The Books: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross; ‘Dylan’, by Hendrik Hertzberg and George Trow


Next up on the essays shelf:

The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town (Modern Library Paperbacks), edited by Lillian Ross

The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town (Modern Library Paperbacks) is a collection of “The Talk of the Town” pieces in The New Yorker, grouped by decade, which is a lot of fun because you can see how the “voice” of the magazine developed, and how “The Talk of the Town” has grown and changed over the years.

In January of 1974, Bob Dylan and The Band played Madison Square Garden. They were on a brief tour (two months), and it was Dylan’s first tour since 1966 which took him around the world.


So there was a great deal of curiosity about him, and all of those mixed emotions/expectations that seemed to dog Dylan no matter what he did. People wanted him to be their poster child. People wanted him to properly represent the nostalgia that they had for him. Obviously, Dylan never played the game that way. It’s probably one of the reasons why he kept growing and changing and developing as an artist (and continues to do so). If he had listened to his critics, and kept his career on a re-tread to satisfy the unimaginative earnest folk-singer types who never wanted him to change … then Dylan would have only had one season in the sun, as opposed to decades.

Of course you have to give a shit what the audience thinks of you. But honestly, you can’t care TOO much. Because often they don’t know what’s best for them, frankly. Often they are wrong in what they want from you. The anxiety about change is rich considering that he was representative of a “movement” that was all about change. But there was that undercurrent, dwelled upon in the Martin Scorsese doc, and elsewhere, of: If HE changes, then were they wrong about him in the first place? If HE changes, then does that mean I’m growing old and don’t “get it” now? If HE changes, then I don’t know what my life is about anymore. People placed so much importance on Bob Dylan. The noise surrounding Dylan, in this regard, has always been loud. People acted like it was a personal betrayal when he famously “went electric”. Now I’m no Dylan aficionado, unlike, say, Jonah Lehrer, but those who were disappointed on a personal level by Bob Dylan doing his own thing misunderstood his message in the first place. Misunderstood what he was all about. Doing what was expected would never have been what he was about! But this is the way the story goes with giant celebrities. It has always been the case. How much will audiences “take”? Do you expect them to follow you everywhere?

The 1974 tour was lucrative, involving sell-out shows, massive crowds, and intense media scrutiny.

This jointly-written Talk of the Town piece has a really interesting structure and is a fun dialectical piece, which gets at all of the things that were swirling around Dylan/The Band at that time, the stuff I mentioned before. Hendrik Hertzberg and George Trow sit down with two friends, one blond, and one dark-haired, both of whom were at the concert at Madison Square Garden. They both are asked to give their impressions of the concert. There is some disagreement, on a pretty basic level, about Bob Dylan as an artist. The blond one has some skepticism about Dylan, but maybe more so about his typical fans. This is a pretty funny statement: “I’ll tell you some people who weren’t there [at the concert]. There were no blacks there, and no transvestites, and there were very few people in embroidered jeans. Instead, there were extraordinary numbers of people who seemed to have come directly from registration at the New School. A very earnest group.” Ouch. The point the blond friend is making has to do with what she/he sees as Dylan’s lack of a sense of humor. The blond gets that there is irony in Dylan, but the humorlessness is why a more diverse audience stays away. The dark-haired person disagrees, admitting up front that he/she comes from a “Dylan-can-do-no-wrong angle”. The dark-haired person talks about Dylan’s elusive nature, how Dylan “manages to free himself from the expectations of his audience.” The suggestion appears to be that it is not Dylan’s problem, it is the problem with audience expectations (a concept that comes up again and again with Dylan). The dark-haired person was not crazy about the first half of the concert. He/she thought all the songs were played too fast, without any interpretation (or any that could be discerned or understood). However, the dark-haired person says that in retrospect the first half may be “a necessary softening-up process for both Dylan and the audience. The room was full of complicated yearnings, after all.”

The majority of this piece is made up of long quotes from these two people, and it’s a pleasure to read. “Complicated yearnings” is a hell of a line of dialogue.

Here is an excerpt where the dark-haired person talks about what happened during the second half of the concert.

The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town (Modern Library Paperbacks), edited by Lillian Ross; ‘Dylan’, by Hendrik Hertzberg and George Trow

“And the second half of the concert?” we asked.

“Ah,” our dark-haired friend went on. “Dylan came out all alone, small and brave, with just his harmonica and his acoustic guitar. I was too far away to see the details of his face, but I could see his hair, curly and mousy, and that tense, crabbed stance. He sang ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ and ‘Gates of Eden’ – still too fast, still in that almost strangled high chant. Then, halfway through ‘Just Like a Woman,’ it started to get magical, and when he sang ‘It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ it all fell into place. He was still fooling with the melody, but with a purpose. I felt I was hearing that song for the first time instead of the thousandth. When he sang the line about ‘But even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked,’ everyone cheered, of course, but they cheered even louder for the line ‘And it’s all right, Ma, I can make it.’ After The Band came back on again, he sang a couple of very pretty new songs, and then ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ People began streaming down the aisles, and everyone stood up – there was no particular cue; we just all stood up at once. Dylan’s accompaniment for the chorus was the whole audience – twenty thousand people singing ‘HOW DOES IT FEEL?’ at the top of their lungs. The houselights were turned on, so we could all see each other, and four huge klieg lights went on behind Dylan, making everything – Dylan, us, the music – seem half again as big. He did two encores: a reprise of ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine),’ much more melodic and accessible this time, and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I’d never heard him sing it quite that way before. He never does anything the same way twice. His voice was clear, strong, and true. He pulled it off – he kept the myth intact.”

