“The pieces collected here,”writes Greil Marcus in the introduction to his just-published new book, Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings1968-2010, “begin with a rumor and endwith a presidential election. There are reactions in the moment and long looksback for undiscovered stories. But more than anything there is an attempt toremain part of the conversation that Bob Dylan’s work has always created arounditself: You have to hear this. Is he kidding? I can’t believe this. You won’t believe this—”
For more than four decades, Marcus has provenhimself to be one our most astute critics of music and literature. In seminalworks ranging from Mystery Train (1975) to The Shape of Things toCome (2006), he has opened our ears and eyes to the intuitions andimplications of the culture taking shape around us. His friend and colleagueSean Wilentz, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the AmericanRevolutionary Era at Princeton University, has illuminated with uncommon acumenthe early and later years of our republic in works such as The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, awardedthe Bancroft Prize in 2005, and The Ageof Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2008).
In his newest book, Bob Dylan in America,published last month, Wilentz applies his alertness to the themes of Americanculture, his historical scholarship, and his personal perspective on Dylan’scareer to create a remarkable dual portrait of the singer and his country. Opening—ashave many of his subject’s performances in the past few years—with aninvocation of Aaron Copland, Bob Dylan inAmerica then traces Dylan’s career forward from his first arrival inGreenwich Village in the early 1960s through his artistic resurgence in the1990s, and, even more tellingly, backward through a pageant of musical influencesthat seem, over the past half-century, to have inhabited the singer’s voice,where they still abide.
Wilentz’s book stems, in his own words, from itsauthor’s curiosity “about when, how, and why Dylan picked up on certainforerunners, as well as certain of his own contemporaries; about the milieu inwhich those influences lived and labored and how they had evolved; and abouthow Dylan, ever evolving himself, finally combined and transformed their work.What do those tangled influences tell us about America? What do they tell usabout Bob Dylan? What does America tellus about Bob Dylan—and what does Dylan’s work tell us about America?”Marcus’s book, an unparalleled retrospective of one listener’s immediateencounters with Dylan’s music through the years that coheres into a powerful,satisfying, and frequently revelatory narrative, might well be said to ask—and,in its own way, answer—the very same question.
Early in October, it was my great pleasure to talkabout Dylan and his work with both Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz. For thisjoint interview, Greil and I were in a studio in New York, while Sean was onthe telephone in California, lending the affair an accidentally appropriatenation-spanning breadth. What follows is an edited transcript of ourconversation. —James Mustich
James Mustich: Let’s start with a simple question: you each have a major new book onBob Dylan, and the two of them have been published nearly simultaneously. Howlong ago were you aware that this was going to happen, and what were yourfeelings about it?
Sean Wilentz: About appearing simultaneously, or about two major books appearingabout Bob Dylan? I’m delighted about the latter. It’s great. Greil and I areold buddies and collaborators. And to have two different books about Bob Dylan’swork is, I think, terrific. Greil, what do you think?
Greil Marcus: Well, it was a big shock to me when you called and brought this upquite a number of months ago. I said, “No-no-no, my book is coming out inthe spring of 2011,” and you said, “that’s not what it says online.”So I looked and you were right. I called my publisher and they said, “Oh,we moved it up; didn’t we tell you?” I said, “No.” And I said, “Whendo I have to have the manuscript in?” They said, “Oh, in about amonth.” I said, “I haven’t started work on it yet—that’s impossible.”They put the thing on a rush schedule. I remember talking to you about it andsaying, “We should do this like one of these old Ace paperbacks—likeWilliam Burroughs’ Junkie, where youhave that on one side and on the other side, reversed, Narcotics Agent—and sell them as one big book.”
GM: Butit wasn’t too practical.
SW: Unfortunately,Ace has gone the way of all flesh. But it is kind of weird. Greil and I are,you might say, brothers beneath the skin, but reviewers do all kinds of strangethings in comparing people’s work, and that can lead to craziness. But otherthan that, I think it’s a great day for Bob Dylan myself.
GM: Ideally,there will be a conversation sparked by both of these books in the etherbetween them. People who follow Bob Dylan, people who listen to him, people whoare just now finding out about him—they love to talk about both the person andthe work.
GM: Ifthese books contribute to that conversation, that’s their real life.
SW: That’swhy I’m saying it’s great. And it is sort of odd. Dylan himself has been hardat work the last few years, doing all kinds of stuff, and giving people plentyto talk about. I do get the feeling that there’s a great resurgence of interestin his work, not only by the Dylanophiles, but by others as well. Do you feelthis, Greil, too?
GM: Well,I can tell you two stories. One is that in San Francisco recently Dylan did aconcert that was only announced the day before: no advance ticket sales, lowprice, you had to show up and get in line. This was so unusual that the localTV stations covered it, and, in all the footage I saw, the people waiting inline were in their teens, twenties. It was just remarkable. In the course I’mteaching right now at the New School, which is on old American music (but Dylanis all through it), there are people who come to the class with some or even alot of knowledge of Dylan, but many who come with none, and who are asking, “Wherehas this guy been all my life?” or “Where has my life been all thistime?”
