Can Bob Dylan save Detroit?

Rumors that he lived nearby put Woodstock on the map. His early appearances at the Newport Folk Festival awakened the '60s. Can Bob Dylan save Detroit?

Of the long log of commercials in the most entertaining Super Bowl in years, Dylan’s appearance in the long Chrysler commercial telling us to let Germany brew our beer, let Switzerland make our watches, let Asia put our phones together but let America make our cars had that gritty hipster authenticity to it that Dylan has brought to almost every move he has made in his life.

“Because what Detroit created was a first,” he said, “and brought inspiration to the rest of the world. Detroit made cars and cars made America.”

Right he is. Detroit is a hidden jewel with an American legacy that awakened the world to soul music, modernist architecture, advanced models of industrialization and imagination. Detroit’s premise was always that there were things that could happen here in America that could only happen here, and Dylan effectively still makes that case for today.

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Eisenhower built the roads and Jack Kerouac understood what the roads were for: transformation and transcendence. Between the two, modern post-war America awakened.

“You won’t find a match for the American road and the creatures that live on it,” says Dylan.

Possibly only he could say it like that today. Eminem tried and he was right too. But he lacks the gnostic American primality that Dylan, at age 72, still conveys; dark and Biblical, preacher, hipster, troubadour, trickster, false and true prophet, he still shivers the timbers as Johnny Cash did, as Kerouac did, as Woody Guthrie did, as Hank Williams, Esther Phillips, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Walt Whitman did.

They would get Detroit; it has an old soul underneath, as Philadelphia and New Orleans do, and its own distinctive, animal spirit. And there is that great farmers market, those old ethnic neighborhoods, the “Joe,” the Red Wings, the Great Lakes and the visionary architecture of Albert Kahn.

It is not unfair to say, citing Henry Ford and Kahn together, that the modern world began in Detroit, where modernization began with advanced models of industrialization, offering workers decent salaries, decent lives and the potential for self-determination not available outside our American borders. In Detroit, America started the world fresh without the burdens of the past. Possibly it still does.

But Dylan can’t do it by himself. Maybe he needs former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has some current thinking on Detroit and immigration. And Bloomberg’s old buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger could come up with something more than tiny tennis. Maybe Detroit should be the center of his clever R20 ("a coalition of partners led by regional governments that work to promote and implement projects that are designed to produce local economic and environmental benefits in the form of reduced energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions," its website says).

Among the three of them, they might again come up with something transcendent.

Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. For 20 years he has been an amateur farmer, raising Tunis sheep and organic vegetables. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children. Contact him at quigley1985@gmail.com.

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