“Personally,” our blond friend said, “when it comes to mythic figures I prefer the ones like Elvis Presley, who stay mythic in spite of themselves. Dylan was never really a successful archetype, if you know what I mean. He was only someone who seemed to be somewhere we ought to be. That’s why people worried so much about his changes of style. People worried about where Dylan was and what he was doing because they wanted to know where they should be and what they should be doing. The style changes prophesied – falsely, perhaps, some kind of movement, and that mercurial quality of his appealed to our generation’s love of novelty. But now, you see, he has run out of ways to seem some distance ahead, and has fallen back on devices that will allow him to seem (at all but a few carefully chosen moments) some distance away. It’s a little sad to fight so hard for Mythic Distance.”

“But that’s precisely what I like about him,” said our dark-haired friend. “He lives by his wits.”

This entry was posted in Books, Music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Books: The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town, edited by Lillian Ross; ‘Dylan’, by Hendrik Hertzberg and George Trow

  1. mutecypher says:

    I saw Dylan when he toured with the Grateful Dead and disliked how he sang several of his songs. But in talking to some of the other folks around me (most of whom were Dead Heads first and Dylan fans second) they told me that was just how Bob was. You didn’t get faithful reproductions of the records.

    And hey, I don’t even need to fabricate a quote to get the former Mr. Zimmerman’s take on this:

    Jann Wenner: Do you still try to reach your audience every night, every listener there? Are you thinking about that person in the last row of up there in the balcony?

    Dylan: No, I’m not. I know a lot of performers say they do, but I don’t know how much they really do. To me, the relationship between a performer and the audience is definitely anything but a buddy-buddy thing, any more than me going in and admiring a Van Gogh painting and thinking me and him are on the same level because I like his painting.

    Wenner: So you’re there to do your art, and they’re there to appreciate it and try to understand it.

    Dylan: I would hope so. I think so.

    (excerpted from RS 1025/1026, May 3-17, 2007)

    I’ll sign off with Jonah Lehrer’s favorite Bob Dylan quote: I am the walrus. Paul is dead.

    • mutecypher says:

      You know, the more I poke around in the Jonah Lehrer thing, the more I slap myself on the forehead and wonder WTF he was thinking. How could he have possibly thought he could get away with fabricating quotes from Dylan?

      And I share the final feelings of the dark-haired friend, that’s what I like about his persona.

  2. sheila says:

    I really like conversation with Wenner. It’s not “supposed” to be how artists feel. They’re supposed to be glorified clowns-at-birthday-parties. Dylan don’t play like that, and I think he is very smart about it. I wonder if there are still people who can’t “forgive” him for going his own way, for playing electric guitar, etc. Or did they get over it?

  3. sheila says:

    And yes – Jonah Lehrer. That has to be a high watermark for arrogance. “Nobody’ll find out – who’ll check?”

    Uhm – obsessive Dylan fans. Just because YOU think you’re the only one who has discovered the key to Dylan’s genius (and you haven’t, Lehrer) doesn’t mean that his fans haven’t already discovered it, and about 40/50 years ago. These people have been poring over Dylan quotes for longer than you’ve been alive, son.

    So arrogant. So smug.

    I would honestly love to know what he was “thinking”. I am not forgiving and not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think there was much thinking going on – I think he was a sloppy lazy writer/worker (laziness being so common of sociopaths) – and didn’t keep his notes together – but also probably just thought no one would think to check because he is Jonah Lehrer and the Epitome of Awesome.

    But still. The BALLS. I love that it was the Bob Dylan thing that really brought him down.

    I mean, he’s shopping around a book proposal at the moment – I’m not sure if you follow him at all, but he’s been in the news again for the past couple of days. Like, dude, you trashed your own life. Stop trying. Go away. Repent. Silently.


    • mutecypher says:

      You would think a guy writing about brain research would know the finding that truly stupid people don’t even know enough to know that they are stupid.

      Is there an outline of a proof in the above statement?

      I don’t follow his career. I recall when his book came out and I wondered if it was worth reading, since the topic is fascinating and there are some truly interesting results being found with fMRI and just standard questionnaires and experimental methods (assuming you take American college freshmen as accurate representatives of humanity). But the reviews were generally that it was glib, even before the fabricated quotes were discovered.

      Yeah, grow up. Be ashamed. If you become a decent person, in 20 years you’ll be someone like Charles Van Doren.

      • sheila says:

        I think he’s so fascinated by how the brain works because he has never had an original thought in his life.

        Go away, Jonah.

    • mutecypher says:

      There’s so much to chew over in the Talk Of The Town piece. I completely disagree with the blond friend’s assertion that Dylan is not a successful archetype. He’s the American Trickster archetype. He’s Brer Rabbit and Bug Bunny and Groucho Marx. I do agree with the comment that Dylan distances himself from his audience, though I don’t see how it’s sad. On the other hand, I wasn’t at the concert and I didn’t particularly enjoy the one show of his I’ve attended. The comments were definitely thought-provoking.

      Who wants to only read stuff that is agreeable?

      • sheila says:

        I think, though, again – you have to put it into context. I think it is clearer now Dylan’s spot in the pantheon, in terms of a long-lasting archetype. 1972 it wasn’t as clear – there was still so much confusion about him. Or maybe not confusion – anxiety. Everyone wanted him to stay the same. He refused.

  4. Dg says:

    The light haired person who was counting how many blacks, gays, and embroidered jeans people was NOT going to enjoy that concert no matter what.

    • sheila says:

      I think there are some excellent points made by that person about the fans and the dynamic of said fans.

      I love the dialectic approach, especially when it comes to such an epic figure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.