Bob Dylan played yesterday, April 10th, in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. He delivered a set list that was in keeping with the kinds of shows he’s been doing the last couple of years. Reportedly, the venue was “half-empty” (or, as one may prefer to think, half-full) but this didn’t prevent Bob from delivering a relatively rare second encore, with the song Forever Young. This is the full list of songs he played: Continue reading Bob Dylan in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam→
Bob Dylan’s song“Spirit on the Water” from his album Modern Times has been mentioned a few times on this website. It’s difficult for this listener to hear the tune any other way but as a kind of playful love song to God, or perhaps more interestingly as a playful dialogue between the creature and the Creator. I don’t think there’s any need (and at any rate this writer doesn’t have the appetite) to go down line by line and impose a rigorous interpretation. Each time I hear the song I hear something a little different, and that’s one of the great joys of Dylan’s work, after all.
One verse that has gotten close attention here previously, however, is the penultimate verse, the lyric of which goes like this:
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there
This gets one thinking just because it seems wrong, or seems like a puzzle demanding to be solved. On the face of it, if the singer is talking about joining God in heaven, then why is he saying that it’s impossible for him to do it, due to the killing of a man? It is biblically pretty much beyond question that even murder does not put one beyond God’s capacity for mercy and for love (though far be it from my intention here to unduly promote the behavior). And how could the singer have killed a man in paradise, anyway?
Well, some time back, a reader named Kim wrote and suggested a really neat way of hearing this verse. She suggested that Bob might be referring to an actual Earthly place named Paradise, e.g., Paradise, Texas (pop. 459). This opens up a new and amusing interpretation; basically, this involves hearing it as a pun which the singer is making to his Creator. He’s saying, “I want to be with you in paradise,” as if making a straightforward prayer, and then comically mourning the fact that he can’t go back to Paradise (the town) because he shot a man there — something that maybe only God knows; i.e., it’s like a private joke between them. Of-course, I’m destroying all possible humor in it by spelling it out, but it fits both because we know how much Dylan loves even the silliest-seeming puns and because we also know how he enjoys Western motifs.
So that’s one way of understanding the verse.
However, another reader, recently coming across the post where that idea was discussed, suggests an alternative understanding. Thanks to Kent for his e-mail:
I saw elsewhere on your site where one reader proposed the idea that the line: “I can’t go to paradise no more; I killed a man back there…” Was referring to Paradise as a town, perhaps in Paradise, TX, etc…
May I also make another proposal: Is it possible that in said line, “Paradise” could be referring to the fleshly desires of the old man, aka sinful nature, and Mr. Dylan is saying that it seems unfair, but he can’t go to “paradise” no more (returning to the sinful nature) because he “killed a man back there,” meaning he put to death the misdeeds of his own body when he became “crucified with the Messiah,” upon his salvation through Him?
That’s a fascinating idea. I honestly think that something like it has flitted through my own mind on listening to the song, but I never stopped to put it into words for myself. The reference would be to the New Testament, and St. Paul in Romans, chapter 6. Here’s part of where he writes on the concept of “dying with Christ” beginning at verse 6 (ESV):
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
So, with this in mind, when the singer refers to the fact that he “killed a man back there,” he’s actually referring to the death of that self which was enslaved to sin. This is very interesting and resonant indeed. The idea of paradise as a metaphor for that life enslaved to sin is not as obvious, but, on the other hand, total indulgence of one’s sinful desires can appear like a temptation of paradise. And who on this Earth isn’t sometimes guilty of mistaking paradise for that home across the road?
At a minimum, it’s another fruitful area of reflection to throw into the mix. It’s an illustration of how even the problematic or difficult-to-interpret lines in some of Dylan’s songs of faith can make their contribution simply by compelling one to ponder what they might mean.
Some might say that’s giving way too much leeway to a songwriter who is not getting across his point with sufficient clarity — but around these parts, we just call it a normal day.
I want to continue looking at some noteworthy things that came out of the Douglas Brinkley/Bob Dylan Rolling Stone interview, both the print version and the online outtakes (which are now gone but not forgotten).
Regular readers of the writings in this space might not be unfamiliar with the suggestion that there is a way of listening to a great number of Bob Dylan songs — especially his work of the last couple of decades or so — such as to hear them as a kind of dialogue with Him who we can just call the LORD, ecumenically-speaking, and in the tradition of the Bible in English. My own appreciation of this originally came out of reading the deeply insightful writing, on Bob Dylan’s work, of Ronnie Keohane.
There’s plenty of this to be heard, should you be so inclined, on Dylan’s most recent LP, Modern Times. One example that could hardly escape even the most secular or agnostic of listeners is “Spirit on the Water”.
The first verse goes:
Spirit on the water
Darkness on the face of the deep
I keep thinking about you baby
I can’t hardly sleep
You don’t need a degree in Bible-ology to know that the first lines of this song reflect and reference the first few sentences of the Bible, and of the book of Genesis.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
So, if you take the first verse of the song at face value, the singer is addressing this song to that very Spirit on the water. Taken in that way — as a love song to the Creator — it’s easy to see the meaning and poignancy of verses like this one:
I’d forgotten about you
Then you turned up again
I always knew
That we were meant to be more than friends
There are so many ways in which people can forget the existence, and miss the presence, of the Creator. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy to make one forget, even if one happens to believe in the first place. Yet, the persistence of reminders (Then you turned up again) is arguably one of the greatest constants of all. The steady twinkling of a distant star, the sublime strokes of a masterpiece of art, the unasked for kindness of a stranger, the bells of some church in the distance, an inner knowledge that will not be quieted: Then you turned up again.
In certain of the verses of this song, a listener may also wonder if the perspective has changed, and if — instead of the singer addressing his Maker — what we hear is the Creator addressing his creatures:
Sometimes I wonder
Why you can’t treat me right
You do good all day
Then you do wrong all night
You can go through all of the verses of the song in this way, and they resonate one way or another according to this theme.
There is one verse, however, that arguably sounds a jarring note. It doesn’t seem to make any kind of biblical sense or any kind of normal sense. That’s this one:
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go back to paradise no more
I killed a man back there
What’s that about? The singer saying to his God, “I wanna be with you in paradise,” is straightforward enough, we may think. But that he can’t go “back to paradise” because he “killed a man back there”? How is that? Is not the LORD a forgiving God? And how is it that the singer was in paradise before, and killed a man there at all?
Others may have found a way through it, but I never could figure it out. That’s why I’m hugely indebted to reader Kim for sending me the following in an e-mail:
I am probably just stating the obvious, but I will do so anyway: he can’t really just be talking about heaven [in this verse]. I’m thinking he’s also talking about Paradise, TX. Makes sense to me, anyway. What do you think?
Well, I think that it is a pretty brilliant perception, and one that certainly wasn’t obvious to this listener.
Paradise, Texas, had a population of 459 according to the 2000 census (and as reported by Wikipedia).
It is not, however, the only town or city called Paradise in the United States, as a long look at an atlas or another quick visit to Wikipedia would reveal. There are also the following:
There are also towns and cities called Paradise in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and England.
You might say that there’s a lot of people out there who really have their own little slice of heaven.
Who can tell to which town or city called Paradise the singer in this song might be referring, if indeed he is referring to a town or city? I don’t personally know how to pick one over the other. But just introducing the idea that it is an actual geographical real-world location to which he is referring changes everything, doesn’t it?
Consider: Bob Dylan loves citing place-names in his songs. We know this. Especially American place names, from Baton-Rouge to Corpus Christi to Boston-town and so many others. You could almost recreate a map of America from his songbook, if all other records were lost. And, for that matter, he also loves foreign place names, from Tangiers to Buenos-Aires to Gibraltar and beyond.
So how does it alter the sense of this verse if the singer is referring to a real town or city called Paradise? Assume, as we do here, that he is addressing the words to God. What the verse then becomes is a four line joke, a gag, a pun — and we also know how much Bob loves his puns — that is directed towards none other than the Creator Himself:
I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can’t go back to paradise no more
I killed a man back there
As befitting this sweet song of love, the singer says, and God hears, “I wanna be with you in paradise.” No problem there, God thinks. But then the singer goes on, “it seems so unfair,” because he can’t return to paradise, owing to the fact that he “killed a man back there.” He can’t go back to Paradise, the town, because he killed someone there, and now there are wanted posters on the walls, and a price on his head. (As Mrs. C. observes, it is like a vision from the Old American West, where you have to get of town to evade the sheriff and the crimes you committed in that particular locality. Places with great names like Tombstone.) The singer doesn’t provide us with these details, of-course. But then, after all, the song isn’t addressed to us. The singer is serenading the One who knows all those details already. God knows that this guy singing the song once killed a man in Paradise (Texas, Montana, Nevada — you name it). The joke, the gag, the pun, is on God Himself.
Making a joke to God is kind of audacious. And it can also be understood as a particularly intimate expression of love, can it not? It is only the most devoted who can joke to one another in this way, daringly making light of past transgressions.
Understood in this manner, the affectionate and playful nature of the song is asserting itself all the more in this previously confusing verse. Not every verse is without some mystery, of-course, even within this way of understanding the song, but that is as it should be. Every line doesn’t have to be nailed down and explained away. It is enough that there is nothing that is discordant or contradictory to this sense of the song, and that can be said, I think, if paradise is, after all, just Paradise (with a latitude and a longitude).
In the Canadian newspaperLondon Free Press, James Reaney writes on Bob Dylan’s recent show in London, Ontario. Guitarist Paul James (with whom Dylan has history) replaced Stu and Denny for the first several tunes. Reaney regrets that photographers were not allowed: “So you’ll have to take my word that Dylan was wearing a big white cowboy hat and a black suit with red trim that made him look like a bellhop in a wild west hotel.” That’s an interesting way of describing Bob, although I can’t imagine it’s quite the effect he’s going for. Reaney also writes this:
This reviewer has decided to accept Dylan’s decision to play around with his famous words. When he wants a line to be heard clearly — say, the slashing “I hope that you die” from Masters of War or the self-mocking “You think I’m over the hill” from Spirit on the Water or the menacing “How does it feel?” from Like a Rolling Stone — it could be heard.
“Unintelligible,” Dylan said clearly during the band introductions, one clue that this master artist and joker can be heard when he needs to.
Dylan said “unintelligible”? What’s that about? Well, let’s check the tape, which I happen to have. Click below for Dylan’s band intro and remarks – my transcription of the relevant part is below that.
So, after introducing Denny, Stu and Donnie, Bob says (to the degree that it’s intelligible, of-course):
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a journalist backstage, and he’s asking somebody, “Is he always so unintelligible?” Unintelligible. Does anybody out there think I’m unintelligible? [Pause, indistinct crowd reaction. Bob laughs.] Tell me the truth now!
Pretty funny stuff. The way he rolls that word around, “unintelligible,” sounds a little W.C. Fields-esque to me. In any case, just priceless.
No doubt everyone’s heard it already by now, but for the record, here is an mp3 file of Bob Dylan’s remarks at his gig in Minnesota on election night 2008:
He spoke during his encore, in between playing “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He introduced his band members and made his fateful comments after naming the bass player and mainstay of his band all these long years, the estimable Tony Garnier. Here is my own scrupulously accurate transcript:
I wanna introduce my band right now. On the guitar, there’s Denny Freeman. Stu Kimball is on the guitar too. Donnie Herron as well, on the violin right now, playin’ on the steel guitar earlier. George Recile’s playin’ on the drums.
Tony Garnier, wearin’ the Obama button — [applause] alright! — Tony likes to think it’s a brand new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are gonna change now …
These remarks have been referred to and partially quoted in a variety of established news outlets since Bob Dylan made them. None of these reports, as far as I’ve seen, included Dylan’s reference to Tony’s Obama button, or his references to what he says is Tony’s belief that “it’s a brand new time now” and “an age of light.” Leaving out this context alters the tone of Dylan’s comments and renders them incomprehensible. As I said the other day, the remarks as reported seemed “completely cockamamie” and “not the Bob Dylan I know.” (Not that I’ve ever met the guy, you understand.)
As opposed to the professional journalists in attendance at the concert who got this thing so wrong, a kind reader of my website who wishes to be known only as John W., and who was also in attendance at that gig, had emailed me a much more accurate rendering of Bob’s remarks, in advance of us being able to hear the audio. His accuracy and fairness in remembering and reporting Bob’s actual words leads me to also give great credence to his overall description of the moment. You may or may not do the same. It is not crucial to understanding what Bob was really saying, but in the absence of a good quality video it helps paint the picture. This is how John characterized it:
What seemed to prompt him to talk to the crowd more than anything was Tony Garnier’s donning of an Obama button. It was Tony’s turn to be introduced and Bob started to chuckle a bit and said something like, “Tony Garnier over there wearing his Obama button (raises his eyebrows)…..Tony thinks it’s gonna be an Age of Light (chuckling)…..Well I was born in 1941, the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Been living in darkness ever since……Looks like that’s all gonna change now (chuckling a bit).” Then he broke into “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
On the bootlegger’s audio, I don’t detect the sound of Dylan chuckling, but there’s such a thing as a quiet and more visual kind of chuckle and that may be what John was picking up on. It’s far from crucial in any case.
The news reports of Dylan’s remarks that I have seen all portrayed them as being a sincere endorsement by Bob Dylan of the notion that President Barack Obama is going to change everything for the better. I didn’t see any attempt to explain what he meant by saying that he’s been living in a world of darkness since he was born in 1941, the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It just makes sense to some people, I guess, to think that Bob Dylan has been miserable in this world since birth but that Barack Obama is going to change all of that. I couldn’t understand it myself. In my original post I put forth just one conceivable explanation (based on Bob’s deep links to the black American experience) but concluded that really only Dylan himself could explain the remarks as reported in the press.
Now, knowing the full context and tone of his words, I no longer think that Dylan needs to explain anything at all. I don’t believe that his actual remarks are even at all mysterious or cryptic. I think that they are crystal clear and they are consistent with how this man and this artist has tried to carry himself throughout the long and crazy years he’s been on this planet. He is being faithful, and we should also remember that it’s not easy to be faithful — it’s not easy for any of us. The dignity of this man is something that is not often pointed out. But he is a man of very great dignity, and this moment on the stage in Minnesota on election night of 2008 — offhand though it may or may not have been — was a moment where he exhibited great dignity as well as respect for his fans and for things more important than fame and wealth.
