In the early reports on AARP’s recent interview with Bob Dylan, the legendary artist was quoted as saying, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher,” saying he “probably” would have taught Roman history or theology.
The funny thing is, Dylan has already been an educator for over half a century. Although often inscrutable, Dylan has been teaching fans and detractors alike, about art and music, history and law, love and life, ever since he’s had an audience. Like a modern day prophet, that chubby, innocent looking kid from Minnesota began writing a new type of topical song, one that went beyond self righteous finger pointing to place the circumstances of the crime in a wider context, teaching people to look at the big picture, as well as into the mirror. He also rewrote the book on the content of romantic ballads, once again challenging the status quo. Soon, he was infusing poetry into his lyrics, then added color to his clothes, and musicians to his payroll. If you wanted to learn from the master, you had to keep an open mind, and your boot heels a-wanderin’.
Dylan was becoming a musical Cuisinart, mixing all sorts of elements to concoct an explosive elixir, inciting mini-revolutions time and time again. As in most revolutions, people were outraged by the call to think differently. Except Dylan didn’t ask. We had to follow at our own peril. He expected us to take him seriously, even as he was putting us on. He talked in riddles, yet spoke the truth. He was the eye of a hurricane of his own making, with writers and critics and fans caught in his whirlwind, trying to get to the source. Except no one could get near him. He’s not there, he’s gone.
Being a Dylan fan was never easy, especially in the early days. After his motorcycle mishap in 1966, Dylan kept a low profile, and released a handful of low key albums for close to eight years. Fans were alternately fawning or frustrated, loving or disparaging. He was testing us, just by withdrawing from the world and its expectations.
When I saw Dylan and the Band in 1974, it changed my perception of what music could be like. Those crackling guitars, never fully captured on tape, pierced my skull. Those songs, new arrangements played at breakneck speed, redefined his legacy. I owned few Dylan (or Band) albums at the time, so much of the material was unfamiliar. One song that blew me away was one I had never even heard of at the time, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” Unrelenting pounding chords, an accusatory voice, and Robbie-as-Jimi on guitar, I was blown away. I couldn’t wait for the official live album to hear it again (at least on an authorized recording).
A few months came and went, and, finally, “Before the Flood” was released. Of course, “Hollis Brown” was not on it. Lesson learned – Bob is not going to give you what you want or expect.
Next, “Blood on the Tracks” would be released. It was delayed as Dylan went into the studio again to rerecord half the album. Lesson – Patience is a virtue. It was thought to be about his separation from his first wife, but on closer examination, maybe not so much. Lesson – Don’t believe everything you hear. Then there was the all-star Rolling Thunder Revue tour, but shows were announced with very little advanced notice. Lesson – Pay attention! The 1978 “Street Legal” tour featured perversely arranged versions of his own material. Was it Vegas? Disco? Was he for real? Lesson – Art must keep moving and evolving, and it must provoke. Next, the Jewish-born Dylan was singing about Jesus. Lesson – To quote the Firesign Theater, “Everything you know is wrong.” And so on, and so on. And that was just half of the 1970s. Lesson – Question everything. Even Dylan.
Earlier this century, 100 episodes of “Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan” aired on satellite radio. It reminded me of my exploration of Dylan’s early material and its origins. When I was a kid, I listened to the Beatles, which led me to Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, and it was an easy transition. However, with Dylan, not only did I have to immerse myself into his early albums (and bootlegs), but study Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams to place it in context. While the rock music world was exploding with color and sounds, youth and optimism, poetry and innovation, the long gone Guthrie and Williams were a hard sell. Their music sounded corny at first, something from another world, another culture. So uncool, so unhip, so uncosmopolitan. It look a lot of time to unlock the key to the greatness of their music, and how it related to Dylan specifically, and music in general. Once I was able to decipher the code, however, I discovered its riches, and that just sent me down a whole new path, which led me back to Dylan.
