March-April 2009

BOB DOES PEPSI: THE SURREAL THING

By Ross Altman

I got the following email from one of my column'scorrespondents, pedal steel guitarist Mike Perlowin, with a one-line subject:It's Over; The World Has Come to an End. The reason for Armageddon is inthe one-line text of message: "Bob Dylan appears in the new Pepsi commercial!"There was no Aesop's Fable moral at the bottom, but it was clear enough withoutit: Bob Dylan has sold out (again).

You may recall his previous forays into commercial songlicensing: The Times, They Are a' Changing was used as the soundtrackfor a Kaiser Permanente commercial with the caption, "Be Your Own Cause"-notexactly the message we aging boomer former hippies and radicals associate withone of the classic protest songs of the modern era. And before Kaiser the samehymn to social change was picked up by a Canadian bank, but mercifully nevermade it south of the border.

Then there was Victoria'sSecret, with images of Bob as the coolest looking Dirty Old Man cutting tolingerie-clad nubile models young enough to be his granddaughters who weredancing and prancing to his erotic song, To Make You Feel My Love. Again,it was not exactly the erstwhile troubadour of Masters of War and TheLonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

When I replied with enthusiasm to Mike's initial email andsaid, "Bravo for Pepsi"-for some lovely previously unseen early photos of Boband a perfect pitch soundtrack of Forever Young (sung by anotherartist), I received a follow-up phone message from Mr. Perlowin indicating howdisappointed in Bob he was and implicitly, by extension, me for not jumping onthe Dylan as Judas bandwagon.

You may recall the famous scene captured in MartinScorcese's documentary No Direction Home of one irate British fan at the1966 Royal Albert Hall concert screaming at Dylan from the audience, "Judas!"presumably in response to Bob having gone electric at Newport the year beforeand now taking his new act on the road. To which Dylan calmly replied, "Man, Idon't believe you."

So, Mr. Perlowin, Dylan has been down this road before,accused of selling out, of betraying his audience, his songs and his ideals, ofnot just compromising his principles but abandoning them altogether.

We have all been there before. First it was the formereditor of Sing Out!, Irwin Silber, who accused Dylan of selling out-byshifting from his Guthriesque persona and socially conscious protest songs towriting personal songs like Mr. Tambourine Man and My Back Pages.Dylan, once the hero of Sing Out! for reviving the art of protest songsfor a new generation, was just as vociferously condemned for turning inward andessentially moving from protest to poetry. That was in 1964.

Then in 1965 all hell broke loose at Newport when he traded his Gibson acousticfor a Fender Stratocaster and blasted out Maggie's Farm with the backingof Paul Butterfield's Blues Band. Pete Seeger picked up his ax and threatenedto cut the mike cables. And guess who came to his defense? Johnny Cash, that'swho. Not to mention-hold onto your dulcimers-Appalachian ballad singer, Alameda Riddle.

Nonetheless, Sing Out! unceremoniously removed Dylanfrom its pantheon of folk heroes-and Dylan never looked back. In his bravehands folk rock was born.

Twenty years later Dylan, the former Bob Zimmerman fromHibbing, Minnesota, who had been bar mitzvahed no less, turned his back onanother part of his identity, and became a Christian. Once again, cries of sellout started rumbling forth from one-time fans who again felt betrayed, thistime his Jewish fan base.

Ten years later, after Dylan had exhausted his Christianperiod with three albums, and had gained a whole new group of fans, includingPat Boone, pictures started to surface of Dylan at the Wailing Wall inJerusalem, wearing a yarmulke, along with reports that he had been reborn as anobservant Jew, and the same Jews who had condemned his previous conversion werenow only too happy to welcome their prodigal son back into the fold. He evensang Hava Nagila on the Chabad Telethon.

And so it goes. Always one step ahead of his audience, Dylanis now charged with selling out all over again, not for going personal, not forgoing electric, not for going Christian, but for going commercial, forlicensing his songs for commercial use. Since he has been accused of being thedevil so many times before, let me be the devil's advocate.

I loved the Pepsi commercial. They used one of my favoriteDylan songs, Forever Young; it was beautifully sung, and the homage ofearly photos of the young Dylan was moving and heartfelt. You'd think somethingof this sort would not need defending, since licensing the publishing rights ofpopular songs is a time-honored way for songwriters to make an honest living.

But apparently it does need defending, since Dylan isexpected to live by a higher standard, his songs are supposed to be abovecommercial exploitation, rock is regarded by many as a sacrosanct body ofsecular religious hymns-and its vocal fans and supporters demand the separationof church and state, or in this case, music and commerce.

A subsequent email from Mr. Perlowin makes that case betterthan I am inclined to do, so let me give him the podium to provide a contextfor my essay. Here is what Mike wrote:

Ross,with all due respect, I think the larger issue is not the tasteful quality ofthe commercial, but rather that Dylan has allowed his name to be used topromote a major corporation. Pepsico also owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut,Frito-Lay, Gator-aid, Tropicana as well as God knows what else.