But lest I choke up too much here, let’s also lighten up, because his remarks were first and foremost jocular ones. When he says that Tony Garnier with his Obama button believes it’s going to be a “brand new time” and “an age of light,” he is clearly needling Tony, but doing it affectionately. I hate to descend to the level of saying “listen to how he says” something, but there are actually people out there who — after hearing the audio — are still taking Dylan’s remarks completely seriously; so for them, please: listen to how he says “an age of light.” Does it sound like something he believes in? Be honest for a moment and have an ear to hear. (But no one can be forced to do so.)
Once it is understood that Dylan is joking around and does not seriously believe that all things will be made new by the incoming U.S. president, then his words about living in a world of darkness for his entire life become comprehensible in the context of what his songs have told us again and again.
This litany will be of necessity very incomplete, but consider: Dylan sings of living in a world of mixed-up confusion, where everything is broken. He’s hung over, hung down, hung up and a million miles from the one he loves. He longs to disappear past the haunted, frightened trees. He looks out with his lady from Desolation Row, and sings a lullaby that goes, “When the cities are on fire with the burning flesh of men, just remember that death is not the end.” He sees the cat in the well, with the wolf looking down. He’s knocking and trying to get to heaven before that door shuts. He wanders around Boston town but his heart is in the Highlands — he can’t see any other way to go. The times are always changing and changing, and yet nothing ever really changes. Don’t conclude that he is without solace, however: he’s liable to stand on the table and propose a toast to the King. He’s using all eight carburetors. The hills and the one he loves have always given him a song.
The world of darkness, in other words, is not something foisted upon Bob by presidents of the United States or by political powers or anyone else in particular. For him (and maybe if we think about it for us too) it is just normality: it is the way things are. The world is a difficult place. Life is hard. People suffer and people die. The truth about anything that is of this world is ever-elusive and leaves one ultimately bereft of comfort.
Now, what I want to know is this: Is the new American president going to fix all that for Bob — all of the above? Is he going to take Bob out of this darkness he’s lived in since 1941? Does anyone think that Bob Dylan believes that, and that’s what he wanted to tell everybody on election night of 2008?
Bob Dylan is neither an idiot nor a crank, though he’s been called both on various occasions. He knew very well, singing to that University of Minnesota audience, how hyped up most of them were for Barack Obama’s election. His remarks were not a slam of Barack Obama, nor an endorsement of John McCain, or anything like that. In his own way, he was kindly alerting those with ears to hear that one should not have such high expectations of a politician or of any fellow human being. There will be no age of light; at least not until the real age of light, and that age will not be instituted by any president of the United States. All presidents, you see, sometimes have to stand naked.
Of-course, most at the gig heard what they were so desperate to hear: that change is a comin’ with Obama, and it’s all gonna be great.They heard “it looks like things are gonna change now” without the irony that the context provides. And Bob, dignified, gave them that respect. He didn’t mock them. Everyone has to come to their own understandings at their own pace. Some will think twice about what he said.
He then sang “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I love the current live arrangement of this song, which Bob and the band have been playing for quite a while. I wrote about it in a previous post here. It is indeed a buoyant and a joyous version. It is a version of the song which conveys — to this listener at any rate — how wonderful a thing it is that the answer is right there blowing in the wind in front of our faces. Thanks, Bob.
… It is better to put trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes. Psalm 118:9
Addendum: And one more thing. We all no doubt remember Bob’s quoted remarks in that interview with the U.K. Times last June. As they stood up to end the interview, the interviewer asked him “in a last aside” something about the coming U.S. election.
We don’t know exactly what the question was or what Dylan’s full response was. There is no pretence that we are being provided a complete transcript — it’s not that kind of an article. Dylan is quoted as crediting Barack Obama with “redefining the nature of politics from the ground up” and “redefining what a politician is.” He is quoted as saying that he’s “hopeful that things might change” and that “some things are going to have to.” Our fresh experience of seeing how journalists and newspapers missed the humor and irony of Bob Dylan on stage in Minnesota on election night — and gave us a completely different story — cannot but make me entirely reevaluate whatever I thought I knew about Dylan’s remarks in that interview. They may have been entirely ironic. Or maybe not. He also is quoted as saying, “You can’t expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor.” The remarks as quoted are, in the final analysis, incomplete and not fully comprehensible on their own — just like what was quoted in the Minnesota newspapers after the election night gig. So make of those quotes what you will, or, perhaps more wisely, make nothing of them at all.
Perhaps I was going a tad nuts implying that it might be the greatest thing Bob Dylan has ever done. After all, you could certainly argue that there’s nothing radical about the record. It’s not going to set the world upside down, or spark revolution in the streets, or spawn hundreds of imitators in the music biz trying to copy the “Red River Shore” sound. You could hardly imagine a simpler melody, and some might say that Bob Dylan can write a song like this in between rolling out of bed and brushing his teeth. And maybe he can, if the mood is right. Yet, the song and the performance moved me and shook me up in a way that is very rare; all the rarer, in fact, as I get older and bend a little from the weight of believing that I’ve heard it all already. And isn’t it nice to be able to get that excited about something again?
The song is stirring and poignant in direct proportion to the way in which it expresses feelings which are unspeakable. This also makes it difficult to write about, and likewise makes me personally not want to write about it too much.
There is one thing that the mind of the listener probably meditates upon, and goes back and forth about, when listening to the song, and that is the question of just who this girl is—the girl from the Red River shore. Of-course any given listener can believe that she is just a girl—some variation of an unrequited human love for whom the singer is pining. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
However, without wanting to speak too much to what perhaps can’t or shouldn’t be said outside of the song itself, I will say that it has crossed my mind, while listening to this song, that the girl from the Red River shore is perhaps the same “she” for this singer as the “she” of “Shelter from the Storm” is for the singer of that song. And I offer this not by way of trying to define an end to the meaning of the song, but rather to open up its possibilities (as if that’s even necessary).
In that song from Blood on the Tracks, the singer is by turns nurtured and comforted by this female figure; he is then alienated from her through his own failing ( “I took too much for granted, got my signals crossed”), and is finally left meditating at once optimistically and hopelessly on the ultimate possibility of truly knowing her or uniting with her.
Well, I’m livin’ in a foreign country but I’m bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine.
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
“Come in,” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
“[W]hen God and her were born.” It’s one of those great lines: an imponderable line that you cannot help but ponder and ponder. It’s a poetic jump that takes the feeling of the song beyond normal expression. It sounds a little bit like some kind of secret key—like a Rosetta Stone line. But it defies being completely nailed down, and so its magic survives.
Taken in any kind of literal sense, it’s a big thing to say that someone or something has been around as long as God himself. You might be really hung up on an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, but when you get into that kind of thinking then you’re going somewhere else entirely.
Now, the parallel with the girl from the Red River shore can perhaps be seen most clearly, likewise, in the final verse of that song. After singing about the “man full of sorrow and strife” (Is 53), whom — the singer has heard — used to be able to literally raise the dead, he sings:
Well I don’t know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
‘Cept the girl from the Red River shore
Well, when he sings about this man who used to raise the dead, we know—any listener knows, regardless of his or her own faith or lack thereof—that this singer is (just like that earlier singer) invoking none other than God himself. If this man he heard about actually did used to do that, then he was, at least in some inscrutable sense, God. Yet the singer then puts the girl from the Red River shore on a level beyond anyone else he’s ever known, and potentially beyond even that Man, when he indicates that she may have been the only one who ever actually saw him on this earth—the only one whose acknowledgment of his existence proved that he actually did exist. That is a heavy honor indeed, and quite a heavy burden for any girl from the Red River shore to bear.
Perhaps it’s worth summarizing some of the qualities of this figure—if it is one figure—this “she” who promised shelter from the storm, and this girl from the Red River shore.
Back when he was just a “creature void of form,” she was there for him. And then when he needed a “place where it’s always safe and warm,” she was there. Later, she walked up to him “so gracefully and took [his] crown of thorns.” She was there again when the entire world seemed to just pose a question that was “hopeless and forlorn.” This mysterious girl was the only one he ever wanted to want him—the one with whom he wishes he “could have spent every hour of [his] life.” He is a stranger in the land in which he is duty-bound to live, but she—and the hills—give him a song with which to get by. Although many saw them together at one time, when he goes back to inquire with them no one even knows what he’s talking about. Each day he lives is “just another day away” from that girl from the Red River shore.
So, she is the very source of song itself. From her comes comfort, protection and wisdom, at those times when he needs it most desperately. Yet she is somehow invisible to the world, and, although she has touched him, she remains just out of his reach: unattainable.
While she is an eternal presence for him, she is in some sense distinct from that other presumed eternal presence; i.e., God.
I don’t know necessarily what you might call such a being (if you’re not calling her the girl from the Red River shore). However, it cannot but strike me that, for Christians, there is actually a specific name that can be applied to a figure who meets all of these criteria. Indeed, it was that aforementioned man full of sorrow and strife who gave the figure a name, as in Luke 11:13:
If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?
The Holy Spirit is believed, by Christians, to be at once God and a distinct person—in a sense that I’m distinctly unqualified to plumb. This is part of that theological mystery called the Holy Trinity, where God is believed by Christians to be at once Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, relevant here, it does mean that the Holy Spirit is as old as—or, if you like, was born at the same time as—God, because the Holy Spirit is God, while still being in a real way the Holy Spirit. Interesting, no?
Now, am I saying that “Red River Shore” is “Bob Dylan’s song about the Holy Spirit”? By no means would I blandly state that. The heartbreak, the longing, the love and the mystery that inhabits “Red River Shore” can’t and shouldn’t be labeled, solved and neatly filed away like a doctrine. And we know that the writer of “Shelter from the Storm” is unlikely to have been self-consciously writing about a specifically Christian concept like the Holy Spirit. I’d also tend to believe that in his greatest songs, Bob Dylan is not deliberately writing about anything at all. When things are happening at that level, the song is always in some way expressing itself. I believe that he’s made much this point himself in interviews over the years.
Yet, it is one measure of the greatness of this song that amongst all of the various ways in which it works and holds true is also this quasi-theological sense. Pretty astounding.
Is it the greatest song that Bob Dylan has ever done, as I breathlessly intimated it might be a few days ago? Who the hell knows? But I can say without hesitation that it’s the greatest song by anybody that this listener has heard in a long, long time.
There’s a piece by Paul J. Cella at Redstate called “The irony of Bob Dylan.” It’s largely a reaction to a review of Chronicles written by Jim Kunstler. I guess it comes as a surprise to me that it is still a surprise to some others that Dylan, in Chronicles, names Barry Goldwater (R-Az) as his “favorite politician” around the period of 1961/62. But then it shouldn’t surprise me: his reference to Goldwater didn’t get the kind of attention it warranted in most of the reviews and publicity surrounding that memoir, probably because a whole lot of people didn’t know what the hell to make of it. A reminder of what exactly it was (from page 283 of the original hardcover):
There was no point arguing with Dave (Van Ronk), not intellectually anyway. I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody. I wasn’t that comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble.
Tom Mix was a star of silent westerns. Barry Goldwater of-course was the iconic Republican who wrote “The Conscience Of A Conservative” and was a formative influence on Ronald Reagan. Dylan was writing about the 1961/62 era.
Anyway, towards the end of his piece, Cella says the following:
Given that the counterculture of the Sixties, which tried to set up Dylan as its spokesman or poet-laureate, has conquered and is even now solidifying its preeminence in our society, there is a special and marvelous irony to note.
All the sneering revolt that churns through the great anthems of Dylan’s best work, “Like a Rolling Stone” being perhaps the most well-known exemplar; all the defiance, the fury of impudence; all the challenge thrown vaguely at some contemptible oppressor —
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.
How does it feel?
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
— all this may be justly hurled with equal passion against the generation, now leading our country toward ruin, which wanted it as its slogan, and which unjustly hurled it against the basically sound social order preceding it.
And Bob Dylan himself may have even meant it that way.
Well, it might be tempting to hear the song as put-down of the then-emerging 60s generation, and you could probably take that interpretation a long way if you wanted to. But I personally would resist that temptation. I think the song works most profoundly as, ultimately, a reflection on the singer’s self. And this particular singer did happen to be breaking out and breaking through on an artistic level at the time that had to be both terrifying and exhilarating — two emotions that balance each other exquisitely in the song, I think. Of-course the song doesn’t have be nailed down, and maybe a lot of its power comes from the fact that it can’t be. I do think, though, that it is very often fruitful to look at songs where Dylan appears to be criticizing and taking apart someone other as potentially being reflections on the self instead. I find it difficult to hear, for example, “Just Like A Woman” or “Sweetheart Like You” other than in this way. (And let Todd Haynes make of that what he will.)
In 1985 Bob Dylan did an interview for ABC’s 20/20 TV show. He was interviewed by Bob Brown. The broadcast segment was less than 15 minutes, and only about half of that was actual interview footage. Now, on YouTube (uploaded by the generous Dylan collector “rankflv”) are the outtakes from that interview. I’d actually seen these before, on a VHS tape, thanks to someone else’s generosity, but had never gotten around to doing anything about it. Now there’s no excuse. So, below are links to each of the seven segments on YouTube [UPDATE: The videos have been deleted from YouTube] along with transcriptions of some interesting snippets, and the odd comment from Yours Truly.
Bob Dylan on Empire Burlesque, the studio, song writing 1985:
Q: Are there any tracks that are your favorites on your new album, Empire Burlesque?
Dylan: I like that song “I’ll Remember You”, and um … I like ’em all really. That one stands out.
Q: For any particular reasons?
Dylan: Well, it stands out because I still feel exactly the same way as I did when I wrote it, and I figure I said what I had to say and I said it in a way that was very concise and very brief, and then it was over, y’know?
Q: All through your career, there have been tons of material written by people who don’t know you and who are either trying to figure out what you’re saying, or—I suppose worse—believing that they know what you’re saying and then writing about that. It must be strange to read those things or look at them and realize they’re writing about you.
Dylan: Yeah, sometimes they don’t—they write about me instead of what it is that I’m doing, y’know? But I don’t think it can be helped. I don’t think anybody can change it, that’s just the way people are.
