Bob Dylan in the cross-hairs – Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks take sides

By Stephen Pate – 8th in the series. Rimbaud wrote “I is another.” Dylan historian Sean Wilentz and Dylan poetry critic Christopher Ricks have two views why Dylan changes roles.

The earlier and 7th article in the series is  Bob Dylan There or Not There

Part 7 – Bob Dylan reinvents himself

Sean Wilentz –  He’s going to live a long time, I hope.

One thing I’ve noticed, and this also goes to the Christmas record. One thing that Dylan has done repeatedly, there are patterns in his art and in his writing. That is, there are times that I think he feels used up. This goes to what you’re talking about.

He does feel used up. I think he felt used up in the very late 60s. I think he felt used up in the 1980s.

I don’t know that he’s felt used up now, but whenever he does, he does do cover records. He’ll do Self Portrait
, which got slammed.

Christopher Ricks Very good record, yes.

Sean Wilentz – It’s an excellent record, and it’s him re-learning himself. He did the 2 acoustic albums in the early 90s, when he was used up, the second of which I think is superb. The first one is good. The second is, I think, really good.

Bob Dylan by Ana Maria Velez Wood taken in 1993

Bob Dylan by Ana Maria Velez Wood taken in 1993

Now he’s got another cover record of Christmas songs, so God knows what’s going to happen next. He does do that. When he’s feeling as if he’s getting either used up, or getting caught in a bind … If everybody’s got him figured out, then maybe he himself has figured himself out a little bit too much. He’s going to try to find … Go to the wellsprings again, and find something new, or find himself again, or find another part of himself again, in this older music.

The thing about the Christmas record, though, is that there’s a … Talk about getting session tapes. If you go to … All the Dylan freaks here will know this … Olof Bjorner’s site, which there’s a site on the Internet where you can … Where there’s a list of every single session, every single recording session. There was one session in 1983; they were doing “Infidels”, which is a very interesting record, and about halfway through, they were doing 2 weeks of sessions …

Grueling, day after day after day after day.

If you’re doing anything for that kind of time, you’re going to get worn out after a while. The musicians are starting … They weren’t getting it. Dylan says, as a band leader will, “Let’s try something else, just to mix it up a little bit.”

What do they play? They play “Silent Night”. They played a Louis Jordan song from 1946. This was 1983. Two years later he gives an interview to someone saying how much he admires Bing Crosby.

That reinvention, if you will … What’s happening now … Is very … It goes back 20 years. This has all been in his head for a long time. That is one pattern, is the cover album. There’s one clue.

Christopher Ricks  Yeah, and I think that album works as translation does for Robert Lowell comes to some moment, and then he’s going to translate.

Translations are cover versions, basically, at least they can be seen under that aspect. You feel it’s a break from something, but you’re keeping your hand in it, all right, because you’re writing.

I think there’s also … You might think there are lots of kinds of genius, but it seems to me, as with acting, there are … I can immediately see 2 clearly.

There’s the actor who is always in some way himself, like Jack Nicholson, and who is extraordinary. It’s extraordinary how much Nicholson can do, given that he is always himself. The person … In “The Pledge”, he’s playing the same kind of character as in “The Last Detail”. There’s something terrifically consistent and moving about that, but it’s not thrilling in the way that … It doesn’t have the same thrill as Olivier.

Olivier’s “Othello”, even if you’re conscious of Olivier because of his very forceful personality, his “Othello” is just in a different world from his “Richard III”.

I think that Dylan’s genius. Again, these will all be things that you and I have thought about and said … is more like Picasso than it’s like some other great artists. Picasso, he does one thing, and then he does another thing, and then he does another thing, and then he does it to plates, not even to paintings.

Sean Wilentz – Tom Thumb’s Blue Period.

Christopher Ricks Thank you. Beckett’s genius is the opposite. Beckett, very, very early on, knew that as soon as he got out from under James Joyce, there would be one thing he would do, and he would go on doing it and doing it and doing it and doing it.

The danger of that is, as it were, monotony, whether of a high kind or not. The danger of the Dylan gift is of a kind of … It might be flibbertigibbet, in some way. You can do this; you can kind of do anything. I do think there are radically different kinds of genius in this.

Sean Wilentz – Yeah, that’s right.

Christopher Ricks  We’ve got great musicians, who do go on and on doing the same thing, isn’t that right? But others who aren’t, don’t.

All photographs of Bob Dylan by Ana Maria Velez Wood (1993) copyright.

Last in the series – Everybody Must Get Stenet in Denmark

Get the books

End Note

Sean Wilentz is the author of Bob Dylan in America, the highly regarded book about Bob Dylan’s place in American history.

Christopher Ricks wrote the definitive book on Bob Dylan’s lyrics – Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Ricks is also the editor of the extra-large art book The Lyrics: Since 1962 containing all Bob Dylan’s lyrics with variations.

The discussion took place at The Philoctetes Center for the Multi-Disciplinary Study of the Imagination. You can watch the symposium on YouTube although it’s tediously long at 1 hour and 49 minute.

Follow Stephen Pate