Star Tribune music critic Jon Bream has just published a new book, Dylan: Disc by Disc. It’s our pick this month for The Current’s Rock and Roll Book Club, and Bream stopped by our studios to record an interview with David Campbell. Hear selections from the interview, and the songs discussed in it, tonight on The Local Show: 6-8 p.m. on The Current. The complete interview, as transcribed by Mackenzie Martin, is below.
David Campbell: Right now I’m joined in The Current studios by a music crtic: Jon Bream, who just celebrated his 40th anniversary at the Star Tribune, and has recently penned a book called Dylan: Disc by Disc, which is very literally a look at every one of Dylan’s…how many records?
Jon Bream: 36 studio albums.
36 studio records, over 400 songs. In the intro to the book, you ask the reader, “Is Bob Dylan the voice of a generation? Or an unlistenable voice?” And I really wanted start today by asking you the exact same question.
The answer’s yes. To both. It depends on your perspective. I mean, that was the whole premise of doing the book. People disagree about Dylan. People debate Dylan. They talk about, you know, the great songwriting he’s done. Some people don’t get his songs or get his songwriting styles. Some people can’t tolerate his voice, think he could never sing. And it’s gotten less palatable, shall we say, over the years. But the songwriting skills are still there. The sense of musicality is still there. So people debate Dylan all the time, which I think was the premise for the book.
Having gone back and listened to all this stuff quite a bit, if you had to pick your favorite Dylan voice, which period would it be?
My favorite Dylan voice—that’s, that’s interesting.
He’s had a few differences, moved around a lot.
Oh yeah, lots of different voices. I mean, probably the heyday, the Blonde on Blonde, you know, mid-60s period.
Well, you know, once he did the country and the other things, you started to appreciate the fact that his phrasing was, you know, not as casual as you think. When you see him now in concert, you wonder what’s going on ‘cause every night is completely different. But in the studio, I think things were a little bit more thought out to a certain degree but very spontaneous and organic as well.
What is it about Bob Dylan that has held your attention all these years? Is the same thing that grabbed you, you know, in 1965 or whatever when you first heard Bob Dylan the first time, what holds your attention today—or has it changed?
Well, I’ve often said over my career that there were three artists that I’ve experienced over my 40 years: Bob Dylan, Prince, and Miles Davis. You always had to pay attention to their next release because it could be genius, it could be crap, it could be somewhere in between. And everything that they’ve done has always been kind of commanding and demanding your attention. And, you know, this is the local show, Dave. He is local.
This is true.
Born and raised…
Born in Duluth, raised in Hibbing. And he does still have a farm in the Twin Cities, or outside the Twin Cities, where he wrote all those great songs for Blood on the Tracks.
You’re confirming that?
I’m confirming that. He still lives here occasionally.
I’ve heard rumors that people run into him or whatever at the, you know, Perkins or whatever and the area he likes to take his morning coffee or something like that. I don’t know if it’s true.
Another cup of coffee, yes.
Right, one more cup of coffee at Perkins. Let’s talk a little bit about the fact that this is a chronological look through every single Bob Dylan disc. We’ll assume that in writing this you went back and listened to all the albums again as you did this. Which of the albums emerged for you as favorites at this point, and were they the same ones that you’ve always held as favorites along the way?
Well, we took a survey. There are 55 commentators in the book. We had critics, professors who teach classes on Dylan, and then a lot of music stars, and more than 30 of them voted. And Blonde on Blonde came out number one. I think a surprise pick at number two was Blood on the Tracks, which is my favorite Dylan album. And that’s partly because, you know, it was written in Minnesota, half of it was re-recorded in Minnesota, it came out the year when I first started at the paper so I wrote quite a bit about it, and it’s really held up. It’s one of the great divorce albums of all time, and so it still stands out for me. But my impressions of a lot of the albums changed, revisiting this project, because I had to go back and listen to albums that I hadn’t listened to for years. And I would say for the most part, I came away with a more favorable impression than I did originally except for maybe some of the turkey albums.
Yeah. You know, for instance, Self Portrait. No one liked it when it came out, but in retrospect, you understand it better when you’ve heard the second edition of Self Portrait, which just came out a couple of years ago [in Dylan’s Bootleg Series]. And now we have the context. What the original Self Portrait was about was Bob showing you what kind of music influenced him, what kind of music he liked. But the problem was when it came out, here was the great songwriter, the voice of our generation as you just called him, and he was covering other people’s songs, and people wanted his new songs, they don’t want to hear him doing—being a cover artist.
