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Bob Dylan's Transfiguration

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Halfway through Bob Dylan's Rolling Stone interview (a little piece is posted at rollingstone.com), I wondered if the 71-year-old singer had crossed into delusioned superstar/crazy old coot territory. He pulled out a book about the Hell's Angels and pointed a few things out: the authors were Keith and Kent Zimmerman, and inside they tell the story of Bobby Zimmerman, a member of the San Bernadino chapter who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1964 (the magazine fact checked this and found out it really happened in 1961). Dylan, who crashed his motorcycle in 1961, was convinced that he had been "transfigured," and kept saying things like, "when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist."

The reporter (Mikal Gilmore) got nowhere pressing him on the topic - he would have had better luck trying to interpret All Along the Watchtower. But just as I considered the possibility that Dylan had gone daffy, his point started coming through: you are all taking me way too seriously.

In this celebrity-endorsed culture, we often want to know what famous folks think about politics, and Gilmore pressed Dylan hard with leading questions where he tried to bait the singer into saying that Obama was the victim of a racist electorate. Dylan wouldn't bite, and just pressed the point that people in power have a heavy burden. At one point, Dylan told Gilmore this in response to yet another Obama question:

"He loves music. He's personable. He dresses good. What the f--k do you want me to say?"

What Gilmore wanted him to say was an extrapolated opinion based on his brief interactions with the president, but Dylan knows you can't determine someone's true character with drive-by interactions and assumptions. Dylan is acutely aware that he is judged as a person based on his work, and said this about his fans:

"They love the music and songs I play, not me."

This was the real revelation in this interview, that he thinks the cult of Dylan is laughable and kind of sad. His songs are supposed to teach us about ourselves, not about him, and they aren't written to inspire.

I found it refreshing when Dylan blew off the political questions and took the interview to the one place he his comfortable and insightful - his songs. As someone who works on a website that deconstructs these tunes, it is helpful to hear how he views them. When asked if his song about the Titanic was a "judgment on modern times," Dylan answered, "No. I try to stay away from all that stuff. I'm just interested in showing you what happened."

That's as good a description for a Dylan song as I've heard - he's just telling us what happened.


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It's hard to tell if he's actually crazy or just screwing with us and I'm sure that's exactly what he wants. Nobody does a better job of controlling his own mythology than Dylan. If there's a part of his personal life he doesn't want the public to access, he'll just make something up. And the crazier it is, the more people eat it up. I think he's as sharp as he ever was and this is just the new character he's presenting to his audience. There's been plenty of widely varying Dylan characters over the last 50 years, but only Dylan knows the real Dylan.

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There's a line in the interview that kind up sums it all up: "What others think about me, or feel about me, that's so irrelevant. Ay more than it is for me, when I go see a movie, say, Wuthering Heights or something, and have to wonder what's Laurence Olivier really like. When I see an actor on the stage or something, I don't think about what they're like, I'm there because I want to forget about myself, forget about what I care or do not care about. Entertaining is a type of sport."

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