Q & A with Congressman Thaddeus McCotter on Bob Dylan

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Rep. Thad McCotter is a Republican congressman representing Michigan’s 11th congressional district (Western Oakland and Western Wayne Counties). He was born in Livonia, Michigan (where he lives today) in 1965, and was first elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2002. In 2006, McCotter was elected Chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee.

Congressman McCotter has a higher national profile than many members of congress, not being shy to take very public and assertive stands on particular issues, and to defend them in the media opposite the likes of Chris Matthews or (the rather more charming) Dennis Miller.

To detail his positions on various matters would take up a lot of space, and would date this entry somewhat. One thing worth noting, I think, is that Congressman McCotter was one of the loudest voices in opposing the original so-called “TARP” bill in the fall of 2008. (See one of his floor speeches at this link.) That bill authorized the expenditure of 700 billion dollars by the federal government to purchase “troubled assets,” although the money has been used quite differently since then. Many more billions (indeed trillions) of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars have been laid out in the months following for various causes (and counting), and — even if you thought the original TARP was a good idea — you have to wonder how much could have been averted by drawing the line firmly against taxpayer intervention back then.

I was pleased and honored to be able to talk on the telephone to Congressman McCotter recently on the subject of Bob Dylan.

Q: When did you first start listening to Bob Dylan?

McCotter: Oh probably around twelve or thirteen — found him through the Beatles. A lot of people did. Started off with reading about the Beatles, and you’d hear about the influences on them,and I read about Lennon wearing the peaked cap, in ’64 or ’65, and he said he got it from Bob Dylan. So I go, “Who’s this Bob Dylan guy?” And I picked up — I think the first one was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. From there I never looked back. “Don’t look back!”The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Q: So Freewheelin’ was the first album you remember buying. At this stage, is there a favorite album or phase or song of Dylan’s for you?

McCotter: No, I think it’s a lot — it’s a lot like anything else. When somebody has that large a body of work, it’s hard to single out a favorite. The music itself, a lot of it is so different and diverse, in terms of human relations, in terms of what’s going on. A lot of it depends on the type of situation you find yourself in. I have a favorite at a time, but there’s never one that stands out. They all stand out.

Q: So you basically dig his whole career?

McCotter: Yeah, the whole thing. With somebody of his stature, it’s the whole thing. One day I’ll want to hear As I Went Out One Morning off of John Wesley Harding. One day you’ll want to hear Queen Jane Approximately off of Highway 61. It all depends.

Q: Have you seen Dylan live?

McCotter: I saw him twice — once in Meadowbrook, when he was doing a tour back in the 80s, back when I had a lot more time. And I saw him on the Tom Petty tour — one of the greatest memories I’ve ever had, musically was the Pine Knob Theatre, and the finale of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door with Dylan, Tom Petty and Detroit’s own Bob Seger up there singing it. Bob Seger made a guest appearance out of nowhere. That was ’85 or ’86, I think, that one. The Detroit crowd went crazy. There had been all these rumors that Seger would come. Bob Dylan and Tom Petty: Hard To Handle

Q: Now, you’re a Republican obviously — I think anyone who’s followed the stands you’ve taken on things in Congress would say that you’re a conservative Republican. Is there anything in Dylan’s work that has ever discomfited you in terms of the politics of it?

McCotter: Dylan’s always — if you look at it he’s always claimed to be apolitical. He just puts it out there, and what comes is whatever comes. Largely what he writes about are truths of human relationships and human existence. So that’s what I focus on. One of the beauties of music and one of the beauties of art is it tells universal truths about human existence. Politics is utilitarian, and tends to be petty in a large way, especially in the grand scheme of life, and that’s why art can elevate you out of it — your perspective — and Dylan certainly does that.

Q: Are there ways in which his music actually meshes with your values, spiritual or otherwise?

McCotter: Well, I would say don’t politicize it — like to say “This is a great Republican song” — that would do a disservice to what he’s trying to get across. But I would say largely that they all do — otherwise it wouldn’t be the great body of work that it is.

Q: Is the “gospel phase” one that you particularly enjoyed or not?

McCotter: If you had to choose where you’d be, it would be up to probably John Wesley Harding. But then there’s also other stuff — like Infidels is a great album, I think.

Q: Did you read his book, Chronicles?

