Dylan. Poetry, Persona & The Press

Spanning several years I’ve attended over a dozen Bob Dylan concerts and I am always intrigued by a group of people who leave the concert demonstratively disillusioned with the performance. They are often openly expressing their disappointment to anyone in the crowd who’ll hear their opinion. I’ve heard people complain about the quality of his singing, that he didn’t chat to the audience and they couldn’t recognise the songs. For them decades of new music have gone by unnoticed. Maybe this group are attracted to the event by Dylan’s “star power”, the fame and mythology that has been reinforced in the media over fifty years. Beyond listening to his music they’ve seen and heard various mediations of the musician. For at least one evening they take the opportunity to be close to “the voice of a generation”, as he was lauded in the 1960’s, and see him with their own eyes. Journalists have paralleled this quest to reveal the authentic, a “real” individual behind the construction of the “star” since his emergence in the 1960’s. Bob Dylan manifests in many different personas including composer, poet, singer, musician, actor, radio announcer, visual artist and author which makes their task more complex than most profiles. Beyond the newspaper reports, magazine articles over 150 biographies have been written about Dylan. He is a figure who continues to intrigue many.

I agree with Scobie when he contends that “Bob Dylan” stands not for any imposed role but for the very act of resistance to imposed roles” (Marshall, 77). My hypothesis is that Bob Dylan constructs a star persona through participating in screen appearances where he actively deconstructs his persona. The ongoing movement in he how he presents himself allows him creative freedom rather than being consigned to single genre. Maybe because he believes once he is defined, he will be static and consigned to a particular time and place. Nostalgia acts are destined to constantly reliving the past, something Dylan is clearly not interested in, as he famously wrote “that he not busy being born is busy dying”. (It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding)

In this post I analyse the on-screen mediation of Bob Dylan through television interviews and how he resists being typecast. Here we see and hear Dylan talk directly while journalists quiz him attempting to reveal the “real” persona of the folk, rock and pop star. His evasiveness proves constantly frustrating for journalists but reinforces perceptions to his fans as being an authentic innovator and above being categorised. To provide a framework to my analysis I have selected three television interviews that span almost 40 years of his career to examine what has changed and what remains consistent. The first took place in 1965 when Dylan was being lauded as the spokesperson of a generation, the second in the 1980’s when he was viewed as a “rock legend” past his prime and the third during the early 2000’s when his career was on in a state of resurgence.

 

Interview 1 – 1965 “San Francisco Press Conference”

In October 1964 concert a 23 year-old Dylan engaged in banter with the audience at a Philharmonic Hall concert remarking “It’s Halloween. I got my Bob Dylan mask on”. (The Bootleg Series, Volume 6: Live 1964) The comment alluding to his evolving identity was greeted with applause and knowing laughter the crowd. The question the comment raised is, if it exists, what is hidden behind that mask? Since his emergence Dylan’s persona had been a topic for consideration. Earlier that year the editor of folk music magazine Sing Out! , Irwin Silber had published “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan” complaining that Dylan’s “new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, inner probing, self-conscious – maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion”. Silber feared that Dylan might turn into “a different Bob Dylan than the one we knew.” (Wilentz, 89) An earlier Newsweek story titled “I am my words” had revealed the artist had been raised in Minnesota as Robert Zimmerman and questioned his authenticity by citing a rumour that he had not authored Blowin’ in the Wind. (Shelton,194).

In March 1965 defining Bob Dylan became more difficult when he released Bringing It All Back Home, his fifth album that included his first recording using an electric backing band. As Marshall points out “Stars have a representative function… individualism and democracy, but a star always represents something more than him – or herself”. Until “going electric” Dylan was seen as a “folk star” being portrayed “as virtually singlehandedly providing popular music with a political awareness.” (Marshall, 54) Folk meant “natural” acoustic music that was thoroughly anti-commercial. Many read his transition as an abandonment of his association with social causes and a move into the music business. Dylan was, through the media, seen as a representation of the restless ideals of the generation under 30 during a period of turbulent social change. If Dylan was abandoning the ideals people took from his folk music would his generation follow? Consistent with the times, social change was coming rapidly and Dylan was in the process of transforming into, and defining the representation of a rock star.

