Bob Dylan at Massey Hall

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize saga highlights complex relationship with press

December 9, 2016
Bob Dylan at Massey Hall

Bob Dylan had gone missing. 

The American music icon hadn’t been heard from since the news broke two weeks earlier that he’d won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. The award had set off the rare kind of high-culture debate that reaches the rest of us at our water coolers and social media feeds, and now Dylan’s “disappearance” was keeping the story alive for another cycle. One member of the usually tight-lipped Nobel committee called Dylan “impolite and arrogant.” 

Then, on Oct. 29, he reappeared by way of a print interview with veteran music writer Edna Gundersen. The singer’s management had hastily arranged his first full-fledged interview in nearly two years to appear in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, ostensibly to focus solely on an upcoming London exhibition of Dylan’s paintings. But the conversation (by phone) with Gundersen — who’s interviewed him before — would provide a chance to talk about the Nobel. When asked why it took him so long to acknowledge the news, he responded (playfully, as Gundersen put it): “Well, I’m right here.”

Dylan has been playing this game for more than 50 years. He’s there and he’s not, offering himself up to the press and public squarely on his own terms. Though his fans had long had him pegged for posterity, the category-busting Nobel is nonetheless a unique validation of his living artistic standing and a late-in-the-game bolt to his celebrity status. For students of the press and popular culture, it’s also another chance to try to unpack his relationship to fame and the efforts to manage his public persona. 

Let’s start with the postscript to his remarks to Gundersen: that Dylan will not be in Stockholm on Saturday to pick up his prize after all, citing “other commitments,” and leaving it to Patti Smith to sing one of his songs and someone to read a letter he’s apparently written for the occasion.

Gundersen doesn’t “have a theory” to explain his initial silence or rain check for the ceremony—and she thinks the Nobel Committee should have known what it signed up for. “They are dealing with a very idiosyncratic guy,” she says. “On a PR level, and I’m not saying that’s what this is about, just look at the amount of attention it got. But you know, the world didn’t end. He broke protocol, so what? He’s done that his entire life.”

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When he was first getting noticed in New York, as a barely 20-year-old from Minnesota, Dylan’s initial encounters with journalists were an extension of the tales he was telling around town. Truth was secondary, at best. Princeton history Professor Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan in America, notes the singer’s link to Warhol, who was incorporating his own popular iconography into a high art that reached the masses. “There was a certain kind of fabulism as he was making his way,” Wilentz says of Dylan. “Then he sees the stuff gets printed. It’s myth-making and image-making.”

Dylan also was quick to learn some basic facts about the press machine: it invaded his privacy, it demanded answers to senseless questions, it (too) made stuff up. Soon, his own nobody’s-child myth seamlessly metamorphized into a modern Messiah myth that threatened to swallow him whole. In his acclaimed 2004 memoir Chronicles, the singer writes that “the big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation. That was funny.”

Actually, he wasn’t amused. Dylan started to view the media as “parasitic,” Wilentz says. “He was the artist. All the press could do is feed off of him. And when they were done with you, they’ll spit you out into the gutter. It happened with [Jack] Kerouac. They could destroy you if you let them.”

At the same time, Dylan began to see mainstream reporters, typically 10 or 20 years his senior, as a useful tool to stake out his turf at the very front of the avant-garde. Says Wilentz. “The press became the perfect foil.” Powered by minor-chord melodrama, the 1965 “Ballad of a Thin Man” is unlike many Dylan songs in the way it clearly identifies just who he is talking about, with its reference to the subject’s pencil:

You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand

You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”

You try so hard but you don’t understand

Just what you will say when you get home

Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mr. Jones?

That same year, some of Dylan’s real-life encounters with the press were captured on film in D. A. Pennabaker’s documentary masterpiece Don’t Look Back, which shadowed Dylan on his UK tour just two months before he famously went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Chief among the journalist-foils was a tweed-jacketed Time magazine reporter named Horace Judson interviewing a particularly irascible 24-year-old don’t-call-me-a-folksinger folksinger. 

