Interview: Jim Curtis, Author of Decoding Dylan and Rock Eras (Part 1)

Back in June, I interviewed Jim Curtis, the author of Decoding Dylan and Rock Eras, and self described “bridge builder” who makes connections between pop culture and high culture. The interview was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever conducted for this blog and it was a pleasure to speak to him. The interview went for almost an hour and a half and it really didn’t feel that long. So this will be a multi-part article. In this part, we’ll be talking about the Bob Dylan conference, the book, and Bob Dylan’s music.

The reason I didn’t publish this sooner was because I’ve been travelling all over the place: Manchester, Liverpool, Prague, Krakow, and London. Finally, I’m back home and feeling the urge to write a lot and be productive.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

Angie Moon: How did you find my blog?

Jim Curtis: Very simple, classic rock!

AM: So you just googled it and it showed up?

JC: And there you were!

AM: How would you sum yourself up in a nutshell?

JC: In a nutshell, I’m a bridge builder. I live in two different worlds. I grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, which is Elvis’ hometown. I saw Elvis when he appeared in Tupelo in his now legendary concert in 1956. One of the defining experiences in my whole life. It was an amazing, amazing experience. So that began part of my love of popular culture and rock & roll. I’ve also written movie scripts, a couple of books on music, as you know, and that’s one part of my life.

But it’s really important for me to build bridges between popular culture and high culture because in my other life, I was a professor of would you believe, Russian Literature. Russian novels and Rock & Roll. It seems to me that it’s part of a good life to experience, to appreciate all the expressions of human experience that you can find. Some of them are in Russian novels, some of them in rock & roll.

I don’t think that either is necessarily better or worse that the other. So that’s me in a nutshell.

“I saw Elvis when he appeared in Tupelo in his now legendary concert in 1956. One of the defining experiences in my whole life. It was an amazing, amazing experience. So that began part of my love of popular culture and rock & roll.”

On The Bob Dylan Conference and Dylan himself:

AM: How did it come about? Were you invited?

JC: I was not invited. I guess I was doing some publicity in connection with my book, Decoding Dylan, and I came across a reference to it. Like most people, I didn’t even know there was a Bob Dylan research institute, much less, the fact that it’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For those of you who are not familiar with US geography, it’s a very unlikely place for a Bob Dylan research institute. You would expect it would be in New York, Chicago, or one of the big cities or maybe in Minnesota, where he’s from, but no, it’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

So I thought Wow, this is a terrific thing and I wrote and said, ‘send me more information about the Dylan conference,’ and they did. So I registered and went. This is project of Bob Dylan Research Institute and also the Bob Dylan Archive, which they are now working on, full steam ahead. Which I think will open to the public next year.

They have all kinds of Dylan stuff. They literally have hundreds of hours of content and footage. Most of it has never been seen and they’re digitising it. And they also have and I think folks will be interested in it. They have a lot of his drafts of songs, manuscripts of one kind or another where you see him writing out lines, scratching them out, changing them, working on them and it’s part of what I say in my book on Dylan is that he was a serious student of songwriting; more-so than most people realise. He worked for hours, days on those songs, writing them, scratching lines out, rearranging lines, all that.

That was the conference and apparently it’s going to be a biannual conference. There’s supposedly going to be another one in 2021.

It was amazing! As I like to say, it was 500 Dylan fanatics and me… Five hundred people! Can you imagine?

“…it’s part of what I say in my book on Dylan is that he was a serious student of songwriting; more-so than most people realise.”

AM: Just travelling to Oklahoma? What’s in Oklahoma?

JC: Yeah, well that’s the answer! The serious answer to that is that one thing people said is that Dylan said that he liked the idea of having it there because that’s where the Woody Guthrie Institute is.

AM: What’s the connection between the two of them [Guthrie and Dylan]?

JC: Woody Guthrie was Dylan’s first role model. It’s a very common pattern among high achievers in the arts that they have problematic relationships with their fathers. Dylan did because his father was a businessman and didn’t understand his hopes and dreams. He says in his autobiography, my father and I literally didn’t live in the same town. They just didn’t understand each other.

