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Music

The Bob Dylan connection in 'The Big Lebowski'

@TomTaylorFO

As the City of Angels rises out of the desert and pans into view during the opening sequence of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece The Big Lebowski, we hear a conversational ode of sorts to ‘The Dude’. Within that opening stanza, in tones incongruous with the gaudy glow of the desert metropolis, Sam Elliot’s timeless timbre drawls out the following: “Sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place, he fits right in there.” 

Throughout their career the oddball brothers of Hollywood have always sought the right character to tell their story, that crafted identity that fits right in there or else, like the fork in a world of soup, notably doesn’t fit in at all. These characters are our conduits into the surreal-tinged realities of the Coens and vessels through which their stories unspool. 

As directors they have always been disciples of the Alfred Hitchcock mantra ‘if it happens anywhere it matters not’, but Ethan Coen stretched that message regarding time and place a little further and referred to the sort of movies they make as having a sense of “Natural History.” It’s not only a time and place they want to capture but also “the creatures that survived there.”

Timeline: 60 years of Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan’s time and place was New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. He fit right in there to such an extent that he changed the world thereafter. He transcended his own moment in history to become immortalised, but not all heroes get so lucky. And even Dylan himself was left reeling from his own success to the point that the bedlam of counterculture looked set to subsume him, so he set about giving it all away and reclaiming his youth when the 1970s dawned like Los Angeles on the horizon.

Dylan’s initial impact on music is perhaps best summed up by the man who discovered him in the first place, John Hammond, who concisely boils it down to the following: “To me Bob means progress.” Shortly after he was signed to Columbia Records, the gingham-clad great human catalyst was then christened ‘The Voice of the Generation’ and boy oh boy did he despise that. With this fateful misnomer, he suddenly became a martyr against the world armed with only his own fierce introspection, a dog-eared acoustic six-string, and a rusty mouth organ. He was only 22 when the title descended. 

He was a hero, but as The Big Lebowski asks, “what is a hero?” Well, it would seem that Dylan had an answer for that himself: “I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Thus, when his own freedom was impeached upon by picketing masses, he withdrew in a bold reclamation of his youth and individualism; a move he had already foretold with the 1964 lyrics to ‘My Back Pages’ “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”.

In 1966, after a fateful motorbike accident, he disappeared from the world for 18 months. By 1970, he would make his lodgings on the outskirts of society a little more permanent. In his retreat, he produced the album New Morning, a notable second chapter in his discography. With this masterful record, he actively avoided anything with a societal inclination and, instead, focused on patios, porches and family life—nothing signalled this clearer than the beauteous “La la la” chorus of the sumptuous ‘The Man in Me’.

Thus, it is, therefore, no surprise to hear the song soundtrack the introduction to ‘The Dude’. It is his contextual theme tune so to speak. Much like Dylan, he was once an active disrupter. He was one of the Seattle Seven along with six other guys, but now his activism has been eschewed — aggression will not stand, so he has taken to life in the bowling lane. 

This soundtrack choice is a magnificent mark of the depth that the Coens ladle into their movies. For instance, in the film Inside Llewyn Davis, the place our anti-hero is music audition is held is in a folk club called The Gate of Horn. This is a reference that probably coaxed a wry smile from a few Greek scholars in the audience as in Greek mythology The Gates of Horn and Ivory is where heroes were sent to be tested. Thus, it is far from a stretch to say that the musical choice of ‘The Man in Me’ had more than the wondrous melody in mind. 

Taking autonomy of your own life and worrying less about external circumstances is a move that both Dylan and The Dude took, “I can’t be worrying about that shit, man.” And so we hear echoes of ‘The Man in Me’ throughout. This was the post-Woodstock zen-philosophy of the counterculture world. 

However, Joni Mitchell argued“There were so many sinking, but I had to keep thinking I could make it through the waves. You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.” Is that true? Or did they just fall upon their own moral code of virtues in a world where the bums lost? Say what you like about their tenets of bowling with oat soda, at least it’s an ethos. 

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