Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I'm interested in inspiration and performance and how they go together. I have some ideas about it based on my own experience. For instance, I believe that a creative imagination can be cultivated, it can be funded through practices and habits and disciplines. But that doesn't mean it can be routinized or mechanized or reduced to a failsafe process. Inspiration requires raw materials but it cannot be manufactured. Inspiration shows up, it isn't often summoned. There is a structure to a creative life, but no guarantees.

Along these lines, I read with great interest the interview Bill Flanagan (MTV) did with Dylan after his latest album came out. The interview is expansive, Dylan holding forth on Obama, Sam Houston, Ulysses Grant and Hitler, among other things. But there's a lot about songwriting and creativity as well.

I love Dylan's interviews. He's both candid and coy. He challenges the assumptions of many questions, avoids any cliches, and refuses the easy labels. And he will admit to no processes. When asked, "You wrote a lot of songs with Robert Hunter. How does that process work?" Dylan responds, "There isn't any process to speak of, you just do it." When asked if he would more likely paint (Dylan is getting attention now for his painting) or pick up his guitar if he saw a little girl walking down the train tracks pulling a wagon with a statue of Buddha in it with a three-legged dog following behind (I kid you not, that's the question), he says "Is it a cloudless blue-gray sky, or is it about to rain?...The three legged dog, what type? A spaniel, a bulldog, a retriever?" When asked (this is my favorite) if he could write a song about George Bush, he replies "Well, sure. George's name would be easy to rhyme."

He describes his songs in certain tensions, if not contradictions. He downplays any deep significance to his songs. A hammer is a hammer, not some clue to a deeper riddle. His songs have characters, but Bob insists he is always the singer. But while he claims a realism to his lyrics, he doesn't deny being a mystic and moving in the world at different layers and levels. And while he denies deeper significance, he talks about knowing classic archetypes that an artist must know to say something meaningful. Inspiration, he insists, is hard to come by, but acknowledges that he's been fairly prolific.

Dylan wants, it seems, to be an innocent among his songs. He offers them with a shrug to keep the rest of us from taking our interpretations too seriously, while simultaneously making his work look effortless, possessed by a simple genius. And this may be the truth of it all.

But the interview also reveals a man whose palate is full of colors. He reads widely in history. He knows art. He knows architecture. He knows his musical roots. He has habits of life that fund his imagination. And he knows that his music has a certain structure. He's not inventing something new every time. He has some familiar loops, or structures, if not formulas. A song has rules, and Dylan tries to "stick to the rules. Sometimes I might shift paradigms within the same song, but then that structure has its own rules... Some formulas are too complex and I don't want anything to do with them." He writes in the thick mix of what has been given to him.

I think I recognize this creative map. I certainly nodded at places, smiled at many, and laughed out loud at a few. And I smiled at the end of the interview when Flanagan asks, "A lot of performers give God credit for their music. How do you suppose God feels about that?"

"I'm not the one to ask, " replies Dylan. "It sounds like people giving credit where credit is due."

1 comment:

happytheman said...

Joni Mitchell one of my favorites musicians and artist (paint and song) said in a concert once that "no one asked Van Gogh to paint another starry night man!" It was what it was.

Many people expect musicians to put out the same albums year after year. James Taylor was asked why people like "October Road" so much and his response was it sounded like his old stuff.

I would think writers/musicians/artist/ etc.... just are where they are at. Very rarely have I been quiet enough to write music. Have to work on my mantra's.