Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews

Last week, I finished trudging through the alternately entertaining and frustrating Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. Entertaining because it is Bob Dylan we are talking about; enigmatic and engaging, forthright and unforgiving, liberal and conservative. Frustrating because there was far too much repetition. Let me repeat, there was too much repetition.

Three are three kinds of people in this world. There are those who hate Dylan for a myriad of reasons, the least of which is his voice. Some are still mad about Masters of War or With God on Our Side. But there are many, many of us who love his music. And there are two kinds of us who want every album even if our wallet forbids such a monumental task.

There are those of us who because of his talent and legend of mythic proportions take his statements as pronouncements as if from the highest of peaks – on the level of the Oracle of Delphi. He is not to be challenged since he is after all, Bob Dylan. I am not sure if such people think one day they will have an opportunity to be his friend or what.

But I am of a different stripe. I am a fan of Dylan and my “fan-ness” keeps growing year after year. I only own about twelve albums of his so some would think I am not much of a fan. But there it is. However, I am quote willing to see inane and stupidity in everyone. And let’s face it, Dylan should be no exception. He has made some bizarre statements. And I am not one of those who will be sold on the idea that he was always trying to put off interviewers with dumb responses to dumb questions. He did this to be sure in the 60s but not so much in the 70’s and after.

The thing is, his interviews in the 60’s were at least interesting compared to some of the interviews in the 70’s. He was trying to be profound…I think. But usually he talks like some new-age guru discussing the color of the number nine and “disappearing through walls.” Renaldo & Clara is the subject de jour of these interviews…and man is it painful at some points.

But I really want to talk about the most bizarre and irresponsible thing he said in the whole book. This is from a 1986 interview with Rolling Stone. The interviewer is Toby Creswell.

TC: There's a lot of red-baiting going on again.

BD: That's been going on since the Fifties.

TC: The cold war seems to be coming back.

BD: I don't think it ever went away, you know. It just lays low for a while. People need something to hate, you've got to hate something. As soon as your old enough, people try to make you hate something or somebody. Blacks are a little easier, Communists you can't really see. The early Christians were like Communists. The Roman Empire treated the Early Christians the same way as the Western world treats the Communists.

TC: So it doesn't really change?

BD: No, things don't, it's just got a different name on it. There's always someone you're told you've got to step on so you can rise up a little higher.

Now, I understand what he is trying to say. But the only resemblance between the Christians in the Roman Empire and Cold War Communists is that some people did not like either of them. But the differences need to be pointed out. Christians in the Roman Empire were martyred or stepped on because they would not participate in the Emperor cult. Cold War communists were disliked because of their infiltration of the US Government and their influence over foreign and domestic policy coupled with their murderous reign throughout the Soviet Empire.

This bothers me so much because I am reading Mao by Chang and Halliday. You see, Mao, as a communist is responsible for the deaths of 70 million people…during peacetime. Add to that the more than 60 million killed in the short life of the Soviet Union. Comparing Christians and communists is like comparing God and Satan because they both have people that do not like them.

And so I am consistently amazed at how often Dylan gets reality right in his lyrics and then botches it in his interviews.

However, I do want to point to two things which were interesting because I am sure the interviewer felt the need to nod in agreement but probably found it impossible to understand…since Dylan said it. They are both from Rolling Stone which makes it them all the funnier.

The first is from an interview in July of ’86.

"Well, for me, there is no right and there is no left. There's truth and there's untruth, y'know? There's honesty and there's hypocrisy. Look in the Bible: you don't see nothing about right or left. I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that's the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true."

I would have loved to have seen the interviewer’s face…here is another from a Rolling Stone interview printed in December in of 2001 but the interview took place just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks.

RS: Do you have any hope for the situation we find ourselves in?

Dylan: I don’t really know what I could tell you. I don’t consider myself an educator or an explainer. You see what it is that I do, and that’s what I’ve always done. But it is time now for great men to come forward. With small men, no great thing can be accomplished at the moment. Those people in charge, I’m sure they’ve read Sun – Tzu, who wrote The Art of War in the sixth century. In there he says, “If you know the enemy and know youself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat.” And he goes on to say, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Whoever’s in charge, I’m sure they would have read that. Things will have to change. And one of these things that will have to change: People will have to change their internal world.

Hah! Dylan the hawk?

I love it…Dylan favorably quoting Sun – Tzu.

Anyway, the book is a must read for Dylan fans. There is a lot of comedy and insight from him and otherwise. His dodging of questions he does not want to answer is always fun to read. You can sometimes feel the interviewer squirm. So whether you are the kind of fan who feels as if Dylan and you could be friends or you are like me and feel free to love his music, warts and all it is a great read. I actually think Dylan would like me more though…

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