Never Being Greater Than Himself: Ron Rosenbaum and Week 3 at the Y

imagesimages-1It’s 1977 in Los Angeles, Ron Rosenbaum is done with that day’s two-hour interview of Bob Dylan at the studio where Bob was working on post production of Renaldo and Clara, and Ron is eating a green chili omelet. I learned last night that after each session of the multi-part interview Dylan granted Playboy’s young journalist, the young journalist would go eat a green chili omelet. Did Ron Rosenbaum gaze out at the Angelenos and consider which ones would become murderous or stupefied with envy to know how he had spent the afternoon? And then I think that at some point that same day, appearances  to the contrary, Bob Dylan had something to eat which he likely does not recall in 2009. And I wonder what it is like to be a young man who has become accustomed to other young men being visibly nervous in his company. A little stammering, eye contact a little too focused and then darting away. Accustomed to an awareness that what he is wearing, how he is holding his hands, the expressions on his face, the most trivial topical comment he makes, will be registered on his companion’s awareness like a trilobite’s shell in a riverbed. 

images-3  I’ll probably never eat an omelet again without somehow thinking absurdly of the orange and black scarf Ron Rosenbaum wore throughout his talk at class last night, and the poster to Renaldo and Clara. This is why I’m no reporter. 



images-4Back to the cold metal of history. Ron Rosenbaum, in the company of’s Jon Friedman, spoke generously about the 77 interview (published in 1978) , and his current Bob Dylan project, and Bob Dylan more or less in general, for our two hours.  Rosenbaum is the interviewer whose conversation with Dylan in 1977 was the occasion for what has become the most quoted comment Dylan ever made about his own music: “the thin wild mercury sound.” And he was the interviewer  whose conversation with Dylan was the occasion for what’s become another quintessential quip: “If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think Bob Dylan has a lot of the answers myself.” 



Rosenbaum was candid and self-effacing and also vivid in his description of the 77 interview, which I now am able to picture as something like the image here: apparently the conversations took place in a small backlot building at Warner Bros, and Rosenbaum brought a half bottle of Tequila to steady his nerves. I like the Skid Row tawdriness of the half bottle of booze, and I see a picturesque Depression-era  shack rather than what I know was  a portable office situated  yards from a busy movie studio, but this is why I’m not a reporter. We know that Bob’s anxiousness over Renaldo and Clara motivated him to participate in a lengthier interview than he’d done for some time, and his anxiousness also brought him to the interview focused and eager to explain. “The first few sessions were terrible,” Rosenbaum confessed. Dylan’s preoccupation at the time with Renaldo and Clara led to “painstaking explanations” of the film’s symbolism. AlthoughRosenbaum was not persuaded in 1977 (nor yet in 2009) that this movie is the strongest representative of Dylan’s art, Dylan needed this chance to talk about the film before moving on to other topics. As Rosenbaum  said yesterday, “Once we got off the bullshit of Renaldo and Clara and onto music” the talk became easier. Rosenbaum did not approach each day’s session with a strategy, and his loose approach to letting Dylan speak, and prompting clarifications with brief comments or questions, of course led to the captivating material we have today. You can read the entire interview here:

images-8Rosenbaum played a minute or two of the recorded interview. Bob sounded….familiar, much closer to the brisk and youthful  Dont Look Back voice than to the  hypnotic singsong rasp he’d develop just two years later with which to terrorize his gospel audiences. Even so, it was impossible to hear this voice and then  picture RollingThunder’s white-faced hellion spitting out the lyrics to Isis.

Back to His Master’s Voice: Rosenbaum is clear about his impatience with the wretched excess of Renaldo and Clara, and he made an interesting point regarding what might have been behind the excess. He says that Dylan “listens to people he mistakenly believes are more intelligent than he is.” Allen Ginsberg, a great influence on R&C, is one example Rosenbaum uses, as well as Norman Raeben, the painter whose classes led Dylan to renovate his muse into a conscious one. The movie was ruined by Ginsberg’s “scheme of personae.”  Rosenbaum argues that Dylan has found himself in need of “an intellectual framework to hold on to as a filter for the gusher of talent in there.”   Let’s take up somewhere else the question of whether Bob Dylan is a special case of the problem of appetite for influence as opposed to anxiety of influence.

images-9Rosenbaum  was present, no not just present, but an important witness, to the period before Dylan mutated into the unfamiliar figure of  the gospel years. Rosenbaum’s new  project is a book about Dylan’s spirituality and belief, about “Dylan’s argument with God.” He  confesses to having felt “betrayed” by the Christian period, betrayed “as a Jew.” His books on Hitler and Shakespeare speak to their subjects through personal contemplation and experience, and I am hoping his full scale book on Dylan and belief will do the same. I’ll hope for the same combination of candor and scrupulous research. 

But back to the timeline of human evolution. Rosenbaum feels that Dylan post Greil Marcus’s Old Weird America, Dylan post Marcus’s construction of him as the “revivalist” of American music, Dylan post 1997, is “boring.” The albums sound the same. He is in a “safety zone” in this “roots period.”  He is not working at the same intensity of creativity that brought us the work through 1966, and then Blood on the Tracks. (Didn’t mention John Wesley Harding, so I can’t vouch for his opinion there.)

The exception is Chronicles, which passes the carbon dating test for fully-evolved brilliance. Rosenbaum enthused over the book’s “amazing clarity.”  He was “knocked out” by the book: “The voice in the book was so much the voice of his best musical work.”

images-10I’m among the standard bearers for believing that Dylan’s “best musical work” is scattered very fertilely from, oh, 1961 to spring of 2009, and I respect that for Rosenbaum, I likely fall into the category of Dylanolatry, for the very reason that I do not think Desolation Row is definitively a better song than Cross the Green Mountain. Neither one of us has the stone tablets to win an argument on this point, but I guess I want to add two more coats of (solid?) gold to my calf:

41NbjlGHlyL._SL500_AA240_In Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars—which you’ll find yourself wanting to read in one sitting—you can find an excerpt from the NY Times Book Review discussion of the book, which begins with the phrase “In his besotted, passionate new book….” Rosenbaum asks the question “Why do we feel–those of us who do–that there is something in Shakespeare beyond what we find in other literature?”  He describes a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was “disturbingly, mysteriously more than an intellectual experience.” His introduction contains seven paragraphs that begin with a variation on the phrase “I want you to care…” an intimate emotional appeal to a personal reader, and not a journalistic or academic appeal to credibility.

41BQS51THRL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_It isn’t that this degree of intensity and scrutiny can’t be found in writing and speaking about Bob Dylan. But to be “besotted” with Shakespeare is to be enriched, and inspired, and articulated, with grave justification. To be “besotted” by Bob Dylan’s art is to be eccentric at best, truly besotted without grave justification.  At worst, you’re just a person who doesn’t listen to enough Neil Young.

There are  many tedious arguments of more or less insidious intent about the social construction of popular culture, about the institutionalization of elite culture, about why an exegesis or a syllabus will mummify Desolation Row. I’m not completely allergic to these arguments, but I think the resolution is finding more and more and more and more voices bringing besotted and passionate attention to Dylan’s art.

images-13My other coat of solid gold could be a little flaky. My impossible dream is not to disprove, but to disarm the mythic argument that Dylan rocked the world to bits by 1966 and never reached that height on the   Richter scale again.  This narrative is based on a lust, a famishment, for artists to perform revolutions that the rest of us can join in passively, at no cost. Rock my world to bits, make it new, make me the chosen one who really  gets what you’re doing, who’s on the right side, who gets the great thrill of being changed forever, at your expense. Make me see truth and light and god, but not any truth or light or god my parents saw. Make it all new and make it for me. And do it again and again and again, keep doing it for me.  Then I’ll love you for good. 

images-14Art that’s a rich, deep, deft, and unique expression of the texture and presence of human life. Fierce and impotent feeling, failures and raptures of desire, thoughts pointless and the sudden glimpse of something that could be Something. This can’t satisfy the hunger for a world blown to bits. I hear it everywhere in Dylan’s work 1989-2009, regardless of what hole in a tree in Alabama he got it from.


I’m not accusing Ron Rosenbaum of being deaf to what I hear in Time Out of Mind. I’m trying to use what I hear to tell a different story about an artist’s “arc”, a story that has its own hungers, that’s for someone else to diagnose perhaps, but a story that doesn’t demand the artist be a hero and a martyr every day to earn my love. 

Don’t let other people get your kicks for you.


6 thoughts on “Never Being Greater Than Himself: Ron Rosenbaum and Week 3 at the Y

  1. Nina,

    YOUR writing flows, beads and rivulets like thin wild mercury.


  2. In addition to having the pleasure of experiencing the class person, I really enjoy reliving it through your blog. Thanks for putting together our “Chronicles”!

  3. masked and anonymous June 18, 2009 — 1:45 AM

    Wait, eruke is a woman called Nina ? Oh, mama. Not a dude ?

  4. “oh mama”?? what difference does it make? I be a woman called, in nearly all contexts, Nina. Why would you cry “wait”? Someday, there will be a female Greil Marcus, appalling as that may seem now, in June of 2009.

  5. I don’t think that the myth of the arc of Dylan’s career as a downhill slide after 1966–or 1968, or maybe 1975–has much currency among Dylan fans who weren’t first-hand witnesses to Dylan in 1966 (or 68 or 75). Younger Dylan fans (whose writing I’ve seen, mostly on the web) tend to treasure most the Dylan they first encountered–which may be the old stuff (through their parent’s record collections) or what was most recent when they discovered him. And even when they came to Dylan through his 60s records, they tend to be less likely to disparage the later stuff as a falling away because much of it already existed when they discovered the 60s Dylan and thus formed part of the same experience of discovery. Also, it didn’t come as a shock to them–as it did to many of Dylan’s 60s fans–that he was capable of merely minor work (e.g., Nashville Skyline), let alone actual mediocrity (a fair–or unfair!– number of 80s songs)–the younger fans seem to find it easier to recognize and deal with the simple fact that Dylan’s work can be transcendent and it can be completely forgettable, and there’s no predicting what guise it will take next.

    I don’t at all agree with Rosenbaum’s assessment of Dylan’s recent work, but I think I can see where he’s coming from. It’s true that Chronicles is more like his best earlier music in that it reinvents the genre it employs. Dylan’s post-97 music doesn’t do that, though its relation to the traditions it draws on is not easy to characterize. The music itself both does and doesn’t sound familiar, sort of the way classical music often does and doesn’t sound like the folk and popular tunes and rhythms it draws on–though obviously Dylan reworks his musical materials in different ways that classical music does. And the lyrics–the poetry of the songs–well, despite the wealth of thievings & borrowings that make up individual lines & phrases, I’m not sure how you characterize the compositional traditions behind them. As somebody else said–I think it was Robert Polito–who else writes songs like these? I don’t have an answer to that. And so maybe on this level Dylan’s recent work is still reinventing its genre–but if it is, it sure doesn’t strike me that way as I listen to it. Its unprecedentedness–if indeed it possesses that quality–disguises itself.

  6. masked and anonymous June 25, 2009 — 12:38 AM

    oh mama, was quite literalistically a quote from the bard, I would never dream of employing such infra-dig verbality. Not even were I stuck inside-a mobile with the memphis bliss again. Nina, I salute your gender-neutral storming of los baricades. Onwards, upwards, marche !

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