Bob Dylan, self-help guru?
Is Bob Dylan inspiring? As a lifelong Dylan fan, my answer is yes, absolutely. I started listening to Dylan as a teenage guitar nerd in the early 1980s, when I discovered The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, an album released two years before my birth. I would sit in my dorm room at boarding school, obsessively hitting rewind-play on my Pioneer cassette deck until I figured out the picking pattern that Dylan used in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” his bittersweet sendoff to an ex-lover.
I had zero romantic experience at the time, so it’s not obvious why that particular song affected me so much. It’s not like Dylan was the voice of my generation, if you can apply that portentous word to a bunch of politically disengaged preppy kids growing up in the Reagan era. But like most teenagers, I dreamed about one day putting my mark on the world. Dylan seemed cool that way: Reading about his exploits in the Sixties and later, I loved how he always seemed to stay at least one step ahead of his own generation, mutating from earnest folkie to angry rocker, from snide hipster to genial country raconteur, from holy fool to weathered bluesman. Like all great actors, he inhabited each new role with absolute conviction and then moved on to the next one.
Dylan’s role-playing is only interesting, of course, because his music is so strong. I’ve been out of high school for nearly 30 years, and I still get excited when I hear the breakneck surrealism of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, or when Al Kooper’s towering organ riff kicks in during the opening bars of “Like A Rolling Stone,” or when Dylan savages the hapless Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” or when I play anything off Blood on the Tracks, for my money the best breakup album of all time.
In one of my favorite Dylan songs, he writes: “And the only sound that’s left/After the ambulances go/Is Cinderella sweeping up/On Desolation Row.” I’ve never walked down Desolation Row, and neither has Dylan. But it’s just as real to me as the Forest of Arden, or the villages and manor houses of Jane Austen’s Regency England, or Thomas Pynchon’s Zone. In some ways, these fictional places seem more real than the physical streets that I navigate on my way to the grocery store, because I care about them more.
So yeah, Dylan inspires me. But is he inspiring in a motivational, self-help-ish kind of way? As a cultural figure, does he belong on the same list as Horatio Alger, Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins, Steven Covey, and Oprah Winfrey? Should we consult Dylan’s life and work for answers on how to win friends, influence people, and locate our cheese?
Yes, argues MarketWatch.com columnist Jon Friedman. “I think Dylan can teach people life lessons based on his mysterious genius,” he writes on page one of Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius For (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution. Friedman attempts to prove his case with short, zippy chapters that extract morals from particular episodes in Dylan’s long and relentlessly chronicled career.
In the chapter “Keep on Keepin’ On,” for example, we learn that Dylan is a persistent dude who “challenges himself to forge ahead, no matter what.” In “The Fine Art of Pissing People Off,” Friedman writes about the young Dylan walking off the set of The Ed Sullivan Show when a nervous network censor ruled that he couldn’t sing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” a song that lampoons ’60s-era American paranoia about the Communist threat. Score! Although he missed the chance to sing for Sullivan’s vast audience, Dylan achieved maximum counterculture cred for defying the man. The lesson? “If you truly believe in something, however small, it’s worth standing up for.”
An only slightly older Dylan would infuriate legions of acoustic folk purists by strapping on an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. “By going electric,” Friedman writes, “Dylan dared to do something most of us wouldn’t have the courage to do in our own lives: tamper with our track record of success.”
And so it goes. By dropping out of the University of Minnesota and moving to Greenwich Village to pursue a career in folk music, Dylan apparently taught us to find fulfillment outside our comfort zone. By successfully adopting a country sound in the 1969 album Nashville Skyline, he proved that “credibility is everything.” The lesson? “If you’re going to create a new persona for yourself, you had better make sure you seem authentic to other people.” And marketers, it turns out, can study Dylan’s relentless touring schedule since the late 1980s to learn the importance of constantly forging relationships with new customer segments.
My initial, dyspeptic take on this book was that Friedman had reduced Bob Dylan’s fascinating life and monumental body of work to a series of depressing Hallmark clichés. As a literary technique, this one goes all the way back to Butler’s Lives of the Saints. As with all hagiography, narrative richness and critical acuity both yield to the relentless imparting of moral lessons.
It’s true that Dylan fans won’t find much new information in Forget About Today. Although Friedman interviewed many Dylan intimates and experts for this book, including musical luminaries like Robbie Robertson of The Band and backstage figures like Dylan’s former personal assistant, he relies heavily on published interviews and on Dylan’s own 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Through his management, Dylan politely declined Friedman’s request for an interview, and I can’t say that I blame him. I would guess that for Dylan, an artist who has always imparted a strong sense of mystery, the idea of having his life dissected into motivational bromides was probably unappealing.
On the other hand, Friedman has produced a clear, passionate case for Dylan’s importance as a personal role model, rather than an artist or a cultural symbol. The lessons that he draws are no less true for being trite. If you love Bob Dylan, and you enjoy self-help literature, you’ll probably like this book. Who knows, you might even move to lower Manhattan and start a revolution.