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Now I know why Dylan struggles to talk

September 29, 2005

A few months back Bob Dylan was interviewed by Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes. I wondered, as you might have, why this literate, fluent, prolific poet had such trouble verbalizing in a conversation. I thought he either didn't care to talk or he was a bit snobbish. After watching the Dylan documentary "No Direction Home" I now realize how wrong I was.

Dylan in the film, recorded 40 years ago, behaved much in the same manner.
Now that I think of it, when I've seen him in concert, he's also been a bit awkward between songs. You can notice it on his live CDs as well. So, what's up?

Let's take a look at ourselves. I'll bet you're pretty good at doing something.
It might be your work, a hobby; maybe you excel with children or pets. I'll also bet that you struggle with other things. Things that come easy for many people. Bob Dylan is gifted with poetry and melody. He does not have the same natural talents as a speaker. It's not stage fright, because he's also a bit shy in normal conversation. Dylan is who is he is. We marvel at phrase after phrase in many songs - at times our heads spin trying to follow him. When he talks it's so different, that it's ironic. A friend of mine thought he might have been drunk or doped up. I don't think so. Singing comes easy for him. He works hard, but poetry flows out of him. Talking about himself is the hardest thing for him to do.

Ever seen John Gorka? When he belts out that rich baritone using just the right words and no extras, it's easy to become impressed. When Gorka talks he's shy, awkward, and appears confused. That's just John. I'm tickled with the gifts we've received from both, and countless other artists. I've also lost my expectations and even my requirements that all singers should be as eloquent as Judy Collins, Nanci Griffith, or Bruce Cockburn.

There was a scene in the final hour of "No Direction Home" where Bob is backstage with his band following a concert in England. They are discussing reviews and wondering why the press doesn't understand him. Dylan was bewildered that one writer had exaggerated by saying that "EVERYBODY had walked out." He tried to joke with the rest of the gang about it, but he was clearly wiping his eyes. To see him cry after all that he has given to us made me feel ashamed. I don't know about you, but I no longer care if Bob Dylan stumbles in conversation. In fact I'm going to work a little harder to be less judgmental about anyone.

Posted by Jim Blum at September 29, 2005 1:28 PM


One of the finest, most brilliant folk performers you will never hear about is Joe Bethancourt. He is a prolific writer, plays hundreds of different stringed instruments, and is a walking archive of Appalachian musical history. His album "Old Red Cat" received a five-star review in Billboard Magazine.

At a recent performance at the Sharlot Hall Folk Festival in Prescott, Arizona, Joe held the entire ampitheater stage audience in thrall, it was standing room only. But to converse with Joe is a challenge, because he has a painful stutter that is not evident at all in his work.

He can also be an opinionated so-and-so. Imagine that - an entertainer with a point of view not designed to stroke your own ego! This has gotten him essentially dissed by some of the only radio shows in the region, despite the fact that hooking up with Joe would increase their audience base and help them in a struggling market.

The myth of "the Perfect Entertainer" is just that - a myth.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at October 2, 2005 1:00 PM

Bob was barely into his twenties when he was dubbed the "voice of his generation" and the attention was absurd. He was still a boy trying to find his voice, while the world heard a voice that they wanted to adopt, he still struggled with it. He never called himself a folk singer, in fact he said over and over again that he wasn't a topical singer, which was at the time synonymous with folk singer/songwriters. Some of the interviewers asked him some of the most patently stupid things. It is no wonder he had difficulty giving a straight answer. While his comments to Scorcese in the documentary were short, they do show a sense of self reflection and honesty. I do agree that he never was comfortable with interviews or formal conversation of any kind.

There are some performers who continue to want to explore their art rather than continue with conforming to a mold. Bob Dylan seems to have an inate desire to expand himself in his work, when most artists tend to settle in as they get older. Neil Young and Johnny Cash are a couple of other performers who also continue (or continued, in Johnny's case) to explore their art throughout their careers.

Through the years Bob has sung songs from many branches of American music and he always made them his own, because his voice and interpretations were always so unique.

