Can you tell ZNet, please, what your book is about? What is it trying to communicate?
Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s (Seven Stories) tells two intertwining stories of the 1960s, of an intransigently individual artist and of the social movement with which he interacted. One sheds light on the other. Dylan was hailed at an early age as the voice of a generation, but rebelled against the label and set off on an artistic journey of his own, creating the innovatory and majestic music of the mid-1960s albums. Yet these “anti-political” songs resonate with political, social, and cultural concerns.
Tracing the thread that binds Dylan’s restless art to its rapidly shifting environment is the book’s primary purpose. However, I don’t see the songs as transparent reflections of the times. Dylan was not a passive lightning rod, an impersonal conductor of great historic currents. Rather, he was a navigator of those currents. He didn’t pander to his followers; he interrogated them.
My book is not an exercise in 1960s romanticism. In Dylan’s eloquent indictments of militarism and racism, his visions of a society ruled by greed and governed by lies, and in his tortured interaction with his times, there are lessons and warnings for the present and future. “To live outside the law you must be honest/ And I know you always say that you agree.”
Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?
I grew up in the States in the 1960s and was a Dylan fan from age 13. Discovering him, getting to grips with his work, trying to keep pace with him were formative experiences, both politically and aesthetically. I had written about Dylan in my book on Muhammad Ali, Redemption Song, but felt there was much more to explore. So I returned to the music — a unique treasury — and at the same time to the events surrounding the songs. In doing so, I drew not only on published sources but also my own recollections.
Meanwhile, a new anti-war movement was on the rise, and a new generation of activists was struggling with the dilemmas of movement-building — and discovering Dylan. Sometimes, I think new activists are too daunted by the 1960s. Self-indulgent celebration of our generation and of Dylan does them no favors. The legacy of the era is rich, but only if it is examined critically.
What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?
I hope that the book will send people back to Dylan’s glorious songs with a sharpened appetite and a keener appreciation of their genius. I hope that they will be able to draw from the songs some of the inspiration, solace, and stimulation I’ve found in them. I also hope the book will add something to readers’ understanding of the complexities of the great social movements of the 1960s and of the relationship between artists and movements in general.
Finally, I hope the book will help us rescue the sharp and challenging edge of both Dylan’s work and the struggles of the 1960s from sentimentality, caricature, and the packaged banality of the corporate media.