You Had To Ask Me (Part 3)

You Had To Ask Me Where It Was At: Bob Dylan & the Media

An exploration of Dylan’s media relations, as refracted through Rolling Stone’s anthology of ‘essential’ Dylan interviews and press conference transcripts.

by John Carvill

Part Three: I Don’t Do Interviews


Is Bob Dylan a poet? It depends on who’s asking, and why. There’s an interesting debate to be had, concerning whether song lyrics (Dylan’s or anyone’s) can be considered as ‘poetry’; but the people who generally focus on whether what Bob Dylan writes can be viewed as poetry are seldom approaching the question from an objective standpoint. More often, they’re working to an agenda. Dylan was so phenomenally remarkable to the media in the early days, he was so unique and so unprecedented, that they had absolutely no frame of reference in which to place him. The nearest thing they could think of to Dylan was a poet, and when they tried that on for size and found it didn’t fit, they made the further error of blaming him for it. In other words, they pinned an inadequate label on him, and then castigated him for not matching up to their reductive categorisation.

The essential point, never mentioned by the press, is that asking whether Dylan’s lyrics work as ‘poetry’, then deciding that they don’t, is based on a false premise. It’s like asking whether a gourmet meal stands up as raw meat. Although Dylan’s lyrics, removed form the musical context, still make for interesting reading and retain some of their power, the fact is they were never designed to be considered in isolation. As Dylan himself points out:

“A lot of times people will take the music out of my lyrics and just read them as lyrics. That’s not really fair because the music and the lyrics I’ve always felt are pretty closely wrapped up. You can’t separate one from the other that simply. A lot of time the meaning is more in the way a line is sung, and not just in the line.”

Which points up a serious problem with this collection. Many of these interviews are circulating in audio format, and there’s a huge qualitative difference between reading an interview and listening to a tape of it. So much of the pleasure to be derived from audio interviews lies in Dylan’s uniquely characterful enunciations, infinitely nuanced inflections, and idiosyncratic speech patterns – how he leans down on one word, or elongaaaaaaates another – so that how he is saying something becomes as, or more, important than what he’s saying, and, as with Dylan’s delivery of lyrics, there are plenty of instances where how he’s saying something is the something he’s saying.

To an extent, this is also true of Dylan’s interviewers themselves; hearing their voices ringing out across the decades gives us a sharper and more resonant sense of those times. When Studs Turkel addresses him with his full name – “How can we describe you, Bob Dylan, rumpled trousers, curly hair…” – it sounds formal and quaint; when Cynthia Gooding does the same – “Why yes. That’s just what I had in mind, Bob Dylan” – it sounds intimate and suffused with emotional warmth. Dylan’s 1962 ‘Folksingers Choice’ interview with Gooding, for WBAI Radio in New York, is well worth reading. But it needs to be heard to appreciate the obvious chemistry between the two. Gooding was a singer herself, and had first met Dylan at a party, in 1959, when he was a very young man. It’s clear that Dylan is affectionate towards her – though it doesn’t stop him from telling outrageous lies about travelling with the carnival and working on the Ferris wheel. But his fondness for the older woman is far outstripped by Gooding’s flirtatious, almost worshipful approach to him. After Dylan plays ‘Smokestack Lightening’, and asks Gooding, “You like that?”, the way she purrs, “Yeah, I sure do”, sounds positively post-coital. Even more so after he plays ‘Hard Travellin’:

CG: Nice, you started off slow but boy you ended up…

BD: Yeah, that’s a thing of mine there.

Similarly, there are plenty of laughs to be had from reading transcripts of the 2001 Rome press conference, but no written account can possibly get across the sheer delight of hearing how Dylan pronounces the word ‘lure’ in the following exchange:

Q: Do you go on the Internet?

D: I’m afraid to go on the Internet. I’m afraid some pervert is gonna lure me somewhere!

Dylan’s argumentative conversations with AJ Weberman (the original Garbologist, and self-appointed ‘Minister of Defence’ for the ‘Dylan Liberation Front’) were condensed into an article for the ‘East Village Other’ in 1971, included here. Dylan’s incredulity at Weberman’s benignly deranged fanaticism is amusing and interesting to read. But the recordings of Dylan’s telephone conversations with Weberman are the kind of thing you can hardly concentrate on listening to because you’re too busy struggling to convince yourself that they can really exist. Although the two tussle over wider issues such as politics, and Dylan’s escalating horror of Weberman’s ‘Dylanology’, it’s the little nitpicking details that are truly priceless. You really need the audio to properly enjoy Dylan insisting that Weberman remove some lines from his written account of an earlier conversation, lest they expose Dylan to Sara’s ire: “My wife will fuckin’ hit me, man!” Better yet, you can revel in the realisation that, when Dylan tells Weberman he’ll have to wait until after the weekend to bring his article round for Dylan to go over it with him, because Dylan is ‘working’ at the weekend, he doesn’t mean he’s going into a recording studio:

AW: Should I bring it round now, or…

BD: No, no, I’m tied up the weekend. How about, like, on Monday or Tuesday?

AW: Ah… see the trouble is that these people are expecting, ah… these people are expecting, ah… expecting something from me Monday. All right…

BD: I’m workin’, man. Like I’m buildin’ some shit, y’know? And I really gotta get it built. Just, you know, some tables and some shelves and some stuff, an’ I gotta get it done, man, I put it way off…

Dylan, the hen-pecked husband, unable to avoid that dreaded DIY session any longer!

If an audio interview offers an extra dimension, this in itself is eclipsed by the experience of watching one on video. The footage of the KQED press conference, now officially available on DVD, represents an eternally cherishable, many-splendoured cultural artefact. Brow bound with swirling wreaths of cigarette smoke, helmeted in a shaggy tangle of hair, Dylan zestfully inhabits the role of inscrutable stoner Sphinx. Fizzing with nervous energy, he displays an astonishing parade of contradictions: he’s intensely uncomfortable but enjoying himself immensely; evasive but straight-talking; irritable but indulgent; arch but sincere; cool but warm-hearted; acerbic yet sweet. His relentless ‘put-ons’ are shot through with flashes of frivolously honest humour, and his charisma never wavers. That this footage still exists is a cause for rejoicing. Once seen, it renders written transcripts redundant.

Of course, it would be grossly unfair to criticise this collection for not being a multimedia experience; this is after all just meant to be a book. Instead, this anthology lays itself open to the much more damning accusation of inaccuracy, incompleteness, and sloppy editing. The widespread availability of these pieces, in a variety of forms, means that the savvy Dylan fan, or anyone else interested enough to check the original sources, will soon begin to notice some very significant omissions and discrepancies. There are far too many of these to list, but they’re evident right from the book’s very first interview, where we’re given a badly transcribed, cruelly truncated, and questionably edited version of that great period piece, Cynthia Gooding’s ‘Folksingers Choice’ radio interview.

The most egregious blunder is the misbegotten version of the KQED press conference transcript, which starts by omitting Ralph J Gleason’s introduction, and goes downhill from there. Gleason, who arranged and hosted the press conference, introduced Dylan with insouciant panache:

“Mr. Dylan is a poet. He will answer questions about everything from atomic science to, uh, riddles and rhymes. Go!”

Cutting that intro from the transcript may just be a bad judgement call. But it’s merely a prelude to a cascade of literally dozens of omissions, jumblings, misleading paraphrases and even outright inventions. Most shamefully of all, large chunks of the transcript have been cut out and re-inserted, seemingly at random, meaning the order has been totally scrambled. Presumably this has been done by mistake but it bespeaks incompetence spilling over into negligence. Wherever the editors sourced this transcript, could they not have at least checked it against the tape? This sort of sloppiness crops up everywhere, and utterly disqualifies this book from taking its place as a reliable source of Dylan interview transcripts.

