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Critics tangled up in Dylan hairstyle, miss the music

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Thirty-seven years after upending the tables of the folk music establishment, Bob Dylan returned to the Newport Folk Festival two weeks ago to cleanse the temple one more time.

In 1965, it was an extreme case of substance over style that moved folk purists to boo Dylan and his backup band. The apostate singer's use of an electric guitar instead of the regulation Leadbelly acoustic was too much for the dungaree-wearing set itching to hear songs about lost miners and the WPA.

It isn't surprising that a generation later, tongues are wagging again over the return of the prodigal prophet. This time, even squares know better than to give Dylan hell for doing whatever he needs to do with his own songs.

Given the historic magnitude of Dylan's return to the scene of a legendary battle between an artist and his adoring public, it would be un-American not to complain about something. This explains in part why press coverage of Dylan's return to the Newport Folk Festival has degenerated into an orgy of style over substance. So what if his long, stringy hair and scraggly beard make him look like a rabbinical priest?

Critics have gone from complaining about the way he sang 37 years ago to how he looks now. Though it doesn't seem possible, media reaction to Dylan is even more frivolous now than it was in 1965.

At least the hard-core "Tom Dooley" fans who once booed Dylan out of a sense of misplaced outrage believed in something. These days, it's hard to find critics who believe in anything except the sound of their own cleverness.

Fans obsessively deconstructed the meaning of Dylan's startling new "Hasidic cowboy" look. Very little of the coverage dealt with the set list at Newport '02, but I know as much as I want to about the shoulder-length straight brown locks that hung under his white Stetson hat.

What coverage there was of the music felt perfunctory, as if speculation about his scraggly "new" beard and whether it was real, trumped every other consideration. As a former rock critic, I understand that vivid writing imposes a need for colorful scene setting. But why dwell on the mystery of Dylan's decision to dress like an extra from "Fiddler on the Roof" instead of reporting on what must have been an incredible show?

In 1965, it would've been dishonest not to mention Dylan's wearing a polka dot print shirt and shades on the stage of Newport's temple of folk purity. His attire was as much a sign of his alienation from Pete Seeger's cult of rural earnestness as howling "Maggie's Farm" proved to be. Still, no one dwelled on it.

There's something perverse about how what constitutes news has flipped since 1965. Still, it wasn't Dylan's "Rebel Without a Cause" pose that filled the moment -- it was his sonic audacity and openness to radical change. It was his abrupt transition from the world of sentimental causes and music to one of electrified introspection that shocked audiences, not the way he looked when he was doing it.

My, how things have changed. "It Ain't Me, Babe. Phony Beard, Wig Adds to Dylan Mystique" screamed the headline in the Boston Globe. Much is being made of the fact that Dylan was clean-shaven in the shows immediately before Newport, making his resemblance to Isaiah purely cosmetic and, perhaps, opportunistic.

But if there's one thing we've learned from four decades of watching the man is that he can't sleep unless he's upending our expectations. Does it matter what he looks like today when he's simply going to look different tomorrow? He's an American original who picks from a vast closet of personas to get his music across.

His shifting identities may be interesting, but they aren't as important as the songs he sings or how he sings them. Fortunately, his strangeness insulates him from the dead hand of routine and predictability.

I don't mind Bob Dylan rummaging through the secret drawers of our various histories to show us who we are today. Ideally, that's what all great artists are supposed to do. The last thing Dylan needs to do is explain himself to me or account for his looks. Many have forgotten this, but you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wig blows. If you do, that's a real drag, man.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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