Last week I headed over to the Mann to catch Bob Dylan. My buddy Duff McDonald just moved to Philly two weeks ago from New York City, so I brought him along. Here’s the thing about Duff: He’s a business writer who long ago caught a wicked case of what is arguably The World’s Biggest Dylan Boner. He’s seen Dylan roughly 40 times, and, a few years back, he plunged headlong into the murky depths of Dylan’s mind for an exhaustively researched piece he cobbled together for Vanity Fair.
Seeing Dylan with Duff is quite the experience. As the Mystery Tramp and His Band played their tunes—be it “Desolation Row,” “Simple Twist of Fate” or “Highway 61 Revisited”—Duff pulled the lyrics up on his iPhone and had me read them along as Dylan sang or had me close my eyes. Here, I talk to Duff about his Deep Dylan Love.
You’ve seen Dylan roughly 40 times. Why do you love him so?
First and foremost, the songwriting. And by that I mean all sorts of things—the storytelling, the word choices, the phrasing, all of it. Second—believe it or not, I love the way he sings. And third, while this has become a bit cliche, it’s still true: You never know what you’re going to get at a Dylan show. He is always tooling around with his own songs, and so it’s always kind of “new.” Not always good, mind you. I saw him in Jones Beach, [N.Y.] four days before he played at the Mann Center. The first show was transcendent. Mann was a bit of a letdown. It’s a roll of the dice.
What did he do at Jones Beach that he didn’t at the Mann? Or is it even something you can quantify?
He brought more energy, plus the jamming was much more impressive. When Charlie Sexton (his guitarist) is at his best, he’s a thing to behold. But when Bob holds him back too much—which he did at the Mann—it’s like keeping the Van Gogh in the closet.
You wrote that really cool “Inside Dylan’s Brain” piece for Vanity Fair. How you came up with that idea for it is pretty interesting.
I’d been trying to get Vanity Fair to let me write about Dylan for a few years, before coming to the realization that they were never going to assign me an actual narrative piece about him. Anyway, I loved his satellite radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour. One day, I noticed that I was listening to the third or fourth George Jones tune that he’d played, and it occurred to me that for everyone who wonders what motivates/influences the man, he was offering it to us on a platter. All we had to do was “analyze” his radio shows. I tallied up all his shows—he did 100 of them in the end, all an hour long—and made a list of who he played and how many times he played them. The result, at least in my opinion, was a picture of Dylan’s own influences. So I took that data to Vanity Fair. They finally bit. The piece turned out really great, in large part because of the designers, Andrew Nimmo and Beth Bartholomew, who paid excellent homage to Milton Glaser’s iconic psychedelic Dylan poster from 1966. (Which, it turns out, was inspired by a Marcel Duchamp self-portrait from 1957. The wheel keeps spinning ...)
Several times at the show you insisted on me closing my eyes. You closed yours along with me. What do you get from Dylan with your eyes closed that you can’t from looking at him? Is there a “close your eyes” goal/purpose?
Not really. Sometimes Dylan shows can sound a little cacophonous, and I find that looking at individual musicians or performers sometimes distracts me from enjoying the total sound. Or that might be complete bullshit. If you close your eyes listening to music anywhere, you focus more on it, don’t you? Here’s a better one for you: My brother-in-arms for most Dylan shows is a wonderful photographer named Chris Wahl. He taught me what he calls “concert ears”—you cup your hands around each ear while aiming yourself right at the stage. Try it sometime. It totally changes—dare I say, enhances—the sound. (I might be in trouble for this. He told me last week he was intending to trademark the move.)
Last question. At the show you said, “Dylan has written at least five bonafide anthems. Most people are lucky to write even one.” What’s your favorite Dylan anthem?
Ask any Dylan fan their favorite song or album, and they will almost all tell you that it depends on the time of day, the day of the month, the month of the year. But that’s kind of a bogus answer, right? Can I give you a couple? Favorite ’60s tune: “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Favorite ’70s tune: “Tangled Up in Blue.” Favorite ’80s tune: Tie between “Jokerman” and “Brownsville Girl.” Favorite ’90s tune: “Cold Irons Bound.” Favorite ’00s tune: “Mississippi.” Favorite underrated Bob: “Changing of the Guards.” And I don’t care what anybody says, but Christmas in the Heart is a gem, even if I sometimes get the feeling it’s all a big prank. My 3-year-old daughter loves “Must Be Santa,” so that’s good enough for me.
PW's Music Issue 2014