A fascinating aspect of all this is that a number of the questionable edits and cuts affect parts of interviews which are directly relevant to media relations. Robert Shelton’s long-gestated Dylan biography, ‘No Direction Home’, has been much criticised over the years, often unfairly. Either way, one of Shelton’s many achievements was to get some unforgettably good conversation out of Dylan: no other author has managed to elicit such a perfect mix of the surreal and the sincere. One of the pieces collected here is actually an excerpt from a chapter of Shelton’s book, describing a conversation Shelton had with Dylan on a plane flying him (and The Band) from Nebraska to Denver, Colorado. This, one of the very best interviews Dylan has ever given, has been needlessly abridged here; ironically, the missing portion contains some sharp observations, from both Dylan and Shelton, on the role of the media. Dylan, Shelton is shrewd enough to note, is “one who has used the press with much artfulness.” Never a fan of journalists or critics, Dylan claims that “even before Dante’s time”, there was a special part of Hell reserved for critics:

“And when you think about it, it is very weird. Obviously, now, you see the ragman walking around a couple of thousand years B.C. and he did not like to be confronted by a bunch of mouths. That’s still where it’s at…”

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner’s own interview with Dylan, from 1969, has been re-published and anthologised many times, often in a substantially restructured and oddly edited form. Again, some of the sections cut from this book’s version concern Dylan’s media relations, notably the part where he tells Wenner (during the course of an interview) that “I don’t do interviews”, because, “if you give one magazine an interview, then the other magazine wants an interview”, and then, “pretty soon, you’re in the interview business… You’re just giving interviews. Well, as you know, this can really get you down. Doing nothing but giving interviews.”

In fact, a comparison of the various versions of that one particular interview, and what the differences between them say about Wenner’s relationship with Dylan (and indeed, with pop culture in general), would make for an intriguing line of inquiry. For instance, the version presented here puts a curious gloss on an exchange which no doubt caused Wenner some embarrassment at the time, adding to Wenner’s reputation, in some quarters, for being a bit of a dilettantish flake. Wenner, feeling the interview is becoming awkward, suggests that the purpose of the interview process should be to let “the person who’s being interviewed unload his head.” Dylan starts to say, “Well, that’s what I’m doing”, then picks up on the expression ‘unload his head’, saying, “Boy, that’s a good… That’d be a great title for a song. Unload my head. Going down to the store… going down to the corner to unload my head. I’m gonna write that up when I get back.”

Now, it’s not impossible that Dylan genuinely didn’t twig, at that point, that he himself had used that very expression, on the ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ track, ‘For a Buick 6′ – “I need a dump truck, mama, to unload my head” – but if that is the case, it’s markedly uncharacteristic of his canny, suspicious attitude to the press. It seems more likely that he was putting Wenner on, which would be entirely in keeping not just with his usual modus operandi, but also with the rest of the interview. What’s really curious is that, in the original interview, after a few more questions, Wenner tells Dylan that the ‘unload your head’ expression comes from one of Dylan’s own songs, and Dylan asks which album that song was on (even though, elsewhere in the interview, he displays a clear-eyed grasp of which songs are on which albums). In the version printed in this collection, however, the intervening exchanges, between Dylan remarking on the phrase and Wenner informing him it’s Dylan’s own phrase, have been removed. The effect of which, intentional or otherwise, is to make it seem as though Wenner immediately realised that Dylan knew full well where the phrase came from.

Whatever the truth of the matter (and it would probably be a conspiracy theory too far to suspect Wenner of doctoring the transcript to make himself look less foolish), the interview, like this whole collection, struggles to transcend the stigma of the ‘Rolling Stone’ brand. If Dylan’s personality is riven with contradictions, and his attitude to the media characterised by ambivalence, few publications (or publishers) are worthier recipients of mixed feelings than Wenner and Rolling Stone.

Wenner began facing accusations of ‘selling out’ at least as early as the 1970s, long before the magazine became dominated by fawning puff pieces on bikini-clad celebrities, its pages bloated with endless glossy adverts for fancy cars and unnecessarily expensive liquors. Yet Rolling Stone was once a valid and even important part of the culture it was reporting on. This is, after all, the magazine which published classic, edgy material such as Hunter S Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. Whatever the magazine has become, we should remember that at one time it was, as Michael Gray has put it, “(counter-) culturally relevant”. Leafing through a copy today, though, can be a dispiriting experience: its vibe feels smug, anodyne, and complacent.

For many readers, the Rolling Stone label, not to mention the ‘Wenner Books’ imprint which decorates the book’s spine, will stick in the throat a little bit. Sceptics of the magazine’s good intentions will have their worst preconceptions confirmed here: what is the point of reprinting a collection of previously published material, if you are going to treat that material so negligently as to compel the truly interested reader to return to the original sources?

The contemporaneous reader of an original 1960s Dylan interview would have been getting his dose of Dylan at a couple of removes: he’d be reading a newspaper or magazine account of an interview with someone who was in turn very deliberately presenting the interviewer with an already mediated version of himself. In this collection, the questionable handling of the original material adds yet another unwelcome layer of media obfuscation.

If there’s an obvious analogy between the difficulties faced by a compiler of a collection of Dylan’s music, and the editor of an interview anthology, then there’s also a parallel between the inadequacy of reading versus hearing a Dylan interview or lyric. Worst of all, there’s a correlation between how this collection has handled its versions of Dylan interviews, and the way in which Dylan’s music has often been questionably mixed and even cut. The classic example being early CD versions of ‘Blonde on Blonde’, which had some songs shortened – either by fading the endings out or even by cutting parts of harmonica solos, etc. – in order to force the album into a 72 minute running time.

The flaws of this particular collection aside, was there even any need for an anthology of Dylan interviews? The answer is a very definite yes; given the huge range of classic Dylan interviews, and factoring in all the additional post-millennial material, a new collection was very welcome. Like the famous horse photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, which used stop-motion technology to uncontestably prove that all four of a horse’s hooves did in fact leave the ground while it was on the trot, a chronological anthology of Dylan interviews resembles a series of snapshots which, viewed in sequence, offer a fascinating overview of everything that changed, and all that stayed the same, as Dylan’s relationship with the media (and with himself) evolved across the decades.

Sadly, one of the things that hasn’t changed is the general unreliability of media reports. The net result of all the edits, cuts, and omissions is that Rolling Stone’s ‘Essential Dylan Interviews’ falls far short of that ambitious title. Although this is not the first collection of Dylan interviews to be published, the editors of this book would not have had to work too hard to have made this one the best. If they’d widened their scope a bit, and taken care over the accuracy of what they printed, this could have been a truly essential purchase, not just for Dylan fans, but for anyone interested in the wider fields of pop culture and media relations.

And it’s worth restating: Jonathan Cott’s introduction is fascinating, insightful, and eclectic; in fact, it’s more worthy of re-reading than some of the interviews included here. Cott’s bona fides as a Dylan fan and scholar are not in question; his interviews with Dylan for Rolling Stone are some of the best ever conducted, and everything Cott himself writes about Dylan seems absolutely spot on: describing Dylan’s voice on ‘Time Out Of Mind’, for instance, as a “haunting timbral admixture of sandpaper and sherry”. Cott, incidentally, was an attendee of the KQED press conference (you can see him on the video). Most likely, Cott was not directly responsible for sourcing the versions of the interviews included in this book; whoever did that job for him has really let him down. It raises serious questions about how this sort of material will be presented to future generations.

One day, when Dylan is gone, and the merry ontological dance he and the media led each other on has finally come to a permanent stop, Dylan’s legacy will doubtless take its proper place as an asset of the cultural heritage industry. Eventually, there’ll probably be a whole department of the Smithsonian devoted to him. The latest technology will be used to offer visitors an immersive glimpse into Dylan’s various phases and public images. Maybe there’ll even be an exhibit which recreates that classic 1965 KQED press conference, and, if you arrive early enough, you’ll manage to grab yourself a really plum seat – right next to the three-dimensional hologram of Alan Ginsberg, say. That should put you in prime position to revel in the irony of Ginsberg’s exchange with Dylan:

Ginsberg: “Have you found that the text of the interviews with you which have been published are accurate to the actual conversations?”

Dylan: “No.”

These interviews should have been the Dead Sea Scrolls of Dylan studies; instead, they’re more like the Turin Shroud. Some of the included interviews are indeed essential, yet many essential interviews are missing. Worse, the versions of the interviews which are included, are incomplete and unreliable.

If you’re not really interested in Dylan’s interviews, then you won’t ever need a book like this. If you really are interested, then this is not the book you need. On the other hand, if you’re interested in what Dylan’s collected interviews tell us about the process by which the media bring such interviews into being, and then present them to the public, then you will probably need this book plus the originally printed versions, to make your own comparisons.

