Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews
edited by jonathan cott
wenner, 464 pages, $23.95
No matter how many albums Bob Dylan keeps recording, he will always be an icon of the 1960s. Elvis Presley might have invented rock and roll, but Dylan infused it with a moral seriousness that, for better or worse, gave rock the cultural status it still enjoys to this day. With Elvis in the army and Buddy Holly dead in a plane crash, rock had degenerated by the end of the 1950s into teenybopper songs about puppy love. Dylan’s surreal lyrics and offbeat diction furnished rock with the pedigree of an art form. Above all, he was both a musical and a social revolutionary. He challenged the conservative consensus of the 1950s by giving a unique voice to the radical politics of the 1960s. With songs like “Masters of War,” he spoke truth to power, and with songs like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” he called for the liberation of personal behavior from traditional moral constraints. He knew the times were changing, and his music led the way.
At least that is what the scholars and journalists who grew up listening to Dylan want you to believe. By dominating the abundant secondary literature about Dylan, the survivors of the 1960s have a lot invested in the myth of Dylan as a man on the political and cultural Left. But to read the recently published volume Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews is to realize that this is not just off the mark-it’s off the wall. Dylan was more mysterious, private, and complex than the 1960s generation could fathom—and the humbling fact is that their greatest musical hero was not one of them.
The standard narrative of Dylan’s career is that he began as a protest singer, reinvented rock by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965, became a recluse after his 1966 motorcycle accident, fiddled around with country music in the early 1970s, burnt out in some of the greatest concerts ever in the mid-1970s, slipped into Christian fundamentalism in the late 1970s, and did not recover his musical senses until his blues-inspired Time Out of Mind, which won three Grammy Awards in 1998. The plot of this narrative is easily recognizable as an example of the great American success story: Dylan began in innocence and glory (his protest period), had a series of falls (first by selling out to commercialized rock, then by putting out some disappointing albums in the 1970s, and most drastically by reaching such a low point that he converted to born-again Christianity), and finally climbed back to the top by returning to his musical roots.
Everything about this narrative is wrong. Early in his career, Dylan was tagged with the burden of being the voice of his generation, but he was also known as a musician who fiercely guarded his creative independence. He could speak so deeply to his contemporaries because he was so out of step with them. Far from being a 1960s rebel, he rebelled against most of what that decade represented. He formed his musical ideas by listening to Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash.
He formed his political ideas before the rise of the modern conservative movement, but most of what he says in these interviews indicates conservative instincts. Of course, Dylan could be mischievously contrarian, but what stands out on these pages is the honesty and simplicity of his views.
Dylan established his reputation as a cantankerous interviewee in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back, which took a snapshot of Dylan trying to come to terms with his growing fame during his 1965 English tour.
Watching Dylan’s acerbic responses to dumb questions has all the fascination of a car wreck, but it is one thing when he jousts with journalists and quite another when he skewers an unsuspecting science student. Dylan could be cruel when he was bored or annoyed. He especially liked to play mind games with the unhip, and he resented being treated as an oracle. Don’t Look Back is the first great rock movie, but Dylan never liked it, perhaps because it shows him abusing his fame by mistreating his fans.
The answers he gives in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews are surprisingly sincere, although Dylan remains a master of innuendo and a magician of misdirection. He can do a verbal dance around questions he dislikes, much as he works his voice against the expected melody line of a song. The result is that these interviews tell us more about who Dylan is not than who he is, and who Dylan is not is a child of the 1960s.
In the very first interview in this collection, from 1962, Dylan was already denying that he was a folk singer. In the second interview, from 1963, he is already correcting misinterpretations of his songs. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is still interpreted to this day as a protest against the dangers of nuclear war.
The only thing Dylan is protesting at this point in his career is the leftist appropriation of his music: “No, no, it wasn’t atomic rain. Somebody else thought that too. It’s not atomic rain, it’s just hard rain. It’s not fallout rain, it isn’t that at all. I just mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen.” Dylan wrote a slew of meteorological meditations on the end of the world, beginning with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in 1962. Arguing that these songs are about politics is no better than claiming that they are about the weather.