GM: Atthe very beginning of the class I show a clip from the last episode of The Sopranos, in which worthless,no-good son A. J. is sitting in an SUV with his new girlfriend. They’re parkedout in the woods, and she sticks in a tape of “It’s Alright, Ma, (I’m OnlyBleeding).” A. J. has never heard Bob Dylan before, and he says, “God,this guy is very good.” And she says, “It’s hard to believe this songwas written so long ago,” as if it was the 19th century orsomething. I love that. It just sucks them in.
JM: Idon’t know what critics will say, but, as a reader, it was wonderful to bereading the two books in tandem. They conversed with one another, amplified oneanother, informed the listening that one naturally does when reading so muchabout Dylan. It was a delight to have both of them in front of me at the sametime. In different ways you explore similar themes and then take them indifferent directions. I agree that having them both appear at the same time iswonderful for Bob Dylan and for people interested in him. But it’s alsowonderful for people interested in history, not just musical history but thekind of idea of history which courses through both your books.
Let me ask you both aboutyour first encounters with Dylan and his work. Greil, your initial criticalappraisal of Bob Dylan, as you write in the introduction to your book, was faceto face with him in 1963. I’ll quote from the book: “‘You were terrific,’I said, never at a loss for something original to say.” But he apparentlydid not feel the same way about his performance that day. [LAUGHING]
GM: That’sright. I had gone to see Joan Baez at a show in a field in New Jersey. She was someone I often saw in the BayArea in my hometown of Menlo Park, California. I had gone with a girlfriend.And Baez brings out this guy, a very scruffy, dusty looking character—and hesang a couple of songs, and I didn’t even notice the rest of the show. The songthat stuck in my mind was “With God On Our Side.” It was one of thosemusical events—and they happen every once in a while—when you hear a song forthe first time, maybe on the radio, maybe not, and you instantly remember allthe words. The melody is seared into your mind. You sing the song in your headwithout even wishing to. And that was what was happening for the rest of theconcert.
Afterwards, I saw himsquatting in the dirt, trying to light a cigarette, and I went up to him and Isaid, as you mentioned, “You were terrific.” He didn’t even look up.He said, “No, man. I was shit. I was just shit.” I learned somethingright at that moment about the difference between someone in the audience andsomebody performing; they have very different standards. The work reaches theperformer and reaches the listener in radically different ways. I was thrilledby that notion. I hadn’t even caught the guy’s name. I had to ask somebody, “Thatguy over there, do you know who he is?” “Yeah, Bob Die-lan.” Isaid, “Oh, ok.”
JM: Sean,you first saw him perform in 1964, at Philharmonic Hall, right?
SW: Yes,a year after Greil’s encounter. Although by that time, I certainly knew verymuch who he was, and everybody in the audience did. It was in Philharmonic Hallin the then new Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, which was the premiershowcase for high art music. I mean, it was the home of Leonard Bernstein andthe New York Philharmonic, and here were all of these kids, coming out of thesubway, crawling into this temple of high culture (with such bad acoustics,unfortunately), and listening to this scruffy downtown folk-singer.
My Dad and his brotherowned a bookshop in Greenwich Village, at the corner of 8th Streetand MacDougal, which was a kind of literary crossroads of the 1950s and 1960sfor the downtown literary scene, and just down the block, down MacDougalStreet, were the Folklore Center and the Gaslight and all the places where BobDylan was first coming up. So as a kid (I’m somewhat younger than Greil, and I’mten years younger than Bob Dylan), I was aware of all of that, and the onlything that was strange about it is that I thought it was all very normal. Ithought that this was what growing up in America was like, hanging around withthese people.
GM: It’sinteresting you say that, Sean. Because Milosz [Czeslaw Milosz, Polish poet and the 1980 Nobel Laureate] once saidsomething only a foreigner with unbridled contempt for the United States couldsay. He said, “The only two places one can really be free in America areGreenwich Village and Berkeley.” So we touch each other from distantpoints. [LAUGHS]
SW: Ithink Liam Clancy once said that you came to Greenwich Village to be able totake your clothes off—he was coming from Ireland, of course. So I grew up insome of this, and my Dad scored a couple of free tickets to that concert. But Iwas very aware of what was happening.
The concert itselfsurprised everybody, because he not only sang his more familiar songs—I can’tremember offhand if he sang “With God On Our Side,” but he sang songsof that era, his very early political ones. But he also sang for the first timein New York, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Right, Ma, (I’mOnly Bleeding),” and “Gates of Eden,” which just blew peopleaway. So I knew some of what was coming, but boy, did I not know what was coming as well.
GM: Thatwas true at all the Dylan shows that I went to in ’64 or ’65. He would come toBerkeley two or three times a year, and at every single show he would performsongs that hadn’t been recorded, that hadn’t been released, and they often hada drama and a tension—some of it coming from him, some of it coming from theaudience—this frisson of uncertaintythat so often produced the same effect that I had when I first heard him sing “WithGod On Your Side.” You walked away knowing the song.
