Dylan’s recent interview with Douglas Brinkley published in the New York Times reminded me of the Wallace Stevens lines, “You must become an ignorant man again / And see the sun with an ignorant eye / And see it clearly in the idea of it” (“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”). The occasion of the interview was the forthcoming Rough and Rowdy Ways, but Brinkley managed to touch on other subjects including nostalgia, technology, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and “the long strange trip of the naked ape.” Dylan seemed straightforward during the interview, thoughtful and alert to the nuances of Brinkley’s questions. It’s one of those Dylan interviews that somehow neutralize one’s skepticism about his notoriously enigmatic answers in earlier interviews.
For sixty years Dylan has taken interviewers (and the rest of us) on a rollercoaster ride up steep crests and down dizzying plunges of wild fabrication, good-humored whimsy, aggression, impertinence, candor, insouciance, cunning, guardedness, personal religion, unexpected musical tastes, and seemingly unshakeable allegiances. It has seemed as though, to understand or believe him, one “must become an ignorant man [or woman] again,” as if seeing the same sun “with an ignorant eye.” Dylan has frequently answered the same questions (thanks to indefatigably stubborn interviewers) in different ways, leaving us flatfooted interpreters in a state one might describe as learned ignorance. Interviewers, meanwhile, have appeared by turns (and sometimes in the same interview) gullible, incredulous, erudite and scrupulous, staggeringly uninformed, probing, humbled, fawning, canny, contemptuous, or manipulated.
Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” has now been officially cathected onto Dylan’s lyric persona. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The interviewee Bob Dylan has contained multitudes at least since he informed Cynthia Gooding in 1962 on public radio that, on one hand, he’d traveled “with the carnival off and on six years,” and that, on the other, he was more than just a singer of folk music. As he added, with remarkable insight: “A lot of people, they’re just folk music, folk music, folk music. I like folk music . . . but I don’t sing much of that, and when I do it’s probably a modified version of something. Not a modified version; I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just there’s more to it I think.” The capaciousness of an interview that ranges from wanderlust fantasies to probing introspection can’t be ignored, even if the fantastical dimension does have a tendency to undermine Dylan’s prophetic understanding of his own performances as more than folk music, as “a modified version of something.”
The same extremes occurred throughout the decades. Fifty years later, in the now-celebrated, and panoramic, 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone Magazine, Dylan at one point talks about what he calls “transfiguration” and refers cryptically to the 1964 death of a Hell’s Angel called Bobby Zimmerman. Gilmore tries to pin Dylan down on transfiguration—”By transfiguration . . . do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?”—but Dylan rejects transmigration. He offers instead: “I had a motorcycle accident in 1966. I already explained to you about new and old. Right? Now, you can put this together any way you want.” And then he adds a genuinely weird comment:
You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept . . . you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation—or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future. So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist.
Huh? One is tempted to laugh this off as an earnest interviewer’s nightmare—the abracadabra disappearance of the interviewee who’s facing you. Or maybe the reverse is true: maybe it’s the interviewer’s dream answer, a gold strike of Dylan’s personal occultism.
In either case, while the transfiguration theory might sound less than comprehensible to some of us—not everyone, however: see, for example, Richard Thomas’s brilliant take on transfiguration in his article in this issue—Dylan’s answers to other questions during the Gilmore interview were focused and crystal clear. Gilmore pressed him on his view of history and Dylan replied with acute insight (and with prescience, given our contemporary moment):
GILMORE: Do you see any parallels between the 1860s and present-day America?
DYLAN: Mmm, I don’t know how to put it. It’s like . . . the United States burned and destroyed itself for the sake of slavery. The USA wouldn’t give it up. It had to be grinded out. The whole system had to be ripped out with force. A lot of killing. What, like, 500,000 people? A lot of destruction to end slavery. And that’s what it really was all about. This country is just too fucked up about color. It’s a distraction. People at each other’s throats just because they are of a different color. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back—or any neighborhood back. Or any anything back. Blacks know that some whites didn’t want to give up slavery—that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can’t pretend they don’t know that. If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood. It’s doubtful that America’s ever going to get rid of that stigmatization. It’s a country founded on the backs of slaves. You know what I mean? Because it goes way back. It’s the root cause. If slavery had been given up in a more peaceful way, America would be far ahead today.
Others have said similar things, not least James Baldwin, a writer Dylan read. And Dylan doesn’t mention the founding genocide of Native Americans. But the sheer, shattering realness of his answer and his keen eye for racist stigma (“I saw a black branch . . . ”) clash with the magpie mysticism of the transfiguration answer. Does the former neutralize the credibility of the latter? Or can we, as practiced Dylan-watchers, distinguish the valuable bits from the dross (if it is dross). Can we disentangle the solid ethical architecture from the experimental flux? You’d think we’d be surfeited, at this late stage in the proceedings, with such polarized inconsistencies—that even the most dedicated thrill-seeker would have had enough of the rollercoaster ride.
And yet we hunger for more. We read on, or listen to “live” interviews, privately building dossiers and forming composite BDs from what we believe, half-believe, want to believe, and suppose Dylan believes when he answers interviewers’ questions. Are his answers important? Absolutely not, because the songs are what matters. Are his answers important? Absolutely yes—because the songs are what matters. We might be as skeptical of Dylan’s self-analysis as we are of any artist’s. We might have our doubts about Dylan’s worldview: it’s too vague on the details, it lacks political sophistication, his deity impinges, ethos overshadows praxis. But still we need to hear what Dylan has to say: every interview we read or hear, stemming from the earliest press conferences and live radio to the recent filmed versions and even the Nobel lecture—in other words, every incremental stepping stone of Dylan’s career—now bears the colossally oppressive weight of his 600 songs. The fact of that artistic achievement and of Dylan’s cultural authority (the “voice-of-a-generation” millstone of the sixties) makes deciphering the interviews a desideratum for any . . . well, for any Dylanista.
