Editor’s note: News Staff Reporter Mark Sommer and Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers both revere the work of Bob Dylan, who is appearing Friday at the University at Buffalo Alumni Arena. What follows is a conversation via email between the two about the voice of his generation’s music, his legendary aloofness, his chameleonlike changes and apparent fondness for a paragraph Miers wrote in 2002.
Mark Sommer: Bob Dylan’s gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing, and hoped the masters of war will die and their death will come soon. He’s asked how many roads a man must walk down, and told us the loser now will be later to win. He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row, and he’s seen the ghost of electricity that howled in the bones of her face.
So here we are, Jeff, talking about one of our favorite subjects who has remained alternately brilliant and bewildering – often at the same time. He’s someone who can pour his heart out in the autobiographical “Sara” (even while insisting he’s never written anything about himself), and speak about the age in “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and to the ages with “Forever Young,” while being as inscrutable as any Rolling Stone interview he’s ever deigned to sit for.
So, given the many directions we can go in, where do you want to start?
Jeff Miers: I suppose if we were to ask the question, “Why are we still talking about this guy today?,” some of the lyrics you quoted would go a long way toward answering that question. As a lyricist – as the first rock artist to insist that song lyrics needn’t be trifles, that they could be both topical and poetic, and that they did not need to bow to the notion that love relationships were the only available theme – Dylan is king. Just look at the imagery in the lyrics you chose.
That said, all of the lyrics came from Dylan’s late-’60s work – the era generally held to be his most significant. Do you think we’re still discussing Dylan today because he was once so incredibly brilliant that we just can’t let it go?
MS: In some ways, sure. Dylan’s flame was that bright, his reach that far that he remains a towering and unpredictable presence to the present day. But Dylan has produced major work through each of the decades since, if more erratically and usually without the almost stream-of-consciousness wordplay that once so defined his work.
Doug Dreishpoon, a musician and ne’er-do-well at the Albright-Knox, has this observation: “It’s too early to really say what the quality of Dylan’s later work is. Dylan is like Picasso, whose later work was dismissed until years later, when it was seen as quite significant and radical for its time.”
However, although I’ve been left in the cold with much of Dylan’s work this century, most critics, you included, have heaped praise on everything he’s produced since “Time Out of Mind.”
JM: To varying degrees, yes, I have found his recent work to be pretty fascinating. However, I do feel that there have been diminishing returns since ”Love and Theft.” That album is a masterpiece, but each one since has had a flaw or two. I think Dylan would benefit from a producer, but one gets the sense there is no one in his inner circle who would be permitted to give him some needed direction. Everyone can use an editor now and then, even Dylan.
MS: Would you see him Friday at UB if you weren’t reviewing the show?
JM: I enjoyed the Artpark show last summer because of how radically he altered his own work, and how doggedly he pursued new arrangements of revered songs. They were obviously vibrant and alive to him, even if they no longer connected with parts of his audience. But in all honesty, if I wasn’t reviewing the show, I’d probably be fine skipping it this time around.
I just don’t believe Dylan has the right band. These particular players don’t seem to be able to push him the way the band did that he had around the time of “Love and Theft.” They are completely hemmed in, playing flaccid, boring country-swing arrangements much of the time. Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton’s back, but Dylan really doesn’t let him play much, either.
I go to a Dylan concert today simply because his irreverence is fascinating to me, and because, well, he’s Dylan! Even subpar Dylan is more interesting than most contemporary rock music. I’d rather watch him deconstruct himself than go to some note-perfect re-creation of a pop star’s latest album, you know?
MS: I’ve seen Dylan a lot in recent years because of the diminishing possibility of something extraordinary happening. But I’ve finally reached a point where going because it is still Dylan is no longer enough.
I don’t care for the pre-rock ’n’ roll music Dylan now makes – especially the “country swing” sound you mentioned; it’s the antithesis of what I’ve always liked about his music. And after years of Dylan staying on the same course, and now in his 70s, it’s appearing unlikely he’ll be entering another musical phase.