SW: Andthere was the feeling that he was at least six months to a year ahead ofeverybody in the audience, and no one quite knew what was going to happen. Thisis well before his decision to perform with a band and to go electric, as itwere; people make a lot of that, and it was an important moment to be sure. Butthat tension that Greil talks about was there well before that happened. Theflux that he was in, the rapidity with which he was expanding his own musicaland literary vocabulary—all of that long antedated “Like a Rolling Stone.”
GM: There’ssomething that always mystified me as somebody from the West Coast, and I writeabout it in my book, in a piece on Todd Haynes’s movie from 2007, I’m Not There. I never could understand—it was impossible for meto get my head around—what the furor was, what the sense of betrayal and angerand rage was about Bob Dylan’s beginning to perform with a band, to playrock-and-roll, to get on the radio. Everybody I knew, and myself too, wasthinking, “What took you so long? What were you waiting for?” It wasonly when I saw Todd Haynes’s restaging of that moment at Newport, a fictionalrestaging, that I understood. Because in that moment, the way the scene ispresented in that film, it’s so loud, it’s so harsh, it’s sooverwhelming—suddenly you’re in a new world. You were sitting on a seat but theseat isn’t there any more, and you have no idea where you are. And I realizedfor the first time that if I’d been in that crowd, I’m not sure how I wouldhave responded. I wouldn’t have responded with any kind of ideological yes orno. It just would have been “What’shappened?” Whereas, when I first saw Dylan play with the Hawks, whowould later be known as the Band, in December of 1965, it was the most gloriousthing imaginable.
SW: Thisis one of the differences between Greenwich Village and Berkeley. In theVillage there was this ideological element that was very strong. It was therein 1964, when he released Another Side ofBob Dylan. I talk about this in Bob Dylan in America. The reaction from some of the older commissars onthe folk Left, like Irwin Silber, was in response to Dylan’s music moving fromthe more political, Woody Guthrie-esque kind of songs to “inner-directedsongs,” as Silber put it. There was a feeling that Bob Dylan was becomingsomething different from the Bob Dylan that they wanted; what they wanted wasthe new Woody Guthrie.
And it wasn’t just thecommissars. There were lots of people then, lots of young people who trulyidentified politically, spiritually, and emotionally with that Bob Dylan as acontinuation of the tradition, as the troubadour of the revolution. When hestarted moving away from that, the seismographs started going off, as early as1964. And when he went electric—I was at the Forest Hills concert in ’65, justafter the Newport business…
GM: Andit was close to a riot.
SW: Andit was organized, or semi-organized. I think Al Kooper [Dylan's keyboardist at the time] said something like, “It’sthe revolt of the Beatniks; we’ve got to get out of here.” He was knockedfrom his stool and all the rest of it. But that was a purposeful attack becauseDylan had betrayed the Left, yes, but more than the Left—they felt he had betrayeda whole sensibility. People had become so identified with Bob Dylan, a certainBob Dylan, that his move away from that image they had of him forced them to dothe one thing that they didn’t want to do, which is to question themselves. Andwhen they questioned themselves, they went crazy. They went bonkers. It was asif the world that they had come to understand as true, as wonderful, as pure,was suddenly being snatched away from them by the very figure that they hadidentified with. That’s why it was all felt so powerfully.
GM: That’ssomething I finally came to understand, but only after learning that when Dylanreached England—on this same tour that caused such a furor in parts of theUnited States—the controversy and the conflict, and the smell of violence andfear in the concert halls, was unlike anything here. When I found out that theCommunist Party in England, which ran a whole network of folk music clubs upand down Britain, had organized and recruited people to go to Dylan concerts,to try to disrupt them, to stage mass walkouts—then I knew there was somethinggoing on here that I didn’t have a clue about.
JM: Inyour book, Greil, you write: “Along with a lot of other things, becoming aBob Dylan fan made me a writer. I was never interested in figuring out what thesongs meant. I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and otherpeople’s responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could bylistening to it—I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it,through it, inside of it, behind it, was my way of doing that.”
Having read you on Dylan’smusic over the years, in many of the pieces now collected in the new book, itseems to me that you really have gotten inside the music in an extraordinaryway, and you’ve discovered a whole country there, the invisible republic whichyou’ve written so eloquently about. Was there something about Dylan’s work inparticular that made this kind of approach to writing about music something youcould reach for?
GM: Whatalways attracted me to Dylan, and what has sustained me as a Dylan listener, orhas always continued to surprise me, is his voice, the way he sings, the way hewraps his voice around certain words, the way he backs off from melodicmoments, the way he moves forward to grab something in a song that, wereanybody else performing it, they would have no idea it was even there. There isin that voice, at its best moments, 50 states and 400 years. That voice opensup many, many doors, and most of those doors open up onto the past, onto manyvery different pasts.
