Mike Marqusee: The Edge of Sports Interview

Mike Marqusee is the author of a number of groundbreaking books on politics and popular culture, including Anyone But England; War Minus the Shooting; and Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the 60s. Marqusee is also a political activist, until recently serving on the stop the War Coalition Steering Committee in the United Kingdom. American born, he has lived in London for 30 years. Marqusee speaks with Prince George's Post news Editor Dave Zirin about his latest book, Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art.


Dave Zirin: You've been a fan of Bob Dylan for forty years. What compelled you in 2003 to write Chimes of Freedom?

Mike Marqusee: The rise of the anti-war and global justice movement over the last two or three years has given me new hope and a new purpose to the protest music of the past. I did not write the book as an exercise of sixties nostalgia. There's too much of that and it's a disservice to those struggles, and more importantly it's a disservice to young people today. I wrote the book so that, I hope, young people can learn from the complexity of the struggles of the sixties, the incompleteness of the struggles of the sixties, and not repeat some of our mistakes and move forward.

DZ: You also write about how he never made explicit anti-Viet-Nam war songs. Is your argument that his art 'failed the test' of Vietnam?

MM: I don't think his art fails the test of Vietnam. I think he, as an individual citizen did not speak out against the Vietnam War at all. The Vietnam War was one of the great atrocities of the 20th century and any American citizen who did not stand up and speak out about it, especially Bob Dylan, failed some basic test of social solidarity. As an artist, however, I think he measures up to it because despite himself he writes a series of songs which go very deeply into the horror of the war, most famously a song called, "All Along the Watchtower," which he writes in the very end of 1967. Jimi Hendrix's epic cover version was a huge hit with the GI's in Vietnam. I'm told by people who were there that it was one of the few crossover songs that were listened to by both black and white GI's. To the GI's of the Vietnam the meaning of 'All Along the Watchtower' was absolutely transparent. It was about a society that was in self destruct mode and a war that had become an apocalypse and the power of the lyrics were augmented by Hendrix's extraordinary guitar. It spoke to those who were at the very center of the war. There are other songs of Dylan's that are explicitly political. Obviously "Masters of War" comes to mind. Also other songs like "Tombstone Blues" and "Highway 61" which take up themes of both the horrors of war and the hypocrisy of a society built on greed.

DZ: As you write in your book, the 1960s are defined by the mass movements for civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam. How do you explain that someone like Bob Dylan, who rejected the movements as they grew, is so closely tied to the struggles of the era?


MM: One thing I try not to do is to reduce Dylan to be merely a spokesperson or representative of the social movements at the time. Without the social movements of the era, there wouldn't be the Bob Dylan that some of us love. That doesn't mean that he can be reduced to those social movements. He was an individual who often had an antagonistic relationship with those movements...I think that it's striking that in an age of mass politicization and mass radicalization, the greatest artist of the sixties, and I think Dylan is the greatest single individual artist of the time, is someone who interrogates the very idea of politicization often quite fiercely, and often quite unfairly. So while perhaps he is not a hero of struggle, he's a great artist.


DZ: Do you think Dylan's art is able to withstand being co-opted?


MM: I think there's a constant struggle by both the artist and those of us who love the art and see it as part of a broader movement for social change to resist co-optation. One of the important things about studying the sixties is that it's the first era of mass social radicalization, which has to endure a process of appropriation by the media because before that the media weren't as strong in times past. And I think in a way the sixties are the opening of the era that we now live in, which many call the era of globalization. Dylan has never escaped this contradiction and it's probably too unfair to expect him to but that doesn't mean that we don't alert ourselves to it and do something about it because its too easy to sell the 'Seattle Look' [referencing the Seattle anti-globalization protests of 1999] to a generation of high school kids. We live in an age in which yesterday's rebellion is packaged as today's commercial pabulum. In order to preserve the genuine spirit of rebellion and critical intelligence embodied in those works of art, we have to work at it, intellectually and collectively. Dylan became intensely aware as a very young man, 22, 23, that his gestures of rebellion are very easily accommodated. He's driven forward throughout the 1960's probably by this intense desire to escape from that but he can never quite do it because he tries to do it only as an individual.


