When Dylan discovered electricity—part one

guitar-861929_1920I’m finally getting around to Dylan Goes Electric by Elijah Wald, an especially good read if you’re interested in the roots of rock and folk or the mid-sixties transformation of pop music that Dylan instigated (with the help of a few others).

The book, subtitled Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night That Split the Sixties, puts in broad context the fateful night that Bob Dylan, the darling of the Newport Folk Festival, allegedly broke tradition—and thoroughly pissed off the old guard—by performing there with a loud blues-rock backup band on the evening of July 25, 1965.

Elijah Wald, a folk-blues guitarist and music historian, is just the right fellow to put this event in perspective, given his encyclopedic knowledge of the music genres in play at Newport, the colorful characters who made the music, and the myths surrounding those characters.

It will take several posts over the coming months to tease out what I’m learning from this book—and what I'm relearning from Dylan's career—that applies to business, innovation, marketing, and more. But here’s the major headline (if I may steal a quote from Tom Peters): Be distinct or be extinct!

The REALLY successful individuals in almost any human endeavor stand far outside the herd, following their own compass and in the process cultivating their own exceptionality. It's certainly true in art, entertainment, and business in general. Of course you need talent, but that’s preliminary. There are mega-talented players in every field, in every occupation, who don’t break from the pack and don’t disrupt the status quo.

I should add that in music, as well as in many other areas, it’s perfectly legitimate to stay IN the pack, enjoy your community of equals, copy others’ work, not stand out, not make waves, and just enjoy what you’re doing—if you don’t care about commercial success (or artistic excellence for that matter). There are plenty of good musicians who are happy with that—and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be. But this is a business blog, and success in business involves differentiation. If you're like everybody else (and your products or services resemble everybody else's) you just won't attract customers.

Abstracting this lesson from Dylan’s career—and his many transformations—is easy. By the time Dylan rolled into the Newport Folk Festival fifty years ago this summer, his career had been built on a series of disruptions, reinventions, and re-imaginings that continually separated him from the pack. Starting from his rock & roll piano-pounding as a Hibbing, Minnesota high schooler to his rural roots guitar-picking as a New York newcomer to his political protest singing to his flow-of-consciousness surrealist poetry, Dylan was always his own man. And that July summer night, five days after releasing his first rock & roll single, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan was going through yet another metamorphosis when he stunned his Newport colleagues and fans by walking on stage with an electric guitar.

In retrospect it should not have come as a shock. Doing things his way was THE defining characteristic of his short career—and has continued ever since. As music reviewer Jon Pankake observed from seeing Dylan in his early Minnesota days, “He picked up his freedom before he got his technique.” (An entire book could be written around THAT line.)

Meanwhile, many of his musical comrades at Newport became endangered species after he hijacked a segment of the folk sound and spliced it into rock and pop. Some say folk music never recovered. Others say that real folk went back underground. But certainly rock music never recovered. And that's a good thing. The new amalgamation brought intelligence and imagination to rock & roll. (See my earlier post on that here.)

Some may decry the folk-rock synthesis because of a few insipid by-products (e.g., "The Eve of Destruction," as discussed here). But "Like a Rolling Stone," "Mr. Tambourine Man" (especially as recorded by the Byrds), the Beatles' Rubber Soul album, and the Byrds' "Turn Turn Turn" (written in part by Pete Seeger) exploded the rock genre that year and inspired many more stylistic experiments. Ever since, the expanded rock idiom—as well as Dylan himself—has become anything but extinct.

Much more to come.

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  1. Only time I wish I was older was when I think about experiencing some of this as it happened, rather than in retrospect. (Born December of '59.)

    The most important thing is to stand out.

    The hardest thing? To stand out.

    Business is art.

    Hey, do you know Bernadette Jiwa? http://TheStoryOfTelling.com/ — brilliant "business is art" stuff all the time.

    1. Electric accompaniment at Newport was hardly unprecedented, especially in the case of blues singers—as Wald points out in the book.

  2. I'd been thinking about reading this book, but now you've convinced me. Looking forward to your next installment.

  3. Hugh, in the genre of pop music bio and pop music history, I think this is the best I've read. Wald is a world-class writer.

  4. I wonder if it's about more than being distinct. For sure, Dylan's been a trailblazer but you could also argue that there have been phases in his career when he was "same old, same old" or little different from various other acts.

    Maybe what's as important as distinctiveness is change. While some of Dylan's changes have been from one type of distinct to another type of distinct, I think a few of them have just been a surprise that he would choose that path. But it must keep him fresh and if he annoys a few fans, so what? If they want Dylan the folkie, go and listen to others who preceded or followed him; truth be told, they'd probably drift away by the time Dylan put out the 11th version of the 'Bob Dylan' album anyway. Lose a few when you change, gain a few as well. Everything changes.

    1. Good stuff. There's a lot to unpack there. I do think Dylan was distinct in each of his musical identities in the 60s. As an early folkie doing very traditional material he always did it in his own style, with a bluesy edge; as a "protest" singer/songwriter he was much less didactic—and much more imaginative—than his peers; and as a symbolist poet he was in his own universe, comparable to no one. But perhaps after his mini-retirement he lost some of that uniqueness.

      You're right that Dylan loved to surprise. He always hated being stereotyped, and couldn't wait for the next opportunity to shatter expectations. In some ways it paralleled the Beatles, who switched directions with Rubber Soul, then Revolver, then Sgt Pepper, then back to the simplicity of the White Album. Both acts remained distinct by continually switching directions and staying several steps ahead of the competition who kept trying to copy their playbook.

      But Dylan was also distinct in a way that was iconoclastic, subversive, seditious. You CAN be distinct and inoffensive. Tiny Tim comes to mind, if you remember him. But when Dylan announced "Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command," it was a wake-the-eff-up call. And a generation answered. Something I'll expand on in my next post. Thanks.

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