Finally, some mention must be made of the fact that the best collections of reasonably accurate reproductions of Dylan interviews are the unofficial, bootleg anthologies which, though also available in print form, circulate freely around the internet as text files, PDFs, etc. (One such anthology runs to 1,390 pages – nearly three quarters of a million words – and it finishes with an appendix which lists 50 known interviews not included in its pages.)

Like many great Dylan songs, a given interview can exist in a number of forms, and it may not always be easy to determine which is the definitive version. This suggests yet another parallel with Dylan’s music: for every entry in the record company’s official ‘Bootleg Series’, there are any number of unofficial bootleg alternatives available, offering the Dylan fan the option of deciding for himself which is his definitive version.

In a sense, this is a fitting state of affairs, since it’s never been easy to measure the distance between the public and private Dylan(s). Discussing Dylan’s seeming ability, in his early Greenwich Village days, to alter his appearance from day to day, Jonathan Cott recalls “the advice once given by the Greek elegiac poet Theognis: ‘Present a different aspect of yourself to each of your friends… Follow the example of the octopus with its many coils which assumes the appearance of the stone to which it is going to cling. Attach yourself to one on one day and, another day, change color. Cleverness is more valuable than inflexibility.’”

Dylan’s shifting sense of identity, says Cott, brings to mind “the Buddhist notion that the ego isn’t an entity but rather a process in time.” For most people, ‘Bob Dylan’ is a kind of ‘process in time’: a mutable blend of voices, songs, images, and cultural signifiers, refracted through their own personal tastes and worldview. Each Dylan fan’s conception of Bob Dylan is their own unique version, and they wouldn’t want it any other way. If what you’re looking for, however, is ‘the real Bob Dylan’, then there are worse places you could trawl for clues than his vast corpus of published interviews. You might not arrive at any very definite answers, but you are guaranteed to have an interesting journey. As Bob Dylan himself would say: “Good luck. I hope you make it.”

<< Back to Part Two: Poets Drown in Lakes

You Had To Ask Me (Part 2)

You Had To Ask Me Where It Was At: Bob Dylan & the Media

An exploration of Dylan’s media relations, as refracted through Rolling Stone’s anthology of ‘essential’ Dylan interviews and press conference transcripts.

by John Carvill

Part Two: Poets Drown in Lakes

What sort of cumulative impressions await the reader of a collection of Bob Dylan’s early interviews, magazine profiles, and press-conference transcripts? Well, it all depends on the granularity of your focus. Looking at the big picture, you cannot fail to be struck by their value as historical documents; and it’s hard to avoid feeling a certain amount of incredulity at just how out of touch the journalists were with the changing times they were meant to be reporting on. But there are also any number of minor revelations, one of which being that the degree to which Dylan could always be relied upon to be both evasive and aggressive, has been much exaggerated. In a New Yorker profile, Nat Hentoff manages to explode both sides of this myth in one short paragraph:

“Dylan came into the control room, smiling. Although he is fiercely accusatory toward society at large while his is performing, his most marked offstage characteristic is gentleness. He speaks swiftly but softly, and appears persistently anxious to make himself clear.”

Even when Dylan does lash out, any hostility is almost always leavened with his unique brand of wit. At the KQED press conference, in response to reporters’ attempts to ascribe a ‘meaning’ or a ‘message’ to Dylan’s lyrics, Dylan points out that words can have different meanings and that these are subjective. Why then, someone asks, does Dylan bother to write at all:

Q. “What do you bother to write the poetry for if we all get different images? If we don’t know what you’re talking about?”

A. “Because I’ve got nothing else to do, man!”

Both the question itself, and the way it’s delivered, are quite confrontational; but even though Dylan’s reply seems correspondingly antagonistic, the tone is still good-humoured, even self-deprecating. Perhaps sensing that Dylan doesn’t want to discuss what he is ‘saying’ in his songs, Ralph Gleason himself invites Dylan to comment on what he’d like to say that isn’t in his songs:

Gleason: Is there anything in addition to your songs, that you want to say to people?

Dylan: Good luck.

Gleason: You don’t say that in your songs anywhere, do you?

Dylan: Oh yes I do. Every song tails off with: good luck. I hope you make it.

Dylan’s lyrics, says Nat Hentoff, are “pungently idiomatic”; the same could be said of Dylan’s sense of humour. One of many striking facets of Dylan’s conversational style, which an anthology of interviews makes more readily apparent than ever, is his propensity for dispensing memorable aphorisms and apercus. He tells Hentoff that, “the word ‘message’ strikes me as having a hernia-like sound”, while “the word ‘protest’, I think, was made up for people undergoing surgery”. In an interview with Mikal Gilmore from 1986, Dylan discusses the critical view that his career is in decline, rejecting the suggestion that he has anything to prove, or has to live up to his own past achievements: “Besides, anything you want to do for posterity’s sake, you can just sing into a tape recorder and give it to your mother, you know?”

In conversation, as in song-writing, Dylan has an uncanny knack for le mot juste. Sometimes he even seems to be pulling a freshly minted neologism out of his hat. “Anybody that gets into politics is”, he warns Paul J Robbins, of the LA Free Press, in 1965, “a little greaky anyway.” The structure of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was, he tells Robert Shelton, “very vomitific”. The less he likes the turn a conversation is taking, the more acute and idiosyncratic Dylan’s humour seems to become. During the Playboy interview, he bridles at the idea of himself being regarded as a role model:

“I’m really not the right person to tramp around the country saving souls. I wouldn’t run over anybody that was lying in the street, and I certainly wouldn’t become a hangman. I wouldn’t think twice about giving a starving man a cigarette. But I’m not a shepherd. And I’m not about to save anybody from fate, which I know nothing about.”

Who else would have used the verb ‘to tramp’ there? It makes him sound like something out of a Dostoevsky novel.

If Dylan the Interview Gorgon is a myth reporters like to frighten their children with at night, an equally prevalent one has long been the supposed rarity of a Dylan interview. Michael Gray estimated that Dylan has given an average of one interview per month for the whole of his career, and “since the mid-1960s almost every one is published prefaced by the claim that it comes from a man who rarely gives interviews.” As well as giving the reader who is aware of this a wry smile every time it crops up – and it does – this also highlights the fact that in compiling this collection, the editors had a lot of raw material to choose from.

Which is where this book starts to run into trouble. In 2007, Columbia’s release of the latest, and most superfluous, in a long line of Dylan ‘best of’ collections – a 3 CD set thrillingly entitled ‘Dylan’ – provoked a chorus of well-deserved complaints, due to its unimaginative and unadventurous song selections. The problem is, Bob Dylan is an artist of such incredible range and depth that he’s really a genre unto himself. His back catalogue is brimming with so many masterpieces, and his career has encompassed so many phases, that he simply cannot be boiled down to one homogenous overview. If you’re putting together a Dylan compilation, there are dozens of songs that you cannot realistically opt to exclude; but the more of them you do include, the less space you have left to play with. It’s yet another indication of Dylan’s uniqueness that the same applies to his interviews, on a couple of levels. First off, there’re a lot of them to choose from; more problematically, many of the best ones will already be quite familiar to the core constituency of the book’s potential readership.

Jonathan Cott cites Virginia Woolf’s comment in ‘Orlando’ that “a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.” In Dylan’s case, it’s possible to identify a number of ways of categorising those teeming shoals of multifarious selves. One obvious distinction is between those ‘Dylans’ which are mere manifestations of one or other of Dylan’s ‘sides’ asserting itself (and are therefore in a state of almost perpetual flux), and those which are anchored in reasonably well-defined chronological segments of Dylan’s career. (This latter category includes the ‘Dylans’ depicted in Todd Haynes’s aptly titled film, ‘I’m Not There’, in which seven ‘Bob Dylans’ are played by a total of six actors.) If we drill down a bit further into this DNA of the Dylan mythology, we recognise that in terms of their respective impacts upon the pop-cultural gestalt, the subset of (historical) Dylans which roamed the Earth during the 1960s must be considered the most ‘essential’. So it’s natural for any anthology to give over a significant amount of space to what we might call the ‘canonical’ Dylan interviews; but there’s always a danger that in so doing, the compiler leaves himself little room for more left-field inclusions.

