Marlon James on Bob Dylans Nobel Prize, Authenticity as Pose, and Not Reading His Book Reviews ‹ Literary Hub

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Marlon James agreed to do this interview about Bob Dylan by phone from New York in the summer of 2022. His novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, with its brilliant kaleidoscopic voices, is a book that stays with the reader a long time. The story unfolds partly in 1976 during a turbulent time in Jamaica, and the intense many-sided narrative circles around the iconic artist Bob Marley.

I wanted to interview Marlon because it was clear how a musician’s impact was felt deep inside the lives of his charactersand I wanted to talk to him about his thoughts on another musician.

The writer Robert Polito had, a year earlier, asked me to write an essay for the Bob Dylan archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That essay initiated the idea of starting a new book of essays and interviews that I am currently writing on Dylan. It will also include interview transcripts of various artistsOdetta, Steve Earle, Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Robert Creeley, Gillian Armstrong and othersfrom an earlier independent documentary I made with two friends.

In this interview, Marlon was generous and spontaneous, and had wonderful insights about an artist as mercurial as Dylan…

Griffin Ondaatje

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Griffin Ondaatje: I noticed in an interview back in 2016 you mentioned that you are a fan of Bob Dylan. When he won the Nobel prize that year there was that sort of strange reaction where some writers didnt think he shouldve won. One of the people I interviewed in 2002 when making my documentary, Complete Unknown, was the poet Robert Creeley.

I remember asking him twenty years ago: Do you think theres a reason why an artist like Dylan couldnt ever win the Nobel Prize? And he said: “Well, the only reason is the social imaginations of hierarchy that exist in the arts.” I wonder if you would agree with that. How did you feel about it when Dylan won?

Marlon James: Well I think, you know, without getting…I wasnt gonna start out getting racial in it but lets get racial in it. You know I found very few, if any, black writers who had a problem with Dylan winning the prize. And I think its not necessarily a racial point so much as two things I dont think happen with black artists. I dont think we rank art. I dont think because you are a folk singer youre more important than me a rapper whos more important than me a poet. Which is why we can have these type of creative meetings where those people are all there.

I also think that theres no separation with us between the so-called Great American Song Bookwhich is mostly people singing bluesand everything else. Music has always been a gateway to self-expression and self-expressions always filtered its way through music. I dont think that distinction is there between us.

Also, you know, the Nobel was pretty clear that it was for how he expanded the American songbook. I dont think songwriting is poetry. I dont think lyrics are poetry. But I do think lyrics are literature. And I think that most of what we consider literature came out of song.

GO:I like that. And so

I dont think lyrics are poetry. But I do think lyrics are literature. And I think that most of what we consider literature came out of song.

MJ: And a lot of people were like: Hes not even the best songwriter! But you know thats like saying John Steinbeck is not the best writer because he won the Nobel Prize. If were gonna use that as a standard I can always find somebody better. Thats not the standard. The standard is the kind of impact hes had. And hes had a profound impact on literature. Hes had a profound impact, certainly, on black literature. Hes had a profound impact on song. You know if it wasnt for Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke couldnt have gotten a social conscience.

GO: You mean with Cookes “A Change is Gonna Come” being partly inspired by “Blowin in the Wind?”

MJ: Right. So I agree with Creeley that its the sort of the intellectual distinctions and the kind of intellectual snobbery and so on that wouldve stood in the way. Im glad the Nobel committee (at the time) didnt have it. But, even in my own work, I mean I wish I could say I was as influenced by books as I was by music. And I wish I could say I was influenced by quote unquote serious music as much as I am by pop music. Im just not highfalutin and brilliant enough! [laughs]

GO: I grew up with five older brothers and sisters in a household that always had music playing somewhere. So I think, for me, it became like this all-embracing art form. I wonder though, Marlon, do you remember the first time hearing Dylan when you were a kid?

MJ: Oh yeah. The first time I heard Dylan I didnt know it was Dylan cause it wasnt Dylan singing. Like a lot of peoplecertainly in JamaicaI thought “I Shall Be Released” was a Jamaican song, you know? A lot of the old Dylan songs I heard was not Dylan. It was reggae and ska artists covering Dylan. The first time I actually heard Dylans “I Shall Be Released” I thought he was covering the Jamaican song. You can hear how much of Jamaican ’60s popular music drew from Bob.

The second time I think I heard him was probably in Church. Talking about how people segment music… for a lot of people Bob Dylans sort of Christian phase was a nadir for them. Thats when he was in the wilderness. But a lot of times when black musicians talk about Bob Dylan theyre talking about that era, you know? Theyre talking about “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

GO: And other great songs on Saved and Shot of Love being part of that era?

MJ: Yeah. But the first time I heard Bob Dylan on the radio… it was “Hurricane.”

GO: You heard it when it first came out? How old wouldve you been?

MJ: I was gonna say it mightve been when it came out….Im trying to remember when “Hurricane” came out.

GO: It came out in 1976… so you wouldve been around six years-old?

