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What do We Make of Bob Dylan’s Accusations of Raping a 12-Year-Old?

If Bob Dylan isn’t guilty, he would be swimming against the normative fluxes, waylaid as the standalone instance of not engaging in a behavior that was as common as rain.

Soon as the first leaf turns brown in the autumn, I habitually play Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in its gut-wrenching entirety, looping the youthful naiveté of You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go to the acerbic takedown of a lover in Idiot Wind. It’s my favourite album of his. When I stayed in Nepal in my middle school, I remember listening to Nashville Skyline over and over during an edgy spell of bedbound illness, believing its atypically simple lyrics and country melody of nursing me back to recovery. A Dylan-esque repossession of health. I also have a dog-eared copy of his autobiography, if that qualifies as a parameter of my fandom at all. Last week, a woman – styled as J.C. in anonymity – came forward to say that the 80-year-old singer had groomed and sexually assaulted her at his Chelsea Hotel apartment almost 56 years ago.

The girl was just 12 years old at the time. She alleged that the singer whose actual name is Robert Zimmerman “exploited his status as a musician” to gain her trust and began to groom her “as part of his plan to sexually molest and abuse” her. The plaintiff also claimed in the suit that the Nobel Prize laureate had “befriended and established an emotional connection” with her during a six-week period between April and May 1965 “to lower her inhibitions with the object of sexually abusing her, which he did, coupled with the provision of drugs, alcohol and the threat of physical violence, leaving her emotionally scarred and psychologically damaged to this day.” The details of the case, however, are undeniably murky, rain-swept, averted into the passage of time. What happened – or didn’t happen – is not decisive by any measure.  

As the news spread, the choir of Dylan’s primarily young white fan-boys jumped to his defence on Reddit forums, Twitter and Instagram. Their speech cautiously balanced into a post-#MeToo verbal Olympics with trademark phrases, “We need to believe victims but…” followed by i)let’s not hastily make any conclusions and ii) Bob is a nice guy, rendered differently. Other questions, starkly posed: why didn’t she come out sooner? The case is more than half a decade old, so what about the statute of limitations? Another Twitter user said, sarcastically, “Think of all the groupies, can we expect a lot of lawsuits now?” to which a user replied with a lot of dollar emojis, insinuating that the whole affair was an opportune cash-grab. Someone suggested that we rather discuss the war on terrorism, and please, not this. One just simply offered: “Sorry, you can’t cancel Bob. Not going to happen.”

David Bowie, another of my childhood heroes, was also guilty of a similar violation. He – and the Jimmy Paige of Led Zeppelin – had sex with (or I should say, raped) the famous “child groupie” Lori Maddox. She has recounted her encounter with Bowie to Thrillist. In this case, the facts are not debatable. What happened, happened. Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, Marvin Gaye and Elvis Presley have all allegedly ‘slept’ with underage women. In 1958, Chuck Berry released “Sweet Little Sixteen”. The Beatles’ opening track on their debut album, “I Saw Her Standing There,” begins: “She was just 17/You know what I Mean?” 

The nostalgic era of sixties and seventies – heyday of classic rock – was rife with a groupie culture that normalized and sanctioned rape. Women were expected to be tolerant and sexual, gleefully acquiescing to all sorts of casual violations. “It’s never possible to have full agency [as a groupie],” Roxana Shirazi, a former groupie who authored the 2011 book, The Last Living Slut: Born in Iran, Bred Backstage, said to the Guardian, “From the outset, the power structure is not equal. They’re famous, and, unless you’re famous yourself, you’re not on the same plane.” It is clear that ‘The freedom land of the seventies’ that Lana Del Rey sentimentalizes through her heart-shaped-sunglasses perspective is mostly a willful misremembrance. What we regard as a prematurely developed era of sexual liberation was much more insidious in reality.

In a thread of discussion on Facebook, the American essayist Rebecca Solnit discussed her experience as “someone who actually lived through the 1970s as a teenage girl in the Bay Area”, arguing that the “mores were really really REALLY different”:

The dregs of the sexual revolution were what remained, and it was really sort of a counterrevolution (guys arguing that since sex was beautiful and     everyone should have lots everything goes and they could go at anyone; young women and girls with no way to say no and no one to help them stay out of harmful dudes’ way). The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls (and the illegal argument doesn’t carry that much weight; smoking pot is also illegal; it’s about the immorality of power imbalance and rape culture). It was completely normalized. Like child marriage in some times and places. Which doesn’t make it okay, but means that, unlike a man engaged in the pursuit of a minor today, there was virtually no discourse about why this might be wrong. 

But everyone likes Dylan, and everyone would like him to be innocent, so that they can play his admittedly stellar catalogue without guilt. Dylan is a ‘nice guy’. Women love him. The first reaction my friend gave, a Dylan fan like me, was, “Oh, come on. Not him too!” But here’s the thing: if Dylan isn’t guilty, he would be swimming against the normative fluxes, waylaid as the standalone instance of not engaging in a behavior that was as common as rain. As Solnit writes, “There was virtually no discourse about why this (the pursuit of a minor) might be wrong.” In the same period, Roman Polanski had raped a 13-year-old after plying her with Quaaludes and champagne (because everyone else was doing it). Woody Allen had paired himself with a 17-year-old in his 1979 film, Manhattan without raising any eyebrows. Understand this: an innocent Dylan would be the exception, not the rule of a sexual norm. But hey, at least, today, we’re questioning it.

Sushrut Yadav

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Feature Image Credits: Dylan Fan Club

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