He searches for role models, for father figures that he doesn’t have in his own nuclear family. Dylan went through a series of these. The first of these he found was on records when he was still in Minnesota was Woody Guthrie. He strongly identified with Woody Guthrie, became fascinated with folk music.

When he finally went to New York, one of the first things he did was to go to see Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie was very ill and couldn’t get out of bed. It’s not clear what went on between the two of them but it was it was an important thing for Dylan to go there.

It’s easy to exaggerate the importance of Woody Guthrie for Dylan because people know about it. He went through Woody Guthrie and on to other things. Woody Guthrie was an important milestone for him.

AM: How did you find out about the conference?

JC: They sent me a link to it after I sent an enquiry, doing research, publicity for the book, I’ve just been looking for all references to Dylan, wherever I could find them and this is one of them. As I said, ‘Wow! There’s a conference, send me information about it.’ You know how conference organisers are, they’re eager to have people come. This was back in February and nobody knew how successful it would be or whether people would come or whatever.

So I registered in February and actually it was oversubscribed, they had to turn people away. Probably they could have gotten six or seven hundred people. They just didn’t have the capacity, the meeting rooms, and the hotel.

AM: Any interesting stories from the conference?

JC: I do have some interesting stories from the conference. One of the most interesting ones was a guy named Roger McGuinn. If you’re like me, a music historian, that’s the kind of name you know. But not everybody is familiar with him.

Roger McGuinn was one of the founding members of a group called The Byrds. They did one of the first major covers of a Dylan song. They did “Mr Tambourine Man” [Fun Fact: On that same album, they covered “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “All I Really Want To Do”, and “Chimes of Freedom”].

They also had a big hit on their own called “Eight Miles High”. They were a pretty important group in the 60s.

So anyhow, Roger McGuinn was there on Saturday night and he gave a concert and it’s just amazing, Angie, to listen to somebody who’s a real certified rock star who was present for so many things that went on in the 60s and 70s. Like Dylan asked him to come and play guitar on the Rolling Thunder tour, which is on peoples’ minds because a Scorsese movie is just coming out.

So here’s the origin of the Rolling Thunder tour. I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but here’s what he said. At the time, McGuinn had a house in Malibu and Dylan liked to come over and, I swear to god, they played basketball together. Did you know Dylan plays basketball?

AM: No.

JC: Me neither. So here they are, Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn are playing basketball, okay, and Dylan says, ‘Oh by the way, I’m thinking about doing something unusual.’ ‘Oh,’ Roger says, ‘What’s that about?’ [Dylan] said, ‘I’m thinking of something like a circus. So we’re going to have a travelling circus.’ That was the origin of the Rolling Thunder Revue on which Roger McGuinn played guitar.

And then while they were on the tour, he had these wonderful stories. It’s just hard to imagine. Here they are on the bus for the Rolling Thunder tour and Roger McGuinn is sitting next to Joni Mitchell, who we know he is on a first name basis with her. One day he turned to Joni and said, ‘Oh by the way, Joni, could you give me a song for my next album?’ Just one of those little exchanges that happened between phenomenally talented people. That was a wonderful thing.

AM: Were there any other special guests there? 

JC: Yes, there were a number of guests. Most of the people were academics, oddly enough. It was sort of like an academic conference. There’s a woman who does music reviews for NPR, as a matter of fact. There was some really good, and I think you’ll be interested, really good women who gave papers on Dylan and various aspects of Dylan.

I mentioned a couple of them, one of them was this, I never thought about this before. There was a very smart woman who gave a conference on Dylan’s female fans and you can take this for what it’s worth, she says the adulation that women, especially women, showered on Dylan was the beginning of feminism and feminist activism. Do with that what you will, but that’s what she said.

Another one was a very smart woman from England gave a paper on biographical references to women in Dylan biographies, of which there are four or five now, and made the point that most of these biographies are written by men have sexist attitudes and sort of condescending. They were especially condescending towards Sara Lownds, Bob Dylan’s first wife. It’s the kind of thing that you gloss over because you’re reading along and you’re interested in what’s going to happen next, but if you’re an attentive reader like this woman is, then you see this stuff and people will think that’s really something.

