“Here’s what I love about Dylan,” former President Barack Obama recently remarked. “He was exactly as you’d expect he would be.”
Obama was recalling a day last year when the songwriter had paid a visit to the White House. In a break from tradition, Dylan had declined to make use of a night-before rehearsal, or even to inch up for a keepsake photo with the host. He arrived on time, executed a sharp reworking of his ode to social reversal (“The Times They Are-A Changing”), then gave Obama a nod of the head, a smile and a handshake before slipping out.
“That was our only interaction with him,” a charmed Obama said. “And I thought: ‘That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesing and grinning with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.’ ”
Well, maybe the former president.
This was the same Bob Dylan who never made it to Stockholm in December to pick up his Nobel Prize in literature. Dylan had been unable to fit the prestigious ceremony into a workmanlike schedule that has him playing venues like Mayo Field, a patch of grass here in my town surrounded by chain-link fencing and aging starter homes. For a few weeks after getting news of the big prize, the songwriter declined to even acknowledge the award in the usual way — by issuing a statement and words of gratitude.
The drama manufactured in response to this silence kept all the papers busy and probably seemed to Bob like the return of the media pack he endured in 1966, when a photographer at a news conference asked him to strike a look for the cameras by sucking on a corner of his Ray-Bans, and a reporter asked him to provide a number for all the protest singers in the U.S. (He said there were 136.)
The Nobel Committee, to its credit, was gracious in the face of Bob’s shyness, or aloofness, or skepticism, to use the former president’s word. So maybe the Swedes get him a little better than all the reporters demanding a statement. And it turns out this same essential quality — the distrust of strangers bearing publicity, praise and good fortune — is a characteristic found in more than a few remarkable musicians who have emerged from the Minnesota chill. And that’s not a reference to the weather.
The same quality anchors the story of the Replacements and Prince, for example, two other confusing exports from the region, artists whose outsized impact on our lives came closer into view during 2016. A spirit of defiance also runs throughout “Heyday: 35 Years of Music in Minneapolis,” an engaging and newly-released compilation of the rock ’n’ roll photography of Dan Corrigan, a hero who crawled from club to club during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s to chronicle a moment that gave rise to not only Prince and the Replacements but the Suicide Commandos, the Suburbs, Curtiss A, Soul Asylum, Hüsker Dü, Babes in Toyland, Slim Dunlap, Trip Shakespeare, the Jayhawks, the Honeydogs, Semisonic, Atmosphere, and too many shooting comets like the Wallets and Run Westy Run to count.
Of course, “Heyday” is a coffee-table book. It sits next to my wife’s beloved shelter magazines. Which is the surest sign that a moment has passed.
It’s right there in “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements,” just to pick a spot from the new biography of the band to explain our predicament. After sharing the story of a young Paul Westerberg stuck in a cover band and playing to his amplifier rather than lean in the back of a soloing guitarist as expected of him, and after telling us how Paul’s dad would say “there’s larceny in every salesman’s heart” upon returning from another day spent trying to move Cadillacs during a gas shortage, we come to the part where the band is asked to sign a long-awaited deal with a major record label (Sire, the company that represented Madonna).
On the line where the contract had stated “the artists will seriously pursue its career,” the band members told their lawyer to remove the word “seriously.” Then, Paul signed his drummer Chris Mars’ name, and Chris signed Paul’s name. They thought that would mean that could get out of it if they wanted.
The Replacements were legendarily uncooperative with the many people who tried to help them, and took pleasure in letting down and even antagonizing their fans and supporters, especially when expectations were high and the room had filled with so-called VIPs. They could get away with this because on some nights they played better than anyone else. Part of that was talent, another part hard work. But a third reason was that they refused to treat the playing of music as a performance to be trotted out and replicated the same way every time to send the fans home happy.
