Freewheelin': Putting words into Bob Dylan's mouth

  • Article by: DAVID KINNEY , New York Times
  • Updated: August 3, 2012 - 9:30 AM

When it's Dylan himself doing the fudging, there doesn't appear to be consequences.

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This July 22, 2012 file photo shows U.S. singer-songwriter Bob Dylan performing on at "Les Vieilles Charrues" Festival in Carhaix, western France.

Photo: David Vincent, Associated Press

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HADDONFIELD, N.J. -- In 2004, when Bob Dylan published his memoir, "Chronicles: Volume One," it was hailed for its striking candor. In it, he tells the story of arriving in New York and hitting it big in the 1960s, and about losing his way and rediscovering himself in the 1980s. The critics cheered. Finally, the Sphinx was telling it like it was.

Dylan obsessives knew better than to take him at his word. This was the master fabulist, a man of many masks, king of the tricksters, and memoir is the least dependable of genres.

Dylan's is more peculiar than most. He invented characters out of whole cloth, or at least no one could track down the "Southern nationalist" named Ray or the shadowy Louisiana shopkeeper named Sun Pie. He swiped choice phrases from other writers -- Hemingway, London, Twain, even Joe Eszterhas -- and he put words into people's mouths.

So for those who had studied "Chronicles," the big news in the publishing world this week could not have been more rich. Jonah Lehrer, a science writer for The New Yorker, admitted fabricating some Dylan quotes and reporting others out of context in his book "Imagine: How Creativity Works," a blockbuster since its publication in March.

He earned a place among journalism's shamed stars by playing it fast and loose in a story, coincidentally enough, about a cultural icon known for liking his facts slippery.

At issue was a lengthy anecdote Lehrer told about how Dylan wrote "Like a Rolling Stone." In 1965, after a dispiriting tour of England, Dylan retired to a quiet cabin in Woodstock, N.Y., and thought about quitting.

"But then," Lehrer wrote, "just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling. 'It's a hard thing to describe,' Dylan would later remember. 'It's just this sense that you got something to say.'"

There is no record of Dylan's having said that. On other subjects, no one may notice when a journalist gets the facts wrong. On this topic, the careless or unscrupulous writer will be hammered by an army of experts. Followers of Dylan can be ruthless, and they have been so deeply immersed in the story of his career for so long that they instantly detect when something is off.

Last month, the journalist and Dylan fan Michael C. Moynihan found that several of the Dylan quotes in "Imagine" did not sound familiar. He tried to source them. (Almost everything Dylan has ever told a reporter can be found on a searchable compilation of more than 300 Dylan interviews posted online by a Polish fan. It runs to 700,000 words and 1,391 pages, making Lehrer's fabrications all the more mind-boggling.) When he could not locate them, Moynihan contacted Lehrer, who first misled the reporter, then finally acknowledged that the quotes "either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes."

Moynihan published his findings on Monday in Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish news and politics. The fallout was swift. Lehrer's publisher recalled the book. Lehrer, who had come under considerable fire earlier this summer for reusing previously published work on his blog for The New Yorker, resigned from the magazine.

A review of the book in The New Republic had raised more serious questions about the facts and conclusions in Lehrer's Dylan anecdote, reporting that "almost everything in the chapter -- from the minor details to the larger argument -- is inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic."

What's notable about what happened to Lehrer is what never happened to Dylan.

"Chronicles" mimicked a candid autobiography even as it broke every rule of fact-based writing, and he was rewarded with sterling reviews and a new six-book deal in 2011 at Simon & Schuster -- also my publisher.

What's the difference? Surely, part of it was that Lehrer was working in nonfiction rather than memoir, where scenes and dialogue are understood to be reconstructed from memory rather than from rigorous reporting. But even in memoir there are limits to how far reality can be stretched for the sake of the story, as James Frey, the author of "A Million Little Pieces," learned.

Dylan got a longer leash with "Chronicles." He filled it with knowing winks and nods to its unreliability, and anyone who didn't know that he'd play around with his story hadn't been paying attention. This was a man for whom the first pseudonym gave way to many more: Blind Boy Grunt, Tedham Porterhouse, Lucky and Jack Frost.

When Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village at 19, he talked all sorts of jive about where he had been and what he had done. He invented an entire persona, and fed it even to the paper of record, The New York Times.

For the past decade, a great debate has been boiling about the authenticity of Dylan's work. The liner notes read, "All songs written by Bob Dylan," but listeners were finding in the lyrics bits of Virgil and Ovid and Henry Rollins. They tended to take the appropriations in stride when it was confined to the records. But it made some people a bit more uncomfortable when a pair of sleuths -- Scott Warmuth, a record collector and disc jockey, and Edward Cook, a scholar at the Catholic University of America -- uncovered similar, seemingly systematic borrowings in "Chronicles."

Given Lehrer's offenses, it is interesting that among the trickery in "Chronicles" are misattributions. In one section, Dylan takes words written by the poets Carl Sandburg and Archibald MacLeish in "The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg" and conflates them, cobbling them together into something presented as a discussion Dylan had with MacLeish. At another point, Dylan appeared to take a phrase from the letters of Thomas Wolfe and put it in the mouth of U2's Bono.

In both cases, they are presented not as direct quotes but as paraphrasing, but the effect is nearly the same.

Depending on your point of view, all of this is either the work of a thief or a sign of genius. Either Dylan is not quite so original as we thought, or he is the ultimate cultural recycler. The fact is, he has been elevated into a nearly untouchable artist, and so he gets away with this sort of thing: It's just Bob being Bob. What else were you expecting?

Dylan even jokes about his loose regard for the details in "Chronicles": "When Bono or me aren't exactly sure about somebody, we just make it up."

Lehrer may have been a wunderkind at 31, a star with the best writing gig in the world and a bright future, but no one would confuse him with Bob Dylan. He would get no such leeway.

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David Kinney, the author of "The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish," is writing a book about Bob Dylan through the lives of his fans and followers.

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