Posted by: Jack Swain at October 2, 2005 3:05 PM

For Bob, I say a prayer of thanks to the gods and goddesses and faeries and muses for coalescing to create an exquisite landscape of sun and wind and lightening and thunder within him to produce those songs, each a glittering star from heaven that will shine on us forever. His limitations may peak through or sometimes surge, but then fall away at the feet of his magical art and spirit that continues to move humanity forward.

Posted by: Penny Stanton at October 3, 2005 6:55 AM

What I saw on the Dylan biopic was the portrait of a enormously talented, entirely self-absorbed artist thrust into the limelight by his times. That he was not destroyed by this is a credit to both his sense of artistic purpose, and strong laws against homicide.

He seemed to use an awful lot of people, and then just forget about them. That must have been devastating to anyone who really cared, to suddenly realize that he was incapable, for whatever reason, of returning their affection. No wonder he slept with a gun.

He is unbound by any feelings of reciprocation, which is odd. Definitely an advantage in the business world, certainly helps in cutting those hard deals.

His refusal to get involved in politics I found fascinating - writing anthems for a movement in which he did not consider himself a participant. His snub of the EACLU was a great insight.

I've never been a big Dylan fan myself, his voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard and physically painful for me to listen to, but he did write a lot of songs that I enjoyed hearing others sing.

The final impression I was left with, after all was said and done, is that the line between genius and madness is indeed very fine. I think Dylan crosses and recrosses it in almost every sentence. One of these days, he may not.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at October 3, 2005 1:53 PM

Almost makes him seem mortal, doesn't it?

After reading about Th. Jefferson, Van Gogh, Picasso, Einstein, I begin to see a recurring theme: they're human. And, to me, their work is even more impressive because it is borne out of imperfection.

Posted by: Jonathan DeBoe at October 3, 2005 3:25 PM

Bob is very mortal - which seemed to be the point of the movie, showing some of his human side (or sides).

His body of work is incredible, all the more so for having issued from such a strange individual. Certainly many of his songs will long outlive him, and they should.

But if Dylan and Steve Earle were in town the same night, I'd go see Steve.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at October 3, 2005 3:54 PM

Interesting thread and great comments. It's true that so many performers are much less comfortable with the chatter in between songs...And so often on the folk circuit there is a fair amount of pressure on artists to be storytellers/comediens/magicians in addition to singer/songwriters. I mean, for crying out loud, I've seen songwriters do everything from spinning plates to blowing up balloons through their noses to try and "entertain" the audience.

I've seen Iris DeMent about 5 times and she always looks like she'd rather be anywhere in the universe than onstage in between her songs, but when she starts the There's no amount of plate spinning or eloquent chatter that could impress me more than that.

Posted by: Susie at October 3, 2005 4:13 PM

Hmm...Iris Dement singing while spinning plates on a twenty-foot set of stainless steel stilts, in front of an exploding "Drink Coke" fireworks display.

Nah. Too tame.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at October 3, 2005 4:27 PM

I can only tell you that if you grew up in my millieu -- which was in New York City in the 1950's and 60's with ardent leftist parents and friends (many of whom were blacklisted during the McCarthy era), then Dylan represented and sang everything we thought but couldn't truly articulate (sort of like what Van Ronk describes in Don't look Back). Just the singing alone, for example. Prior to Dylan, it was a given that singers had to have a "good voice." Dylan's voice was anything but, not to mention his intonation and phrasing that was totally unique; and not unique within the accepted realm of expectation, but rebellious unique. It was revolutionary unique. And that was just his voice. The messages in his songs, the images, the surreal metaphors -- indeed the entire posture -- converged into the quintessential embodiment of rebelliousness at that time. And that was the time in America of extreme rebelliousness, with good reason. Dylan's music, lyrics and style were, I believe, much of the source of what galvanized, or at least gave the right spirit to, all of the 60's movements. Blacks speaking up and demanding a reasonable place in this racist country was revolutionary. The fact that I wore dungarees (that's what they called it before "jeans') to high school was revolutionary in 1968. The fact the we demanded clean air from corporate polluters ultimately got us the Clean Air Act -- that was revolutionary. And again, the source behind alot of this was the perpetual questioning of the personal and politcal in Dylan's music in a way that grapped the heart, the head, and groin, all at the same time. And that's why he's so great. And that's why he'll last forever.

Posted by: Penny Stanton at October 3, 2005 4:28 PM

Nothing lasts forever, but I have no doubt his material will outlast all of us. As to the politics, for a lefty Bob is about the most effective capitalist I've ever seen.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at October 3, 2005 4:44 PM

I honestly believe that if there was a way that Dylan could've just written/performed his music and then totally disappeared between gigs, and never did interviews, never did any interacting with the public, (and he didn't do all that much anyway), that's the way he would've preferred it. Listen to some of what Joan Baez says about him in "No Direction Home". She really nails it/him. His eloquence can be found in the product of his thoughts/feelings/writings, not in his "performability" or "interviewability". Maybe he does have something in common with George Bush after all. And even with all Bush's writers, they're not saying as much as Dylan has said by himself. And after all, izzint having those songs what is most cherished? Dylan has been talking all along. I wonder how many are listening.

Posted by: Jay Gottlieb at October 3, 2005 7:43 PM

Well put, Jay - I think he says all he wants to say in the songs themselves, and then just wants to be left alone to write more.

As to Bush's writers, they don't have much creative wiggle room, do they?

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at October 3, 2005 9:50 PM

I would like to make an "opinionated" comment on Bob. Let me start off by saying I am a HUGE fan of Bob's music!! From the very beginnings to his very latest! I, like thousands of other people, stop what I am doing to listen to his music. I truly believe that he is the essential American poet of the 20th century. His words flow like fine a cold Coors on a hot summer evening. "Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you are trying to be so quiet"...Tennyson, Thoreau, Auden...none of them wrote words that touched the brain, shook the heart, or caressed the soul better than Dylan. Don't even get me started on "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie!!!. I like what I heard in "No Direction Home" when someone commented that possibly Bob may have tapped into humanities collective consciousness. I find that very plausible. Some songs naturally appeal to me better than others, but I have never heard a Dylan song that I did not like.
I was born in 1968, grew up in Wyoming, and was raised in a household that was dominated by classic Country. My formative years were spent listening to the beautiful music of Hank Williams Sr, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb...and I still love it. In my Sr. year of high school, my parents bought a new home, and I found a discarded cassette of a singer I had only vaguely knew was Bob Dylan's "Infidels". “Jokerman” mesmerized me, and I have been happily captivated by his songs since then. Among my favorites, too many to list here, are "Covenant Woman", "Desolation Row", "Most of the Time", "Series Of Dreams", "Ballad Of Hollis Brown", "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", "Not Dark Yet". As you can see, I like the whole spectrum of his music!
My wife and I disagree on a major issue about Bob, and I do believe I am in the minority side of this issue when the American publics opinion is taken into account. She says Bob is a great poet, but a terrible singer. If I have heard that statement once, I have heard it 100 times, and I will disagree till the day I die. I think he is so different, and his voice is not a pure voice I agree, but he is hard to appeal to many people. It was the same way with Johnny Cash. I know many people who loved his early years but hated his voice on his last album, "The Man Comes Around". I disagree. John's voice was that of an old man, on the verge of following his wife into eternity, an old man who was saying goodbye to the world, and an old man was a true poet as well. We do not appreciate enough what the older generations have to say, and too often we do not like those singers who do not sound like they were trained in voice lessons at an expensive academy. Where have all the flowers gone? They grew old and we forgot about them.
Now to my one criticism of Bob. Don't stone me for this, okay? I have my opinion, and 5 years ago, I would never have thought that I would say this, but we all change in ways, and sometimes change is good. Let me first start by saying that Bob, or any other entertainer for that matter, has a private life and a right to an opinion, and does not owe the rest of us anything. They are people who make decisions, but like the rest of us, there are consequences for every decision. I for one think Bob has an ego the size of any great poet, and I feel as if this "No Direction Home" was Bob stroking himself (GASP!!!) and bordered on self-deification. I watched it all the way through, and did not learn one iota of info that I did not already know. I was disappointed that there was not more on his early childhood, or his later years, but in all fairness that was his choice, and I honestly respect that.
One more criticism...and I truly wish Bob would read this...not to answer me, he is not obliged to answer to me any more than I him, but to tell himself, "was it worth it?" My questions is, Bob, why were you not there at George Harrison's induction to the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame? Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne were there. Tom Petty made an interesting statement about something like "we are glad to be here and show our respect and admiration for George, unlike a couple of other people" [those are not exact words, but similar]. Was that directed to you Bob? George was a good guy, from my very limited knowledge, and you may possibly have had a falling out with him, but in my mind you made yourself look petty and selfish, and "all about you" when you did not appear, or even make an appearance via satellite. I love your words Bob, but get off that high horse.... we all are gifted in one way or another. As your son stated, "...that same black line that was drawn on you was drawn on me...". You are gifted Bob, and we will all listen to you even after you leave this world, and I admire you so very much, but George deserved to have you say a word to the world about him. He didn't need to have you speak about him. The man's character, along with the poetry he himself left us speaks volumes. “My Sweet Lord” said more than I, you, Tom Petty, of Jeff Lynne could ever have said. But it would have been nice.
Thank you so very much for your words, music, and yes, your wit Bob...I love it and will always listen to you. We may not always agree, but I will listen. Please keep giving us the music. It will be a sad day when you get on that Slow Train Coming.... but you will need no one to speak about you. You have spoken and we will listen. And thank you for the amazing concert you put on in Mesa, Arizona in the fall of 1996. You were phenomenal!!!!
Also, your remarks about "the country music station plays soft, but there's nothing, really nothing to turn off" could not be truer when applied to today's country music!!
Thank you all for listening...I just wanted to post my opinion.

Posted by: Tim Bears at October 6, 2005 3:57 PM

GREAT post, Tim, thanks - I read it twice. I'm one of those who could never get next to Dylan's vocals (though after this I may have to break out "Blood on the Tracks" for another listen) but his poetry was inspired from the start.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at October 6, 2005 8:40 PM

"Blood On The Tracks" is definitely one of my favorite entire albums by Dylan. Every song on it is beautiful, even the somewhat whimsical "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go". I especially like "You're A Big Girl Now".
I would never attempt to discredit Dylan's poetic genius. The man certainly does not have to answer to me. It is just that I love the man's work so much, but the older I get, the more I see how human he is. Like you stated earlier Jim, he used a lot of people in a somewhat selfish way and seemed to see no reason to thank or reciprocate. I have often wondered what his childhood was like. He did not have much to say about his father other than the fact that his father and uncles tried to get him to do what was probably mundane work in the family store.
I don't know. I hope he keeps putting more songs out, but I feel all this adoration for him (of which I am as guilty of as anybody) has helped to feed his ego.
I also am of the opinion that Bob is not as far left politically as many might think. I see him as being somewhat conservative. He is very enigmatic. Kinda like a parable I heard once about a lizard. You grab him by the tail, and he sheds his tail, and off he goes again.

Posted by: Tim Bears at October 6, 2005 11:49 PM

Tom, as Jim said, you posts were terrific -- I could see you truly know Dylan's work and admire it.

I just want to be clear on something: I never meant to imply that I thought that Dylan was left (though he might be, for he is very enigmatic as you say). The point I was trying to make in my post was not that he was left, but that his music galvanized the left in the early 60's. Dylan came along with his remarkable talent at the nexus of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement and found just the right words and music and style to clarify where we were and inspire us to go further than we could have ever imagined. And for that, I pay him homage.

Posted by: Penny Stanton at October 7, 2005 12:26 AM

I guess that was what I was trying to say, sort of along the lines of "For a chicken, this critter gives pretty good milk". In many ways Bob is an unknown quantity, and he seems to prefer it that way.

There's no doubt Dylan's poetry galvanized the left, because he has always asked hard questions in his lyrics, and held us up to see ourselves. "Even the President of the United States has to stand naked sometimes."

But people living under all kinds of oppression, be it from right- or left-wing governments, can identify with what he has to say. The essential humanity shines through.