DZ: You wrote a fantastic book about Muhammad Ali called 'Redemption Song'. In that book there is a whole section where you compare Dylan and Ali. On the surface they couldn't seem more different. What are the similarities between Dylan and Ali?


MM: Well first of all they are virtually the same age and they are both among the very first youth celebrities. These guys dealt with fame when there were few models and what models there were, Elvis and other sports heroes, were tragic. So both of them were driven forth by a desire to not allow themselves to be manipulated or owned by other people. They both fought to own their own words, to own their own image, and not merely be what sports heroes and pop singers have been before them.
They are two guys in their different way, both driven forward in the first instance simply by the desire to not be a representative figure but were driven forward by that desire to challenge a corporate elite's right to control them and their product and in so doing they provided sparks for a movement. There are some huge differences between Dylan and Ali, of course. One is that, and here's the irony, the professional singer, poet, and songwriter, is the one who retreats from the media, who fears the media and who becomes increasingly withdrawn. The one who is completely uneducated and who is a black boxer from the lowest class of society and therefore presumed to have nothing to say is the one who is most eloquent and far from retreating from the media. He embraces the media, seduces it and turns it to his advantage in a way that no black athlete had done before. But most importantly they both have ways of communicating ideas and in some cases revolutionary ideas to huge audiences in forms and terms that they haven't heard that were new and accessible.


DZ: You describe a scene in the book of people in the Black Panthers listening to the Dylan song, "Ballad of the Thin Man," and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale listening to the words, "There is something's happening Mr. Jones, but you don't know what it is." Why did the Panthers, a street-level Black Nationalist organization, respond to Dylan the way they did?


MM: That account comes from Bobby Seale's book, Seize the Time, which had been moldering away on my shelf since it was published. But you ask a good question. How is it that the middle class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, writes an obscure song that hits home with some of the most oppressed people in Oakland [the Panthers]?
And the answer is, there is a common experience in America in the sixties which was ridden by violence and conflict that tie them all together precisely because Dylan internalized that social violence and finds what at first seems very obscure but is able to reach a variety of audiences with the core feeling of it.


DZ: You see a thread from Dylan songs like 'Death of Hattie Carroll', to 'George Jackson' to 'Hurricane' where Dylan writes and sings about racism. Why did the Black Freedom struggle remain a consistent subject of his songwriting even when he was rejecting struggle?


MM: It is a fact that is what most moved Dylan was rage against racist violence, what we now call institutionalized racism. 'Hattie Carroll' is about the criminal justice system as is 'George Jackson'. 'Hurricane' is about a court rigged against Black people. That was always a harder edged message...So what he is in the heyday of the non-violent integrationist stage of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s, Dylan is writing songs about the relationship between race and class, about the Civil Rights system, about how the state itself is an oppressive agent. No matter where Dylan was in his career Dylan is never a liberal. He always hates the state even when he is selling out to it... My critique of Dylan intellectually is that he asks all the right questions but he never stays for an answer. He is restless and he moves forward. But that means we can learn a lot from him, if we stay for the answers.


DZ: Why is it important to examine him today?


MM: Because we live at a time when a new social movement, a truly global one which is just beginning. It is important that we on the left don't just reinvent the wheel. What is the point if we don't learn from the past and go further than the earlier generation? And if you stand on giant's shoulders you can see further. That is especially true of Dylan. And I think Dylan is particularly important to the left because his targets endure. "Masters of War" is a song for today if there ever was one. And his radical edge, his belief that there is something wrong with the system, his belief that war, racism and poverty and media cynicism, are all aspects of one system that we have to struggle against endures.
He doesn't know how, he doesn't know what the alternative is, but that isn't what we need artists for. The targets endure. The analysis endures. The left tries to program artists. If the left tries to say we only like artists if they say what we want to hear, then they are not artists. That is for speeches. Then they aren't artists they are just an echo chamber for our beliefs. What we need artists for is to challenge us to not only challenge the establishment but to think in wider terms.


DZ: What are the five indispensable Bob Dylan Songs?


MM: [laughs] The caveat is that the next time you ask I will give you five new answers.
1 - With God on our Side
2 - Highway 61 Revisited
3 - All Along the Watchtower
4 - When the Ship Comes In
5 - And because I'm a boxing fan 'Who Killed Davey Moore?

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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