Bob Dylan, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and Bob Weir: Their Influence on Culture Extends Way Beyond Music
Climb high enough on the tree of American rock 'n' roll history and you will reach two branches, one marked Elvis Presley, the other Bob Dylan. Every band since these two titans first strummed a guitar has been influenced by one or the other.
Climbing higher up Elvis' side, you find rhythm and blues and gospel; higher on Dylan's side is country and folk. One could say the very white Elvis' musical forefathers were black and Jewish Dylan's quite vanilla. Elvis brought the theatricality and showmanship, whereas Dylan brings the soul-baring authenticity.
As polar opposite as these two legends seem, choosing between them is not an either/or proposition; sometimes the branches intertwine. Elvis was also influenced by country and Dylan by the blues. It is easy to forget that the Bob Dylan who seems so confessional is really hiding behind a stage name phonier than any of the dance moves Elvis learned during an impoverished youth in Tupelo and Memphis.
Their truest difference is that Dylan wrote his own songs, whereas Elvis never did. This shouldn't be a black mark against the Elvis sector. Some of rock's most iconic songs were written by people other than the performers themselves, from Janis Joplin singing "Me and Bobby McGee" to Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused."
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But there is a fascination reserved for those who write their own lyrics. Whereas Elvis entertains, Dylan inspires. Elvis gets you dancing; Dylan gets you creating. Nowhere is this more evident than in the works of art inspired by the bands coming to town with the Americanarama Festival of Music hitting Cruzan Amphitheatre on June 26. My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and Bob Weir (cofounder of the Grateful Dead) all share a direct lineage to the headliner of this tour, the former Robert Zimmerman himself, Bob Dylan.
Each of these folks has a worthy collection of music and lyrical poetry that will stand at least through our lifetimes. What is most amazing, though, is how many times these acts have been the subject of another's art, music, film, and prose. Here are the many creative products of Dylan's sonic ancestry and ever-growing future:
My Morning Jacket
The junior members of this tour are 15 years and six albums into their run as the preeminent rock band from Louisville, Kentucky. Cameron Crowe chose this quintet to play the role of the band Ruckus in the 2005 film Elizabethtown. Sure, the role called for a band residing in Kentucky, but Crowe knows about music. Before becoming a screenwriter and film director, he was a music journalist for Rolling Stone. He bottled those experiences to create what is probably the greatest rock 'n' roll movie of all time, Almost Famous. And while, by any standard, Elizabethtown was mediocre (especially when compared with its direct predecessor, Almost Famous), it is still a worthy notch on My Morning Jacket's belt that Crowe -- who portrayed the spirit of rock 'n' roll as well as any nonmusician ever has -- would cast them as the prototypical Southern slacker rock band.
The most dynamic lyricists of the 2000s, Wilco members found themselves unlikely movie stars in 2002 when they starred in a documentary titled I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco. The movie used the band to rep the Zeitgeist of the changing of the music business. The album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which a decade later is by consensus an out-and-out classic, got the band dropped from its record label. Under no contractual obligation, Wilco made the album available free to download on its website. This mounted enough attention that the band was signed by another record label, the irony being that both labels were owned by Warner Music Group, meaning that Warner paid Wilco twice for the same album.
In a profile about Wilco in Spin magazine titled "The American Radiohead" and later collected in the book Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, the essayist tries to get inside what makes singer Jeff Tweedy a special songwriter. He figures it's a combination of Tweedy's Midwestern earnestness and his no-bullshit eye for the obvious. But a day after interviewing Tweedy, Klosterman learned from news outlets that the Wilco frontman landed himself in rehab. As with all his great songs, there might have been another interpretation in the subtext.
In spite of being the youngest original member of the Grateful Dead, guitarist and singer Weir was still allowed to pen a few of the band's most renowned songs, including "Sugar Magnolia" and "One More Saturday Night." The Dead still has some of the most devoted fans in the history of music (and perhaps in all of religious history) and has inspired a wealth of artwork -- from the dancing bears to the Uncle Sam skeleton to the Owsley Stanley-designed skull that has come to be synonymous with the 1960s counterculture.
Weir also made an appearance in the 2012 documentary The Other Dream Team, about a Lithuanian Olympic basketball team that received their funding from the Grateful Dead.
But the Dead's cameo in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test is a most pivotal moment. Wolfe, the father of New Journalism, chronicles Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they travel through the psychedelic era. The Grateful Dead were the house band for the scene, and Wolfe brings you into that moment in time with crisp writing that keeps you as attuned as the LSD he describes.
Where do we start? With Todd Haynes' flawed bio-pic, I'm Not There, in which Dylan is portrayed by six actors, including Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger? With D.A. Pennebaker's documentary on Dylan, Don't Look Back, which started the genre of rockumentaries? Or maybe with the knowledge that Don't Look Back spawned the first proper music video, with Bob Dylan flipping the lyric cards of "Subterranean Homesick Blues"?
The fact that musicians as diverse as David Bowie, Belle & Sebastian, and Syd Barrett all wrote songs about Bob Dylan? Or that the Beastie Boys, John Lennon, and the Who all mention Dylan in seminal songs? With the second-season episode in Mad Men when Peggy Olson gets oh-so-excited to go on a date to see Bob Dylan play in the Village?
With the novel Forrest Gump, in which Forrest and Jenny form a band and cover Dylan tunes? Without whom, what would the title of Rolling Stone magazine possibly be? Would every Vietnam and Jim Crow era protest have a different soundtrack?
We can certainly end with the Americanarama Festival of Music. For without Bob Dylan, the sounds of the other bands in the lineup would irrevocably have been different. And though the old supermarket tabloids might have told us that Elvis is still alive, he isn't currently on tour with any of his musical descendants.
Bob Dylan, Americanarama Festival of Music, with Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and Bob Weir. 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26, at Cruzan Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $31 to $703 plus fees. Call 800-745-3000, or visit cruzanamphitheatre.net.
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