Posted by: Jim Pipkin at October 7, 2005 11:55 AM

Just take the gifts that Mr. Dylan has given to all of us and enjoy them. Don't expect anything. He has already given us more than most. Enjoy each line and verse. He has giftwrapped every song individually to each of us. Just listen and enjoy. Dont expect things from him. Just let him be and let him keep giving.................
Jason Bennett

Posted by: Jason Bennett at October 8, 2005 1:55 AM

Well, you know, Mr. Dylan has given us all gifts, that is true. We as people are prodded forward through live by constructive criticism. When you put yourself in the limelight, especially when you intentionaly give off an air of intellectualism and "somewhat" superiority, you open yourself up to critique. No man is an island, they say. Most all of us love his words, some of us love his voice, and a few think he walked on water. Jim correctly stated that this documentary showed Bob's humanity, and no one can fault him for that. They say that the last perfect man was crucified. Bob's songs can be a stinging criticism of society and humanities weaknesses, and God bless us all for having a man among us with the insight and genius to articulate our shortcomings, as Bob did so very well in his album "Slow Train Coming". We in turn have the right to respond and discuss the weaknesses of the messenger. It is not just a right, it is vital. All too often we have taken men and elevated them upon a pedastel, and turn them into legends, only to later become myths. It should not be like Bob's "Wicked Messenger" scenerio, and we are not trying to stone him, but we are simply stating, elaborating on the man's weaknesses. Simply showing how he is like us all, each and every one. I wish I had a nickle every time I heard some moron talk how Robert E Lee was so noble, F.D.R. was such a great man, Lincoln was more then we could ever it is with Bob. A great man indeed, but as I said, when you criticise like Bob has done, you in turn have the right to be criticised.
Penny, I know you were not implying he was left, and maybe he is more then I realise...I was just commenting on what I believed was his political stance. I thought that "Infidels" was a somewhat conservative view of things. I do envy you for seeing and living through much of what you did in the 50's and 60's. Such a tumultuous, yet artistic time. It is definately one of America's more interesting times. But I could not be happier than living in the times we do right now. We are on the threshold of a dream or of destruction, and I hope we get a handle on things. "Not Dark Yet", but it's getting there. I do believe Bob has so much good and interesting things to say, and I will always enjoy his songs.

Posted by: Tim Bears at October 8, 2005 3:37 PM

Guess I touched a nerve, heh. Kinda like farting during morning prayers in a monestary, or jack-hammering on a Vatican wall. People have been lynched for less than what I have said. Good thing we don't have a community pillory...maybe St. Bobby Dylan, in his infinite wisdom, in between healing the sick and blessing baby birds of course, would find time to point a favourable finger at me.
"We're idiots's a wonder that we still know how to breath."

Posted by: Tim Bears at October 13, 2005 9:28 PM

Jim Blum is so knowledgable about folk music and the artists that I thought he was past retirement age.I am now even more impresed with his what he knows since seeing how young he is!Thank-you for what you contribute and share about fol kmusic,Mr.Blum!

Posted by: Morag8175 MacKenzie at October 19, 2005 5:31 AM

I read this thread with much interest and have to say that what really stood out for me in No Direction Home was how adept Dylan was/is at turning the absolutely stupid questions of the press on them. Remember the Brit who asked if he would lick his glasses and Dylan just turned and asked him if he wanted to lick them. I loved hearing Joan Baez describe his distance from everyone and everything, including her. I loved how Dylan said *you can't be wise and in love at the same time.*

And I completely agree with Penny Stanton that Dylan's personal political opinions are not nearly as important as the momentum his poetry created in the leftist movement. I respect and admire that he wasn't an activist. He's a rebels rebel dedicated to his art, no matter what vanity he seeks.

Carol Anderson

Posted by: Carol Anderson at October 28, 2005 7:34 PM

to quote an old saw... " don't criticize bob dylan before you walk a mile in his elevator shoes ".... i think abraham lincoln said that !

Posted by: Chris Clark at October 29, 2005 1:07 AM

What a beautiful illustration of the Golden Rule. People are what they are…nothing more. What a wonderful thing that we are all different; each bringing something special and unique. We should honor the giftings in others and extend grace to one another.

As for the nuts and bolts of Bob Dylan’s poetic thoughts, fumbling words and his difficulty talking about himself-what difference does or did it make? So, there are some who speak well, some who sing well and some who have the choice to respond to it. There are some who take that freedom for granted. I would always hope to extend grace.

