Southern Sounds

Maureen Dowd is hardly the first to accuse Bob Dylan of selling out, but she’s gotten the most attention for doing so. Her recent column in The New York Times chastising Dylan for his April 6 Beijing concert has annoyed those familiar with his career just as her acerbic punditry has enraged power brokers in Washington. The Pulitzer Prize Dowd won in 1999 for distinguished commentary (columns reporting on the Monica Lewinsky scandal) indicates what results when she’s focused and on top of a story. Her April 10 column entitled “Blowin’ In the Idiot Wind” is evidence of what happens when even a skilled reporter does sloppy work.

Bob Dylan at Taipei Arena in Taiwan shortly before his stop in China. (Photo by yangon)

Dylan, according to Dowd, sold out by allowing the Chinese authorities to approve his setlist at the Beijing concert. Naturally, according to Dowd and other reporters, that must’ve been the reason he didn’t sing “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “Blowin’ In the Wind” in Beijing. However, the reports of Dylan submitting a setlist were based on “speculation.” Being savvy journalists, instead of relying on what was speculated, Dowd and the others could’ve checked recent Dylan setlists (they can be found on the Dylan-centric site, Expecting Rain) to see how often Dylan sang those ’60s classics in concert. That’s what Harold Lepidus of  Bob Dylan Examiner did. Through his due diligence, Lepidus reported that Dylan, in 102 concerts last year, performed “Blowin’ In the Wind” just ten times while performing “The Times They Are A-Changin'” only once, at a special White House concert. So much for the songs being a regular part of his repertoire, and so much for Dylan not filling the minds of Chinese people with images of Bull Connor and George Wallace, enabling him to walk away with “his pile of Communist cash,” as Dowd put it.

Scary Messiah . . . More surprising than Dowd using such shaky evidence to prove Dylan sold out, she made no mention of his opening the Beijing concert with “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” from the first of his three Christian albums, Slow Train Coming (’79). After all, the Chinese government is made up of God-fearing people; Jesus Christ scares the hell out of them. If Jesus were walking the earth today, He would replace the Dalhi Lama as their public enemy number one. And had the setlist been submitted as speculated, the Politburo in Beijing would’ve  reacted with great disapproval after scanning the lyrics to “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.”

Jesus said, “Be ready,

For you know not the hour in which I come.”

He said, “He who is not for Me is against Me,”

And it’s likely the authorities would have really taken umbrage over the opening lines of the song’s second verse:

So much oppression,

Can’t keep track of it no more.

Doing their best to keep track, though. were the police in Beijing. On April 10, the same day Dowd’s dispatch was posted, ABC News reported dozens of Christian worshipers from an unregistered church were arrested when they tried to pray outdoors. The Chinese government only allows religious worship in state-approved churches, but they have trouble enforcing the law, as more than 60 million Chinese worship in the “house” churches compared to the 20 million who attend state-sanctioned churches. Apparently, whether Dylan sings or not, Chinese officials finds their sons and daughters getting beyond their command.

The Men From The Press Say We Wish You Success. . . Granted, even the best journalists can show only a minimum of curiosity at times. Worse, they can leave out facts and details while hurrying to make their own points, as in Maureen Dowd’s case. Then there are journalists who only wish to put forth a hateful opinion, as did Lewis Grizzard two years after the murder of John Lennon.

Lewis Grizzard began writing columns several times weekly for The Atlanta Constitution in 1977. At first he wrote about sports, but was soon given leeway to write whatever he wished. With that freedom, he proved an informative and entertaining columnist. Grizzard wasn’t writing for the most urbane of readers, but for a couple of years he displayed a unique sensibility about life in the post ’60s South. Much of his work was innocuous enough. The South he celebrated then was one of old-fashioned beer joints, country music and plenty of barbecue for everyone. While he did seem quite a throwback for an Atlanta writer in his early 30s, he did indicate from time to time an understanding of life as it was in the New South, and he embraced it enough, for example, to express great fondness for the long-haired country-western maverick, Willie Nelson.

