Dylan as Celebrity
By Dearbhla Egan
We live in an age where the label of ‘celebrity’ is up for grabs by anyone with even the most tenuous and limited claim to fame. The title of ‘Celebrity’ is pinned on people because of how they look, what their surname is, how wealthy they are, if they are married to a footballer, if they are a friend of the person married to the footballer or if they can dish the dirt on the person who is married to the footballer.
It is absolutely staggering to consider the number of people who take an obsessive interest in the lives of these people and even more staggering to bear in mind the multi-billion dollar industry that has built up around this obsession. The ‘celebrities’ at the centre of this will occasionally complain about invasion of privacy or inaccurate reporting but the truth is that they do not know how to do anything else other than to play at being famous. Being a celebrity is their job.
Of course, successful, modern musicians can potentially fall into this category to some extent but it is as if they have the option of a decision or choice to make about their level of involvement. There are many successful recording artists on the scene at any one time. The level of their success can be measured by the number of albums they sell and the amount of air play they receive but not all of them choose to be in the public spotlight. Those who choose the publicity go out of their way to be seen as celebrity either through personal choice or by being managed in that way. There is a lot of money to be made by making public appearances, photo shoots for publication, giving interviews etc.
So, how is all this different to how things were when Bob Dylan’s name started to form on the lips of people as part of everyday conversation? Of course everything is different really insofar as the impact of technology and communications on how we hear and see things now was just not around back then. When you think about this and then consider the unsurpassed, widespread popularity of Dylan, it was quite an achievement under the circumstances.
There is a line in the song ‘Diamonds and Rust’ which Joan Baez wrote about Dylan where she says ‘You burst onto the scene already a legend, the unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond’ and this line is very telling. It is widely regarded that Dylan’s first real exposure to the live public was when Baez invited him to work with her as a guest at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. But, of course at that point he already had two bestselling albums under his belt and was no ‘little boy lost’, no, he was ‘already a legend’ as she said.
In early-January of 1964, at which point his third studio album was to be released, 22-year-old Dylan wrote a long letter to Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, both founding editors of ‘Broadside’, a highly influential underground magazine of the period — and spoke of, amongst other things, his recent rise to fame. The letter was published in the magazine’s next issue. This was what he had to say about fame: (This text is an exact transcript of how it was written in the typed letter that Dylan wrote)
let me begin by not beginnin
let me start not by startin but by continuin
it sometimes gets so hard for me —
I am now famous
I am now famous by the rules of public famiousity
it snuck up on me
an pulverized me…
I never knew what was happenin
it is hard for me t walk down the same streets
I did before the same way because now
I truly dont know
who is waitin for my autograph…
I dont know if I like givin my autograph
oh yes sometimes I do…
but other times the back of my mind tells me
it is not honest… for I am just fulfillin
a myth t somebody who’d actually treasure my
handwritin more’n his own handwritin…
this gets very complicated for me
an proves t me that I am livin in a contradiction…
t quote mr froyd
I get quite paranoyd
an I know this isn’t right
it is not a useful healthy attitude for one t have……
Because this is a passage from a personal letter it may be safe to assume that we are hearing a version of Dylan that is more open and sincere than perhaps what we would read on a transcript from an interview for example, where he was always more guarded. On the issue of fame, he is talking about it in a kind of innocent or slightly naïve manner and perhaps this is as a result of the times that were in it and the fact that it took longer for successful artists to be recognised in public and ultimately reach a stage where they found it almost impossible to walk down a street without the public or the paparazzi hounding them. If Dylan’s biggest problem at this point was not knowing whether or not he might be stopped for an autograph he was doing well.
However, it is very clear from this passage that Dylan had begun to question the concept of being famous and what was expected of him as a result of this. I think it is interesting to see that he was exploring this dilemma when he was just 22 years old when, arguably, it would remain one of the greatest dilemmas he would face throughout his life as an artist. It would not be long before the times would be a changin’ and not necessarily in a way he liked.
Fans of musicians come in varying degrees of obsessiveness. The most obsessed fans are those who will risk life and limb to get to the front of the crowd at an open-air concert just so they can get as physically close to the band or musician as possible. Just being in close proximity comes with the outside chance of a touch or a look or maybe even an autograph. Many, many years ago I had a friend who went to a Status Quo concert and a drop of sweat from Francis Rossi’s hair flew down on to his face which he then refused to wash or shave for a fortnight, outlining the spot where the sweat had landed with permanent black marker. He felt as if he had a little bit of Rossi, a little part of him, and for my friend this was the ultimate reward. Feeling as though you possess a little part of your idol is the ultimate reward for most great fans and this was something that Dylan could never resign himself to. For his fans, the little bit of him that they wanted most of all was information, information that he did not regard as public property.
He was caught in a predicament all right, but, it must be said, that Dylan was not entirely a victim of circumstance when it came to the price of fame. He was no fool and understood very well that if it were not for these fans he would never have reached the level of popularity that he enjoyed and encouraged. What he did not seem to understand or approve of was what appeared to be the somewhat fickle nature of the loyalty of his fans. He was ever quite prepared for the outcry of disapproval that came about as a result of his ‘going electric’ at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Thousands of people had made their way there in throngs to listen to and support him but sections of the audience suddenly turned into an angry mob who ‘booed’ him off the stage. The critics too really turned on him because of this new musical approach. And Dylan, who had never been particularly generous where his fans were concerned, was now in a quandary over what to do next. There was never a question that he was so influenced by his fans that he would follow their lead but at the same time he knew he could not survive without them.
