Syracuse University Magazine


Q&A: David Yaffe

Dylan Keeps on Keepin' on at 70

Bob Dylan needs little introduction. The American icon has captivated and mystified people for the past half-century and continues to tour the globe, playing upwards of 100 shows a year. Through it all, Dylan’s ever-changing personae and shifting music styles have cloaked the singer-songwriter in mystery. English professor David Yaffe credits a pre-teen obsession with the Beatles for introducing him to Dylan—a fascination that ultimately led him to write Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, published by Yale University Press to commemorate Dylan’s 70th birthday in May. Yaffe—a literary scholar, a music critic for The Nation, and author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (2006)—explores Dylan on four fronts. “Together they attempt to elucidate the difficult pleasure that is Dylan, with his nasal voice, oblique lyrics, complicated relation to race, and controversial appropriation of words and music,” Yaffe writes in the introduction. “Yet Dylan stays forever young, except that with each rebirth, he is also forever uncanny. This is a song of Dylan’s selves.”

In his fourth-floor office in the Hall of Languages, with a portrait of the troubadour perched over his right shoulder, Yaffe discussed all things Dylan with SU Magazine editor Jay Cox.

What did Dylan teach the Beatles about songwriting?

DY: In 1963, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came out with all these substantial songs and “Blowin’ in the Wind” became an enormous sensation. The Beatles were singing love songs and variations of love songs, which is marvelous, but if you look at the lyrics they were writing in 1963 and compare them to Dylan’s, it’s another world. So Dylan represented a kind of education for them. Later, there were a lot of songs where Lennon would say, “That’s me trying to be Dylan.”

What was your impression of Dylan the first time you saw him in concert?

DY: It was in 1988, when I was 15. I thought the concert was terrible and thought he was mangling his material, just deliberately singing badly. Later, I thought, “OK, so there’s a good Bob Dylan and a bad Bob Dylan,” so I kept my Dylan collection limited because I didn’t want it infected with the bad Dylan albums.

How much bluesman does Dylan have in him?

DY: There’s something chameleon-like about him. In his memoir, he talks about how he had a mystical experience over seeing an old black jazz singer, and he had this epiphany like, “Oh, I can do this.” He developed the confidence to actually use the lower part of his range, which he had not been using, and what came out sounded like an old bluesman, like Howlin’ Wolf.

Does Dylan ever play a song the same way twice?

DY: Dylan is constantly evolving his music—changing keys, changing arrangements—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Usually, it’s not an improvement over a great album version, but then you don’t want him to be a human jukebox. A lot of pop musicians, even the best ones, are human jukeboxes.

How does he explain his controversial songwriting habit, which has led to plagiarism charges?

DY: He has said, “I didn’t write the song, the box is writing the song.” This means that sometimes an idea would occur to him or a line in a movie or novel would interest him, and he’d just put it in a box and then he’d use it somehow. It’s almost like found-object art: You take some things completely out of context and then you use them as place holders in a line or something.

What is Dylan’s most significant contribution?

DY: In the ’50s, rock ’n’ roll music was deliberately marketed to teenagers. Young intellectuals listened to jazz or blues or folk, so you had this hierarchical divide and Dylan shook it up in the ’60s. People were thinking this guy is doing things that have connections to poetry, and that was considered unthinkable for pop music. I think he was the first person to set that standard. The whole idea of being a poet and a rock god would not have existed without the Dylan example. For as long as people care about music, his greatest songs will outlive him and they will outlive us.

Photos courtesy of Yale University Press