These 1979 – 1981 interviews catch Dylan around the time of 1979’s “Slow Train Coming” and 1980’s “Saved” albums, both of which had a heavy born-again Christian undertone that surprised, disappointed, and angered many of his long-term fans. In a sense, Dylan has always done this kind of thing – followed a new direction that seemed right to him at the time, regardless of whether it was consistent with prior directions, whether it seemed right to others, whether it would be popular.
Bruce Heiman of Tuscon’s KMGX radio calls Dylan for a reaction to some preachy quote from the American Atheists, accusing Dylan of putting across a “repressive and and reactionary ideology,” attacking him for not remaining consistent with prior albums’ supposed messages. This kind of baloney has always annoyed me. You see it cropping up again these days with clever memes circulating which tell artists “you dance and sing because we pay you to dance and sing, and when you’re finished, shut up!” It’s a common fallacy that artists are there to act as mindless marionettes, while in reality art has no real obligation to anyone. In school I recall being taught about the golden age of Irish poetry in which the monied houses would perform a role of patrons of the art, and a given poet would be indebted to a particular house, resulting in poetry praising that house and critical of other houses. I read about Renaissance painters who relied on commissions from churches and kings. So perhaps there is a long tradition of art being co-opted, because, really how else does the artist eat, right? Yet that’s out of necessity, not out of definition, and certainly not out of the ultimate form and function of art. Creative art is the apex of any great civilization, but in the West we’ve routinely maligned and devalued art. “Dance! Dance runt! Come on!” yells Mad Dog Tannen as he shoots the floor in front of Marty McFly – this is the image that sums up much of the social reaction to art these days. I recall hearing a radio DJ complain that the Cranberries didn’t sound the same on album number two as album number one, and even as a young teenager I saw the absolute nonsense of this entitled sense of ownership people seem to claim over the direction of an artist. Don’t like what the artist does now? Not what you wanted them to do? Tough. It’s none of your business, ultimately, what the artist chooses next. Anyway, it’s not like most folks are paying a red dime to the average artist these days.
Dylan sounds confused in the Heiman interview, baffled by the sheer idiocy and preposterousness of the Atheists’ quote. After Heiman concludes the first long-winded quote, there’s a silence in which Dylan simply says “Uh-huh,” followed a time later by “I still don’t quite grasp what you’re saying or who’s saying it or… Is this a group?”
Dylan’s ideology may be different in 1979 than 1969, but he still proves a mystifying opponent for an interviewer, somehow dissolving the fire and power of the Atheists’ press release, deflating it, evading questions, dismissing the meaning of the words being lobbed at him.
“I’m not exactly sure what they mean by that either. […] I’m not sure what that means – ‘passive acceptance to man’s fate.’ What is man’s fate?”
Even Heiman has to conclude “Sometimes it’s hard for me to grasp what they’re saying.”
If the Tucson Chapter of the American Atheists were hoping for a reaction, Dylan must have surely disappointed them, ultimately stepping back and dismissing them playfully.
When Heiman quotes their press release’s warning that Dylan’s fans should “avoid the psychological and social pitfalls of being victimized by your new-found religious fantasy” Dylan replies with “They should know about fantasy more than I.”
This phase of Dylan is certainly an interesting one, though that particular fire arguably sputtered and died by the time of 1981’s “Shot of Love,” and surely by 1983’s “Infidels.” 1980’s interview with Paul Vincent of San Francisco’s Kmel-Fm Radio shows a Dylan far less consumed with preaching the message that peppered his 1979 Kmgx interview, while still remaining true to his own vision and direction. “As long as I keep it straight in my mind who I am and not get that confused with who I’m supposed to be I think I’ll be alright.”
As 1980 rolls into 1981 Dylan begins to sound exhausted in some of these interviews in a way that reminds one of the late 60s interviews. You get the sense that the playfulness is never far away, though, such as when he deadpans that “I think I’ll just start doing instrumental albums next” because he’s come as far as he can come, or when he responds to the interviewer’s relating that Bruce Springsteen has been including “This land is your land” in his live sets with: “Wow, that’s amazing … maybe he’ll starting playing “Blowing in the wind” next. Maybe he’ll do a whole album of Dylan covers.”
By the end of this collection and his interview with Yves Bigot he sounds positively bored, but still insists that “I stayed honest, that I tried to be true, and didn’t lie to myself or nobody else.”