Irony and Nostalgia in the Album Sleeves of Bob Dylan, 1962-80
In the 2007 movie I’m Not There, director and co-writer Todd Haynes uses the device of having different actors play Dylan-like fictional characters to tell the story of Bob Dylan’s career. The narrative of the movie mostly relates to the period 1962 to the mid-’70s, and Haynes’s most notable creation is Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, the frail-looking, 1966 Dylan who suffered the now-famous catcall of ‘Judas’ at the Manchester Free Trade Hall during one of his early ‘electric’ concerts. Whatever the success of Haynes’s movie, the device vividly makes the point that Dylan was a chimerical figure during the ’60s and ’70s. The movie’s scattergun narrative structure also suggests that the changes of persona that Dylan presented to the world did not have the purposeful sense of staging that we recognize, for instance, in the career of David Bowie during the ’70s. The air of confusion and masquerade that marks Dylan’s progress was in considerable part a consequence of his complex and troubled relation with his roots in folk music. This is an issue which has been the subject of many musicological explorations, but album sleeves, like Dylan’s, being at the intersection of image, music and charismatic performer, are revealing in their own right.
Between Bob Dylan (1962) and Saved (1980), Dylan released 20 albums: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964), Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966), John Wesley Harding (1967), Nashville Skyline (1969), Self Portrait (1970), New Morning (1970), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Dylan (1973), Planet Waves (1974), Blood on the Tracks (1975), The Basement Tapes (1975), Desire (1976), Street Legal (1978) and Slow Train Coming (1979). If the album sleeves are telling documents, this is not a matter of their excellence of design. Dylan’s album sleeves don’t make it onto many critics’ lists of best-album-designs-of-all-time. Over the period, it was increasingly the grand concept album designs by the likes of the Hipgnosis design collective produced for bands — rather than solo performers — that made the artistic running. Sleeve art doesn’t seem to have been an important issue for Dylan, or perhaps he had no eye for it. Like a lot of solo artists he tended to fall back on some form of portraiture, often using a photograph taken by the latest rock photojournalist in attendance. For two album covers, Self Portrait and Planet Waves, he used his own paintings, and on a third, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the design is confined to typography. Nevertheless, among the images on these 20 albums we find some that give eloquent testament to Dylan’s developing understanding of folk, and what it means to propose a modern folk music.
Before we look at these images it is necessary to make some preliminary remarks about folk art in general and folk music in particular. Traditionally folk art has been seen as the product of artists unencumbered by the sophisticated teaching of the Academy. Characteristically, the charm of such work has been its naivety, its clumsy attempts to mimic the canon, its kitsch relation to high art and the metropolitan mainstream. Folk music has shared some of these traits, but what folk music makes explicit, in terms of folk art, are additional qualities that come from being ‘of the people’. Folk music may be homemade, its range of instruments fairly simple (and portable) but the themes of its lyrics are overtly political, celebratory of the lives of ordinary citizens and their struggle for rights against the oppression of the powerful. In the early ’60s, Dylan was the personification of precisely these principles, and the lyrics of songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ brought folk’s political agenda bang up to date at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was getting into its stride. Dylan emerged as a leading exponent of the protest folk scene, centred on Greenwich Village, New York City, and the album cover that most eloquently represents this moment in his career is his third release, The Times They Are a-Changin’ (to offer a sense of historical context, the album was released a couple of months after the UK release of the Beatles’ second album, With The Beatles). The album’s stark, traditional musical means — voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica — are accompanied by an equally stark, black-and-white head shot of a youthful and gaunt-looking Dylan photographed by Barry Feinstein. What, we might ask, has happened to the chubby faced Jewish boy of his eponymous debut album? This, as Haynes’s movie makes explicit, is Rimbaud writ large. Dylan’s self-absorbed pose, with downcast eyes, is informal, has the appearance of a snapshot rather than being ‘to camera’. As an image type it offers the authentic codes of folk, and Dylan gives it the face of a modern, alienated subject. These qualities are supplemented by the bold, no-nonsense typography to the left of the head. It gives the album title, his name and, in an extra utilitarian touch, track-listing information, too. Looking at it now, we can see it was not just Dylan’s songs but also the sleeve that caught the spirit of the rising tide of youthful rebellion and protest that folk was giving voice to.
If we wind forward two years to the ‘Judas’ incident, we are able to ask of the heckler, John Caldwell: What, exactly, was Dylan’s offence? Knowing what we do of Dylan’s wider reception during his 1966 tour, Caldwell’s claim that it was the quality of the amplification that led him to heckle Dylan might initially seem disingenuous. But he may have a point, since Dylan’s performance during the ’66 tour consisted of two halves, the first being acoustic in the style that fans would have been anticipating from his previous UK tour. After the intense, soulful solo performance of the first half the arrival of a raucous rock band must have changed the mood in the auditorium radically and it is easy to imagine that Caldwell, a self-confessed folk music fan, was outraged by the contrast. For the traditional folk mainstream of the time, Dylan’s was the crime of a vile apostate. Again, to illuminate the wider context, the Beatles then-current release was Rubber Soul, and it was the gradual emergence of rock, as distinct from pop, that was the progressive force in the fast-growing music scene.
