A Conversation with Don DeLillo
Greil Marcus is the author of The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. His The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, will be published in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in Berkeley.
Don DeLillo has written thirteen novels. His third stage play, Love-Lies-Bleeding, had its premiere this spring at Steppenwolf in Chicago.
This conversation took place in front of an audience at the Telluride Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado, on September 5, 2005.
I. MUSIC IS THE FINAL HYPNOTIC
GREIL MARCUS: Don DeLillo’s third novel is called Great Jones Street. It was published in 1973. It’s about a Bob Dylan–like figure, not any kind of clone, named Bucky Wunderlick. He’s jumped ship, abandoned his career, gone into hiding. Rumors are flying around the globe. He’s been spotted shoplifting food in Fresno. He’s dead and buried. He’s involved in every kind of plot and chicanery. In fact, he’s hiding out in an apartment on Great Jones Street in New York City in the dead of winter. This novel is a first-person narration by Bucky Wunderlick as he tries to make sense of his life. He’s surrounded by managers and ex-lovers and an endless cast of parasites who provide most of the action and a lot of the dialogue. It’s an uncanny book, as you read through it. It is almost a subtext of the entire No Direction Home film.
I want to read a short passage from Great Jones Street and then bring up something that the movie turns on, I think. This is a character in the book who is a parasite, a go-between, a hustler, a conspirator. He says, “The underground’s come up with a super drug. Did you hear about it? The news leaves me cold, frankly. Music is the final hypnotic. Music puts me just so out of everything. I get taken beyond every reference that indicates who I am or how I behave. Just so out of it. Music is dangerous in so many ways. It’s the most dangerous thing in the world.”
Now, this is typical fan babble. Yet at the very beginning of No Direction Home, which is essentially narrated by Dylan himself—the movie was put together out of performance footage, from the very early ’60s up through 1966, shot by all different kinds of people, but the body of it is interviews with Dylan and all sorts of people who were part of his life and career during this period—Dylan is talking about his first sentient experience with music. He talks about how there was an old big cabinet radio in his house in Duluth. When he lifted up the top—he described this as a magical discovery, something maybe no one had told him about. They’d turn on the radio and sit around listening to it every Saturday night, but no one told him that you could lift up the top and there was a record player, and on the record player, waiting there for him to play it, was a record called Drifting Too Far from the Shore. That plays on the soundtrack. It’s not even identified right then. It doesn’t matter. It’s by Bill Monroe, but it doesn’t matter. Drifting Too Far from the Shore: very interesting metaphor for a film called No Direction Home. It’s a gospel song. You’re drifting too far from Jesus’ embrace, from the right, from the straight and narrow. You’re drifting away. But in this context you’re drifting away from home.
Dylan says something that, to me, was captured in that passage from Great Jones Street about the way music can dissolve identity. He said, “I got a sense, listening to this record, that I was a different person. That I wasn’t who I thought I was, that maybe I was the child of different parents.” And right there you get a sense of a whole world of self-invention opening up.
To start out, I’d like to talk about the way the movie dramatizes this. Again and again, Dylan calls himself “a musical expeditionary.” Maybe he’s a little bit too modest to say pioneer, but there is this terrain that seems to have opened up before him. It’s his to conquer, cross over, colonize, burn up behind himself.
DON DELILLO: I think it’s an impressive movie, and I think ultimately the reason is that it becomes a movie about American identity. As Greil said, you invent yourself. This is what Dylan did—but he did it out of certain influences. In the film, you’ll remember the images and the voices of such people as Ginsberg and Kerouac and Brando and Dean. That absolutely belongs in the movie because Dylan, who was influenced to some degree by the cultural power of such people, and what they represented, in a very short time became one of those people. And he has endured.
See, the genius of rock music is that it matched the cultural hysteria around it. Not only Dylan, but that kind of scorching electric howl of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison—and these happen to be three people who died early and tragically—as if to provide an answer, as if to present a counterpart to what was happening around them in the streets, in the riots, in the assassinations, in the war in Vietnam, in the civil rights struggle. Rock was the art form that could match that. Not that these artists all made explicit reference to the immediate culture around them. But the music itself was a perfect counterpart to what was happening in our culture—as, for example, jazz was not. I’m a lifelong jazz fan—but jazz was just too cool to be part of that. It had to be rock. Rock just came out of it. The great thing about Dylan is that he is such an American story and such an American artist. He’s an American in a more important way than the Beatles or the Stones are British. He is so identifiably American—and this comes across very well in the movie, and I think it’s one of the most important things about the movie.
