Marlon James agreed to do this interview about Bob Dylan by phone from New York in the summer of 2022. His novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, with its brilliant kaleidoscopic voices, is a book that stays with the reader a long time. The story unfolds partly in 1976 during a turbulent time in Jamaica, and the intense many-sided narrative circles around the iconic artist Bob Marley.
I wanted to interview Marlon because it was clear how a musician’s impact was felt deep inside the lives of his characters—and I wanted to talk to him about his thoughts on another musician.
The writer Robert Polito had, a year earlier, asked me to write an essay for the Bob Dylan archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That essay initiated the idea of starting a new book of essays and interviews that I am currently writing on Dylan. It will also include interview transcripts of various artists—Odetta, Steve Earle, Martin Carthy, Billy Bragg, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Robert Creeley, Gillian Armstrong and others—from an earlier independent documentary I made with two friends.
In this interview, Marlon was generous and spontaneous, and had wonderful insights about an artist as mercurial as Dylan…
Griffin Ondaatje: I noticed in an interview back in 2016 you mentioned that you are a fan of Bob Dylan. When he won the Nobel prize that year there was that sort of strange reaction where some writers didn’t think he should’ve won. One of the people I interviewed in 2002 when making my documentary, Complete Unknown, was the poet Robert Creeley.
I remember asking him twenty years ago: Do you think there’s a reason why an artist like Dylan couldn’t ever win the Nobel Prize? And he said: “Well, the only reason is the social imaginations of hierarchy that exist in the arts.” I wonder if you would agree with that. How did you feel about it when Dylan won?
Marlon James: Well I think, you know, without getting…I wasn’t gonna start out getting racial in it but let’s get racial in it. You know I found very few, if any, black writers who had a problem with Dylan winning the prize. And I think it’s not necessarily a racial point so much as two things I don’t think happen with black artists. I don’t think we rank art. I don’t think because you are a folk singer you’re more important than me a rapper who’s more important than me a poet. Which is why we can have these type of creative meetings where those people are all there.
I also think that there’s no separation with us between the so-called Great American Song Book—which is mostly people singing blues—and everything else. Music has always been a gateway to self-expression and self-expression’s always filtered its way through music. I don’t think that distinction is there between us.
Also, you know, the Nobel was pretty clear that it was for how he expanded the American songbook. I don’t think songwriting is poetry. I don’t think lyrics are poetry. But I do think lyrics are literature. And I think that most of what we consider literature came out of song.
GO: I like that. And so—I don’t think lyrics are poetry. But I do think lyrics are literature. And I think that most of what we consider literature came out of song.
MJ: —And a lot of people were like: He’s not even the best songwriter! But you know that’s like saying John Steinbeck is not the best writer because he won the Nobel Prize. If we’re gonna use that as a standard I can always find somebody better. That’s not the standard. The standard is the kind of impact he’s had. And he’s had a profound impact on literature. He’s had a profound impact, certainly, on black literature. He’s had a profound impact on song. You know if it wasn’t for Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke couldn’t have gotten a social conscience.
GO: You mean with Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” being partly inspired by “Blowin’ in the Wind?”
MJ: Right. So I agree with Creeley that it’s the sort of the intellectual distinctions and the kind of intellectual snobbery and so on that would’ve stood in the way. I’m glad the Nobel committee (at the time) didn’t have it. But, even in my own work, I mean I wish I could say I was as influenced by books as I was by music. And I wish I could say I was influenced by quote unquote serious music as much as I am by pop music. I’m just not highfalutin and brilliant enough! [laughs]
GO: I grew up with five older brothers and sisters in a household that always had music playing somewhere. So I think, for me, it became like this all-embracing art form. I wonder though, Marlon, do you remember the first time hearing Dylan when you were a kid?
MJ: Oh yeah. The first time I heard Dylan I didn’t know it was Dylan cause it wasn’t Dylan singing. Like a lot of people—certainly in Jamaica—I thought “I Shall Be Released” was a Jamaican song, you know? A lot of the old Dylan songs I heard was not Dylan. It was reggae and ska artists covering Dylan. The first time I actually heard Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” I thought he was covering the Jamaican song. You can hear how much of Jamaican ’60s popular music drew from Bob.
The second time I think I heard him was probably in Church. Talking about how people segment music… for a lot of people Bob Dylan’s sort of Christian phase was a nadir for them. That’s when he was in the wilderness. But a lot of times when black musicians talk about Bob Dylan they’re talking about that era, you know? They’re talking about “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
GO: And other great songs on Saved and Shot of Love being part of that era?
MJ: Yeah. But the first time I heard Bob Dylan on the radio… it was “Hurricane.”
GO: You heard it when it first came out? How old would’ve you been?
MJ: I was gonna say it might’ve been when it came out….I’m trying to remember when “Hurricane” came out.
GO: It came out in 1976… so you would’ve been around six years-old?
MJ: That would explain… I was six! And I heard it because Bob Dylan had such a profound influence on Bob Marley—by extension people wanna hear who Marley listened to. “Hurricane’s” a pretty stomping pop track. I pretty much heard what everybody else heard because I was listening to radio.
