Chillin' with Dylan
Last week, I was hit by a sniffling cold midday. I spent the last few hours of the workday back at home, in bed with tea and Bob Dylan’s new memoir. By the next morning, I’d bounced back and finished reading the book.
For most of my life, I really had no interest in Dylan until about seven years ago when my friend, Bob Dye, more or less forced me to listen to The Freewheelin’ and Highway 61. The music softened my resistance but Pennebaker’s movie, “Don’t Look Back” triggered the sort of instant conversion usually limited to evangelicals. I haven’t paid much attention to the albums from the mid 1970s to the mid 90s but own and play most of the early and late records fairly regularly.
Despite all this enthusiasm, nothing prepared me for Chronicles, Vol. I. I had long assumed that , though I admired the music, the man was arrogant and withdrawn, the sort of person one would never want to spend ten minutes with. Instead, I discovered that Bob Dylan has all the hallmarks of the quintessential creative person (and I’m surprised that this surprised me).
First I was struck by how much he knows about music, all sorts of music, from classical to bebop to rap to doo-wop to the cheesiest sort of pop, and is able to extract something useful and inspiring from all of it. Like Picasso, he believed in borrowing from everywhere … but himself.
Secondly, he has always challenged himself — not to be successful financially and critically — but to constantly grow and branch out in new directions. Except for a period where he admits he was in some sort of creative stupor, he has always been motivated by some flickering notion in the back of his head that slowly grows and blooms as he feeds it. It’s not to ‘show the world’ or provoke the industry, but because he is always feeding himself with new influences that spark fresh ideas and directions.
Thirdly, despite the fact that he is such an important maverick, he has deep roots in those that came before. His love for and appreciation of roots blues and folks music has always been the core of his art. He has solid foundations, ones he forged himself, and he has been layering on top of them for fifty years. Reading about his early record collection had me revisiting mine, pulling out Sleepy John Estes, Dave Van Ronk, and Harry Smith’s American Folk Music once again.
Next, I was struck by his enormous generosity. He is lavish in his acknowledgment of all the influences on his art. He talks about what he learned from all sorts of surprising influences, everyone from Frank Sinatra, Jr. to Daniel Lanois.
It was fascinating to hear how he first came to write music, how content he had been to simply play others’ compositions, and how hesitant he was to compromise the body of folk music, sort of like if Horowitz began playing his own piano sonatas rather than Ludwig Van’s. Slowly Dylan began to introduce his own additional lyrics to folk standards and then eventually to create his own from the staff up.
While he was committed and hard working, Dylan never comes off as terribly ambitious. He wants to keep moving forward, to play for larger audiences so he can have new creative opportunities but he never set out to be a superstar. In fact, in his admiration for pop singers and Tin Pan Alley composers, he acknowledges that playing Woody Guthrie songs hardly seemed the road to fame and fortune, even in the folk-mad days of the early 1960s. Even recently, when he has been touring a lot, it’s to stretch himself creatively, to play music publicly that should be played, to shed the nostalgic classic rock trappings and talk to new audiences in new ways. Miles was much the same way. The still-touring members of the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, etc. have no such creative ambitions.
I’d urge you to read the book and see how it strikes you. I believe it has a lot in it for anyone contemplating their own creativity.
A number of people have written to me for a certain kind of advice. Typically, they’ll ask how they can become professional illustrators or, even more frequently, how they can get books published. I tend to answer such letters less often than I used to because I realize that I don’t have the answers. But I think Bob does. Here are a few landmarks:
1. Figure out what you’re about. What do you like to do, what are your media, your subject matter, your style.
2. Explore. Getting to #1 requires flexibility, openness, a willingness to explore and to try on lots of costumes.
3. Focus. Spend less time on success and more on art. The more you work, the better your art, the more likely things are going to happen. And figure out what you really want. At one point, I just wanted my name on a book jacket, any book. Now I have a clearer sense of what I am willing to spend my time on. And consider your work from the point of view of those who you want to want it. Learn about the industry you are trying to break into and the audience you are talking to. Don’t just send off stuff to inappropriate and uninterested publishers. Understand the market.
4. Move to New York. You may have to make some sacrifices but if you’re not where it’s at, you’re not where it’s at. This applies to those hellbent on commercial success (but, of course, there are many other ways to be successful). But most importantly, when you are in the deep end of the creative pool surrounded by others full of energy and ideas and examples, you learn to swim a lot better.
5. Be generous. Seize every opportunity to thank people and include them in what you’re doing. Give your work away then make more.
6. There are no small parts. Play the coffee shops, pass the basket, don’t just hold out for the Garden. Be willing to illustrate school play programs or diner menus, publish a zine, start a blog etc. whatever will get your work out into the world.
7. Meet like-minded folks and be actively involved with them. Meet other artists and creative people but don’t just talk about the business of art (god, how dull) but share your passion for making things and infect each other.
8. Never complain, never explain. Be yourself and be glad of it. Creativity needs light and nourishment.
9. Above all, do what you love and love what you do. Don’t try to figure out what you should to to be successful but how to successfully express what’s makes you you. There’s nothing more pathetic and boring than those who have done everything they can to mold themselves to the prevailing notions of what is popular. That already exists (it’s on Fox and it’s called American Idol). You need to blaze new paths, your own paths. No one does what you do. Keep it that way by expressing the true you, the inner you.
Remember, Art’s most important job is to light the viewer’s fuse, to create new feelings and insights, to create by sharing. By sharing yourself, you make the world a better place. The important goal is not to win gold records or Hummers or groupies. It’s the same as the goal of every share cropper who picked up a Sears guitar and wailed the blues. To be authentic, to express yourself. That may lead you to Cleveland and the Hall of Fame or, even better, to an enriched feeling of what it is to be human.