Of course, most artists aim at a higher meaning than current events, but Dylan went out of his way to deny his political relevance. In a piece Nat Hentoff wrote in 1964, Dylan is caught complaining about the whole interview process. “I hate to say no, because, after all, these guys have a job to do. But it bugs me that the first question usually turns out to be, ‘Are you going down South to take part in any of the civil-rights projects?’” He goes on to call the NAACP “a bunch of old guys” who were “looking to use me for something.”
This comment could be dismissed as a youthful indiscretion if it were not so representative of Dylan’s attitude toward the Left. Hentoff is on hand when Dylan records “I Shall Be Free No. 10,” which is a humorous send-up of liberal hypocrisy: “Now I’m liberal, but to a degree / I want ev’rybody to be free / But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater / Move in next door and marry my daughter / You must think I’m crazy! / I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.”
Dylan was not interested in pointing his guitar-strumming fingers at anybody unless he could probe the delusions of utopian optimism. He tells Hentoff that “what’s wrong goes much deeper than the bomb.” He is interested in the verities of human nature, not the possibilities of social progress. “It’s like, when somebody wants to tell me what the ‘moral’ thing is to do, I want them to show me. If they have anything to say about morals, I want to know what it is they do.” He recounts for Hentoff the surreal story of his drunken acceptance speech for the Tom Paine Award, presented by New York’s Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. The people in attendance had “been all involved with the left in the 1930s, and now they were supporting civil-rights drives. That’s groovy, but they also had minks and jewels, and it was like they were giving money out of guilt.”
But hypocrisy was not their most grievous problem. These good leftists were helping blacks only because they first put blacks in a box labeled “victims.” Dylan refused to see African Americans in those terms. He understood that liberalism color-codes the social grid rather than turning a blind eye to skin color altogether. “Those people that night were actually getting me to look at colored people as colored people. I tell you, I’m never going to have anything to do with any political organization again in my life.” And he didn’t.
From 1962 to 2004—the years covered by this selection of interviews—Dylan’s weariness with the prospects for radical social change was remarkably consistent. In 1965, just as the 1960s were heating up, Dylan thought the most radical action was inaction. “I don’t know what you do, but all I can do is cast aside all the things not to do.” Dylan was suspicious of the utopian dreams of the political Left long before college campuses made those dreams their reality. As he put it to Hentoff in a 1966 Playboy interview, “I haven’t lost any interest in protest since then. I just didn’t have any interest in protest to begin with.” He did not put political messages in his songs in part because, as he stated in 1966, “You’ve got to respect other people’s right to also have a message themselves.” If people wanted a message from him, he fantasized about putting thirty Western Union boys in New York’s Town Hall.
One topic Dylan went out of his way to avoid discussing was the Vietnam War. In the Playboy interview, he came very close to dismissing the entire peace movement. “To say ‘cause of peace’ is just like saying ‘hunk of butter.’ I mean, how can you listen to anybody who wants you to believe he’s dedicated to the hunk and not to the butter?” Dylan’s image is peculiar but striking. In the name of peace, the anti-war movement wanted to force social change. By being organized and aggressive, they lost sight of the thing they most valued. He clearly had no sympathy for draft dodgers: “Burning draft cards isn’t going to end the war. It’s not even going to save any lives. If someone can feel more honest with himself by burning his draft card, then that’s great; but if he’s just going to feel more important because he does it, then that’s a drag.”
Dylan kept saying goodbye to the political Left, but they would not let him go. Perhaps there is no better evidence of the illusory nature of leftist ambitions in the 1960s than this strange insistence that Dylan was on their side. One interview stands out as a miniature masterpiece of miscommunication. In 1968 Dylan sat down with the editors of the left-wing folk magazine Sing Out! At one point, they proudly display their learning by telling Dylan that his songs are like Kafka’s parables. “Yes,” he politely responds, “but the only parables I know are the biblical parables.” They are surprised. “When did you read the Bible parables?” “I have always read the Bible,” answers Dylan, “though not necessarily always the parables.” They joke that Dylan does not seem to be the kind of person who picks up a Gideon Bible in a hotel room. “Well,” he says, wearily, “you never know.” They quickly change the subject to the influence of William Blake.
