Rolling Stone’s State of the Union

DylanSaved2The first of three 40th-anniversary issues of Rolling Stone is on newsstands now, and it is overflowing with the witty Q&A interviews that make the magazine frequently worthwhile. There’s the requisite kissing of founder Jann S. Wenner’s ring, as nearly every interview involves a moment when an artist describes how important a role the magazine played in wide cultural transformation. The next 40th-anniversary issue will focus on the Summer of Love, and I can imagine people discussing how many times a stray Rolling Stone on the coffee table helped them get laid.

That would be in tune with how Rolling Stone‘s editors present themselves as keepers of the counterculture’s flame. As indicated in “A Letter From the Editors,” there’s a culture war going on, and Rolling Stone knows which side it has chosen:

Truly understanding the past means grappling with its complexities and contradictions. You need look no further back than the Sixties to realize that. The culture wars that began in that decade — about drugs, about American military incursions into foreign countries, about sex, the environment, the roles of women and women, and on and on — are still being fought.

… During the Clinton years, the country was energetically heading in the right direction — progress and prosperity were watchwords of the day. The failure of the Republicans’ desperate attempt to remove Clinton from office was itself a triumph of Sixties values. The American people saw through the hypocrisy of the impeachment effort and refused to abide what Clinton aptly called “the politics of personal destruction.” Rolling Stone proudly joined that fight and championed Clinton throughout his presidency.

Notwithstanding Rolling Stone‘s principled opposition to the politics of personal destruction, virtually every interview stokes the flames of Bush loathing. In some interviews people volunteer their belief that Bush is the worst president in U.S. history. Other times, the interviewer helpfully suggests such a finding.

It’s a fairly rich irony when Neil Young, composer of “Let’s Impeach the President,” is the one person to engage the question of the president’s humanity. The questions are by David Fricke:

In “Campaigner” [on 1977's "Decade"], you sang, “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.” What did you mean by that?

I mean everybody’s human. The soul in Richard Nixon was in the way he looked with his family, how lost he looked. He was a great statesman — he went to China — yet he [expletive] so badly at home. He was very similar to Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton undid all the good he did, as a smart man running the country, with the disaster of his private life. He opened the door for the religious right and enabled the conservatives to pain the Democrats as faithless. That transferred into two lost elections.

Can you ever imagine saying George W. Bush has soul?

I’m sure he does. Where is it? It’s in Crawford, Texas, with his family — his wife and kids. One thing about Bush: You’ve got to respect him for being in such good physical condition. He works like hell to be fit. That’s a great example at his age.

The other thing is that he has so much conviction in what he believes. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we don’t agree with him. He and his people feel like they’re the only people that should be in government.

What’s more interesting, at least for the purpose of this blog, is how often the subject of religion emerges in these discussions, sometimes at the bidding of the interviewer, sometimes on its own power. God bless Jann Wenner — who did not recognize the word agape when Bono used it in a Q&A in 2005 — for trying so hard to coax Bob Dylan out of his fiercely guarded privacy on spiritual matters. [I am including links where possible, and these pages include embedded MP3s of the interviews' best moments. Rolling Stone assures its readers that more are on the way.]

Wenner makes the mistake of framing question as “being religious.” That would open Dylan up about as much as “You were known for some time as a Holy Joe. What’s up with that?” This is not a question of malice, but of being tone deaf:

Do you find yourself being a more religious person these days?

A religious person? Religion is supposedly a force for positive good. Where can you look in the world and see that religion has been a force for positive good? Where can you look at humanity and say, “Humanity has been uplifted by a connection to a godly power”?

Meaning organized religion?

Corporations are religions. It depends what you talk about with a religion. … Anything is a religion.

At one point, you took on Christianity in a very serious way, and then Judaism. Where are you now with all that?

Religion is something that is mostly outward appearance. Faith is a different thing. How many religions are there in the world? Quite a few, actually.

What is your faith these days?

Faith doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t have a category. It’s oblique. So it’s unspeakable. We degrade faith by talking about religion.

Contrast this with Tom Wolfe, interviewed by Mark Binelli:

But as a nonbeliever, you still seem to be defending belief.

Anyone who thinks that religion is bad for society is out of his mind. We are now beginning to see what happens when you don’t have it. People get depressed when they don’t have something to believe.

I think the contemporary conception of the human mind has become more and more depressing. This is my problem with the atheists, people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They’re saying that there is no ghost in the machine, that it’s all physical. And if it’s all physical, it’s going to obey certain laws. And the endpoint of the argument is that there is no free will, that you and I are machines that have had a certain genetic foundation, and as soon as we know enough about that, we’ll be able to predict what’ll happen when you meet me. We just need the information. That’s a very depressing thought.

Another consistent theme in these interviews is a a fear of the religious right. The editors rejoice in their opening letter that Norman Mailer — yes, Norman Mailer! — calls Bush a spiritual terrorist. How he reached this conclusion is entertaining reading, if only for the polemical fireworks:

We are supposed to take care of the poor, if we are good Christians. But in face there is no such thing as a good Christian. A good Christian is one man and one woman in a thousand. The average Christian is a mixture, like the rest of us, with their good and their bad. And churchgoing Christians have been running America in my lifetime. And they saw communism as the spawn of the devil. They didn’t see it as a messed-up system filled with people just like themselves, half-good, half-bad.

… The story of the terrorists is that is that they are working against immense odds, relatively speaking. They don’t have large resources. What they have is the possibility to do some dirty things in some dirty places and kill off a few hundred or a few thousand people, and if they can do that, they can feel they are immensely successful, because given the multiplication of the result that cheap politicians like Bush go in for, it will work to a degree. …

So what is the story of Bush, then, if that is the story of the terrorists?

Bush is a terrorist.

Do you think he is the worst president of your lifetime?

He is a spiritual terrorist.

It is interesting that, in retrospect, he makes somebody like Nixon look pretty good.

Like Mailer, Bill Moyers doesn’t much trust the religious right:

This is a country whose greatest contribution to political science was the separation of church and state. The exiles who were fleeing coercion in Europe came to this country where they could have freedom of conscience. The current effort of Christian fundamentalists to turn the government into their agent is a sinister development. I’m doing a story for my new weekly series on PBS about the fact that Pat Robertson’s Regent University has 150 graduates serving in the executive branch. No university has ever had that many graduates at one time in the government. Their mission is to turn the government into an agent of the church. They want to return us to the days of coercion.

Jack Nicholson, speaking with David Wild, draws a connection between the Christian right and — wait for it — Fidel Castro. But he feels skittish about it, what with how uptight the culture is these days:

I’m into Reichian therapy, so I think sexual freedoms have a lot to do with how far most radical movements get. Free love is usually the root and the vitality of the movement. Once you deny that normal, simple, organic sexual flow, the country is going to move right.

… If you were to say Fidel Castro, the Islamacists and the Christian right all have a lot in common, people would say, “What is this loon talking about today?” Well, they all fear American culture, and they don’t like too much sex and violence. This would be nothing to say in an interview in the Sixties, but now even I am thinking, “Uh-oh, keep that head down, baby.”

Nicholson also must take home the Esoteric Syncretist of the Year award for comparing Dylan to the late Jiddu Krishnamurti:

You’ve been described as being forever young and as having arrested development. Yet it strikes me you’ve pulled off a rare trick, staying vital as an artist and as a person.

I’m terribly easily influenced. What I noticed when I first saw Krishnamurti speak was he and Bob Dylan appeared onstage the same way. They were just kind of there — no flourish, no nothing. What Krishnamurti says could be reduced to “live in the now.” It’s a phrase we hear endlessly, but in fact it’s the point. I was skimming through A Course in Miracles. It says miracles can only occur in the present time, so there’s a common thread there. I’ve been reading about parallel universes and speed of light since I was in grammar school. If they break that all down, maybe the now will become less important. Until then, “live in the now” is as deep as I get.

Paul McCartney might resonate with that, as he twice refers to an “energy field,” at points separated by hundreds of words. Anthony DeCurtis interviews him:

Do you have a sense about what continues to speak to people in the Beatles’ music after all these years?

I think it’s basically magic. There is such a thing as magic, and the Beatles were magic.

It depends on what you believe life is. Life is an energy field, a bunch of molecules. And these particular molecules formed to make these four guys, who then formed into this band called the Beatles did all that work. I have think that was something metaphysical. Something alchemic. Something must be thought of as magic — with a “k” [laughs]. Am I being too far out?

. . . As you look ahead, what are the major issues facing us now?

To make some headway in world peace. It be brought if people with differences in the world today would realize that there are no differences — it’s an energy field, dude! What’s needed is the same old thing: peace and love. Not to be frivolous, but that is still the great aim.

The person who speaks most directly about her faith is Jane Fonda, in an interview with DeCurtis (who has written several articles for Beliefnet):

Somebody very hostile said to me, “Have you been saved?” I tap-danced around that, but later I asked a friend of mine who teaches Bible study, “What does that mean?” And she said, “What it meant to me was taking the next step.” Well, that’s all anybody had to say to me — I’m always ready to take the next step [laughs]! So I became a Christian.

And I remain a Christian, but I’m still on a journey to define what that means. I very much feel the presence of God. And then this person Jesus — I am utterly fascinated by this man. I feel that what he preached was revolutionary, and it’s totally what we need now. The most revolutionary statement anyone could make is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Whew, man. If we could live what he taught, everything would change. But it ain’t what goes by the name of Christianity right now.

Stephen Spielberg is the only person to discuss being Jewish, with movie critic Peter Travers:

I wasn’t popular in school, probably because I was Jewish in a predominantly gentile neighborhood. And also being this wimpy little kid whose hobby was scoffed at by other kids at school. I got out of that jam the minute I picked up a camera and took the bullies who had been preying on me for years and made them the stars in my 8mm movies.

… What worries you about the future?

As a Jew, I worry about the growing anti-Semitism in the world. As a father, I worry about my children growing up in a world where I see darkness.

And then we’re down to a few odds and ends.

Patti Smith tells Fricke why she “didn’t like the idea of a mass drug culture”:

I thought drugs were a sacred thing that American Indians used in sweat lodges and self-realization, that jazz musicians might use to speak to God. They were not a recreational tool. But people bought into the lifestyle. In the end, they got tired, burned out.

Martin Scorses speaks with Travers on an epiphany about Vietnam:

In “Taxi Driver,” you make Travis Bickle, the character played by Robert De Niro, represent the horror of Vietnam. What changed things for you?

Around 1965, I went into a local church one Sunday, and I heard the priest on the pulpit describe the Vietnam War as a holy war. That’s when I walked out. Something told me he’s dead wrong.

Former Grateful Dead singer Bob Weir tells Fricke about why he does not feel contaminated by the presence of Ann Coulter:

I was surprised to see recent photos of you backstage with Donald Trump and the conservative writer Ann Coulter. Don’t you find it strange that either of them would go anywhere near the Dead zone?

Ann’s a big fan. All I can say is, it takes all kinds [laughs]. They’re welcome to my shows. Everybody’s welcome. the night Ann Coulter was there, I had friends who were aghast — “You’re going to let her in?” C’mon, don’t you want to stand next to the person and see if you can feel anything, feel her humanity? I gotta at least see if she has any humanity about her. And she does.

Neil Young answers a question by Fricke:

There are a lot of Native American references in your music and artwork. Why did you identify so strongly with that culture?

I loved the simplicity and naturalness of it. The Indians are basically pagans. And that’s what I believe in: nature, whether God created it or it created itself. That’s my church — when I go to the forest, out into a big green field or in the water. I don’t need any preacher. I’ve been identifying with the moon cycles all my life. That’s what the Indians did — “How many moons since you’ve been here?”

Finally, interviewer Eric Bates asks Michael Moore to elaborate on why he’s tired of meetings in the basements of Unitarian churches. It’s nearly as good as Unitarians’ self-effacing jokes:

You once issued a passionate plea, saying that you didn’t want to go to any more meetings in the basements of Unitarian churches. How did we go from a place of real momentum in the Sixties to a handful of earnest but ineffective people scattered in church basements?

The left lost its sense of humor, then kind of lost its sense of humanness. It got caught up in jargon and forgot how to talk like a normal person. The art and culture that came out of this new rigidity wasn’t very entertaining. In fact, “entertaining” became a very bad word.

It’s the Calvinist, Marxist tradition of self-denial as a value: “Everything for the cause, nothing for the self.”

Exactly. Average working people generally don’t respond well to that sort of thing. It just becomes uncool — and we all want to gravitate toward the cool, right? When Roger & Me came out, the official left didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t understand that people go to the movies because they want to be entertained. If they wanted to hear a harangue, they’d go to a rally. If they wanted a sermon, they’d go to church.

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  • Eric W

    I think you effectively stifled any interest I might have had in picking up these 40th anniversary issues, let alone the boxed DVD set of every issue of Rolling Stone magazine from issue 1 to the present.

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  • Jerry

    Where oh where did you get this “Esoteric Syncretist of the Year award for comparing Dylan to the late Jiddu Krishnamurti:”? The comment

    Krishnamurti speak was he and Bob Dylan appeared onstage the same way. They were just kind of there — no flourish, no nothing.

    is a very straight forward comparison of the stage presence of both men. That’s hardly “esoteric syncretist of the year” material at least to me.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Douglas, your incredibly long post is primarily excerpts of quotes from “celebrities”. Why are we as a society so fascinated with what people who record songs and appear on TV and in movies have to say about anything? What makes Jack Nicholson or Jane Fonda an expert on anything religious? The answer is simple: nothing. Their opinion on the topic is irrelevant. But they influence the culture, right? Only when people give credence and importance to what they say.

    I’ll buy those issues of Rolling Stone as soon as I finish the latest fascinating issue of Us Magazine.

  • Dan

    Yes, I think I too will continue to take my spiritual guidance from the Church and her saints rather than from the media. It can however be highly entertaining, although in some ways also very sad, to read what the celebs are preaching.

  • Dennis Colby

    I’m actually glad for this post: I think it’s interesting to see the way religion is handled in large-circulation lifestyle magazines like Rolling Stone. Unlike some people, I don’t believe the opinions of famous people are worthless just because they’re held by famous people. I think there could be a lot of interesting journalism done on the religious beliefs of famous people – my hunch is that they lean toward the “spiritual but not religious” camp, although people like Bob Dylan probably have much more interesting insight.

    On a similar note, the cover story in the current issue of Blender dances all around the same subject in its profile of the band Arcade Fire, who play concerts in churches and fill their new album with lyrics that refer to God and the Church. Sadly, the writer doesn’t really dig very deep into what they actually believe, which seems similar to the Rolling Stone pieces.

  • Maureen

    I thought it was rather amusing that Moyers claims there’s never been that many grads from a single university serving “in the government” at the same time.

    By percentage, I’m fairly sure Harvard, Yale, et al have Regents beat, for almost all eras of American history, and in almost all branches of government. Heck, probably Andover and some prep schools do. But Ivy League dominance is _natural_, whereas Regents kids who actually bother to apply and thus get jobs are clearly _unnatural_.

    I’m sympathetic to his concerns, but honestly. Like an old boys network is anything new.

  • NewTrollObserver

    Which came first, the Resurrection or the rolling stone?

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Jerry, I’ll plead guilty to overwriting in referring to Jack Nicholson taking home an Esoteric Syncretist of the Year award. I do believe his remark makes an esoteric point, but my accusing him of syncretism was just blog-inspired flippancy.

    Chris, I’ll plead guilty to writing an incredibly long post. I do not aspire to write 3,000-word posts frequently. I wanted to include most of the references to faith or religion from this issue of Rolling Stone, and I included only those paragraphs I thought were essential for context. I tried to weave a common thread among these blockquotes and I left out a few people who said interesting things, such as what Jackson Browne had to say about Bob Dylan:

    To have Bob Dylan become a rock star, even for the short time that he was, influenced the entire course of our culture. You want him to do it again, but it can only happen once. Each generation has to do it for themselves. It’s also a gift that he’s still with us doing what he does, because he’s a sage. He’s an elder. Along with that Vincent Price mustache and the white hat, he’s donned yet one more disguise: the disguise of the Entertainer. But he will always be a preacher.

    I also appreciated these words from Browne, which should warm the heart of any Crunchy Conservative:

    I don’t know how I feel about declaring to you, Anthony [DeCurtis], that I’m thinking, “You know what would be a real contribution? How to raise pigs without fouling the environment.” I eat meat. I like ham and bacon and chicken. I could get into that. It’s as important to me as figuring out what I’m going to do in the last part of this song I’m working on. It’s as worthy a proposition to me: Go raise food in a way that doesn’t harm anybody and that will nourish you and other people and won’t hurt the environment. Do that. That would be a spiritually well-aligned thing to do — as much as trying to write music that will make people feel and think when they hear it.

    In any case, people are always free to bail out on a post.

    I do not have any regrets for paying attention to the people quoted in this post. Daniel Boorstin once defined a celebrity as a person who is famous for being famous, and I quoted him for many years. I cannot honestly say, though, that I think Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Jack Nicholson or the other people cited in this post are famous for being famous. They have all made important contributions, for better or worse, to the pop culture that surrounds us. They are famous for being artists, in one way or another.

    I enjoy popular culture too much to ignore the thoughts of those artists who help create it.

  • Bill

    People will always seek religious direction, in the right places as well as in wrong places. Looking to Hollywood stars for guidance is probably not the best choice. I think that a tree must be judged by its fruit. What kind of life does a person lead? As far as Bob Dylan goes, he has never seemed to want to play ‘the prophet’ or religious guide (except for his overtly Christian phase). And still he is gifted with prescience and musical/ lyrical skills. In his case I sense a deeper integrity and do wonder about the nature of his divorce (from popular culture?) and his personal life more than I care about other ‘public figures.’

  • Chris Bolinger

    I agree that Dylan, Mailer, Nicholson, and others quoted have made important contributions to our pop culture. And when they discuss their craft, I listen. When they stray outside their area of expertise, I do listen, but not because I personally care what they say. I listen because celebrities have a huge influence on the many, many people who think that celebrities are important people whose lives and opinions matter greatly. In other words, I try to understand how celebrities will influence our culture, because they will, often in a negative way.

  • Althea

    I wonder why the word “religion” pushes Bob Dylan’s button like it does? For him, it is a system of works in order to earn a way to heaven, or God’s favor, or some positive result. Secular people have to catagorize or label God and believers in these terms, and all Dylan was trying to communicate is that it is impossible to do.

    Does Dylan believe in God? Yes, he does. Does he believe in religion? Apparently not. God saves, religion does not. And from what he writes and sings, the world needs a whole lot of salvation. He isn’t in the business of telling people where to go for it, but he seems up to the task of describing the situation.

    Like Bill, I don’t care what most celebrities think or say or do. But with Dylan, I care. I don’t know why.

  • Martha

    “No university has ever had that many graduates at one time in the government.”

    Balliol College, Oxford, under Jowett – apparently the Indian Civil Service was packed with Balliol men – and they have a modest roll-call of famous graduates:


    Balliol has produced four Nobel Prize winners: Sir Cyril Norman Hinshelwood (Chemistry), Sir John Hicks (Economics), Baruch S. Blumberg (Medicine), and Anthony J. Leggett (Physics). Seven more have been Fellows of the College: George Beadle (Medicine), Norman Ramsey (Physics), Robert Solow (Economics), John Van Vleck (Physics), Gunnar Myrdal (Economics), Linus Pauling (both Peace and Chemistry) and William D. Phillips (Physics). It has also produced three British Prime Ministers (Edward Heath, H. H. Asquith, and Harold Macmillan), several Archbishops of Canterbury (Tait, Stanley, Morton, Lang, Temple, and Abbott), two cardinals (Heard and Manning), the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith (Shoghi Effendi), two kings (Olav V and Harald V of Norway) and the most prolific hashish dealer in Britain’s history (Howard Marks). Oliver Smithies was awarded the Lasker Prize (America’s ‘Nobel Prize’) in 2001. Sir Peter Morris, a Fellow, became President of the Royal College of Surgeons and George Alberti President of the Royal College of Physicians. Balliol lawyers have also been prominent. Lord Bingham, who read History and has been the College’s Visitor for many years, is the Senior Law Lord of the United Kingdom, while Sir Brian Hutton and Lord Rodger have held equivalent positions in Northern Ireland and Scotland at one point all three simultaneously. Literary figures include Matthew Arnold, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Arthur Hugh Clough,Graham Greene, Anthony Powell and Aldous Huxley. Finally, one must not forget renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, or the fact that Adam Smith attended this college between 1740 and 1746.”

    So, yes, ease up on the hyperventilating there, Bill.

  • Kurt

    Let’s not get carried away comparing Balliol College, Oxford to Pat Robertson’s Regent University.

  • Deloney

    “Faith doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t have a category. It’s oblique. So it’s unspeakable.”

    So I guess Bob is currently a follower of the Nameless, Oblique Unspeakable. Gosh, I remember when the Mystery Tramp had a name.

  • Brett

    The quotes you gave seem to show a number of interviewers either unfamiliar with religion and its issues in any depth, or unwilling to “go there” in their conversations. Which pretty much goes right back into the title of this blog.

    It’s not new for Rolling Stone, though. Their interview with Sacha Baron Cohen relegated his Orthodox Judaism to a background color bit about menu items, and a post-9/11 piece on Bruce Springsteen and his album The Rising left several interesting statements about bringing his family to church and about the religious character of the album twisting in the reportorial wind.

    But Rolling Stone has been pretty much a meaningless relic for the last 15 years. Shoulda died before it got old.

  • BabyBlue

    Interesting that they didn’t interview Bono – who has certainly been on a journey of his own from mindless labeling of all evangelicals as nut cases.

    I listened to that interview with Dylan about faith and what fascinated me was how the edtior was clueless – he couldn’t understand what Dylan was talking about and didn’t know how to get off the “religion” thing. Dylan’s faith is probably more integrated into him now than as mere slogans – it’s clear he has a relationship with his object of his faith. He speaks of his faith in personal, relational terms and not philosophical or esoteric. And who can blame him for his liberterian-style view of organized religion? As one who has been sued by an institutional religion I am inclined to agree with him these days.


  • Dan

    The Rolling Stone editors tell us how to understand the past while at the same time evidencing their own ignornance of the past: “Truly understanding the past means grappling with its complexities and contradictions. You need look no further back than the Sixties to realize that. The culture wars that began in that decade — about drugs, about American military incursions into foreign countries, about sex, the environment, the roles of women and women, and on and on — are still being fought.”

    Apparently the editors know only as much history as they have personally lived to see. The culture wars did not begin in the 1960s. If one were to put a date on when they began that date would be 1789.

  • Raider51

    Like Maureen and Martha notes above, the Bill Moyers quote was hysterical. Tell it to the Kennedy School of Government, which, by itself boast over 5,000 grads in government.

    And let’s not even get to the whole Yale – CIA connection.

    Why, I’ll bet even North Texas University has more grads in government service than 150 Regenters.

  • Mickey

    What’s hysterical is Mr. Raider51 comparing Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to Pat Robertson U! How much Kool-Aid d’ya hafta drink to become so unmoored?

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