Bob Dylan on “Dark Eyes”:
Q: There’s a line in Dark Eyes that says, I believe it’s: “I live in another world where life and death are memorized / Where the earth is strung with lovers’ pearls / And all I see are dark eyes.” It’s one that people have picked up on …
Dylan: It’s very simple—that line, I was thinking of changing that line. I wasn’t sure I was happy with it. But I wrote up the whole song so quickly that I just left it, and it seemed to sing right. A song like that, usually I’m not sure how effective it would be on paper, to read, y’know. The stuff I do you have to listen to, you have to hear it being sung. I’m not sure if it comes off on paper for somebody to read.
Q: That particular one does, actually I think you can read it visually and get a sensation from it.
Q: Did the line itself come—was there some literal meaning behind it—or do lines like that come to you from another direction?
Dylan: That whole song came from another direction. I just picked up my guitar and I started playing and that song just came right out.
Bob Dylan on “Clean Cut Kid” and Vietnam:
Dylan: … I know some guys that were in Vietnam, even today if you ask them why they fought there they don’t really know. They just went because they were asked to go or they were told to go. They don’t really know why they went, whereas usually in a war, if it’s a real war, every man, woman and child is in the army. There’s no getting away from that. If you’re attacked, if you’re in a war, that’s for keeps. Everybody’s a soldier in a war. It’s not like you can have a standing army and send them somewhere, y’know to fight somebody else’s battle.
If people don’t believe and know why they’re fighting, they can’t win.
Bob Dylan on the Messianic Kingdom, “Trust Yourself” and Myth:
Q: Some people have used the word “apocalyptic” to describe some of your songs […] is that a word that you’d use …?
Dylan: Apocalyptic. Yeah, I guess so. But apocalyptic is just the end of, of — what would come next would be the new beginning. So apocalyptic to me isn’t necessarily a negative type word.
Q: Do you think that there will be a new beginning, some kind of new beginning?
Dylan: Oh yeah, sure. I think this whole thing’s gotta end. Yeah.
Q: What would the new beginning be like?
Dylan: Well, there’s a Messianic kingdom that will be coming in. That will be — when it comes in. Some people say tomorrow. I don’t particularly think it’s gonna be tomorrow, but I believe it’s gonna happen.
Q: Do you have a guess as to when, or how?
Dylan: Yeah, I have a guess as to when. It’s just a guess as to when, but all the calendars look like it’s gonna be in two hundred years.
Q: The calendars … biblical calendars?
Dylan: Yeah, the calendar even we’re on now.
Q: There’s a song on your new album that’s called “Trust Yourself”, that some people have interpreted as essentially a message to people who’ve made a kind of myth out of you. Is that an accurate interpretation?
Dylan: A myth?
Q: That it’s a message to people to trust their own instincts and not to follow, not to put so much stock in …
Dylan: That’s pretty accurate, yeah.
Q: Did you write it with people in mind or […]?
Dylan: No, I didn’t have anybody specific in mind when I wrote that. I just felt like writing that particular type of song with an attitude like that. It might seem contradictory to some other songs I’ve written but if you listen to all the lyrics I don’t think it really is.
[Drudge Report headline tomorrow: Bob Dylan says the world will end in 2185.]
[It should be noted, related to the above comments, that this interview took place well after much conventional wisdom posited that Dylan had turned away from the beliefs expressed on what we call his gospel albums. The song “Trust Yourself,” in particular, was seen by some as Dylan’s repudiation of former songs that praised a God of time and space, and a God of the Bible. But it seems some listeners had missed the import of the line: “Don’t put your hope in ungodly man …”]
Bob Dylan on LiveAid & Sun City:
[Strangely, someone apparently associated with Little Steven’s Sun City project butts in during this segment to get a quote from Dylan, apparently to use in promoting that record.]
Q: […] Can you tell us why you would be involved in it and what you feel about the South African situation?
Dylan: I’ve never been in South Africa — I don’t know what the scene is there. A few whites rule over lots of blacks, I guess. So this is a record that Steven and Arthur [Ed: Arthur Baker, who had just worked on mixing Dylan’s new album] wrote, and sent it and I listened to it, and I’ll probably next week put some kind of thing on it. I haven’t listened that closely to the song. That’s all I know. Uh, want me to say something else?
Q: They asked me to ask you for something for something that they’re doing — they’re gonna try to do a little video about the making — they just wanna try and get a statement from each of the artists that they could use as part of the — y’know why artists are doing it, so I just want to try and get some — he asked me to see if I can get some positive statement from you about it.
Dylan: I don’t know why artists are doing it. I don’t know — I mean is money from the record going to go to South Africa or …?
Q: […] but it’s not for money, it’s mostly for awareness about the problem.
Dylan: I think everybody knows about the problem.
Q: It’s for artists to say that they’re not going to play there, that they’re going to stay away and not play in South Africa.
Dylan: OK. Well I don’t think any artists are going to be playing in Sun City. But a lot of artists have played Sun City.
Q: And you?
Dylan: No, I’ve never played Sun City—I’ve never been asked to play Sun City, but, uh, some artists have been asked to play Sun City and haven’t, and others have been asked to play and have.
Q: Uh —
Dylan: [smiling] I don’t know what the point is.
Q [Bob Brown interjects]: It sounds like with all this going on, that there’s a lot of pressure being Bob Dylan.
Dylan: I don’t feel the pressure of being Bob Dylan. I wish I could think of something relevant to say about it. I’m not quite sure of what the idea of the Sun City record is … [interjection off camera] yeah … because I heard the song and I called him and I said, “What do you want me to do on this?” It was full. It was full up. Y’know.
[You would think there could be no more, um, black and white issue for most people in 1985 than apartheid in South Africa. Yet, even on this issue (and we know full well where he stood on issues of racial oppression in the U.S.) Dylan is unwilling to just be a puppet and say what Little Steven and his cohorts want him to say, something along the lines of, “I think it’s grossly immoral of any artist to even think of playing Sun City while the oppression in South Africa continues.” He’s just not willing to accept someone else’s characterization of how simple the issue is — in this case the issue of playing at Sun City. He did end up contributing some vocalizing to the record, as he had agreed to do, but, judging from the above, it seems it was more about doing a favor for some friends (Little Steven and Arthur Baker) rather than making a big political statement.]
Bob Dylan on politics and social change:
Q: … I think a lot of people were inspired—if you want to use the word—to get involved in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement as a result of having listened to you, and listened to your songs, like The Times They Are a-Changin’, songs like that.
Dylan: Yeah, possibly. I wrote that in early sixty-something though, so there again they might have picked up on it two or three years after it was done. Which—that happens with a lot of my stuff. But I’m not one to really say that this one affected this or this song affected that. I really don’t know. Once something gets done it’s just for whoever wants to pick it up, y’know. It’s hard to say what really causes anything to happen. I don’t know if a song can really do that but they say it might, I don’t know.
Q: Do you think there’s any hope at all for any political system that would appeal to you, that you would be happy with? [Ed: Now that’s some question.]
Dylan: I don’t think any political system, really. I’d be happy living under a king, really, if he was the right king. I mean, I don’t really think about systems …
Bob Dylan on names, the afterlife, and record sales:
Dylan [taking up after a break in the film] … I wouldn’t assume to know that. But, um … at a certain time, all the people from history will stand up. And, ah … I believe in the resurrection. And, ah, there are certain things, there is certain knowledge that I’m not sure it’s available right now on a mass level, maybe, sometime, because some of it is a little extreme—it might go against what a lot of people already think and what a lot of—which, a lot of what’s happening today throughout the world operates under something like a spiritual, religious order, but is actually happening more in terms of financial … it’s more like a financial empire. And, ah—[smiling] this is from what I can see, y’know—and has nothing really to do with spirituality or the next world or the soul, y’know, the trip that the soul’s on. Um, ah, I don’t know—we don’t have much—I could go deeper, but it’s more of a—I’m not sure how much of it I want to just state right out and say because I’m not sure how much it applies here. Um, then again you have to be very very sure of what you’re saying in this area because there’s so much—people believe so many different things and there’s a lot of wrong things you can say. But—uh [visibly giving up], I don’t know.
[People always wonder why Dylan doesn’t talk more, and more clearly, about his faith, especially in recent years. I think you’ve got more than a clue in that segment as to what he sees as the reasons for his reserve.]
. . .
The parts of the interview that were actually broadcast in the 20/20 show (which are not included in these outtakes) are also available on YouTube at [video since deleted]. (I had previously transcribed that interview here.)
. . .
Seeing it all together, it occurs me that Bob Brown actually did a pretty good job, didn’t he? Dylan is visibly very wary, but Brown — despite the occasional goofy question — has done his homework and comes across as both sensitive and intelligent, and draws Bob out quite a bit. Taken as a whole, in fact, with both the parts that were broadcast and the outtakes, I think this interview stands as one of the most strikingly revealing ones of Dylan’s career.
The title of this post does not refer to the talented Yankee baseball player who is also his team’s captain, but to the name which is on the tombstone of the grave which Bob Dylan visits in the video for ‘Cross The Green Mountain.
Capt. W.R. Jeter
13th VA Cav.
Born May 25, 1834
And fell in defense
of his country
Note: the website mistakenly says “fell in defense of his county;” I think that looking at the photograph closely confirms that the word is indeed “country,” of-course.
In the video, Dylan rides into the cemetery on horseback and places a framed photo or daguerreotype on the grave.
I have no speculation as to why Capt. Jeter’s grave was chosen, but naturally it does arouse curiousity as to any story surrounding this particular Confederate soldier. I don’t know if there are any Civil War buffs out there who might know anything about him. The power of Google, however, has given me this so far:
In 1903, a book was published called “A Virginia Girl In The Civil War 1861 – 1865,” self-described as “Being a record of the actual experiences of the wife of a Confederate officer. Collected and edited by Myrta Lockett Avary.” The complete text of the book is hosted on the web by the University of North Carolina at this link.
As described in the introduction, the book is basically the oral reminiscences of a then-elderly woman as provided to Ms. Avary, who edited and arranged the stories for publication. The woman was married to a Confederate officer, as the subtitle states, and herself spent time nursing the wounded in hospital wards.
I came across the text via Google because one of the woman’s friends is married to a Captain Jeter, who ultimately is mortally wounded and is tended to in his last hours by the storyteller herself.
If you read sufficiently through the text, you will discover that the storyteller’s husband is in the 13th Virginia Cavalry (the one named on Capt. W.R. Jeter’s grave stone). It seems at least highly likely that the Captain Jeter mentioned in this story is also in the same cavalry, because when he is wounded, the storyteller’s husband sends word to her to go to the hospital and tend to him.
But now a caveat; the book’s introduction also states:
Out of deference to the wishes of living persons, her own [i.e. the narrator’s] and her husband’s real names have been suppressed and others substituted; in the case of a few of their close personal friends, and of some whose names would not be of special historical value, the same plan has been followed.
So, we don’t know for sure if we can rely on the name “Jeter” after all. Was this one of the close personal friends whose name was changed? I can’t say.
Nevertheless, given the other circumstances which jibe with the information on the grave marker, it seems to me that there’s a better than even chance that this is the actual Captain Jeter of the 13th Virginia Cavalry whose grave Dylan visits in the video for ‘Cross The Green Mountain.
So, here is an extract of the text of this book, where the narrator learns of Captain Jeter’s wound, goes to tend to him, and later talks with his mother and his widow.
And now began for me the nursing in hospital wards that made up so large a part of our lives during the war.
“Jeter shot, perhaps fatally. Go to the hospital and see what you can do for him. I have telegraphed to his wife and mother. “DAN.”
The orderly who brought me this message from my husband said that Captain Jeter’s command had been in a skirmish that day, and that the captain had fallen, mortally wounded, it was thought.
I went to him at once. He was lying unconscious across the bed as if he had fallen or been dropped there, dressed in full uniform with his coat buttoned up to his throat, breathing stertorously, and moaning. There was a small black hole in his temple. I thought he must be uncomfortable with his clothes on, and proposed to the nurse that we should try to undress him, but she said he was dying and it would only disturb him. All that day and until late that night I stayed with him, changing the towels on his head, wiping the ooze from his lips, listening to that agonizing moaning, and thinking of the wife and mother who could not reach him. About ten o’clock he seemed to be strangling.
“It’s phlegm in his throat,” the nurse said. She ran her finger down his throat, pulling out a quid of tobacco that had been in his mouth when he was shot and that had lain there ever since.
He died at midnight, and his mother came the next day at noon. I don’t know which was the hardest to stand, her first burst of agony or her endless questions when she could talk.
“Did he suffer much, Nell?”
“Not much, I think. He was unconscious from the time he was shot.”
“Nell, did he send me any message? Did he call for me?”
“He was unconscious,” I repeated gently, “and we must be thankful that he was. If he had been conscious he would have suffered more.”
“Yes, yes; I reckon I am thankful. I don’t know how I am now. But I’m trying to submit myself to the will of the Lord. Nellie, you don’t know what a sweet baby he was! the prettiest little fellow! as soon as he could walk, he was always toddling after me and pulling at my skirts.”
I turned my head away.
“Last night I dozed for a minute and I dreamed about him. He was my baby again, and I had him safe in my arms, and there never had been any war. But I didn’t sleep much. I couldn’t come as soon as I got the telegram. I had to wait for a train. And I was up nearly all night cooking things to bring him.”
She opened her basket and satchel and showed me. They were full of little cakes and crackers, wine jellies and blanc-mange, and other delicacies for the sick.
“Do you think if I had gotten here in time he could have eaten them?” she asked wistfully.
“He could not eat anything,” I sail choking back my tears.
“You don’t think he was hungry at all Nell? The soldiers have so little to eat some times – and I have heard it said that people are sometimes hungry when they are dying.”
“Dear Mrs. Jeter, he looked well and strong except for the wound. You know the troops had just returned from the valley where they had plenty to eat.”
“I am glad of that. I was just getting a box ready to send him full of everything I thought he would like. And I had some clothes for him. I began making the clothes as soon as I heard the troops had come back to Culpeper. You say he was wounded in the head?”
Neither of us closed our eyes that night. She walked the floor asking the same questions over and over again, and I got so I answered yes or no just as I saw she wanted yes or no and without regard to the truth.
Several months after this I saw Captain Jeter’s widow. She was surrounded by his little children – none of them old enough to realize their loss.
“Nell,” she said, “you remember the day in Petersburg when we stood together and watched the troops start off for Norfolk – and everybody was cheering?”
“Well, war does not look to me now as it did then. God grant it may spare your husband to you, Nell!”