Which brings me back to the Brinkley interview. Toward the end of the interchange, Brinkley asked a question that I took to be almost pro forma, one to which everybody already knew the answer (or so I thought):
BRINKLEY: What role does improvisation play in your music?
DYLAN: None at all. There’s no way you can change the nature of a song once you’ve invented it. You can set different guitar or piano patterns upon the structural lines and go from there, but that’s not improvisation. Improvisation leaves you open to good or bad performances and the idea is to stay consistent. You basically play the same thing time after time in the most perfect way you can.
None at all? Improvisation plays no role whatever in Dylan’s performances? This response floored me. Allen Ginsberg associated improvisation with spontaneity, calling them “the whole point of modern poetry.” Daniel Belgrad, in Culture and Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, points out that “although rock was not the music that had originally developed in connection with the culture of spontaneity, in many ways it partook of the spontaneous aesthetic. Rock lyrics were often written as spontaneous poetry, as with Bob Dylan’s 1965 underground classic, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’”
Until the Brinkley interview I might have agreed with Belgrad (in a qualified way). When I think about Dylan’s performances, scores of what seem spontaneously altered verses come to mind, including famous bootleg recordings and countless songs barely recognizable once they’ve been taken from the studio to the stage. And, as is well known, this “spontaneous poetry” seemed real enough to attract dissenters. Every concert had its phalanx of fans begging Bobby to play the songs the way they knew them from the records, the way he first wrote and sang them. They seemed to think he was improvising, and they disapproved (sometimes becoming quite exercised about it).
But evidently Dylan doesn’t improvise. He can sing, on Real Live,
Headin’ out for the old East Coast
Radio blastin’ the news straight on through
Tangled up in blue
instead of the Blood on the Tracks version,
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue.
But this is not improvisation. This is categorically not part of Ginsberg’s or Belgrad’s spontaneous aesthetic. If we are to believe Dylan’s response to Brinkley—and I do believe it, despite the humming of the rollercoaster wheels in the background—then the lyrical change retains and protects the inalterable nature of the song. If I understand correctly, Dylan won’t risk improvisation because that would open the door to good or bad performances and he needs to stay consistent—either because the songs as they were written can’t be changed or because they mean so much to him in their original nature. In every performance of every song, then, as different as the songs might sound to us, Dylan delivers unchanged versions. He plays “the same thing time after time in the most perfect way.” The word “perfect” means “complete” in Latin, and what Dylan is telling us is that every song is always already complete, finished at its core, and his performances strive to repeat that complete (or perfect) version.
But it would be literary naiveté to suggest Dylan is unique in altering his supposedly complete works. There’s Henry James, for instance, whose famous revisions (according to Henrician stalwarts) didn’t affect the perfection of the novels. Closer to home, perhaps, is Walt Whitman. Often compared to Dylan as a vatic influence and as an American proto-Guthrie original, Whitman added many lines to Leaves of Grass but kept the essence of that long poem unchanged—the “Me Myself” core.
I’ve always thought I heard improvisation in Dylan’s performances, brilliant flashes of spontaneity—and I’ve thrilled in recognizing and comparing the differences from the original. But maybe I’ve been listening to the wrong side of the song, to the superficial side. Maybe what I’ve been hearing is Dylan’s style of Whitmanian rewriting. That would mean I should be listening not for what seems different, but for what is unchanged.
I’ve also thought I was beyond surprises from Dylan interviews, and far past credulity. Yet there’s something irresistible in the idea that Dylan’s performances are consistent despite their appearance of inconsistency, as if in the interviews, too, Dylan hewed to a Whitmanian model. Or an Emersonian one—“consistency,” Emerson remarked, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Dylan doesn’t trust improvisation, it would seem, because there’s too much at stake in his art to improvise. He can change his songs—rewrite, revise, and restructure them—but the core invention remains the same. He told us long ago (in an interview, predictably) that he’s just a song and dance man. I wonder: might he not have been characterizing his performance in the interview—and in the many yet to come—as much as he was describing his performances on stage? This idea would bring us full circle. Dylan’s “inconsistencies” in the interviews, like the living revisions of his performed songs, are not improvised. They are dances, like Whitman’s, around one core topic, with the tangents and even the fabulist’s wanderings, protecting the perfection of an artist who is who he is despite the labels interviewers and audiences try to attach to him (folk singer, carnival roustabout, poet, painter, rock star, Nobel Laureate). On a typescript draft of liner notes for World Gone Wrong, there’s a bit of telling marginalia: Dylan reports that Billy Joel had visited him backstage, wondering why there weren’t notes explaining his songs anymore. There’s no record of what he said to Billy Joel, but he jotted the remark, “as if the whole story isn’t in the delivery.”
Dylan asks us, the folks experiencing his “delivery,” to listen to him at the moment that he is speaking or singing, without comparing what he’s speaking or singing to some past iteration of himself or the song. He asks us to become ignorant again every time, “And see the sun with an ignorant eye / And see it clearly in the idea of it.” This is his “eternal circle.”
And the song it is long, but it has to get done.