Another problem lies in the fact that it would not be hard to take the contrary view, i.e. to argue that as the decades rolled by, and Dylan’s critical and commercial clout declined, he actually became more, rather than less, interesting. In fact, once you start thinking in these terms, such an assertion begins to look irrefutable, if only because beneath the surface contours of each successive Dylan lies the palimpsest of all the preceding Dylans. In which case, this collection is balanced, to a large extent, in the wrong direction: of the 31 total pieces, twelve are from the 60′s, six from the 70′s, seven from the 80′s, four from the 90′s, and only two from this Millennium.

Dylan spent much of the Eighties and Nineties wandering in a sort of critical wilderness. The origins of this phenomenon are sufficiently complex and amorphous to defy any attempt at fixing a date to the moment the downward slide began. But any even halfway serious consideration of Dylan’s lost forgotten years would have to start with the trifecta of artistic and commercial disasters Dylan inflicted upon himself – and his audience – during the 1980s: (1) allowing his (frequently half-hearted) songs to be basted in a thick, gloopy syrup of instantly-dated Eighties production values; (2) embalming his heretofore incomparably fecund and unfettered imaginative artistry in po-faced, hair-shirted fundamentalist ‘Born Again’ Christianity; and (3) the gruesome spectacle of his anticlimactic on-stage implosion, in the drunken company of Rolling Stones Ron Wood and Keith Richards, in front of a worldwide TV audience numbering in the billions, at Live Aid in 1984.

If Dylan’s music became decidedly patchy during the 80’s, Dylan as a person was just as potentially interesting an interviewee as ever, if not more so, not just because he had instant access to all those still-fascinating earlier Dylans, but because of the particular nature of the volatile dynamic between Dylan and the media at the time. On one hand, certain segments of the media had changed since Dylan’s first encounters with the press in the early Sixties; or, rather, new segments had emerged which were (or aimed to be) more simpatico with Dylan – Rolling Stone magazine being a prime example. But when these people came to interview Dylan in the Eighties, they were shocked to discover that their musical, cultural, and political sensibilities – which Dylan had had a significant hand in forming – were jarringly incompatible with Dylan’s current worldview.

The ‘Dylan finds Jesus’ thing was not the whole story, by any means, but it was certainly at the heart of this problem. At the same time, given Dylan’s new-found, old-time religious fervour, and (what seemed to be) his concomitant swerve to the right politically, he might have seemed to be perfectly in synch with a decade in which America’s religious Right were very much in the ascendant. But anyone wanting to claim Dylan for their reactionary cause would have stood to have their hopes just as comprehensively dashed as those who expected him to still be flying the Sixties freak flag. What tied these two contradictory strands together – aside from the fact that neither latter-day hippie nor Reaganite Christer could count on Dylan’s support – was that once again Dylan found himself in the position of confounding all sides in a politically charged time, resenting and instinctively rejecting the idea that he might be taken as representative of, or even in tune with, the times.

The resultant misunderstandings and conflicts make for fascinating reading, and it’s a shame that so many Eighties interviews are conspicuously absent from this book. No collection of Dylan interviews is complete, surely, without the wonderfully frank and acerbic interview (fragmented though it may be) that Dylan gave to Cameron Crowe, for the Biograph box set booklet in 1985. Highlights include: Dylan letting off steam (somewhat disingenuously) about people who analyse his songs – “stupid and misleading jerks sometimes these interpreters are”; slamming pop stars who sell out to commercial interests: “You know things go better with Coke because Aretha Franklin told you so” (yes, this would become supremely ironic later, but that’s another story); and expressing his disaffection with the tenor of the times by predicting that future generations would look back upon the 1980s as “the decade of masturbation”. Most poignantly of all, he fulminates at length about the tendency of big business and the media to glom onto anything authentic or subversive, such as Rock ‘n’ Roll, in order to sanitise and neutralise it, to “choke-hold it and reduce it to silliness”:

“It’s like Lyndon Johnson saying ‘We shall overcome’ to a nation-wide audience, ridiculous… there’s an old saying, ‘If you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song’ and that’s pretty much still true.”

Was it a copyright issue, or just unfriendly rivalry, that excluded the fascinating interview Dylan did with ‘Spin’ magazine in 1985? Dylan treated Spin’s Scott Cohen to an amazing demonstration of his never-faltering ability to walk the finest of lines between sophistry and candour, between down-home folk wisdom and spaced-out kookiness, bemoaning media myths whilst simultaneously stoking their fires:

“A lot of people from the press want to talk to me, but they never do, and for some reason there’s this great mystery, if that’s what it is. They put it on me. It sells newspapers, I guess. News is a business. It really has nothing to do with me personally, so I really don’t keep up with it. When I think of mystery, I don’t think about myself. I think of the universe, like why does the moon rise when the sun falls? Caterpillars turn into butterflies? I really haven’t remained a recluse. I just haven’t talked to the press over the years because I’ve had to deal with personal things and usually they take priority over talking about myself. I stay out of sight if I can. Dealing with my own life takes priority over other people dealing with my life. I mean, for instance, if I got to get the landlord to fix the plumbing, or get some guy to put up money for a movie, or if I just feel I’m being treated unfairly, then I need to deal with this by myself and not blab it all over to the newspapers. Other people knowing about things confuses the situation, and I’m not prepared for that. I don’t like to talk about myself. The things I have to say about such things as ghetto bosses, salvation and sin, lust, murderers going free, and children without hope–messianic kingdom-type stuff, that sort of thing–people don’t like to print. Usually I don’t have any answers to the questions they would print, anyway.”

He also added a helpful extra layer of confusion to the already ambiguous sense of identity in ‘I & I’:

“It’s up to you to figure out who’s who. A lot of times it’s “you” talking to “you.” The “I,” like in “I and I,” also changes. It could be I, or it could be the “I” who created me. And also, it could be another person who’s saying “I.” When I say “I” right now, I don’t know who I’m talking about.”

And what’s with the blanket ban on anything from a little continent called ‘Europe’? (A note to pedants: no, a short telephone interview for ‘Guitar World’, reprinted in ‘Uncut’ magazine, doesn’t really count.) This anthology is unquestionably the poorer for omitting the fractious 1986 ‘Hearts of Fire’ Press Conference in London, where Dylan repeatedly skewers the unpleasantly relentless Philip Norman:

PN: Are you easily bored, Mr Dylan?

BD: I’m never bored!

PN: Have you any notion of how bored you’re gonna be doing this picture?

BD: Well… [grimace]… maybe you’ll be around.

To omit the ‘Hearts of Fire’ press conference may be regarded as a misfortune, but to ignore the associated BBC documentary, ‘Getting to Dylan’, begins to look like carelessness. Dylan unnerves the BBC’s interviewer, Christopher Sykes, by spending the entire meeting working on a pencil sketch of him – a perfect metaphor for the way Dylan is so determined to turn the interview dynamic on its head.

“Well, y’know, I’m not gonna say anything that you’re gonna get any revelations about…It’s not gonna happen,” he warns Sykes. But then he goes on to deliver a nifty little homily about his celebrity preventing him from being able to walk into an ordinary situation, like a pub at night, without his presence radically altering, and therefore excluding him from, its essential ordinariness. And how about this nugget of classic Dylan:

Sykes: We all have our favourite rebels I guess.

Dylan: Yeah! That must be it!

Sykes: Who do you admire?

Dylan: Who is there to admire now? Some world leader? Who? I could probably think of many people actually that I admire. There’s a guy who works in a gas station in LA – old guy. I truly admire that guy.

Sykes: What’s he done?

Dylan: What’s he done? He helped me fix my carburettor once.

Special mention is due, also, to a Sunday Times piece from 1984, which describes the obstacle course journalists often have to negotiate in order to secure a Dylan interview: “Meeting him involves penetrating a frustrating maze of ‘perhapses’ and ‘maybes’, of cautions and briefings – suggestive of dealing with fine porcelain.” Of course, we notice that in all such cases the journalist does eventually get his interview, and either he realises this all along, in which case he is having his readers on, or he has himself fallen for yet another Dylan media myth, one which Dylan himself consciously uses that journalist to help perpetuate.

