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Bob Dylan, revisited: Rock critic Jon Bream talks new book

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Twin Cities writer Jon Bream has been covering pop music for 40 years, and he's established quite a track record along the way.

Bream joined the Star Tribune in 1975 and currently holds the longest tenure of any daily newspaper music critic in the United States. From sharing joints with Paul McCartney to waxing intellectual with Prince, he's had a storied career that includes more than 7,000 concerts, 5,000 interviews, and an endless barrage of reader hate mail.

For his latest book, Dylan: Disc by Disc, Bream enlisted fellow critics (Robert Christgau, Stephen Thomas Erlewine), professorial Dylan junkies, and esteemed musicians (Questlove, Jason Isbell) to discuss Dylan's plutonium-dense, 36-album catalog. He's hosting a free panel discussion about the new book Thursday at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis. 

City Pages caught up with the veteran rock critic to talk about Disc by Disc, the state of music criticism, and hanging out with Bob Dylan.

City Pages: So, why a Dylan book and why now?

Jon Bream: Because I was approached by a publisher and they asked me to do an illustrated Dylan discography and my response to that was, "Rather than do it in one person's voice, how about we do it in many people's voices?" I thought that would make a livelier book, more appealing, more compelling, more marketable. And also Dylan is a subject people tend to disagree on. So, it's easy to debate Dylan and I just thought it would make for a livelier discussion.

CP: What was your criteria when pairing commentators for the book?

JB: I asked each of the people who was interested in participating, I requested a list of 10 [Dylan] albums they'd want to discuss. I made sure to say I wasn't looking for what you thought were the best albums, rather the ones you feel strongly about. And then I had them list five albums they would not want to discuss. And then I just did the matchmaking from there.

You know, someone like [Robert] Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, said there was only one album he was interested in doing and that was New Morning, so of course Christgau got his one choice. Not everyone submitted 10, but most people submitted more than three. I made sure I had enough so I could make reasonable choices. But yeah, I sat there with a spreadsheet and figured it out.

CP: Dylan's been written about so extensively. Were you worried you were entering well-trodden territory?

JB: Not at all. No one has done a book like this at all. All of the Dylan books I know of were from a singular author in his/her voice.

RM: You recently spoke about spending a couple of days with Dylan in the '80s. How'd that happen?

JB: When I worked for the Minnesota Daily, I introduced myself to him at a Ry Cooder concert at the old Marigold Ballroom in 1974. In 1978, when I was with the Minneapolis Star, I had a formal interview with him in L.A. for the Renaldo and Clara movie. He called me backstage when he played in St. Paul later that year and we talked a little bit there. I saw him a couple of times when he was hanging out with his kids here in the Twin Cities.

Once we were backstage at the Grammys and he looked at me and pointed at me and said, "Who are you? I know you."

So then in 1986, the first concert at the Metrodome was Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who was his backup band, and the Grateful Dead. And Dylan hadn't performed in the Twin Cities since 1978, so we thought, "Oh, this is an important event. We want to get an interview with him."

I had tried calling his manager — he was being managed by Tom Petty's manager at the time, a guy named Tony Dimitriades. I called Tony's office several times, probably like three times a week. So then my editor said, "He's playing tonight in Berkeley, maybe you can just write about the scene and try to get an interview or whatever." 

I asked [Dylan's accountant] if he could take me to Dylan and he said, "I'll tell you what, I'll take you to his dressing room but then you're on your own." He walked me back to the dressing room, he pointed at the door and kept walking, and I stopped and the door was open.

The bodyguard came over and I just said in a loud voice, "I'm Jon Bream with the Minneapolis Star Tribune," and Bob looked up and said, "Come on in Jon." Then he had invited me to come ride with him to the show the next day and he gave me a cassette of his upcoming album to listen to and I just ended up hanging out with him for about a day and a half.

CP: What's your general impression of him?

JB: He can be very normal and very typically Minnesotan, very friendly. But then he can be standoffish and very serious like any other star. My hot take on Dylan is he wants to be put on a pedestal but don't treat him like he's on a pedestal. Talk to him like he's a normal human being. But [when we were together] he said, "Put away the tape recorder and let's just hang out." So I didn't really interview him, per se.

CP: You've been writing rock criticism for four decades. What's changed?

JB: What's changed is the landscape and the media obviously. The way we perceive and process music. When I started it was deep into the album era and now we're back into what feels like a singles era at least by the way people consume it or buy it. It was a singles era, certainly in the mid- to late '60s. There are a lot more fans and music is way more mainstream. When I started 40 years ago, I wouldn't say it was on the fringe, but it wasn't in every household.

CP: What's stayed the same?

JB: What hasn't changed is it's still basically an artistic expression. And the standards for judging, it's the same now as it was 40 years ago.

CP: Do you think the internet has diminished the importance of the modern rock critic?

JB: I don't know if rock critics were ever that important. You know, maybe the impact isn't what it was but I never thought rock critics were necessarily important. Rock critics certainly serve a role in society and in the fabric of the music industry so to speak. But there's just more voices out there and it becomes a challenge for the consumer to decide what voices they want to listen to.

And everyone's a rock critic. As I tell people who call and complain about my reviews, I tell them, "There's no right or wrong opinion about anything." You're entitled to your own opinion that's what's great about America, but there is no right or wrong opinion. It's just your opinion.

CP: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring writers today?

JB: Well, I would say get a day job, too. The field has really become so vast that really anybody can be a music critic and anyone can start a blog. I guess I would say don't just write about acts that you like. That's not really being a critic — that's being a cheerleader. I think the real challenge of being a critic is the broad sweep of different styles and different artists.

And this might sound corny or pompous, but to become a true critic you need to have a depth of field, and I think too many of the young people just want to write about their favorites. I know I started this job in 1975 and I said, "I'm only going to do interviews with artists I liked," and I gave up on that notion after about six weeks. I decided you do stories about artists or music that will make for a good story or be entertaining or informative to your readers.

Because ultimately that's what you're doing is serving your readers. I think too many people who write blogs are just serving themselves or trying to serve the artist.