Interviewing Bob Dylan several years ago, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner kept badgering the legendary artist to admit that the world is going to seed and things look grim. Dylan demurred, asking Wenner just what he was getting at. "We seem to be hell-bent on destruction," said Wenner, who then quizzed Dylan if he worried about global warming.
Bob Dylan, a clever enough fellow that he once attained the amorous affections of Raquel Welch despite looking like a homeless person, refused to take his interlocutor's bait. "Where's the global warming?" he asked Wenner. "It's freezing here."
That exchange came immediately to mind when the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) announced Monday that Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall will serve as the theme song for the historic global climate change conference that gets underway next week in Copenhagen.
The UN is putting out a short film called Hard Rain that sets the Dylan classic to a montage of striking photographs meant to highlight the perils of fossil fuel use and global warming: Bangladeshi refugees, barren Haitian forests, the melting Greenland ice sheet, an oil-soaked bird on a Brazilian beach, etc. Accompanying the film is a specially commissioned essay entitled "The Urgency of Now" written by green activist Lloyd Timberlake. UNEP is also distributing a book of the photographs. This is all part of something called the Hard Rain Project, which aims to "reinvent the world so it's compatible with nature and human nature."
The project largely is the, er, brainchild of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The UNEP press release quotes him saying, rather loftily, "If Hard Rain is a photographic elegy, it is also an impassioned cry for change. Forceful, dramatic and disturbing, it is driven by what Martin Luther King called 'the fierce urgency of now' -- and I believe the call for a truly global response to climate change is an idea whose time has finally come."
At first listen A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall would seem to be right up the alley of those invested in warning about the impending eco-apocalypse. The lyrics make reference to dead oceans, sad forests, a child beside a dead pony, a newborn surrounded by wolves, and a woman on fire. One line has the singer describing the depths of a black forest, "where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters."
It is an unsettling song and, frankly, an inscrutable one. But that hasn't stopped the masters of environmental hyperbole at UNEP from deciding that Dylan is speaking the gospel of planetary doom.
"The dark and evocative lyrics of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall echo the kind of impacts the world faces if climate change continues unchecked," said Achim Steiner, UNEP's Executive Director.
The only problem is that there's no reason to think this interpretation of Dylan's classic is correct. A constant complaint in Dylan's interviews over the years is that people often misinterpret his songs. Originally people thought A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall was about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nope, he wrote and performed it a month before that 1962 saga. That didn't stop a generation of folks believing the hard rain referred to nuclear fallout.
Dylan tried to put that notion to rest in a famous interview conducted by Studs Terkel: "No, it's not atomic rain, it's just a hard rain. It isn't the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that's just gotta happen." Whatever that means.
But clearly all that lingo about the despoiled environment is about, well, environmental destruction, right? Maybe not. As Dylan himself explained, "In the last verse, when I say, 'the pellets of poison are flooding their waters', that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers."
A curious thing about Dylan is that he is regarded by many as the embodiment of the spirit of protest and raised consciousness of the 1960s. Yet he has always seemed uncomfortable with that role. In his own eyes he's just a musician. He writes and performs songs. That's what he does.
So the notion of enlisting Dylan to be the voice of a new green generation is a little silly. The guy did a commercial for Cadillac's gargantuan Escalade SUV two years ago, after all. That, like the Rolling Stone interview, is just another clue that Dylan might not be marching in lockstep with fashionable society when it comes to global warming groupthink.
The earnest alarmists at the United Nations are undeterred by the silliness of this campaign. Dylan and his music are iconic, and should be put to use in the furtherance of a noble cause. Or as Mr. Steiner put it, "Bob Dylan had another song. One that reflects a strong and positive Copenhagen outcome that puts the world on a low-carbon path -- The Times They Are A-Changin."
Groan-inducing to be sure. But while we're at it, perhaps Steiner, Gordon Brown, and the rest of the Hard Rain brigade might consider mining the Dylan songbook a bit further. They need to come up with something to describe the virtually nonexistent prospects of getting a landmark international agreement at Copenhagen, despite the labors of PM Brown, President Obama, and other world leaders. May I suggest Blowin' in the Wind?