The same thing happened with TTRHWYHBD. The early shows were filled with a lot of unfamiliar sounds. It was a lot to take in, and before I could absorb it all, along came another episode. As I listened and studied, I welcomed any familiar recording. However, once I was acclimated to the feel of the program, I looked forward to the new (old) and unfamiliar, and was disappointed when I heard a song I knew. Educate me, Bob!
In his MusiCares’ speech this past February, Dylan said, “Critics have said that I’ve made a career out of confounding expectations…I don’t even know what that means or who has time for it.” Of course, “confounding expectations” was meant as a compliment. How many artists are not only constantly challenging their audiences, but coming up with the goods to make it worth the effort? Dylan’s art is not stagnant, and what we learned was that art, like all healthy living things, changes and grows.
What interested me was how Dylan exposed the complacency and ennui that fills our culture. As he once sang, “Is everything as hollow as it seems?” Again, in the MusiCares speech, Dylan tore down preconceived notions time and time again. He obliterated the notion he mangled his own melodies by contrasting his performances with a version of “The Star Spangled Banner” he heard by a woman who “sang every note that exists, and some that don’t exist. Talk about mangling a melody. You take a one-syllable word and make it last for 15 minutes? She was doing vocal gymnastics like she was a trapeze act.” He’s not only a teacher, but an astute music critic as well. Take that, “American Idol!”
He also stood up for the so-called “One hit wonders,” a term he considered “condescending.” Of course it is! One hit, no hits, a thousand hits? Does it even matter? Is that what it’s all about? He also compared acts that covered his early compositions to commercials, saying, “I didn’t really mind that, because 50 years later, my songs were being used in the commercials. So that was good too. I was glad it happened, and I was glad they’d done it.” Good point, professor. No apologies. Interesting perspective.
The most fascinating part of the speech was Dylan’s exploration of his creative process, and how his compositions were derived from previous songs. He was not directly addressing accusations of stealing material, but we’ve all learned to read between the lines. In the future, his words should be used as evidence in any court case for anyone accused of plagiarism.
Of course, in this TMZ-Roger-Ailes-Simon-Cowell-Kardashianized world to which we are subjected, the media instead jumped on the perceived slights. The sensationalized, not the substance. As Elvis Costello once sang, “Nonsense prevails, modesty fails.” Empire burlesque, indeed.
The AARP interview also brought some interesting things to the classroom. Since Dylan has been putting people on for so long, everything he said has to be taken with Lot’s wife. However, here he appeared to be as sincere as he’s ever been. Aside from all the discussions about music, Dylan has this to say:
“Some wealthy billionaire who can buy 30 cars and maybe buy a sports team, is that guy happy? What then would make him happier? Does it make him happy giving his money away to foreign countries? Is there more contentment in that than giving it here to the inner cities and creating jobs? Nowhere does it say that one of the government’s responsibilities is to create jobs. That is a false premise. But if you like lies, go ahead and believe it. The government’s not going to create jobs. It doesn’t have to. People have to create jobs, and these big billionaires are the ones who can do it. We don’t see that happening. We see crime and inner cities exploding, with people who have nothing to do but meander around, turning to drink and drugs, into killers and jailbirds. They could all have work created for them by all these hotshot billionaires. For sure, that would create a lot of happiness. Now, I’m not saying they have to — I’m not talking about communism — but what do they do with their money? Do they use it in virtuous ways? If you have no idea what virtue is all about, look it up in a Greek dictionary. There’s nothing namby-pamby about it … These multibillionaires, and there seem to be more of them every day, can create industries right here in the inner cities of America. But no one can tell them what to do. God’s got to lead them.”
If that rhymed, it could have been a song on “Freewheelin’,” or “Saved.” He taught this years ago – “All the money you made will never buy back your soul,” “Money doesn’t talk, it swears!” Can you imagine some politician saying something like this, right on target, so direct? Dylan’s always been commenting on society, whether it be directly or obliquely, since the beginning, and continues to do so.