Sean is a professionalhistorian. I am a critic who is pulled toward history. But Bob Dylan himself isa great historian. He is an historian who acts out history. So it always has apersonal stamp. It always has a particular timbre. It always has a particularhowl, or a moan, in that voice. But that voice calls up many shadows, manyghosts, many forebears, and sometimes those people are very shadowy andsometimes they are absolutely distinct. It’s in the way that he rewrites,reframes, re-sings old songs, with a knowledge of American music that may bebeyond that of any archivist. I just mean factual knowledge: who sang what,when; and who they played with; and what label they were on; and what were theconditions of the recording; and why did that person choose this song asopposed to that one—I mean, that kindof knowledge. All of that manages to transmit itself when he sings and when heplays, in a way that takes away any burden of having to know something or having to track any fact down, and allows you totravel to other places and to other times as you listen, and never lose yoursense that you’re lucky to be alive right now and listening to this at thatmoment.
JM: Sean,you and Greil collaborated on the editing of a collection of essays aboutballads, The Rose and the Briar. Throughout that book, there’s an assumption thatthere’s a weight of history carried in the melodies and the lyrics of theballads that the various writers celebrate and discuss. In Bob Dylan in America, you find that same kind of weight in the workof a contemporary artist. As I was reading your book, I wondered how yourappreciation of Dylan’s work, and your placing it in that kind of context, hasbeen informed by your historical training and scholarship. Has the one enrichedthe other, and vice versa?
SW: Sure.I wanted very much to ask historical questions about Dylan’s work, and to findcircuits and webs of connection which might not be so apparent—may not even befully apparent to Dylan himself, as much as he knows (and Greil is right—hisunderstanding of the music is encyclopedic). But there are circuits andcircuits, and I wanted to try and reconstruct those as best I could. Those arehistorical questions—they are the kinds of things that we as historians ofculture, politics, what-have-you, do all the time. It’s just that Dylan turnedout to be a far richer source for all of that than most of the people I study.
The question of theballads, though, and why Dylan was drawn to them so early on, is interesting.In Bob Dylan in America I recount ascene where he’s at the White Horse Tavern with Tommy Makem and the ClancyBrothers, and they’re singing these lusty songs of Irish rebellion. Dylan isknocked out by them, and he wants to try and write that kind of song, but writeit in a way that’s relevant to an American experience. He describes this nicelyin his memoir, Chronicles. He decides to go up to the New York PublicLibrary and actually read microfilm, which in those days is what historiansdid; now we do it all on computers. But he actually did historical research,reading old newspapers from the 1840s and 1850s. There, he said, he found thetemplate for everything he would write. It came out of the history of theUnited States as it was entering into an apocalyptic war that would eventuallyrewrite the Constitution and redeem America’s original sin—or at least startthe redemption of America’s original sin. That is a historical moment that, ashe said, became the template for everything that he would write after that.
Of course, he’s writingabout a great deal more than that. But he writes at the same time (rememberthis is in the early ’60s) about how the distinctions between the past and thepresent seem to collapse. He would be walking down the street, and other kindsof ghosts, real ghosts, the ghosts of Greenwich Village, would be there: EdgarAllan Poe would be there, Walt Whitman. Then he would be hearing a song aboutthe death of James Garfield, and it would seem as if it were a contemporaryevent. In other words, he lived in a zone in which he realized that this wasnot so far back—no, he realized, this is very much alive; it’s very much here.
One of the marks of Dylan’sgenius is the ability to shuffle time and space like a deck of cards. He canmake the past sound like the present and the present sound like the past. Indoing this, he is a great, great historian, like Greil says. But Dylan alsodoes something that historians can’t do, which is to actually commingle thepast and the present in ways that are astonishing.
JM: There’sa wonderful sentence in your book, towards the end—I think you’re writing about“Love and Theft”—where yousay that what Dylan was doing “was trying to create a magic zone where itwas 1933 and 1863 and 2006 all at once, and where the full complexity of humannature might be glimpsed.”
GM: Andyet, he can also shuffle those cards that Sean is talking about in a singlesong, and erase the boundaries between forms of music, ideas of music, musicaltraditions that other people cling to, and cling to sometimes very desperately,whether they do so in a scholarly way, in a community way, or in a way that islike tradition. I’m thinking of “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” which is asong from 1964. It’s about a farmer from South Dakota who kills his wholefamily because he can’t feed them. He shoots his wife and his five children andhimself. The song, as form, is blues, first line repeated twice, then a thirdline, over and over and over again. The melody and the structure of the song isfrom the old English-American ballad, “Pretty Polly,” one of the mostdistinctive cadences in American music. But the voice, the point of view, thesense of bitterness is Dylan’s own; the story as he tells it builds momentum.He puts you inside the farmer’s mind. He keeps referring to the man’s brain andwhat’s happening in his brain until it’s boiling. It builds this tension, andyou, the listener, realize there has to be a release. It can’t go on like this,and there is no solution. It’s a story that reaches a pitch of completenihilism, but also empathy. The singer has managed to put himself into the bodyof the character he’s created, and sing as if he’s telling that story as that person would want his story to betold. That’s the kind of thing, to me, that has sustained Dylan’s career andmade it possible for somebody like me or somebody like Sean to devote manypages to it.