If the tone of the Sunday Times piece is ever so slightly snide, it doesn’t wholly detract from Dylan’s intrinsic charm and intelligence, or prevent him from throwing out an indelible sound bite. Here’s Dylan, looking back on the 1960s, “with something approaching affection”:

“I mean, the Kennedys were great-looking people, man, they had style,” he smiles. “America is not like that anymore. But what happened, happened so fast that people are still trying to figure it out. The TV media wasn’t so big then. It’s like the only thing people knew was what they knew; then suddenly people were being told what to think, how to behave, there’s too much information. It just got suffocated. Like Woodstock – that wasn’t about anything. It was just a whole new market for tie-died t-shirts. It was about clothes. All those people are in computers now.” This was beyond him. he had never been good with numbers, and had no desire to stare at a screen. “I don’t feel obliged to keep up with the times. I’m not going to be here that long anyway. So I keep up with these times, then I gotta keep up with the 90s. Jesus, who’s got time to keep up with the times?”

Another English article which laments the precarious process of securing an audience with Dylan, is his 1989 ‘Q’ magazine interview, notable for having given birth to the phrase ‘Never-Ending Tour’ (though whether this now universally accepted term was coined by Dylan, as suggested in the piece, or by the journalist, Adrian Deevoy, is still disputed). In the run-up to the repeatedly-delayed meeting, Dylan’s manager warns Deevoy that Dylan doesn’t like publicity:

“He hates it. Doesn’t need it. He just turned down the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. He said they should get someone off the street and interview them about Bob Dylan. That’d be more interesting. They said, Great idea, Bob, but that won’t sell any magazines. He said, Exactly. Why should I prostitute myself to sell magazines for you?”

It’s great stuff, and all the better when you realise that all these stern warnings about Dylan’s refusal to play the media game are being issued in the context of Dylan preparing to do a cover story for a magazine.

The story of Dylan’s gradual fall from critical grace, and his wholly unexpected resurrection, will one day make for a fascinating book in its own right, perhaps entitled ‘That’s How It Is, When Things Disintegrate’. Many fans experienced an understandable degree of disenchantment with Dylan during the 1980s. After all, he seemed to be cheerfully abandoning many of the facets which had made him Dylan in the first place. But the obvious relish the media took in declaring him an irrelevancy simply reflected their delight that Dylan, whom they had landed many a body blow upon, yet had never quite managed to knock out, had now seemingly collapsed of his own accord. Seeing as he finally was down, they were determined to enjoy kicking him.

If Dylan’s wilderness years began gradually, the end of that era can be dated practically to the day, his Lazarene return heralded by the release of ‘Time Out of Mind’, in September 1997. Long-time Dylan fans watched, with a mixture of amusement and disgust, as the mainstream media executed a shamelessly abrupt volte-face. Suddenly, Dylan wasn’t a has-been any more! In fact, the media soon found themselves going to the other extreme, fostering a culture of unquestioning Dylan worship, meaning Dylan can now put out a relatively lacklustre album, such as ‘Modern Times’, and have it hailed as a masterpiece. This in itself has now given rise to a rash of articles in which critics decry other critics’ ridiculously uncritical Dylan fervour, all the while ignoring the fact that this is simply a result of the media’s own over-compensation for all those years they spent writing Dylan off. The extent to which Dylan himself must find all this amusing, is something we can only speculate about.

Dylan’s work having taken on a new lease of life, which he sustained and even surpassed on his next album, ‘Love & Theft’, his interviews also entered a new phase, becoming expansive and contemplative. Dylan’s old humour was intact, but in a new, mellower form. He now displayed a twinkly-eyed, wise old geezer-ish charm, and if he held any grudges over the shoddy treatment he’d routinely received from the press during the previous couple of decades, well, he was too polite to let it spoil the party.

It’s a great pity – which will perhaps be corrected in future editions – that Rolling Stone’s own 2006 Dylan cover story, beautifully written by the obviously Dylan-savvy Jonathan Lethem, was just too late to make the cut for inclusion here. Lethem’s piece begins with a classic Dylan line – “I don’t really have a herd of astrologers telling me what’s going to happen. I just make one move after the other, this leads to that” – and only gets better from there. We even get the marvellously self-reflexive spectacle of Dylan musing on Martin Scorsese’s ‘No Direction Home’ documentary, and its depiction of Dylan’s 1960s:

“You know, everybody makes a big deal about the Sixties. The Sixties, it’s like the Civil War days. But, I mean, you’re talking to a person who owns the Sixties. Did I ever want to acquire the Sixties? No. But I own the Sixties – who’s going to argue with me?”

We may well speculate that articles such as the ‘Spin’ piece, or some of the many missing British interviews, have been the victims of bias: pushed out to make room for more Rolling Stone pieces. Fair enough, but then why omit the short but significant David Fricke interview from 2001, in which Dylan explains why the original take of ‘Mississippi’ was held back from ‘Time Out Of Mind’:

Asked why he recut “Mississippi” for Love and Theft and produced the album himself, Dylan replies, “If you had heard the original recording, you’d see in a second. The song was pretty much laid out intact melodically, lyrically and structurally, but Lanois didn’t see it. Thought it was pedestrian. Took it down the Afro-polyrhythm route – multirhythm drumming, that sort of thing. Polyrhythm has its place, but it doesn’t work for knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism.

“Maybe we had worked too hard on other things, I can’t remember,” Dylan continues, “but Lanois can get passionate about what he feels to be true. He’s not above smashing guitars. I never cared about that unless it was one of mine. Things got contentious once in the parking lot. He tried to convince me that the song had to be ‘sexy, sexy and more sexy.’ I know about sexy, too.”

To mark the release of his 2001 album, ‘Love & Theft’ – which included a re-recorded version of ‘Mississippi’ – Dylan gave an utterly compelling, often hilarious press conference in Rome, probably his most enjoyable and illuminating post-millennial press encounter, inexplicably missing from Rolling Stone’s collection. One particularly piquant moment comes when neither Dylan nor the assembled journalists are able to fill in the blank in the following Dylan lyric:

“Inside the museums, [ ? ] goes up on trial”

Dylan refuses to accept one journalist’s insistent claim that the missing word is ‘history’, but is also unable to supply a correction. After a five minute break, during which both parties have been able to discover that the correct lyric was, in fact, “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial”, the journalist involved asks, “Isn’t it the same thing?” Dylan replies, “Similar. Similar.”

You could argue that space cannot be found for everything. But then again, there are a number of eyebrow-raising inclusions here. Two interviews by Karen Hughes is two too many; the best you could say about these is that one of them is very brief. Robert Hilburn, of the LA Times, is reliably uninspired, and it’s a shame that the book ends with one of his pieces, complete with risible section headings such as ‘His Constant Changes’ and ‘Exploring His Themes’, and in which Hilburn rehashes all the most well-worn nuggets of ancient Dylan history: is there a Dylan fan alive who needs to hear, ever again, the tale of Dylan’s pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie’s sickbed?

What’s worse is that Dylan is evidently quite comfortable with Hilburn, and would give some interesting answers, if only Hilburn would ask for them. Given the chance to discuss, in detail, that wild and woolly late-period Dylan classic, ‘Highlands’, and having suggested to Dylan that “there are a dozen lines in that song alone that it’d be interesting to have you talk about”, Hilburn alights on the one single line in the song, on the album – hell, maybe even in all of Dylan – that’s least in need of explanation, elucidation, elaboration or discussion of any kind:

“…how about the one with Neil Young? ‘I’m listening to Neil Young / I gotta turn up the sound / Someone’s always yelling, / Turn it down.’ Is that a tip of the hat or…?”

Some of the best moments here come when genuinely engaged interviewers get Dylan talking about a subject he actually feels like discussing, such as songwriting. One piece which certainly can lay uncontroversial claim to being ‘essential’, is Paul Zollo’s long, detailed Dylan interview, for ‘Song Talk’ magazine in 1991:

ST: Would it be okay with you if I mentioned some lines from your songs out of context to see what response you might have to them?

Dylan: Sure. You can name anything you want to name, man.

ST: “I stand here looking at your yellow railroad/in the ruins of your balcony… [from ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’].”

Dylan: Okay. That’s an old song. No, let’s say not even old. How old? Too old. It’s matured well. It’s like wine. Now, you know, look, that’s as complete as you can be. Every single letter in that line. It’s all true. On a literal and on an escapist level.

ST: And is it truth that adds so much resonance to it?

