Bob Dylan, Painter

on Jul 19 in Music, Reviews by

I just read a 2011 interview with Bob about a show of his paintings that went up in Europe somewhere.  For opinions of Dylan, the painter, I asked two of my painter buddies who agreed: As a painter, Dylan is a fine songwriter.  I’ve excerpted and commented on Bob’s answers, which as always, are fascinating and amusing.  If you’re interested in the whole interview (I’m not), here’s the transcript; otherwise, here are the high points:

As always, Dylan is associative rather than direct.  In this answer to one of many inane questions, Bob does his little rope-a-dope with lists.

“What’s in or not in changes all the time, doesn’t it? Some artists are always in—Picasso, Rembrandt, Dickens, Son House, Keith Richards. There’s nothing the authoritarian order can do about that. If you were never in, you were never out. People are only out once they’ve been in. We never hear of the ones that are truly out. They’re so out, they’re in. It’s all relative, isn’t it?”

The list thing is great isn’t it? Dylan sets expectations with some classic, indisputable names — Picasso, Rembrandt, Dickens (OK so far), then goes to Son House, a mid 20th century blues guy, which is a little curly but we go with it and then Keith Richards, who may be in now and who knows, may be in forever for cleverly appropriating and refashioning old black blues guys’ licks, but sure doesn’t belong with Picasso and Rembrandt. But he’s on his toes, so we’re on our toes and it’s all fun and exciting, though we suspect he may be talking out of ass that is until he notes that only people who have been in can be out, which, come to think of it, is quite profound.

Next comes the first of two questions that’s not only horribly worded and obvious pandering but just shouldn’t be asked a songwriter/musician, no matter how brilliant. About one of Dylan’s paintings, the interviewer says:

“This reminds me of de Kooning, who as you know I have been working on, who was utterly opposed to pure abstraction because its supporters were telling him to take things out of his paintings, whereas he wanted to make paintings where he could put into them as many things as he wanted. So, I have two questions. First: Do you follow contemporary art much?”

Bob’s answer is perfect.

“I don’t follow it that much. Owen Smith, Terry Allen, I like their work. I think miniature golf courses are great art forms.”

In this next response, Bob uses the word scatological, which is quite different from the word, scat, as in singing, and which I’m pretty sure he meant. On the other hand, maybe that’s why he felt so strongly about not working on Maggie’s farm.  And then true to form, right after that, Bob gets around to explaining what I like to call the struck-by-lightning theory about the probability of a single person producing such a huge number of amazing songs.

“Frankie and Johnny, for instance—”He was her man, but he done her wrong. That’s the singer talking. “I saw your man about an hour ago.” That’s the bartender. “Roll me over, Frankie.” That’s Johnny. And some people call Johnny, Albert. A song is a prismatic thing, nonlinear. Writing songs, you are looking for rhymes that feel right—things that come to you even as you are singing. They come to you quick-like. Sometimes even in a scatological way. You don’t have time to distill meanings or ideological fallout. You want to make sure that the feeling is there, but you can create feeling out of tone, texture, and phrasing, not only words. You want to make sure that there’s camaraderie between the lyric and the rhythm. That just has to be, or you wouldn’t have much of a song. All that profound meaning stuff—that comes later. And truthfully, that’s for other people to experience. Believe me, the songwriter isn’t thinking of any of those things.”

In response to the interviewer asking about a Gauguin quotation he notices in one of Bob’s painting, here’s Bob, the songwriter, taking Bob the painter too seriously.  But right after that comes the observation that few if anybody remembers, which is that the Beatles’ Back in the USSR was a send-up of the Beach Boys’ Back in the USA and some pretty marvy theory about musical lineage.

“I’m surprised you noticed it, but the Gauguin reference is basically underpainting and muted color. I had intended to paint over it, but it was so intriguing. I might even have been tempted for a second to paint out the rest of the picture in that style, but I’m not Gauguin, and the painting had already made its point. Quotation is something that happens a lot in the music world. Merle Haggard can mimic Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson perfectly. The Beatles, in “Back in the USSR,” mimic The Beach Boys. Quotation is a phrase that is used all the time in jazz solos. It happens a lot in old-time string band music too. One song is always using a line from another song to brace it. But then goes off on another tangent. Minstrels did it all the time. Weird takes on Shakespeare plays, stuff like that. It’s just done automatically.

Here we get a glimpse into Bob’s peripatetic nature and at age — what — 69? — his ambition.  “I like to restore old cars, ride horses, and sail boats, and I’m learning how to cook and can do some gardening. Maybe someday I’ll be making my own instruments. I have no idea. I probably do push too hard.”

And in response to the interviewer praising the daylights out of his cover of Self-Portrait, Dylan relaxes and says, “That was a great painting, wasn’t it?”

There’s a long description of Bob taking an art class and liking the interviewer’s phrase “neo-expressionist beat” to describe Bob’s style, although there’s no mystery and therefore no energy left in the interview.

Comments are closed.