Q &A with Paul Westphal on Bob Dylan

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Paul Westphal has enjoyed a storied career in American basketball. As a player, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1972, and earned a championship ring with that team in 1974. He went on to play six seasons with the Phoenix Suns (leading them to the NBA finals in ’76), and continues to rank among that club’s all-time leaders in scoring, assists and steals. His number 44 jersey has been retired to the Suns’ Ring of Honor. As a player, he has been a five-time All-Star in the NBA, and a four-time All-Pro. Later, as head coach of the Phoenix Suns, he took that team to the NBA finals in 1993 (they lost to the Chicago Bulls) and to the play-offs each year that he coached. His career in basketball is ongoing and he is at the time of writing back in the NBA as an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks.

He is also a dedicated fan of the music of Bob Dylan, and it is on this subject that I was thrilled to be able to talk with him recently.

Q: When did you first start enjoying Dylan’s music, and is there a song or an album that first grabbed you? Another Side

Westphal: Probably not any one particular song or album, but when I started being aware of music, I really enjoyed the Kingston Trio and they would perform a Bob Dylan song every now and again, and I would go, “Who’s that guy?” And my interest grew from there. Y’know, Peter, Paul and Mary used to sing a lot of his songs and then I just wanted to hear more of what this guy had to say. And so it just kind of grew naturally out of being exposed to his songs by other people.

Q: Do you remember the first album you bought?

Westphal: It was probably Freewheelin’, I would think. If I recall I probably went in and bought that and The Times They Are A-Changin’ and maybe Another Side all at the same time.

Q: What year are we talking about?

Westphal: It was right around 1970, probably. Would all those albums have been out? I don’t want to mess up the chronology!

Q: I think so! How about now — is there a particular song or phase or album of Dylan’s that means the most to you?

Westphal: I love his Christian albums. And his latest ones. They’re all right there. I actually like Neighborhood Bully, I thought that was a fantastic song. I know he never sings it! But his Christianity has always fascinated me. The fact that he had the courage to explore that as a Jewish person, and in fact it makes complete sense, with Jesus being Jewish and the way that Israel has emerged — it’s so biblical and it’s so courageous to follow what has happened. He’s always been unafraid, and with a moral compass that has been phenomenal. And the humor he throws into it and the optimistic cynicism, if you want to call it that. It’s fascinating, how courageous and fearless he’s been to seek truth wherever it goes.

Q: In his more recent albums do you hear a continuation of his faith —

Westphal: Oh, absolutely, completely. It’s less direct but I don’t think there’s anything at all that contradicts what he was putting out in his so-called Christian period. Infidels

Q: Have you seen Dylan live, and is there a memory of that that’s special for you?

Westphal: Oh yes, I’ve seen him live so many times, every chance I get. My friend — I think you probably know him, he’s corresponded with you, Big Mike Williams — Mike and I went and saw him and sat in the front row at the Gorge. I mean the front row with our feet on the stage, when he was at the Gorge and sharing the bill with Paul Simon. That was pretty amazing. Saw him at the Wiltern, it was an unbelievable show there. Those two probably stand out.

Q: So you enjoy what he does in concert in terms of changing the way he does the songs … ?

Westphal: Oh yeah. He’s hilarious, actually. He just stands there — every once in a while he’ll throw in a joke, but for the most part he — it’s hard to even describe but he just stands there and looks at the audience, and it’s “here comes another one.”

Q: We sort of touched on this already, but could you talk a little about the ways Dylan’s work meshes with your own values or point-of-view?

Westphal: Well, it just seems like the phrases he’ll throw in from time to time almost can be a commentary on my life, at one point or another. Give an example, let’s see; oh, I remember coaching up in Seattle, and things weren’t headed in the right direction, and it was tough. But you’ve still got to keep showing up and doing your job and whatever, but you can sense when the momentum has shifted against you. And I remember listening over and over to, “Maybe they’ll get me and maybe they won’t / But not tonight and it won’t be here”! And you gotta keep bouncing back and doing your best. So that was one of them that kind of stuck with me a lot, but there’s thousands of them really. Another guy I really loved, but just passed way, is John Stewart, but between John Stewart and Bob Dylan, they’ve pretty much been the soundtrack for everything that has gone on in my life. It just kind of added the right inflection to help me keep a sense of humor. John Stewart

In fact, as a coach one of my rules was that players couldn’t listen to boomboxes — you had to have headphones, y’know, in the locker-room. Unless it was Bob Dylan or John Stewart. [laughs]

Q: Did you read “Chronicles” and do you have any thoughts on that?

Westphal: Yeah, I just want more! Where’s the rest of it? I mean it was fascinating. Actually on one page he talked about Pete Maravich. I knew Pete Maravich pretty well. Pete Maravich gave a speech that I thought Dylan would be interested in hearing, because he spoke so glowingly of Maravich, and I tried to drop it off at his place in Malibu but they wouldn’t accept any packages. They probably thought — y’know he’s had people going through his garbage and everything, people trying to get him interested in organic tomato growing or whatever [laughs] so he doesn’t accept unsolicited stuff, but I thought he may have been really interested in this. Because Maravich is a fascinating guy, and he had a Christian conversion late in his life that I thought Bob Dylan may not have known about and would be fascinated by, and I have a videocassette of Pete talking about that, and I thought that after what he wrote in “Chronicles” that he would have enjoyed that too. … Pete’s Christianity was expressed — I think it would be very much along the lines of what Dylan’s expressed.