You know, Dylan saidsomething to me the only time I met him—other than that 1963 encounter, wherewe were not exactly formally introduced. This was in 1997, and I had publisheda book about his Basement Tapes called InvisibleRepublic [reissued in paperback as The Old, Weird America], and he had read it and liked it. As anotherperson once said about that book, it pretended to be about the Basement Tapes,but it was really about Dock Boggs, a great country blues banjo player fromVirginia in the 1920s. The book was full of history, and it was about the kindsof doors that the Basement Tapes songs opened up, and where they could takeyou.
Dylan and I wereintroduced. What do you ask a writer? “What are you working on next?”he said. I said, “I don’t really have a project.” He said, “Whydon’t you do part two of InvisibleRepublic? You know, you only scratched the surface.” He could not havebeen more right.
So it’s that sense thatthere are so many worlds behind and within the songs to discover and live in,but also this sense of empathy for the people who appear in his songs. Dylanonce said, maybe sarcastically, that all of his songs really ended with “Goodluck.” But that may be what he says to the people in his songs.
SW: Ithink that’s right. Greil, what you say about so much happening in the space ofa single song is really important, because it’s not just that he singsdifferent kinds of things, say, on an album, and assembles them all together.Take a more recent song, like “High Water (For Charley Patton).” Itbegins with the Mississippi-Louisiana floods of 1927, the floods that CharleyPatton wrote about in the original “High Water.” That’s establishedat the beginning. But as you move through the song, you’re moving back to talkabout 19th-century Victorian figures, and Dylan’s askingphilosophical questions about materialism and spirituality. Then the next thingyou know, you’re at the Flood flood; you’re back in Biblical times.
The album in which thesong appeared was released on September 11, 2001. He couldn’t have predictedthat. But nevertheless, there it was, and when he’s saying, “It’s bad outthere, high water everywhere, things are breaking up out there,” it’sabout right now, too. So he has the ability in the space of—well, that’s afairly long song—but in the space of a single song, he has the ability to bringyou through epochs of time. It has to do with his, in part, not respectingboundaries. Not just boundaries of style, not just boundaries of genre, whichhe can mix up in any one song, too (you think you’re listening to rockabilly,and then all of a sudden, you’re back in an old English ballad), but also interms of understanding the ways in which time actually works and space actuallyworks. He has very, very complicated ideas about that, and they show up in thesongs, and they illuminate each of the specifics in extraordinary ways.
He has a wonderful song, “Talkin’ World War 3 Blues,”in which everyone has the same dream: the nuclear holocaust has occurred, andthey’re the only one left. They don’t see anybody else around. Everybody realizesfinally, “I’m the only one left.” Well, everyone thinks of himself inhistory that way up to a point. There’s a certain narcissism; we all think we’respecial. Dylan breaks through that with extraordinary power, and opens peopleup to think about their place in the world and in the cosmos and in history,much more powerfully than any other writer I know of in recent times.
JM: Whenhe first arrived on the scene, he had a lot of fun trying to create a myth thathe had come out of nowhere like some kind of hobo. But one of the interestingthings in reading both of you about him is the recognition of how consideredhis education was, not only in the music that he came to master, but also—inyour book particularly, Sean—in American history. You spoke before about himgoing to the New York Public Library to read microfilms of Civil War-eranewspapers.
And one of the mostdelightful pieces in Greil’s book is about his tour of Hibbing High School andwhat he found there. Would you talk about that for a little bit?
GM: Iwas giving a reading in a bookstore in Berkeley, and somebody asked the oldquestion, “How does Bob Dylan come out of a nowhere town like Hibbing?”This woman stood up, and she was absolutely outraged. She said, “Hasanyone here ever been to Hibbing?” Nobody had. She said, “You oughtto be ashamed of yourselves. You don’t know what you’re talking about. This isa town steeped in radical traditions, as every town in the Iron Range has beenfor a hundred years. This is a town with poetry on the walls, and argumentsgoing on in the streets that people have been having between Wobblies andCommunists and Socialists and Social Democrats for a hundred years, and this isthe world Bob Dylan came out of.”
So we were there fast.[LAUGHS] We had to see for ourselves. The shock for me, the first shock, wasseeing Hibbing High School. I went to a high school that was built in 1951. Itwas a modern, suburban California high school, a pretty good-looking place—andit was a shack, compared to Hibbing High, which opened in 1924. Hibbing HighSchool is absolutely enormous. It’s the most impressive public building I’veever seen outside of Washington, D.C. When Harry Truman met the head of theVeterans of Foreign Wars, who was from Hibbing, he said, “Oh, I know Hibbing;that’s the place where the high school has gold doorknobs.” And it damnnear does. It has a legendary auditorium, which is not like a high schoolauditorium—it’s like a great opera house. That’s one of the stages where BobDylan first performed, and you can imagine him up on that stage and seeing notjust his high school classmates in the audience, but the whole world beforehim.