Dylan: Oh yeah, exactly. See, you can pull it apart and it’s like, “Yellow railroad?” Well, yeah. Yeah, yeah. All of it.

ST: “I was lying down in the reeds without any oxygen/I saw you in the wilderness among the men/I saw you drift into infinity and come back again…” [from "True Love Tends To Forget"].

Dylan: Those are probably lyrics left over from my songwriting days with Jacques Levy. To me, that’s what they sound like. Getting back to the yellow railroad, that could be from looking some place. Being a performer you travel the world. You’re not just looking off the same window everyday. You’re not just walking down the same old street. So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you. You don’t have to observe. It hits you. Like “yellow railroad” could have been a blinding day when the sun was bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind. These aren’t contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out. You know, if it’s in there it’s got to come out.

Notice the way Dylan goes back to fill in more detail about the yellow railroad. Who could ever have expected Dylan to talk so openly, so straightforwardly, and about such specific details? By engaging Dylan on a subject he is genuinely passionate about, and which won’t open him up to any potential labelling or categorization, Zollo elicits one of the frankest, most revealing discussions of song-writing Dylan has ever granted.

Conversely, by repeatedly hammering away at a subject Dylan most definitely does not want to be open or honest about, Kurt Loder gets a classic Dylan interview of quite a different kind, for Rolling Stone in 1984. The world was still reeling from the shock announcement that Bob Dylan had undergone a conversion to Born-again Christianity – an event which, in the eyes of many Dylan fans, still lacks a serious rival for ‘most embarrassing occurrence in the history of the known universe’ – and Dylan was in full Fire & Brimstone mode:

KL: Do you still hope for peace?

BD: There is not going to be any peace.

KL: You don’t think it’s worth working for?

BD: No, it’s just gonna be a false peace. You can reload your rifle, and that moment you’re reloading it, that’s peace. It may last for a few years.

Cheery stuff. As he’s wont to do when badgered about his political views, Dylan refuses to even admit that he has any. When the admirably tenacious Loder tries to pin Dylan down on the assumed metaphorical subject of ‘Neighborhood Bully’ – a strong candidate for the coveted position of ‘Dylan song most Dylan fans love to hate’ – Dylan refuses to admit that the song is in any way political, “because if it were, it would fall into a certain political party. If you’re talking about it as an Israeli political song – even if it is an Israeli political song – in Israel alone, there’s maybe twenty political parties. I don’t know where that would fall, which party.”

“Definition Destroys”, Dylan once announced. And one tactic he has refined to perfection over the years is pretending to be unable to define, within context, the meaning of everyday words. Like a threatened squid puffing out a defensive cloud of ink, when pestered with attempted discussion of uncomfortable subjects, Dylan retreats into a dense fog of semantics. Here he is, telling Christopher Sykes that there’s nothing ‘political’ about ‘Masters of War’:

“I don’t know if even ‘Masters of War’ is a political song. Politics of what? If there is such a thing as politics, what is it politics of? Is it spiritual politics? Automotive politics? Governmental politics? What kind of politics? Where does this word come from, politics? Is this a Greek word or what? What does it actually mean? Everybody uses it all the time. I don’t know what the fuck it means.”

The other ‘P’ word that sets Dylan’s evasiveness gland pumping is, of course, ‘poet’. Like the Bible which he has so frequently mined for phantasmagoric imagery, Dylan’s combined historical body of published conversation can almost always be relied upon to provide a conflicting statement for any given interview quotation. And probably no subject makes this clearer than the age-old question of whether Dylan is, or considers himself, a poet. His interviews are riddled with contradictory claims about the meaning of the word ‘poetry’, and whether or not it applies to what he does. Robert Shelton reports Dylan claiming to be a poet ‘first and foremost’, and also denying any connection with the concept of ‘poet’. Asked by Nora Ephron if he considers himself primarily a poet, Dylan replies, “No… That word doesn’t mean any more than the word ‘house’”. In Zollo’s Song Talk interview, Dylan lapses into a long reverie on the meaning of ‘poet’, mainly focusing on what a poet isn’t: “Poets don’t drive cars. Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA…” And when he starts in on what poets do do, it’s still in fairly negative terms:

Dylan: The world don’t need any more poems, it’s got Shakespeare. There’s enough of everything. You name it, there’s enough of it. There was too much of it with electricity, maybe, some people said that. Some people said the light bulb was going too far. Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code. And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings. Look at Keats’s life. Look at Jim Morrison, if you want to call him a poet. Look at him. Although, you know, some people say that he really is in the Andes.

Zollo: Do you think so?

Dylan: Well, it never crossed my mind to think one way or another about it, but you do hear that talk. Piggyback in the Andes. Riding a donkey.

Go to Part Three: I Don’t Do Interviews >>

<< Back to Part One: Who is Mr Jones?

You Had To Ask Me

You Had To Ask Me Where It Was At: Bob Dylan & the Media

An exploration of Dylan’s media relations, as refracted through Rolling Stone’s anthology of ‘essential’ Dylan interviews and press conference transcripts.

Part One: Who is Mr Jones?

“Dylan’s such a fucking maniac. Y’know, I’ve not said anything specifically, but I hope I’ve done something here to remind how intense he is, and how much that intensity has only been successfully revealed through abstract expressionism in rock’n'roll. I look at him and I don’t see a guy giving out leaflets, holding a banner. I see a machine gun.” 

- Patti Smith

“I and I
In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.
I and I
One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives.”

- Bob Dylan, ‘I and I’



Bob Dylan has always been a slippery devil. In his erudite, thought-provoking introduction to this chronological collection of interviews, Jonathan Cott provides an insightful exploration of Dylan’s “particulated (some might say self-splitting) nature”, reminding us that Dylan’s ‘chameleonic’ quality was apparent right from the start of his career, when he first began hawking his boho hobo schtick around Greenwich Village. Not only did the picaresque yarns he spun about his personal history keep changing, but Dylan even seemed to be capable of radically altering his physical appearance, like “the Greek sea deity Proteus, who in order to elude his pursuers continually shape-shifted from dragon to lion to fire to flood – uttering prophecies along the way”.

The word ‘sides’ comes up a lot when talking about Bob Dylan. Dylan’s old Woodstock friend Bernard Paturel – to whom Dylan had given a loosely specified job in order to prevent Paturel from having to go and work for IBM – summed up Dylan’s omnifaceted nature better than anyone before or since, with his ineffable aphorism, “There are so many sides to Bob Dylan, he’s round.” Patti Smith recalled how certain people or situations could “bring out that ‘Don’t Look Back’ side of Dylan. Dylan’s got that side still — it’s all stored up — he’s all those people, he’s still that guy, he hasn’t turned beautiful and gentle, he’s a real bastard — but that’s what I think is great, for his art”.

One of the people who could bring out that side of Dylan was fellow folksinger (and former friend) Phil Ochs. Patti Smith recalled the night of the party before Dylan’s Rolling Thunder troupe, which Ochs had pointedly not been invited to join, took to the road: “Bob wouldn’t talk to Phil Ochs. The two of them… it was like there was a noose in the middle of the room and they were circling around, trying to get each other to hang themselves.” Tragically, Ochs actually did eventually hang himself, not long after recording a monologue in which he imagined himself confronting Dylan and telling him, “You used to be a genius, now you’re just dogshit”.

The word ‘sides’ comes up a lot even when talking to Bob Dylan. “I didn’t want to be a political moralist”, Dylan has said, “There were people who just did that. Phil Ochs focused on political things, but there are many sides to us, and I wanted to follow them all. We can feel very generous one day and very selfish the next hour.”

It’s not much of a claim to say, of any artist, that they have a number of sides; in fact it would surely be hard to find a noteworthy artist who could be thought of as one-dimensional. But the word ‘sides’, in such a context, usually means aspects; in Dylan’s case, the word more pertinently connotes ‘sides’ as in warring factions, Dylan’s personality seeming sometimes to be almost entirely composed of contradictions, dualities, and dichotomies. And it’s tempting to speculate that Dylan’s flare-ups with Phil Ochs were intensified by the fact that Ochs himself personified the side of Dylan that a lot of fans wanted Dylan to be all the time: big-hearted and decent and fired up by social conscience and political commitment.