Q: Have you heard his “Theme Time Radio Hour” show?

Westphal: Haven’t missed one. It’s hilarious. Time Out of Mind

Q: He seems to have filled this role of being a deejay so quickly. What do you think is the essence of Dylan’s genius, if you think he has a genius?

Westphal: Oh yes, there’s no doubt. I think there’s — I mean I’m no literary expert — I don’t have the credentials to comment about who’s the literary geniuses, but I’m going to try anyway: I think besides Mark Twain and Bob Dylan, I don’t know who America has to throw out there that has had more genius than those guys, a better body of work. The essence of his genius? I don’t know even where to begin, but probably his spiritual journey. The fact that he’s so unafraid to follow the truth wherever it goes.

Q: Have you ever seen any inconsistency in his body of work — is there stuff in the early period or middle period that jars with things in the later period for you, or is it all one?

Westphal: That’s a good question. Because there are certainly things that make you reassess. I don’t know if it’s inconsistency, or if it’s just adding to the total picture. But he’s never unable to surprise, let’s put it that way! Y’know, there’s always more, that’s what’s so fascinating about him.

Oh yeah, my wife just reminded me, we saw him — in fact probably the greatest show I saw was when he was in the Saved period, up in this theater in Seattle. And it was an intimate theater, with a balcony, and he had this backup gospel group — it was fantastic music.

Q: You hear different reports, as to how hostile certain audiences were.

Westphal: Well, in Seattle, the audience was very much with him, including some people wearing “Everybody must get…SAVED!” t-shirts. The music was so fantastic.

Q: I do wish they would remaster the Saved album — the sound is a bit muddy.

Westphal: It’s funny, it’s some of the greatest Christian music ever, and a lot of people who label themselves Christians are missing it — they haven’t embraced it. It’s going to stand up for a long time. Saved

And, on what we touched on before — “Chronicles” was fascinating, but I want to hear what he says about his conversion, because I don’t think he’s ever renounced it. I want to hear more about that. I think he’s obviously intentionally obscured some of his positions on that. It’s probably wise economically, but I still want to hear more about that and where he’s at now.

Q: I wonder, of-course anyone who appreciates the faith aspect of Dylan’s work wonders why he seems to have obscured it. I guess I’ve settled on the notion that he feels like he said it, and he said it all very directly.

Westphal: I think that’s probably right. And the other thing about it is you just can’t diminish the fact that just like in politics sometimes you support somebody and they do something stupid or prove they’re a hypocrite or something like that and everything that they do is thrown out the window because of the flaw that they showed. And it makes you cynical about politics after a while. And I think the same thing can be said when you look around at religous leaders or denominations, y’know as soon as you endorse somebody they show their weakness. And I think Dylan wants to be above the human frailty that people show and go to the bigger themes of what’s real and what’s true, and I think that as many hypocrites or weak people as are exposed in any religion, I think he’s taken the position that “I’m staying above it” and let’s talk about the bigger themes rather than get bogged down in hitching my wagon behind somebody that might fall soon. Does that make sense?

Q: Yes, certainly. I’ve thought that’s an element of it too. And his consciousness that if you hold yourself up there as a person in the public eye as being a Christian it makes people want to — you run the risk of perhaps, being a flawed human yourself, you run the risk of bringing what you believe into disrepute. I guess it’s something, until he does talk more about it, in “Chronicles Vol. II” or something, it’s going to remain an area for speculation.

Westphal: I loved it when Ed Bradley was trying to get him into some of this stuff, and said “Where did you get your talent?” and Dylan says, “the Chief Commander.” [laughs]

By the way, I think that one of your pet peeves is one of mine, that so many people think that Dylan is some kind of radical left-winger. And the truth is that nobody knows what he is. But he certainly doesn’t fall into a category that easily. And whenever there’s these articles they drop it in that he’s who they want him to be, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth. So he gets pigeon-holed probably more unfairly than anybody. Having said that, I remember — this is kind of the opposite, but it was some Hollywood person I know, who was talking about the Beatles, and John Lennon’s song Imagine, and they’re coming from a different place than I am. Oh MercyAnd they said, “Well, who do you like?” And I said, “Dylan.” And they knew the difference! They knew that that song was not one that he could have written. Even though it’s beautiful. The words are in opposition to pretty much everything he’s ever written.

I just think that truth is Dylan’s final standard, and you’re going to find phonies on both both sides of political questions, and that’s probably why he runs away from that, and I think it’s pretty wise. But the thing that I love about him is that he absolutely acknowledges good and evil. And that there is evil in this world. And there’s mercy and there’s grace as well, but if you run away from the fact that there’s evil, you can get some pretty messed up views. Dangerous views, with good intentions.

Q: Well, on that note, I appreciate you very much giving me the time …

Westphal: Well I appreciate it, and put it in there that I really appreciate what you do, and it’s one of the most interesting websites that I’ve ever seen, and I check it every day and you do a fantastic job.

Q: Well thank you so much, I appreciate that. It’s only people reading it that makes it worthwhile.

Westphal: And I like your dog too!