But the most unusual andthe most striking thing about our trip to Hibbing High was that during a tourthe next day, an organized tour, B. J. Ralston, who had been Bob Dylan’s highschool English teacher, was there. He was then in his eighties and he was feeble, but with a completely clearmind. He sat in his old English classroom where he had taught Bob Dylan. Fortyor so people crowded into the room, and the notion was we were going to hearhim reminisce about Robert—Robert Zimmerman. He mentioned a couple of things.He mentioned that Robert always sat in the seat directly in front of the podiumfrom which he lectured, and he quoted a Bob Dylan song about “You gottasit up near the teacher if you want to learn anything,” and he was full ofpride about that. That was five minutes. But then for the next 20 minutes, hetaught a class in poetry to the 40 visitors there. There were many poems hediscussed. But he kept returning to the “The Red Wheelbarrow” byWilliam Carlos Williams. He approached that poem from so many different angles,from so many different points of view, putting an emphasis on one word (thereare very, very few words in thispoem), putting all the weight on another word (it might be “chicken,”it might be “red,” it might be “rain”), and then opening upthe poem as if it were a flower in high speed film.
Forget about the grandeurof the high school. Forget about the magnificence of the auditorium. Thinkabout how rare it is for anyone to encounter a teacher who can do those kindsof things, who can open you up to the notion that there is an infinite amountof meaning and possibility and inspiration in the smallest thing beforeyou. That’s what this teachercould do. That was the poetry on the walls. Yes, there is literally poetry chiseled on the walls ofHibbing High School, from Wordsworth and any number of other people, and it’spretty great stuff. But this was a different kind of poetry.
SW: Also,people forget, as you were saying at the beginning, Greil, about the politicaltraditions that were all around Hibbing. I have a little story in my firstchapter about Aaron Copland, of all people, who stumbles into a Communist Partymeeting in 1934 while staying at Lake Bemidji, which is just west of the MesabiIron Range, not all that far from Hibbing. At that time, that whole part ofMinnesota was full of Finnish Communists and other leftists, whose ideas were verymuch in the air when Bob Dylan was growing up there. Hibbing was a mining townwith very activist workers.
But lots of other thingswere in the air, too. There’s all of the polka music. When people listen toDylan’s Christmas album and are amazed by “Must Be Santa”—well,that comes right out of a soundscape that was very much a part of Hibbing inthe 1940s and 1950s. We often hear about his listening to the Shreveport,Louisiana radio station, but there was a lot more going on in and aroundHibbing than people can imagine. There was the circus that was always coming totown. Dylan’s talked about how the circus gave him all kinds of imagery andideas. He made up myths about the circus when he first came to New York, butthe fact is that it was there and it really did turn him on to certain kinds ofentertainment. He was very shrewd about what was going on. He always talkedabout the freaks in the circus, the bearded ladies and all the rest of it, andhow there was an illusion being portrayed, but it was an illusion that wastrying to get you to be both feeling superior to these people at the same timeas you were feeling sorry for them. He was very, very alert to performance as ayoung man.
So all of this stuff isgoing on in “nowhere.” And nowhere is not nowhere at all.
JM: Youboth write in different ways about his memory of all these things and,especially, all these sounds. There’s a line, in your book, Greil, which Ilove. You call Time Out of Mind “the big night around the campfire Bob Dylanspent with the ghosts of old American music.” And you write wonderfullyabout Harry Smith and the importance to Dylan of his Anthology of American Folk Music, while Sean goes into many other kinds of othermusic—Aaron Copland, Crosby, Sinatra…
JM:…and you talk about Dylan’s Theme TimeRadio Hour, in which he presented a kind of living historythat seems available to him in ways that it’s not available to anyone else.First, because no one else has absorbed it all the way he has, and second becauseit remains present to Dylan at all times in a singular way. It’s related to hisborrowing of phrases and imagery from other sources, which you write aboutquite well…
SW: Well,it’s available to everybody. It’s just that he does something very special withit.
JM: Isit because all these sources are somehow more alive to him than to anybodyelse?
SW: That’sright. He captured them, and he understands them in a way others don’t. Firstof all, he’s not interested in being authentic and reproducing something; he’sinterested in what’s alive and what’s around him. In 1963, he composed for theNewport Folk Festival a sort of prose poem for the program. It’s called “To Dave Glover.” Glover was a buddyof his from Minneapolis, who was in fact known as Tony “Little Sun”Glover, the harmonica wizard. In that piece Dylan talks about how all of thesesongs that he’s picked up on are very important to him, but that he now had towrite about his day, and that hecouldn’t write songs about his day without the others, but he had to talk abouthis own experience to transform the others into something different—again, tocollapse the past and the present.
But he was also somewhatlucky, because he arrived on the scene and he made his way into folk music at atime when a lot of other people were collecting and making available thingsthat hadn’t been available before. Harry Smith is one of them; he was early on,in the early ’50s. But Sam Charters, who is a person who doesn’t often getenough credit for what he did, was putting out his albums of country blues andrural blues. There was a whole blues mafia that was getting together in NewYork in the 1950s and 1960s, that was finding all of these old records andputting them back onto 33-1/3 records that you could actually listen to—makingit all available in new ways. That was all happening right at the time when BobDylan was in Dinkytown in Minneapolis and then coming into the Village. Sothere’s this cornucopia of American music that suddenly opened up. It’s why, infact, places like Izzy Young’s Folklore Center in New York were so important.Something that seemed to have been suppressed, something that seemed to havebeen unavailable to anybody in the 1940s and 1950s suddenly was there—it waslike a feast, and Bob Dylan was there to pick up on all that. He happened to bein the right place at the right time.
