Monday, February 12, 2018

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott

With age comes wisdom
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews was originally published in 2006 by Wenner Books, a division of Rolling Stone magazine. Though published by Rolling Stone and edited by Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Cott, the 31 collected interviews are not limited to Rolling Stone articles but also include selections from Playboy, the New York Times, the L.A. Times and several other publications. In 2017, Simon & Schuster published an updated edition with three additional interviews, all of them from Rolling Stone, the most recent being from 2009.

At first, even for a huge Dylan fan like myself, this book is a difficult slog to get through. Dylan made some great music back in the ‘60s, but he was a terrible interview subject. This is the same smart-aleck Dylan you see in the movie Don’t Look Back, who answers questions with questions or responds with surrealistic wordplay that’s often just nonsense masked as profundity. He aims for an image of irreverence but usually achieves deliberate disrespect, and very little of worth is revealed in the process. The most frustrating thing about reading these early interviews is that the journalists never call him on it. They either let his half-baked answers slide or eat them up wholeheartedly. The best interview from the ‘60s is by Jay Cocks, then an undergraduate at Kenyon College when Dylan gave a concert there. That piece really gives you an idea of what Dylan and his crazy life were like back then. Other interviewers, like A.J. Weberman of the East Village Other, just love to hear themselves talk and discuss themselves more than they do the man in question. Editor Cott himself is not the greatest of interviewers. He seems to want to impress Dylan with his knowledge of Bartlett’s Quotations, and he raves about Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara as if it were a Fellini masterpiece, an assessment with which few movie critics are likely to agree.

Finally, around page 200, Dylan matures and so do his interviewers. By this time he has a wife and kids, and he seems to have realized that journalists are just people doing their jobs, not evil antagonists. Most importantly, he finally starts to answer questions with real answers, even though they are still often rendered in his own unique cryptic syntax. He comes to terms with his role as a rock star, respects his fans and the people he’s speaking to, and seems genuinely concerned about imparting the legacy of his musical knowledge to future generations. At this point the book really gets interesting as it delves deeply into the writing, playing, and recording of music. The interviews included here provide some truly fascinating insight into Dylan’s born-again Christian period, his lackluster ‘90s, and his Time Out of Mind renaissance. One really learns a lot about the man and his career, his artistic motivations, his approach to songwriting, and his philosophy towards life.

Because all the interviews are reprinted in their entirety (as they should be), it can be quite a repetitive read. Even in the 21st century, each journalist feels the need to provide a nutshell retrospective biography—born and raised in Hibbing, MN; idolized Woody Guthrie; etc.—so you get to read that 34 times. Still, for such a book it is better to err on the side of thoroughness, and the result is an invaluable reference for Dylanologists. One hindrance for researchers, however, is the lack of an index. Maybe that doesn’t matter in the age of ebooks, but if you’ve got the print edition, good luck finding that pertinent passage about a particular song or album. Ultimately, however, the opportunity to get Dylan’s story straight from the horse’s mouth outweighs the book’s faults and makes this volume a must-read for Dylan fans.
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