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The Most Shocking Thing Bob Dylan Has Ever Written

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There’s been a good deal of hoopla recently about Dylan’s concert in Vietnam and his concerts in China. “How,” serious people asked in dismay, “could the man who wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” ignore the repressive acts of the Chinese government, and especially the detention of Ai Weiwei?” Well, as Mike Hammer says when he shoots the blonde who has just stripped for him in I, the Jury, it was easy.

After all, this is one of the Two Standard Questions that people have been asking of Dylan for almost half a century now. The First Standard Question is, “Where do you get your ideas for your songs?” Interviewers and well-intentioned fans alike just won’t let go of this question. The trouble is, they believe that creativity is a conscious, controllable process; they want Dylan to give some easy formula for any given song that will begin with, “Well, see, the idea behind it is this…” People asked Dylan The First Standard Question throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and Ed Bradley even asked The First Question a few years ago when he interviewed Dylan on 60 Minutes.

Dylan is never going to answer The First Standard Question because the only thing he can say is what his mentor and role model Pablo Picasso once said to a friend, “Sometimes there are no answers.” People don’t like to acknowledge that creativity is a kind of miracle, and is often as baffling to creative people as it is to the rest of us.

And the Second Standard Question, of which the questions about the recent concerts in Asia, is a variant, goes like this: “What happened to your commitment to social activism?” Because Dylan burst upon the scene with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are-a Changin’,” “Oxford Town,” and other songs of social engagement, people did the equivalent of typecasting. They said, “Oh, Dylan is a folksinger in the mold of Woody Guthrie,” and went on with their lives. For them this is what Dylan was, and always would be. Unbeknown to them, the times weren’t the only thing that was “a changin’.” Dylan was changing, too, and radically.

The truth about Dylan is that he is, was, and always has been, a semi-mystical esthete. His infatuation with Woody Guthrie and his commitment to social justice was only a brief phase in a long, complex career. The best evidence for this that I know of occurs in his memoir Chronicles, and expresses his state of mind after “Like A Rolling Stone” made him an international celebrity in 1965.

Introverts like Dylan don’t like being international celebrities, so he started casting about for alternatives to the fishbowl of fame, and this is what he came up with: “I don’t know what everybody else was fantasizing about, but what I was fantasizing about was a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard.”

This is surely the most shocking thing that Dylan has ever written. In one sentence he undercuts his image as a social activist, as a rebel, as the spokesman for his generation, and so forth. Like Voltaire’s Candide, he just wanted to stay home and tend his garden—and write amazing songs, of course.

There is a deep split in Dylan’s psyche that makes people’s confusion about him understandable. On one hand, Dylan is intensely introverted; like Greta Garbo, he just wants to be left alone. On the other hand, he has wanted to sing for people since he was about five years old.

Dylan deals with this split by going out and singing, and then not commenting on his times. He doesn’t give interviews, just as he doesn’t banter with the people in his audiences. As Greil Marcus once said of Elvis, he doesn’t so much sing as present himself.

About jcurtis

  • William Judd

    Well said, sir. I heartily agree.

  • DylanFan

    Fantastic article!

  • http://thealephmag.com aleph

    For all his garbled vocals and unpredicta­bility, Dylan knew exactly what he was doing when he went to China. Unlike his critics in the Western media egging him on to have some sort of Bjork-like outburst on stage, he understand­s that protest is best done when it names no specific target. The Chinese government let his anti-oppre­ssion lyrics slide, probably because the songs are so damn good and Dylan’s a legend, but probably also because the words could apply to the proletaria­n struggle just as well as they would to an anti-total­itarian one. In the best way possible, Dylan first looks out for himself as an artist, and isn’t that stubborn defiance of expectatio­ns the most universal and powerful protest of all?

  • http://www.morethings.com/wordpress Al Barger

    The cheesy thing is people waiting breathlessly for a POP SINGER to be their political leader. I mean, for crying in a bucket.

  • bobcat

    When all the people who protest against Dylan’s visit to China had joint together and took their responsibility on their OWN and did some action against China…
    that would be marvelous!
    Now the only thing they do is pointing to someone else and doing nothing at all.

  • ttfi

    “He doesn’t give interviews”?

    Uh.

  • Dale G.

    I’m pretty sure that Bob has give more interview in the last 50 years (by far!) than any other popular performer on the planet!

  • jcurtis

    Yes, Dylan has given lots and lots of inteviews, but not recently. I should have written, “He doesn’t give interviews any more.” Sometimes he talks to people, and Douglas Brinkley wrote an acount of one of these conversations for “Rolling Stone” last year. But Dylan talks about what Dylan wants to talk about, when he wants to talk about it. He doesn’t give interviews in the usual sense of the word. Not any more.

  • Drea S

    Picasso was his mentor? Did not know that.

  • Riley Smiley

    Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and he is not me or you. The guy has influenced more people than all the dogmatic progressives or conservatives. He don’t belong to you.

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    I am intrigued by the two ads for ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ that accompany this article. My copy of the album runs a mere 51 minutes, but these two are 371 minutes and 3090 minutes. Is that 60 versions of each song, or just an amusing misprint?