I called on another widowed friend. Her husband – a captain, too – had been sent home, his face mutilated past recognition by the shell that killed him. Her little ones were around her, and the captain’s sword was hanging on the wall. When I spoke to her of it as a proud possession, her eyes filled. His little boy said with flashing eyes:
“It’s my papa’s s’ode. I wants to be a man. An’ I’ll take it down and kill all the Yankees!”
“H-sh!” his mother put her hand over his mouth. “God grant there may be no war when you are a man!” she said fervently.
“Amen!” I responded.
“Oh, Nell,” she said, “when it’s all over, what good will it do? It will just show that one side could fight better than the other, or had more money and men than the other. It won’t show that anybody’s right. You can’t know how it is until it hits you, Nell I’m proud of him, and proud of his sword; I wouldn’t have had him out of it all. I wouldn’t have had him a coward. But oh, Nell, I feel that war is wrong! I’m sorry for every Northern woman who has a circle like this around her, and a sword like that hanging on her wall.”
The little boy put his arm around her neck. “Mamma,” he said, “are you sorry for the Yankees?”
“My dear,” she said, “I am sorry for all little boys who haven’t got a papa, and I’m sorry for their mammas. And I don’t want you ever to kill anybody.”
NOTE: This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text. (Click here to go to the UNC website and access the complete text.)
So, there you have it. Captain Jeter is just one of some 500,000 soldiers who died during the U.S. Civil War.
I believe the interviewer’s name is Bob Brown. I include the voice-over (v/o) statements of the show, in order to fairly provide the context of what was a highly edited segment on a magazine program, and also because assertions are sometimes made during the voice-overs that seem to refer to things that Dylan said during the interview, but which we are not shown on camera. I paragraphed parts just for readability’s sake.
Throughout, various footage was inserted by ABC; mainly musical clips. I only refer to them when it seems necessary for continuity’s sake. The entire segment was a little over 15 minutes. I’m confident about this transcription, which I made from a digitized file of the show which is in circulation amongst collectors, but if anyone thinks I mis-heard any words, do let me know.
So here it is:
Opening credits over the promotional video for "“When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”."
ABC: Do your children have an idea of what you meant?
BD: I think so, on some kind of level, but, when I was growing up – say in the fifties – the thirties to me didn’t even exist. I couldn’t even imagine them in any kind of way, so I don’t expect anyone growing up now is gonna even understand what the sixties were all about, anymore than I could the thirties or twenties.
ABC v/o: Dylan’s lyrics summarized the times with enormous influence. For this 1969 appearance at England’s Isle Of Wight music festival, spectators included Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles. (footage rolls)
Voice of Kurt Loder: Well, the cliche is that he speaks for his generation, that he’s the voice of a generation, so (ABC v/o: Kurt Loder is a senior editor of Rolling Stone Magazine).
Kurt Loder continues: Popular music – popular culture – seemed to have no relationship to anything really human. Then you have Bob Dylan come along and he’s singing in this strange voice and this real loud rock’n’ roll and he’s actually talking about things, about how repressed everything is now, and how stifled people are, and you say "yeah, that’s exactly how I felt, why couldn’t I put it like that?" And that breakthrough is something that never be taken away from him and it’s really made a tradition of its own in pop music to communicate with people directly like that.
ABC v/o: Even when they were new, it seemed as if some of Dylan’s songs had been with us forever. Blowing In The Wind became an anthem of the civil rights’ movement. And like all balladeers, he wrote first person accounts of relationships, and the roads that they take. Among the generation that followed him, millions adopted The Times They Are A’ Changin’ as a manifesto to a system they protested. His lyrics were studied and analyzed as poetry. Fans waited for what he would say next – what he would do next. Hardcore supporters were sometimes outraged when he changed his music from folk to rock or rock to country. His rhymes, his reclusive life, his changing appearance, added to the mystery.
In 1979 Dylan took the most dramatic and controversial turn of his career: to born-again Christianity, reflected in songs like Shot Of Love, and performances with an evangelical fervor. He believes in the resurrection, he says, but he also delved intensely into his own religious heritage: Orthodox Judaism. Spiritual messages are still present in some of his music. But he has also returned to the popular mainstream: to Rock’n’Roll. Said one writer: "Any attempt to tie him down, musically or lyrically, is bound to fail."
BD: I used to think it’s better if you just live and die and no one knows who you are.
ABC v/o: From the beginning, Dylan, now 44 years old, has shied away from publicity, granting few print interviews, never agreeing to television network news interview until now. We spoke with him on a hillside, and on his estate in Malibu, California, where the wind blew in from the Pacific, just below his house. Because the mythology surrounding Dylan has been so embroiled in change and controversy, it was interesting to find him low-key, cordial, soft-spoken.
ABC: Depending on how your music has evolved, there have been people who’ve actually got angry, because they felt it had changed. Did that ever bother you?
BD: Well, it’s always disappointing, you know, when people decide for one reason or another that they don’t like your work anymore, but uh, you know, it’s just one of those things. You can’t try to please people in that kinda way, because then you’re just going to be doing – you’ll never live it down, y’know it’ll always be dogging you around – you might be being a fake about the whole thing.
ABC: So it’s sort of a no-win situation, I guess …?
BD: It’s not important what other people call you. If you yourself know you’re a fake, that’s tougher to live with.
ABC: Is "protest song" an accurate description of some of the things you were doing?
BD: Yeah. Um, I guess so, but the real protest songs were written mainly in the thirties and forties – "Which Side Are You On," mining type songs, union kind of songs – that’s where the protest movement developed from. There’s still a strain of that type of thing in what I do – it’s just more broad now. (dog barks in background)
ABC: Do you view the lyrics that you write as poetry?
(apparent cut, then:) BD: I always felt the need for that type of rhyme to say any type of thing that you wanted to say, but then again, I don’t know if I call myself a poet or not. I would like to, but I’m not really qualified, I think, to make that decision, because I come in on such a back door, that I don’t know what a, y’know, a Robert Frost or a Keats or a T.S. Eliot would really think of my stuff. (another apparent cut, then:) It’s more of a visual type of thing for me. I can picture the color of the song, or the shape of it, or who it is that I’m trying to appeal to, in the song, and what I’m trying to, almost, reinforce my feelings for. And um, I know that sounds sort of vague and abstract, but I’ve got a handle on it when I’m doing it.
ABC v/o:He first began to attact notice in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961 when he performed at a place called "Gerde’s Folk City." In those early years, he was developing a style of phrasing his lyrics that would become a Dylan trademark.
Listen for the emphasis he places on the syllables in his lines – then for the way he strings out the sounds in a phrase, almost reciting them (followed by a clip of Dylan singing "To Ramona" in the early 1960s).
BD: The phrasing I stumbled into. Some of the old folk singers used to phrase things in an interesting way, and then, I got my style from seeing a lot of outdoor-type poets, who would recite their poetry. When you don’t have a guitar, you recite things differently, and there used to be quite a few poets in the jazz clubs, who would recite with a different type of attitude.
ABC v/o: Among those poets: Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, two of Dylan’s friends. Listen to this recording of Ferlinghetti, and you can hear a strong resemblance to the style Dylan developed (followed by clip of Ferlinghetti reciting his poetry, which is turn followed by a clip of Dylan singing "Hard Rain" from the 1970s’ Rolling Thunder tour).
ABC v/o continues:
This vision of a nuclear apocalypse, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, began as folk ballad Dylan wrote during the Cuban missile crisis.
Although Dylan has made powerful protest statements, and people have expected him to speak out for change, he has personal doubts about how politically effective those statements can be.
BD (joined in mid-statement): No, people can change things and make a difference. Uh, there’s a lot of false prophets around though, and that’s the trouble. People say they think they know what’s right and other people get people to follow them because they have a certain type of charisma, and there’s always people willing to take over, y’know, people want a leader. And y’know, there will be more and more of them.
ABC: There have been times when born-again Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, both those were important to you?
ABC: Or is it a broader thing for you?
BD: No. I want to figure out what’s happening, you know? And ah, so I did look into it all.
ABC: Did it make life easier?
BD: Not necessarily.
ABC: Did it make it clearer?
BD: Definitely made it clearer. (apparent cut, then:) This is a place where you have to work certain things out.
ABC: What is it you do have to work out?
BD: Well, you have to work out where your place is. And who you are. But we’re all spirit. That’s all we are, we’re just walking dressed up in a suit of skin, and we’re going to leave that behind.
ABC v/o: Dylan says he believes there will be a new beginning, a Messianic Kingdom eventually. In these times through his music, he continues to add his voice to the causes that artists in the ’80s are taking up with their songs. Most recently, Dylan sang on an anti-apartheid record called, "Sun City."
It features a collection of artists protesting policies in South Africa, dubbed together this month in a New York recording studio. Dylan was also one of the unmistakable voices on the "We Are The World" recording for African famine relief. Producer Quincy Jones wanted a sample of Dylan’s unique phrasing, and when there was some question as to exactly what Jones was after, Dylan fan Stevie Wonder sat at a piano to coach Dylan’s reading.
Stevie Wonder in interview clip:So I was basically saying to him, hey, I have a love and respect for you, and more so to just loosen the situation up. Which it did, ‘cos he did an incredible job.
ABC: How did you phrase the line for him?
Stevie Wonder:It’s almost like kind of the minister poet.It’s very unique.
(Followed by clip of Wonder singing at his keyboard and apparently imitating Dylan, in turn followed by clip of Dylan singing his phrase from the USA For Africa record.)
ABC v/o: Dylan supported the cause for African famine relief, but not without a kind of spiritual fatalism about it.
BD: People buying a song and the money going to starving people in Africa is, you know, a worthwhile idea, but I wasn’t so convinced about the message of the song, to tell you the truth. I don’t think people can save themselves, y’know.
ABC: Save themselves, in any sorta …?
BD: Yeah, I just don’t, I don’t agree with that type of thing.*
ABC v/o: But there’s still a sense of immediacy in Dylan’s approach to problems. He provided the inspiration for this artists’ benefit, Farm Aid, when he suggested at the Live Aid famine relief concert that some of the money raised should go to farmers (clip of Farm Aid is playing).
Although people still search for meanings in his songs, the message in one of his newest is simply, "Trust Yourself."
And almost as if to deflate the myths made out of him, Dylan’s lyrics also read, "Don’t trust me to show you the truth."
BD: I like the fans, but I don’t feel an obligation that I have to be an example to them, like say maybe a baseball player would, or a football player or maybe some other type of musicians. I don’t feel I have to really set an example that somebody else has to live up to.
ABC: What kind of beliefs do you have in yourself to write the kinds of songs you write?
BD: Ahh, not really a belief. I have very little belief in myself to do anything. I just pull it off, y’know, and it’s amazing to me that I do.
ABC v/o: At the end of the summer, before the Farm Aid concert, Dylan was on an empty motion picture soundstage, for a rehearsal that at times turned into a kind of jam session with a popular rock band called Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. When the other musicians took a break, we asked Dylan if he’d do one of his older songs – whatever song he chose. He thought for a moment, and then, this artist who has both angered and inspired his followers, whose doubts may go hand-in-hand with his convictions, chose a song from 1974 that was a kind of prayer when he first recorded it. He was joined unrehearsed by the keyboardist and vocal group. The song is "Forever Young." (followed by Dylan playing electric guitar and singing a part of that song with his backing singers, which is the end of the piece).
*Note: The line Dylan sang in that Jackson/Richie composition was: "There’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives /It’s true we make a better day, just you and me." More on that subject here.
Some thoughts on the interview:
I think this interview is significant for a few reasons. It was Dylan’s first ever proper television interview, and the only one he has done to date other than December 2004’s interview with Ed Bradley for CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Indeed, that show was promoted as Dylan’s “first TV interview in 20 years.” This is the previous interview to which they were referring.
Like the “60 Minutes” segment, it’s disappointing in its brevity (15 minutes, much of which is old footage being played) and the relative lack of knowledge of the interviewer. Nevertheless, it probably is more substantive than Ed Bradley’s piece, in that Dylan appears less wary of and/or hostile to the interviewer, and some fairly significant topics are touched upon.
Especially interesting to me are some things mentioned in the voice-over, where the ABC newsman seems to be referring to things which Dylan said during their discussion, but which are not actually seen during the part of the interview which is aired. E.g.:
“He believes in the resurrection, he says, but he also delved intensely into his own religious heritage: Orthodox Judaism.”
“Dylan says he believes there will be a new beginning, a Messianic Kingdom eventually.”
Bear in mind that this was in 1985, and some argued (and some inexplicably still argue) that Dylan had shed his belief in Jesus Christ after 1981’s Shot of Love album like some kind of worn-out fad. It’s clear enough to people who have ears to hear that this wasn’t the case, but anyhow, here apparently was an example of Dylan going on-the-record both about Christ, and about his simultaneous acceptance of his own Jewishness—but ABC just choosing not to make that part of the on-air interview.
What else to say? There’s the bit about the “We Are The World” record and Live-Aid concert, which I already wrote about here. There is the direct question about whether Dylan considers his own work to be “poetry,” and his rather straightforward and quite humble response. This, by the way, is a part of the interview that appears to be significantly edited. What a shame—and one wonders what else was left on the cutting-room floor, and even now may be in a can somewhere at ABC.*
Y’know, it’s funny – on these two occasions that Dylan did a TV interview, much was made of the idea that he’s some kind of hermit or recluse (far from true, considering all of the print interviews he’s done) and what a big occasion this was as a result. Yet, in both instances, they ended up taking a few brief clips from apparently longer interviews and filling up the rest of a mere quarter-hour segment with old footage and editorializing.
Kinda sums it up, doesn’t it? That is, it sums up the mainstream media’s attitude to Dylan through the years. “We want you Bob! Tell us what you think, talk to us.” Then when he does, it’s, “Well, OK, that’s not we expected. We’ll use a little bit of that but mainly we’ll just continue telling people what we think you’re about.”
What was it you wanted
You can tell me, I’m back,
We can start it all over
Get it back on the track,
You got my attention,
Go ahead, speak.
What was it you wanted
When you were kissing my cheek?