“I know more about what you do than you’ll ever know about me…” Dylan thunders.

“If I want to find out anything, I’m not gonna read Time magazine…” Dylan sneers.

“I’ve never been in Time magazine, and got this (concert) hall filled twice,” Dylan hisses, “I don’t need Time magazine.

The exchange set an early standard for celebrity takedowns of mainstream journalists. Pennebaker tells CJR that Dylan was hip to how the news business worked, where reporters—often with little knowledge of the subject at hand—were sent out to try to snag something juicy. “You had people who would make this effort to get what they thought was valuable information that they could send back (to their editors) and get paid for it,” the filmmaker said by phone. “But all this information was completely valuable and valueless at the same time, and you had to make best of that dichotomy.”

This was also, of course, a very different moment for both the news and entertainment industries, with no YouTube or Instagram alternative paths to stardom. A single weekly print magazine—iconic in its own right—still held an inordinate amount of power to set the agenda, identify talent, bestow fame and fortune. And Dylan resented the fact that “you had to have their assent.”

“What he wanted to say is that he didn’t need that from them,” Pennebaker says. “They didn’t hold the truth in their hands and anyone could have access to the truth.”

But even if Dylan never needed the press, or fame itself, he eventually seemed to reconcile himself to the fact that it wasn’t going away—and could also help sell records and concert tickets. Two decades later, during a rather low point in his career, while co-starring in the forgettable Hearts Of Fire,  Dylan agreed to let journalist Christopher Skyes and his BBC crew into his movie-set trailer. Sykes, who had seen Don’t Look Back, remembers how nervous he was beforehand, and how he’d sent ahead a written list of questions. From the get-go, Dylan looked ready for another take down, grabbing a pen to start sketching a portrait of Sykes on the back of the sheet of paper with the written questions. “All I could think about was how to keep him there,” Sykes recalls. “He rather brilliantly took control of the whole thing, partly by drawing the picture.”

At one point, between puffs on his cigarette, Dylan declares: “I’m not going to say anything you’re gonna get any revelations about. Just not gonna happen.” Still, over the course of the conversation, Skyes says “I do think he put himself out to try to help us do our job. I don’t know why. It could be as he said to me: ‘Sometimes it’s easier to say yes than it is to say no.’”

The Los Angeles-based Gundersen has interviewed Dylan eight times since 1989, mostly for USA Today, and has found him to be charming, funny, pragmatic — and eternally unknowable. “He doesn’t reveal a lot about himself,” she says. “I think he’s done a masterful job of protecting his private life. On those subjects he will shut you down.”

Still, Dylan is by no means a closed book, and over the years has seemed increasingly eager to talk about the creative process, and reflect on his career. He delivered a 30-minute speech last year at an event for the charitable organization Musicares, detailing his influences and looking back on his early rise to stardom. Last month, he was quoted at length in a New Yorker profile on Leonard Cohen, dissecting the now-late Canadian singer-songwriter like a virtuoso music critic, and a serious fan. 

Still, whatever exposure he might offer, Dylan always manages to pull back well before giving any of himself away. “He is not a hermit by any means,”  says Gundersen. “But he has still managed to cultivate quite a mystique. How much of it is conscious, I honestly don’t know. It would be a brilliant PR campaign to have managed all these years.”

For Dylan’s most ardent admirers, whatever happens in Stockholm changes little. English literature professor Janet Gezari, who taught a course on Dylan at Connecticut College, says that confining him to a certain pantheon misses the point. “He has always had that resistance to being described, to being pigeon-holed or simplified or labeled,” she says. “Most journalists want to position the writers or artists they write about to make their work comprehensible to a larger audience. But they’re always going to come up hard against Dylan. He’s an outlaw figure. He’s an outlaw even in relation to outlaws.

Jeff Israely a former Time correspondent in Rome and Paris, is the editor and co-founder of Worldcrunch. Follow him on Twitter @jeffisraely or check out his website.