With Bob Dylan making three appearances in New York City this week, it seems there is an unusual burst of activity concerning the artist in town. On Sunday, Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz, both writers of books on Dylan, appeared at a roundtable at the Philoctetes Center.
The audience ranged from professional people to teenage kids who had never seen Dylan sing in person. At a coffee shop after the seminar, I sat next to a table of four high school kids fascinated by the artist. One, who had never seen Dylan in concert and had no money, told the others of his plans to break into the theatre to see the man in concert. When I left, I wished him luck.
Since we just wrote about Sean Wilentz in the previous post, this time I’ll focus on Christopher Ricks, a professor of humanities at Boston University. In 2004, while a professor of poetry at Oxford in England, Ricks published Dylan’s Visions of Sin.
Ricks compared Dylan to other artists, including writers and actors, who had sustained long careers. He noted the old maxim that anything an artist creates will be misinterpreted and will follow him for the rest of his life. “That’s a real fear for a performing artist,” Ricks said. “You’re caught in a role and can never get out of it.”
One such artist, he said, was Lenny Bruce, who Ricks said didn’t have enough just being himself. “Bruce was all himself in that one extraordinary thing that he did,” Ricks said. Dylan on the other hand—because every event is a parade—multiplies the parades by maximizing the number of public performances he does with his never ending tour.
Ricks noted there are many kinds of genius. Jack Nicholson is an actor who plays essentially the same kind of character very well in many different kinds of films, he said. There are great musicians who go their entire lives doing the same music. Then there are actors like Laurence Olivier, whose Othello is “a different world,” said Ricks. He puts Dylan in Olivier’s camp.
On Dylan’s songwriting, Ricks said it’s good to have instinct, but one can also think too much. “You must program your brain not to think too much,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your brain under control. Otherwise there will be too much conscious control.” Dylan, he said, has struck the correct balance between the two.