The frustration of seeing Dylan in concert, of course, is also compounded by his shattered voice, and reinterpretations that have not only rendered many of his songs all but unrecognizable but robbed them of their beauty and power.
I also need a break, frankly, from watching him parade around in cowboy clothes impersonating an old bluegrass or country singer. (And can someone explain why Jewish guys like Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, both acolytes of Woody Guthrie, wound up dressing more like Montana ranchers in their later years than the Greenwich Village hipsters they once were?)
But you know what? Dylan has every right to do whatever he wants, and he doesn’t owe me or anyone anything. He’s given me – and all of us – so much, and I’m grateful to him beyond measure.
JM: Great point - he owes us nothing. And he’s made that point repeatedly clear, I think, over the past decade.
MS: As I’m writing, I’m listening to the little-known “Dirge” from “Planet Waves.” It was the first album of his I was old enough to claim as my own, and I played it over and over trying to distill every meaning from his dance of words, and the urgency with which he sometimes sang them.
“Sing your praise of progress, and of the doom machine/ The naked truth is still taboo, whenever it can be seen/ The lady luck who shines on me will tell you where or when/ I hate myself for loving you and I’ll soon get over that.”
Social commentary spliced with the nasty rejection of a lover – pure Dylan! There there’s this: “I went out on lower Broadway/ And I felt that place within/ That hollow place where martyrs weep/ And angels play with sin.”
“Dirge” was an especially personal song for Dylan to release.
JM: Wow, “Dirge” is an amazing deep cut! Scathing! And he does that better than anyone else, don’t you think? “Sara,” from “Desire,” is another great confessional song, and one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. The pain is so poetically described that, I have to confess, I’ve wept listening to the song more than once. It’s in the observations – the kids playing leap-frog, Sara, the “radiant jewel, mystical wife,” which places her in the area of myth, and the overarching air of unbearable loss he captures so well.
I think part of the reason it hits so deep is that Dylan is very rarely so straightforward and personal. You know, the whole confessional singer-songwriter thing can become very cloying and trite, and Dylan wisely avoided this. He couched the personal reportorial observations in a universal context, and employed imagery from literature, religious texts, the Beats, the French Symbolists and Romantic poetry. I love him for that as much as for anything else.
MS: It’s occurred to me that liking Dylan is a bit like being in an abusive relationship. He puts down those close to him and flings accusations at his audience and critics. He penned some of the greatest protest songs ever, yet spurned the “voice of a generation” label and maintained an arms-length from the movement for social change that appropriated his songs. He was by all accounts rotten to Phil Ochs, the other great protest singer among his peers. Yet his body of work is so profound, and his persona so endlessly fascinating, that we keep coming back for more.
JM: That’s part of the fun, for me. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment! But in all seriousness, Dylan’s refusal to be typecast or narrowly defined by anyone epitomizes what I see as a very rock ’n’ roll attitude. He’s a confrontational artist, and always has been. We should respect him for that, even when doing so is difficult. Dylan has always displayed a rugged individualism that feels archetypically American to me, and yet at the same time, is truly emblematic of the universal notion of the artist as outsider. That makes him endlessly interesting.
MS: It’s been said Dylan’s entire public life has been like one long performance piece, which began with an invented past and a voice that sounded far older and wiser than someone not much past voting age. After all these years, aren’t we still left wondering to a big degree just who is Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan, who’s also gone by Elston Gunn and Blind Boy Grunt?
I was talking about Dylan with Erin Verhoef from Rust Belt Books, and she had an interesting take. She said, “He’s a man who can’t be held to his word, yet speaks pointed truths. We can never pin him down, so the relationship is a tumultuous, dreamy dance. In the end, we don’t get closer to him, we get closer to ourselves.”
