The Rambling American: Dylan Goes Electric

Locke McKenzie asserts that developing European cities could learn a thing or two from Bob Dylan’s willingness to change.

Change is often hard to accept. With a slew of critics and pundits ready to condemn one to failure, even the most visionary can find themselves faltering at the brink of breakthrough.

In the mid-’60s, fans denounced Mr. Folk and Blues himself, Bob Dylan, for trying. His infamous electric premiere at the Newport Folk Festival had fans of traditional folk outraged. A show in Manchester was greeted with boos and jeers too. In Martin Scorcese’s documentary No Direction Home, someone even goes as far as calling Dylan “Judas” as he walks out on stage with his electric guitar.

When you’ve spent your career defining the face of folk, it’s hard to break conventions. Much like Bob Dylan, Europe is also having trouble going electric.

A place known to most Americans as the “Old World,” Europe is where we come to find castles and palaces, old ruins and traditional food.

The reality, however, is that this Old World is dying out. As European countries develop and the birth rates fall, the full-blooded German, French, and Austrian populations are becoming proportionally smaller. With the influx of Turkish and North African immigrants comes a swell of new culture as well. Just as the hippies weren’t ready for electric Dylan, many Europeans are not ready for new Europe.

Of course, there’s something to be said about remembering our past and keeping our traditions, but at what cost?

In a recent article from German newspaper Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, I discovered a little Tuscan town that has taken active measures to preserve its heritage.

Like many places in Europe, Lucca is an ancient city with an alluring culture of food and wine. In recent years, the city has seen its high-end restaurants disappear, only to be replaced by fast-food joints peddling cheap immigrant specialties. In response, the town ruled that no more permits would be offered for restaurants selling anything other than traditional Tuscan fare.

The program Lucca has developed is not outwardly racist. The town’s economy is dependent on tourists who come for the experience of a classic Tuscan village.

But honestly, Italy has been a cosmopolitan state since the Roman era, and this legislation to traditionalize food is more of a subtle means of ethnic cleansing than a way to protect culture.

But the door swings both ways. In part, Lucca can’t change because tourists don’t want it to. We want to see Old Europe. We want an Old Town with old buildings and old feeling restaurants. We want signs that say “Est. 1623,” and the city has to react.

The customer has to be satisfied with the product.

What Dylan showed the world, however, is that if you ignore the customer and are brave enough to push forward, they’ll eventually come around. But it does take some guts.

In response to being called Judas, Dylan turned to his band and said, “Play it fucking loud!” Now it’s probably the most famous moment in his career.

If you ask people who have traveled Europe, many of them will say the same thing. After moving through enough cities, you realize that everyone has the token Old Town and cathedral. In the end, people find that the more characteristically different a city is, the more genuinely memorable the experience.

When talking to travelers, I’ve found that they normally spend their time 1) in the West and 2) in capital cities. Naturally, these destinations blend together as one big, monotonous wave of people and places. When one has the chance to step away from the pattern—visiting a city in Eastern Europe or spending a weekend in the countryside—the experience tends to be unique.

So why does Lucca—or any European city for that matter—want to pander to one of the most unoriginal of tourist gimmicks? It’s working to produce a traditional Italian town in the middle of Italy, and after traveling the country, why would anyone want to see another one of those?

There are plenty solutions for Lucca. As Die Süddeutsche Zeitung suggests, they could encourage fine dining of all ethnicities. They could lure in fine chefs from the far reaches of the world and create a unique dining experience—a true culture of food and wine.

Perhaps if Luccan officials could find the courage to “play it fucking loud,” the audience might remember them too.


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Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.