Q & A with Ben Stein on Bob Dylan

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Actor, writer, economist, etc: Ben Stein is difficult to label, as all good Bob Dylan fans should be. He had a famous turn as a teacher in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He hosted Comedy Central’s quiz show, “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” for five years. His most recent book is a collection of writings called “The Real Stars.” (His most recent column in the New York Times, which does not end without a Bob Dylan quote, is at this link.)

One of his latest projects is a film to be released to theaters in February 2008, called “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” (official site here). The film will look at how “educators and scientists are being ridiculed, denied tenure and even fired — for the ‘crime’ of merely believing that there might be evidence of ‘design’ in nature, and that perhaps life is not just the result of accidental, random chance.”

Stein is a man of strong opinions and the courage to state them. When the Senator Larry Craig imbroglio was still breaking and everyone was just going “yuck!” and making jokes, Stein — in a commentary for CBS Sunday Morning — defended the man who had been abandoned by seemingly all of his alleged friends and allies and stated that “if a police officer can wreck a man’s career over this trifle, then we might as well not have a Constitution or a Bill of Rights.”

Recently, Ben Stein was gracious enough to talk with me a little about his abiding affection for the music of Bob Dylan.

Q: Do you remember when you first came to enjoy Dylan’s music?

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

STEIN: The summer of 1962. I heard it for the first time driving along a highway in Virginia with a friend of mine who played it on the radio of his Triumph convertible. The first song I ever heard was Blowin in the Wind.

Q: So you go right back to the beginning.

STEIN: I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan for 45 years.

Q: So were you hooked right away?

STEIN: Oh yeah, immediately, immediately. I don’t think he’s made any good new songs in a very long time, but I’ve been hooked for a very long time. And I love him. There’s not a day that goes by — here, Europe, anywhere I am — that I don’t listen to Bob Dylan.

Q: Is there a particular song or album or phase that —

STEIN: I love them all but I suppose my favorite songs are Just Like A Woman, Tangled Up In Blue, Shelter From The Storm, and Idiot Wind. Probably Idiot Wind is my very favorite song.

Q: That actually reminds me: in something you wrote on Sinatra in 1998 — it’s in your “The Real Stars” book — you said an interesting thing. You said that “Bob Dylan connected for the first time in pop culture with the basic human feeling of anger,” whereas you distinguish how Frank connected with loneliness.

STEIN: Yes, that’s true.

Blood On The Tracks

Q: You still hold to that?

STEIN: Oh yeah. Bob Dylan is very largely about anger. His songs connect with anger. They’re sometimes about love, but they’re mostly about anger. And even when they’re about love, they’re about him being angry at the woman he’s in love with. And his songs are full of anger. And they’re wonderful, because anger is a basic human emotion and most singers have simply ignored it. And most poets have simply ignored it. Because he’s not only the best singer-songwriter of our post-war era but he’s the best poet of the post-war era.

Q: Well, it’s funny — anger seems like a strong word to me, certainly it’s there but —

STEIN: I think it’s not even strong enough. I’d say it’s extreme rage a great deal of the time.

Q: Are there ways in which you’d say that Dylan’s work, or parts of it, mesh very well with your values and point of view?

STEIN: Well, very much so. Especially — as I said, one of his best songs is that song Idiot Wind and it’s very much about the evil power of gossip, the evil power of the media to wreck people’s lives. And I’ve seen the evil power of the media hard at work to wreck people’s lives over and over again.

Q: As a conservative in the entertainment industry, have you experienced consequences for —

STEIN: Of-course, all the time. Constantly. Well, I have a career much bigger than I deserve, but I would’ve had an even bigger career if I hadn’t been branded the enemy of the people by being conservative.

Slow Train Coming

I don’t think Dylan started out remotely as a conservative, but I think he became more conservative as he saw the devastating power of conformity and the devastating power of the liberal media at work, and then he became — he reacted to that by becoming I think a Christian, and became an Orthodox Jew, and he had a big reaction to the idea that liberalism was the only way to approach the world.

Q: You’ve quoted Dylan in some of your columns, obviously —

STEIN: Oh my God, I’ve quoted him so many times, it’s insane. A few minutes ago I got off the phone with the editor of the New York Times saying, “You’re quoting him yet again?”

Q: I saw your quote from him in a column called “The hard rain that’s going to fall on capitalism.” Do you —

STEIN: What did I quote from in that one?

Q: Well, you quoted — the title is, “The hard rain that’s going to fall on capitalism,” and you quoted Gotta Serve Somebody.

STEIN: Bob Dylan songs have been a very large part of my life. And some of them are garbage and gibberish, but some of them have insights on a scale that nobody else has ever touched. The Times says I do it too much but they’re not going to fire me over it. I mean Dylan is an icon, period.

Q: Did you read his memoir, “Chronicles”?

STEIN: Yeah, that’s all bulls**t. He just made all that stuff up.

Q: You think so?

STEIN: Yeah, he’s the biggest liar in the world. His lies are interesting, but they’re lies. Talking about remembering all the books that are on a bookshelf forty years ago — that’s just bulls**t. I mean he doesn’t even know how to tell the truth, but the fact is that the truth comes out anyway. He wouldn’t know the truth if it bit him in the face but the truth comes out anyway.

Street Legal

Q: Do you have a particular memory of seeing Dylan — have you seen Dylan in concert?

STEIN: Many times, many times. I saw him in like ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, and then I saw him again in ’76, and then I saw him again and he had become totally awful. I mean I saw him in ’98 and he had become so bad it was unbelievable. He should not tour anymore. He’s a genius, and there should be just a whole wing of the Smithsonian for him, but he shouldn’t be touring anymore.

Q: Well I’m going to be seeing him on the 30th — I hope that’s not true.

STEIN: He s**ts all over his audience. He hates his audiences.

Q: Well, I’m not sure — he’s inscrutable, shall we say —

STEIN: He’s not inscrutable, he hates his audiences. He’s just dumping all over his audiences at this point.

Q: What did you think of Dylan’s gospel albums when they came out?

STEIN: I liked them. I thought they were OK, I liked them. I mean I like everything — the last disc of his I like was called Street Legal and after that nothing is good. Except one song after that — a couple of songs, which are Brownsville Girl and Series of Dreams. Those are great songs.

Q: So, you do still listen as such and hope for —

Knocked Out Loaded

STEIN: I wasn’t kidding when I say I listen to him all day long. I’ve never stopped listening to him. I mean I could just walk into the bathroom here where I shave myself every morning and I could see what’s on the disc player, and here we’ll see — just a second — a very, very basic Bob Dylan work of art, that everyone should listen to every day [the strains of Dylan singing All I Really Want To Do suddenly erupt over the telephone and play for a few seconds].

You can’t beat it with a stick.

But Bob Dylan is my hero. He’s the first person to express anger — he’s the first person to express an idea that — he would make it cool to sing a song about how things are wrong, but that he still loved being alive. And his latter songs are I think pretty much about how happy he is to be alive. They’re not very good, but the theme is good. And I think if Bob Dylan were — if you put him on a rack and made him confess his political preferences he’d probably be for Ronald Reagan, because he does not like people interfering with his life.