It gets weirder. The editors start pushing Dylan about the Vietnam War. Shouldn’t artists speak out against it? Dylan confuses them by saying, “I know some very good artists who are for the war.” They do not know what to make of this, so they clarify their question. They are asking about the artists who are against the war. “That’s like what I’m talking about; it’s for or against the war. That really doesn’t exist.” Dylan mentions a painter he knows who is for the war. They ask why he doesn’t argue with him. “I can see what goes on in his paintings, and why should I?” They press him, because they just cannot fathom that Dylan does not share their political views. Dylan finally backs away by saying, “Well, there’s nothing for us to talk about really.” After one last effort to make Dylan fit their preconception of him, Dylan states, “People just have their own views. Anyway, how do you know I’m not, as you say, for the war?” They leave this question unanswered.
Yet they have created this idol, and they think the least he can do is fulfill their expectations. So they remind Dylan that he is known for songs like “Masters of War.” In a courageous bit of self-analysis, Dylan tells them, “That was an easy thing to do. There were thousands and thousands of people just wanting that song, so I wrote it.”
While Dylan never wavered in his disdain for political activism—in 1978 he could state that he “always considered politics just part of the illusion”—he also never backed down from expressing an interest in God, the Bible, and the supernatural. In 1965, his interviewers did not know what to make of his comment that “classical gospel could be the next trend” and that he was interested in folk music because it is “full of legend, myth, Bible, and ghosts.” Knowing that he converted to Christianity at the end of 1978 makes the interview he gave earlier that year to Playboy especially poignant, because his confessional tone puts him on the edge of an anxious bench. When asked what he thinks people need, he brings up the idea of a spiritual crisis.
The interviewer, sensing that he has stumbled upon something of fundamental importance to Dylan, presses a line of questions about religion. Dylan clearly has been thinking about Jesus Christ. “Who does Christ become when he lives inside a certain person?” he muses aloud. “What would Christ be in this day and age if he came back?” The interviewer, a bit startled, reminds Dylan that he grew up Jewish. “I’ve never felt Jewish,” Dylan responds. He goes on to recall “seeing a Time magazine on an airplane a few years back and it had a big cover headline, ‘IS GOD DEAD?’ I mean, that was—would you think that was a responsible thing to do? . . . You know I think the country’s gone downhill since that day.” That is clearly too much for the interviewer to digest, but he keeps on this topic for a moment longer to ask about Dylan’s view of the afterlife. “You mean, what do I think is in the great unknown? [Pause] Sounds, echoes of laughter.”
Several of Dylan’s most revealing interviews about his conversion are not included here, but those the editor did include put to rest lingering suspicions (generated by the standard narrative of his career) that his Christian phase was out of sync with the rest of his life. Dylan started off singing about the end of the world, and he ended up adopting the theological beliefs that made sense of his musical prophesying. Some Dylan observers have noted that he stopped talking publicly about his faith by the end of the 1980s, and they infer that he now has none, but what is most remarkable is that a man this private spoke as much as he did about his religious experiences. By all indications, the natural process of spiritual maturation has led him beyond the initial enthusiasm and biblical literalism of his early Christian years, though one must always keep in mind that Dylan rejects the language of progress and improvement. “I never think in terms of growth,” he said in 1984, just as his immersion in the evangelical subculture was coming to an end.
That his faith has come close to turning into despair is the subject of Time Out of Mine, a dark and foreboding album that includes such lines as, “I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere, trying to get to heaven before they close the door.” As he explained in a 1997 interview, “I try to live within that line between despondency and hope. I’m suited to walk that line, right between the fire.” He confesses to an experience onstage at a concert in Locarno, Switzerland, where he was struck by the phrase “I’m determined to stand whether God will deliver me or not.” And he adds, “If we know anything about God, God is arbitrary. So people better be able to deal with that, too.” This album was his way of dealing with the divine hiddenness that is revealed only to those who have kept watch through the dark night of the soul.
Dylan has heard the rumors that some people think he is a conservative. When asked about this in 1986, he fell silent, mused for a moment, and then said, “Well, for me there is no Right and there is no Left. There’s truth and there’s untruth, y’know? There’s honesty, and there’s hypocrisy. Look in the Bible, you don’t see nothing about Right or Left. Other people might have other ideas about things, but I don’t, because I’m not that smart. I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that’s the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true.”
This is spoken like a Bible-thumper who believes that human nature never changes and that morality is a matter of personal integrity, not political revolution, and that people usually need to hear the very thing they most resist, which is to say, this is spoken like a true conservative.
Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence and Taking Religion to School.