MJ: That would explain… I was six! And I heard it because Bob Dylan had such a profound influence on Bob Marleyby extension people wanna hear who Marley listened to. “Hurricanes” a pretty stomping pop track. I pretty much heard what everybody else heard because I was listening to radio.

GO: I remember, in the liner notes of Biograph, Bob Marley says he liked Slow Train Coming and Saved… He especially liked “Gotta Serve Somebody.” And he said something like: “If youre an artist like Bob Dylan… it doesnt mean anything to you that people might not like what youre doing.” So when you moved to Minnesota, Marlon, you were already a fan of Dylan in a deep way?

MJ: I was a fan of Dylan long before I came to Minnesota. I mean I didnt come to Minnesota till I was thirty-six. And I think the first Bob Dylan album that I bought… Im trying to remember… it mightve been Oh Mercy. I mean I am an ’80s kid. I dont know if its the first album of his, though, that I just couldnt take out of the CD player. For me eventually listening to Oh Mercy made me want to find all his stuff. I cant remember what album “Jokerman” was on…

GO: Infidels.

MJ: Infidelsand listening to Infidels of course there is a reggae song on it. I mean I liked Bob, but Bob didnt click for me till I went even further back and heard Blonde on Blonde. Blonde on Blonde which I loveand I never learned Bob in orderBlonde on Blonde led me to Bringing It All Back Home which is probably still my favorite Dylan album.

GO: I read somewhere that you really like the song “Its Alright, Ma (Im Only Bleeding).”

MJ: Hmm-hmm.

GO: What was it about that song in particular?

MJ: It is one of my favorite songs. I think because I like being haunted by a song. That song has been with me through some pretty rough times. And its been with me through some pretty cool times. I mean you know in Jamaica reachingin Church we call it the end of myselfyou know, struggling with my identity and struggling with being a writer and not being understood and feeling alone and listening to that song. Its weird how listening to songs that can seem despondent can make you feel hopeful.

And I love that it didnt try to make its point in two-and-a-half minutes, and then get out of the way. A Dylan song ends when it damn well ready to end. The singing, the chords, the sort of moodiness and kind of sadness of it. You know, if youre into Dylan theres always “that song” that made you get into Dylan.

GO: That song somehow… when you talk about it helping you through hard times… It seems also a song that helps inoculate you to some of the world. He says in one lyric: “Advertising signs con you… meanwhile life outside goes on all around you.” And also just the chaos thats going on inside himand the irony that hes talking to his mom as if to reassure his mother.

MJ: Yeah. I think thats it as well. You know terms like “songs speak to you” we can appreciate for a reason: because they do. And sometimes its not necessarily opening you up to something new so much as The thing about Dylan is he can make you look at things youve already seen…in a different way.

I also think a review is a conversation, sometimes, between readers…but sometimes a review is just a conversation between reviewers.

GO: There was an interview you did after A Brief History of Seven Killings and the success of the Booker Prize. You hadnt gone back to Jamaica at that point and you were saying a certain kind of reaction was inevitable, good and bad, back home. You were saying something like: I cant pay attention to commentary or trolls, because if I did I couldnt get out of bed in the morning…

MJ: Hmm-hmm.

GO: …and I was thinking of a line in Dylans song “Up to Me”: “If Id lived my life by what others were thinkin’ / the heart inside me wouldve died.” Like Marleys insight in Biograph that Dylan doesnt pay attention to what others are thinkingI remember there was an interview with Marley in Talkin Blues where he was saying how he overcame a lot of negativity in his career, too. In the creative process, is it important for the artist to disappear for a while and avoid all the clamor of what people think about them?

MJ: Yeah… I mean, when my books come out, I may read one or two reviews, usually. And then I dont read any more.

GO: Why is that, do you think?

MJ: Well… because I already did my part! I also think a review is a conversation, sometimes, between readers… but sometimes a review is just a conversation between reviewers. Like Ive seen reviews of mine that arent even reviewing the book, theyre reviewing the reviews. Its kinda like when somebody gets a lot of [attention] and then, one week or two week, or sometime after, somebody writes the “take-down.” And you realize this is not a take-down of the work, its a takedown of the reviews. Which is fine, if thats what gets you off.

But Ive never considered it a healthy conversation for an artist to take part in. Ive never actually come across a review that helped me to write. You have to shut out a lot of noise, the more attention you get is a lot of noiseand the easier the temptation to have to simply respond to that. And I think for better or worse youve got to follow your own muse. I mean not every Dylan record is good. Some are outright atrocious.

GO: Like “Down in the Groove” or whatever…

MJ: Oh god, back in the ’80s before Oh Mercy it was tough going for a while… but its a necessary thing for an artist in whatever medium youre doing to follow your own creative impulse. The work thats in your head has to be the thing that either comes down on the page, or comes through your guitar, or piano, or so on, without expectations interfering with that transfer.

GO: I think its interesting that Dylan at age nineteen, arriving in New York from Minnesota, was already creating personas. It provided a certain armor… so that he could evolve as an artist. Like he lied that he grew up with carnivals in Gallup, New Mexico etc… He told all sorts of stories… it just gave him a bit of a head start and freedom not to be defined by things.