Robert Shelton – still, even after all these years, Dylan’s most credible biographer – recorded how “Dylan’s ambivalence has confounded everyone who has ever been close to him”, and remarked how it sometimes even confused Dylan: “I’m inconsistent, even to myself.” Dylan has ascribed this to his Gemini personality, which “forces me to extremes. I’m never really balanced in the middle.”

Questions of indistinct and conflicted identity permeate Dylan’s art, at a number of levels. In an abstract sense, they manifest themselves in terms of structure – the fragmented, almost cubist approach to narrative, and the sifting of first, second, and third persons in songs such as ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, for instance. But they’re also explicitly addressed in the lyrics. Dylan pointed Shelton to the wording of ‘Where Are You Tonight?’ – “I fought with my twin, that enemy within, ’til both of us fell by the way” – citing this as a nakedly autobiographical depiction of “the mortal battle with his alter ego”, explaining to Shelton that he felt he needed to win his own inner conflicts, in order to be able to take on the world: “If you deal with the enemy within, then no enemy without can stand a chance.”

Leonard Cohen likes to tell the story of Dylan asking him how long it had taken to write ‘Hallelujah’, Cohen saying it took him “the best part of two years.” In return, Cohen asked Dylan how long ‘I and I’ had taken him to write, to which Bob replied, “Oh, 15 minutes.” The customary pinch of salt notwithstanding, there’s a level of plausibility to the claim precisely because the song seems so compellingly bound up with what we know, or think we know, about Dylan.

These dualities and inner conflicts also crop up repeatedly in Dylan’s interviews, perhaps most intriguingly when Dylan is talking to Jonathan Cott, with whom he has an obvious rapport. Cott’s probing questions often bring out Dylan’s philosophical side, leading to fascinating ruminations on dreams, the subconscious, existentialism, and the nature of the self.

Sometimes Dylan backs off:

Didn’t Dylan think that a song like “Changing of the Guards” wakens in us the images of our subconscious? Certainly, I continued, songs such as that and “No Time to Think” suggested the idea of spirits manifesting their destiny as the dramatis personae of our dreams.

Dylan wasn’t too happy with the drift of the discussion and fell silent. “I guess,” I said, “there’s no point in asking a magician how he does his tricks.”

“Exactly!” Dylan responded cheerfully.

But Cott keeps on asking:

Q. A song like “No Time to Think” sounds like it comes from a very deep dream.

A. Maybe, because we’re all dreaming, and these songs come close to getting inside that dream. It’s all a dream anyway.

Q. As in a dream, lines from one song seem to connect with lines from another For example “I couldn’t tell her what my private thoughts were/But she had some way of finding them out” in “Where Are You Tonight?” and “The captain waits above the celebration/Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid” in “Changing of the Guards.”

A. I’m the first person who’ll put it to you and the last person who’ll explain it to you. Those questions can be answered dozens of different ways, and I’m sure they’re all legitimate. Everybody sees in the mirror what he sees — no two people see the same thing.

Q. In a song such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” and now “Where Are You Tonight?” and “No Time to Think,” you seem to tear away and remove the layers of social identity — burn away the “rinds” of received reality — and bring us back to the zero state.

A: That’s right. “Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt/You can give but you cannot receive.” Well, I said it.

Q: “I’ve seen you tell people who don’t know you that some other person standing nearby is you.”

A: “Well, sure, if some old fluff ball comes wandering in looking for the real Bob Dylan, I’ll direct him down the line, but I can’t be held responsible for that.”

Of course, the trail for ‘the real Bob Dylan’ went cold decades ago. By the time Dylan was finally brought to a (temporary) halt by the locked rear wheel of his Triumph motorcycle on that lonely Woodstock road, he had left scattered behind him the husks of too many ‘Bob Dylans’ for any biographer to track. In a strikingly insightful article for ‘Cheetah’ magazine in 1967, Ellen Willis wrote that in the aftermath of the crash, the confusion surrounding what might or might not have happened “was typical. Not since Rimbaud said ‘I is another’ has an artist been so obsessed with escaping identity”. That famous Rimbaud quotation is everywhere in Dylan studies. Cott proposes it as Dylan’s ‘modus vivendi’, and it’s no coincidence that when Todd Haynes was composing a one-page synopsis seeking Dylan’s approval for his Dylan biopic-of-sorts, ‘I’m Not There’, which pirouettes around the still-disputed motorbike crash, he began with that most Dylanic of Rimbaud quotations.

Willis pointed out that “Dylan’s refusal to be known is not simply a celebrity’s ploy, but a passion which has shaped his work”, noting that “Dylan as an identifiable persona has been disappearing into his songs, which is what he wants. This terrifies his audiences. They could accept a consistent image – roving minstrel, poet of alienation, spokesman for youth – in lieu of the ‘real’ Bob Dylan. But his progressive self-annihilation cannot be contained in a game of let’s pretend, and it conjures up nightmares of madness, mutilation, death.”

No segment of Dylan’s audience was more terrified of this unidentifiability than the media. Right from the start, the tweed-jacket-sporting, briar-pipe-puffing gentlemen of the press exhibited a twitchy ambivalence about the fact that Dylan’s single most distinguishing characteristic was his disinclination to display a single distinguishing characteristic. They routinely remarked upon the astonishing fact that ‘Mr Dylan’ could not be pigeon-holed, but they often seemed determined to try anyway, throwing labels at him in the hope that they might stick. Dylan, of course, always understood that once they get you neatly packed into a box, the next step is to close the lid.

As Dylan’s early press relations took shape, he unveiled an impressive armoury of standard interview tactics: evasion, equivocation, put-ons, half-truths, and outright lies. His flamboyant displays of verbal pugnacity suggested he could have been a great trial lawyer; even more remarkable, though, was the obvious relish he took in semantic gamesmanship – warping perceived meanings, blurring the line between literal and metaphorical, questioning the meaning of questions, and indulging in bouts of disingenuity and rhetorical sophistry that would be the envy of the slipperiest politician.

He’d often alternate, with dizzying speed, between responding to a specific question with an abstract, and answering a general question with something microcosmically particular. Now and again, he’d wheel out the ultimate weapon: spooling off into Dadaist, free-associative rambles. One of this collection’s cornerstones is the inscrutably hilarious interview Dylan gave to Nat Hentoff for Playboy magazine in 1966:

PLAYBOY: Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-
‘n’-roll route?

DYLAN: Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind 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 hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy – he ain’t so mild: He gives her the knife, and 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. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain’t much to look at, but who’s built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything’s going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?

PLAYBOY: And that’s how you became a rock-’n'-roll singer?

DYLAN: No, that’s how I got tuberculosis.

It might be tempting to nominate the Playboy interview for the coveted title of ‘quintessential 1960s Dylan press encounter’; but that honour surely should go to the transcript of the televised KQED San Francisco press conference from 1965. Dylan was in San Francisco to play a short (but spectacular) series of concerts, and had agreed to fly in a day early in order to appear at the press conference which Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph J Gleason had arranged for KQED-TV to broadcast live. Only six months or so after his infamous schism-generating electric performance at Newport, the 24 year old Dylan was beginning to take his final steps away from any semblance of a naturalistic interview persona. Dylan and the media, at that stage, were probably just about equally bemused by each other; throughout the conference, he and the assembled press circle each other like incompatible yet equally haughty families whose children have recently announced their shock engagement.

Many TV viewers were no doubt taken aback by Dylan’s behaviour when it was broadcast, but what seems most striking in retrospect is how the reporters behaved towards Dylan, treating him like a talking dog, or an alien recently beamed down to earth. In retrospect, this seems utterly bizarre, unless you read the transcript as documenting a set of modulating cultural forces. Like someone standing on the headland of the Skagen penninsula in Denmark, watching the crashing together of waves from two opposing seas, attendees of the press conference could witness countervailing historical currents swirling around on the surface of time. This wasn’t a simple case of ‘Dylan meets the Press’ – this was the end of an era.

It’s hard to select a favourite quotation from the KQED transcript, but in terms of its most representative moment, you’d be hard-pressed to pick anything better that this:

Q: “Mr Dylan, I know you dislike labels and probably rightfully so, but for those of us well over thirty, could you label yourself and perhaps tell us what your role is?”

A: “Well, I’d sort of label myself as ‘well under thirty’. And my role is to just, y’know, to just stay here as long as I can.”

