Volume 75, Number 15 | Aug. 31 - Sep 06, 2005

The times they are a-changin’: Dylan goes Starbucks

By Ronda Kaysen

Bob Dylan, the icon of the anti-establishment left, began selling some of his rarest recordings yesterday exclusively at Starbucks, a coffee shop chain that has come to epitomize the excesses of corporate America for a new generation of leftist activists.

In June, Starbucks announced its intentions to release “Live at the Gaslight 1962,” an album that includes rare material from a performance at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, and “Bob Dylan No Direction Home: The Soundtrack – Bootleg Series Volume 7.” The “Gaslight” CD will be sold exclusively at Starbucks for 18 months, while “No Direction Home” will be available everywhere.

Within hours of the announcement, the blogosphere became inundated with Dylan fans outraged that the mumbling artist who launched his career playing in Village coffeehouses and penned “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” would cut a deal with the creator of the venti caramel macchiato.

Reverend Billy, the performance artist minister of the Church of Stop Shopping who spent three days in a California jail last year for “exorcising” several California Starbucks locations, jumped into the debate in recent weeks. The reverend, a.k.a. Bill Talen, has been circulating a letter to Dylan criticizing him for his recent partnership with Starbucks. The most notable signatory is Kurt Vonnegut, author of the antiwar novels “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse Five.”

In the epistle, Talen blasts Dylan, writing, “By dealing what you created in the Gaslight Café to this transnational chain store Starbucks, you make the revolution that will blast from some dark little stage all the more urgent.”

Talen is still gathering signatures and expects to forward the letter onto the elusive artist in mid-September. Talen had collected upward of 400 signatures when The Villager spoke with him earlier this week on his way to Burning Man, an annual art festival in the Nevada desert. (Larry Harvey, executive director of Burning Man, also signed the missive.)

“I’m one of the people who was deeply moved by the early political movement of Bob Dylan. But now it’s been branded by a transnational corporation and now it’s officially meaningless,” Talen said, speaking on his cell phone outside Café Cole, a noncorporate San Francisco cafe that serves Fair Trade-certified coffee, he noted. Fair Trade is a stringent international criteria for coffee importers.

Starbucks also claims to practice Fair Trade policies, selling a Fair Trade-certified blend in its stores and touting supportive programs for its growers on its Web site and in its stores.

Dylan has a long history of shirking his fan base, dating back to his stunning electric guitar debut at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Even before that controversial performance, he repeatedly changed his tune, evolving from an interpreter of folk standards to a writer of political ballads to an ambiguous — and often apolitical — poet. And last year, in a move that seemed to trump all others, a grizzled Dylan paraded through a series of Victoria’s Secret ads, the song “Love Sick” from his 1997 album “Time Out of Mind” providing the soundtrack.

Some of his latest critics are well aware of his contrarian nature. “Dylan sold ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ his most anti-establishment song, to the Bank of Montreal for use in an ad in 1996,” wrote one critic on Starbucks Gossip, a Web blog maintained by media blogger Jim Romenesko. “If he’s willing to pimp that out for a financial services firm, I can’t see why anyone is surprised about a music distribution deal with a fairly upstanding corporation.”

Others were more disillusioned by the most recent development in Dylan’s unpredictable career: “Stunned by this. Let down. Going out for an expresso [sic],” wrote Ralph on Coolfer, a New York City-based music industry Web site and blog.

Starbucks has been involved in the music business to some degree since 1995 when it first began selling jazz compilations. In recent years, artists long linked with the civil rights movement — including Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone — have begun to grace Starbucks’s muted green coffee houses.

Adding Bob Dylan to the list of Starbucks-endorsed artists was a logical step for the company’s musical ambitions. “Bob Dylan is truly a legend and one of the most socially conscious artists of a generation,” Kenneth Lombard, president of Starbucks Entertainment told The Villager in a telephone interview. When asked if Starbucks had reached out to Dylan in the hopes that the artist’s “socially conscious” image might rub off on the company, Lombard replied, “We’re looking for great music across all genres.”

Lombard attributes the criticism to typical growing pains. “When any industry embarks upon change, in essence trying to reinvent itself, there’s going to be questions and there’s going to be potential resistance,” he said, adding later, “Change is coming as it relates to how the music consumer is going to acquire their music.”

Much of the criticism is less about a coffeehouse hawking CD’s, than it is about a corporation with what critics describe as unfair labor practices aligning itself with the man who wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Dylan’s songs “created social change,” said Talen. “He identified directly with the great causes of his day. For him to deny that, why doesn’t he put Starbucks in his name? Why doesn’t he brand his name?”

Starbucks staunchly disagrees with recent criticism that its labor and trade practices are unfair. The company uses 100 percent-recycled fiber napkins and offers comprehensive health benefits to employees, known as “partners,” clocking more than 20 hours a week.

Last year, however, a Starbucks in Midtown on Madison Ave. unsuccessfully attempted to unionize its employees with complaints of repetitive strain injuries, erratic work hours and understaffing. When the staff picketed the location on the eve of the Republican National Convention, police officers circled the store, arresting two employees, including the ringleader, Daniel Gross.

“Starbucks, as a company, has prided itself — and really built a reputation on — being extremely fair to every partner that’s involved in the Starbucks company,” Lombardi said. “We will continue to provide a great opportunity for anyone that wants to become a partner.”

For activists in the anti-globalization movement, however, Dylan’s sudden appearance on Starbucks countertops makes one point ring loud and clear: the times have definitely changed.

“We need new artists who are politicized,” said Talen. “We need artists who have a social conscience. If Bob Dylan isn’t one of them, his time has passed.”

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