable."

But it was not, and now the mere idea of the words "dissent" and "popular culture" appearing in the same sentence will evoke hollow laughter. Instead, an older generation of pop stars are uniting to encourage their fans not to drop out but to play their part. Where once Dylan told us, "Don't follow leaders/ You're watching parking meters", his successors are leading us to them.

Perhaps the Vote for Change tour sees rock'n'roll entering adulthood at last - and certainly no concert with Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, REM and James Taylor can be all bad - but the ageing moochers and goons will be reading Bob Dylan's book and remembering a time of greater possibility. Ah, but we were so much older then; we're younger than that now.

terblacker@aol.com

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