McCotter: Yeah, I did. I thought that it was very helpful, because it’s one of the things that people have always kind of overlooked about him: He made the point that he would go back into folk music — he would go all the way back. He would go back to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and a lot of people didn’t do that. A lot of people just kinda stayed in the contemporary context, where he would go all the way back — he would go back to the Scottish folk songs. Bob Dylan’s Dream, I think, off of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is based on a Scottish air. He does a lot of those types of things. So the grounding he had in it, if you look at a lot of the great rock bands — the Beatles were very well-versed in all sorts of music, and they were able to synthesize the influences, and that’s what Dylan did.

And so the grounding that these guys had — it wasn’t as if they just woke up one morning and said, “OK, I’m gonna be a musician, or be a songwriter — they actually studied their craft.

And the other part that you get out of that which I thought was especially telling — and my chief of staff read it too — is Dylan and the Grateful Dead guys — and the thing about Dylan is that it wasn’t about the singer, it was about the songs he was trying to put forward. Which I think is often lost with other entertainers, where the entertainer is really the focus as opposed to the song which they’re trying to put across.

Q: By the way, I understand you met Bono recently.

McCotter: Yes, I met him, and we talked about Africa, and a lot of things, the work he’s trying to do there.

Q:He didn’t give you Bob’s email address, did he?

McCotter: Well, I didn’t ask for it! I did a speech at ASCAP — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — and one of the guys was there that hung out with Dylan for a while. And my chief of staff was asking him — he had just read a piece about this guy — and he said to him, “I’m not going to ask you the one question.” And the guy looks at him and says, “What’s the one question?” And he goes, “What was Bob Dylan like?” And he said, “Thank you for not asking me that question.” So I figured I wouldn’t do that with Bono either.

Q: Do you happen to know any other conservative-minded Bob Dylan fans? Bob Dylan: INFIDELS

McCotter: Dylan fans run the gamut! I’ll let them out themselves. But they’re all over. I mean one of my best friends who I met when I was first running — he’s from Michigan and when we ran across eachother one of the first things was — I think I quoted something off of Infidels
in passing, and all of a sudden, next thing you know, we’re talking about Dylan for the next hour — never really did get down to the issue that we were there to talk about! I think that kind of took care of itself.
I still get people sending me — in fact just yesterday, one of these conservative bloggers — we’ve been talking online and just out of nowhere he sent me a copy of Lennon and Dylan in a cab in London. Remember the video? He sent me a clip of that from YouTube. So, they’re out there! He has a wide fan-base.

Q: And I think in recent years he’s really become seen more as a — I don’t know — all-encompassing American artist I guess.

McCotter: And he’s always understood the ability to recreate yourself. One of the freedoms of America is that you aren’t locked into what you are when you’re born, or your station in life, or your region or anything else. It’s what you become later — you can transcend or recreate yourself. And if you look at his career he’s constantly doing that.

Q: Now, you play music yourself a little — or a lot, right?

McCotter: Well, not so much anymore!

Q: Are there any Dylan songs you’ve performed?

McCotter: Ah, we used to do Like A Rolling Stone. Back in the day, back in the 80s. We were like a band that played a lot of classic rock. When people were into synthesizer music and bands like Berlin or Flock Of Seagulls — no offense to any of those people — but that wasn’t what we were into. But this was before classic rock radio, so you can imagine why we didn’t particularly make a whole lot of impact. So that was one we really used to like to do. A lot of his songs — you can see with Hendrix, the most obvious example, All Along the Watchtower — Dylan’s songs, the structure of them, you can basically make them your own if you want to. That’s why they were always fun — that one in particular because even though it’s his signature song, there’s a lot of room to make it your own as a band. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited

Q: I think it’s one of the things he’s proved about his songs himself in concert, that they’re malleable and you can come at them from any way you like.

McCotter: He said Hendrix did that the way he heard it in his head. And then he’s done it with his own songs, gone back and reinterpreted them.

Q: Well, is there anything else you want to put on the record regarding Bob?

McCotter: I just hope he keeps going. That the troubadour just keeps going.

Q: Who’d have thunk he’d still be going, and actually going stronger than ever in terms of his popular impact?

McCotter: I think he did! I have the sneaking suspicion that he did.

See Congressman Thad McCotter’s official House website at this link. And you can follow him on Twitter at this link.