Ibelieve big corporations are evil. Pure and simple. I believe the issue ofcorporate regulation and deregulation has been the single most important issuein American politics since the days of the industrial revolution, and all themore publicized issues like Vietnam or the civil rights movement, as importantas they were, served to keep the issue of corporatism out of the public eye

Todaycorporations like Pepsico are the backbone of the Republican Party. Theirpropagandists like Rush Limbaugh talk about abortions and homosexuals and Jesusto appeal to "the base," but they don't talk about the real issue of corporategreed and abuse. They get people all fired up at the thought that their kidsmight be taught by a gay teacher, but they never mention that those same kidsmight get cancer from being exposed to toxic waste in their drinking water.After all, cleaning up toxic waste costs money and it might cut into the corporations' profits.And then the poor CEOs might have to take home a few million less.

Thisis a complete reversal from the stands Dylan took back in the 60s. He issupporting the people he condemned when he wrote MastersOf War.

I'mVERY disappointed in him. Mike.

Well Mike, and other outraged Dylan fans, something ishappening and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

Under this implied covenant it is OK to make money byselling records and charging admission to concerts, but it is not OK to makemoney by licensing songs for commercial use by third parties, especiallycorporations who are presumably buying an implied endorsement from the artist.

There was a time before the PC and the Internet when such acovenant made sense and was a reasonable way of slicing up the artistic pie. Inthose "good old days" all an artist like Dylan had to worry about were thebootleggers who recorded his concerts and put out their own recordings fromwhich they could profit handsomely and from which the creator of thiswealth-just like the wage slaves of Joe Hill's day, never made a dime.

But, as Dylan observed in his Oscar winning song, ThingsHave Changed. So Dylan, and Columbia Records fought back and startedreleasing their own authorized "bootleg albums," like the officially released BasementTapes, which were already in circulation in the underground. There are nowmulti-volume sets of "bootleg albums," in Columbia's Dylan catalog, which haverestored Dylan's ownership of his own copyrights-the end of the world indeed.

But there was no way to really fight back against the musicpirates who surf the Web. As every contemporary artist has discovered, thecurrent generation of music fans do not expect to have to pay for music. Justlike computer hackers have figured out how to game the system, these modern Websurfers know how to get music for free and file share to their narcissisticheart's content.

Have you noticed that Tower Records is out of business? Haveyou noticed that Rhino Records store closed? Where is Wherehouse Records? AaronRecords?

They are casualties all of these perfidious music piratesthat have sprung up all over the Web. So what is an artist to do?

Well, I'll tell you what one artist has done. If you go toBob Dylan's web site (www.bobdylan.com)you will discover one of the most generous web sites in the virtual universe.You can click onto the lyrics of any one of his more than five hundred recordedsongs and print them out for free. You don't have to buy his songbook. You canlisten to a great many of his songs-from beginning to end-not a 20 secondAmazon sound bite or iTunes teaser-again for free. You don't have to buy hisrecords.

For all intents and purposes, since Dylan and ColumbiaRecords realized they couldn't beat the pirates they joined them. In effect,they pirate themselves-and simply regard the web site as a loss leader, a formof advertising.

That's how thoroughly the Internet has changed the musicculture in which we now live. That's what is happening, if you haven't figuredit, Mr. Jones.

So where does that leave songwriters like Bob Dylan? Well,as he wrote in that classic song which Pepsi licensed (and actually paid for),"May you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift."

Fortunately Dylan has a strong foundation-a catalog of songsunmatched for their poetry, humanity, imaginative scope and musical power. Andone of the few ways left to an honest songwriter to actually reap the reward ofhis labor is to license these songs for commercial use.

A servant is worthy of his hire says the Bible, andwe all know that Dylan is well schooled in both the Old and New Testaments.

So I don't begrudge him the opportunity to make a living bypursuing one of the increasingly few avenues in which songs are still able tosupport their creators.

To those who believe that a musician is supposed to livelike the lilies of the field or the pigeons in the park, and depend, as BlanchDubois was forced to do, on the kindness of strangers, I say fine, let them eatcake. But I know what Dylan would say, because he already said it:

Businessmen they drinkmy wine, plowmen dig my earth,

none of them along theline know what any of it is worth.

Apparently Pepsi does know whatit is worth. So I say again, Bravo for Pepsi!


Author's note:  I am grateful to Mike Perlowin for permission to reprint his emails in the context of a column that takes issue with them.  Readers who wish to get better acquainted with Mike's pedal steel guitar work can visit his web site at:  http://www.mikeperlowin.com


Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becominga full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now singsaround Californiafor libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You canreach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  

All Columns by Ross Altman