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Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions

The celebrated journalist fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works

Michael Moynihan
July 30, 2012
Jonah Lehrer at the Aspen Ideas Festival on July 1, 2012.(Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis)
Jonah Lehrer at the Aspen Ideas Festival on July 1, 2012.(Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis)

“It’s a hard thing to describe,” Bob Dylan once mused about the creative process. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

The sense that one has something to say, some story to relate, is the stuff that fuels all writers. That Dylan observation can be found in the first chapter of journalist Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, an exploration of how neuroscience explains creative genius. Lehrer has much to say on the matter, from a meditation on the inventor of the Post-It note to an investigation into the way Bob Dylan’s mind works, which included the quote above.

The problem, though, is that there is no proof that Dylan ever said this.

Last month, Lehrer was accused of a curious journalistic offense: the act of “self-plagiarism.” Lehrer, a staff writer at The New Yorker and celebrated author of three books, cannibalized his own work, posting often word-for-word excerpts from Imagine on The New Yorker’s blog without noting that it had been published elsewhere. To some, it was a tenuous charge—as one journalist commented to me, this was like “being accused of stealing food from your own refrigerator.” Others highlighted the pressures brought to bear on young writers to produce more and more content.

It wasn’t the first time Lehrer’s fellow writers had raised questions about his work. Reviewing his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, philosopher Jonathon Keats upbraided Lehrer for a narrative larded with examples that “arbitrarily and often inaccurately” supported his thesis. The writer Edward Champion, who catalogued Lehrer’s recent recyclings on his blog, stated baldly that Lehrer was guilty of “plagiarizing” a paragraph from fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. A New York Times reviewer catalogued the “many elementary errors” in Imagine. And the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, in a devastating review of Imagine, chided Lehrer for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser and claimed that “almost everything” in his exegesis of Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” was “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic.”

As it turns out, Chotiner may have been onto more than he understood. I’m something of the Dylan obsessive—piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books—and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer—the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted—I came up empty and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complemented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.

When contacted, Lehrer provided an explanation for some of my archival failures: He claimed to have been given access, by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen, to an extended—and unreleased—interview shot for Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. Two of the quotes confounding me, he explained, could be found in a more complete version of that interview that is not publicly available. As corroboration, he offered details of the context in which the comments were delivered and brought up other topics he claimed Dylan discussed in this unreleased footage.

Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”


I asked Lehrer about seven Bob Dylan quotes in the chapter—three of which aren’t detectable anywhere else, at least not in the forms in which they appear in the book; three others of which include portions of real Dylan quotes; and one that is dramatically removed from its original context to conform to the narrative of Imagine. Lehrer claims that some of these anomalies can be attributed to the editing process—he told me he excised 10,000 words from his original draft of the Dylan chapter—and insists that all of the unattributed quotes do come from somewhere; he simply cannot find their sources.

It is, though, difficult to imagine that there exist Bob Dylan quotes discovered and revealed by Jonah Lehrer, given the singer’s reclusiveness—journalists are rarely granted access, and Lehrer hasn’t claimed to have interviewed Dylan—and the deep fanaticism of his fan base, who treat his every utterance as worthy of deconstruction and analysis. After significant archival digging, with assistance from a historian deeply versed in all things Dylan, I haven’t been able to locate a number of the quotes cited in Imagine.

I was first troubled by Lehrer’s handling of a rather well-known Dylan remark, recounted in countless biographies and websites. Lehrer writes, “Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper, he made the same observation: ‘God, I’m glad I’m not me,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I’m not that.’ ” But in his classic documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, Dont Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s camera catches the singer peering at a newspaper story about a recent concert and muttering, “God, I’m glad I’m not me.” Where the utterance used by Lehrer—“I’m glad I’m not that”—comes from is unknown, as there is no verifiable reference to Dylan ever saying this. (And it’s not clear how Lehrer divines that Dylan said this “whenever” he read about himself.) When I asked Lehrer about this, he admitted that he didn’t know either, promising it would be corrected in future editions of the book.

But then other, more troubling anomalies began to emerge. In another quote mined from Dont Look Back, in which Dylan is asked by a pestering Time magazine journalist about the inspiration for his songs, Lehrer quotes Dylan as saying: “I just write them. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain.” The last sentence sharpens and simplifies Lehrer’s point—that Dylan’s brilliance isn’t easily explicable. But it doesn’t appear in Dont Look Back.

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 “ 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 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.

Michael Moynihan, Tablet Magazine’s “Righteous Gentile” columnist, is the cultural news editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

Michael Moynihan, Tablet Magazine’s “Righteous Gentile” columnist, is the cultural news editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast.