I’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.