Monday, April 13, 2009

Dylan on Obama


What does the man who wrote, "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters," think of President Barack Obama? He likes him a lot, it seems, but he still doesn't like politicians. I got this from an interview Dylan did recently with music critic Bill Flannagan. Dylan's political remarks are only a small part of the interview, but journalists hunting for a lede keep highlighting them (I just did it myself).

In fact, I come as close to worshiping Bob Dylan as to any human on the planet, present or past. That doesn't mean I have any particular respect for his political opinions. What I take off my hat & bow low to is the man's prodigious, unstoppable creativity. It never quits. It never has. His life is a nonstop improvisation -- words, music, writing, film, drawing & painting, in fact whatever's handy -- an endless riff. His legacy will be (& should be) his astonishing music, but he's brilliant in every form he picks up. He's inspired. An inspired genius liar. And his very best lies are often the truth.

It seems to me that Dylan is constantly taking in the world -- reading, traveling, talking to people, having dinner & all the rest of the stuff people do. And, simultaneously, he's turning it into a story.

In the interview Dylan tells Flanagan he read Obama's Dreams of My Father and was "intrigued." Here's where the interview goes next. (BF=Bill Flanagan; BD=Bob Dylan)

BF: What struck you about him [Obama]?

BD: Well, a number of things. He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage - cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

BF: In what way?

BD: First of all, Barack is born in Hawaii. Most of us think of Hawaii as paradise – so I guess you could say that he was born in paradise.

BF: And he was thrown out of the garden.

BD: Not exactly. His mom married some other guy named Lolo and then took Barack to Indonesia to live. Barack went to both a Muslim school and a Catholic school. His mom used to get up at 4:00 in the morning and teach him book lessons three hours before he even went to school. And then she would go to work. That tells you the type of woman she was. That’s just in the beginning of the story.

BF: What else did you find compelling about him?

BD: Well, mainly his take on things. His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.

BF: What in his book would make you think he’d be a good politician?

BD: Well nothing really. In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second - selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.

BF: Do you think he’ll make a good president?

BD: I have no idea. He’ll be the best president he can be. Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men. Johnson would be a good example of that … Nixon, Clinton in a way, Truman, all the rest of them going back. You know, it’s like they all fly too close to the sun and get burned.

Portrait by Mark Seliger, All rights reserved

Hold on.  Jefferson Davis an ancestor? Bantu, Masai, Griot-type cattle-raiders, lionkillers? Sold German bonds? Where did all that come from?  Well, sorry that's Dylan. He's telling a story -- no sense in letting facts get in the way. A little embroidering. Dylan has been doing it from the beginning.  You think Joey Gallo was really a mobster-hero who "opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion..."?  The story, the myth is what drives our imagination forward, not the facts.

Before Obama was elected, when Dylan was asked about politics, he said:

"Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval. Poverty is demoralising. You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor.

"But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up...Barack Obama.

"He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to."

He got it. He still gets it.

In the interview Flanagan asks:

BF: What's your take on politics?

BD: Politics is entertainment. It's a sport. It's for the well groomed and well heeled. The impeccably dressed. Party animals. Politicians are interchangeable.

Do you think that's a contradiction? Then you don't get Dylan.

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