Driving home yesterday, listening to the local “Where the music matters” station, I found myself belting out “The Times They Are a-Changing,” to my children’s amusement, and suddenly realized that it’s a really dumb song. I hear it now very differently than when I first heard it as a young teenager, some years after it appeared, when it was already an anthem spoken of by the politically engaged the way northerners once spoke of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Then, I was fourteen or fifteen and understood the world better than my parents, understood its needs so well that I volunteered for the McGovern campaign. (I would not do that now.) The fourth verse got my attention, since I hear it very differently. The fourth verse is the one in which Dylan tells parents not to “criticize what you can’t understand,” and continues.
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command,
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand,
For the times they are a-changin’.
Then, it seemed a declaration of enlightenment and progress. Now, it seems a self-serving charter for liberating oneself not only from one’s parents but from all they metaphorically represent, from Moses with his laws to that uncle who used to warn you about saving every penny for the future. Which liberation, speaking as a parent and one who respects all we metaphorically represent, seems disastrous.
The young counterculture’s self-conception—its ideology—was as fluffy as an angora rabbit. What exactly it meant no one quite knew, except that the old world (their parents’ world) was dying and deserved it and the new one was a-borning and would be much better, if not transcendently better.
For that, the song, with its string of images unrelated to any proposition, proved an excellent anthem. (And the tune was catchy, too.) As one critic of Dylan’s music wrote, “Dylan's aim was to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public—to give that inchoate sentiment an anthem and give its clamour an outlet. He succeeded, but the language of the song is nevertheless imprecisely and very generally directed.”
Imprecision and generality are the friends of the ideologue and the romantic.
But the times didn’t change. Or they didn’t change for long. People remained what they had been. After the brief period when the new society seemed real and permanent, people acted as St. Paul would have been predicted, if anyone had thought to consult his letters.
Countercultural stores popped up all over town when I was young, stores where the revolution in manners and morals was thought inevitable and making a profit and relying on the law were dismissed as relics of the old uptight acquisitive materialistic square world. People congratulated themselves on doing business in a new way, without the materialism and selfishness of the old way.
But it didn’t last. It didn’t last long at all. It lasted about as long as the owners took to pay their suppliers and see how much they had left over to live on, and to find that their fellow revolutionaries would happily slip some small and expensive item into a pocket and walk out of the store. It lasted until they read their first spreadsheet and caught the second thief.
The hippest of the stores—the one that sold obscene “Zap” comic books and various devices for getting high—quickly got a reputation as the store in town that would most quickly and vigorously prosecute shoplifters. Whereas the old man who for years had run the drugstore down the street might let a kid go with a warning, or a call to his parents, the hippie owner of this store would call the police. The store’s clientele regularly called the police “the pigs,” without dissent from people who relied on those policeman—all townies and therefore easily patronized—to keep order.
The store nevertheless energetically sold Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, which taught its readers how to shoplift, among other acts of alleged resistance to the establishment. I dimly remember someone being prosecuted for stealing the book. That might have been a rumor, but if it was, it was a perfectly believable one.
Why did things seem so promising for a while? What made the counterculture the period so many remember so fondly that they have never stopped trying to recreate it in some partial and modified way? The answer, I think, is that they remember it the way a man of declining powers remembers his first serious girlfriend.
An ideology is a kind of falling in love. The man gripped by an ideology is like the young man newly in love with a young woman. Suddenly morning is breaking, the birds are singing, a thousand flowers are blooming, lions are lying down with lambs, and times are a-changin’. Suddenly the noisy neighbor, the pushy driver, the rude store clerk, the exploitative roommate, the sanctimonious aunt are all people one can easily humor or forgive.
That is what people remember most. They felt a growth in what the Christian would call charity, but it was artificial and temporary. It came from an adoring look from a fetching face, or from that and hormones. But they will remember forever what it was like when the birds sang, the flowers bloomed, and the times changed.
Of course, at some point the infatuation fades out. The good, enlightened, a changing times don’t last in the way and for the reason falling in love doesn’t last. The woman who had made the birds sing and the flowers bloom stops being as perfect as she was. She is selfish or petty or greedy, or, worse, no longer so indulgent as she had been.
And suddenly the noisy neighbor is a jerk, the pushy driver is a jerk, the clerk, the roommate, and the aunt are all jerks. The darker parts of St. Augustine and Jonathan Edwards now make sense. Charity is no longer so easy.
But they will still have the memories, and looking back at youth the illusion that that heightened state of being in love was the real world, and that their life since was a matter of sad compromises and failures. That is what makes the counterculture still so powerful an image of the good life for so many people who have made their way in the world in the traditional ways, and why they keep trying to recreate it. It was their first serious girlfriend.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. The Dylan critic quoted is Michael Gray, quoted in the Wikipedia entry on the song.