AM: Have you seen the Martin Scorsese documentary?

JC: I haven’t. I believe it’s coming to our area on limited release. I live in Philadelphia and it has not come to our area. But of course it was the talk of the conference because I think it premiered they day after the conference ended. I believe it premiered in Tulsa. I remember some kind of connection between the film and Tulsa.

AM: I saw it on Netflix.

JC: You’ve seen it already, and what?

AM: I thought it was actually quite interesting. So basically there were some kind of fictional aspects.

JC: Yes. I did read about that online. Scorsese for whatever reason made up some fictional characters that he interpolates into the film.

AM: It’s one of those things you watch over and over again and you start noticing it. It was sort of like watching the Netflix series, Black Mirror. There are some twists and turns and you don’t realise it until the end and you’re like oh.

JC: Did you see the American Masters episode that Scorsese made with Dylan?

AM: I have not.

JC: I suspect one of the reasons this movie is so good is because Martin Scorsese is one of the few people that Dylan can accept as an equal. He knows Scorsese won’t be condescending, he won’t ask stupid questions, he won’t do any of those things.

By the way, here’s a little piece of trivia. Did you know that Martin Scorsese was one of the cameramen for the Woodstock documentary? He was absolutely at Woodstock and he worked on the Woodstock documentary. He’s been a great music lover all his life.

AM: I know he did the George Harrison documentary. What was your opinion when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize?

JC: I had heard about it for quite some time. It was in the works for quite some time and I thought, ‘Well, I think this is worthwhile.’ I think it was really well-deserved.

Here’s one of the interesting things about the conference: There was a woman there from Denmark who was one of the key people in getting him the Nobel Prize. She said one of the reasons she thinks he got it is that he was nominated by somebody who was not from America. He was nominated by this one woman from Denmark in a group of other people and they named him to the Nobel Committee.

I remember thinking when American novelist John Steinbeck got the Nobel Prize. I think, John Steinbeck has really only written one really good book and he’s not nearly as good as  [William] Faulkner, in my opinion. When Dylan got in I thought, well he’s way better and more important than John Steinbeck, one of my first reactions.

AM: Do you think there’s a looking down upon from the Nobel Prize people on Americans?

JC: I think some of them do. I have no idea who is on the committee and what their particular attitudes are but, by and large there is a certain condescension in Europe toward America and American culture with a few exceptions, T.S. Eliot, he’s half British, half American [He was born in St Louis to an American family of British descent, but he moved to England and became a British citizen in 1927]. I think that Faulkner is universally respected.

On Decoding Dylan

AM: Why did you write a book about Bob Dylan?

JC: The easy answer is because I’ve been listening to him for over 50 years and I can’t stop listening to him. I can’t stop thinking about him. It’s just the way I am for a lack of a better word, Elvis simply overwhelmed me when I saw him in 1956. Ever since then, rock and roll has been such an important part of my life. It’s who I am, what I think about in the morning, what I think about when I go to bed at night, and so forth.

My first book on rock and roll is Rock Eras. I have a long chapter in Rock Eras on Dylan and that wasn’t enough. I kept on thinking there’s more to say. So I wanted to write a separate book on Dylan because, to put it simply, I was dissatisfied with a lot of the things people said about Dylan.

And it was sort of born out in the conference because most of the people who gave papers on Dylan were to put it like this, were simply overwhelmed by it. It was apparent that they didn’t know quite what to say. They hadn’t figured out what to believe.

So here’s what I start out with, Bob Dylan is a genius, but on the other hand, he’s not the first genius in western civilisation. There’s some very smart people who have studied lively careers of high achievers in the arts. When you do that, you realise there’s certain key elements that occur over and over again in the lives of high achievers in the arts. I mentioned one of them, the relationship with the father. Another is the idea of being born in some far away place.

Dylan says in the episode of American Masters, I was born far from where I was supposed to be. So the first task of a lot of very talented people is to figure out where they’re supposed to be and get there. It’s like it’s the first test they have to pass in order to begin their career. So Dylan had to get from Minnesota to New York. It was the first thing he had to do and when he was in New York, it was the process of defining himself.