* 07/06/2005 09:36:40 am: Someone who is much better informed than I tells me that there are outtakes from this interview in circulation. So, down the road we may revisit this …
Those too young to remember need to know that it all started with a famine in Ethiopia. Millions faced starvation. Bob Geldof (formerly of the Boomtown Rats) cowrote a song with Midge Ure (formerly of Ultravox) called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” and gathered a group of popstars together under the name “Band-Aid” to record it—with the proceeds to go to famine relief. It became a Number 1 Christmas hit in the U.K., and a phenomenon in Europe. It inspired a similar effort in the U.S., under the leadership of Michael Jackson (formerly of the Jackson Five) and Lionel Richie (The Commodores), who wrote a song called “We Are The World,” and gathered a group of American stars to record it. The whole spirit of popular music stars performing for this charitable cause culminated in a huge, day long, live concert—half in England and half in the U.S.—televised around the world. Viewers were encouraged to call in and pledge money for Ethiopian famine relief. Over $140 million is said to have been raised.
Although Bob Dylan donated his services to both the Jackson/Richie single and the concert, he went out of his way on several occasions to express reservations about certain aspects of the proceedings.
For example, in September of 1985, ABC TV aired an interview with Dylan on their 20/20 program (the only significant TV interview Dylan has done other than 2004’s segment on 60 Minutes). Dylan expressed himself thusly with regard to “We Are The World”:
Dylan: People buying the song and the money going to starving people in Africa is, y’know, a worthwhile idea, but I wasn’t so convinced about the message of the song, to tell you the truth. I don’t think people can save themselves, y’know?
ABC’s Bob Brown: Save themselves, in any sorta …?
Dylan: I just don’t agree with that type of thing.
The fragment of lyric that Dylan had been given to sing went “There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives / It’s true we make a brighter day / Just you and me.”
Months after singing these words, his concession to it still rankled him, obviously. Without getting into detail here on the rather different message regarding the source of salvation that you might draw from Dylan’s own body of work, it’s interesting that whatever standard he sets for himself left him anguishing long after the fact at having to sing that Jackson/Richie line. And in what, for him then, was the unique experience of being interviewed for television, he made a point of expressing his disagreement with it.
More dramatic still, however, was Dylan’s own performance at the great Live Aid concert itself on Saturday, July 13th, 1985. It’s not a performance that you hear a lot about—and little of it would be positive, I’d wager. On the current Live Aid DVD of the event, only one of the three songs that Dylan sang is present: the final one, “Blowin’ in The Wind” (although the DVD features three songs from Duran Duran, and two each from Reo Speedwagon and Judas Priest).
You would almost need to transport yourself back to the day itself to recall that Bob Dylan was, in fact, top of the bill at this event. The only thing to come after him was the grand finale of all and sundry singing (there’s that song again), “We Are The World.” A list of performers that included (to mention a few) Neil Young, U2, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Queen, Elton John, and Spandau Ballet (they really were big in 1985!), were effectively in the role support acts to Bob Dylan on the day. And, before his actual performance, I don’t think anyone seriously questioned whether he shouldn’t head that bill. He was, after all, “the voice” and “the conscience” of a generation, was he not? So many of the other performers had been inspired by him. He represented the idealism of the sixties, incarnate, didn’t he? He had written so many songs exploring themes of social justice, and the plight of the disadvantaged and oppressed, right? This concert was like all of those ideals being put into action. It was really a no-brainer to pick Bob Dylan as the climactic act.
And it’s easy to imagine how the producers of the event hoped and thought it would go. The excitement and mood of anticipation growing greater and greater throughout the day, as star after glittering star got on stage and sang two or three of their greatest and most loved hits, culminating with Jack Nicholson coming out on the stage in Philadelphia and introducing the great V of a G himself: the virtually mythological Bob Dylan.
With 1.5 billion people watching, all Dylan needed to do was sing three of his most famous songs and he could have that pumped-up worldwide audience in the palm of his hand. They were dying to hear those poetic words of inspiration from the man without whom arguably none of this would be happening. One of the songs would have to be “Blowin’ in The Wind,” a song known not only to rock fans but to children all over the world (one of the first songs many people play when learning the guitar). Other than that, well, there was just so much to choose from. He could come out and sing the poignant “Knocking On Heaven’s Door,” follow that up with the happier “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man,” then finish with “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and (so to speak) Bob’s your uncle. Everyone would be on a cloud of good feeling as Michael and Lionel and co. stepped forth amidst a chorus of angelic children to sing “We Are The World.” Substitute “I Shall Be Released” or “Forever Young” or “The Times They Are A’Changin'” for one of those other two, and you get the same result. Joy all around.
Dylan had other plans, however. “Plans” is the operative word: no matter how ramshackle Dylan’s performance may have seemed on the night (backed up by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, also wielding acoustic guitars), the truth is that it was amply rehearsed. Indeed, a recording circulates amongst bootleg collectors of their actual rehearsals. It seems like they did not take place only on the day of the event, either, but also before it. Dylan did not absent mindedly reach into his back catalog a few minutes before going on stage for some songs to sing; rather, he chose his songs quite deliberately and with some precision and purpose. (As to the rough performance, Dylan later complained that the grand finale organizers had taken away the stage monitors, so he and his guitarists couldn’t even hear themselves. This would explain Dylan’s out of character question to the crowd in between songs: “Does it sound alright out there?”)
So, with one and a half thousand million people tuned in, Jack Nicholson came onstage to introduce Dylan. He said, to rising cheers from the Philadelphia audience: “Some artists’ work speaks for itself; some artist’s work speaks for his generation. It’s my deep personal pleasure to present to you one of America’s great voices of freedom. It can only be one man! The transcendent Bob Dylan!”
Dylan then introduced Richards and Wood, and, without further formalities, they launched into a blues tune, in a minor key.
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children and his cabin breakin’ down
As Dylan was well aware, this was not a song that the general viewing public around the world would be at all familiar with. There is also nothing pretty about this song, even if performed under optimal circumstances. The dark story of a destitute farmer who uses his last pennies to buy 7 shotgun shells – one each to shoot his wife, his 5 kids, and finally himself – is matched by a sad and low-down melody. On a day dedicated to raising money for the starving, there is no question of the song’s relevance, but it certainly lacked the uplift of, say, Paul McCartney earlier in the day singing “Let It Be.” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown ends with this bland statement, not of hope or of defiance, but of sober recognition and frightening truth:
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance there’s seven new people born
The song ended, and (hats off to them) the Philadelphia crowd mustered some cheers. After all, it’s Bob Dylan on stage. (Punch drunk as they were after a day of titanic stars and huge performances, they probably would have cheered if Bob had come out in drag and sung “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”) Dylan told the crowd that he thought the song was a fitting one for the occasion, and then … well, then he dropped his bombshell:
I’d just like to say I hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa – maybe they could just take a little bit of it – maybe one or two million, maybe – and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms that the farmers here owe to the banks.
Now, inasmuch as he was regarded by many as a washed-up loon after this performance, it’s important to note that, of-course, Dylan knew exactly what he was doing. As mentioned, he’d rehearsed well for this performance. He was 44 years old and had stood on countless stages and participated in many events all around the world. He knew what was going on on this day of days, and he knew all too well what was expected of him. He understood that he was appearing at the penultimate moment of this mega-huge-gig, and that all eyes were right on him. Indeed, the next song he performed contained the lines: “And the ship’s wise men / Will remind you once again / That the whole wide world is watchin’.”
In a moment when the eyes of the world were upon him in the most literal sense imaginable, Dylan chose to defy the spirit of this enormous occasion—a huge steamroller of global feel-good charity that had rolled over the popular music world—and he chose to address only his American audience. His message? Well, the words are there, and they’re not complicated. He’s telling people to help the debt-ridden farmers of America. You can throw different constructs on this message if you like, I suppose. I think, considering the context of this massive live global event, one might theorize that Dylan was going out of his way to say to America: look within. Look to your own. Do not forget those who are part of the backbone of this nation. Value what you have right here lest you lose it.
Dylan had been around the block often enough to know that he would be pilloried for stepping out of line and making such a statement at such a moment. And indeed Bob Geldof (general organizer, saint and guru of the occasion) was furious. Even much later when he had calmed down enough to write his autobiography, he still had this to say of Dylan, “He displayed a complete lack of understanding of the issues raised by Live Aid … it was a crass, stupid, and nationalistic thing to say.” And we can be sure that the great majority of people across the world felt exactly the same way. On a day meant to raise money for the poor in Africa, here is this rich American rock star suggesting that money be diverted to American farmers – who, whatever their problems with bank loans and such, were surely not starving. Dylan simply pushed aside the fact that he would enrage the worldwide audience. He had just sung his old song about a poor South Dakota farmer, and (for once) he had a direct message he wanted to deliver to Americans. No Western Union boys needed.
[ An aside: Those who follow Dylan’s live shows obsessively and note his remarks from the stage might hear an echo in something he said five weeks after the September 11th, 2001 attack on America. He was performing at LA’s Staples Center, where Madonna had recently been. Everyone’s mind being still raw from the events of 9/11, Madonna had exhorted the crowd to “Think global.” I don’t think she meant it in terms of “global conquest.” More likely she was implying that we should see everyone’s point of view on these things, and not be caught up in flag waving and rooting for the home team. Dylan had obviously read it in the paper, and, though he was not very talkative at his gigs in those years, he made an exception this time: “I know Madonna was here a couple weeks ago telling everybody to ‘think global.’ I know a whole bunch of you are doing that. I wanna try to tell you, rethink it.” (10/19/2001)]
In contemplating what Dylan did on that Live Aid stage, it’s also worth noting the business opportunity that he knowingly threw away. A seasoned performer like himself was well aware that it’s not every day you get to play to 1.5 billion people. That’s a helluva lot of record buyers. It’s no secret that their Live Aid performance lifted rock supergroup “Queen” to new heights of popularity in markets all over the world. “U2” likewise were greatly boosted in their global popularity thanks to their impressive performance that day. Dylan was being seen by millions upon millions of people who had never seriously considered buying one of his albums. A respectable performance of a few of his favorites could have been a huge boon to him, and at a time when his career was not exactly shooting skyward. Instead, he performed two songs that virtually no one knew. He followed up the morose (if penetrating) Hollis Brown with the jauntier but still very obscure “When the Ship Comes In,” a song about that ultimate moment of reckoning when all will be put right: the guilty punished and the righteous rewarded. (Though rough edged, it remains this writer’s all-time favorite performance of that song.) It’s an interesting and little-known fact that he had in mind to follow that up with his new (and even more obscure) song “Dark Eyes.” He had mentioned during rehearsals with the Stones’ guitarists that he would like to do “Dark Eyes” if there was time. Hence there was that moment after he sang “When the Ship Comes In,” when he stepped back and said, “How much time we got?” Whatever response he received convinced him that he only had time to do “Blowin’ in The Wind,” and so that’s what he did (and not the prettiest version by any means, of that great song that offers such great questions where so many hear only their own answers). But it’s amazing to think that if he’d had the time, he would have performed a total of three songs that almost nobody knew, on a day devoted to greatest hits by the greatest stars. He was doing anything but going with the flow. And his statement about giving some of the money to the American farmers would inevitably annoy viewers across the world. In a moment when he could have aided his career and his own bank account, his defiance of the group-hug-feel-good spirit of the occasion was an act of some substantial courage. Geldof described it as “nationalistic.” I would venture to say that it was an act of true patriotism – an unrecognized patriotism that is ingrained in this distinctly American troubadour. He himself hates labels, of-course, especially all the “isms,” whether thrown around as compliments or insults. But one thing was clear by what he did and said on that day: he loved America -and he was worried enough about a problem deep within the heartland of the country to shrug off a perfect opportunity to bask in international adulation. Instead, he put himself on the line and willingly made himself the target of barbs and insults from all around the world.
His statement about the American farmer was heard, of-course, in America, and led to the Farm Aid fundraising concerts, with Willie Nelson and others. While I personally have no idea if this charity has stayed true to its purpose or become yet another self-perpetuating provider of “non-profit” jobs for busy bodies, it hopefully helped some real people along the way.
* * *
With hindsight, it was probably Dylan’s Live Aid performance that cemented the whole “Dylan is a burnt-out crank” theory as the conventional wisdom in many circles. It’s true that he had already alienated most of the “rock establishment” with his gospel music—but, after all, that was commonly believed to have ended in 1981. First with 1983’s Infidels, and then with 1985’s Empire Burlesque, it seemed that he might well be on his way to rehabilitation if he would just keep well away from the “J” word. (Instead, it wasn’t until 1997’s Time Out of Mind that Dylan silenced the critics who had considered him washed up.)
With his comments and actions in this period, Dylan demonstrated (yet again) that he does not seek acceptance based on anyone else’s expectations of what he should do, who he should be, or what he should represent. He persists in being true to himself, and, I’d suggest, to certain core principles that can be seen as continuous threads through his entire body of work.
One of those, I’d also suggest, is a belief that America is indeed a special nation, and that the preservation of the particular genius of this still quite young country is not an unworthy goal.
And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken.
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean.
Collected posts relating to Chronicles and the world’s response to it (in chronological order, first to last)
New Morning … 09/26/2004
Chronicles is excerpted in Newsweek. My own reaction to reading Bob’s narrative is just plain joy and amazement. It is absolutely direct. From the liner notes to the Jimmie Rodgers tribute album to the liner notes on World Gone Wrong, it had seemed that Dylan would always add the turns and twists of poetry to any kind of writing. But the writing here is just a guy telling the truth, with the clear desire that the reader understand precisely what he is saying. Any other commentary can wait. His book deserves to be read in full. And the excerpt published so far surely can’t help but make anyone who has spent a lot of time writing about Dylan feel like stepping back and reflecting fairly deeply. It is a wonderful thing that Dylan has arrived at this point and has the chance and the space to speak for himself.
… while Bob Dylan boasts of owning a "clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle."
Alright. I wasn’t going to go to town on the Newsweek excerpt from Chronicles. I really wanted to wait until I could read the whole book. Only thing is, I didn’t count on what the rest of the world was going to do. How can Yours Truly keep silent when everyone else is hyperventilating over Dylan saying of his hippie tormentors, "I wanted to set fire to these people" … ?
First, I want to reiterate the prime directive, contained in my original mission statement . It is not my intention to try to maintain that Dylan agrees with me on all political questions, or that he can be labeled a "conservative." He spurns all labels, and does not participate in partisan politics, and I respect that about him.
That said, now that this excerpt of his memoirs has been published, it is not his conservative-minded fans who are reacting with shock or horror.
The first thing that needs to be commented on is that as soon as you get one step away from Dylan’s actual words, the media are still engaging in their usual distortions.
