The press kisses Bob Dylan's butt, and gets what you might expect
"What is this shit?"
So began Greil Marcus' famous review of Bob Dylan's vomit-inducing album Self-Portrait 34 years ago. It was a great line. And it's taken on a new relevance as Dylan has emerged from his shell to publish the first installment of what we're told will be a three-volume set of memoirs.
But the shit, as it turns out, isn't the book. In fact, Chronicles is a lot like a good Dylan song: vivid, rambling and, at the same time, noticeable for what it lacks. In fact, the book comes across like a CD player set on shuffle. One chapter we're with him when he's visiting Woody Guthrie on his deathbed, another chapter he's drinking beers with Bono, who puts him on the phone with Daniel Lanois, a move that would signal the rebirth of Dylan's career in the 1990s.
No, what's missing is as tantalizing, more so, actually, than what's included in Dylan's memoirs. Which brings us to the shit.
To promote his book, Dylan has opened himself up to a few interviews. But only a few. The first was with Newsweek, which might be puzzling until you remember that Newsweek put Dylan on its cover in 1997 to herald the release of Time Out of Mind. Giving the magazine first crack at him seven years later was a way for Dylan to return the favor. And, lest the logrolling stop, Newsweek followed up the interview by splashing Dylan across its cover once again in October.
In the accompanying story, Newsweek's David Gates informs us that, per Dylan's instructions, he can say only that the interview took place "someplace in the Midwest." Dylan, we're told, sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Gates looks out the window at the rain falling onto the blacktop and writes, "Dylan must have seen so many of these gloomy Midwestern days when he was growing up in northern Minnesota."
Smelling the shit yet? Dylan has reached such iconic status that the press treats him like royalty, and would never dare question when the emperor might have gone out without his clothes. And there were plenty of times when Dylan stood naked. There was his much-reported philandering. His divorce from Sara, the woman he described in song as the "sweet love of my life." His conversion to Christianity, in which he took to proselytizing in concert, warning the crowd that the "anti-Christ is loose right now." There was his near-fatal chest infection in 1997. And, more recently, how about that Victoria's Secret ad, in which Dylan's face is intercut with the sumptuous body of model Adriana Lima? Seriously, Bob, what's up with that?
These are just some of the topics Dylan chooses not to mention in Chronicles. In the life of Dylan, they constitute pretty major omissions.
Omissions, as it turns out, that are glossed over by those handpicked by the Dylan camp to conduct interviews with him. In fact, after the Newsweek story ran, Gates sat for an on-line forum in which readers could ask him questions about his one-on-one with the Bard of Hibbing. One reader wanted to know if Gates had asked Dylan about his motorcycle accident in 1966, or his divorce. "No," Gates responded, "and perhaps I should have."
Well, Dave, what about that bizarre movie he was in last year, Masked and Anonymous?
"We didn't talk about Masked," Gates says.
How about his views on religion? After being born again, is Dylan a practicing Jew again?
"We didn't talk about it."
What about Dylan's drug use?
"We didn't get into that. It's a huge and fruitful topic."
The Victoria's Secret ad?
"I don't know. I enjoy little mysteries like that."
OK, Dave, what about this: Is Dylan married?
"I don't know. I suspect not, but that's just a guess."
OK, let's leave David Gates alone for a moment. After all, from manure sometimes grow beautiful things. Let us instead turn our attention to another reporter, perhaps one you've heard of. His name is Ed Bradley. Bradley has been with 60 Minutes for almost a quarter-century. He is a veteran of hundreds of tough interviews. He is trained to ask the kinds of questions the rest of us would like to ask, but are too embarrassed or awed to. So when word came down he would conduct Dylan's first television interview in something like 20 years, you had to be hopeful. Here was an opportunity to get to the bottom of the inscrutable Bob Dylan, a man who, finally, after all these years, seems to want to talk. (After all, even Gates said in his online forum that Dylan "didn't refuse to deal with anything I asked him about.")
"For as long as I've been here at 60 Minutes, I've wanted to interview Bob Dylan," Bradley said, sitting on one of those stools, introducing his piece. And, as it turns out, Dylan and Bradley were born just a month apart. Surely these two kindred spirits would have a revealing conversation. Or, if not, it wouldn't be for lack of effort from Bradley.
Ah, such shit.
Bradley's interview with Dylan made Gates look like the Seymour Hersh of the music business. I'd use the word "vacuous" but it doesn't quite capture the emptiness, the galactic banality of Bradley's questions. His silver hoop dangling from his left ear, his head cocked like he was discussing hemlock recipes with Socrates, Bradley asked questions like this:
"Do you go out to restaurants now?"
"I don't like to eat in restaurants," Dylan says.
"Because people come up and say, 'Are you him?'"
"That's always going to happen, yeah."
When he wasn't asking about Dylan's dining habits, Bradley returned to the same question that Dylan has been answering for 40 years - about his role as "voice of a generation." What's amazing is that for 40 years, Dylan's answer to that question hasn't changed. No, he never saw himself that way. Next question.
It's no wonder Dylan hates the press. What's to like? •
`This originally appeared in Creative Loafing.`