GO: I remember, in the liner notes of Biograph, Bob Marley says he liked Slow Train Coming and Saved… He especially liked “Gotta Serve Somebody.” And he said something like: “If you’re an artist like Bob Dylan… it doesn’t mean anything to you that people might not like what you’re doing.” So when you moved to Minnesota, Marlon, you were already a fan of Dylan in a deep way?
MJ: I was a fan of Dylan long before I came to Minnesota. I mean I didn’t come to Minnesota till I was thirty-six. And I think the first Bob Dylan album that I bought… I’m trying to remember… it might’ve been Oh Mercy. I mean I am an ’80s kid. I don’t know if it’s the first album of his, though, that I just couldn’t take out of the CD player. For me eventually listening to Oh Mercy made me want to find all his stuff. I can’t remember what album “Jokerman” was on…
MJ: Infidels—and listening to Infidels of course there is a reggae song on it. I mean I liked Bob, but Bob didn’t click for me till I went even further back and heard Blonde on Blonde. Blonde on Blonde which I love—and I never learned Bob in order—Blonde on Blonde led me to Bringing It All Back Home which is probably still my favorite Dylan album.
GO: I read somewhere that you really like the song “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
GO: What was it about that song in particular?
MJ: It is one of my favorite songs. I think because I like being haunted by a song. That song has been with me through some pretty rough times. And it’s been with me through some pretty cool times. I mean you know in Jamaica reaching—in Church we call it the end of myself—you know, struggling with my identity and struggling with being a writer and not being understood and feeling alone and listening to that song. It’s weird how listening to songs that can seem despondent can make you feel hopeful.
And I love that it didn’t try to make its point in two-and-a-half minutes, and then get out of the way. A Dylan song ends when it damn well ready to end. The singing, the chords, the sort of moodiness and kind of sadness of it. You know, if you’re into Dylan there’s always “that song” that made you get into Dylan.
GO: That song somehow… when you talk about it helping you through hard times… It seems also a song that helps inoculate you to some of the world. He says in one lyric: “Advertising signs con you… meanwhile life outside goes on all around you.” And also just the chaos that’s going on inside him—and the irony that he’s talking to his mom as if to reassure his mother.
MJ: Yeah. I think that’s it as well. You know terms like “songs speak to you” we can appreciate for a reason: because they do. And sometimes it’s not necessarily opening you up to something new so much as… The thing about Dylan is he can make you look at things you’ve already seen…in a different way.I also think a review is a conversation, sometimes, between readers…but sometimes a review is just a conversation between reviewers.
GO: There was an interview you did after A Brief History of Seven Killings and the success of the Booker Prize. You hadn’t gone back to Jamaica at that point and you were saying a certain kind of reaction was inevitable, good and bad, back home. You were saying something like: I can’t pay attention to commentary or trolls, because if I did I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning…
GO: …and I was thinking of a line in Dylan’s song “Up to Me”: “If I’d lived my life by what others were thinkin’ / the heart inside me would’ve died.” Like Marley’s insight in Biograph that Dylan doesn’t pay attention to what others are thinking—I remember there was an interview with Marley in Talkin’ Blues where he was saying how he overcame a lot of negativity in his career, too. In the creative process, is it important for the artist to disappear for a while and avoid all the clamor of what people think about them?
MJ: Yeah… I mean, when my books come out, I may read one or two reviews, usually. And then I don’t read any more.
GO: Why is that, do you think?
MJ: Well… because I already did my part! I also think a review is a conversation, sometimes, between readers… but sometimes a review is just a conversation between reviewers. Like I’ve seen reviews of mine that aren’t even reviewing the book, they’re reviewing the reviews. It’s kinda like when somebody gets a lot of [attention] and then, one week or two week, or sometime after, somebody writes the “take-down.” And you realize this is not a take-down of the work, it’s a takedown of the reviews. Which is fine, if that’s what gets you off.
But I’ve never considered it a healthy conversation for an artist to take part in. I’ve never actually come across a review that helped me to write. You have to shut out a lot of noise, the more attention you get is a lot of noise—and the easier the temptation to have to simply respond to that. And I think for better or worse you’ve got to follow your own muse. I mean not every Dylan record is good. Some are outright atrocious.
GO: Like “Down in the Groove” or whatever…
MJ: Oh god, back in the ’80s before Oh Mercy it was tough going for a while… but it’s a necessary thing for an artist in whatever medium you’re doing to follow your own creative impulse. The work that’s in your head has to be the thing that either comes down on the page, or comes through your guitar, or piano, or so on, without expectations interfering with that transfer.
GO: I think it’s interesting that Dylan at age nineteen, arriving in New York from Minnesota, was already creating personas. It provided a certain armor… so that he could evolve as an artist. Like he lied that he grew up with carnivals in Gallup, New Mexico etc… He told all sorts of stories… it just gave him a bit of a head start and freedom not to be defined by things.
