Monday, August 10, 2009

Dylan in Gwinnett

FROM 2007

On September 22, music legend Bob Dylan performed with Elvis Costello at the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth, Georgia, 25 miles outside Atlanta. The Dylan/Gwinnett combination is dissonant on so many levels that to make sense of it I had to consult someone who knows both Dylan and Gwinnett pretty well: my musician brother.

Hi Rob,

Well, I see that Dylan, one of your idols and influences, is performing at the Gwinnett Arena. As I drive to work I have a good view of the giant sign by I-85 that hypes shows at the arena, and when I see a promotion for Hanna Montana or Joyce Meyer flashing brightly there, it seems appropriate. Dylan does not.

You and I have some history with Gwinnett County. When we were kids in the mid-seventies our father used to put us on the Greyhound in Athens, to be picked up an hour or so later at the Dairy Queen in Snellville by his mother, our Grandmother Lucy. And we’d pass a pleasant day or two with her and her retired farmer husband at their three-bedroom ranch on Joe Hewatt Road (Gwinnett is one of those places where many of the thoroughfares bear the full name of a long dead farmer – not “Butler Road” but “Hiram Butler Road”). In those days Gwinnett had one foot in its rural past and one foot in its suburban future. At least a couple of those stays with Grandmother Lucy featured breathless visits to recent crime scenes: the corner in Lawrenceville where Larry Flynt was shot during an obscenity trial, and the Lilburn home of the man who kidnapped Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy. Having been the scene of such newsworthy events was one way that Gwinnett knew itself back then.

I think of our Great Aunt Bea, Grandmother Lucy’s sister, as the quintessential old-time Gwinnettian. She was born there in the first decade of the twentieth century, daughter of a sharecropper. She once told me a harrowing story about going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and witnessing a teacher’s thrashing of a bootlegger’s son because he was inappropriately dressed. When Aunt Bea was still young, her father – like a lot of men in his position in those days – found he could no longer make a living farming cotton, so he moved the family into the city of Atlanta. Aunt Bea wound up working at a hat factory, worked there for thirty or forty years, I suppose. The modest house she and her husband bought was in a neighborhood that gradually became unsafe, so much so that long after she was retired and widowed she was the victim of a violent robbery in her home. So she returned from whence she had come decades before, to a little apartment in Lawrenceville. And there she lived out her last years, smoking like a chimney, sharing 8 oz. Cokes with her fat dachshund, and watching TV preachers who specialized in bizarre prophecies.

Aunt Bea died only ten years ago, but the Gwinnett County she’s buried in is not only vastly different from the one she was born in, but vastly different from the one she died in. For a time Gwinnett was America’s fastest growing county, the prototypical Sunbelt boomtown, Yankee-filled office parks where the redneck-filled trailer parks used to be. The high schools that used to have Future Farmers of America chapters now have lacrosse and anime clubs. The county population is approaching one million, and that population is changing fast. It has been a commonplace for years that a great many Gwinnettians were not just born out of the county but out of state, out of region. Now estimates are that one in five was born out of the United States. In the hallways of my school I probably pass more Koreans in five minutes than there were in the entire state when Aunt Bea's family left the farm.

The trappings of having “made it” are also springing up everywhere. Money magazine recently named Suwanee one of the ten best places to live in America. Just in the past ten years the county has added a full time theatre company with its own space, Georgia’s newest four-year college, an annual PGA golf tournament, and an 11,000-seat arena. I suppose it would have been possible in 1975, at the dawn of all that explosive growth, for a visionary to imagine Gwinnett as a place that might someday build a fairly large sports and music venue, but host a Bob Dylan show? I’m sure his fans would have said, “No way.” To them having a Dylan show in Gwinnett must seem like having a Picasso exhibit at Sears. For all its growth and diversity, does Gwinnett County seem cosmopolitan enough to do Dylan justice, especially with a hip international city right next door? In fact, there might be some who think it would have been more appropriate for Dylan to perform in Gwinnett before it had fled its hardscrabble roots to become the thoroughly bourgeois suburb it is today, when it was still (as a colleague of mine once put it) a good place to dump a stolen car.

By the way, I don’t have any pretension that I am not among the bourgeois. I may not live in Gwinnett County, but I’m a Chick-Fil-A eating, classic-rock listening, four-bedroom house having, neighborhood pool belonging, minivan owning, youth soccer attending Atlanta suburbanite.

And as a sometime man of Gwinnett, I have to wonder what it says about our times that the composer of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is performing down the street from a humongous outlet mall.

