Clean Cut Kid: one of the few anti-war songs by Bob Dylan

By Tony Attwood

I have long known that for me, personally, there is something profoundly odd about the world-view of Clinton Heylin, but it was only when I started doing my background reading on Clean Cut Kid that I fully understood what it was.   For within the midst of his working through the ins and outs of the recording sessions of the song (typically without actually noticing how the music changes during the course of these events, with the middle 8 being added long after the rest of the song), Heylin suddenly says, “Clean Cut Kid suggested that if the songs ever dried up he [Dylan] might make a fine sociologist (sociology being, in PJ O’Rourke’s memorable phrase, one of the three disciplines designed to prove nothing is anybody’s fault.)”

Now I mention this not because I want to have an argument about Heylin, but because I think this comment explains a lot about his view of Dylan and his work.

What O’Rourke said was that “Liberals have invented whole college majors— psychology, sociology, women’s studies— to prove that nothing is anybody’s fault.”

It is an utterly bizarre viewpoint revealing an absolute ignorance of what sociology actually is about, and how it originated.   Auguste Comte, who first used the word, used it as a study of social groups and societies, as it became clear that the study of the behaviour of individuals, away from the study of people in groups, was not enough if one wanted to understand what makes animals (including humans) do what they do.   Some behaviour can be explained as an individual responding to the environment, but a lot needs an explanation of how group behaviour evolves and can dominate our behaviour in certain situations.   Humans for example are by and large devoted to the notion of family and it is clear that the family group influences each other.  It is a social group.

I think the comment is silly, but it reveals something rather important about Heylin, in that he clearly believes that all human action is a matter of individual choice at that moment.  And yet although technically, when I go to the supermarket to get some food I have the choice of stealing it or paying for it, in reality I always pay.  That is what I do because of social and psychological pressures and experiences.

So Heylin believes that we all of us have the ability to make personal choices at every moment and we are not influenced by social pressure (sociology) or individual experience or personality (psychology).   It explains a lot of his views.

In this song, originally recorded during the Infidels recording sessions in 1983, but not completed until two years later and released on Empire Burlesque, Dylan places the blame for a young man’s change of behaviour on the social and political pressures of government, and his subsequent experiences in the Vietnam War.

It is hardly a profound viewpoint, but to deny that the social setting, and one’s own personality have a part to play in how the young man’s vision was changed, is rather like just saying that man-made climate change doesn’t exist, and telling us the 3000 eminent scientists have signed up to say that without giving us the details of who they are, and what they have studied and published.

You could be right in denying climate change caused by man’s activities, but one needs some pretty detailed proof.   It could be true to say sociology is just bunk, but just saying it doesn’t make it true.  You could say that the sun goes round the earth, because that’s what you see.  You could say that when people are 100 yards away from you they really have shrunk to one inch tall, because that’s what you see.  But you still need a theory to explain what is going on.

Just denying the theory that most people who consider the subject follow, doesn’t mean the theory is wrong.  Saying it, doesn’t make it so.

Dylan accepts the power of sociological factors in the song, but makes the simple both in the music and the lyrics – the kid was a nice regular guy but he was turned into a killer.  And it so wrecked his life that he could not adjust back in the US, so eventually he killed himself.   That’s it.   In one out take of the song (see link below), all we have is verse verse verse which drives us relentlessly forwards to the conclusion.  In the final version for the album, the piece is broken up with some middle 8 sections which makes it more attractive musically.  That’s fine, but not completely necessary.  Either way, relentlessly we get…

They took a clean-cut kid
And they made a killer out of him
That’s what they did

Between 1985  and 1990  Dylan played it 68 times, and it got an airing with Tom Petty and co at Farm Aid along with “I’ll Remember You,” and “Trust Yourself.”

Dylan didn’t have too much to say about Vietnam in general although there is a moment with the Wilbury’s where the lyric (which maybe is by Dylan or maybe one of the other guys) says

Tweeter was a boy scout before she went to Vietnam
And found out the hard way nobody gives a damn
They knew that they found freedom just across the Jersey Line
So they hopped into a stolen car took Highway 99

So, if I am right in thinking that Highway 99 actually means Route 99, then the kid escapes to Canada.

What is also particularly interesting is that by and large Dylan hasn’t written too many anti-war songs about specific wars.  He wrote “Masters of War” about the way the military-business alliance makes profit out of the threat of war, and he noted that if God were on our side he would stop the next war (which he didn’t so presumably He wasn’t), but specifically Dylan does do too much saying “Stop this war.”  That isn’t really part of Dylan.  Nor is he the musical version of Picasso with Guernica.   It would be interesting if he were, but he’s not.

But what he does write about is the way individuals are manipulated by social settings and socio-economic  situations – Hollis Brown is an obvious early example.  Quite why Clinton can’t see that Hollis Brown is a song about the psychology of the man, the social-psychology of the family and the sociology of the United States is somewhat beyond me.  But there it is.

Moving on, part of the glory of this song is the way the music is so out of kilter with the message.  The message is awful, the music is bouncy and jolly.  Not a care in the world.  Just like the weapon manufacturers and the politicos who utilise them.

Musically there is also something quite unusual – one notices it first in the percussion, it just doesn’t normally happen like that in Dylan.   I am personally not sure that the backing vocalists are actually necessary, but what do I know?  It is Dylan who makes the sound, and having the backing singers there certainly adds to the feeling that this can’t possibly be about the horrors of government and its attitude towards sending its young men off to war.

The alternative version (without the middle 8s) is here

In the end Dylan concludes

Well, everybody’s asking why he couldn’t adjust
All he ever wanted was somebody to trust

which, Mr Heylin, is a psychological statement not sociological.  And it seems a pretty fair one to make at the end of the song.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page Untold Dylan or go to

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there.


  1. Yes, indeed Dylan has always acknowledged sociological factors bearing upon individual self-expression…she took me by the arm and in that instant I knew she meant to do me harm…the Romantc notion that we are born free but everywhere we are in chains…..drifting down the road is one avenue of escape, to at least release some of society’s heavier pliars, to form a spititual vision of one’s own….artistic creativity, a means to salvation. Some not so lucky and get crushed.

    Dylan’s true love is art, women his muses.
    The juxtaposition of incongruities is a feature of Dada and Surrealistic art and surrounding the lyrics of ‘Clean Cut Kid’ with bouncy music strikes me as being just that, given that it is only my ear that knows anything about music. A way to draw a listener into an unexpected message, is it not?

    What does Heylin know anyway?

  2. ‘He went to Hollywood to see Peter O’Toole
    He stole a Rolls Royce, drove it in a swimming pool
    They took a clean-cut kid…”

    alludes to the movie ‘Stuntman’ in which O’Toole refers to a ‘clean-cut kid’.

  3. I can’t see this as being an anti-war song. It’s essentially nonsensical subject matter. It just doesn’t make sense in that context. “Killer” is just a metaphor for someone without a moral framework who’s running amok. This is a comedy about a spoiled brat indulged by his parents in every way who can’t grow up, and whose mind is increasingly f’d up by his indulgent parents. I can’t see it any other way. It can’t be taken seriously.

  4. You say that one can disagree with a theory (like anthropogenic climate change) but that one must have “proof” that the theory is wrong. Doesn’t that invert the burden? I thought the burden is on the theory proponent to prove it’s true, not on its opponent to prove it’s false.

  5. What I meant to say Timothy was that just saying “that’s wrong” doesn’t actually get the debate much further. If one is going to say “that’s wrong” then it is only worth saying if some evidence can be provided to show why it is wrong.

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