Since we started talking about firearms, lets continue on that theme. Any number of stories, like this in the Herald Tribune, imply that Dylan armed himself in his home in Woodstock solely for the purpose of defending himself against marauding fans. Their stalking "led him to keep several guns in his house and stifled his creative process." So, it equates Dylan with your typical celebrity who may abhor guns but is forced to carry one because of death threats and obsessive fans.
That ain’t what Dylan writes.
He says, without specifying a timeline, that "Peter LaFarge, a folksinger friend of mine, had given me a couple of Colt single-shot repeater pistols, and I also had a clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle around …." He says he had it around—not that he ran out and got it when the druggies started knocking on his door. And consider how he describes these pieces. He doesn’t just call them "guns," like your average Hollywood liberal would. ("I had to get a gun—and I hate guns! It’s terrible!"). He characterizes them in a gorgeously colorful and almost tactile fashion. "Colt single-shot repeater pistols / clip-fed Winchester blasting rifle." These terms may or may not be technically correct, but what’s clear is that Dylan had his own sense of what these firearms were – their lineage and their design. (Colt and Winchester are both classic American gun manufacturers, I might add—no Lugers for Bob!) He knew these pieces, and what they were mattered to him on some level. All of this matches perfectly with classic American notions of the place and purpose of firearms. In rural America in particular, a firearm is a tool and and a necessary possession, even for people who are not being stalked by Californian drop-outs. A farmer needs a rifle he can depend on, whether for ending the life of one of his farm animals or defending his stock from a predator. It’s not about wanting to kill people—as Dylan also says here: "… it was awful to think about what could be done with those things." Even in urban America, millions of people today own guns, not because they look forward to spilling blood, but because they greatly value their independence and their ability to defend themselves if necessary. Dylan had said just a page earlier in this excerpt,
Being born and raised in America, the country of freedom and independence, I had always cherished the values and ideals of equality and liberty.
As an aside, in a 1981 interview, Dylan was pressed on the subject of gun control (does Billy Joel have to answer these questions?). While acknowledging that America "always has been gun crazy," he also says, "Guns have been a great part of America’s past," and "I don’t think gun control is making any difference at all. Just makes it harder for people who need to be protected." (Hey Wayne La P! It looks like we’ve found a successor for Chuck Heston.)
He is admirably consistent, as usual. Woodstock 1967, London 1981, and now, in Chronicles, in 2004. He’s the same guy—surprise, surprise.
That notion of consistency brings up another issue. The world’s media is reacting like this is the story of the century, "Bob Dylan repudiates hippie fans," "unwilling icon," "fame triggered personal crisis." To anyone who has been interested in Dylan’s career and read his interviews through the years, there is certainly nothing shocking in what he is saying in this excerpt. Those who consider themselves fans and find themselves shocked by this either have not been fans for very long or have selectively tuned out those things they preferred not to hear. Dylan has gone on the record many times describing his anguish at being held up as a spokesman, at having groups of people expecting something in particular from him. His confrontations with Weberman and his band of loons in the Village are well known. His deliberate attempt to put off these people and make them forget about him by releasing, for example, Self Portrait, has been common knowledge for decades. Indeed, it was pretty damned obvious at the time. So the degree to which surprise and shock is being expressed is a vivid illustration of just how distorted is the image of Bob Dylan that the media has been perpetuating, and just how many individuals have bought into it.
Which reminds me. Bob Dylan grants a major interview to the Sunday Telegraph about Chronicles. This fortunate journalist is getting to speak to Bob directly, as well as refer to Dylan’s own words from his book. But he just can’t limit himself to the facts in front of him—he can’t restrain himself from making his own characterizations of things about which he clearly knows next to nothing. Specifically, where he says, "A year later, Dylan had written his great anti-war anthem, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’" Et tu, Mr. Sunday Telegraph? Dylan is on the record too many times to count saying he doesn’t write "anti-war" songs. At this stage of the game anyone who’s paying attention knows that "Blowing In The Wind" is a song that asks timeless questions, but doesn’t expect an answer -and least of all does it expect that war is going to end. And if you don’t expect that war is ever going to end on this earth, then why would you write an anti-war song? For more on an anti-war Dylan song that isn’t, see God On Our Side.
There’s more to say, but there’ll be more time to say it too, God willing. And the book isn’t even out yet.
Go ‘Way From My Window… 09/28/2004
This, of-course, is nuts. In a story on Chronicles, this newspaper (Pioneer Press) chooses to talk to (and hold up as an expert) exactly the kind of fan Bob fantasized about igniting. In 1972 (when she was 37 years old!) she took a trip from Deerfield, Illinois to Greenwich Village to hunt down Bob. Who does she go see to get the skinny on Bob’s location? A.J. Weberman, the guy who combed through Dylan’s garbage to find an explanation for his "sell-out," and organized street protests in front of his family’s house. Even so, he doesn’t willingly give her Bob’s address – she rifles through his papers and finds it. Then she rings Dylan’s doorbell, gets deflected by Sara, and hangs out across the street waiting for Dylan to come out. Dylan is gracious to her when he does, of-course. 32 years later, she is not so gracious. Speaking of Dylan’s choice to play keyboards instead of guitar in concert these days, she says:
"I know artists have to change… I know everything has to change, but he went off the wall this time … I’m furious with him."
And of the last time she saw him in concert:
"He never picked up the guitar," she says. "I will be mad about that for the rest of my life. That’s obscene."
This is all pretty obscene alright. This woman really believes that Dylan owes her something – that he must meet her expectations and do things in exactly the way that she prefers. How frightening is that? It’s beyond her grasp that if she doesn’t like what Dylan’s doing, she can just choose not to listen. He must play guitar for her. He hasn’t done enough for her yet.
Is it any wonder that Bob asked Newsweek not to reveal the location of the hotel where he met their reporter? It may not be 1968 or 1972 anymore, but they’re still out there.
But no. It ain’t me babe! Bob can do whatever he wants. I look forward to being surprised, flummoxed and knocked off balance. If he should decide to pack in his music career and start hosting the CBS Evening News, then fine, he’s made more wonderful records than any human being could ever be expected to make. I just hope he provides somewhat more balanced reporting than what we’ve been getting.
Talking About Chronicles …09/30/2004
Some interesting tidbits from the online chat with David Gates, who had interviewed Bob Dylan for Newsweek and offered himself for readers’ questions on MSNBC.com.
The biggest piece of "news" out of it was a direct explanation of why Bob is playing keyboards these days -according to Mr. Gates:
he told me a lot about that. basically it has to do with his guitar not giving him quite the fullness of sound he was wanting at the bottom. (six strings on a guitar, ten fingers on a piano.) he’s thought of hiring a keyboard player so he doesn’t have to do it himself, but hasn’t been able to figure out who—most keyboard players, he says, like to be soloists, and he wants a very basic sound. he says he wants to tweak the sound some, because he’s not quite satisfied with how the guitars and keyboard are sounding together.
So much, apparently, for theories about arthritis or carpal tunnel problems. As for the new songs Bob said he was working on, this additional delightful detail:
he did say he’s written a song based on melody from a bing crosby song, ‘where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day.’
This was a real trademark song for Bing, and one he actually has writing credit on too. Yours Truly happens to be a major Bing Crosby fan, so it is endlessly pleasurable to know that Dylan is too. He has also alluded to it on other occasions in the past.
And on a different note, there is this little grenade, prompted by a question about what Dylan would be writing about in forthcoming volumes:
he does have ‘blood on the tracks’ stuff and material about ‘freewheelin’ and his walking off the ed sullivan show, which, by the way, he regrets having done. what else he’s written, or might plan to write, don’t know.
Now because your scribe is nothing if not fair, I’m going to grant that since this wasn’t a published part of their interview, it amounts to something only slightly above hearsay. Nevertheless, how interesting if Dylan regrets that moment—still held up to this day by those who would champion his countercultural/protest persona—when he refused to play on the Ed Sullivan show because they didn’t want him to sing "Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues." I wouldn’t say it indicates that he is now a member of the John Birch society, but rather that he may appreciate that this was a slight song—a topical song of the kind he avoided putting on his actual albums—and it was not something to make a hullabaloo about. Even that Sullivan may have had good reason not to have someone on his show seeming to make fun of not just John Birchers, but anti-communists in general. How nice for history if there were footage of Bob Dylan on the Ed Sullivan show performing, say, "Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right."
Another little tidbit, prompted by someone’s comment that they are "shocked at Mr. Dylan’s dismissal of the pivotal historic events of the ’60s," though I don’t think that’s exactly how Bob has put it. Anyway, Gates includes this in his reply:
he seems to follow the news—we shared a little joke about the apparently forged bush documents.
In case anyone was wondering, and (bizarrely to me) some were, there’s "definitely no ghostwriter." Simon & Schuster edited and cut, but "didn’t add anything." Anyone who thinks Bob Dylan would put out an autobio using someone else’s words has got to be in some other solar system, if you ask me. People have pointed out seeming clichés or music industry press release type language in the Chronicles excerpt, like:
"All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities."
People shouldn’t forget that Bob has a penchant for taking cliché and using it in an off-kilter way to throw the reader/listener and make them think. Christopher Ricks has written extensively on this—a nice example is from “I Shall Be Free“—"I see better days and I do better things," where Bob is playing on the cliché, "seen better days." Take 10 minutes and you could find a dozen examples yourself. By using a cliché in an odd way, it also makes the reader/listener rethink what that phrase means. What does Bob mean above when he says "powerful new realities?" I don’t know, but I could speculate … I won’t right now. Whether doing these things with cliché will work in a good way in a book of prose, and in a memoir, is open to debate. Only a few people have read the whole book at this point, and they don’t seem to be commenting.
My grubby little hands can’t wait.
Addendum: Another nice detail, this time from the Sunday Telegraph interview, which is now available in the Chicago Sun-Times, is that before running off to New York city to become "the conscience of a generation," the young Bob Dylan seriously considered "enrolling in the Army and going to West Point."
Just wait for people to start saying that Dylan is engaging in revisionist history and portraying himself incorrectly for some unfathomable, inscrutable reasons of his own. I’m just glad to be one of those fans for whom this self-portrait makes simple, straightforward sense.
"Bob Dylan Is The Nowhere Man" … 10/02/2004
I expect there to be more of this—a lot more. In the popular left wing blog, Daily Kos, there is this posting, where it is stated that "Bob Dylan is a total fraud." In what is basically a reaction to the published excerpt from Chronicles and accompanying interview in Newsweek, the writer slams Dylan as "a maladjusted man," "acid fried dope freak," and further says "Bob Dylan is not Bob Dylan. He is not even Robert Zimmerman anymore."
Even the Newsweek reporter is consigned to hell, for not coming up with the appropriate questions to ask of a 63 year old giant of American song, namely, about "politics, 9/11, religion," and "Bush or Kerry or today’s world of terror politics."
There are a couple of premises underlying this rant. One, that the writer is someone who has been deeply impressed by Dylan’s songs in the past (or else why would he care a jot about the subject?), and two, that the writer has gotten the distinct feeling that his heretofore idol is not supplying the answers that he wants to hear—and that even if the Newsweek reporter had asked all of these specific political questions, this "fraud" Dylan would not have said the right thing—i.e. he would not have condemned Bush and preached against the war we are currently fighting. I guess it comforts the ranter to dismiss him as some kind of burnt-out shell of the real Bob Dylan—whoever that may be.
Whether the backlash to Dylan’s straightforward self-expression in Chronicles will reach the level of the backlash against his open Christianity back in ’79 and the early ’80s, and whether it will have tangible effects (like a drop-off in concert attendance) is an open question at this point. I tend to think not—I think that Dylan is right in thinking that he has largely escaped the burden of his myth and people’s expectations, and that his audience these days is a lot closer to accepting him for what he is and is happy to hear whatever it is he brings to the stage each night. At least that’s what I hope. But in spots like Daily Kos and elsewhere, I’m sure there will be a lot more ranting before it’s all through.
As if to underline what Yours Truly wrote yesterday, here’s an example from the British Sunday Times of someone trying to delegitimize Dylan’s memoirs before they’ve even been read. After summarizing some of the information that was published in the Newsweek excerpt (that Bob never wanted to be the voice of a generation, felt hunted by obsessive followers etc), the writer expresses his shock:
Holy cow. What will the 63-year-old prince of folk, whose anthems were adopted by the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, tell us next?
So, the writer ignores the fact that what Dylan says in the excerpt is perfectly consistent with his remarks in interviews for the better part of four decades, and instead wants us to believe that because particular groups "adopted" his "anthems," that this tells us some more accurate truth about Dylan—as if you draw your conclusions about a songwriter based on the character of the people who might choose to sing the songs. It’s kind of like saying that Cole Porter must have been a big lover of spaghetti, meatballs, Jack Daniels and Ava Gardner, since his greatest interpreter, Sinatra, enjoyed all of those things. (Of-course Bob was demonstrably sympathetic to the civil rights movement, but the writer here is clearly using that example as a broad brush to try to say that Dylan enjoyed political activism generally, and saw himself as writing theme songs for varied causes.)
So the writer thinks that the question of the moment is: "… how much further Dylan is prepared to go in deconstructing himself." Note, not deconstructing his myth, which presumably would be the correct result of telling the straightforward truth, but deconstructing himself,—ending up presumably with something other than the truth about himself (which this writer obviously has a better eye for).
He ends his piece with this lovely expression of dubiousness:
He has promised to set the record straight in a way that “no one could misinterpret”. But who has written the book — Bob Dylan or Robert Zimmerman?
He’s almost perfectly echoing the idiot I quoted yesterday from Daily Kos, in enunciating both Bob’s birth and legal names, as if this makes some point or other. Whatever that point may be certainly escapes me.
Aside from the parts I’ve quoted, this article is not particularly mean or stuffed with lies and distortions. However, the quoted parts basically bookend the piece and I believe are intended to leave the reader thinking that Dylan’s forthcoming memoir is likely to be just one more "reinvention" in a long line of self-created myths and images. So, it is a pre-emptive attack on an unread book that the author (Dylan) has stated is just his attempt to tell the truth as he remembers it.
It’s also more evidence that there is great nervousness out there in left-wing-Bob-Dylan-fan-world in advance of the publication of this book. While here we simply wait with eager and open minds for the gift that Dylan is providing for us—his fans—and for history.
No official review of Chronicles, that I know of, has yet been published. No one who has read the entire book has as yet come out with any detailed description of it. However, the pre-publication spin continues. The theme – in case you haven’t gathered it yet – is that nothing that Dylan says in it is going to be reliable. He has his own mysterious ulterior motives, and besides, he’s such an incorrigible chameleon (nice parodox there) that whatever picture he presents will be just one more illusion. So, his own express statement that, "When you write a book like this, you gotta tell the truth, and it can’t be misinterpreted," is simply being shrugged off—even and especially by those who consider themselves great admirers of the man and his music.
Take this from the BBC today. The writer of the piece says, "So-called Dylanologists remain skeptical about whether the complete truth will finally emerge … ." Well, complete truth, if you ask me, is setting the bar a little high, for anyone lacking in that handy attribute of omniscience. But what about just allowing that Dylan’s intention appears to be to tell the plain truth about particular events as he remembers them? The BBC talks to the editor of the Dylan fan magazine ISIS, and hears the following:
I think he’s doing it for his own benefit … Those who know Bob Dylan will be a little bit suspicious. I don’t think it’s going to be a completely heartfelt "tell-all" autobiography … He has bent the truth right from the beginning , and what is truth and what is myth has been blurred – even in his own mind – with the passing of time.
Now I know that ISIS has been around a long time and has done a lot of great work, but what’s the idea of characterizing an unread book in advance in this way, when everyone is either days or hours away from being able to actually read it? And isn’t stating that Dylan himself has blurred truth and myth "in his own mind" going a bit far for someone who is neither Dylan’s intimate friend nor his psychiatrist?
In fairness to the ISIS editor, I’m sure that the BBC reporter talked to him for some time and then used a few selected quotes. The agenda may be more the BBC’s—I don’t know.
However, I do know that all of this aspersion-casting on Dylan’s intent smells to me like that political concept of "innoculation." By saying before the book comes out that you believe the writer is incapable of reliably telling the truth, you give yourself a way of later dismissing anything in the book that you find unpalatable. "Well, I never thought it was going to be the truth, you know."
Since the only thing that everyone has seen at this point is the Newsweek excerpt, I’d really like to know what part of that strikes anyone knowledgeable as being untrue? Isn’t it just a more intimate angle on events that everyone knows happened? Isn’t that what anyone would expect of a straightforward memoir?
Within hours, the book is going to be in this reader’s hands, and many others, and all of this advance spin will be in the past. Still, it’s sure been interesting to me to see it unfold.
Got it … 10/04/2004d
I’m on page 55, and I’m taking it slow, and it is a pure and utter delight, and it’s one more thing: a treasure. After Dylan’s 40-year career of song, no one would have had any right to expect this of him. Imagine if there were a book like this by Stephen Foster, or Lorenz Hart? Or Jimmie Rodgers? Describing their inspirations, their lives, and the times that carried them? All three of those songwriters and American originals, now that I think of it, died in sad circumstances. Dylan has been given the gift of a kinder fate, it seems. And this book is a kind and unexpected gift, from him, to posterity.
I’m going to be reading in any of my spare time today, rather than posting. There’s lots of stories in the press to accompany the release of Chronicles – and many of them are obviously going to include spoilers, so I’ve often been glancing at them and clicking away as fast as I can. However, for a story that includes a fresh telephone interview with Dylan, check out Edna Gundersen in USA Today. Not too much in the way of unheard tidbits from the book, which is a good thing for those who want to enjoy it first hand for themselves. (And there is a lot to enjoy, let me tell ya. It’s a total blast …)
"My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater"
Bob Dylan, Chronicles, page 283
"There was no point arguing with Dave (Van Ronk), not intellectually anyway. I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody. I wasn’t that comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble."
(Tom Mix was a star of silent westerns. Barry Goldwater was of-course the iconic Republican who wrote "The Conscience Of A Conservative" and was a formative influence on Ronald Reagan.)
I wasn’t going to grab little things out of the book and trumpet them mindlessly, but this one is just too much fun.
Someone call Pulitzer … 10/07/2004
The reviews from the non-Dylan-obsessed critics are multiplying, and they are certainly skewing heavily positive, and with good reason. This book is so much more than Yours Truly expected. It works on levels that I didn’t remotely anticipate. It’s taking time to settle into me. Someone with as much Dylan-related baggage as I have is probably least qualified to provide any snap appreciation of this book. I’m beginning to realize that Dylan has created something here that stands aside from his own musical output. I don’t have time to get to grips with it in my own words in anything other than a glib fashion right now, so I’ll stop right there. Comments from anyone else who’s read it are very welcome. My contacts deep within the book selling industry also indicate that it’s selling at a feverish clip. So better not delay—if you don’t have it, go out and get it now …
An especially fine piece on Chronicles I just read in the U.K. Telegraph (may require free registration). Weirdly, I can’t find the reviewer’s name. (Addendum: It’s Neil McCormick – thanks to Nigel for that info)
The language is pure Dylan, encompassing the old-world formality of his early songs (apparently gleaned, in part, from spending time in the New York Public Library scanning microfilm of 19th-century newspapers); the dark, mystical undercurrents of the folk world from which his music sprang; the biblical flashes of fire and brimstone rhetoric all held together by the deadpan humour of hardboiled America, as if one of Raymond Chandler’s private eyes were re-interpreting the Old Testament.
That’s a great line. It closes:
In rock and roll terms, this book is like discovering the lost diaries of Shakespeare. It may be the most extraordinarily intimate autobiography by a 20th-century legend ever written.
No argument here.
The Winds Of Change Are Blowing Wild And Free … 10/11/2004
CBS News Sunday Morning did a segment yesterday on Bob Dylan. Your Truly interrupted his devastating boycott of that entity long enough to take it in. Though apparently timed to coincide with the release of Chronicles (they acknowledged that Simon & Schuster is a sister company of CBS), the segment didn’t deal with that book specifically at all. It was basically set around the Christopher Ricks book, "Dylan’s Visions Of Sin," and included on-camera chatting with both Ricks and the mid-atlantic pop music critic Paul Gambaccini. So it hovered around the question of whether Dylan is really a poet (how many times must a man ask a question, before he realizes the asking has answered it?). Oddly, though Ricks makes a thoroughly well studied case with his book, the CBS segment producers almost undid it all by having some English drama students solemnly reading aloud some of Dylan’s better known lyrics while staring intensely into the camera.
If anyone reading this missed it, you didn’t miss much. Reading a chapter of the Ricks book is worth about 500 of these shows. Most noteworthy to me was this: it may have been the first time a TV show did a cheap summary of Dylan’s career without labeling him the spokesman of a generation. They almost did, but not quite.
"It’s an argument that has raged for decades: Is Dylan the voice of the baby-boom generation that without him, wouldn’t have a voice?" (from the website, but the TV broadcast used a similar line.)
There’s the key difference: they used the term, but they phrased it as a question. That alone is progress.
Still, I hope if Dylan was watching that he didn’t do any serious damage by biting himself or anything. See the story in Chronicles on receiving the honorary degree at Princeton for more on that.
Killing Me By Degrees … 10/11/2004b
Since the Princeton episode came up, maybe it’s a chance to focus on one of the countless delightful passages in Chronicles. I don’t want to ruin the whole thing, which is worth reading in full along with the whole book, but to summarize, it’s a moment when Dylan is frustrated at being labeled by a speaker as "the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America." He feels he’s been taken by surprise, kind of a victim on the stage. This is 1970 and he’s particularly upset because he felt he’d made all kinds of progress at getting away from titles like that, from the adoration of those worshipping him for something he was not. Now he laments with a mix of comedy and tragedy, that "this kind of thing could set it back a thousand years." He goes on:
Didn’t they know what was happening? Even the Russian newspaper Pravda had called me a money-hungry capitalist. Even the Weathermen, a notorious group who made homemade bombs in basements to blow up public buildings, who had taken their name from a line in one of my songs, had recently changed their name from the Weathermen to the Weather Underground. I was losing all kinds of credibility.
Just hilarious stuff.
Jet Pilot … 10/13/2004
Who’d a thunk? The Village Voice reviews Chronicles and it’s a fine review, with no mention of anti-war protest songs, no gratuitous slams of Bush, no back biting of Dylan for imaginary back slidings. Just a perceptive, appreciative review. There are quite a few of them around of-course, though this one is better written than most.
So, contrary to some of the negative pre-publication talk by some fearful and defensive Dylanites ("it’s not going to be the truth blah blah blah"), it looks like Dylan has genuinely succeeded, thanks to the sheer strength of his writing, in blowing away his potential critics. It’s just about impossible for any person with a fraction of fair-mindedness to read Chronicles and think that Bob is making it all up, and pursuing some twisted agenda of his own for re-invention, though this had been the line some were taking in advance, as covered in this space back then. Though there are some vignettes where he’s self-evidently taking license ("I cut the radio off, crisscrossed the room, pausing for a moment, to turn on the black and white TV. ‘Wagon Train’ was on.") he’s clearly doing it to set a scene and offer a flavor, before going on to describe experiences of greater import, which are actually believable memories.
NPR has their radio interview snippet with Bob. Pretty short, and pretty short on anything new, but, since it’s so rare, it’s just nice to hear Bob talking—even giggling. One piece of news (to me): Dylan says that along with being able to sail a boat, he can also fly a plane. Add that to his affinity for firearms and it seems he’s a regular James Bond.
But could Roger Moore sing "It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding" in a convincing fashion? Even Sean Connery? I think not.
Life Is In Mirrors, Death Disappears … 10/17/2004
Mike Marqusee reviews Chroniclesfor the UK Guardian. Marqusee is author of the recent book, "Chimes Of Freedom, The Politics Of Bob Dylan’s Art," where he takes a classic leftist view of Dylan’s work. His general conclusion in that book seems to be that Dylan has written powerful songs that articulately argue left-wing points of view, but, lamentably, the man himself has never stepped properly up to the plate to defend the correct causes. Most especially, he indicts what he sees as Dylan’s big cop out vis-a-viz the Vietnam war. Dylan never spoke out against that war in an interview or public appearance, despite constant entreaties, and never wrote a song that mentioned the war specifically (until 1985’s quirky “Clean Cut Kid”. ED: Correction! see below *) Marqusee writes, "If public life is an ongoing test for the artist, then when it came to Vietnam, Dylan failed." His assumption seems to be that but for some kind of moral cowardice or self-serving desire to be seen as above the fray, Dylan would naturally have joined the anti-war movement and condemned the actions of his government and countrymen.
In this assumption, Marqusee is exactly wrong, based on a preponderance of the evidence. However, analyzing the historical record with regard to Dylan’s place in the Vietnam war /protest maelstrom will have to wait until I have the time to deal with it at proper length. For now, I just find it interesting to see how Marqusee, in the course of what is overall a positive review, attempts to make his reading of Chronicles conform to his overall thesis on Dylan.
He makes a point of mentioning Dylan’s portrait of "blues guitarist and Marxist intellectual Dave Van Ronk," but fails to point out that Dylan’s commentary on his politics is this: "There was no point in arguing with Dave, not intellectually anyway … I wasn’t comfortable with all the psycho polemic babble." He likewise lauds Dylan’s sketch of John Hammond, whom Marqusee chooses to label as "the veteran leftwinger who produced Dylan’s first albums." However, though Dylan praises Hammond very highly as a true giant in terms of his contribution to the world of music, he does not grapple with his politics at all, except for a mention of Hammond’s ire at having one of his artists (Pete Seeger) blacklisted. And Marqusee chooses not to note many of the other personalities Dylan sketches—how about Ray Gooch? Dylan dwells at length on his time with Ray and Chloe in their West Village apartment, and Ray’s rather unconventional view of the Civil War, as well as his mesmerizing and massive collection of guns. (One of my favorite moments is Dylan asking him what all that stuff was for, and Ray’s deadpan answer: "Tactical response.") So, Dylan’s portraits of powerful personalities like Van Ronk and Hammond are not in themselves a reflection of his agreement with left-wing politics. Quite the opposite, as the statement above about Van Ronk illustrates.
On the other hand, when Dylan states that his favorite politician was "Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater," well … that’s pretty darned direct.
Never fear—Marqusee is ready. Pre-emptively, in fact, he observes, regarding Dylan’s musings on the inevitable cycles of history, "Here he seems to be reading back into his youth some of the attitudes he struck later on." Ah, so there we are: Dylan is re-inventing himself, rewriting history, or, as someone more tactless might put it: lying.
He says: "The young man who wrote ‘Hattie Carroll’, ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘Masters of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was a poet of urgency, and he would have found the fatalism of the later Dylan far too pat." Leaving aside Marqusee’s apparent belief that those songs were written to achieve some tangible, immediate end, rather than as timeless commentaries on aspects of our human dilemma, what about this notion of "fatalism of the later Dylan?" He is perhaps alluding to Dylan’s lack of proper "urgency" with regard to any particular public causes—the fact that in interviews as well as in his music he now appears to be looking towards an eternal, God-given peace and justice, rather than expecting such conditions to prevail here on this earth. Maybe he means that Dylan writes from the point of view of someone who sees this life as the blink of an eye, and sees that there is a bigger equation with which we have to reconcile ourselves. Marqusee seems to think that this "fatalism" was thankfully absent from Dylan’s early work.
Uh, let me see. On Dylan’s first and eponymous album, you can hear this:
Well, in my time of dying don’t want nobody to mourn All I want for you to do is take my body home Well, well, well, so I can die easy … Jesus gonna make up my dying bed.
Then there are the songs, "Fixin’ To Die," and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," and "Gospel Plow:"
Dig my grave with a bloody spade, See that my digger gets well paid, Keep-a your hand on that plow, hold on, Oh, Lord, Oh, Lord, Keep-a your hand on that plow, hold on.
None of these were written by the 20 year old Dylan, of-course, but rather carefully picked, one would think, as tracks on his first album, and what was then the crowning achievement of his life. If you doubt his understanding of these songs at that age, put on that old LP again and listen to him sing them.
Fatalism? Let me see. The album is "The Times They Are A-Changin’," the year 1964. This one has some of Mike Marqusee’s favorite songs on it. It also has "The Ballad Of Hollis Brown." Marqusee also speaks highly of this song in his book, describing it as "Dylan’s presentation of the self-destruction of the oppressed … ." Well, since Dylan was so young and filled with verve to change the world, I guess that this song about a destitute farmer who shoots his family and himself must end with some kind of call to the barricades—some direct plea to end all the suffering and to stamp out all poverty once and for all. No? Well, not exactly.