It was a whole series of other things. For example, it’s very important that Dylan is Jewish. Not because of what he believes about Judaism or his Jewish practise, but rather because one of the remarkable things is if you just study high achievers in the arts, there is a very large number of Jews who appear there, also through Nobel Prizes [Note: Over 20% of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish].

Jewish names appear on the list of Nobel Prize Winners two or three times where they should be in terms of the proportion of the population [Actually, a lot more than that! Jewish people only make up less than 0.2% of the world population at only 14 million worldwide].

Another thing is birth order. Birth order is destiny, defines so much about us. So if you are going to be somebody who takes the stage, who has a commanding presence, it’s really helpful if you have a younger sibling. And people may not know this, but Dylan has a younger brother named David. David Zimmerman still lives in Duluth, Minnesota. If you grow up [firstborn] in your youth, you’re always bigger, smarter, and stronger than your younger brother. That gives you a certain attitude about yourself. There’s a whole series of other people like Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, big names from the 60s whose personality was formed in relationships to younger siblings.

So those were some of the things that attracted me to Dylan. People aren’t thinking about this. It’s an important fact about his stuff. The other thing is this; a part of my identity as a bridge builder is my connection with the visual arts. I do a lot of art educating. I do a lot of lecturing and I realise there’s all this stuff about Dylan and painting that people aren’t talking about so I put that in the book.

My argument is that the most important figure in Dylan’s whole life was somebody he never met, Pablo Picasso. Picasso is of central importance to him and we find this out in an important biography called A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo. For those of you who don’t recognise the name, she appears on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. She and Dylan are walking down the street.

She was Dylan’s first girlfriend and what’s important about her is that she was the one who introduced him to art. She was an art student herself and she took him to the Metropolitan Museum [of Art] and to the Museum of Modern Art and that’s where he saw the big Picasso painting. Seeing that painting with Suze was one of the most defining experiences in Dylan’s life.

If you look at his songs carefully and listen to what he’s doing in the classic songs of the 60s, there’s a number of references to Picasso. That’s an element of Dylan that nobody is talking about. It’s so important to him. It enriches our understanding of the songs.

AM: What are your favourite Bob Dylan eras and albums?

JC: Easy, Blonde on Blonde. Blonde on Blonde was one of the defining experiences of my life. In the book, I say that “Visions of Johanna” on Blonde on Blonde is the supreme statement of Dylan’s mysticism because ultimately he’s a mystic boy and his great theme actually is transcendence in a variety of ways. “Visions of Johanna” is exactly about transcendence. There’s a key phrase “my conscience explodes” in the last stanza, and when you achieve transcendence, there’s nothing left to say because you can’t talk about transcendence.

My argument in the book is if you consider Dylan’s evolution, as people have talked about a lot, then you realise there’s this big break from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. I believe that break occurred because with “Visions of Johanna”, he had gone as far as he could go and he couldn’t develop that any further because you can’t talk about transcendence. That’s the difference between the sound, the big guitar of Blonde on Blonde and the simpler sound of John Wesley Harding and the simpler lyrics of Nashville Skyline.

AM: What surprised you the most about him?

JC: What surprised me about the books about him is the inability to talk about the songs. My book, Decoding Dylan, I have the subtitle ‘Making Sense of the Songs.’ It’s all about the songs. It’s a remarkable thing. We all know that Bob Dylan is a great songwriter, he’s written all these classic songs.

What surprises me over and over again as I look through the literature on Dylan, of which there are, I don’t know, 200 books now about Dylan? Something like that. How little attention people pay to the songs.

But then I realised this is really a part of American celebrity culture. A lot of times when people say they’re interested in this, that, or the other celebrity, they’re really not interested in the things the celebrity does that makes them celebrities. What they’re really interested in is their personal life and that’s what people talk about in a lot of Dylan books and biographies. It’s what people expect.

A couple of times when I was working on the book and people asked me what’s it about and people would ask, ‘Is it a biography?’ because that’s sort of what people expect that if you’re writing about a celebrity, you’re writing a biography.

This is not a biography, this is about the songs.

