Q & A with Joseph Bottum on Bob Dylan

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Joseph Bottum is the Editor of First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life. He is also a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, where he was the Books and Arts Editor for some years. He’s a widely published essayist, reviewer and poet. A couple of his recent pieces include “The Books of Christmas,” and “Death & Politics.” P.G. Wodehouse fans would enjoy reading his “God & Bertie Wooster.” And “Reading by Osmosis” would bring smiles to anyone who loves those skippin’ reels of rhyme. His 2001 book “The Fall & Other Poems” is published by St. Augustine’s Press.

I was delighted to be able to talk to him recently about his affection for the work of Bob Dylan.

Q: When did you first come to enjoy Dylan’s music, and is there a particular song or an album that hooked you?

BOTTUM: Well, I confess that when I first — there were Bob Dylan songs around that had become American standards, like Blowin’ in the Wind. Bob Dylan's Greatest HitsYou could hear Trini Lopez sing it. It was an American standard. And one always knew those songs growing up. But my first real exposure to Dylan was when someone gave me Greatest Hits, that first volume, and I remember not particularly liking it. It had — “Everybody must get stoned” was a track on it, wasn’t it? And I remember thinking, “It’s a clown song — what’s this?” And it went into that pile of phonograph albums that people gave you. And then I was in Salt Lake City with my family, visiting, and a friend of the family’s had an extra ticket; I was, I don’t know, young anyway — junior high school. And a friend had an extra ticket to a concert, in the Salt Palace, and asked my parents if I wanted to go. And since I’d never been to a music concert before, I went, and it turns out it was the Rolling Thunder Revue concert. It was the first concert I ever went to. And, y’know, filled with all kinds of things I didn’t understand. A strange bearded man got up and read something that I think was supposed to be a poem, during one part of it. Turns out that was Allen Ginsberg, but I didn’t know that at the time.

And some of it was quite powerful, but I still didn’t get Dylan. And it wasn’t until college, really, when somebody quoted a line, “the deputy walks on hard nails,” and I asked what it was from and they told me, and I bought the album, I bought Blood On The Tracks. So that was my first real Dylan album. And I wore it out I think in about a month. Do you remember when you could wear out LPs?

Q: Indeed.

BOTTUM: Part of the reason you could wear them out is because we were playing them on those little cheap K-Mart stereo systems you used to take to college dorm rooms, where the tone arm would easily skip — you’d jump up and down and the tone arm would skip all the way across the record. But I think maybe my freshman and sophmore years in college I wore out three copies of Blood On The Tracks. And it gave me some sort of feeling for what was going on.

One funny result of that is — everyone talks about, every real Dylan aficionado talks about the earlier, other recordings of the Blood On The Tracks songs, and many of the aficionados I know much prefer them. But because that was my youth and Bob Dylan — you know what I mean — because my introduction and place of beginning was in the actual album version, nothing will ever replace that for me. I can’t prefer bootlegs or anything to that. In fact when Biograph came out, I ran out to buy it, not just because I wanted that stuff — some of which had not even been available in bootlegs — but because it had the archetypal left-off-the-album song from Blood On The Tracks of Up To Me. Listening to that, there’s no reason that shouldn’t have been on the album. I don’t know what he was thinking leaving that off! But that one song alone made Biograph worth it for me.

Q: Absolutely.

BOTTUM: That and Abandoned Love, which I think is a great song unfairly left off of Desire. I don’t know what Bob was thinking in those days, leaving off great songs like that. But you probably know all the inside stories …

Q: Not particularly — I don’t know that anyone has any offical story on it. I can see him thinking that Up To Me might have seemed a little too autobiographical … but the album was seen as being so autobiographical anyway.

BOTTUM: Right — it’s a little hard to avoid that! But, so, that was it — it was in college that I fell into the deep, deep pit of admiration, such that I could never get out.

Q: Is it the Blood On The Tracks album that still means the most to you, or has anything else come along that has rivaled that?

BOTTUM: Any album? No. And I still think that it’s the most perfect album that he ever did. You go back to albums that one loves; Highway 61, Blonde On BlondeBringing It All Back Home holds a kind of special place for me. But the kind of perfection from beginning to end for me of the album, and the album as a concept in itself — I still think Blood On The Tracks is his best.

Q: I’m with you by the way on the released version of that being better —

BOTTUM: Are you really? Because lots of the hipsters say, well, you know the New York versions are better.Blood On The Tracks

Q: Maybe I resist that because I’m just contrary — people always tend to like the thing that is harder to find.

BOTTUM: Exactly. But I would still make the case: good as some albums are, qua albums — I think Highway 61 being the most obvious — they don’t have a shape and a build, and real understanding of the two different sides of an album and the rest of it that Blood On The Tracks had.

