My Father John Misty-Bob Dylan Venn Diagram
Earlier this summer Uproxx Editor Caitlin White asked, “Why is [Father John Misty] such a divisive figure in the press?”
I wrote this in reply to her op-ed and pitched it around a few places, Uproxx included. No one wanted it (got one of those lovely no-reply-rejections from her), so I am putting my theory online because that’s where theories belong.
My answer to her question is the Venn diagram of Father John Misty and Bob Dylan I’ve been building.
I am not saying Father John Misty is “The Dylan Of Our Time.” Dylan isn’t dead yet and I’m honestly hoping no one will ever take that spot. Dylan is Dylan. But the fact is, with a close listening to Misty’s discography and gathering details of each man’s past, Misty is continuing the Dylan legacy with an updated understanding of “where we’re at” and “where we could be headed.” If that seems too vague, stick with me. They have more in common than you think.
The easiest similarities to spot are the fact that they are both multi-instrumental singer-songwriters who write pop songs and long folk ballads critiquing American culture at large. They are both characters, playing a version of themselves to the public, with satire, pseudonyms, and sarcasm in their lyrics, interviews, and liner notes. In Dylan’s heyday (which feels overtly redundant to remotely revisit), people misunderstood his acid tongue and fuck-you aesthetic, much like fans and would-be listeners who refuse to engage with Misty’s music because of his “persona.” I correct them: “It’s a character he’s playing. It’s not real.”
To sum it up, both blur the line of personality and performance art.
Their backgrounds are opposite: Dylan was raised non-practicing but Jewish and always denied it, until he found Jesus, and later found the Jews again. Misty’s parents sheltered him from the secular world and raised him as an evangelical Christian. He dropped out of Nyack College, a Christian university, in 2002. He didn’t hear the Beatles until he was 18, and has been grappling with a detachment from his family and how he was raised ever since. He told The New Yorker last summer “[my] career is an elaborate, improvised rebellion against it.”
Each man’s relationship to religion shows up effortlessly and thoroughly. Dylan’s has written a lifetime of spiritual music. Earlier this year he released a 9-disc box set of 100 previously unreleased songs from his gospel years, Trouble No More The Bootleg Series Vol. 13, 1979–1981. But we really only need to look to the classics to see a side of it. From Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”:
“Disillusioned words like bullets bark/As human gods aim for their mark/Made everything from toy guns that spark/To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/It’s easy to see without looking too far/That not much is really sacred.”
I like to line it up next to Misty’s second verse in “Pure Comedy:”
“Oh, their religions are the best/They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed/With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks/These unbelievable outfits/And they get terribly upset/When you question their sacred texts/Written by woman-hating epileptics.”
Both are still in the throws of being born, a privileged existence men have benefitted from more so than women. And even though the sad white guy narrative is tired, every once and a while another one comes along who writes thick long passageways of songs exploring the pain of existence and love, while simultaneously evaluating society, both as if they know something I don’t — which I believe to be true at points in time. So I forgive them, and I listen.
Misty acknowledges this in “Leaving LA” from Pure Comedy: “Mara taunts me ‘neath the tree/She’s like, “Oh great, that’s just what we all need/Another white guy in 2017 Who takes himself so goddamn seriously.”” He’s in on the joke, which makes it funnier or sadder, listener decides.
One of Dylan’s best candid lines about himself is from “Maggie’s Farm:” “Well, I try my best/To be just like I am/But everybody wants you/To be just like them/They sing while you slave and I just get bored/I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
Both have become bad stereotypes of himself — a bro and a cartoon hipster — and the stories in their songs promote the folk cause, a blood line to their themes: anti-capitalism, selfless and sometimes selfish love, and the belief we only have each other and our art. I am who I am, their songs say, with detail and emotion hard to rival.
Misty is more verbose than Dylan has been on recent records, but look back and long swimming lines curling around each verse are there. He is mean and callous, and has the reality to back up being openly depressed. From Pure Comedy’s “The Memo:”
“Oh, caffeine in the morning, alcohol at night/Cameras to record you and mirrors to recognize/And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time/Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online.”
They are both songwriters working within a system they hate but know they need to distribute their music to fans. Dylan’s number one villain has been the press since 1963 when he made a speech as he accepted the Tom Paine award and told Washington, D.C. he “saw himself” in Lee Harvey Oswald. Since he issued an apology for the comment, he’s avoided the giving honest, regular interviews, and has stayed completely in control of his narrative.
