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8 May 2008

All along the watchtower

It was a year of horror and bad faith

By Greil Marcus

From the sightlines in Berkeley, California, where I lived then and live now, I recall 1968 as a year of horror and bad faith. The great storm of student protest that would convulse the US and nations well beyond it had begun there in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement. It was three months of daily speeches, marches, building occupations, and finally played out in a Greek open-air theatre as high drama. That drama – a university in convocation with itself, everyone present, the leaders of the institution speaking quieting words, then a single student, standing to speak, immediately seized by police, an act of violence actually revealing the face of power behind the face of reasonableness – brought that moment to a close and opened a field that in the years to come would be crossed by thousands.

But in 1968 the spirit that animated a simple demand for the free exercise of rights students had assumed were theirs – because they had learned such a story in their classrooms and then, as if by instinct, begun to put them into practice – had long since turned cheap and rote. When in May 1968 a rally was held in Berkeley to celebrate the poorly understood but exciting revolt taking place in France, activists distributed leaflets denouncing the police violence that had dispersed the rally before the rally had even gotten under way. When students at Columbia University in New York, protesting at what they saw as the university’s colonialist appropriation of property in Harlem, shut the school down – using the novel technique of occupying one building, and then, when the police arrived, filing out, only to seize another building, and then another, and another – Berkeley radicals called on their fellows to “Do a Columbia”: not for any reason, not in the face of any injustice or insult, but for lack of anything better to do.

With the Vietnam War all but rolling back across the Pacific to poison the United States itself, it was as if people turned to spectacular lies and glamorous trivialities to hide from themselves the fact that their imaginations had turned to ice. Truly enormous events taking place elsewhere did not travel. Word of the Prague Spring arrived only in fragments, and no speaker stood up to put the pieces together. News of the massacre of scores – no, hundreds – of students in Mexico City was suppressed so profoundly, it would take 40 years for the facts to come out of the ground. But few if any looked; curiosity withered; people were swept up in their own vanity. The faces of those who said no were smug in their automatic righteousness.

It’s clear now that the signal song of that year, the song with which Bob Dylan has for years, to this day, closed his concerts, was “All Along the Watchtower” – a song which ended with words that, in any traditional ballad, would have opened it: “Two riders were approaching/ The wind began to howl.” Occupying the moral centre of Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding, it made its way on to and out of the radio slowly, like a rumour. Too slowly: when Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in April, and then Robert F Kennedy, running for president, was shot and killed in June, the song did not play, even in the minds of those who watched the funerals on television. It did not give voice to the awful sense of disease, ruin and damnation that seized the country so fully that it could only be channelled into calls for gun control and a ludicrous riot in Chicago against a presidential nominating convention where, had he lived, Kennedy would have lost.

It was time to face up to, to abandon the mask of purity through which one could see one’s enemies as absolutely evil and oneself as absolutely good, but in 1968 the words, “Let us not talk falsely, now/The hour is getting late” of the song were just words. The tone of Dylan’s voice – quiet, as if to pass on a secret, whispering in the ear of the nation as a whole – did not register. It would be 25 years before Neil Young took the song and made it clear, rewrote it, through an arrangement that made its apocalypse not a whisper but a desperate shout, a shout that made desperation thrilling, a new way of singing the song so undeniable that, as Young played, it rewrote the past and wrote the future in advance. Young taught the song to Dylan as he taught it to everyone else: from that night in 1993 when Young sang and played as if as an artist he had emerged from the song rather than addressed himself to it, Dylan himself has never played it any other way.

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So it is that that song – rushed, moving so fast it outruns itself, so that by the end it is not looking forward to any cataclysm to come, but looking back over its shoulder, running to escape the cataclysm that has already taken place – that, along with a wall writing from Paris in May 1968: “Run, comrades, the old world is behind you!” carries the speech of that time.

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Greil Marcus is a journalist and cultural critic. An extended version of this article will be republished in the journal “Common Knowledge” this autumn