But I wonder if in todays worldwith things like social mediawhere everything is “fact-checked” in two seconds… he couldnt have gotten away with that sort of process back in 1961. Not that it matters…

MJ: But… I mean authenticity has absolutely nothing to do with the making of good art. And by talking “authenticity” Im not endorsing theft. Cause Im not part of that whole sort of Im using this, this, and thisand I made Art! You didnt create: you curated. Which is fine, thats a skill too, thats being creative too.

But theres a difference between being a creator and a curator. But to come back to DylanI think a lot of that was also playing with peoples expectations. The fact is, once people feel that they find you they reduce you. And why not? Because we actually add a certain virtue to it, you know? People think the concise version is the best version.

People still say in my [university] classes: You know, a good book is your last draft minus ten percent. I said: That dont apply to me… most of my books are bigger than my first edit. You know?

This sort of idea of a process of reduction is a process of getting the truth and authenticityit is of course utter bullshit. Even authenticity is kind of a pose…anybody can do it! You know? [laughs]

I put on my t-shirt and jeans and dont comb my hair and listen to some really, really, really sad anti-pop by some white guys who really need a bath. I think for [Dylan] if people really are going to talk about him, hes going to spice up the conversation. Or hes gonna, in some ways, direct how people talk. But I also think that if he said “I was raised by some blind nun in Mexico…” To an extent it is kind of true, because hes saying it. Next week he says: “I was raised down south like Elvis”actually it is kind of true, too.

Im a big believer that the formative moments for me, when I have listened to something or read something that made me want to write, that that was kind of a birth. The first time I read Jessica Hagedorns Dogeatersits a novel set in the Philippines and I still think its the greatest novel about Jamaica ever writteneven though its set in the Philippines I found myself there. And that was kind of a birth.

I couldve said: “Yeah man, literary awakening began in Manila.” I never been there. But I also think that Dylan realized from the get-go that if he sortof fucks with his audience, then the audience cant necessarily screw him over.

GO: Hes got control.

MJ: Yeah. And I think thats it. Its in some ways a better play…its as good a play as when David Bowie said he was “gay.” Grace Jones used to do it too because Grace Jones used to tell people that she couldnt leave her house in Jamaica because shed walk outside and lions would eat her! [laughs] ’cause she knew how ignorant people were.

And I think part of being an artist is being kind of a charlatan… kind of playing with, and toying with, audience. And so keeping them guessing. I think [Dylan] realizes as well that once people figure him out, then they start to reduce him. Oh: Youre a folksinger!

GO: But Im wondering… With some artists like Dylan, whos absorbing a lot of different musical styles, different ways of writing lyrics, other artists stuff… do you think hes just really good at that? Better than most other artists?

MJ: Well, hes better at it than most people. I think Dylan… I think the thing about Led Zeppelin and the Stones is that they dig musicparticularly black musicafter the fact. The difference between them and Dylan is that Dylan digs culture as its happening. And I think thats a big difference. Its why Talking Heads sound like Talking Heads, you know?

Another band thats influenced by black people, you know, Aerosmith sounds like Aerosmith. Not digging black culture as its happening… theyre just digging it after the fact. I also think Dylan has something interesting to say to add on top of that; or else he would never be influencing people like Sam Cooke. He would never be influencing all these black musicians. Because Ive yet to meet a black musician who go: “Man that Stones record really made me want to make music.”

Which is not to put down the Stones… but cmon. Whereas, you still hear people talking about Bringing It All Back Home. Or you hear people talking about unlikely stuff that has influencedthat Rolling Stone is never gonna praiselike Saved. Or even, before Saved, the one that hinted he was going that way…

GO: Slow Train Coming.

MJ: Yeah. I think he does it better than everybody else. Thats why hes Dylan and were not. Hes just a better writer than everybody else… considering that sometimes it looks like the only book he ever read was The Bible.

I think the thing about Led Zeppelin and the Stones is that they dig musicparticularly black musicafter the fact. The difference between them and Dylan is that Dylan digs culture as its happening.

GO: Was there any other album that you think of as one of your favorites?

MJ: I really like Time Out of Mind. I dont have an American context…so I didnt know why people hated Self Portrait so much.

GO: You mean like the old Marcus review?

MJ: Yeah. [laughs] I read his thing “What is this shit?” and so on. But, you know, I came to that album after listening to bands like Pavement. You know, if Im listening to bands like Pavement or Railroad Jerk or even Captain Beefheart or listening to Devendra Banhart and all these ’90s folk… with Self Portrait Im like: Yeah! So I actually quite like that record.

But if youre asking me what my second favorite Dylan album is, it would be Desire.

GO: I love that album. Something about the violin… and Emmylou Harriss voice is so great too… Its everywhere.

MJ: Yeah! Its also why Rolling Thunder Revue is my favorite re-issue of the re-issues so far. Its Bob Dylan at his most collaborative. Its Bob Dylan as a band leader. I dont know if he can actually be, again, that loose and that brilliant at the same time.

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