Of-course nowadays that distinction is gone, isn’t it? One of the troubles of buying these albums on CD is that the artists who were thinking deeply back in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies about the shape of an album were thinking of different sides. And this will show up for instance in — here’s an example I think is good: I don’t think anyone buying on CD today has any understanding of the two different sides of Abbey Road. But that album depends on there being two different sides. And Blood On The Tracks, I think, had a shape as an album, in a way that very few of Bob Dylan’s others did. Now, I may be mistaken on that, but that was my impression.

But, song by song, there are songs I’ve come to prefer, to anything on Blood On The Tracks.

Q: For instance?

BOTTUM: Well, on Biograph, there are live versions from the English tour of Visions of Johanna and It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, that I think are astonishingly beautiful. Just perfect. And contain some of the most powerful — not technically the best, but technically very good — but just in terms of emotional power, the most powerful harmonica playing I’ve ever heard. Now, they’re from the folk halfs of those concerts, of which the Scorsese movie made so much of those concerts. I think too much, but it still made for a nice narrative.

There are other songs; that song you like so much, from the Civil War movie, is really good.

Q: Oh, Cross The Green Mountain.

BOTTUM: Right. And I go back — some songs of-course are very popular. BiographI mean, everyone will name those great Bob Dylan songs, but the fact that everyone says they’re great doesn’t mean that they aren’t. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll. Masters Of War.

Q: Now, that’s interesting — what do you like about that song?

BOTTUM: I like the — technically speaking — I’m just thinking aloud here of why I said Masters Of War — I actually like the guitar playing in it, the way it’s matched to his voice. Which is something of-course he’s played with, which is why we get different versions of all these songs. It has a kind of shape and a build to it that I like. I mean, from the very beginning the song feels like it’s going somewhere — as opposed to a kind of straightforward ballad where you know it all from beginning to end. Even a really good bouncy one like When The Ship Comes In. As soon as he starts that song, you know what it is, and where it’s going. It’s perfect in its way. I’ve always disliked that story Joan Baez always tells about that song.

Q: Me too.

BOTTUM: You know, that he wrote it because he’d been denied service at a hotel, because she was famous and he wasn’t. It always felt to me like she was engaging — and I’ve seen or heard or read of her telling that story several times — and it always felt to me like there was some desire to diminish him and his composition in that story. But it’s still a helluva song.

There’s — what else was I thinking of, from that era, that has that kind of, I don’t know, strange perfection — “there’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm.” From the beginning. That’s so spare. And, you know, it’s a topic of bathos, and the only way to keep it from falling into bathos is in the phrasing and in the production of the song. And I’ve heard him do it several times in concerts over the years, or in clips, and he doesn’t always get it right. The song can get over-produced. The guitars can get too loud. But, as a difficult task to pull off, that’s an astonishing song, and it points to what really made him talented as a singer.

In fact, that’s worth talking about: What is it that really makes Bob Dylan talented as singer? Because he doesn’t have anything resembling a classic singer’s range. You know, his voice can be mocked. But lots of singers’ voices can be mocked. And I believe he’s a better singer than he’s usually held up to be. You know, I was once talking to Joe Epstein about Dylan, and I was saying that he had to be the only great singer who really didn’t have much of a voice at all, and whose sole superior, truly superior musical talent with his voice was timing. And Joe Epstein said, well, that’s not true at all! In fact, astonishingly, if you think about it, many of the singers whom one really admires as singers didn’t have the huge lungs and the enormous range. Louis Armstrong, he said, had a terrible voice, in truth. What he had was perfect timing. And I thought about it, and I thought y’know it is really — this is what makes good singers. Now if they add other things, on top of that, timing and interpretation — timing here understood as a means of interpretation — if they add other things onto that they enter the stratosphere, like Frank Sinatra. But nearly all of the great singers that you might mention as pop singers — the ones who really do something moving with a song — they do it with timing. And then the other pieces are additions on to that. Y’know, long breaths … actually I think long breaths might be an example of a classical singer’s skill that Dylan never had. He never had those big lungs to hold a note for four measures, five measures.

Q: That’s a great point — if you don’t have that way of making the timing interesting, then ultimately your singing is dull, no matter how great your voice.

BOTTUM: And what’s interesting is that there are singers we admire — pop singers — singers we admire as singers who have no other gifts except timing.

Q: What did you think of Dylan’s gospel stuff when it came out?