The 1965 San Francisco press conference was televised in full, reflecting the curiosity in Dylan and discovering further what the artist represented a that moment. He sat alone at a table in a tailored tweed suit, chain-smoking. His sartorial choice signalled a departure from the everyman image of workingman’s shirt and jeans in his folk club years. To use a word from the period he presents himself as “hip” and sophisticated. Dylan is introduced irreverently as “a poet who will answer questions from everything from atomic science to riddles and rhymes”. Although once questioning starts he deflects the “poet” label famously saying “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” This is an idea he will return to later in his career as he highlights his persona as a performer toiling on the road in the tradition of the original Blues artists. Dylan playfully challenges his questioner to consider the definition of poetry through listing his favourite poets as “Rimbaud, I guess, W.C. Fields; The family, you know, the trapeze family in the circus; Smokey Robinson; Allen Ginsberg: Charlie Rich – he’s a good poet.” By doing this he combines High culture perceptions of poetry to suggest sublime poetry can be found elsewhere, including physical movement. He is rejecting the label of being a poet through questioning an established perception of what defines poetry. The irony here is that Dylan is denying being a poet, in what could be considered a poetic manner.

As a historical artefact the interview is important. The grammar of the rock musician interview is in the infancy of being formulated, so viewing it today the dynamics seem strange. There is obvious tension as the press struggle to ask questions based on an understanding of Dylan’s work. It seems the questioners are primarily hard news journalists with limited knowledge of music. One reporter asks “Mr Dylan, I know you dislike labels and probably rightfully so, but for those of us well over thirty, could you label yourself and perhaps tell us what your role is? Dylan, without defining his role, smiles and replies that he labels himself as “well under thirty”. Through this period Dylan’s word play would continue to entertain and confuse people.

Later in the interview he is pressed on his political beliefs and deconstructs the act of protest into a form of performance art. He states he thought about staging a protest where 25,000 people “perhaps carrying cards with pictures of the Jack of Diamonds on them and the Ace of Spades on them… just picket, carry signs and picket in front of the post office.” Here Dylan is resisting the imposed role of being the political spokesperson by taking by presenting a creative way of interpreting the act of protest. He highlights the theartre of protest and the potency of symbols and signs. Dylan is constantly probed for the meaning behind his lyrics trying to build on the agenda that everything he created had a deeper hidden meaning. Throughout his career he attempts to unshackle his lyrics from his own persona and with that a political message. Later is career he would say he created “songs not sermons” (60 minutes interview) but as pointed out earlier, audiences hold to the dynamic that stars represent a wider cause or point of view.

 

Interview 2 – 1987 “Getting to Dylan”.

The 1980’s are period when Dylan is cast as a star belonging to the past. His contemporary work is viewed as no longer being vital as it once was and Dylan later defined himself during this period as “a 60’s troubadour, a folk-rock relic. A wordsmith from bygone days. I’m in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.” (Dylan, 147) During this period interviews on-screen were rare. While Dylan is on set for the film “Hearts on Fire” he concedes to having a conversation with a BBC documentary crew. It’s shot with one camera inside Dylan’s trailer on set. We never sight the interviewer Christopher Sykes as he tries to charm his subject into revealing insights. Unconventionally Dylan turns his gaze on the interviewer as he starts sketching a portrait of him on the back of a sheet of proposed questions. He seems to be making a statement that if you can study me intensely I can study you too. Sykes finds this disconcerting but gradually Dylan gets engaged in the conversation.

Over twenty years on from the San Francisco interview society has moved on from the idealism to neo-liberalism of the 1980’s and work is a topic of conversation. Dylan attests it is the act work that is important, more so than any money that it may generate. “Just, to work, is … er… to be able to work is, is what a person should strive after, you know?.” He reminds Sykes that when he started his career the music business was not of the financial scale of the 1980’s. Dylan casts himself apart from an industry where music is made by “machines” has a sameness and is “synthetic”.

 

Interview 3 – 2004 “Sixty Minutes”.

The final interview I wish to consider occurs at the start of this century and coincides with the release of Dylan’s biography Chronicles: Part One. His career was on the ascendancy again as his last two albums have attracted critical and commercial success and he had been awarded multiple Grammy awards for the recordings. Dylan and interviewer Ed Bradley are seen within opulent, stately surroundings. This helps project the impression that this is an intimate, special occasion as a voiceover intones that this is “the first television interview in nearly 20 years.”

