“Just an Artist”--Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews
By
Nate Rustemeyer
7/2/2007 10:31:42 PM

What goes on inside the mind of Bob Dylan? Throughout his forty-five year career as a musician, his music has had the power to inspire, to liberate, as well as to shock, and to confuse. It is easy to point out the contradictions in what Dylan has said in interviews over the years also. Nevertheless, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews [Wenner Books], edited by Jason Scott, shows that there are deep consistencies in Dylan’s personality, which speak to the truth of his character and purpose.

Dylan has always professed two truths. First, he claims to be an artist, and only an artist—never a hero. “A hero is anyone who walks to his own drummer…when people look to others…they’re looking for heroism in an imaginary character” (Page 233). Second, he has always decried classifying his musical style; he always plays whatever kind of music he wishes to play, whether it’s folk, rock, blues or whatever. It is just too bad that he never published these truths on the inside of his record sleeves, because fans and music critics’ have frequently been let down by their own expectations.

To many fans and critics Dylan is a walking contradiction. However, anyone who knows anything about Dylan knows that he is the king of shock’n’roll; you never know what he’s going to do next. For example, he upset the folkies at the 1965 Monterey Pop Festival by playing electric, and he was consequently booed. Then he had a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, after which he released softer material than he had ever recorded before, alienating hippies who expected the return of a sort of cultural rock’n’roll prophet to lead them. Dylan finally “redeemed” his reputation with live shows and Blood on the Tracks [Columbia] in 1974, but then lost it again when he redeemed his soul, became a Christian, and recorded gospel records climaxing with Saved [Columbia] in 1980. Religion seemed to be the antithesis to anything Dylan previously stood for. Seemed. Remember, Dylan was still following the two truths above, and he never claimed to stand for anything.

Dylan is more than a musical artist; he is human. Did you ever wonder why he didn’t play at the Woodstock concert of 1969? Did you ever wonder why the concert was in Woodstock? Fame can be a major problem for stars who crave a normal family life. Dylan and his family (three children and a pregnant wife) were denied the simple right to privacy at a time when they needed it most—the late sixties, the height of the hippy movement. Hippies protested outside of his house in Woodstock for days and even climbed on top of it, demanding that he lead them. Local officials told Dylan that he was liable if anyone got hurt on his property, and he became increasingly uneasy. Instead of singing protest songs to a revved up crowd on acid, he returned to New York City and released the mellow Nashville Skyline [Columbia] in 1969. The leftovers from this album were joined with other, mostly miscellaneous songs on Self Portrait [Columbia], which Dylan admits was a joke, an attempt to turn off his hysterical fans by decreasing his popularity. This is ironic, yet he seems justified considering he was lucky to survive the hooplah of the sixties.

It’s haunting to read Dylan describe how he broke his neck and almost died in 1966. His statement, “Something had to be evened up” seems to refer to both the back wheel of his motorcycle that supposedly had to be aligned, as well as to his psychological imbalance (Page 235). No doubt he had to get his head on straight to deal with the leech-filled music industry and to survive the fast-paced lifestyle of a rockers in the sixties. He seems to have been given a second chance. Maybe it was luck. Whatever the case may be, it is a privilege to have Bob Dylan pumping out records on Earth to this very day. The real contradictions lie in the wasted talent of the sixties: Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Monroe, Cooke, Bruce, Garland…but not Dylan.

Sam Shepard’s interview with his friend and coworker is a definitely a treat. Esquire published A Short Life of Trouble, a two-man play, in 1987. It is a refreshing alternative to the cat-and-mouse attack and the prose style of the other interviews. Sam is preoccupied with the tape recorder, and Bob, with making phone calls.
SAM: Have you had any direct experience with angels?
BOB’S VOICE: [off]: Yeah. Yeah, I have. I just gotta make one more phone
call, all right? (351).

Words and lyrics do not have finite meanings. Therefore, when Dylan says that doesn’t consider himself a protest song singer, and then years later he says that all of his songs are protest songs; or when he says “I truly had a born-again experience” (Page 281), and then says, “I’ve never said I’m born again.” (Page 288), he seems to contradict himself. Each statement must be taken into context. Words are a product of consciousness and can only attempt to explain what one feels at the core of one’s being. Dylan is a master songwriter because his voice is guided by the raw energy of his heart, and it is in this deep place within ourselves that we experience him.

So to put in words what goes through Bob Dylan’s mind is impossible, but it can’t be that different from what goes through yours or mine. The only sure thing is that Dylan is the same guy he was at the top of his career in 1962, an artist.

 

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