On Tuesday, Dylan appeared on the penultimate episode of “The Late ShowWith David Letterman.” When he appeared on Letterman’s NBC show in 1984, on the air for only two years at the time, it was quite the coup. Dylan later appeared on Letterman’s 10th anniversary prime time special, and, on the CBS show in 1993, and in a brief comedic spot the following year.
There was much speculation about what Dylan would play just days before turning 74. I doubt anyone seriously expected an interview, but what song would he perform on this auspicious occasion?
Interestingly, Dylan ended the last leg of his most recent tour in Indiana, Letterman’s home state, just days before his appearance. For both of them, it was the end of the road. For now.
With Dylan, we rarely know what to expect. Would he do something new? Something old? In 1963, he walked off the stage of what is now called “The Ed Sullivan Theater,” where Letterman taped his CBS show. Would Dylan finally do “Talkin‘ John Birch Paranoid Blues?” How about “T.V. Talkin‘ Song?” Maybe cover a song by one of Letterman’s favorites, Warren Zevon, as others had done in the show’s final weeks? Would it be something from the new album?
With the internet, it was difficult to keep a secret. There were red herrings, including reports he had performed “All Along the Watchtower,” but, in the end, Dylan did something conventional, yet totally appropriate for the occasion. After Letterman praised Dylan as “the greatest songwriter of modern times,” he sang a song he did not write. It was “The Night We Called It A Day,” from the new album, for the first time in front of an audience.
You would not see any other performer like this on television in this day and age. One long, continuous camera shot, with Dylan under theatrical lights. He fidgeted with his jacket like a sedated Joe Cocker, crooning away. During the instrumental passage, Dylan awkwardly roamed the stage, almost off camera at one point. Afterward, Letterman approached Dylan and shook his hand, and then complimented drummer George Recile.
As usual, the performance caused a minor controversy. Dylan, like a caged animal, continued to pace the floor. He also looked a little dazed and confused. Was it nerves? Was this an act, possibly an imitation of Sinatra at the end of his career? The MusiCares speech and the AARP interview, as well as the performance I saw in New Orleans a few weeks back, showed Dylan still in control. What was he trying to convey?
I immediately re-watched and studied the performance three or four times. On repeated viewings, it didn’t feel as bizarre. He was just walking around, not unlike the way he did when I saw him at the Saenger Theatre. In the confines of the Sullivan Theater stage, there wasn’t much room, so it looked as if he was wandering off camera, when in reality, he was doing what he always does. The guy just can’t stand still. It’s the ultimate metaphor.
Of course, the performance invited all sorts of discussions on various social media. A dialog began, which, to an outsider, must have looked like a discussion from inside an insane asylum. There were those that loved it, and those who did not. Everyone had an opinion.
Is he senile? Was he acting? Was it Chaplinesque? Can we be objective? If we defend him, is it hero worship? If we don’t, are we at one with those who booed him in 1965 and 66? Are we enablers? Again, we are forced to look at Dylan with new eyes. Another way to think, another lesson to learn.
After decades in the public eye, with countless books, articles, and lectures trying to explain him, we may have a better understanding of Dylan now than ever before. Yet we can never know the truth, because there is no truth. Dylan is a fictional character, a song and dance man, the ultimate contrarian, someone whose own memoir was at least partly fiction. Yet, despite all of that, he conveys a deeper truth, a deeper knowledge. But to learn it, you’re going to have to study.
So Dylan said he wanted to be a teacher. Well, there was no need for that. He’s been schoolin’ us for years.
Happy birthday, Bob.
- AARP EXCLUSIVE: Bob Dylan: The Uncut Interview
- Read Bob Dylan’s Complete, Riveting MusiCares Speech
Of the dozens of Dylan Internet sites … Expecting Rain … and the atombash.com Bob Dylan blog by Harold Lepidus are the best places for up-to-the-minute Dylan news – David Kinney, “The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob.” (Simon & Schuster, 2014)
Keep up with Bob Dylan Examiner news. Just click on Subscribe above, or follow @DylanExaminer on Twitter. Harold Lepidus also writes the Performing Arts column for atombash.com. Thanks for your support.