GM: Thereis a moment in his book, Chronicles,that to me is like an explosion of light in the way that it throws his wholecareer and his whole sensibility into relief. My book is a collection ofpieces—starting in 1968, going up to September of this year—of one listener’scontinuing encounter with one singer. It is an imaginary conversation, in someways, with pieces written along the way over a long period, with the writeroften being wrong, often misunderstanding, and maybe with a perspectivebroadening in time.
But the moment where youcan see Bob Dylan’s sensibility, his way of being in the world, his sense ofobligation and of vocation, all coming together, is when John Hammond, hisproducer, gives him an acetate, a pre-release copy of a collection of songs bya then-unknown and forgotten blues singer named Robert Johnson of Mississippifrom the mid ’30s that he’s going to be putting out. He gives it to Dylan andsays, “Listen to this; you might find it interesting.”
Dylan does listen to it.He’s never heard of Robert Johnson. Dave Van Ronk, who he plays the record for,who knows Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr and everyone else, he’s never heardof Robert Johnson. Dylan is thunderstruck listening to Johnson. He says, “Iimmediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard.”He writes down the words of the songs. He tries to understand how they’re puttogether. They seem more elegant, more complete—and yet skeletal—than anythinghe’s ever encountered before. He says, “It’s hard to imagine field handsat hop-joints really responding to, really understanding songs like these.Maybe Robert Johnson was looking at an audience that only he could see, anaudience far in the future. In otherwords, me, Bob Dylan. He was singingfor me. He was waiting for a listener like me to get him, in a way that nobodycould at the time.”
Well, you can take thatstatement apart, and you could flay it and throw in the garbage for a whole lotof reasons. And yet that is a visionary statement, and it says an enormousamount about the relationship between the listener and the performer that is alifetime commitment on both sides, that has sustained Dylan’s career from bothsides. That’s what I have wrestled with all these years with so much pleasure,but of course, never found the moment to crystallize it as well as Dylan doeswith that story.
JM: Clearly,he is a man who lives with a sense of history, but the sense of history isconveyed by the voices in these songs. Sean, you say something very interestingin your book: Dylan’s story, you write, “is decidedly not the story of ababy boomer. Although he is stamped as a 1960s troubadour, Dylan, who was bornin 1941, is at pains to point out that he is really a product of the 1940s andthe early 1950s, which he remembers as a long-past era of political giants,like Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin.”
JM: Andyou quote and paraphrase from Chronicles,”‘The world was being blown apart….’ Chaos and fear and smaller leaderscame in their wake…. ‘you could feel the old world go and the new one beginning… like putting the clock back to when B.C. became A.D.'”
JM: Inthe ’90s, when he went back and made the two records before Time Out of Mind, Good As I’ve Been To You and WorldGone Wrong, on which he truly was summoning to thecampfire—to use Greil’s phrase—the ghosts of old American music, he seems toget back in touch with something that’s before his boyhood, deep back, in thatB.C. world. And then come Time Out ofMind and “Love And Theft,”which, as Greil describes it at one point, follow this character wanderingthrough a landscape that’s very old, suffused with a sense of time but devoidof any actual, or rather, any documentable history—it’s like he’s followinghuman nature into a different kind of history entirely, not normally what wecall history but very much a vivid composite of past and present.
GM: Well,take the story I just told, where Dylan says, “Maybe Robert Johnson wasaiming at an audience that only he could see, one far in the future.” Onthose two albums, Good As I’ve Been ToYou and World Gone Wrong, in ’92and ’93, for me he’s clearing his throat of twenty years of wasted time. Herehe is, singing these old blues and folk songs, stuff that in his own repertoirepreceded his first album, the kind of stuff he was singing in ’59, ’60, ’61, inpeople’s living rooms, in maybe radio stations, in clubs. He’s singing these oldsongs. He’s investing them with extraordinary life and humor, and regret,compassion, and glee, with an inventiveness on the guitar that’s utterly new inhis own musical life. Yet, who is hesinging to? He is not looking at an audience far in the future; he is lookingat an audience far in the past. The people he’s singing to are the people whofirst sang these songs.
There’s another wonderfulmoment in Chronicles where he doesthis Mickey Spillane imitation, where he says, “The dead can’t speak forthemselves, so I’m speakin’ for ‘em.” Well, on those records, he wasspeaking for the dead and he was speaking to the dead. And raising the dead.
JM: Sean,your book so richly evokes Dylan’s relationship to America. I’m interested inany thoughts you have on how newspaper history, if you will, intersects withthese songs, and how the maturation of Dylan’s art from the ’90s through thelast few albums seems to be coming to grips with the fact that the big historythat he grew up with in the ’40s and ’50s really doesn’t have as much resonancefor people now as it did then. We live in a different world in terms of our ownsense of history as a vital force.