This sort of exchange, as well as providing everybody present with a good laugh, became emblematic of the rapidly widening generational gap between those who were determined to prolong an earlier era, and those who were in the process of burying it. Dylan was writing the soundtrack to these historical changes, live, as they were happening; and that soundtrack was, in turn, coiling around on history and altering its course, accelerating its forward momentum, away from anything that mainstream American society could embrace, tolerate, or even recognise.

The nonconformist outlook reflected in Dylan’s early lyrics, coupled with his relentlessly irreverent demeanour, delivered a colossal thunderbolt of culture-shock to a mainstream media, and an American society, still heavily mired in the straight-laced, rigidly conservative mindset of the 1950′s. The stultifying inertia of the 50s was perfectly captured by novelist Thomas Pynchon – one of the very few countercultural figures with an even more prickly and pessimistic attitude to the press than Dylan – in the introduction to his short story collection ‘Slow Learner’:

“One year of those times was much like another. One of the most pernicious effects of the 50′s was to convince the people growing up during them that it would last forever. Until John Kennedy, then perceived as a congressional upstart with a strange haircut, began to get some attention, there was a lot of aimlessness going around.”

Depending on which side of that socio-cultural divide you were standing, Dylan could seem either dangerous or endangered, threatening or fragile, something like the James Dean and Marlon Brando figures he had idolised and identified with in his Minnesota youth. Pynchon and Dylan’s mutual friend Richard Farina – writer, singer, and husband to Joan Baez’s alluring younger sister Mimi – summed up this sense of vulnerability in an article for ‘Mademoiselle’ magazine in 1964, when he depicted a Berkeley concert audience anxiously awaiting Dylan’s arrival:

“They seemed, occasionally, to believe he might not actually come, that some malevolent force or organization would get in the way.” Not content with burning the candle at both ends, Dylan was “using a blowtorch on the middle,” and might not be around too much longer. “Catch him now, was the idea. Tomorrow he might be mangled on a motorcycle.”

At the KQED press conference, Dylan is asked what he thinks about Phil Ochs’s statement in a recent ‘Broadside’ magazine article, that “you have twisted so many people’s wigs that he feels it becomes increasingly dangerous for you to perform in public,” and Farina quotes Robert Shelton as warning that Dylan is “a moving target, and he’ll fascinate the people who try to shoot him down.” In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, which ramped up the paranoia levels of anyone already susceptible, Pynchon and Dylan included, Esquire magazine’s 1965 magazine cover – featuring an image of a hybrid human head, constructed using a quarter each of the faces of JFK, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, and Bob Dylan. Cheekily suggesting the crosshairs of a sniper rifle, the image only served to reinforce the idea that someone might literally shoot Dylan.

In any case, plenty of media figures were certainly out to metaphorically gun Dylan down. If press profiles of the 1960′s tended to alternate between two reductively extreme views of Dylan – he was either a prophet or a phoney – then Newsweek’s vicious 1963 ‘expose’ was definitely in the latter category. Newsweek gloatingly revealed that Dylan wasn’t the orphaned boxcar-rider he’d made out, but was, in shocking fact, a nice middle-class Midwestern Jewish boy named Zimmerman. Ridiculing Dylan’s lyrics as “simple words that pounce upon the obvious,” the article also implied that Dylan had not even written those simple words, gleefully repeating long-discredited rumours that he had purchased the lyrics to ‘Blowin in the Wind’ from a college classmate. On first reading the Newsweek article, Dylan reportedly exclaimed, “Man, they’re out to kill me!”

Dylan made his incendiary anger about this sort of thing explicit in a number of ways, from the reference to “the dirt of gossip” in ‘Restless Farewell’, to the dismissal of the media in ’11 outlined Epitaphs’: “your questions’re ridiculous, an’ most of your magizines’re also ridiculous”. And the side of Dylan Patti Smith was referring to – caustic, rebarbative, and snide – was on full display in a scene which became, for many, the defining image of the Dylan interview experience: the harangue he unleashes on hapless Time Magazine reporter Horace Judson in DA Pennebaker’s cinema verite masterpiece, ‘Don’t Look back’. Like the heads on spikes once displayed on the Gate House of London Bridge as a warning to other criminals, Dylan’s casual, even gratuitous evisceration of the ‘Time’ magazine stringer casts a baleful shadow over all subsequent press encounters.

It’s often seen as simply an ill-tempered rant, Dylan barely managing to keep a grip on himself as he informs the astonished hack that truth is “…a plain picture of, let’s say, a tramp vomiting, man, into the sewer”, and you can almost see the hair on Judson’s head being blown back by the gale force of Dylan’s vituperative outburst. But looked at dispassionately, behind the surreal vitriol there’s more than a grain of truth to what Dylan says, and who can argue with his assessment of the tenuous relationship between ‘Time’ magazine and the truth:

“If I want to find out anything I’m not going to read ‘Time’ magazine. I’m not gonna read ‘Newsweek’. I’m not gonna read any of these magazines, I mean, ’cause they just got too much to lose by printing the truth, you know that.”

That “you know that” is crucial. Pre-eminent Dylan critic Michael Gray has suggested, quite reasonably, that Dylan’s reaction to Judson is “in context, restrained,” and praised Dylan’s “earnest honesty”, asserting that Dylan’s treatment of Judson went “beyond dismissal and became a reaching out to the person inside the journalist: became Dylan trying to teach them something true.” Which would amount to a remarkable act of spiritual generosity on Dylan’s part, given that ‘Time’ had once described him as “a dime-store philosopher, a drugstore cowboy, a men’s room conversationalist”, and “the newest hero of an art which has made a fetish out of authenticity”. As if authenticity ought to be something for artists to shy away from.

If Dylan very quickly developed a skittish, mistrustful attitude to the media, albeit one tempered by the inevitable Dylan ambivalence, the press were even more suspicious and conflicted about him. It was painfully ironic that, in so spectacularly failing to understand him, the press often exhibited a bipolar attitude to Dylan, which in a sense mirrored Dylan’s own propensity for flipping from one extreme to another. The media seemed torrn between being awed by Dylan and condescending towards him; they mocked the idea that Dylan might have anything worthwhile to say, yet they expected him, even in casual conversation, to spontaneously Oraculate; and they were often convinced that there must be even more to Dylan than met their uncomprehending eye, some ‘philosophy’ or ‘meaning’ over and above what was presented to them on the surface. They didn’t know what to make of him, basically, and panic set in.

Thomas Pynchon recalled a similar sense of panic, suffered by those caught on the wrong side of the cultural ‘transition point’ which marked the arrival of Elvis Presley, who, prior to Dylan, had seemed the most alien and inexplicable figure ever to have coalesced out of the cultural ether: “‘What’s his message?’ they’d interrogate anxiously, ‘What does he want?’” The idea that Dylan must have some sort of ‘message’ was one on which the press seemed ineluctably fixated during the 1960s, and it’s significant that Dylan lays such disdainful emphasis on the ‘M’ word when he tells Horace Judson, “there’s no great ‘message’”.

The lines between Dylan the artist, and Dylan the interviewee, began to blur. To claim that Dylan revolutionised the ‘art’ of the celebrity interview in the same way as he tore apart the conventions of popular song craft, might be too simplistic a view to bear much analysis; but there’s no denying that Dylan turned his press encounters into acts of surreal performance art. This cut both ways: once Dylan began to be engulfed in fame and music industry machinations, Dylan the interviewee began to influence Dylan the artist, a process which reached its apotheosis when Dylan began including, in his songs, commentaries on fame and the other ostensibly unwelcome accoutrements of his success.

His mockery of the media and their quixotic quests for hidden meanings culminated in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, in which Dylan distilled the essence of his every negative media experience into one of his most exquisite character sketches, the perennially baffled figure of ‘Mr Jones’, whose name would forever stand as a metonym for journalistic cluelessness.

As if to prove Dylan’s point for him, every now and then a reporter would actually ask him right out, “Who is Mr Jones?” But for all Dylan’s legendary froideur towards pressmen and their inanities, he never has had the heart to give them the obvious, brutally truthful answer: “Ask not for whom ‘Mr Jones’ was written, my journalist friend; he was written for thee.”


>> Go to Part Two: Poets Drown in Lakes