JM: We know everything and nothing, really. And this didn’t happen by accident. Dylan knew all along, and still knows, exactly what he’s doing. He named his film “Masked and Anonymous” after all, didn’t he? And that’s incredibly telling.
I love what Erin says – “He’s a man who can’t be held to his word, yet speaks pointed truths.” He’s the classic poet, then, a man who lives in and for the imagination, who values the trope, the creative “lie” more than the observable fact, because it’s simply more beautiful and powerful.
He also thereby offers a commentary on art and the artist: Do we need to know the artist to feel the power of the art? No, we don’t. And despite the absolute lowest-common-denominator status of our celebrity-obsessed culture, we never really know an artist – and why would we want to? What does it say about us that we feel we need to?
I believe Dylan is saying, between the lines, “You don’t know me, and you never will, because you don’t even know yourselves.” I believe this is the source of his often obvious disdain for his audience, and it’s also at the heart of my own continuing fascination with him.
MS: It’s easy to forget in 2013 just how powerful and essential Dylan’s songs of social justice were in the 1960s, from “Chimes of Freedom” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “Masters of War” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” or that he sang with Joan Baez at the March on Washington in 1963, shortly before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. A new compilation album, “Listen, Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power,” includes “George Jackson,” the eulogy Dylan rushed out for the inmate-activist gunned down by prison guards. The album cover features former Black Panther leader Huey Newton holding “Highway 61 Revisited.”
JM: The importance of those early topical commentaries can’t be overestimated. Dylan spent the decades since largely attempting to distance himself from being identified as a protest singer. Still, these songs endure, because their blend of poetry and reportorial observation so profoundly captured the zeitgeist. Even if he’d quit after the motorcycle accident, we would still be talking about those songs today, and subsequent generations of musicians would be covering, interpreting and taking inspiration from them.
MS: Did you ever have a close encounter with Dylan? I tried to interview him once – in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t, because I doubt it would have gone well – but it unexpectedly put me in touch with Elliot Mintz, who was working for him at the time. Elliot had a four-hour show – a kind of countercultural Platform 9-3/4 – on Sunday nights that got me through high school by lifting a curtain on another world that waited beyond my suburban housing tract. Elliot told me Dylan might call on a particular weekend, but the phone never rang.
So, the closest I came was this: I visited Laura Nyro, who opened for Dylan one night in Massachusetts. When I stepped out of her dressing room into this long hallway, Dylan, dressed in cowboy garb, was headed with his band in my direction. No one else was there, nor was anyone talking. They walked past me, lingered by the curtain, waited for their introduction and then disappeared into the roar of the crowd. I’ve interviewed a lot of celebrities, and I’m not easily starstruck, but you know, it was Dylan.
JM: I’ve never had a close encounter, and I’m glad. I would have absolutely no idea what to say, and everything I’ve learned over the years suggests to me that Dylan doesn’t really enjoy meeting strangers, so there’s that, too.
MS: Speaking of Dylan’s introduction, we can’t end this without bringing up something you wrote and I edited. It wound up being used as the introduction for every Dylan concert from Aug. 15, 2002, until about a year ago. I remember the date well, because my daughter Johanna (named for Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”), turned 1 that day.
The announcer inexplicably recited a paragraph you used to sum up Dylan’s career that week in Gusto, before adding, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.” We spotted each other moments later, and I still remember that look on your face, as if to say, “What the [expletive] was that?” A simple twist of fate, eh?
JM: That was so surreal that day, and to be honest, it stayed that way for me the entire time he used it. I’m honored, obviously. When I wrote that, I was taking on an ironic narrator’s voice, listing all of the cliches that have been written about Dylan over the years. It was as if to say, “Here’s the boilerplate on Dylan, but really, we don’t know who he is because he’s forever in the process of becoming something else.”
MS: We could do this for hours, couldn’t we? You know Dylan would tell us to get a life. Ring Them Bells, Bob, and may you stay Forever Young.