A Protest Song
In the 1960s, The Ed Sullivan Show is the biggest television event in the world. A Sunday night staple, families up and down the US gather around their televisions to see what entertainment Sullivan’s going to discover this week. It can be anything, from acrobats to ballerinas, comedians to magicians – but it’s in music that Ed Sullivan’s power is principally felt. Known for his keen eye, Sullivan’s a kingmaker, with appearances on his show sending the careers of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles stratospheric. It takes a special kind of somebody to turn him down, which is exactly what Bob Dylan is about to become.
In 1963, Dylan’s still a relative unknown – his electric guitar unplugged in the study – and regarded as a protest artist with a temperament best described as nettles covered in honey. His biggest song is “Blowin’ in the wind”, but the jokey, talky Dylan is beginning to emerge on his second album “Freewheelin’ with Bob Dylan”. It’s this album he’s keen to promote on Sullivan.
Although considered a long shot to make an appearance due to his confrontational politics, in private Dylan’s desperate to perform. He knows he has the ability to make a greater impact in the music world – though he hasn’t quite resonated with America just yet. He wants to stand with the biggest bands of the day, and believes Sullivan can get him there. Being Dylan, however, he’s determined to do it on his terms.
A few days before the show, Dylan arrives at the Ed Sullivan theatre to audition the song he’s going to perform. It’s a common practise, giving Sullivan, his producer and the CBS Standards and Practices board an opportunity to ensure they aren’t going to run afoul of any interest groups. Dylan auditions “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” – a song skewering the John Birch Society, a conservative body renowned for accusing everybody who opposes them of being a Communist. At this point in their history, they’re already an open joke – their tirades so frequent they’ve become blunted by apathy. Sullivan and his producer agree, accepting the song for live broadcast. On May 12, the CBS Standards and Practices board vetoes the number, while Dylan’s rehearsing it in the studio.
At this point history and reality go their separate ways. In truth, Dylan politely refuses to play or censor his song, preferring to quietly walk away from the show. We can only imagine how hard the decision was for him given how much he’d staked on appearing. In the press, the story goes slightly differently, with reports suggesting flaming arguments with Sullivan, CBS, the producers, the audience, the cameramen and anybody else unfortunate enough to cross his path. Given his already prickly reputation, it isn’t a hard sell.
Ultimately, it couldn’t have worked out any better. Strolling off Ed Sullivan was akin to leaping off an ocean liner halfway across the Atlantic. It was considered career suicide, and the papers ran the story incessantly. Dylan received more exposure for not appearing than he would have for the greatest gig in the world. He also became the man who did what The Rolling Stones and The Doors wouldn’t – he refused to trade integrity for a chance to stand in the spotlight. It was an early marker of the standards he would set for a career.