GM: The way the movie begins—it’s an audacious way to begin it—this is where you see Martin Scorsese’s hand, his use of all this material that’s been either collected by other people, or the interviews conducted by other people. He’s been handed this great big box of stuff: hours of performance footage, and thousands of archival still photographs, and scores of hours of interviews, and been told, “OK, tell the story.”
It begins with Dylan and the Hawks, who later became the Band, on stage in Newcastle, England, in May of 1966. There is the controversy over Dylan’s abandonment of his role as the eternal troubadour, busking his way across the land, imparting truth and imbuing lives with romance—this role has been abandoned in favor of something that is glamorous, scary, dangerous, and paradoxical, with an undercurrent of nihilism. Again in Great Jones Street, there’s a wonderful line where Bucky Wunderlick’s ex-lover/current lover, Opal, says, “The danger you have to look out for is you. It’s that little touch of the Antichrist.”
So you’re watching at the very beginning, the cold opening of this movie, Bob Dylan performing “Like a Rolling Stone,” his biggest song. By biggest I don’t mean most popular, I mean most whale like big. You’re faced with this performance, which seems on the verge of bursting into flames and flying into pieces from its own centrifugal force. And then there’s a title card that says “Many Years Earlier,” and you’re thrown back into the past as if a moment this strong could have a past, could be accounted for. One of the things you find in the narration, in terms of what Don was just saying, is that, again, there is a challenge for any artist—particularly a popular artist, but it doesn’t have to be that—to test himself or herself against an audience that he or she doesn’t know, that isn’t familiar. The question comes up whether or not you can speak in your language and be understood, and listen to the language of people who are responding to you and understand them.
All through this film Bob Dylan talks about his goals, or his sense of himself, as if he knew that he was destined to do things that other people weren’t able to do. To become a kind of magnet for the needs and desires, and psychoses of all different kinds of people. He understood this. He saw this. He realized this was something that he couldn’t evade. I wonder if you got that same sense; and if you did, how do you see somebody living up to that role, and how far can it go?
II. HYDROGEN JUKEBOX
DD: In the film, Allen Ginsberg makes one of his great American Buddhist remarks. He says that Dylan is an artist who has become “identical with his breath. He’s like a column of air.” So Dylan became one of those rare people who exemplifies his art in his person. Imagine the same music, the same lyrics, the same instrumentation—but Dylan could not have been a fat kid with a crew cut and purplish Minnesota Vikings jersey. He even had to look as he looks to become identical with his breath.
It’s interesting how, probably not in specific ways, the Cold War kind of hovers over Dylan, the persona, and the music itself. He makes a reference in his autobiography to a phrase by Ginsberg,“hydrogen jukebox.” What Ginsberg said in his poem “Howl” was “Crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” What does this have to do with Dylan? It has to do with the Americanness of Dylan’s idiom, which he shares with people such as Kerouac and Ginsberg.“Crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox.” It’s not only death and destruction. It’s popular culture. It’s the jukebox, not just the hydrogen bomb. Dylan’s music frequently touches on this territory. I think it’s extraordinary that he has maintained the level of public interest that we’ve given him over fortysome-odd years. It’s very difficult. It’s nearly impossible for a rock musician to do something like that. Writers can do it only rarely. Is he the only such figure you can imagine doing this? And isn’t he still doing it? Still out there, still touring.
GM:As we speak.
DD: Yeah… he’s in the town park… let’s go!