Interviewed by KQED Television, San Francisco, December 1965, When asked whether he was “surprised the first time the boos came?” He responded:
“That was at Newport. Well, I did this very crazy thing, I didn’t know what was going to happen, but they certainly booed, I’ll tell you that. You could hear it all over the place…. I mean, they must be pretty rich, to be able to go some place and boo. I couldn’t afford it if I was in their shoes.”
It was a response that would become very familiar in tone both in his interviews and his music. When something or someone hurt him, the stock response was to put them down by making little of them. For all of his virtues and heaven knows there are many, a sarcastic or derisive Dylan was not to be trifled with. For example:
Positively 4TH Street (1965)
(last two verses)
I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you
I suppose, in his favour you can say that he was true to himself and despite the fact that he knew, and no doubt his management knew, that it was potentially disastrous to alienate his fans, Dylan still did not pander to their protests and demands.
Without becoming too embroiled in a very complex subject, I think it is important to make some kind of reference to personality here. It is widely accepted in psychology that all people have a dominant personality type which is displayed through their behaviour. This accounts for all those people you know who you describe as bubbly and outgoing or a great giver and helpful friend or a bookworm who keeps to themselves or that very creative and slightly eccentric person.
There are many different personality types and traits that make us who we are. So, what happens when you have a very creative person such as Dylan, who is very much an observer rather than an active participant in life, particularly social life, who is a thinker more than a talker, who is happiest either on his own writing or playing music or in a studio with others who are part of the creative process involved in producing an album? What happens when a person like this, almost as a result of a ‘simple twist of fate’ is cast into the limelight up to a point where his fans are relentless in their desire to know more and more of the intricacies of every detail of the life and times of this deeply private and insular human being?
He responds, very true to type, by blocking people out as much as it is humanly possible for him to do. Is he deliberately being awkward and precious and stand offish? I don’t believe he is. I think he is doing no more than being himself and unfortunately, Dylan’s ‘self’ is not one that occupies the role of celebrity with any degree of comfort.
The following is a small excerpt from a transcript of an interview in an issue of Rolling Stone magazine, November 29th, 1969 between Jann S. Wenner and Bob Dylan
JSW: You’ve been very reluctant to talk to reporters, the press and so on . .. why is that?
BD: Why would you think?
JSW: Well, I know why you won’t go on those things.
BD: Well, if you know why, you tell ’em . . . ’cause I find it hard to talk about. People don’t understand how the press works. People don’t understand that the press, they just use you to sell papers. And, in a certain way, that’s not bad . . . but when they misquote you all the time, and when they just use you to fill in some story. And when you read it after, it isn’t anything the way you pictured it happening. Well, anyhow, it hurts. It hurts because you think you were just played for a fool. And the more hurts you get, the less you want to do it. Ain’t that correct?
It was clear from this that he had no desire to be fodder for the press to use in their own way and at their own will. He was frustrated at the lack of control he had over what they were writing which would have stung him as Dylan liked to maintain control over all things in his life.
However, returning to personality type for a moment. While our dominant traits are at the essence of who we are and how we behave, we are not necessarily defined by them and intelligent adults as they mature can learn to understand and embrace characteristics that may have felt uncomfortable or out of synch with how we have generally seen ourselves in the past.
Dylan is a really good example of this because as time has gone by he has become much more open and vocal in interviews most particularly when it comes to talking about music. He remains unforthcoming when questioned about his private life but he is entitled to this as all of us are. This is why it is referred to as our ‘private life’ and all people have personal stories and issues that they would not wish to share openly with thousands of people. It begs the question, why do fans of Dylan feel they have the right to ask and interrogate the man about his personal life when they would not wish it done to themselves? There is a double standard in there somewhere!
In conclusion I believe that ‘fame’ was the price Dylan had to pay in order to achieve what he wanted rather than ‘fame’ being a welcome side-effect. He has spent almost as much time battling with it as he has writing, recording and performing his music. It has been a monkey on his back but having lived with the monkey for so long I think they are finally starting to bond in mutual respect.
In the February/March, 2015 edition of AARP Magazine, Robert Love Interviewed Bob Dylan in relation to his forthcoming album, Shadows in the Night.
Q: A lot of your newer songs deal with ageing. You once said that people don’t retire, they fade away, they run out of steam. And now you’re 73, you’re a great-grandfather.
A: Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game, OK? Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young and you don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.
And in concluding the interview…
Q: You’ve been generous to take up all of these questions.
A: I found the questions really interesting. The last time I did an interview, the guy wanted to know about everything except the music. Man, I’m just a musician, you know? People have been doing that to me since the ’60s — they ask questions like they would ask a medical doctor or a psychiatrist or a professor or a politician. Why? Why are you asking me these things?
Q: What do you ask a musician about?
A: Music! Exactly.