Bob Dylan's influence on American music and culture is far-ranging and started many decades ago. His voice is distinct, influential and led him to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his new book, Jamaica Plain resident John Radosta dives into Dylan's music, cultural impact and acting career.
Radosta answered questions from Jamaica Plain News about his new book Bob Dylan in Performance: Song, Stage, and Screen.
Q: Why did you want to write this book?
Radosta: My college roommate, Keith Nainby, approached me with the idea. Thirty years ago, he had barely heard of Bob Dylan, but when he moved in with me and another Dylan-obsessed friend, we converted him. Now he’s a college professor with a number of published articles on Dylan. He was asked to write the book himself, and he invited me along for the ride. It was a challenge, since most of my writing is crime fiction (I write that under a pseudonym), but the opportunity allowed me to tap into a mode of thinking I don’t get to indulge too often. It’s been immensely gratifying and fun to write. Most importantly, I was afraid such a huge project might weaken our friendship, but the process was so smooth, it’s gotten only better.
Q: Bob Dylan has one of the most recognized singing voices (and imitated by comedians) of all-time. What makes his voice so recognizable?
Radosta: Of course, everyone thinks immediately of that nasal twang from “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” At the time, he was molding himself in the image of Woody Guthrie, affecting a playful Okie accent. He also tried on the yodeling he’d heard on old country records field recordings of bluesmen like Leadbelly. As he came into his own, though, he adjusted his voice to the needs of the song. Listen to the country-ish tunes of the late ’60s, like “The Man in Me” (famous from The Big Lebowski), and you’ll hear a pleasing, mellow voice. I guess what makes his voice so recognizable is that he sings about what we feel, and want to say ourselves, but can’t. He speaks for us.
Q: How many times have you seen Dylan perform live? How has his voice changed through the years?
Radosta: I’ve seen Dylan 47 times since 1986. At that first show, with Tom Petty, I thought he was on top of his game, putting on a show that blended rock and acoustic, though I’ve since learned that he was actually considering quitting altogether at that point. In the early nineties, he definitely “lived down” to the dismissive claims that he was inarticulate. Since then, though, he’s actually found more joy in performing, and his singing has become clearer, crisper. For a time, he was singing all of his songs in short staccato bursts, and I thought it was his age affecting his breath control. But lately, especially on the American Songbook tunes, he croons long, dreamy lines. Granted, he’s not as smooth a Sinatra, but he can sing as delicately or as harshly as the song requires. He chooses his delivery carefully, often switching up from one song to the next. His own songs, especially “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” can be loving and careful, and transcendent.
Q: Bob Dylan had a movie career? Please tell us more.
Radosta: Dylan has always had a fascination with film. Many of his early songs make reference to both popular movies and French film noir. His first movie role was in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid with Kris Kristofferson. He played a minor character, and not very well. But that was the movie that gave us “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” In the mid-1970s, during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour (the subject of Martin Scorsese’s upcoming documentary on Netflix), he made an especially difficult movie called Renaldo & Clara, which was a mix of concert footage and improvised scenes that delved into the psychodrama revolving around his fame, his collapsing marriage with Sara Lownds, and the fraught relationship with Joan Baez. It was universally panned as unwatchable, but again, gave us some great performances, including an electrifying live version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that was often shown as an MTV video. He made a straight-to-video remake of “A Star is Born” called Hearts of Fire with then-rising star Fiona, but the best things about that are his cover of a Shel Silverstein song and the ironic line that he’d “never win the No-bel Prize.” His film career culminated in a much more enjoyable, but still challenging film entitled Masked & Anonymous with a slew of great actors such as John Goodman and Jessica Lange, in which he played a formerly-famous rock star in a dystopic future America. He’s released from prison to perform in a charity concert for the victims (of what, we don’t know) and has to confront the fact that the dying dictator is his father. I wouldn’t say he acts well in this movie, either, but it is an accessible indictment of the mix of money, politics, and race that swirl though our nation’s history.
Q: Why do you think Dylan has had such a great influence on musicians for decades?
Radosta: From the beginning of his career, Bob Dylan has been searching for the perfect sound. He has an amazing capacity to absorb entire genres of music and then present them in bewilderingly novel ways. It started with his infamous “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and the world tour with the Band the next year. At the time, he was hated for having turned his back on “authentic” folk music. But what he recognized and no one else did was that “authenticity” meant talking in the language of the folk living in the mid-1960s, whereas much of the folk community wanted to stay in the past, even the 1860s. As he electrified his old songs, he and the Band pretty much invented what came to be known as stadium rock, and everyone had to follow. When he tired of that, he turned to a smoother, crooning style that came to be typified by 1970s singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell. He pioneered or perfected one style after another, and though each time he was mocked for changing his sound, the result always turned out to be a slew of imitators. Through it all, he has emphasized crafting songs, acknowledging his musical roots, and searching for new ways to express his artistic drive. Artists are always drawn to those among them who understand their souls most clearly, as Dylan does.
Q: You write that Dylan is not only the voice of his generation, but the voice of our entire, diverse culture -- please explain why you believe that to be true.
Radosta: After nearly 60 years as a celebrity, Bob Dylan has had an extraordinary range of experiences and artistic achievements. He played at the March on Washington, he played for the Freedom Riders. He single-handedly invented modern rock ’n’ roll then pivoted to quiet investigations of Americana, and he was the first song-writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing has influenced nearly every song-writer who has come after him, and even some who started on the road before he did. Along the way, he has absorbed entire chunks of culture, from folk to blues to gospel. In his later years, he wrote standards like “Make You Feel My Love” that have been covered by everyone from Adele to Billy Joel to Garth Brooks, and then directed our attention to American Songbook. Through his fascinating radio show “Theme Time Radio” he has taught us about obscure musicians. His songs are timeless, alluding to the Bible, ancient Greece and Rome, Shakespeare, Civil War poets, and Japanese gangsters. In his writing, he combines it all, reflecting and refracting the wisdom and values of every age in a way that helps us understand not only what it means to be an American, but what it means to be a fully-realized citizen of this earth, with all its wonder, beauty, complications and contradictions. I know of no other living writer in any field who can encompass so many different realms of thought and feeling.
Q: What else would you like people to know about the book?
Radosta: It would make a great holiday gift (haha!). Seriously, while it was written as a text book, it is very accessible. We are fans first, and I hope that our appreciation of Dylan’s work is seen on every page. It’s a great companion for anyone who would like to look at a history of music that spans two centuries and celebrates one of the great living artists.