Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions
The celebrated journalist fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works
When I questioned Lehrer about where this added sentence came from, he claimed it was a hybrid quote, with the first two sentences appearing in Dont Look Back and the admonition to “stop asking me to explain” from a 1995 radio interview included in The Fiddler Now Upspoke. According to Lehrer, in 1995 Dylan told an interviewer, “Stop asking me to explain. Those songs weren’t about anybody.” But I couldn’t find this either, and the only radio interview Dylan gave in 1995 doesn’t include these lines. When asked for a more specific citation—a page number, a photo of the passage, more information about who conducted the interview—Lehrer ignored the request.
Further explaining Dylan’s creative process, Lehrer writes that the songwriter “begins when he finds a sound or song that ‘touches the bone,’ ” attributing the quote to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles. But a thorough rereading of Chronicles—along with a text search of the eBook—turned up nothing of the sort. When I pointed this out, Lehrer conceded that his sourcing was wrong but claimed that I could find the “touches the bone” quote in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” program, which runs 100 hours and doesn’t exist in transcript form. What specific program, what season (three were produced), at what point in the broadcast, Lehrer never specified. But this too seemed an unlikely citation: “Theme Time Radio Hour” isn’t an interview program and doesn’t feature Dylan providing expansive commentary on his career.
I did manage to locate some of the unfootnoted material. Here is Lehrer, again, quoting Dylan on the supposedly chaotic process of writing “Like a Rolling Stone”: “ ‘I don’t think a song like ‘Rolling Stone’ could have been done any other way,’ Dylan insisted. ‘You can’t sit down and write that consciously. … What are you gonna do, chart it out?’ ” But this is actually comprised of two quotes, grafted together from two separate interviews: one conducted in 1984, in which Dylan discusses the process of recording (not writing) the song, and one from 1976, which doesn’t specifically mention “Like a Rolling Stone.” Lehrer admitted this, promising to correct this too in future editions of Imagine.
But even the Dylan quotes in the book that are accurate are contextually problematic. Here is Lehrer explaining Dylan’s allegedly frantic process of songwriting:
He packed a typewriter in with his luggage and could turn anything into a desk; he searched for words while surrounded by the chaos of tour. When he got particularly frustrated, he would tear his work into smaller and smaller pieces, shredding them and throwing them in the wastebasket. (Marianne Faithfull referred to such moments as “tantrums of genius.”)
The source for singer Marianne Faithfull’s “tantrum of genius” quote is the book Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades, by Clinton Heylin, a British author of seven books on Dylan. For starters, tantrum is not, as Lehrer has it, plural. Second, it does not describe how the singer constructed songs, but how he reacted to being spurned by beautiful women:
A nervous young Faithfull, in awe of Dylan, just didn’t know how to deal with the situation when he finally came on to her. Stoned, and equally uncertain, Dylan’s reaction to her gentle rebuff smacked of a man in permanent arrested adolescence, unused to hearing the word no—i.e. a rock star.
Marianne Faithfull: Without warning he turned into Rumpelstiltskin. He went over to the typewriter, took a sheaf of papers and began ripping them up into smaller and smaller pieces, which he let into the wastepaper basket. ‘Are you satisfied now?’ he asked. I was witnessing a little tantrum of genius. With that he stormed out in a rage. I sat there pinned to my chair. He returned a moment later with renewed fury and threw me out.
The fury, the pieces of typing paper, reduced to small squares by an angry, brilliant troubadour, the sarcastic reference to a “little tantrum of genius,” are all manifestations, according to Faithfull, of Dylan’s sexual frustration—not frustration over the process of writing or recording music. As Lehrer acknowledged when confronted with the context of this passage, there is a rather large difference.
But the most troubling citations relate to one of Dylan’s most famous compositions. According to Lehrer, here is Bob Dylan on his 1965 song, “Like a Rolling Stone”: “[Dylan] would later say it was his first ‘completely free song … the one that opened it up for me.’ ”And these ruminations on where the song came from: “ ‘It’s a hard thing to describe,’ ” Lehrer claims Dylan said. “ ‘It’s just this sense that you got something to say.’ ” Lehrer does not provide citations for either of these, and after a deep excavation of the Dylan record I was unable to locate them. In a phone call and subsequent emails, Lehrer told me these quotes were a result of his research at “bobdylan.com headquarters” and that he had access to the uncut version of No Direction Home provided by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen.
When I asked about aspects of his interactions with Rosen, Lehrer provided a sketchy time frame and contradictory specifics—he first told me that he had personally exchanged emails with Rosen, then attributed this supposed email exchange to his literary agent—then further claimed that Dylan’s management had approved the chapter after being sent a copy of Imagine. He added that Dylan’s management didn’t want their cooperation sourced in the book. But when I contacted Dylan’s management, they told me that they were unfamiliar with Lehrer, had never read his book, there was no bobdylan.com headquarters, and, to the best of their recollection, no one there had screened outtakes from No Direction Home for Lehrer. Confronted with this, Lehrer admitted that he had invented it.
A month ago, when Lehrer’s self-plagiarism scandal emerged, some supporters argued that it was simply the misstep of a young journalist. But making up sources, deceiving a fellow journalist, and offering accounts of films you have never seen and emails never exchanged, is, to crib Bob Dylan, on a whole other level.
CORRECTION, July 31: A previous version of this story reported that the “Theme Time Radio Hour” program runs 1,000 hours. In fact, it is 100 hours long.
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