What this emergence meant to Dylan can be most clearly seen by comparing his portrait on The Times They Are a-Changin’ with that on the 1966 double album Blonde on Blonde. The title, reputedly inspired by Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg, suggests a significant change in Dylan’s priorities. The cover image of Dylan is gatefold, in other words, a large, vertical rectangle, 24 inches by 12. The photograph is by Jerry Schatzberg, at that time a rock circuit photo-journalist who had photographed the Rolling Stones in a similar vein. Dylan’s image is an out-of-focus, upper-torso shot of a rock star so speedy he doesn’t have time to stop to be photographed. He addresses the camera with a slight frown, good-looking; the fashionably full head of hair and the knotted scarf are artfully casual. The look is one we recognize from Rubber Soul and the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, and these were the meaningful comparators for the aspiring rock star. Dylan’s image confirms his intention to use rock to break folk, yet his immediate, onstage response to Caldwell’s ‘Judas’ jibe had been: “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar!”
Dylan’s follow-up album to Blonde on Blonde (delayed by a mysterious motorcycle accident) seems to support his rebuttal of Caldwell. John Wesley Harding (1967) is a kind of doubling back towards folk. The title is a misspelling of the name of a Texas outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, the gentleman killer. His father was a preacher who named his son after John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist church. Dylan’s choice of title, with its bevy of associations, puts us firmly back in the terrain of folk. He amplifies this with a telling choice of cover picture. It is a photographic ‘accident’ that turns Dylan, his local carpenter and two musicians visiting from India, into the semblance of a frontier pioneer, a gold prospector and two Native American guides. The faded black and white of the image intensifies the veneer of period, so while it might not be a recreation of the photograph of the Cook Gang, with Dylan playing Cherokee Bill Goldsby, it is certainly in that vein. The album leaves us in no doubt that Dylan is over the rock star thing. Equally, the very oddness of the photograph suggests that although folk begat him, having distanced himself from it, it was not possible to go back.
The air of uncertainty about what direction he should take, and about what kind of image he should project, is made even more obvious on his next album, Nashville Skyline (1969). Photographed at his home in Woodstock by Elliott Landy, another rock photo-journalist, a beaming, bearded Dylan gazes downwards into the lens which hovers close to the guitar he is holding. Dylan portrayed as the jolly country music troubadour is positively unnerving, but that seems to be the intention. The album is named after the city where it was recorded. This was not the first time Dylan had recorded in Nashville — Blonde On Blonde had been cut there, too — but this time the country music influence is much in evidence and the duet with Johnny Cash on the opening track can be read as a symbolic acknowledgement of the significance of country music as an important tributary of American folk.
If Dylan is troubled about how the influences that have made him can be resolved into some settled image, the title of his next album, Self Portrait (1970) suggests he is finally ready to show and tell. Disappointingly, the child-like simplicity of the self-portrait painting he chooses for the cover comes over as an evasion, and the album has largely been dismissed as an unworthy follow-up to Nashville Skyline.
As the ’70s proceed, Dylan works on his dilemma. He explores gospel and the blues, and never abandons folk and country. Identifying that it is in the opening up of the American West that folk and country’s overlap is most potent, he gets drawn into the making of Sam Peckinpah’s movie Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, first agreeing to provide music for the soundtrack, and then taking an acting role as Billy’s sidekick, Alias. The struggle with how to portray himself on his album covers goes on. The return to touring with The Band, and subsequently the Rolling Thunder Revue, undoubtedly clarifies things. The answer, it gradually emerges, is that folk is no longer the tradition he had learnt from the likes of Woody Guthrie. If we go back to its roots, folk had been the simple music of the street and barn. It had had about it a directness that came from being unencumbered with sophisticated artifice. Now, Dylan finds himself in an ever-expanding field of popular music that reflects the worldly interests and aesthetic values of a multitude of specific, identifiable lifestyles, subcultures and urban tribes. These self-determined communities, which had been emerging from the ’50s onwards, each in its own way opposed to the post-Second World War settlement, became the spawning ground for a multitude of folk musics. Folk is no longer an absence of sophistication, but a deliberate act of dissent. The stories of surfers, hippies, mods, rockers, bikers, rastas and punks are all significantly formed around their music, and it is increasingly clear, as the ’70s mature, that folk, insofar as it signifies dissent from actual, or imaged, mainstreams, is everywhere. Although he will often doff his hat in the direction of the folk tradition out of which he came, Dylan now does so nostalgically, and with an ironic flourish, no better illustrated than by the cover of Desire (1976) photographed by Ken Regan and put together by album design veteran John Berg. The profile portrait captures Dylan wearing a highly decorative and dandified sartorial compilation of the frontiersman, notably the Stetson, the kerchief and the fur trapper’s collar. What inspired the photograph was not the sepia image of unknown frontier pioneer, but the cover of the 1970 solo album, The Wolf King Of L.A., by John Phillips of the Mamas And The Papas. There was no original original, there was only masquerade in the here and now.
There is perhaps one further thing to be said about Bob Dylan and album sleeve design. It has been argued here that an extended concept of folk music has become one of the chief rallying points of all manner of self-determined communities. The corollary to that is that design for music — with album sleeve design at its pinnacle — has become one of the most vivid examples of the continuation of folk art in modernity: clannish, amateur, heterogeneous, disposable, generated from ‘beneath’ and firmly part of popular culture. Although many famous graphic designers have turned their hand to the design of album sleeves, the itinerant, occasional or anonymous designer has created much that is exceptional and innovative. In turning to his own hobby of painting as the source of images for Self Portrait and Planet Waves (1974), Dylan affirms his position in the realm of folk, not through his music this time, but through his art, whether or not the world chooses to remember him as a visual artist.
Nick de Ville
Nick de Ville is the Millard Chair for Fine Art Research in the Department of Art, Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Album: Style and Image in Sleeve Design.