Friedman shares stories from his text, Forget About Today, in which he examines the enduring legacy of folk rock superstar, Bob Dylan.
Writer Jon Friedman
Tavis: Jon Friedman is the widely-read media web columnist for MarketWatch.com, also an avid Bob Dylan fan which serves as the inspiration for his new book, “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution.” Jon Friedman, good to have you on this program.
Jon Friedman: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: You been good?
Friedman: I’ve been good, thank you, yes.
Tavis: Everybody has their own reasons, so let me start with yours. Your reason for being such a devotee of Bob Dylan?
Friedman: It’s the music and legacy and longevity. The man is incredible, as you know. You’re a fan too. 50 years he’s been in the public life, 50 years, and still going strong.
Tavis: When you decided to do this, did you think – because whenever I see something new about Dylan, why he’s certainly a genius, I say to myself, “What else can we possibly learn with another book about Bob Dylan?”
Friedman: That’s a good question [laugh].
Tavis: Did you even have that thought?
Friedman: I did, but I wanted something original. I’ve read so many bad books about Dylan which repeat the same old lies and inaccuracies and fabrications. I wanted to write something original or take an original view of him. My view is Dylan is so widely known for so many reasons that he’s more than an entertainer. He’s really a role model. People can follow his life and success and learn from it and their own successes too.
Tavis: Yeah. I want to get into some of the chapters. I love the way you’ve laid it out, by the way, Jon, in terms of what we can learn and take from his life.
Friedman: Thank you.
Tavis: Let me just back up first, though, and ask why you think we are so fascinated with Bob Dylan. I mean, obviously, you get to a point if you’re fortunate to be an artist of Dylan’s ilk where there are books and movies and documentaries and people just can’t seem to get enough of you. What is our fascination with Bob Dylan?
Friedman: Well, we all have our own Bob Dylan whether it’s civil rights Bob Dylan, “Blowing in the Wind,” whether it’s born again Bob Dylan, whether it’s rock and roll Bob Dylan, country Bob Dylan. He’s done so much for so long that everyone who’s a fan of his has their own image of their Bob Dylan.
Tavis: I love the way, again, you’ve laid the back out. Tell me how and why you decided to go at it this way.
Friedman: Well, it’s 10 chapters, 10 songs. I got an album that plays the 10 songs. I wanted to take different points of view about, again, how you can learn life lessons from his example. “Keep on Keepin’ On” is Chapter 1. It’s a line from the song, of course.
The point there is, no matter what happens in your life, success or failure, when you’re losing, just keep pushing forward. Don’t be impressed or overwhelmed by your past. Just keep pushing forward.
There’s one chapter there, “Your Comfort Zone,” which is very important, I think, too. People get in habits and ruts in life where they’re successful or not successful and they have their own comfort zone and they’re afraid to step out of it, but Dylan has always done that.
Tavis: I love Chapter 4, “Ain’t Nobody Like Dylan, Ain’t Nobody Like You.”
Friedman: Right, right. That chapter basically tells you that you have a lot of worth. You have value whether you think the world swallows you up or you’re overwhelmed by it. You have value for the world.
Tavis: Again, I don’t want to give all these away, but Chapter 9 is “Living Beyond Other People’s Expectations.”
Friedman: Sure. Well, again, that comes down to the fact that we have parents, we have teachers, we have bosses who think we have only one thing. We’re pigeon-holed in life in on way as a child, as an employee, as a student. Yet if you try to, you can break out of those roles and do something brand new and something different and daring. The key is to be adventurous which, of course, Dylan has always been.
Tavis: Is this book really inspired by Dylan’s life, by his lyrical content, or both?
Friedman: Both, I think, both, yeah. I have studied his life, as you might imagine, as a fan. I’ve learned a lot about his life and I was intrigued by what I learned here is how adventurous he was. This man, in the 50 years that I discuss in the book, where we learned that he has done so many different kinds of things, never staying in the same place for too long, never rested on his laurels. He’s always tried to push forward and tried things that are brand new, which is really commendable in life.
Tavis: How has Dylan navigated and, moreover, what do we take away? What do we learn from how he has navigated the critics? Because there are a lot of fans of Bob Dylan, but Dylan has his critics from his style, certainly that voice.
Friedman: Sure, yep, yep.
Tavis: I mean, the guy’s got his critics, so what do we take from Dylan about how to navigate a life around, through, the mine field of critics?
Friedman: Ignore them.
Friedman: As much as possible, try not to take it personally. If people criticize what you’re all about, don’t take it personally if possible. Just trust yourself. Trust your instincts, trust your heart and do what you think is right. Eventually, the world catches up to you. Dylan always thinks that he’s ahead of the game and people are gonna find him sooner or later. He doesn’t worry about failure.
I know somebody very close to him that told me that, when Bob tries something new, whether it’s a concert or an album or an approach, failure is not even part of the equation. If it happens, if people think he’s failed, that’s their problem. He never worries about it.
Tavis: There are some great stories you tell in the book and I just want to tee up a couple of them and let you tell them because you’re much better at this than I am. In no particular order, the story of what would have been his first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Friedman: Yeah, it’s miraculous. 1963, he was almost 22, not even 22 yet, and Ed Sullivan, the biggest name in show business, Tavis Smiley of his day…
Tavis: Oh, yeah, whatever [laugh]. Not exactly. Go ahead, yeah, yeah.
Friedman: Ed Sullivan invited him on the show as this rising folksinger and Dylan wanted to do a song about the John Birch Society and the producers and their censors said, “It’s too dangerous, it’s too dangerous troublesome, we can’t let you do this song.” Dylan, instead of saying okay, I’ll sing something else, said…
Tavis: I’ll sing “Blowing in the Wind.”
Friedman: I’ll sing “Blowing in the Wind,” which he could have sung at that point. But he said, nope, that’s my song. Take it or leave it. They said no and he walked off the show. You think about it, Tavis. A 21-year-old guy…
Tavis: On Ed Sullivan, who walks off.
Friedman: On Ed Sullivan. Walks off. It’s amazing, but he had so much self-confidence and belief in what he was doing that it was worth it to his moral code to say no thanks.
Tavis: Another great story, when he goes to the Newport Folk Festival. I’ll let you tell the story.
Friedman: Well, he goes there in ’65. It’s a folk festival by the name and he goes there with Paul Butterfield’s band and he plugs in an electric guitar and just blasts this music. Everyone was so shocked because Dylan had been their folk icon. You can’t even imagine what it was like in those days because he was such a revered folk guitar and player.
Tavis: And he walks in and plugs in.
Friedman: He plugs in like The Beatles and The Animals and The Rolling Stones and blasts. It’s loud and not very good and loud, and people were just shocked and horrified by this and they wanted to axe him, cut him off. But Dylan, again, they booed. I mean, Dylan was the most popular guy of his day getting booed widely by his so-called “fans” and yet he kept on going with rock and roll and etc., country, everything else.
Tavis: What have you learned, being a fan and talking to folks around him and writing this book about what motivates him?
Friedman: I think it’s discovery. In the book, I talk about that. It’s the thrill of discovery. He plays a set list every night. He puts 100 shows a night most of the year and some of the same songs like “Rolling Stone,” “Blowing in the Wind.” He plays these songs a lot. Yet to him, they aren’t old songs, they’re songs that he’ll play in a new kind of a way with a new kind of vocal, a new kind of approach, a new enthusiasm, and the fans respond to this because they know Dylan is trying something unique and something daring and something authentic.
He’s really authentic is another word to describe him. I learned that’s a real quality to have. If people identify you with a certain kind of authenticity, you’re ahead of the game.
Tavis: There have been a couple in my life who I have admired for their approach to this in terms of artists and you have to be in awe of the way they handle it because of their iconic status. There are certainly more than two. But the two that come to mind immediately, Bob Dylan, of course, as we’ve discussed in this conversation. The other would be Prince.
Tavis: They have this in common.
Friedman: Both Minnesota guys, by the way.
Tavis: Absolutely, both Minnesota guys. No matter what is said about Prince in the media, he does not respond. No matter what is said about Bob Dylan in the media, and they’ve said some vicious things about Prince over the years, they’ve said some vicious things about Dylan over the years, and neither one of these Minnesota guys have ever taken the time. They don’t really tweet about it, you know, Facebook about it. They don’t blog about it. Dylan wouldn’t even respectfully talk to you about it.
Friedman: He would not.
Tavis: And you are writing a book about his genius and what we can learn from him and Dylan wouldn’t talk to you.
Friedman: Right [laugh].
Tavis: So good, bad or indifferent or ugly, there’s a confidence this guy has in who he is and what he does that allows him to not even respond to the critics. It’s one thing to try to outlast them and try to outlive them or to disprove them. He does not respond. Now as a guy who is pretty sensitive, I know the difficulty that comes along with just trying to not respond. Every now and then, depending on what it is, I feel the need to.
I’m no Bob Dylan; I’m no Prince, so at times I feel the need to respond to certain things. By and large, I do not. But I marvel at that confidence where anything and everything could be said about these guys and they’re just keeping moving.
Friedman: Well, as I said before, confidence. They’re so sure what they’re doing is the right path for them at that moment, whether it’s rock and roll, whether Prince forms his own label, Prince turns his back on the Warner Bros. labels. I saw Prince in concert a couple years ago for the first time. Absolutely incredible.
Tavis: Still, yeah.
Friedman: The man is still absolutely incredible. And you can see onstage he knows what he’s doing. He believes totally in what he is doing. I saw Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl. He also is the exact same. They’re so sure of what they’re doing and, if you don’t understand or like it, that’s your problem, not theirs.
Tavis: What about the notion, though, that each and every one of us who is an artist – I’m not the kind of artist that they are nor am I the kind of artist that you are when it comes to writing – but for every one of us, there is a point that we get to where we’re not – my word here, not yours – as good.
We don’t sound as good, we can’t hit the note, our fingers don’t slide the way they used to on the guitar. I mean, let’s face it. Bob Dylan’s human. He’s not human and divine, however genius he is. He’s human. How is he navigating that journey as you see it?
Friedman: Dylan will acknowledge to himself, I’m 71 years old now; I’m not 21 or 31. I have changed. My voice has changed. My approach has changed. So it’s about reinvention, staying authentic to what he’s always done. You see Bob Dylan singing and playing. You know it’s Bob Dylan right away. It’s not Paul Simon or James Taylor, of your favorites, James Taylor, I know.
Tavis: Love J.T., yeah.
Friedman: I know that. But he’s not those people. He’s Bob Dylan and he’s gonna use all his strengths to put across his message or what he wants to put across to the audience and they’re gonna respond to it because, again, it’s Bob Dylan.
Tavis: Let me ask a personal question because, obviously, if this book is anything, it’s a personal tribute really in many ways from you to Dylan and we can take some lessons from that. How has Dylan impacted your life?
Friedman: Well, I’ve always responded to his sense of adventure. As a fan and somebody who’s watched his career from a distance, I’ve always been impressed by how he’s moved from folk to rock and roll to country to gospel and now he’s a blues man. Yet again, he always has the same kind of Bob Dylan stamp on his music and his lyrics and his persona.
I’ve learned that you try and take that with you too. You don’t worry about what critics will say, you can’t worry about the past, live in the past whether it’s good or bad. You got to push forward. And the lessons in the book, what I’ve learned personally from his life.
Tavis: One last question here and I’m not saying this to diss her in any way, but there’s been so much talk of late, and I think some of it legitimate, about the route that Madonna has taken and the way that she’s chosen to – my word here – advance her career at this particular point. If not advance, maybe a better word is to extend her career at this point. That’s the argument, that she’s extending it, but she ain’t advancing it.
What do we take from Bob Dylan about how to be comfortable in the skin that you’re in, accept the fact that you are aging, that you’re not 21 anymore and have a different approach than Madonna. She certainly is just one of any number of names I could call for people who the public is like, okay, enough already.
Friedman: Well, the challenge for Madonna and older rock and roll stars or older icons of any kind of field is to reinvent yourself effectively so you’re still authentic. You still have a real personal connection with your audience and your fans and you don’t look like a fake or somebody who’s trying to capitalize on their past glory. Dylan’s done that. Madonna went to Bob Dylan 101, I think, at some point in her life to learn how to reinvent herself effectively and she’ll figure it out.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. He does great stuff on MarketWatch and that’s worth reading any time. But apparently he did learn something from Bob Dylan. He does what he does awfully well. The book now is called “Forget About Today,” great lyric from…
Friedman: “Tambourine Man.”
Tavis: “Tambourine Man,” yeah, exactly.
Tavis: “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution.” It’s like a little Bible for me now that sticks in my briefcase. So thank you for this.
Friedman: Thank you.
Tavis: Thanks for coming on.
Friedman: My pleasure.
Tavis: Jon, good to have you here.
Friedman: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes App Store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, goodnight from L.A., thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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