“But then I realised this is really a part of American celebrity culture. A lot of times when people say they’re interested in this, that, or the other celebrity, they’re really not interested in the things the celebrity does that makes them celebrities. What they’re really interested in is their personal life…”

AM: Is there anything about Bob Dylan himself or his songwriting that surprised you?

JC: Yeah, the thing I would really like people to understand, is not what surprised me, it’s I guess the explanation. Let me back up a bit.

The most important thing, I think, that fans in general can understand about Bob Dylan is that he’s an extreme, extreme introvert. He’s very uncomfortable with people. He has no public persona and you see this in his concerts. When you go see Dylan in concert, Dylan comes out, he performs these amazing songs and leaves. That’s it.

And the contrast is between him and Bruce Springsteen. Boy, Bruce comes out, he’s talking to the members of the band, he’s talking to the audience, he’s jumping around, he jumps on the amplifiers, he’s very lively.

Dylan doesn’t do any of that. He comes out, sings the songs, and leaves. Because he has no, in a very curious way, he has no way of connecting with the world. Here’s the principle I would like to offer to people, it is extremely difficult for Dylan to talk about himself because to talk about himself means that he’s revealing something so deep and so personal that it’s painful for him and that’s why for all practical purposes you can’t trust anything that Dylan says about himself.

For over 50 years now, it’s been frustrating for interviewers because they don’t understand that Dylan is introverted. He just can’t talk about himself. It’s a very curious thing, one of the most famous people in the world, but he just can’t talk about himself.

The contrast, by the way, for what it’s worth, is Paul McCartney. I live in America and we just saw a rerun of a 60 Minutes episode on Paul McCartney and Paul is very comfortable with himself. He has a comfortable persona for the world, he talked to the interviewer, he goes out and plays clubs, he is in the world. He is comfortable being in the world and talking about himself. Dylan isn’t and I don’t think he ever will be.

AM: What makes him stand out in the crowd of songwriters?

JC: My answer to that is in the title Bringing It All Back Home. There are these things I’ve been thinking about for Dylan for 56 years and sometimes I sort of get a glimmer and then a little bit later there are things I put in the book and then there are things I think about later.

Here’s what I believe about the title of Bringing It All Back Home. If you think about what is the ‘it all’, that’s the question a lot of people haven’t answered. What is the ‘it all’? If he’s ‘bringing it all back home’, what’s the ‘it all’?

My answer is it’s European culture. There’s a key moment when Dylan living in Greenwich Village discovers French Symbolist Poetry and Modern Art. None of which he had any idea about. These were huge revelations that opened him up. They showed him what the possibilities were for creating songs in a way that would synthesise what he had learnt about European culture, avant-garde European culture, and American folk songs.

My argument about Dylan is he’s a synthesiser. He brings those things together and in doing that, guess what? He aligns himself with American tradition because so many American writers have done this kind of thing. They can call it ‘bringing it all back home’. They would go to Europe, they would specifically go to Paris, they would study with French artists, they would go to the museums, and then they would bring it all back home. They would go back to America and pursue their art in a variety of ways. Learning, incorporating in their art what they’ve learnt in Europe and if you want to think about Bob in the context of American cultural history, I think that’s the way to do it.

AM: Do you find that he is under appreciated?

JC: Well, I do in the sense of this is just history. This is what happens to major celebrities, major performers. If you were to ask a random sample of let’s say 15-year-old kids, ‘What do you know about Bob Dylan?’ The answer would probably be not much. A lot of them have never heard of him and that is in part because of the extraordinary success of popular music.

Right now, there are, what, two dozen really important women singers, just women. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Cardi B, and on and on. There’s just so much popular music of the moment and when you’re a teenager what you listen to and relate to is what’s in the moment, what’s popular now. So it’s inevitable, I think that Bob Dylan has sort of faded for a lot of people. That’s one explanation. It’s part of the evolution of history.

The other part, Angie, is that for most people, Dylan is just too difficult. This is his heritage of European culture. Nobody had ever written songs like this before. My favourite is the beginning of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” – “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, When it’s Eastertime too.” What kind of opening is that for a song? That’s crazy! You don’t know what to make of it.

