Essential Interviews, The
by Bob Dylan (more or less)
I approached this book as a big Bob Dylan fan (Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Planet Waves being my favorite albums) but as a relative novice of his personal life and development. In fact the majority of what I know of his personal life came from my viewing of (and subsequent research concerning) the recent movie “I’m Not There.” Long story short, I was aware of Dylan’s reputation as an enigma and intrigued by the possibility of dispelling some of the mystery.
There’s good news and bad news: this book does dispell a lot of the Dylan mystique, but it turns out that the self-concocted enigma was mostly smoke and mirrors hiding a pretty vacuous core.
Full disclosure: ever since I learned of Dylan’s abrupt turn to fundamentalist Christianity (again, from the movie “I’m Not There”) in the late 70’s, I had harbored misgivings about his integrity. It seems like those misgivings were mostly confirmed in these interviews. Dylan first comes off as a brilliant but obfuscating trickster. But then around the mid-70’s, particularly in the interviews concerning his movie “Renaldo and Clara,” he just seems full of you-know-what. These are followed by the bizarre articles from his born-again period, after which he just comes across as kind of burned out, until a revival around the Time Out of Mind release. The main impression I had from these later interviews was that he was pretty much just agreeing with whatever the interviewer posited, but dressing it up to seem like he was saying something original.
The exceptions are the ’97-and-after interviews, probably the most valuable of the book in terms of showing an honest Dylan making a sincere effort to explain himself; in fact, the two L.A. Times interviews with Robert Hillburn are probably the best in the entire book.
The grand impression I took away from the the collection was that Dylan started out following his passion (you don’t memorize Woody Guthrie’s entire catalog just to fit in), then created a mysterious persona to stand out from the crowd once he started writing his own songs. This takes brains, talent and ambition. Then he began repeating the facts of “Bob Dylan” and playing the character of “Bob Dylan” to the public so often that he gradually convinced himself that that was who he was. He developed a combative personality with the “Mr. Jones’s” of the world and played word games and riddles on anyone who asked him a legitimate question, mostly in order to hide the fact that he had no idea what he was talking about.
All the while, at least part of him remained cognizant of not actually being any of those things, creating a tension which ultimately escalated into his spiritual crisis of the late 70’s. In the aftermath of this episode, the early 80’s, it was pretty much too late to figure out who he actually was so he gave up trying, instead leaning on the persona that he had spent years cultivating so fastidiously, hoping that it would support him for as long as he needed it. That position became untenable in the mid-90’s when he finally gave in and stopped putting forth effort to nourish that persona, which is coincidentally when he started to produce his best music once more.
It is telling to me that Dylan is by far at his most earnest when he’s discussing a) Christianity and b) “Renaldo and Clara,” perhaps the only two ventures in which he ever fully invested himself, and both equally misguided. I plead guilty to charges of armchair psychology, but this smacks to me of someone who was always searching for fulfillment, never content with his own identity. Additionally, you have to feel a pretty spectacular void in order to turn to such a drastic solution as born-again Christianity.
This is further borne out just by looking at the “Renaldo” movie, which seems to be an amazingly narcissistic vanity project. It is basically a movie about “Bob Dylan” in which Bob, who may or may not be Bob (because there’s another guy playing “Bob Dylan” who’s not Bob), must decide between two beautiful goddesses who love him and are striving for his affection. This is a project that only could have been brought to fruition by someone with a complete cult of personality surrounding him. There is a palpable bitterness in his 11/16/78 Rolling Stone interview when Dylan expresses irritation at the unkind critics who would dare to not understand his movie. He even utters the cliché “I’d like to see any one of those assholes try and do what I do.” (p.265)
I used to think of Dylan as a chameleon, but now I think that maybe a mockingbird would be a better analogy. A chameleon tries to blend in, whereas a mockingbird succeeds by standing out, loudly imitating as many different birds as it can. Dylan is a beautiful mockingbird, perhaps the best and most amazing ever, but there is something sad and vaguely troubling about an organism whose strength lies in its ability to dress itself as something else. He essentially admits that he does this in his most recent interviews, where he talks blatantly about robbing melodies and snippets from other traditional songs.
Yet through all the BS, I don’t appreciate Dylan’s music any less. His songs, lyrics and melodies are unforgettable, even if nobody (including him) knows what they mean. In fact, I think he does himself and his fans a disservice by trying to explain any of them either to us or to himself. His music is most evocative on an instinctive, intuitive and archetypal level. Dylan himself admitted that his best writing occurs as inspiration, very quickly and without him actually knowing how he’s getting the idea.
Perhaps this is his strongest legacy: he is the best example of a well-oiled but ultimately empty funnel through which inspiration may flow in the most unimpeded way possible. I do not say this to belittle him; there is great value in such a talent. It’s songwriting on an instinctive level, and he’s the best at it. He is the artist who least gets in the way of the music he plucks from the ether. He is very much like Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter, or to a lesser extent The Band, in that ability to tap into the primal, ancient sensibilities that move us all.
It’s strange that my feelings while reading this book changed and adapted almost as often as did Dylan himself. Three quarters of the way through I found myself thinking poorly of the artist, just another pretentious dick. But at the end, post-’97, he genuinely seems to come to grips with his shortcomings and actually get past most of his earlier hang ups, something which is damn impressive to witness over the course of a handful of interviews and several years.