Misty’s repertoire with reporters and critics usually oversaturate the music press, triggering atomic eye rolls everywhere. They both avoid it when they want their music to speak for itself — Dylan has done this for decades, leaving everything open to interpretation; Misty has only used this approach once, leading up to the release of his most recent LP, God’s Favorite Customer.
So far their similarities are strong but their differences really help tell them apart.
Dylan was too vain for LSD, which he admits to in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again:”
“Now the rainman gave me two cures/Then he said, “Jump right in”/The one was Texas medicine/The other was just railroad gin/An’ like a fool I mixed them/An’ it strangled up my mind/An’ now people just get uglier/An’ I have no sense of time.”
Tillman, of course, also told The New Yorker he ate mushrooms while he was still drumming for indie giant Fleet Foxes in 2010. On that trip, he decided to leave the group and “be himself.” Since, he keeps depression at bay with microdoses of LSD.
Dylan never had an ego death with the help of psychedelics and it shows. His sense of humor…has been long gone. Meanwhile you can hear Misty’s in the laugh track of “Bored in the USA” on I Love You, Honeybear. The depth grows even more self-referential on “Leaving LA,” a song I feel comfortable quoting twice not because its thirteen minutes long but because its so sobering, you must swallow your ego to listen to it at all: “So why is it I’m so distraught/That what I’m selling is getting bought/At some point you just can’t control/What people use your fake name for.”
If none of this has sold you let’s look at the straightest fact I’ve yet to mention: their age.
Dylan (77) was not a hippie but a hero to them. His ideas and lyrics became anthems and philosophies to many of the Boomer generation, a generation born between 1946 and 1964. Dylan was born just outside their realm, in 1941. Misty, our updated folk singer (37), was born in the first year of the Millennial generation (a generation born between 1981 and 1997), also known as the Climate Change Generation, which is just another label for “people who understand the planet is dying and everything you do affects it.”
Critic Lindsay Zoladz wrote for The Ringer about how the oldest Millennial will turn 37 this year, physically defying the imprint of what the public understands to be a Millennial. Misty as an ambassador for Millennials makes perfect sense because he is always being written off, misinterpreted, and everyone has an opinion on him, whether or not they listen to his music and go to his shows.
Part of their age difference comes with a similarity: the profound social changes that have happened between their discographies. Dylan’s history mirrors that of the last six decades but he does not discus the Internet or technology.
Misty’s love hate relationship with technology is brightest in the song so clearly titled in tribute to Dylan: “Ballad of The Dying Man:” “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath/But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ‘bout to miss.”
Their age difference and the culture at large they’re critiquing are polar opposites.
When Misty’s debut Fear Fun came out in 2012, it was before Obama was reelected, before Sandy Hook happened, and before Hurricane Sandy but after Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood by a man who still roams free. The landscape Father John Misty works with is plenty bumpy, not unlike and some say much worse than Dylan’s early revolutionary period. Nixon was a crook and he stepped down, knowing no man is above the law. Now we, and Misty, have Trump. So much has happened in the last six years between Misty’s debut and most recent album, to recap it here might give me a heart attack.
Father John Misty didn’t ask to be labeled as a representative for this generation, and I’m not saying he is one. There is too much content, too many genres of music, and just too much information now for there to be one singular voice to “define a generation.” But if we needed one to look to who would laugh and cry with us on their records, it’s Misty.
The cottage industry of publishing surrounding Dylan helps me make sense of his cultural relevance. And according to his Nobel Prize for Literature (which he was nominated for every year since 1993), he’s managed to stay relevant more than fifty years since his debut, emblazoned on t-shirts, on dorm room walls, not to mention he’s never stopped touring.
Misty has done that for himself with an illustration of his own face on sweatshirts, t-shirts, and hats. And it’s a lot. But Dylan didn’t ask for it while Misty makes it happen. Both can be a little out of touch: successful, creative artists are like that.
Age, usually used against the Millennial, is a power the generation has: we’ll see what the elders won’t simply because we have so much more life to live, and deal with. We’ll be the ones eventually saying, “we told you so.” We have no choice but to continue working, living, and loving through politics and policies made to harm and restrict so many. A new kind of fight requires a different pop narrative, and Father John Misty’s dark voice is a perfect for talking world war iii blues.