A key dynamic that has changed from the last interview, and mentioned in the 60 minutes piece, is that Dylan now constantly tours, playing 100 concerts a year. Andrea Cossu sees this strategy as “Dylan’s own attempt to move his work concretely beyond time and the burden of his image…and creates a performance space for creativity and transformation of songs.” (Cossu,133). With so many concert dates, access to Dylan, the performer, has been increased dramatically. He is physically constantly on the move and his performance evolves with radical re-workings of his songs and set list. Lee Marshall believes “I think the NET (Never Ending Tour) has been relatively successful in redefining Dylan’s star image. In particular, the NET has repositioned Dylan as a performer rather than a songwriter, characterising him as a modern-day troubadour.” (Marshall, 226). From the evidence of my own experience of Dylan concerts I would agree with both scholars. For Dylan fans the performer creates an enjoyable tension as the listener untangles the arrangements of familiar classic songs, which often change the lyrical emphasis sometimes offering new readings of the material. Fans now have the opportunity to attend a number of Dylan gigs over a week or so and be treated to different experiences. The same cannot always be said of many acts that have a predictable, baked-in set list and cannot draw upon such an extensive back songbook. The interview is intercut with archive footage reminding viewers of his status while a pensive Dylan asserts that his success was determined by destiny. Born Robert Zimmerman he was always going to be Bob Dylan. “Some people – you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents, I mean that happens.” Here he subjugates his own agency to the influence of a spiritual, mystical power. Asked what that might be he replies “the Commander in Chief”.

“It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end… to get where I am now” says Dylan. His thoughts echo folklore of the Faustian bargain that Blues legend Robert Johnson made with the devil on the crossroads, success and fame in exchange for the soul. Given Dylan’s earlier public embracement of Christianity one could assume his understanding is with his God rather than the force Mr Johnson is said to have encountered. Dylan reinforces the idea of a divine destiny by saying his early songs were “magically written” and repeating that feat to the same level attained in his youth was no longer possible.

Through implying he tapped into a mystical creative wellspring Dylan is constructing an image of a supernatural influence defined his career rather than his own agency. On one level he is saying he is simply a musician, ”I never wanted to be a prophet or savoir. Elvis maybe. I could easily see myself becoming him. But prophet? No.” However while Elvis Presley reached iconic status in pop culture he did build his career as a lyricist. The expectations of a singer songwriter from an audience are that the words belong to the artist and reflect their own outlook on life. When asked about his songs being viewed as anthems, a voice for the sixties generation Dylan replies that his audience “must not have heard the songs”. Bradley presses him on the point “It’s ironic, that the way that people viewed you was just the polar opposite of the way you viewed yourself”. Dylan replied “Isn’t that something”.

 

Summary

In each of the three interviews considered here, Dylan rejects the representation of his identity presented to him by the interviewers. He dismisses the label of poet by contending he is a “song and dance man” and challenging the perceptions of what constitutes poetry. In the 1980’s he contests the idea of him being cast as a rich rock star by drawing a picture of a hardworking musician whose paid his dues. In the most recent interview Dylan once again rejects the label of “spokesperson of a generation” and it’s political associations and contest his own role in his career compared to a larger force of “destiny”. In all mediations Dylan avoids being cast as static, defined and through that relegated to the past. It seems that Dylan understands that the persona of a star requires an element of mystery that sets them apart from the ordinary. If everything is known and predictable the audience will go elsewhere in search of something new. It appears that survival, defined as relevance in the contemporary market, requires constant movement. This has manifested physically in his Never Ending Tour. Over fifty years on and off screen we have seen many Dylan’s so maybe the pursuit of the one defined, authentic persona is futile. Better to take his lead, keep moving and to enjoy them all for the entertainment, inspiration and music they offer.

 Dylan Books

 

Bibliography

“Bob Dylan talks about life and art on the set of “Hearts of Fire”, 1987”. Dangerous Minds. n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2013

“Bob Dylan Interview” You Tube. 12 March 2013. Web 19 August 2103.

“Bob Dylan: San Francisco Press Conference (Dec 1965) Parts 1-6. You Tube. March 11, 2011. Web 20 August 2013.

Cossu, Andrea. It Ain’t Me, Babe – Bob Dylan and the Performance of Authenticity. Boulder, CO. Paradigm Publishers, 2012. Print.

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles: Volume One, Simon & Schuster

Marshall, Lee. Bob Dylan The Never Ending Star. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2007. Print.

Shelton, Robert. No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan. Melbourne, Vic. Hardie Grant Books, 2011. Print.

Wilentz, Sean. Bob Dylan in America. New York, New York. Doubleday, 2010. Print

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s