It is a tale told without reverence or adornment in Bob Mehr’s fascinating, often sad and always engaging 2016 biography. The book, a doggedly reported effort to understand the group’s influence and indifference to success, isn’t really about a band as much as it is about a place in time (Minnesota in the 1970s and early ’80s), and a process of distorting people (“suppression” was a word that Westerberg uses to describe our troubles, but alcoholism, child abuse, adolescence, broken dreams, boredom, dyslexia, alienation, bad education, depression and a dead-end economy all figure in).
Mehr has said the Replacements seemed to stand for “opportunity disregarded,” which is as good a subject as any for reflection in these times, given how hard we have chased success only to find society having gone so far off track. Who says the people who made it have any idea what they’re doing?
Just take the matter of Prince, whose statue should rise one day above Minneapolis like Nelson’s Column over Trafalgar Square if we know what’s good for us — and who shot so high, with such impossible virtuosity, that the biographers are just now beginning to piece together what happened.
Prior to the gaping wound of his departure last April — another casualty to the industrial dumping of prescription opioids into the nation’s drug supply — I never knew just how remarkable were the riches turned down by the kid from Kingfield at the tender age of 18. Just a few years out of Minneapolis Central, Prince refused the help of none other than Maurice White, the guiding force of Earth, Wind & Fire and a musical visionary that Prince’s label had hoped would produce his first album.
Later in this same process, our little nobody from nowhere made it clear to his record label benefactors that his sound was panracial, influenced as much by KQRS as KMOJ, not to mention pansexual. Then he ordered the head of Warner Bros. out of his first sponsored recording session when the guy asked about a missing track for a bass.
“There is no bass on that song,” our hero reportedly shouted at the most powerful person in the recording industry, followed by “get out of my studio!” Heartwarming video of the artist as a young 19-year-old has him looking mute in the face of promotional duties when Dick Clark strolls up to ask him about his process on “American Bandstand.” Prince would be avoiding press for the better part of his career. When it came to asserting his right to own his own music, his refusal to play along with the system now looks visionary.
Today, it’s a different story. I remember painting a room last summer and listening as the local alternative station interviewed the leader of an edgy band from Down South. The musician enthusiastically indulged the reporter’s questions, speaking at length about the earnest-sounding title of his latest album and all the ins and outs of what it meant and didn’t mean. The guy was just turning it over and over, chewing away. Part of me wanted to tell him it was OK just to say “Hell, I don’t know.”
I thought about the defiance of a young Paul Westerberg, who named one of his albums “Let It Be” and another one “Tim,” and who probably would have poured a cup of beer into the recording gear of this reporter busily hoping to help him build buzz and move some units.
I started to wonder what we have lost as musicians become less damaged by circumstance and more mature about their business.
It’s not my own little grievance. Last fall the writers on “A Prairie Home Companion” took a clever run at how polite and professional our young musicians have become, during a funny sketch in which an aging jazz DJ asks an alt-bluegrass outfit a hopelessly dated question on their thoughts about The Man. The band was flummoxed — the system is a good thing! — and could only connect with the interviewer following an invitation to lay praise on their loyal fans, whom they could not thank enough for all their wonderful support on Facebook and through downloads and of course also the e-mail list.
When the Replacements returned to the stage a few years ago, they made up T-shirts that said “Hate Us on Facebook,” which I thought was pretty funny because, for such an obvious joke, I’m pretty sure no one had thought of it. Why take on a platform that lets you say “Like”?
The job of giving permission to disobey social custom has been passed along to someone else. Today’s music community is awash with talent but fully staffed with hardworking young creatives who are not particularly drawn to making others uncomfortable or getting into irrational battles with opportunity for its own sake.
Maybe they have too much at stake. Thanks to technology, there is no more recording industry and a young songwriter can hardly afford to turn down the chance to be nice to a DJ, give 100 percent to every audience, and sell a song to a TV show or an advertisement.
But through the example of their difficult predecessors, we can see what has been lost. We will miss it even more as the frightening political future unfolds, and we find it necessary to become disobedient ourselves.
Paul John Scott is a writer in Rochester.