Trying to make some sense out of the utterings of Bob Dylan has been a cottage industry for more than four decades now. Whether he’s singing oblique lyrics or just making an offhanded remark to an interviewer, there’s someone always willing to try and interpret them for us.
With the publication of the first volume of his memoirs last year, the mystique was shattered somewhat, but there’s still much obsessing over Dylan to be done.
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, published just in time for Dylan’s 65th birthday last week, attempts to fill in the blanks left by Dylan’s autobiography and traces the evolution of the thinking of this most interesting man.
The book begins with brief radio interviews done with a wildly enthusiastic 23-year-old Dylan, who at that time was just another young protest songwriter.
“Anything worth thinking about is worth singing,” he told Studs Terkel and, amazingly, there doesn’t seem to be any desire for deception in his words. He appears to be an intelligent, earnest man who wants to change society.
That soon changed. Dylan became more obscure and more introverted in direct correlation with his level of fame. After “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a hit, he became slightly more guarded with each interview.
During a press conference in San Francisco, he rarely bothers to answer any questions and ridicules the questions he does answer.
By the time he’d become a rock icon and was asked to do a Playboy interview, in March 1966, the young folksinger had been replaced with a persona of Dylan’s creation.
Asked by Nat Hentoff what made Dylan want to become a rock singer, he gave this deliciously untruthful response: “Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. I wound up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a ‘before’ in a Charles Atlas ‘before and after’ ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hotdogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes in and burns the house down. The next thing I know I’m in Omaha. It’s so cold there, by this time I’m robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish ...”
Dylan goes on for a few hundred words in this vein and it’s impossible to tell whether he’s mocking the interviewer, the audience, himself or all of the above. The Playboy interview is full of great quotes, such as, “Colleges are like old-age homes; except for the fact that more people die in college than in old-age homes, there’s really no difference.”
The only truly sincere note comes when he’s asked whether he’d welcome obscurity some day. “Someday, obviously, I’m going to have to accept it,” he says.
The Playboy interview was published around the zenith of Dylan’s career, the time of Blonde on Blonde, when Dylan was idolized by even the Beatles. Shortly thereafter, he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident, retired briefly from performing and recording and re-evaluated his life.
The next interview comes from two years after the Playboy interview and Dylan had quite obviously changed.
“If I didn’t have the recording contract and I didn’t have to fulfill a certain amount of records, I don’t know that I’d write down another song as long as I lived,” he says in October 1968.
While Dylan had consciously sought to destroy the myths he created about himself, it was too late. With the same fervor that led to playing Beatles records backwards to uncover their “true” meaning, self-styled experts tried to interpret every word in every Dylan song.
There is a long and disturbing story written for an underground New York paper by A.J. Weberman, who’d previously scoured Dylan’s garbage can for “clues.” Under fierce questioning from Weberman, Dylan breaks down. “I’m not Dylan, you’re Dylan,” he says in exasperation.
The piece ends with Weberman assembling a group of hippies to picket Dylan’s apartment.
It’s no wonder that there’s a gap of seven years between that article and the next, a Rolling Stone interview from 1978. Dylan seems tired and pretentious, plugging his movie Renaldo and Clara without much enthusiasm.
The next sequences are the most fascinating in the book, as Dylan discovers Christianity and his audience reacts in horror. In a 1980 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dylan speaks with passion about his conversion.
“I truly had a born-again experience,” he says, and traces the depression in his life that led to that experience.
Later, he says, “When I walk around some of the towns we go to, I’m totally convinced people need Jesus. Look at the junkies and the winos and the troubled people. It’s all a sickness which can be healed in an instant.”
It’s the most revelatory interview. After a jump forward five years in time, though, Dylan backed off.
“I’ve never said I’m born again,” he tells Kurt Loder in 1984.
After a few lackluster interviews from the 1990s, the book concludes with Dylan in the 21st century, the passion of his earlier years having returned. He’d spent much of the 1990s away from the studio, lost and drifting.
The new millennium brought a creative rebirth to Dylan, one that continues to this day. In his 21st century interviews, the earnest, determined, ambitious Dylan of 1962 makes a comeback. It ends the collection on a high note.
After nearly 500 pages of interviews, one is still hard-pressed to say that they know Dylan. But, as the last few interviews in the book prove, Dylan is a man who loves his craft, takes his art seriously and works continuously to not disappoint himself.
After 40-plus years at the forefront of popular music, it’s perhaps his greatest legacy of all.