Bob Dylan, the greatest creative force in postwar America (in my opinion), has given a fantastic and uncharacteristically straightforward interview to AARP magazine. Most of the talk focuses on his upcoming album, Shadows of the Night, in which he croaks his way through songs from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s (sounds pretty good from the clips I've heard).
But in a discussion of whether or not any of us is ever truly, permanently happy, the auteur behind the awesomely apocalyptic LP Slow Train Coming (sample lyric: "My so-called friends have fallen under a spell/They look me squarely in the eye and they say, "All is well"/Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high/When men will beg God to kill them and they won't be able to die?") is asked if he's ever "touched happiness." His response:
We all do at certain points, but it's like water — it slips through your hands. As long as there's suffering, you can only be so happy. How can a person be happy if he has misfortune? Some wealthy billionaire who can buy 30 cars and maybe buy a sports team, is that guy happy? What then would make him happier? Does it make him happy giving his money away to foreign countries? Is there more contentment in that than in giving it here to the inner cities and creating jobs? The government's not going to create jobs. It doesn't have to. People have to create jobs, and these big billionaires are the ones who can do it We don't see that happening. We see crime and inner cities exploding with people who have nothing to do, turning to drink and drugs. They could all have work created for them by all these hotshot billionaires. For sure that would create lot of happiness. Now, I'm not saying they have to — I'm not talking about communism — but what do they do with their money? Do they use it in virtuous ways?
Q: So they should be moving their focus here instead of …
A: Well, I think they should, yeah, because there are a lot of things that are wrong in America, and especially in the inner cities, that they could solve. Those are dangerous grounds, and they don't have to be. There are good people there, but they've been oppressed by lack of work. Those people can all be working at something. These multibillionaires can create industries right here in America. But no one can tell them what to do. God's got to lead them.
Q: And productive work is a kind of salvation in your view? To feel pride in what you do?
"The government's not going to create jobs. It doesn't have to. People have to create jobs…" That line (and its populist snark directed at "big billionaires," "hostshot billionaires," and "multibillionaires") reminds me of Dylan's always dissonant politics. As he wrote in his memoir, Chronicle, he was at odds with liberal bent of the Greenwich Village folk scene from which he emerged:
There was no point in arguing with Dave [Van Ronk], not intellectually anyway. I had a primitive way of looking at things and I liked country fair politics. My favorite politician was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who reminded me of Tom Mix, and there wasn't any way to explain that to anybody.
Dylan wote that in the 21st century, of course. Back around 1964, he was willing to pen songs such as "I Shall Be Free No. 10," which includes the following jibe at Mr. Conservative: "If you think that I'll let Barry Goldwater/Move in next door and marry my daughter/You must think I'm crazy!" Elsewhere, he's disdained the protest songs through which he gained his first bout of celebrity, saying he was just trying to impress his friends (this, like all Dylan musings, is to be taken with a grain or ten of salt). While he dabbled in radical chic (see the fabulously misinformed song, "The Hurricane," for instance), Dylan's genius is precisely that he was never really at one with his audience, who have always projected onto him whatever it was they thought they needed.
At his early peak, in 1966, when it was his turn to be the nation's singing savior, he disappeared (he says in the AARP interview it was because he wanted to be family man and raise his kids). When he returned, he started doing goddamn country music at a time when even Sammy Davis Jr. for god's sake was driving deep into the psychedelic night (Sammy's cover of "Candy Man" speaks of a "groovy lemon pie."). But there's Dylan, warbling through songs with Johnny Cash and hanging out in Nashville, then the squarest city on the planet. At the height of the coke-filled, ultra-libertine 1970s, he released the aforementioned Slow Train Coming, the greatest and purest jeremiad that rock music has yet spawned. Only a few years later, in the age of Reagan, he shed his born-again persona and seemingly embraced the state of Israel (see "Neighborhood Bully" on Infidels), which caused rending of garments and gnashing of teeth among his more liberal followers. Was Bobby some kind of right-winger? In 2012, as Reason's Brian Doherty documented, Dylan refused to play along with an obsequious interviewer at Rolling Stone, who desperately need the Maestro to endorse Barack Obama and ratify a hardline on global warming. And just WTF was up with that great nativist Super Bowl commercial for a foreign-owned car maker?
Dylan has always been a couple of steps ahead of his audience and he's always beckoned us to follow, not in the self-hating fashion of many rock gods who swear off their earlier material. No, Dylan is simply living his life and doesn't mind if we want to follow him, even as it takes him into strange and often wonderful places (think the late '90s triumph of Time Out of Mind and, more recently, 2009's Christmas in the Heart, in which the former Robert Zimmerman recasts "Here Comes Santa Claus" as one of the most insistent and terrifying tunes in the American songbook).
I like Dylan because he's always out there, trundling through the night literally on his "never-ending tour" (he talks about that, too, with AARP) and because he really has always been more of a beatnik than a hippie or a folkie. For all the yammering about his identification with Woody Guthrie, Chronicle and the Martin Scorcese documentary No Direction Home, which was built around interviews Dylan taped with his manager, make it clear that Dylan is cursed to wander forever a mythical America like another of his heroes, Jack Kerouac. But he's Jack Keroauc with a stronger liver, or better self-restraint, and somebody who never tires of meeting new people and seeing new places. This comes through too, in the AARP interview, that he's happy rambling and drawing connections to a past that is fading away while he's still busy being born.
And most of all, he doesn't take his gnomic pronouncements on anything too seriously:
The last time I did an interview, the guy wanted to know about everything except the music. People have been doing that to me since the '60s — they ask questions like they would ask a medical doctor or a psychiatrist or a professor or a politician. Why? Why are you asking me these things?