There’s seven people dead On a South Dakota farm There’s seven people dead On a South Dakota farm Somewhere in the distance There’s seven new people born.
Seven people dead and seven new people born? Oh, well, that’s alright then.
OK—I do not think that Dylan is being callous and dismissive of the loss, but he is taking a longer and more profound view of human tragedy and of life and of death. It is precisely this that Marqusee accuses Dylan of "reading back" into his younger self with this memoir: "He claims that the old songs taught him there was nothing new on this earth." Yes, Mike, that’s exactly what those songs did teach him, and it’s exactly what a song like "The Ballad Of Hollis Brown" teaches to those who can listen to it without leftist kneejerk earmuffs on.
Fatalism? A bad thing, we’re supposed to believe? In what sense? If there’s anything true that everyone should appreciate about life, it’s that it’s bound to be fatal. Being born is nothing if not a death sentence. Living—it kills ya every time. The truth however is that it’s the easiest fundamental truth to ignore, and most of us breeze through the precious moments of our lives believing ourselves effectively immortal. If we didn’t, it’s obvious we’d act differently. I’d suggest that this is a constant and intense theme of Dylan’s work, and you can draw a straight line from "In My Time Of Dyin’" on his first album through, "It’s Alright Ma":
For them that think death’s honesty Won’t fall upon them naturally Life sometimes Must get lonely.
and on to "Sugar Baby," the final track of his most recent album, which ends:
Just as sure as we’re living, just as sure as you’re born Look up, look up – seek your Maker – ‘fore Gabriel blows his horn
And many songs in between (if not all of them, in some deeper sense).
So, I would say that Marqusee’s attempt to show Dylan "reading back" and reinventing his younger self completely falls apart on cursory examination. And the entire broader effort by the left to co-opt and own the work of Bob Dylan is thankfully falling apart too, slowly but surely, aided and abetted by Dylan’s great and irrefutable memoir, and loudly applauded here in the cavernous offices of this web publication.
* Wrong!” Clean Cut Kid” does not include the word "Vietnam," though its reference to a "napalm health-spa" and the overall story certainly leave the listener convinced that this is the military action that the "kid" was involved in. On the other hand, the 1986 soundtrack song “Band Of The Hand” DOES mention Vietnam ("for all of my brothers from Vietnam and my uncles from World War II") though the song occupies a different landscape. Likewise, the 1981 unreleased track “Legionnaire’s Disease” includes this verse:
Granddad fought in a revolutionary war, father in the War of 1812, Uncle fought in Vietnam and then he fought a war all by himself, But whatever it was, it came out of the trees. Oh, that Legionnaire’s disease.
So that would actually be the first mention of Vietnam in a published Dylan song.
Finally, one of Dylan’s presumed compositional contributions to the Traveling Wilburys, a 1988 song called “Tweeter & The Monkey Man”, includes these lines:
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, my original statement that “Clean Cut Kid” is the only Dylan song to mention Vietnam could hardly be more wrong, in a technical sense, and I’m indebted to a visitor named Michael M. for pointing this out. Nevertheless, I think that the intended point of my sloppily researched statement—that “Clean Cut Kid” is the only Dylan song that directly deals with the "Vietnam question"—remains true.
The NY Times Sunday Book Review of Chronicles by Tom Carsonreally called out to be addressed, although Yours Truly has been trying to make ends meet this week—a persistently futile effort. The review, to put it mildly, is snide. Of-course an early and very positive review of Dylan’s book was also in the NY Times, by Janet Maslin. It’s been endlessly recirculated; here it is in The Arizona Republic.
Though the Sunday book review supplement has a certain cachet that the daily paper doesn’t, it’s probably safe to say that a bad review there doesn’t necessarily sink a book. Just to get that level of attention is probably welcome to most publishers, if not writers. And in the case of Chronicles, it’s too late to shut the stable door—it’s at number 3 on the same NY Times’ bestseller list, and has been awarded positive if not rave reviews across the English speaking world at this point.
However, it’s interesting that the ultimate and essential hit piece on Bob’s memoir should appear in the NY Times. There’s a certain serendipity here—considering their evil hit piece this week on President Bush—the absurd "missing explosives in Iraq" story. A fairly to-the-point angle on that nonsense is here.
So, as for Tom Carson and Chronicles: it does not bode well for a serious book review in a serious publication when it begins by saying that Dylan’s memoir fails to answer the question "So what was up with the mustache, dude?" He expends an entire paragraph on that unfunny inanity. From there he goes on to state that he had not "given a flying Wallenda about Dylan in years." In the rest of the review, it must be noted, he then presents himself as somehow deeply knowledgeable about the essential facts of Dylan’s make-up. The essential fact—in fact—is that Bob is consumed with "image tending." And he posits that "constructing a notional, elusive but compelling identity to suit the project at hand" is central to Dylan’s work and that this book is just one more such identity. Here lies the fundamental flaw in his review (other than his sheer laziness and ignorance): he fails to see that there is a consistent identity in the writer and performer we know as Bob Dylan, and that many listeners can easily follow the thread from his first recording to his most recent, and find no unresolvable clashes or contradictions. Changes in musical, lyrical or singing style do not amount to a disposal and reinvention of the central actor—i.e. the creator of the work. And for many of those self-same listeners, Chronicles represents nothing more than a straightforward (if also revelatory and rambunctious) account of the various times and experiences Dylan has chosen to write about. It isn’t some brand new Bob Dylan, refitted for 2004—it’s the same Dylan we already knew through his music and interviews. Those of us who were paying attention, at least. He’s just telling us stories we hadn’t yet heard.
From there onwards, it’s really just a matter of watching exactly how snide and low-to-the-ground Carson can get. He presumes to tell us that "in a provincial Middle American town like Eisenhower-era Hibbing, Minn" (that is so NY Times), Dylan’s Jewishness must have made him a "square peg," and in not regaling us with stories about (I guess) alienation and anti-semitic attacks, Dylan is selectively omitting crucial information. Well—first of all—Dylan is not feigning to give us a detailed account of everything he has experienced in his life. It’s 293 pages of fairly large type, after all. Secondly, how does Carson know what was most formative in Dylan’s life in Hibbing? Why should we believe that Tom Carson knows better about what is was like to be a Zimmerman in Hibbing during that time, and that Dylan is trying to pull the wool over our eyes and leave out pivotal facts, in the name of some kind of "image tending?"
There are many things that Carson presumes to tell us that he knows better than the writer of the book. He sneers at the very idea that the 20 year old Bob Dylan would have any affection for and real knowledge of American history. How could Bob even dream of seeing, as he writes in Chronicles, the ghost of John Wilkes Booth in a Greenwich Village tavern, fresh as he was from "Hibbing’s superb public schools?" The reference is sarcastic—Tom Carson presumes to know that the young Robert Zimmerman had no good history teachers—and that he never saw an image of John Wilkes Booth in a textbook – or that if he did it cannot have made any impression on him. That’s a helluva lot of presuming, unless Tom Carson actually attended school with the young Robert Zimmerman and his classmates in Hibbing, Minnesota (in which case I apologize). Even then, he has chosen to reject the idea that Bob may have had a particular interest in these matters, and may even have gathered his knowledge from other sources.
The theme, you see, is that Bob Dylan is lying.
And on and on. He glibly labels the U.S. Civil War (which Dylan meditates on at some length in Chronicles), as "the 19th century’s ultimate Good/Bad war," claiming that Dylan’s intention is that we are meant to recall "his own time’s coming storms." There is no such implication in the book—Carson indeed provides no evidence of one. And Carson’s characterization of the Civil War in that manner is nothing short of juvenile, tasteless and ignorant. "The 19th century’s ultimate Good/Bad war." Just a bunch of cocksure ironic bullshit.
And that’s just about what the entire review is. The most sneakily insidious aspect of the whole thing is that he pretends to actually be praising the book. Dylan is lying, but doing it in such an entertaining fashion that we can forgive him. It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading truth or lies—nothing matters except whether the reviewer believes that it meets a certain standard of hipness or smartness or timeliness. As he says, "conditional genius is how pop culture works."
Well, Mr. Carson, you can hang your hat there if you wish. It doesn’t really do it for me. I don’t spend my short and precious time on this earth deliberately listening to "conditional" music, or reading "conditional" books and marvelling at how appropriate to their moment they are and how short their shelf-life will be, and laughing off how dishonest they are. If that’s how you choose to approach the work of Bob Dylan, including this book, then you’re just focusing on the breeze while the train is passing you by. And that’s a real doggone shame.
In Xanadu … 10/30/2004
This might be the best written review of Chronicles yet, in terms of skipping right past the preconceptions and putting a finger on the real greatness of the book, as a book. Written by one of our Australian friends.
With its word-play and word-magic, its flights of daft numerology and its detours, its evasiveness on the trivia and utter candour on the things that matter, this is an aesthetic memoir to place next to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria.
I haven’t read Coleridge’s tome. However, the full text is online here (and likely many other places) and would no doubt reward further reading. Considering the comparison made by the reviewer, dig these opening sentences of Coleridge’s chapter one:
IT has been my lot to have had my name introduced both in conversation, and in print, more frequently than I find it easy to explain, whether I consider the fewness, unim- portance, and limited circulation of my writings, or the retirement and distance, in which I have lived, both from the literary and political world. Most often it has been connected with some charge, which I could not acknowledge, or some principle which I had never entertained.
Sounds like he and Bob could have shared a lot of war stories over cigars, or something. I’m going to keep reading, and will definitely put a siren up if I find any references to this guy:
The Washington Times (neo-con rag and mouthpiece for Bushitler and his fellow fascists) has a nice review of Chronicles this morning.
Writers And Critics …11/21/200408:32:07 pm
Back to Bob for a minute. In the NY Times last Sunday, the following letter to the editor was published, in reaction to Tom Carson’s review in the Times of Dylan’s Chronicles. I already critiqued his review here for being the snide piece of irony-worshipping garbage that I believe it to be, and this letter to the editor from someone with special knowledge just underlines the fact that Carson’s studied and insistent skepticism with regard to Dylan’s reminiscences is utterly misplaced.
Tom Carson’s review of Bob Dylan’s ”Chronicles” (Oct. 24) punctures a lot of the mystique, but also reveals some basic ignorance of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Having spent the last two years editing the memoir of Dylan’s mentor Dave Van Ronk, I can assure Carson that both Dylan’s romantic primitivism and his fascination with history were the common coin of that scene. Dylan certainly would have known at 20 that the Café Bizarre ”used to be Aaron Burr’s livery stable” — that is the first thing anyone who played the club remembers about it. Before Dylan transformed the folk world into a mass of self-involved singer-songwriters, it was populated by amateur historians posing as what Van Ronk liked to call ”neo-ethnics,” and they all treasured both their carefully honed hayseed accents and their links to previous self-mythologizers like Walt Whitman. Dylan’s memoir, quirky as it may be, gives a straightforward sense of that time and place.
Thank you, Mr. Wald. And since the book has now been out about 6 weeks, it’s worth pointing out that for anyone who believes it to be purposely deceitful, they have a little problem with a dog that doesn’t bark. That is, there has been no rush of contemporaneous figures – and people Dylan mentions in his book – coming out and saying, "Hey, that’s not how it happened. I was there, I know." Though it’s likely that a few people are miffed at their portrayal, or lack of one (Robbie Robertson only gets mentioned for that dumb question he asks on the car ride), no one seems to be seriously questioning Dylan’s veracity. Aside from reviewers like Carson, that is – of which there have been blessedly few.
With the book, what I try and do is put a feeling across. It’s not the kind of book where it’s a short life and a merry one. It’s more abstract, drawn out over long periods of time. I worked the book, if you want to call it that, in patterns. I portray life as a game of chance.
Bang on, as it should be coming from the author. But the phrase "Simple Twist Of Fate" occurred to me a great deal while reading the memoir. He’s highly cognizant of the moments when his life could have gone one way or another, and so the book is filled both with a sense of chance and, I think also, the implicit sense of an unseen hand.
More from the telephone Q & A:
What’s the last song you’d like to hear before you die?
How ’bout "Rock of Ages"?
I heard you’ve written songs for a new album.
I have a bunch of them. I do.
When will you crank ’em out?
Maybe in the beginning of the year. I’m not sure where and when.
Can you tell me about them?
No, I couldn’t explain them to you. After you listen to them, call me back. It’s difficult to paraphrase them or tell you what kind of style they’re in. You won’t be surprised.
The musical structure you’re used to hearing — it might be rearranged a bit. The songs themselves will speak to you.
I love that – when he says about his next album, "You won’t be surprised." Anyone else would say exactly the opposite, "Oh, just wait, it’s gonna be something different for me, something you haven’t heard before." And of all artists, Dylan is one who could claim to consistently surprise. What the heck do you call Nashville Skyline, Slow Train Coming, Highway 61, Time Out Of Mind? Some of those, and others, were more earthquakes than mere surprises. Yet he can laconically say, hey, I can’t describe them, but you won’t be surprised. Hilarious, and true on some level Dylan’s brain operates on.
What a gift it is that he’s still with us and making music, and grown adults can await his next album with the giddy anticipation of fifteen year olds.
Nat Hentoff has this piece on Chronicles today. Another contemporary from those early years who does not take issue with the truth of any of the reminiscences in the book, although he acknowledges learning things that he did not know about the young Dylan at the time. Also has some first hand details about how that slam blast interview for Playboy came about.
Almost 3 months after its release, with Chronicles resting near the top of the bestseller lists, and on almost everyone’s list of the best books of the year, it’s nice to step back and appreciate the breadth of Dylan’s achievement. Once again, he defied any and all predictions and created something both deeply entertaining and enduring, and in a style that was completely unexpected. It’s what he’s done again and again with his music, but who’d have thunk he’d do it in this form? As much of a fan as I am, I never would have expected his book to basically sweep the world the way it has. Someone like me would have been intrigued by it if the pages contained a series of black splotches interspersed with incoherent limericks -but this book has reached out and found its own audience. It could easily have been different perhaps. If a couple of prominent bad reviews had set the tone, and a few people with an agenda had succeeded in portraying the work as dishonest and unworthy of attention, then maybe it wouldn’t be at the top of all these year end lists after all, but in the remainder bins. Simple twists of fate can decide such things. But even if that had happened, long after the noise had quieted, his book would still stand as the unique portrait of an American artist that it is. And it will contribute more to posterity’s understanding of his life and work than a dozen books by the likes of Sounes or Marqusee.