Posted by: Shannon McDaniel at October 30, 2005 12:24 AM

eloquently said, shannon... peace (~ :

Posted by: Chris Clark at October 30, 2005 1:04 AM

I have read with interest the comments about Dylan's ability or otherwise to engage in conversation on a one to one basis. We shouldn't forget Dylan is an entertainer and does not always express his inner feelings in his songs.I first was introduced to his songs at age 16 and for the most part have been enthralled ever since. Do I like everything he has done? Of course not! He has sadly turned out some rubbish. But as I listen to "Desolation Row,I dreamed I saw St. Augustine, Visions of Johanna" and others too numerous to mention, I can escape from the realities of a hard life. I think that was what Dylan meant to many, the ability to escape, without taking mind altering drugs."No direction home" showed me Dylan was just a young guy looking for a career. I think Joan Baez as much as said that in her comments about him. I recall as a young lad watching Dylan make a pratt of himself when he met Donavon in England, but it did not put me of listening his songs.We Scots are a "down to earth" lot. Personally,the only talking I want to hear from him is his talking blues.

Posted by: Ben at October 31, 2005 8:22 AM

After reading my way down through these comments, I have to say that the Bob Dylan of today seemed articulate in the clips used in “No Direction Home.” His fluent responses to whatever questions had been asked were as interesting to listen to as the fluid prose of his chronicles is to read. He’s a heckuva good singer too.

Posted by: Jim Skurdall at November 6, 2005 9:52 PM

Didn't see the show--will one day. Perhaps his talk is to him no different than his art is to him. He just does what he does and communicates from his place without any thought as to its acceptance. Its his stuff as an entertainer. We either take it or leave it. No real need or benefit in reading anything more into it. If I recall correctly he was quizzed in the past on what his best work was, his reply "Forever Young."

Posted by: Richard Kelley at November 9, 2005 11:17 PM

2005 ,almost 2006,and still talk,debate,and attention for BOB DYLAN. I Love it. Thank you all, from an old HIPPIE in Ohio.

Posted by: William Maffitt at December 14, 2005 6:37 PM

So tell me, what were Shakespere's beliefs, his attitudes, his interactions with others, Beethoven's, Dali's? Do these things change their art? No, not really. Because their art is more than they were. It stands alone.

Newton and Leibniz didn't "both" create the Calculus, they "each" created the Calculus. The Calculus will forever stand on its own. It is more than its creators.

I have heard that an artist is not someone who takes art classes, they are someone who feels compelled to create, perhaps someone who is not even good at such creation. Yet still they create.

That which we create is more than we are. It stands alone. It stands on its own to be considered, to be accepted, to be appreciated, or to be mocked, denied, or ignored. But, like a child, sooner or later it inevitably stands alone. It it is what it is, forever beyond its creator. That's why we create. And the best of what we create lasts a long, long time.

In some corner of this world, large or small, Dylan's voice, his words, his music will endure, not because of who *he* is, but because of what* it* is. Whoever Dylan is, he is far less than his creation. That doesn't demean Dylan in any way. It just tells us much about the value of what he has created. Let's all hope that our creations are that much better than we are.

Posted by: John West at December 20, 2005 5:34 AM

I am a Dylan fan, and even listen to his records. He has the ability with his lyrics to touch a chord deep within many of us that few others can.

Another one of my favorite singers/songwriters is Neil Young. He appeared on a program I saw on PBS, which was a tribute to Bob Dylan. He sang "All Along the Watchtower" and IMHO gave Jimi Hendrix a run for his money.

I hoped Bob Dylan and Neil Young would have got together and sung together during that performance. I'm still waiting for that gem. Can you imagine the harmonies those two could conjure up? ;-)

Posted by: Anne Johnson at December 23, 2005 9:35 AM

er, well, hmm, I guess, no, well, maybe, huh, ok, whatt!!!! Clapton may have been God, but only for a year, Bob just keeps on rolling, long may he do so, truly he has been the soundtrack of my life!

Posted by: Peter Bashford at January 12, 2006 11:39 AM

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