Life Lessons from Bob Dylan

"Bob Dylan is, in the best sense of the word, a careerist."

  • Share
  • Read Later
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Bob Dylan poses for a portrait with his Gibson Acoustic guitar, Sept. 1961, in New York City.

Jon Friedman Forget About TodaySinger. Songwriter. Poet. Visionary. Genius. Bob Dylan, 71, has been characterized many ways, but rarely as a career coach or an etiquette teacher. After all, this is the man who at 21 abruptly cancelled his historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show after being told that he could not play the edgy song he wanted, and who was accused of selling out at 63 when he appeared in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. But journalist Jon Friedman makes a convincing case that Dylan’s quirky ways are worth emulating in his new book, Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution. We spoke with Friedman as we waited for Dylan’s much-anticipated new album, Tempest, to be released on 9/11:

TIME: What drew you to write a book about Bob Dylan?

JON FRIEDMAN: Here’s a guy who’s been around for 50 years, and that means something to me. That number is enormous! I wanted people to know what Dylan’s strategy was, from a personal, artistic and business sense, of how he has managed to stay so vital for a long time. Longevity is what we all strive for in our lives, especially our jobs, and Dylan achieved it more than most ever have.

Many people will be surprised about some of the lessons you draw from his bad behavior, which included such acts as being belligerent to a student reporter in the documentary Don’t Look Back.

Absolutely. But when you think about it, Dylan has been a master at infuriating people, both fans, critics, foes and skeptics. He’s always managed to change his identity as a singer and a musician, and along the way pissed off everyone.

(MOREHistorian Sean Wilentz on the Mysterious Bob Dylan)

What do you attribute that to? Do you think he’s restless, or that it’s just the mark of his creativity?

All of that. I think Bob Dylan is, in the best sense of the word, a careerist. He’s the person who has said from Day One, I want to do this for my entire life. I don’t want to work in an office. I don’t want to sell insurance. I don’t want to sell stocks. This is my life’s work, and I plan to do it for a long time. And I think he felt the need constantly to change his style because he knew that by staying ahead of his audience, he would make them follow him.

What if you’re not a genius? Will those life lessons still work?

I think so. I think we can learn the idea of taking chances. Not following the crowd. Taking risks whenever they’re available, and always trying to innovate. I think things that Dylan did in his life and every turn were being courageous in his life’s work, and not standing still. Always try to push yourself to the next level, stay ahead of the crowd, and be your own boss to a degree. Of course we all have bosses, including Bob Dylan…

Who are Bob Dylan’s bosses?

He plays a hundred shows a year, so the crowd of course is a boss in a way. If they’re turned off, they’ll walk out or not come back. People who buy his records are his bosses. The public votes with their feet. If they don’t like what he’s doing, they’ll either walk out of the concert hall or stop buying his records.

(PHOTOSA Year and a Day with Bob Dylan)

Are there still hidden gems in his music that people don’t know about?

Oh, about a hundred! I think you could find one or two or more every single album. Some of my personal favorites are “Black Diamond Bay” on Desire…“Tough Mama” on Planet Waves… “Po’ Boy” on Love and Theft…“Workingman’s Blues No. 2,” a beautiful post-9/11 song about America. And you can find stuff on Self Portrait, which I love.

His 35th studio album Tempest is about to come out. Have you heard it yet?

It’s great! I was very impressed. I only heard it once, so I couldn’t really get a full appreciation for it, but I heard some great lyrics. His voice sounds very good, very strong. It’s the first time since probably Oh Mercy, which came out in 1989, that I’ve heard a new Dylan album where I liked every song. That’s very encouraging because he makes an album now every four or five years, and this is probably his last one for awhile.

What about a young person who has not listened to Dylan—why should they care about him?

We all strive for success, longevity, reinvention, making comebacks, and here’s somebody who has done it to the max.

(WATCHA Tour of Bob Dylan’s Greenwich Village)

Do you worry about idealizing him?

No. Because as I put down in the book, the 1980s, for example, were a train wreck. He was turning 40. MTV came on in the early ’80s; so did Ronald Reagan as President. Reagan’s “Morning in America” theme was “Be optimistic. Be hopeful. Look ahead. Be happy.” Not, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Masters of War” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” — thoughtful songs that made you feel possibly a little negative about America. And I think Dylan was caught in that storm.

Besides bad albums at times or bad songs, are there ways that Dylan handled some things in his career that you would advise readers to avoid?

Dylan got carried away with the jet-set rock and roll lifestyle at times, showing that he was human and just as susceptible to the trappings of fame as anyone else.

Will his music stand the test of time?

No question about it. Whatever medium is being used—whether it’s the radio, or the Internet, or whatever people are putting records on or music on—they’ll be playing these songs for sure. “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “All Along the Watchtower”… His most poignant songs will be played forever.