But I wonder if in today’s world—with things like social media—where everything is “fact-checked” in two seconds… he couldn’t have gotten away with that sort of process back in 1961. Not that it matters…
MJ: But… I mean authenticity has absolutely nothing to do with the making of good art. And by talking “authenticity” I’m not endorsing theft. Cause I’m not part of that whole sort of ‘I’m using this, this, and this—and I made Art!’ You didn’t create: you curated. Which is fine, that’s a skill too, that’s being creative too.
But there’s a difference between being a creator and a curator. But to come back to Dylan—I think a lot of that was also playing with people’s expectations. The fact is, once people feel that they find you they reduce you. And why not? Because we actually add a certain virtue to it, you know? People think the concise version is the best version.
People still say in my [university] classes: You know, a good book is your last draft minus ten percent. I said: That don’t apply to me… most of my books are bigger than my first edit. You know?
This sort of idea of a process of reduction is a process of getting the truth and authenticity—it is of course utter bullshit. Even authenticity is kind of a pose…anybody can do it! You know? [laughs]
I put on my t-shirt and jeans and don’t comb my hair and listen to some really, really, really sad anti-pop by some white guys who really need a bath. I think for [Dylan] if people really are going to talk about him, he’s going to spice up the conversation. Or he’s gonna, in some ways, direct how people talk. But I also think that if he said “I was raised by some blind nun in Mexico…” To an extent it is kind of true, because he’s saying it. Next week he says: “I was raised down south like Elvis”—actually it is kind of true, too.
I’m a big believer that the formative moments for me, when I have listened to something or read something that made me want to write, that that was kind of a birth. The first time I read Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters—it’s a novel set in the Philippines and I still think it’s the greatest novel about Jamaica ever written—even though it’s set in the Philippines I found myself there. And that was kind of a birth.
I could’ve said: “Yeah man, literary awakening began in Manila.” I never been there. But I also think that Dylan realized from the get-go that if he sortof fucks with his audience, then the audience can’t necessarily screw him over.
GO: He’s got control.
MJ: Yeah. And I think that’s it. It’s in some ways a better play…it’s as good a play as when David Bowie said he was “gay.” Grace Jones used to do it too because Grace Jones used to tell people that she couldn’t leave her house in Jamaica because she’d walk outside and lions would eat her! [laughs] ’cause she knew how ignorant people were.
And I think part of being an artist is being kind of a charlatan… kind of playing with, and toying with, audience. And so keeping them guessing. I think [Dylan] realizes as well that once people figure him out, then they start to reduce him. Oh: You’re a folksinger!
GO: But I’m wondering… With some artists like Dylan, who’s absorbing a lot of different musical styles, different ways of writing lyrics, other artists’ stuff… do you think he’s just really good at that? Better than most other artists?
MJ: Well, he’s better at it than most people. I think Dylan… I think the thing about Led Zeppelin and the Stones is that they dig music—particularly black music—after the fact. The difference between them and Dylan is that Dylan digs culture as it’s happening. And I think that’s a big difference. It’s why Talking Heads sound like Talking Heads, you know?
Another band that’s influenced by black people, you know, Aerosmith sounds like Aerosmith. Not digging black culture as it’s happening… they’re just digging it after the fact. I also think Dylan has something interesting to say to add on top of that; or else he would never be influencing people like Sam Cooke. He would never be influencing all these black musicians. Because I’ve yet to meet a black musician who go: “Man that Stones record really made me want to make music.”
Which is not to put down the Stones… but c’mon. Whereas, you still hear people talking about Bringing It All Back Home. Or you hear people talking about unlikely stuff that has influenced—that Rolling Stone is never gonna praise—like Saved. Or even, before Saved, the one that hinted he was going that way…
GO: Slow Train Coming.
MJ: Yeah. I think he does it better than everybody else. That’s why he’s Dylan and we’re not. He’s just a better writer than everybody else… considering that sometimes it looks like the only book he ever read was The Bible.I think the thing about Led Zeppelin and the Stones is that they dig music—particularly black music—after the fact. The difference between them and Dylan is that Dylan digs culture as it’s happening.
GO: Was there any other album that you think of as one of your favorites?
MJ: I really like Time Out of Mind. I don’t have an American context…so I didn’t know why people hated Self Portrait so much.
GO: You mean like the old Marcus review?
MJ: Yeah. [laughs] I read his thing “What is this shit?” and so on. But, you know, I came to that album after listening to bands like Pavement. You know, if I’m listening to bands like Pavement or Railroad Jerk or even Captain Beefheart or listening to Devendra Banhart and all these ’90s folk… with Self Portrait I’m like: Yeah! So I actually quite like that record.
But if you’re asking me what my second favorite Dylan album is, it would be Desire.
GO: I love that album. Something about the violin… and Emmylou Harris’s voice is so great too… It’s everywhere.
MJ: Yeah! It’s also why Rolling Thunder Revue is my favorite re-issue of the re-issues so far. It’s Bob Dylan at his most collaborative. It’s Bob Dylan as a band leader. I don’t know if he can actually be, again, that loose and that brilliant at the same time.