SW: Inthe liner notes to World Gone Wrong,he talks about how virtual reality has taken over, or is taking over—he callsit “hegemony”—and people are just not able to write songs like theones that he is singing for the dead and out of the dead; they can’t writethose kinds of songs any more. He makes it pretty clear that, in some ways, allhe can do to battle this hegemony, as he calls it, is to sing those songs, andto continue to write his own songs out of that tradition, out of thosetraditions, the many traditions, not just one. It’s not exactly the attitude ofa big rock star who thinks he’s all powerful; this is a guy who feels like heand the world are up against forces that are so complex and so overpoweringthat singing these songs is all that he can do.
But this goes back withhim—it’s not just a matter of the mass media today. In a song like “BlindWillie McTell,” he can talk about the world being full of greed andcorruptible seed, and that seems to be all that there is, and yet, in the end,it’s Willie McTell singing. It’s the man who can sing the blues like nobodyelse, that comes back like a grace note, as something that can put a hedgeagainst all of the world’s cruelties and stupidities and corruption, and giveyou a breather from the hegemony. Well, I think that’s what Dylan’s trying todo: to create a space artistically where something else can take shape, cantake life—where there’s hope. It goes back to what Greil was saying earlierabout “Good luck” being at the end of every song. You’re up against alot in this world, and you may be up against more now than you were in 1961.But as he says, he finds his lexicon in the songs, and in the songs he can finda measure of hope to battle against it. But that means more than justprotesting; it’s not about protesting. Well, maybe it is always aboutprotesting—all of his songs are protest songs. But it’s really about exploringrealms of human imagination that he finds being flattened out in this virtualreality in which we live.
Something like the samething is true with history, too. I do think that he is aware of how historicalconsciousness is being flattened out. It’s not just that we’re all catching onto the latest wave, and that there’s a kind of historical attention deficitdisorder—cultural attention deficit disorder—settling in, so we don’t rememberwhat happened last week, let alone what happened in 1861. But I think heunderstands that his connection to the past and to the present is somethingthat is in danger of being eviscerated, and one of the reasons that he issinging the songs in the way that he’s doing it, the way that is mediatingbetween past and present, is precisely to keep that connection alive as best hecan, if not for the masses out there, at least for himself. And to keep sane.One of the reasons that any person writes anything is to try and keep his ownsanity together, and I think he’s doing that as well.
GM: IfBob Dylan really is an historian in and of himself in his work, in hisperformances, he is also an historian with a unique sense of humor. It’s notjust a wicked, sardonic sense of humor (although it can be that, too). But itcan be an uproarious, laugh-out-loud, “you’ve got to be kidding me,” “haveyou heard this?” sense of humor. There’s always been a bit of a stand-upcomic in him. It was very evident early on in his career when he used to talk alot on stage, something he doesn’t do now. These days the humor is mostly inthe songs and in the way they’re played. But if Dylan is an historian, he isdoing this because, yes, there is a mission; yes, there is a need; yes, thereis a goal—but it’s also interesting in and of itself, and it’s pleasurable inand of itself. That comes through to whoever is listening.
JM: Letme close with this question: if you were trying to explain all that we’ve beentalking about to someone who knows nothing about Dylan—to say, “To get asense of what we’ve been trying to articulate here, just listen to this”—whatwould you pick?
GM: Ithink I would pick Another Side of BobDylan. This was an album that was recorded in one day. It’s full of flubsand mistakes. It’s utterly human. It’s incredibly funny. It’s got some songsthat are tremendously painful and difficult to listen to. It’s got someoverblown, pretentious songs. I think it’s an album that nobody’s ever reallygotten a handle on. When it was released, it kind of slipped in and out of thepublic eye, as if it had never been. People didn’t know what to make of it, andthey kind of didn’t want to know whatthis other side was.
I would never try toconvince anybody to like anything. So I’d just say, “See what you think ofthis.” Then if that person came back to me and said, “I don’t knowwhat to make of this at all,” then maybe we would talk about it. But morelikely, the person would say, “I hated this and I hated that, but thatthing about ‘I’m gonna grow my hair down to my feet so strange so I look like awalking mountain range,’ that was really funny”—and we’d take it fromthere.
SW: It’sfunny that you picked that album, Greil. It’s a title that he didn’t likeparticularly, Another Side of Bob Dylan.But I’ve been asked this question a lot lately, as I’ve been going around thecountry discussing my book. The song I keep coming back to is off that album: “Chimesof Freedom.” The reason I’d choose that one, especially for a youngperson, is that I think that’s a song where you can see his imagination openingup in ways that it hadn’t before, where he takes basically a thunderstorm, asummer city thunderstorm, and out of that manages to write not only beautifullyabout that thunderstorm, but about all the other aspects of his work that areimportant as he hears the thunder peeling out for “the rake,” and “themateless mother,” and ending with “for every hung-up person in thewhole wide universe”—with all of those intonations that are offbeat, thatare strange. I think that a lot of what Dylan was aiming for crystallized inthat song, and it’s accessible in ways that some of the other ones aren’t. Iwouldn’t say you have to like this or not. But I would give it to someone totry and understand what Bob Dylan is about; it would probably be right at thetop of my list.