I’ll tell you the results of a little survey. When I was working on the book I just talked to people and said ‘I’m writing a book about Bob Dylan. How many Bob Dylan songs can you name?’ Most people could only mention two songs: “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Lay Lady Lay”. That was it for a lot of people and I realised it’s the bookends of Dylan’s career. He made his name with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Lay Lady Lay” is a simple, easy song to understand. Both of those songs are simple, direct, and easy songs. It’s the stuff in the middle from Highway 61, Bringing It All Back Home, and Blonde on Blonde that’s difficult, demanding. It’s more demanding than people expect.

AM: How did you do research for the book?

JC: The easy answer is I sat and listened to songs over and over and over again. My wife, wonderful woman that she is, gave me The Complete Dylan Lyrics, which I have looked at and worked on and read over and over and over again. That’s why the book is called ‘Making Sense of the Songs’.

I’m not talking about out-takes, The Basement Tapes – there was a lot of discussion at the Dylan conference about The Basement Tapes. The only thing I deal with in the book is the big albums from the 60s. This is where Dylan the myth maker was created, this is where Dylan revolutionised American popular music. That’s what you start with.

Several people when I was at the conference asked me if I was going to write another book on Dylan and I may write a follow-up book like The Later Dylan or something like that, Dylan from the 70s onward. But the first thing I wanted to do was to convey my understanding of what these amazing songs are, where he got his ideas from, how they operate, what they largely mean.

AM: Is there anyone else you would like to write a book about?

JC: Yeah. Bruce Springsteen. Bruce is my other great love of rock & roll. I have have a chapter on Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen because that’s the most important connection in the whole history of rock & roll.

It’s just remarkable how Bruce started out as an unabashed admirer of Dylan, but you can’t just be an admirer of Dylan. If you’re going to be a great rock star as Bruce is, you have to define yourself and that’s what he ultimately did.

I would really like to write a book about, if I were to write about some other figure, it would be Bruce because Bruce also is somebody who fits into the history of American culture. What I say in the book is that among other things, Bruce is connected to the American poet Walt Whitman. There’s a sense of embracing the world of openness, of generosity, of heartfelt awareness, of other people in the world that Bruce shares with Walt Whitman. So I think there are a lot of things that can be said about Bruce and American culture.

AM: How did you get into Bob Dylan in the first place?

JC: I was teaching at Berkeley. This is the place where it ought to happen, it’s such a 60s experience. I was walking down the street in Berkeley and I saw a copy of Blonde on Blonde for sale and I bought it and I was like aaah! Nobody’s ever done this before and I gotta hear more of this and I got to learn more about this. So as a matter of fact, I have a stack of 60s albums that I’m reluctant to part with and I’ve had them for, what 60 years give or take.

AM: And Bruce Springsteen?

JC: I think it must have been through the videos in the 70s. Saw the videos of “I’m On Fire”. I remember that distinctly and then a friend of mine went and saw Bruce live in concert and it was just an amazing experience. Have you seen Bruce live in concert?

AM: I have not.

JC: You’ve probably heard they come out and play for three hours and it’s like they can’t stop. There’s a sense of being so much in the moment and having such a connection with people. Bruce gave an interview in which he said, when fans come to the concert, they’re not at the show, they’re in the show because he makes this connection with people and people respond so intensely to him.

There’s this moment, I’ll never forget, he was singing “Born to Run” and everybody knows the lyrics to “Born to Run”. Millions of people know the lyrics by heart. So he’s up there singing “Born to Run”, he does the first verse – the great line “runaway American dream” and when he comes to the chorus here’s what he does: he takes the mic and lets the audience sing the chorus because he knows everybody in the audience knows the chorus of that song.

Notice the contrast. You cannot imagine Dylan doing that. Dylan’s songs are his songs. He creates them and projects them from himself out into the world. But for Bruce, there’s this connection. There’s a sense of sharing his love of the world, love of music, love of America, all those things and he symbolises it when he shares the mic with the audience. It was just an amazing moment.

That concludes part 1 of the interview. Stay tuned for part 2 where we talk more about music.

Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick and my friend Matt.

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