GM: He is so out there, and I don’t mean that in the vernacular sense. He is so out there in the territories. I had a book come out this spring about the song Like a Rolling Stone. It came out in the United States and England in the spring, and it will come out in France and Germany in the fall.All this time, I’d get these calls from publicists at the various publishers saying “When you’re going to be doing an appearance at such-and-such a bookstore”—in Minneapolis or in Rome or wherever—“Dylan is actually going to be playing there that night. Do you think maybe he’d want to do a joint appearance with you?”And I’d say,“No, I kind of doubt that.” But the point is that you land in any spot, and there is a reasonable chance that Dylan will be playing in that town that night. [Audience laughs] It’s not simply the fact that he’s out there on the road. Who knows why Bob Dylan is out there on the road at his age. Anyone who’s ever traveled with a rock band for more than forty-eight hours knows that it’s exhausting. It’s an unreal existence. You cannot carry on a normal conversation or even have normal thoughts to yourself. At his age, sixty-four years of age, you have to figure he doesn’t like it at home much. [Laughter] I can’t think of any instrumental explanations. There’s a passage in Great Jones Street where Bucky Wunderlick says,“I’m interested in pursuing extremes.You can’t do that in the studio; you can only do that onstage.” I don’t know if that’s the reason.
But Bob Dylan, unlike the Rolling Stones, who are touring the United States as we speak, as they have done since 1964, are essentially doing the same thing they have always done. And they will do it until the last of them dies. I firmly believe that. [Laughter] Whoever that last one may be. Probably it will be Keith Richards, who will likely outlive us all.All of us in this room, no matter how young you consider yourself to be.
But Bob Dylan went through many years in a wilderness of terrible records, of contrived songs. There’s a book by John Berger called The Success and Failure of Picasso. His argument—which I don’t really buy, but it’s a powerful argument—is that, at a certain point in the 1920s or 1930s, Picasso lost his subject matter. He no longer had anything that drove him to paint. He no longer had a world that he needed to tell about or to transform. So everything that came after that became contrived. It became a search for something he could draw or paint.
There was certainly a time in the 1970s when Bob Dylan was so strapped for anything to write about that he took on a songwriting partner named Jacques Levy. Levy suggested that it would be really a great idea to write a song about Catfish Hunter, the great pitcher for the Oakland A’s. He had pitched a perfect game and then gotten into a contract dispute with Charlie Finley, the owner of the A’s, and then he jumped to the New York Yankees.They portrayed him as a sort of Jesse James–like rebel because he wouldn’t knuckle under to the Man, Charlie Finley. Instead he went to work for that tribune of the people, George Steinbrenner. Bob Dylan did write a song:“Catfish, Catfish, they tried to grind you down.” [Laughter] He reached those kinds of depths.
He realizes he’s been given a talent, and all he has to do in his life is figure out what to do with it. It’s a talent that nobody else has. But here he is. He’s reached rock bottom in terms of having anything to say, in terms of having anything that justifies his existence on earth. And at just that point he receives revelation and becomes a born-again Christian and an evangelical preacher.As he continues to tour around the country for about two or two-and-a-half years, not only is he performing only his own gospel songs that he’s written, but he’s giving sermons about the end of the world, how everyone in his audience is going to Hell, and how the world is going to be destroyed, and why. There’s nothing funny about this. Some of the sermons are in fact funny, but he’s not kidding. It takes a long time in this wilderness, in this wandering, before there is any sense of what this talent he’s been given is for, any reminder, any rediscovery
That doesn’t really come until the late ’80s, when, onstage, he begins performing some very, very old folk songs. These songs in his own personal repertoire predate his first album.These are folk music standards from Minneapolis and Philadelphia and New York and Cambridge. “The Golden Vanity” and “Eileen Aroon.” All these old British ballads of death and despair and destruction. He begins singing them onstage between all his crowd-pleasers. It’s bizarre to listen to the bootleg versions of this. He’ll be singing this quiet ghostly ballad, and people will be yelling and squawking and screaming his name and hearing nothing.
And then in the early ’90s he does something— speaking of inventing yourself, speaking of finding yourself, speaking of finding the terrain that gives what you do any meaning—he produces two albums of old blues and folk songs. There’s not a single song that he wrote, although he messes them around as anybody would. He’s accompanied only by his own guitar and harmonica. At the same time, onstage he becomes a lead guitar player. Now, imagine, someone wakes up, he’s fifty-two, fifty-three years old, and he says to himself, “What do I feel like doing today? I know, I’ll become a lead guitar player, onstage with an electric guitar.” And that’s what he does.
In terms of holding our interest, or justifying the interest of anybody, it isn’t as if there’s been this unbroken arc of creativity and surprise. In that metaphor the hydrogen jukebox—the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox—he doesn’t say “Oh my god, the crack of doom! Isn’t that terrible?” For someone who grows up on Little Richard, I think the real response is “The crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox? Wow, what would that sound like? What if I could make that sound?”
DD: Speaking of that sound, inspired by Greil’s book, which is titled Like a Rolling Stone, I’ve been listening to that particular cut very often in recent months. It’s forty years now since Dylan first came out with it. It’s not about civil rights or the Cold War or assassination; mysteriously, for someone of a certain age, it carries such enormous power that all of these things are in it. It carries the sound of that period. It’s got nothing to do with nostalgia; it’s too powerful for that. And it’s not purely personal. It’s the entire age funneled through forty years in that one song. And there’s the refrain “how does it feel”—which Greil and I will do later, the band is on the way. [Laughter]
III. YOU’RE NOT BOB DYLAN.
GM: I’m thinking about something that Larry Gross, who’s been here for the whole festival, said after the first part of the Dylan movie Saturday night. He said to me, “You know what movie this reminds me of?” I was supposed to guess and I didn’t know. [Laughter] In my small-minded way, I began to think of other documentaries, or other music documentaries, or maybe other biopics of musical or artistic figures. Before I could say anything he said,“Lawrence of Arabia!” He went on to say that in that film, and in the Lawrence biography A Prince of Our Disorder, you have this singular figure that no one can get a fix on. He has invented himself out of whole cloth as someone he isn’t but yet is. He becomes the figure who throws the age he passes through into relief— to the point at which he doesn’t simply pass through the age. He enacts it in a way that allows us to see the possibilities of the age.
There’s a wonderful line from a book called Living in the Rock N Roll Mystery, written by a professor named H. L. Goodall: he says that along with the lives we lead, we live lives we don’t lead.That gets at the way we live through other people. We allow other people to take risks for us, or show us what the risks and dangers and rewards might be.
As No Direction Home goes on, you see people wanting more and more from Bob Dylan. Expecting more and more from him. Paul Nelson is interviewed in the film; he probably first met Dylan around 1959 or 1960 in Minneapolis. He once said that in the mid-’60s it got to the point where people would follow Bob Dylan around and pick up his cigarette butts searching for significance—and, he says,“The scary part is, they’d find it.” I think you see this building through No Direction Home to a point where, in a dressing room just before Dylan goes on in the last performance of the film,you hear him saying something like “I’m going to have to hire someone to do this for me, to be Bob Dylan. People keep yelling at me from the audience because of my betrayal. They keep yelling, ‘You’re not Bob Dylan!’ If I’m not, why should I bother? Somebody else can do this job.”
There’s a wonderful moment in Great Jones Street where, at a party, someone comes up to Bucky Wunderlick and starts spouting exactly the kind of thing Bob Dylan was hearing all the time in the years covered in No Direction Home—but you have to imagine this raised to the level of the highest philosophy. Somebody comes up to Bucky Wunderlick: “Uh, uh, uh, uh first off this boy I know from New Mexico”—you’ve got to imagine a guy speed-rapping like crazy—“Bobby from New Mexico, he made me promise to tell you he knows where to get some unbelievable hash, you can have it for nothing, you don’t even have to talk to him, I’m pretty sure that’s it, hash, for nothing, unbelievable, I’m pretty sure that’s it.” The most chilling moment, for me, in No Direction Home, comes when Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers is introducing Dylan at some concert, it’s probably ’64, and she says, “Here he is… you know him… he’s yours: Bob Dylan.” In your book and on the screen, you just get this sense of somebody who’s a meal to be devoured. Did you find that, anything in there—given that you’ve written through that public psychosis—anything in there that was new, disturbing, shocking?
DD: In truth, I don’t recall anything, and I also have to issue a public disclaimer. I’ve spent a lot of time in movie houses and jazz clubs, in the golden years of the beginning of rock. I’ve seen Dylan live just once, in the 1970s, in whiteface. He was in whiteface; I wasn’t.
IV. MASTERS OF WAR
GM: We’ve got a pile of questions here, and we’ll get to them. But before, I wonder if there’s anyone here who would like to ask something that’s come out of the discussion, or maybe wants to say something about what we’ve been talking about or about the film.You know, this doesn’t have to be questions where we provide answers. If you have something you want to say, this is a good time to do it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is, perhaps, a different conversation, but if Dylan personifies the artistic response to the events of the ’60s and the ’70s, what is the artistic response to the death and destruction today?
GM: Well, one answer to that is a little story. In 1991, Bob Dylan was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy show. They now hand these out very promiscuously; at the last Grammy Award show people didn’t even show up for them. But this was unusual at the time;it was a big deal. So here is Dylan being given a Lifetime Achievement Award, and Jack Nicholson comes up and gives a hilarious little speech introducing “Uncle Bobby,” as he puts it. And then Dylan comes on with a very small band. A very noisy, loud, small band, all dressed in dark suits with fedoras pulled down over their heads, looking like characters out of film noir. And they go into the most furious, unrelenting, speeded-up piece of music. And Dylan is slurring his words, you cannot understand what he’s saying, but you don’t need to understand what he’s saying. The sound that’s being made is so exciting, so thrilling. And about halfway through, at least for me— other people might have caught on more quickly, maybe later—I realized he was singing “Masters of War.”His most unforgiving, bitter, unlimited denunciation that he’s ever recorded. It’s a song about arms merchants. It ends with “And I hope that you die… I’ll follow your casket… I’ll stand over your grave.”Not too many songs really wish for the death of the subject, the person who’s being addressed. Then he gave a little speech after his award, where he managed not to thank anybody.
GM: Then he was asked later, later that night, why he chose to sing that song.This was 1991. It was February; it was the middle of the bombing of Baghdad, the first American-Iraqi war.And the Grammy show was kind of a respite from the round-the-clock coverage of that magical pinpoint bombing and all that green film. And he said, “Well, why did I perform that song?” He said, “The war.” And over the last six, nine months, he’s brought that song back into his repertoire, and has performed it again and again and again, very rarely the same way. One of the most striking performances of that song that I’ve heard was on election night. I think it was in Des Moines, Iowa. It was on election night, when all the votes had been cast, but the results were not yet known. It’s a song that the world will not let wear out. When somebody said, “What is the artistic response to the death and destruction today?” and somebody said “hip-hop,” that might be true. But in Dylan’s terms, the world won’t let him drop a song from his song list.That’s another way of looking at it.
DD: You know, I think there is a young writer or lyricist or filmmaker, someone totally unknown to us, who is right now, this minute, creating that response. That’s what I’d like to believe.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In the movie, there was very little content relating to his background, the influence that his family had on him, his development. As a teenager, in his early twenties, he had to get some food for these ideas. I just wondered why there was such little content, and whether you could discuss that.
DD: Isn’t Dylan very selective about what he tells us?
GM: He’s always been very closed-mouthed about… what his mother taught him, what his father taught him. At that Grammy show, his speech was so strange that I think I can almost remember it, almost word for word: “My daddy, my daddy, he never did tell me much. He did tell me one thing, he said, ‘Son, you can become so defiled in this world that even your own family will turn their back on you, but God will always give you the chance to mend your own ways.’” That’s what I meant about accepting an award and not thanking anybody. [Laughter]
I was giving a reading in May, I guess, and a woman stood up in the audience, and she spoke with a great deal of outrage. She said, “People talk about Bob Dylan’s background as if they know something about it. But I went to Hibbing, and I was shocked by what I found.” She said, “People wonder about Bob Dylan emerging in the early ’60s with these very strong and striking and visionary and poetic statements about the hell into which America was descending, as if this came out of nowhere.” And she said, “You go to Hibbing and you find poetry painted on the sides of warehouses. You find Trotskyist bars that have been there since the 1920s, where the arguments that were going on in the 1920s are still going on today.” She said, “There is an enormous socialist tradition. It is in fact in the northern part of the state of Minnesota; that both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party began organizing, with a great deal of success, in the 1920s and the 1930s.They don’t have a Democratic Party in the state of Minnesota, they have the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, which was the result of a merger in the 1940s between, essentially, the Democratic Party and the socialist Farmer Labor Party.” She said, “All of that is there in Hibbing, and no one wants to talk about it.” And she was talking about what’s been kept from us.
Well, I don’t know about that. It’s like Dylan at the very beginning of the movie. Everybody fantasizes that they’re not really the child of these ordinary, repressive, clueless adults who claim to be your mother and father. That really you’re Moses in the bulrushes, and you were just snatched up, and you have this grand parentage that’s been kept from you. But for him to come out and say that, “This song made me feel as if I had different parents”—he’s not going to give an inch toward anybody else’s claim to have made him what he is or to speak through his mouth.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is a question more for the two of you. I think in your writing, especially the first chapters of Underworld and also Lipstick Traces, I got an idea of speculative nonfiction, and I wonder how you might see that in your writing, and how it might pertain to Dylan.
GM: In my writing, particularly in Lipstick Traces, it’s a book written out of leaps of faith, again and again. To go back to Great Jones Street—there’s someone at a party who presents himself as a professor of “latent history.”
GM: And then, Don, there is a line where you talk about “traces of vaudeville in the way a certain performer crossed and uncrossed his legs.” To me, that is latent history. All of Lipstick Traces is a book about the way ideas and desires, social desires, are transmitted over time, through languages that are never translated, through gestures, through curses. Through exclamations, not through arguments or philosophy. And that certain demands on the world are coded in these gestures and curses and remain alive until, as happens at various times, they become movements. And they do find voices or become manifestos, novels, or other forms of art.
DD: It’s very interesting that you use the words “latent history,” but it’s really what I had in mind in that prologue to Underworld. The title Underworld in some ways refers to the Underworld history, the under-history of the world. In this case, the world of certain people at a ball game, in New York, in 1951.This is the real history of the world, to a certain degree. This is a history that doesn’t end up in history books, because it includes not only private individuals reacting to a public event, but it includes their consciousness, their unspoken thoughts. There’s a journalist writing, working for four years on a book about that one ball game, in October of 1951, and he has talked to hundreds of people about their histories as they relate to that single event in the Polo Grounds. So we have a kind of commonality there.
GM: We have a number of questions that were written before this revelatory conversation took place and, of course, rendered them utterly moot. But we’re going to look at them anyway. One is for Don: Can you describe a time that a film influenced a book you were working on?
DD: It’s almost a metaphysical question. There must be some way in which my work has been influenced by film, particularly the great European surge of the 1960s. But I don’t know how, I honestly don’t. In my work, there have been film directors in a number of novels, two or three, perhaps, and references to movies. Writing is such an odd and almost unspeakable form of creation that I don’t know in what way I might have been influenced specifically by a particularly movie. Probably there’s something in the work of Jean-Luc Godard that had some effect on me. But I couldn’t point to a book or a sentence or a paragraph and say, “This comes out of Band of Outsiders,” you know, or Weekend.
GM: In terms of that crossover… I went to see the premiere of The Last Waltz, the film that Scorsese made on the Band’s final concert in San Francisco in 1976.Afterwards, Scorsese was talking about movies and music, and he said, “You realize, don’t you, that the whole first half of Taxi Driver was based on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.” And I said, “No, actually, I hadn’t realized that.” And he looked at me, somewhat unhappily, and he said, “Well, Jay Cocks”—also a music critic and a collaborator of Scorsese’s—“Jay understood right away.”
GM: And certainly, all through his work, there have been sequences that seem to be there just so he can get a song on the screen and dramatize it. Just so he can make that happen. Translate it into his own language and say, “I made that song even more than it was before,” or “I didn’t reduce it, I took nothing away from it.” There’s a way in which so many of the arts feel inferior to music—feel that there is a kind of directness of communication, or an opening up, an exposure of the listener that can’t be found in any other medium. I think for Scorsese, you see that happening in the engagement he brought to the movie. Of all the movies that I saw here in Telluride over the last few days, there wasn’t one where the audience was as engaged with what was going on on-screen, was as responsive, as with this film. You can imagine that, for Scorsese, movies always fall short.