Rolling Stone Interview (2012)

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I’m not currently aware of any major interviews with Bob Dylan from 2013 or 2014, so this cover feature from Rolling Stone will likely be the last interview that I write about for this project. There’s plenty to say, and, indeed, I’m holding some pieces back for other posts (including a couple for tomorrow). This was both the weirdest and the most eventful interview in the Bob Dylan reading this year.
Let’s start with the weird. Dylan and Mikal Gilmore get into deep water right around the point that Bob Dylan stands up at the Santa Monica restaurant that they’re in and fetches the biography of Sonny Barger that he is carrying around with him. He has Gilmore read a passage from the book that details the death, in 1961, of a Hell’s Angel named Bobby Zimmerman – who was in a motorcycle collision with another Hell’s Angel. You can see why Dylan might find this story interesting – same name and they both had motorcycle crashes. But he takes it way, way beyond that. I’m going to quote this at length here:

Yeah, poor Bobby. You know what this is called? It’s called transfiguration. Have you ever heard of it?

Yes.
Well, you’re looking at somebody.

That . . . has been transfigured?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?

By transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?
Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966.1 already explained to you about new and old. Right? Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation – or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.

So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I’ve lived through a lot. Have you ever heard of a book called No Man Knows My History? It’s about Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. The title could refer to me.

Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.

When you say I’m talking to a person that’s dead, do you mean the motorcyclist Bobby Zimmerman, or do you mean Bob Dylan?
Bob Dylan’s here! You’re talking to him.

Then your transfiguration is . . . 
It is whatever it is. I couldn’t go back and find Bobby in a million years. Neither could you or anybody else on the face of the Earth. He’s gone. If I could, I would go back. I’d like to go back. At this point in time, I would love to go back and find him, put out my hand. And tell him he’s got a friend. But I can’t. He’s gone. He doesn’t exist.

OK, so when you speak of transfiguration . . . 
I only know what I told you. You’ll have to go and do the work yourself to find out what it’s about.

I’m trying to determine whom you’ve been transfigured from, or as.
I just showed you. Go read the book.

Really, this was the moment, after spending fifty-one weeks doing little more with my recreational time than reading about Dylan and listening to Dylan and thinking about Dylan that I finally thought: Why in the world am I doing this? Who is this guy? I mean,  it just the sudden crushing realization that I don’t understand him AT ALL. Not even a little bit. I thought I did. I thought I had a whole thing ready to roll out tomorrow morning about this latest art show and I thought “yeah, I see what he’s doing” and then I read this interview and I realized that no, no I do not get it at all. I feel like Gilmore here – stammering out half questions, and there’s Dylan saying “go figure it out” or, more bizarrely, read this Hell’s Angels book. Seriously. I’m Mr. Jones again.
The other piece of this interview that was striking was Dylan’s discussion of race. The interview took place right before the re-election of Barack Obama. Gilmore pushes him on that topic – noting that Dylan had seemingly made some pro-Obama remarks in 2008 – but Dylan stonewalls him. He disavows his previous remarks, suggests he didn’t actually say them, or if he did he didn’t recall, or he might not have even meant it. Who knows? It’s clear that he doesn’t vote, and that he isn’t engaged at all with contemporary politics. So his comments on American race relations come from his mystical side. Here’s what he says:

This country is just too fucked up about color. It’s a distraction. People at each other’s throats just because they are of a different color. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back – or any neighborhood back. Or any anything back. Blacks know that some whites didn’t want to give up slavery – that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can’t pretend they don’t know that. If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.

I read that without it ringing any bells, until a few hours later when I thought “Hold on, didn’t that get him into hot water in France?”. And, yes, it did. The Gilmore interview ran in the French version of Rolling Stone a month later, but almost exactly a year after that – in late 2013 – a French-Croatian group sought to bring charges against Dylan for promoting hatred. I read a few articles about that case today, and you can as well. Here’s The Guardian simply laying out the facts of the issue at the time. Here’s a New York Times op-ed giving the Croatian side, and another piece from The Forward that indicates a belief that Dylan was not speaking about the 1990s, but rather about the role of the Ustasha in the Second World War. It’s hard to say exactly what Dylan was saying, though I do lean towards the point of view put forward by The Forward myself. Finally, here’s The Guardian again noting in April of this year that the case against Dylan has been dropped, but it is proceeding against the publisher. (By the way, the conclusion drawn by Dylan’s lawyer at the end of this article seems entirely wrong given that the case is proceeding against the magazine). That does not strike me as a good resolution, but France is not exactly a country that I would turn towards for its thoughts on liberté, egalité, or fraternité in the current historical moment.
So, not a great interview. I came out of this liking Dylan a lot less and some people came out of it wanting to see him imprisoned in France. Yikes!

2 thoughts on “Rolling Stone Interview (2012)

  1. Rusty

    Since I’m old, I’ve probably already mentioned how in my youth my buddies and I worshipped Van Morrison like unto a divinity. As time went on and more albums came out and we learned more about the man and his on- and off-stage behavior, there came a moment when we looked at each other and said, “He’s nuts.” Didn’t fundamentally affect our reaction to the music, but it was an epiphany.

    On the one hand, Dylan’s making an obvious point–the pre-accident “Bob Dylan” is long gone, and now is as much a stranger to the present-day Dylan as he would be to the interviewer. (This is me, “working it out the way I want.”)

    On the other hand, he’s nuts–nuts in the way you probably need to be in order to keep on being Van Morrison or Bob Dylan.

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