BOTTUM: I wasn’t in the mood for it, when it came out. It was coming out when I discovered Bob Dylan. I was discovering the older stuff, and it really wasn’t until much later that I came to appreciate it. Part of it was that I started getting into gospel music. I was led there — do you know who first led me into gospel music? It was Sam Cooke. I’d always been fond of Sam Cooke’s just music, and I remember buying a double-LP of Sam Cooke’s greatest hits, and as I grew musically more sophisticated as a listener I realized just how good a voice Sam Cooke had. And we were talking about timing: Sam Cooke was a genius. And he could take something so schlocky, like You Send Me, and if you listen to his voice control, it’s jaw-dropping on that song. And this is, by the way, nothing like a great pop song. Y’know, it’s just sugary and slight, but his voice control is perfect on it, and makes the song come alive. And I’d always kind of felt something about Sam Cooke, and I bought this album, and listened to it to kind of try and understand, and it had gospel songs from his days with the Soul Stirrers on it. And I started listening to it and thinking, wow, I really like that stuff. The Soul StirrersAnd as I got into gospel music, I discovered the respect among gospel singers with which Bob Dylan’s gospel songs were held. And I was led by that back to Dylan’s gospel albums and … I don’t want to say gospel period because I don’t think if you actually listen to the career that he did get over it. I mean I think that music continues all through his later work. There are songs that are obviously not gospel songs, but it was a natural turn for him, musically, and the moves that he made there remain, and they’re moves about American language … but at the time I first discovered Dylan he was in what’s called his “gospel period,” and I didn’t appreciate it at the time. It’s only later that I came to.

Q: Have you ever been put off by the perceived politics of Dylan’s work?

BOTTUM: No. I always thought Bob Dylan was out ahead of it. Y’know, the way he was deploying language and the American idiom wasn’t apolitical — it was simply two steps ahead of any kind of left/right discussion of this. Dylan had sort of been there — the music always gave me the feeling that he’d been there and knew where it was going, and was to where it was going before it got there. He’s not a beyondist — in that great word coined by David Brooks, I think — do you know this word, beyondism?

Q: No.

BOTTUM: Beyondists are the people who say we have to get beyond left/right distinctions. I think it was David Brooks who coined it, and he said anybody who tells you that we have to get beyond left/right distinctions is selling one of those sides. They’re just doing it in this language. Almost universally — not entirely, but almost universally — selling left. In the name of getting beyond left/right distinctions.

Well, Dylan’s not a beyondist, in that sense. He’s always had strong opinions, and sometimes those strong opinions appeared in political contexts, like Only A Pawn In Their Game. But even there, I mean Only A Pawn In Their Game is a very interesting song because it doesn’t break quite the way it would have broken if Phil Ochs had written the song. And a song like A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, from this kid — look back now and realize he really was a kid at the time — is three steps ahead of any political discussion, and every political interpretation of that song leaves the song untouched. In fact, I don’t believe that it’s possible to discuss Dylan’s songs intelligently from any political aspect. I think the frame that has to be brought to them, for good or for ill, is a theological frame.

Q: Well, one more question was, are there ways in which Dylan’s work seems to mesh well with your own values, political or spiritual?

BOTTUM: I’m not sure they mesh with my political views, but that’s because I don’t see him as political. Except in the horrible sense in which sometimes fundamental things become political footballs. Like the slaughter of the innocents in abortion. But, that kind of politics aside, I can’t look at him through political lenses. The picture blurs when I do that. But I’m not sure either that it’s possible to look at Dylan and ask questions about belief. I mean I don’t know what Dylan’s religion is. But I know what the songs are about. And what Dylan reaches down into is the deep stuff of America. Down linguistically into that soil. And he pulls up these threads, these roots, and weaves them together into a song. And down in the deep soil of America there’s God and there’s wayfaring strangers and there’s man alone, and there’s, y’know, there’s class resentment — Dylan knows that too. There’s a lot of stuff there in this rhetorical soil and these tropes that float around. And I don’t believe we have ever had a singer in America, a composer, a songwriter in America, who’s reached more deeply into that soil. Whatever it is that Pa Carter did — he had a kind of talent for just mixing those roots together. Gold Watch and Chain, and so on. But Dylan’s there and deeper. And, Irving Berlin, oddly, had a talent for it. Just reaching down into that soil of American poetic and musical tropes, and pulling up a handful and weaving them into, well, musically very sophisticated stuff in the case of Irving Berlin. The Carter Family were musically never sophisticated. I mean, as musicians they were sophisticated — as song composers they were not, if I can make that distinction. I mean the actual melody lines and chord changes in a Carter Family song are not profound, but they grasped some path down into the soil of American rhetoric. And Dylan knew that path and went in deeper. The Times They Are A-Changin'Woody Guthrie followed another slightly different path down, and Dylan followed that path and went deeper. And Irving Berlin followed another path, and Dylan knows that one too, and African-American gospel follows another path, and Dylan knows that one too. In all of them, I think, Dylan has reached deeper into the soil, into the root stock of American rhetoric, these tropes and this language.

It’s for that reason that his gospel songs — I don’t even want to call them gospel songs — his songs about God are extraordinarily American. And he’s led there by the language itself. American language itself wants to talk about God. And if you are poet enough and songwriter enough to feel where the language wants to go, the language will take you there inevitably. It’s just that we don’t have a lot of people who are poet enough or songwriter enough to feel that.