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Jonah Lehrer debacle lesson: Do your homework

July 31, 2012|By Randy Lewis
  • Bob Dylan, at a July performance in France, spoke at length about his creative process in 2004 with The Times' then-pop music critic Robert Hilburn.
Bob Dylan, at a July performance in France, spoke at length about his creative… (David Vincent / Associated…)

The debacle of New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer, who resigned from his job with the magazine this week after conceding that he had invented quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in his bestselling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” leaves one glaring lesson: Do better homework.

In addition to Lehrer losing his job, his book is being yanked out of stores and has already disappeared from e-book sellers including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

A crucial part of Lehrer’s thesis was that Dylan couldn’t, or didin’t want to, explain his creative process. The passage that brought Lehrer down had Dylan reportedly saying, “I've got nothing to say about these things I write,' [Dylan] insisted. 'I just write them. There's no great message. Stop asking me to explain.' "

Lehrer, as has been widely reported, subsequently confessed to piecemealing together different Dylan quotes to get the one he used. He was called on the quote by longtime Dylan fan and Tablet magazine writer Michael C. Moynihan, who was trying to track down the source of the quotes Lehrer used.

Lehrer might have gotten exactly what he was after, however, if he’d researched a 2004 interview Dylan gave to The Times' then-pop music critic Robert Hilburn, which delved deeply into Dylan’s creative process.

He spoke in depth about his own sources of musical and literary inspiration -- from Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, the Carter Family and Stephen Foster to such poets as Lord Byron, John Keats and John Donne to beat writers including Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

At one point, he told Hilburn something very close to what Lehrer seemed to have been after: "I'm not good at defining things," Dylan said in 2004. "Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn't. It's up to the listener to figure out what it means to him."

But he also did open up remarkably about how he viewed the art and craft of songwriting.

“I don't think in lateral terms as a writer. That's a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers.... They are so lateral. There's no circular thing, nothing to be learned from the song, nothing to inspire you. I always try to turn a song on its head. Otherwise, I figure I'm wasting the listener's time."

Had he been more thorough in doing the research for his book, perhaps Lehrer could have been able to hold onto the success he seemed so desperately to want that he concocted quotes from the greatest songwriter of the rock era.

“How strange something like that messed him up,” Hilburn told me when I asked for his thoughts on the Lehrer incident. “He didn't have to make up quotes about [Dylan] not wanting to talk about his music. Dylan talked about that all the time. Then to make up that excuse, which was easily checked. Sounds like a meltdown.”

Hilburn called the 2004 interview with Dylan one of the highlights of his 36 years at The Times, largely because, “It was just amazing how open he was, and spending hours doing it.” He said Dylan spent close to six hours talking about songwriting when the two met over a couple of days while Dylan was on tour in Amsterdam.

“The thing that struck me was -- for all his mysterious, even elusive image/reputation -- he was so wonderfully generous with his time and comments,” Hilburn said.

A couple of things Dylan did say might be swirling through Lehrer’s head now, such as this line from “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”: “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” Or this one from “My Back Pages”: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

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