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

By Stephen Pate – 7th in the series. The Romans studied the entrails of chickens: Bob Dylan fans study the bootlegs looking for clues. Dylan historian Sean Wilentz and Dylan poetry critic Christopher Ricks do their own analysis.

The earlier and 6th article in the series is  Thin Wild Mercury Sound of Bob Dylan

Part 7 – Bob Dylan There or Not There

Sean Wilentz –  The apocrypha? Some of it is great. To have all those concert tapes, I’m sure you do, too, Christopher … I have shelves full of CDs of various concerts that have been done. Some of them are of high quality, some are of low quality.

Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks at The Philocretes

Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks at The Philocretes

You can hear things in there on the intonation. The example that you just gave in Boston, of him adding a couple words, or changing something; you’re never going to get that any other way. He is a performer, too, and the performance aspect of his art cannot be forgotten.

I think all of that is wonderful, and I personally like having the session tapes available. I wish more were available, actually, because you can see that process.

That’s nothing that necessarily is going to be something that all of the listeners in the room are going to want to hear, but I think for some of us, it’s great. It’s quite valuable.


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I thought you were going to go in a different direction, actually, and talk about all the other things he’s done, like his art and stuff, and the things outside of that. I don’t think he’s a very good artist, myself; I don’t.

Picture drawing … I think it’s …

The memoir’s superb. The memoir, I think, is as good an example of that genre as I’ve read in a long time, across the board. I don’t think he’s … I think he loves to draw. I think he loves to color the things that he’s drawn, and I think that there are museum directors who want to put it on, and he’s happy to do so, and he’s happy to come out. I don’t know that it’s much more than that.

Christopher Ricks –  I think there are deeper fears in it, that is, “Ready for to fade into my own parade”. He is never going to be ready to fade into his own parade.

That’s a real problem, because there is always a parade for him. One thing to do about that, is to multiply the number of parades.

He’s like the cuttlefish that escapes by telling you where it is, so he maximizes public appearances, and is therefore less trapped in any one public appearance. That seems to be part of it.

You’ll remember, the only capital letter in “Advice to Geraldine on Her Miscellaneous Birthday”, the capital “N” for not,

“do Not create anything. it will be
misinterpreted. it will not change.
it will follow you the
rest of your life.”

That’s a real fear, for an artist, as it’s a real fear for an actor, or especially a performing artist. They’re just caught forever in some role, and unable to get out of it.

Symposium 43I think the multiplicity of things that he’s doing are all ways of not being stamped and labelled, as in the Lenny Bruce song.

Lenny Bruce was stamped and labelled, but it was partly his fault, wasn’t it? He didn’t have enough ways of being himself. Isn’t that right? He had this terrific way of being himself, and the song is full of admiration for him, but … taxi one, it’s like an hour and a half. It’s all used up, isn’t it?

Bruce is all used up, in that one extraordinary thing that he could do, like certain caricaturists; Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman. These, I think, are terrific caricaturists, but they have only one thing that they can do.

Dylan, I think, is always trying to get … Is not reinventing himself, it’s just …

Sean Wilentz – Just doing something else.

Christopher Ricks – “Masked and Anonymous”?

Sean Wilentz – “Masked and Anonymous” great movie.

Christopher: No, the other one… “I’m Not There,” yeah … Terrible movie. The one where there are the many personae.

Ledger was murdered. Everybody who pretends to be murdered in that film, is going to be murdered. Nobody dies of an overdose of drugs. We’ve seen the films. Everybody always dies because they’ve been murdered, and there is a demented English professor out there, who is going to kill every one of the people who pretended to be Dylan in “I’m Not There”.

She’s going to be last, because she was both the best at acting, and the most pointless, because she acted footage which we already have, of Dylan being himself. Just watch the papers over the next year or so. One by one, it’s going to be like Jack Ruby; have a photo, see them crossed out one by one. “Former Oxford professor of poetry, arrested for snuffing out bad people.”

Sean Wilentz – For wandering around Long Branch, New Jersey.

[Editor – I absolutely do not agree with them on I’m Not There. Yes it’s weird at times but it does represent Dylan’s shape shifting public personas and is entertaining.]

Next – Bob Dylan’s Reinvents Himself

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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.

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