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The Vegetable Theory
Excerpt from "By The Time We Got To Woodstock: The Great Rock Revolution Of 1969"
By Bruce Pollock
(more articles from this author)
2009-11-27
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1969 gave us a wholesale shift among the rock cognoscenti toward Country music, previously the province of the enemy (the right). The simple answer as to why this happened was to blame it all on Bob Dylan, who scheduled a return trip to Nashville in February of 1969 for the recording of his first pure country album, Nashville Skyline.

Dylan had been recording in Nashville since Blonde on Blonde in 1966, but Nashville Skyline went way too far: not only a country album, but a putrid country album. It was hardly on a par with Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson or Tom T. Hall or Johnny Cash, who mangled the opening cut, "Girl from the North Country." It went downhill from there.

There were many schools of thought as to Dylan's condition in 1969, the primary one being the "vegetable theory." Those of us stranded without a compass in the West Village, as the world and the music scene turned to the East seeing no direction home without our spokesman to lead us, reckoned that he'd been so mangled and internally bruised by his 1966 motorcycle accident that he'd totally lost his edge, to say nothing of his voice, let alone his mind. The simplistic ditties he offered the world when the album was released in May were actually the best his enfeebled brain could now create, probably the best he'd ever again be capable of producing. The John Wesley Harding album was probably stitched out of old stuff lying around half-baked and half-finished; Nashville Skyline was the true Dylan now, the only Dylan we had left. If there were to be any other Dylan in our lifetimes it would have to be one of those "New Dylan" types floating around, David Blue, say, or Loudon Wainwright.

Of course, those who were privy to Dylan's jam sessions at Big Pink in 1967 with his former backup band, the Hawks, soon to become the Band, knew better. These few intrepid musicologists had already sampled some of the deceptively tangy and indubitably rootsy fare on bootleg editions of The Great White Wonder, not officially released until 1975 as The Basement Tapes, with quality odes like "Tears of Rage," "I Shall Be Released," "The Mighty Quinn," and "This Wheel's on Fire." But even that could be accounted for in the vegetable theory, which allowed Dylan the occasional gem of old but not the ability to distinguish between what was genuine and what was god-awful. And there was no one in the entourage with the clout or the confidence to advise him. Robbie Robertson was a hired hand. Dylaln's constant foil and companion, Bobby Neuwirth, was there strictly for the entertainment value. His manager, Albert Grossman, definitely couldn't be trusted.

The more paranoid among us had an even worse prognosis: that Dylan had pulled a J. D. Salinger or a Sandy Koufax. At the height of his fame he'd just decided that he'd had enough. Sure, he knew the difference between good and bad; in fact, he was writing better songs than ever, but he'd developed such a disdain for his audience, the counterculture in particular, that he'd be damned if he was about to deliver any of his best stuff to the marketplace. The genuine article he would continue writing for himself and his friends, stockpiling songs like canned food for future generations as yet unborn and untainted by his manufactured legend. The brain-dead country songs and covers he would release for public consumption, year after year until we finally got sick of them, sick of him, and just went away. The 1966 motorcycle accident, in this context, might not have been so serious after all; it could have been a grisly ruse designed to help him effect his (drifter's) escape. (This theory was again confirmed by his ghastly and goofy appearance on the first installment of The Johnny Cash Show on ABC-TV on June 6, along with Doug Kershaw, Fanny Flagg and—amazingly—Joni Mitchell).

Or maybe, the more cerebral among us thought, Dylan was trying to tell us something. That it was time to grow up and become the mainstream, echoing what Paul Simon went through after "The Boxer," when he decided to immerse himself in gospel music. As Dylan had turned his back on the folk crowd once he'd conquered the form, most notably symbolized by his amped-up appearance at the '65 Newport Folk Festival playing "Maggie's Farm" alongside guitarist Michael Bloomfield and guitarist-cum-organist Al Kooper—he'd turn-turn-turned again, from folk rock to country music, a genre despised by the intelligentsia, this time motivated by no less a Beatlesque (if not Bunyanesque) figure than Elvis Presley.

In the same way that Dylan had followed the Beatles on the record charts of 1964, he might have easily been struck by an item in the trades describing Elvis's sojourn on January 13, 1969 to American Studios in Memphis, to record there for the first time since his legendary Sun Records days of the mid-'50s (polishing off "Long Black Limousine" and "This Is the Story" on his first day of work). The country vibe was obviously in the air, put there by, among others, Dylan's longtime cohorts, the Byrds, whose Sweetheart of the Rodeo came out in the tragic summer of '68, containing country fare like "I Am a Pilgrim" and Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind," and Big Pink Dylan covers like "You Ain't Going Nowhere" and "Nothing Was Delivered."

McGuinn himself had wanted the band to turn in the opposite direction, toward the kind of Coltrane-inspired jazz that influenced "Eight Miles High." But he lost this particular power struggle to mercurial new sideman Gram Parsons, even though Parsons' '68 release Safe at Home, by his short-lived International Submarine Band (featuring classic country tunes like "I Still Miss Someone" and "Miller's Cave" as well as his own "Luxury Liner," soon to be covered by Emmylou Harris), had gone nowhere. In March of 1969 the Byrds sang "Drugstore Truck Driving Man" and "Old Blue" in Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde and then "Jesus Is Just Alright," as well as the mournful theme for Easy Rider, which came out in July, featuring the Band's "The Weight" on the soundtrack.

Not surprisingly, the Band's guitarist and main songwriter, Robbie Robertson, weighed in on the subject: Obviously, Bob didn't need a weatherman (or Robbie Robertson) to know it was a good time to change direction, with Nashville Skyline becoming one of his biggest albums, thanks to some blushing praise in the rock press. "Bob Dylan's ninth album poses fewer mysteries and yet, paradoxically, offers greater rewards than any of his previous work," Paul Nelson started off his ecstatic if largely incomprehensible Rolling Stone review—which he would retract at a much later date. Shaking his head as he perused the review over his morning coffee, Dylan must have sighed deeply, wondering what else on earth he had to do to turn his rabid fans against him. It was surely then or a short time later that the light bulb called Self Portrait emerged as his last possible exit visa.


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