He’s always played around with covers, though.
Yeah, but nothing quite so blatant. I mean the first [album Dylan released contained] covers of blues and folks songs.
It’s a folk tradition. You know, the songs get passed along.
Right, but [on Self Portrait] this was straight-ahead pop song covers.
[On The Local Show] you’ve elected to play “Hurricane” from Desire. So let’s talk a bit about Desire. Why did you choose that song today?
That’s one of my all-time favorite Dylan songs. I just love the intensity of it. I love the fiddle work, or the violin work by Scarlet Rivera. And the story is he saw her walkin’ down the street with this long gypsy hair and this violin case and pulled over and asked her if she would play on a record. And the intensity of it—it’s a great story song. It’s a true story. And it’s just, to me, it just grabs you. It’s one of the most gripping songs that he’s ever played and it was released as a single even though it’s awfully long. And of course, if you don’t know the story, it’s about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was a champion boxer back in the day, and he was falsely charged with murder but imprisoned and Dylan and other people helped fight to get him out of prison and he eventually was released and exonerated.
So, literally, the art shaped reality.
Well I guess it did, it impacted reality. And how often does that happen? Usually it’s the other way around. So this was one time when someone listened to the voice of the generation . Because all those war protest songs, did they ever listen to ‘em? They rallied behind ‘em, but did the government listen to ‘em? They usually took several years before they had impact. And it’s amazing how they all still resonate today.
You think so?
A lot of them do, yes. His protest songs definitely do.
How many books have you done now, Jon?
This is my fourth book.
Fourth book. Prince Book, Led Zeppelin book…
…Neil Diamond, and now Bob Dylan. The big four.
The big four [laughs].
How did Neil Diamond sneak in there?
Everyone’s been asking that question about The Last Waltz for the same, you know, just as many years. But you know I think he’s…he’s got something there. Certainly any man who can squeeze himself into a jumpsuit like that and make it work deserves a place in the annals of rock history.
Maybe the ultimate earworm songwriter, and he can still turn it out on stage—and he’s the same age as Bob Dylan.
Sneak right in there on you. So, let’s talk a little bit about that record Desire. You said earlier that Blood on the Tracks is your favorite Dylan record, but Desire was definitely in your top three, I believe, right?
Well, it would certainly be in my top five.
I think. Yeah, it came out, you know, right after that. You know, you kind of wonder what direction was he gonna go. And it’s a very powerful record, and very musical. It goes in different directions and the thing about it is that he worked with a co-writer, Jacques Levy.
I didn’t know that.
Who was a theater person, so it was the first time that he actually worked with a collaborator.
It says in here that he, Jacques Levy, said that Dylan actually had a hard time with linear storytelling.
Except for “Hurricane.”
Thing is, you know, Levy helped him write that stuff. So, yeah, he couldn’t go from A to B to C to D. Dylan might go from A to F and, you know, back.
Never both with C.
Don’t worry about C. C is implied.
Have his lyrics ever made sense? So why should the stories make sense?
I suppose you’re right. And you don’t expect them to. You just sort of accept the turns of phrase and the unique language as being cool just because it sounds cool.
Right, and a part of it is just the rhythm of the language.
Right. This is a playful record musically, you [say]. In the book, you talk about Nashville Skyline being, like, the happy record. And even though this is not the happy record—it was a divorce, he was divorcing Sara at the time—there’s pieces of this that are very playful to me.
Yeah, I mean, like the song “Mozambique.” Where they just—to me, that’s all about making rhyme schemes. It’s like early hip-hop. They’re just having fun with wordplay, making rhymes.
So you had Dan Wilson and Nicole Atkins talking about this in the book. One of the cool things about this book if you’re not familiar is that in addition to Jon’s thoughts, he had people, two people for each of the records kind of weigh in on their thoughts on this record.
We’d call in to a conference call. I would ask questions and moderate it and they would discuss.
Dan had some really interesting—well, both of them had some really interesting thoughts on this one. Do you remember much about this conversation?
Well, of course, because Nicole is not a Dylan fan, at all. She said this is the only Dylan record she got into, and she said it’s because a friend of hers sent it to her and she performs in an annual Dylan tribute show in New York and she does songs from Desire but that’s the only record she’s into. And for Dan, it was his introduction to Dylan and the first record he really got into and then he went backwards and learned about the rest.
Let’s talk a little bit about some of the other contributors who made contributions to this record. Who were your favorites and are there any stories you’d care to share?
Well, I’d like to share the one about Ric Ocasek from the Cars and Ike Reilly. Turns out that Ike was a big Cars fan and he had insisted on telling Rick during the middle of the conversation that they got busted once listening to a Cars song, “Nightlife” while he was driving. Cop pulls him over, and the cop says, “You guys got any cannabis in there?” And Ike says to us, you know, “I had some friends in the car and they weren’t the brightest guys,” and one of his buddies goes, “No, we just got some weed.” And then Ric wanted to know what happened thereafter.
Well, what did happen? Did he say?
Ike said it eventually got expunged from the record, [and] I don’t think he spent any time in jail.
Time heals all wounds. Have you ever actually met Bob Dylan?
Several times. The first time, I actually went up and introduced myself because I didn’t know that you’re not just supposed to go up and talk to Bob Dylan. That was in 1974. I was in college and he was at a concert at the old Marigold Ballroom. It was a Ry Cooder concert, and I just walked up and introduced myself.
What’d he say?
Well I told him I found some pictures of him and Spider John Koerner playing at the old Ten O’Clock Scholar coffee house. We found them at our desk over at the Minnesota Daily where I was working at the time at the University of Minnesota. I said, “Would you like copies of the pictures?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Should I send ‘em to you?” And he said, “Yeah.” Like everyone knows Bob Dylan’s address.
Right. And the next time I encountered him was backstage at a Melissa Manchester concert at the Guthrie in the fall of 1977. He was with his childhood buddy Louis Kemp, the guy who had that big fish product—frozen fish business. And I knew Louis, I had hung out with Louis at a Kris Kristofferson show. So I’m standing there talking to two people with dark glasses backstage at night, you know, at 10:30 at night or whatever it was, and you’re talking to Louis. The guy next to him, you act like he doesn’t exist, because it’s Dylan, he’s looking straight ahead. You don’t talk to him unless he talks to you. So I never talked to him that night and then the following winter, I think it was either January or February, I went to LA to see the movie Renaldo and Clara. Then a few days later I went to Dylan’s studio in Malibu to interview him—and this was back before portable tape recorders, even before there was a thing called a cell phone. And I’m bending over to plug my recorder into the wall and as I’m plugging the recorder into the wall, he goes, “Was that you backstage at the Melissa Manchester concert at the Guthrie?”
What? That’s insane.
And I’m thinkin’…
Yeah, I was just busted. It’s the only time—and I’ve interviewed most of the big names of music business over the years—the only time I ever lost my composure in an interview situation. It was a good thing I had prepared questions because I just went right to the questions. I told him, “Yeah,” and then was like, “Whoa.”
So what of the rumors? You know, when people don’t know what a person is like they just make up the most ridiculous things. Of the rumors that are out there about Bob, what did you find to be true personally?
Well, I think with Dylan, you know…the interview that day felt like freshman philosophy class. You know, he doesn’t really like to do interviews. You’d ask him a question and he’d answer with a question. But I got to hang out with him several times over the years and if you just hang out with him, he can be a normal guy. A normal Minnesotan, makes small talk, you can talk about music like any other music fan. I think the bottom line about Dylan is he wants you to put him on a pedestal, but he doesn’t want you to treat him like he’s on that pedestal.
Got cha. That makes sense. Cause there’s certainly persona involved. That Rolling Stone article like, what was it, a year or two ago? Very specifically made me think, “Wow, there is a huge device at work here.” Yeah, I’m not sure what it is, but something’s up. You also chose to play [on The Local Show] “Autumn Leaves” from the latest Dylan record, Shadows in the Night. Which when we got the news that it was coming out, I had no idea that it was going to be a collection of all Sinatra covers. [I thought], what is he doing?
That was the reaction people had—but if you think about it, you look back to the early stuff, you look back to Self Portrait, you look back to the Time Out of Mind stuff that came out after that. Dylan has been a student of American music his entire life. Some of the music he plays is original music and some of the music he plays reflects the stuff he grew up with and maybe his versions of that. And he was a Sinatra fan. He was a fan of, you know, all of those early crooners. And it just proves his musicality and his appreciation for different kinds of music. American music. Now, the thing about this album when you listen to it, you go, “Oh that’s a croak of a voice.” You have to accept that that’s what Dylan’s voice is like now. But if you listen for the musicality, the way he approaches things, the phrasing, the air he leaves between words, between phrases and sentences, you realize there is an amazing musicality and understanding of music, even if you don’t like the voice.