Jeffrey Lewis on Bob Dylan
How did you first get into Bob Dylan?
On some New York City radio station they had a guest pick some “desert island discs” and one of the songs selected was “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which blew my mind, and then I found the record in my parents’ collection. I was probably 14 or 15.
How has he influenced your music?
Like probably every teenager who hears Dylan you get inspired to just string words together and write these rhyming nonsense songs. But then you learn that it’s pointless to go in a Dylan direction, he covers his own territory completely, there’s no way to write like him without seeming like a pale imitation. So he’s a good artist to be inspired by but a bad artist to be influenced by.
How many times have you seen him play live? What were those shows like?
I saw him twice in 1995, as support act to the Grateful Dead, I thought he was okay, but I wasn’t overly impressed. I was just glad to get to see him, like, cross that off the check-list of things to do in my life.
Did it take you awhile to get into Bob Dylan, given his strange singing style?
Not at all, I’ve always loved his voice and I could never understand why people put him down for it. Even as a teenager I loved his first record, which is not an album you love for his writing because he didn’t write most of it, it’s an album you love for his singing. The idea that he’s a bad singer is like a preposterous “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation, everybody says it just because everybody else says it rather than just using their own eyes and ears to judge for themselves.
Do you have a favorite Bob Dylan quote or lyric?
Different lines stood out to me at different times in my life. Some of them stand out for the sound and rhythm, some of them stand out for the emotion or the storytelling or the humor. One favorite line, just for the hypnotic sounds and rhythms that keep you hooked regardless of the garbled content: “The savage soldier sticks his head in sand and then complains/ unto the shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf but still remains…” Why is that compelling? Who knows!?
What are some of your favorite songs or albums, and why?
I like the first album, and Another Side, and Street Legal, lots of the other albums as well. Why? I don’t know. More fun than the others?
Is there a period of Dylan’s music you think is underrated or overrated?
I can’t fathom why Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and Blonde on Blonde are all considered highlights of Dylan’s career. I’m not so into any of those. I’d much rather listen to Street Legal, Oh Mercy, John Wesley Harding, or The Basement Tapes or others. In fact, I even think The Times They Are a-Changin’ is a boring almost unlistenable album, but it’s good that people have varying opinions on all this.