And I have another question for you, too. Though I speak reverently of Dylan, I do so only out of a sense of cultural obligation. I have never really shared your fondness for him. I concede that I don’t know his music well, but what I’ve heard I don’t much care for. In fact, I was delighted to read Roy Blount, Jr.’s Dylan-bashing column in a recent issue of The Oxford American, in which he accused Dylan of “surly sentimentality,” of being “picked before he was ripe,” of writing lyrics that “sound like he is flinging together anything that pops into his head between the rhymes,” and of “appropriating a lot of Southern cultural capital without really soaking up the flavor of it.”

What is it about Dylan?



Yep, I have to agree that, as much as Gwinnett County has changed, it still takes a healthy imagination to envision Bob Dylan filling up a huge venue with folks from Snellville, Lilburn, Dacula, etc. But on second or third glance, it’s a little easier to understand what led to all of this.

The opening act was named Elvis (Costello), which fits a little better with the Gwinnett surroundings of old. However, it should be noted that both acts (Dylan and Costello) gave themselves stage names. Come to think of it, had Dylan ever come here as Robert Zimmermann from Minnesota by way of New York City he might have had a tougher time getting a gig.

I like the way you have described the progress (for lack of a better word) of Gwinnett County through the life and death of our late great aunt. It makes it a bit easier to understand the sociology of the whole mess. Gwinnett does, in a way, serve as a sort of microcosm of twentieth century social and economic change. Bea came off of the farm, she worked in a factory. Her birthplace was, in her autumn years, replaced with a host of people from elsewhere carrying money from elsewhere. Now, a new army is coming that way to get themselves some of that money. “Folluh the dolluh,” they might say.

Dylan’s career did not end with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” He has in the forty years since then released twenty-something more albums, many of which were quite popular. This popularity can very easily be seen in the fact that he can fill an arena – even one in Gwinnett County – with people wanting to see and hear him. Perhaps here is where we may truly find the contradiction in his attraction. We can fairly say that, at least in days past, it was the youthful pseudo-wisdom in Dylan’s songs of which Mr. Blount writes that attracted the rebellious “lost” youngsters. Take it from me, these youngsters don’t like thinking that there are a whole lot of others like them. They want to display a sense of dark individuality.

The thing about Dylan is that he has always had the hope of reaching the general population. Now, with the kind of word salad one might find in his lyrics, a realistic possibility of him making a simple communication with the masses is really a bit of a stretch. Still, I think he’d be more than happy to see one of the descendents of old Joe Hewatt put his post hole digger down and have a listen.

But as I was saying, Dylan has made a whole lot more stuff. I believe it was in 1973 and 1974 that, after being hurled by the strong winds of a western pop culture career, getting married, having children, and then breaking up with his wife, he released Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Mr. Roy should give these two a listen. Also, to attack Dylan for stealing “cultural capital” just sounds like sour peaches. In fact, the very act of one of us down here complaining about some Yankee carpetbagger taking this, that, or the other has been repeated so often that it has itself become cultural capital.

But it’s just this – the “carpetbagger” issue – that leads to the road that takes us to the main answer to the Dylan in Gwinnett question. As with everywhere in this nation today, there are a good many people of that about 45 to about 60 year-old age – “baby boomers.” Their adolescent and college years were spent hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Just Like a Woman” on either the radio or their portable 45 rpm 7-inch disc players. Their 30s and 40s were spent making a Greyhound busload of money at a job in one of the nations most booming cities (Atlanta), and turning one of its neighboring counties into a giant suburb.

In doing so, they may have somehow realized that they had some things in common with dear old Bob. Not only was he about their age, but he had, throughout his career, come to show a characteristic that was, while somewhat unexpected, something with which these boomer yuppies could well identify. See, even as far back as 1965 Dylan had very plainly dropped the rough and simple ideals of the socialist folkster world. His history shows that, throughout his teens, he was a fan of sharp and stylish rock and roll. He had looked to Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis as heroes at least as much as Woody Guthrie or Leadbelly. He wanted to be the BMOC in the fine suit with big money, fine women, and a nice ride. His manager, Albert Grossman, got him a ton o’ money. In the early ‘70s, he was driving a Cadillac El Dorado convertible. Sweet. For Gwinnett’s (and all of Atlanta’s) boomers to see such hedonistic gluttony in one of their own would have to be a relief as comforting as a dip in the back porch Jacuzzi after a 60 hour week.

In the end, this all gives me a good idea. When you and I are, well, closer to that age, we should get ourselves a couple of those astronomically-priced tickets to a show by, I don’t know, the Talking Heads or somebody. They’ll probably be playing in Habersham County or somewhere by that time. Anyway, it’ll surely give us both a better understanding of this whole thing.


No comments: