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Masked and Anonymous: The Many Faces of Bob Dylan. Interview with Fabio Fantuzzi

From October 29-31, the Università degli Studi Roma Tre will host an international conference on Bob Dylan and the arts titled Masked and Anonymous: The Many Faces of Bob Dylan.  This international gathering will draw experts from across the disciplines to explore the Nobel Prize-winning songwriter’s contributions to music, art, literature, theatre, and more. In this interview, we talk with one of the conference’s organizers, Fabio Fantuzzi, about both the event and his own research into Dylan’s work with his one-time painting teacher, Norman Raeben.

Institute for Bob Dylan Studies (IBDS): First, can you give us an overview of the conference itself?  What led you to organize it and what are some of the key events you have planned?

Professor Maria Anita Stefanelli and I noticed that only a few conventions on Dylan had been organized in Italy in the past years, and none of them had encompassed or put in dialogue all of the various forms of Dylan’s production with a diachronic and multidisciplinary approach.  In particular, the relation between his music writing and his artistic activities and background, which is the core of our research, is still a breeding ground that remains, for the most part, unexplored. So, we decided to gather in Rome a group of well-known Italian, American, and European experts, as well as artists and academics of different professional backgrounds, to debate and share ideas on the many facets of Dylan’s art.

The program is going to be extensive and diverse. Besides the expected sessions about music, song lyrics, and poetry, there will also be panels on painting, iron welding, cinema, and drama, as well as forums that look at Dylan’s works from historical, religious, and philosophical perspectives.

We have also added two more events to the menu. There will be a digital display of never-before-exhibited pieces by Dylan’s painting teacher, Norman Raeben, and, at the end of the second day, New York folk singer Chris Lowe, a great friend of mine, will pay homage to Dylan, while I modestly contribute some harmonica accompaniment here and there. Chris has been one of the few protégés of Dylan’s good old friend Dave Van Ronk and will provide precious insight into what the Greenwich Village scene is and used to be.

IBDS:  What about the speakers and panels? Can you maybe single out a few papers or panels that you’ve found particularly interesting or unexpected?

For myself, I am very curious about Professor Carrera’s paper on Dylan and African-American culture. The most surprising is probably Professor Pichaske’s talk, which investigates the Minnesota framework of Dylan’s paintings and iron gates. I cannot avoid mentioning artist Roz Jacobs, who will tell us about her experience being a student of Norman Raeben like Dylan, nor Professor Woloski, who will compare Dylan and Cohen’s ways of relating to Jewish themes, and Professor Adamczewski, whose paper deals with Dylan’s ever-shifting identities. My colleagues from Italian universities, whom I’ll just mention as a host, also have exciting papers: Bacigalupo, Baglioni, Cusan, Falzon, Giovannoli, Mortara, Ricciardi, Stefanelli, and Stringa. I also cannot refrain from mentioning Mossa (last but not least), a young scholar who studied  the unpublished manuscripts of “Like a Rolling Stone” at The Bob Dylan Archive and developed a new fascinating theory about its composition.

IBDS:  Is the conference open to the public?  If so, where do we go to register?

The event is free and open to the general public. People can register on-site, and registration will be opened an hour before the opening of the conference.

IBDS:  Can you say anything about the decision to hold the event in Rome or the significance of the city in Dylan’s work and imagination?

Since the time when a then-unknown American folk singer came to Rome to follow his Italian-American muse Suze Rotolo, who had left him to study in Italy, and played at the Folk Studio (a historical landmark of the Rome folk music scene of the time), Rome and Italy have been sources of inspiration for Dylan. Once back in the U.S., he wrote songs such as “Down the Highway,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and the less known “Going Back to Rome,” in which he even ironically says he would leave Madison Square Garden to his audience if he could get the Coliseum. From then on, he has continued to mention the Eternal City in many of his songs, like, for instance, his masterwork “When I Paint My Masterpiece” – one of his dreamiest reflections on art and creativity. What city could be a better host?

IBDS:  How did you first get interested in Dylan? And how did that lead to your decision to develop a doctoral project around his work?

I was thirteen when I received his greatest hits, The Essential Bob Dylan, as a gift from my mother. It sounded so arcane and out of time that I felt his music was pulling me into another dimension. I thought I needed to learn how to play the guitar and the harmonica together, so I spent a couple of months as a recluse to reach my aim. That’s how I became involved in Dylan, as well as in professional music.

Years later, while reading Alessandro Carrera’s essay “Ut pictura carmen,” I realized that this “break-up of time,” as Dylan called it, was an intentional stylistic choice – a technique Dylan said he learned from his painting teacher Norman Raeben. Researching archives and interviewing people connected with Raeben, I learned that his lessons encompassed the most diverse disciplines, from Biblical exegesis to modern philosophical, literary, and pictorial theories, putting them together in a rhapsodic, creative methodology that has much in common with Dylan’s early poetics and has influenced his mature work.

I worked day and night to come up with a doctoral project. So, I started to consider the different university departments in Italy and found that “American Studies” at Roma Tre had a solid tradition with special attention to multidisciplinary and transnational research in the fields of literature, music, theater, and performing arts. I then asked Professor Stefanelli, who has long been researching modernist poetry, the Beats, the 60’s experimental theatre and performance, and – just as an added gift, the relationship between poetry and painting – to be my supervisor.

IBDS:  You’re particularly interested in the influence of Norman Raeben, a sometimes abrasive painting teacher with whom Dylan studied in 1974.  What led you to focus on this relationship and this particular moment in the songwriter’s long and complicated career?

Dylan’s own words led me to this topic. That period has been a crucial moment in his career. After a motorcycle accident, he suffered a creative crisis that almost led him to retire. In the mid-seventies, he was desperately in search of something or someone who could help him to reconnect with the Muse and feared he was not going to do anything else. It was then that he met Raeben, who, according to Dylan, “put my mind and my hand and my eye together, in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt.”

The immediate result was the burst of creativity that gave birth to Blood on the Tracks, Desire, and Street Legal, three masterpieces that, as Dylan said, have a “code in the lyrics.”  These albums translate into song composition the theories of Raeben, especially those on the palimpsest, which are, in turn, affected by Bergson’s conception of time and his famous cone of memory. That is the key to the code: those songs show stylistic features and techniques that were typical of his early works, which he now masters in a more skillful way. For example, the unusual way in which he mixes different personal pronouns, his famous gnomic sentences, a “pictorial” syntax and a peculiar conception of metaphors all contribute to an iconoclastic conception of representation that, together with the use of the palimpsest, create a general sense of timelessness and spacelessness. Plus, he also followed Raeben’s precept to “react in every moment” to actualize the work of art, always interpreting your actual feelings and what they mean to you at the present moment. He went back on the stage right away and began again to change his songs in every concert as he is still doing today. Exploring these topics gives us valuable insight into Dylan’s creative process and allows us to contextualize and analyze his young and mature productions from a critical, cohesive, and chronological perspective.

IBDS:  Dylan still paints, of course, and creates interesting wrought-iron gates and sculptures as well.  What kind of connection do you see between these visual experiments and his music?  Does one help us illuminate or better understand the other?

Yes, of course. Both his lyrics and his music have a visual matrix that we can grasp only by studying his art. While his art, in turn, shows storytelling features and a musical use of colors.

Consider what Dylan said about “Tangled Up in Blue” and about its album in general: “I was trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts, but then you also see the whole of it […] where there is no time, trying to make the focus as strong as a magnifying glass under the sun. To do that consciously is a trick. I knew how to do it because of the technique I learned — I actually had a teacher for it” (i.e., Raeben). This belief is much more than a fascinating pictorial metaphor; it’s a creative manifest, a poetics whose roots go back to authors such as Proust, Bergson, Raimbaud, Horace, and back to the Talmud – which is probably the first and best visual representation of such an open, timeless, and ever-evolving idea of the work of art.

IBDS:  Finally, we like to close these interviews with two questions.  First, what’s your favorite Dylan album and why?  Second, what album would you recommend to someone who knows little of Dylan and wants to get an introduction to his music?

It’s hard to say. For some reasons I don’t know, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is particularly dear to me, but also, with reference to the second question, I would rather choose and suggest two albums at once: Highway 61 Revisited and Blood on the Tracks. I always looked at the former as a door to Dylan’s early and genuine production and at the latter as a majestic key to the entry of his mature treasures.

Check out the conference website with the link below:

International Conference