While working in a  marketing and advertising capacity for the Peaches Records and Tapes chain in the fall of ’78, this writer reached out to Grizzard, back then far easier to contact than years later when he became the celebrity columnist. Knowing of Grizzard’s fondness for Nelson and other country singers, it was thought that making a friendly overture to him might get the store a nice mention in his column. A meeting at the Springhill Pharmacy at Collier and Howell Mill, convenient to both our homes, was arranged. Over lime-aids at the fountain, we talked about music, the city and writing. He said writing was easy, but finding things to write about was tough. However it was clear he wasn’t interested in writing about Peaches, despite its complete selection of Willie Nelson albums. All the same, we had a nice time discussing music. Grizzard mentioned a few favorites, such as the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Atlanta’s own Tams of “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy” fame. The Beatles were mentioned, but with little comment, positive or otherwise, from Grizzard.

Honey, Let Me Introduce You To My Redneck Friend . . .  On December 8, 1982, country singer Marty Robbins passed away. That was two years to the day John Lennon was murdered by the devil’s best friend, as George Harrison called the killer. The timing gave Grizzard an opportunity to reveal an antipathy toward Lennon that wasn’t discerned that afternoon four years earlier over lime-aids. In a column shortly after the death of Robbins, Grizzard recalled some of the public spectacles conducted by Lennon. None of them received Grizzard’s approval. Lennon, to him, was just another rock and roller with a licentious attitude. The tone of his column grew ugly as he lamented how Lennon had been granted “deification” by his fans.

The venom that infused Grizzard’s column was surprising, but his attitude wasn’t. By late ’82, Grizzard’s material had grown stale as he kept falling back on how great life used to be in the South. One sensed that “used to be” meant the days before black people, as well as American women of all colors, sought equality under the law. However, none of that should have gotten in Grizzard’s way. He was doing very well with his columns, his books and speaking engagements. America had been very very good to Lewis Grizzard. Yet even with  all the sweet tea he guzzled at Harold’s Barbecue, he grew increasingly bitter in the last 10-12 years of his life.

Bad health plagued Grizzard in the ’80s until his death at the age of 47 in March ’94. His heart, already a faulty organ, was plagued by hard living which convinced some he had a death wish. That heart, also, as Warren Zevon might say, grew harder with each day he was alive. His book, I Haven’t Understood Anything Since 1962, published a year and a half before he died, provided Grizzard the opportunity to inveigh against all in the world that rankled him. Much of his irritation he blamed on the Beatles.

Grizzard wrote he didn’t like the Beatles, their music, accents or their hair. He went on to blame the Beatles for the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five and “all those other silly-looking English groups that suddenly came forth into America.”

He was just getting warmed up. There was far more to blame on the Beatles, like hippies.

The Beatles introduced long, unkempt hair in this country. You know what happened after that. Drugs, Woodstock, campus unrest, a less than full commitment in Vietnam. Sure I blame the Beatles for that.

John Lennon would’ve been surprised to learn of the impact he and his mates had on world affairs. Grizzard went on.

If they hadn’t come along with that long hair and there hadn’t been hippies, then the government might have listened to General Curtis (Bombs Away) Lemay who said we ought to nuke the North. That would have saved a lot of American lives, because about a millisecond after the first nuke hit Hanoi, then the Vietnam War would have been over, as was the case in World War  II when we Enola-Gayed the Japs.

Catching his breath after visualizing mass murder, he then went on to blame the Beatles for the existence of Michael Jackson, Boy George, Madonna and MTV. The trail of blame now spanned three decades. Grizzard’s irritation was hardly enlightening, as it should be with a humorist; instead, it was exhausting.

Meanwhile, At Rosa’s Cantina . . . Grizzard noted that Marty Robbins would have never posed nude with his wife for an album cover as Lennon and Yoko Ono did. For that we can be thankful. It can also be acknowledged that most of us could have done without Lennon and Yoko Ono providing the naked truth on the cover of Two Virgins. But John Lennon accomplished so much as a musician and humanitarian that an impudent act here or there can be overlooked.

Given that Lewis Grizzard had such great admiration for Marty Robbins, it’s curious what he would have thought had he known the Grateful Dead recorded a version of “El Paso.” The Grateful Dead may have represented much of what Grizzard feared America was coming to, but they came up with a faithful-in-spirit version of the Robbins song, just as they did with “Mama Tried,” written by Merle Haggard, and “The Race Is On,” first a hit for George Jones. Robbins, Haggard, and Jones: three singers worthy of every quarter Grizzard could pop into the jukebox of a favored beer joint. That is, as long as Robbins’s countrypolitan weeper, “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” isn’t a selection. Besides, if one is looking for a good song about the lives of married people, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” by the Beatles is a much better choice. Just don’t expect to find it on the jukebox at any joint Grizzard patronized.


Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.