About the Author
Jonathan Cott is the author of sixteen books including DYLAN (a biography), CONVERSATIONS WITH GLENN GOULD, STOCKHAUSEN: CONVERSATIONS WITH THE COMPOSER, and BACK TO A SHADOW IN THE NIGHT: MUSIC WRITINGS AND INTERVIEWS - 1968-2001 and co-editor of THE BALLAD OF JOHN AND YOKO. He has been a contributing editor of ROLLING STONE magazine since its inception and has written for THE NEW YORK TIMES, PARABOLA, and THE NEW YORKER.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Bob Dylan Introduction
“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.”
—ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY, FLIGHT TO ARRAS
It may have been a slow time coming, but one day in 1960, when he was nineteen years old, Robert Allen Zimmerman of Duluth and Hibbing, Minnesota—the elder of two sons of Abraham and Beatrice Zimmerman—decided to make a name for himself, as well as a nascent identity, a self, and a fantasticated life story nearer to his heart’s desire. (This may have been a slow but not totally calculated decision: As he told People magazine in 1975, “I didn’t consciously pursue the Bob Dylan myth. It was given to me by God. Inspiration is what we’re looking for. You just have to be receptive to it.”)
“Bob Dylan,” he volunteered to his early interviewers, was raised in Gallup, New Mexico—he often said, “I don’t have a family, I’m all alone”—and was a child of the open road, having run away from home seven times—at ten, twelve, thirteen, fifteen, fifteen-and-a-half, seventeen, and eighteen. His peregrinations took him to North and South Dakota, Kansas, Texas, California (where at age ten, he claimed to have seen Woody Guthrie perform in Burbank), and even Mexico, thumbing rides and riding freight trains. “I danced my way from the Indian festivals in Gallup, New Mexico/To the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana,” he wrote in his early autobiographical sketch “My Life in a Stolen Moment.” He traveled with a carnival “off and on for six years,” he confided to the folksinger Cynthia Gooding in 1962. “I was clean-up boy. I was mainliner on the Ferris wheel. Do the shoreline thing. Use to do all kinds of stuff like that.” As he told the New York Herald Tribune in 1965, “My past is so complicated you wouldn’t believe it, man.”
His life story changed as he proceeded onward in his journey, as, remarkably, did his physiognomy and everyday 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—Bob Dylan, in his early days, had, according to the folksinger Eric von Schmidt, “the most incredible way of changing shape, changing size, changing looks. The whole time . . . he wore the same thing, his blue jeans and cap. And sometimes he would look big and muscular, and the next day he’d look like a little gnome, and one day he’d be kind of handsome and virile, and the following day he’d look like a thirteen-year-old child. It was really strange.” (One thinks of the advice once given by the ancient 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.”)
You would also never know what his voice was going to sound like. One of the other fascinating, if obvious, things about Bob Dylan’s chameleonic personality was the way the timbre of his voice would change from one record or period of his life to another—as if his voice, too, couldn’t stand having just one unvarying sound. When he first arrived in New York City, he was singing like a hillbilly, “like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire,” as someone remarked at the time. And as years went by, Dylan’s voice would veer from, in his words, “that thin . . . wild mercury sound . . . metallic and bright gold” of Blonde on Blonde (1966) to the insouciant country sound, which Dylan attributes to his having stopped smoking cigarettes, of Nashville Skyline (1969) to the openheartedness, gentleness, vulnerability, and anger of Blood on the Tracks (1975) to the haunting timbral admixture of sandpaper and sherry of Time Out of Mind (1997).
The French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s “I is another” became Dylan’s self-defining (selves-defining) modus vivendi. Reading a newspaper account of himself, he once remarked, “God, I’m glad I’m not me.” When asked by a reporter the reason for his wearing a wig and a fake beard at a 2003 Newport Folk Festival concert, Dylan replied, “Is that me who you saw up there?” In a 1977 interview I conducted with him about his film Renaldo and Clara, Dylan explained to me, “There’s Renaldo, there’s a guy in whiteface singing on the stage, and then there’s Ronnie Hawkins playing Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is listed in the credits as playing Renaldo, yet Ronnie Hawkins is listed as playing Bob Dylan.” “So Bob Dylan,” I surmised, “may or may not be in the film.” “Exactly.” “But Bob Dylan made the film.” “Bob Dylan didn’t make it,” he told me. “I made it.”
He even explored and confessed to the more particulated (some might say self-splitting) nature of his being. “Have you ever felt like a couple?” the playwright and actor Sam Shepard once asked him. “A couple?” Dylan responded. “You mean two? Yeah. All the time. Sometimes I feel like ten couples.” And as he informed Newsweek’s David Gates: “I don’t think I’m tangible to myself. I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It doesn’t even matter to me.” (One thinks of the Buddhist notion that the ego isn’t an entity but rather a process in time, as well as of 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.”)
Throughout his career he has played off his role of “Bob Dylan”—“I have my Bob Dylan mask on, I’m masquerading,” he told a Halloween concert audience in 1964—against the silent center of his inner life. At a 1986 press conference he said, “I’m only Bob Dylan when I have to be.” When asked who he was the rest of the time, he replied, “Myself.” In an interview with Clinton Heylin, Cesar Diaz, who spent five years working with Dylan as a guitar tech in almost daily proximity to him, said: “I’d been searching the same guy for years and years. I’d get a glimpse of the guy once in a while . . . . He actually put his cards down a couple of times . . . . You would have to be with him, and be there at that right moment when he just opens up and says, ‘Okay, I’m just Bob and Bob has no last name.’ ” And when the mask comes off, as it does in his astonishing song “Abandoned Love,” his life and his world become transparent both to himself and to us:
Everybody’s wearing a disguise
To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes
But me, I can’t cover what I am
Wherever the children go I’ll follow them.
The legendary American pianist William Kapell, who died at the age of thirty-one in a 1953 plane crash, once wrote to a friend: “The only moments I have when I play that are worth anything to me are when I can blissfully ignore the people I am supposed to be entertaining. No me; no silly public to amuse; only the heart and the soul, the world, the birds, storms, dreams, sadness, heavenly serenity. Then I am an artist worthy of the name . . . . Until it happens, or if it doesn’t happen, I am miserable.”
Like Kapell, Bob Dylan is one of a number of creative artists who has throughout his life been chary of courting and rewarding his fans’ sometimes fanatical adulation. As the psychologist Jeffrey Satinover presciently wrote: “Once the star is established, his fans will tear him to pieces should ever he fail to carry for them the projected childhood Self. A recent example from pop culture is the fans’ vituperative reaction to Bob Dylan’s unexpected changes of style. Once a narcissistic complementation has been set up between any leader and his following, he is as bound as they. The rigidity of the relationship and the strength of the forces maintaining the status quo stem from the mutual common individual fear of fragmentation.” His sense of other people’s “wanting my soul,” as he confessed to Nat Hentoff, has often encouraged Dylan to disappear into himself and to become a stranger to others (and perhaps sometimes to himself as well).
“A stranger in a strange land,” Bob Dylan calls himself in his song “You Changed My Life.” (An “equivocal stranger,” like Herman Melville’s Confidence Man.) Elusive, oblique, mercurial, and always in motion, he has resisted in both his life and his work being categorized, encapsulated, finalized, conventionalized, canonized, and deified. “Greed and lust I can understand,” he once said, “but I can’t understand the values of definition and confinement. Definition destroys.” He has therefore always been wary of being entrapped in the amber of interviewers’ idées fixes or projected fantasies about himself, of their attempt to pry into and unravel his private life, to murder and to dissect his creative processes.
In Inter Views, a fascinating book of conversations with Laura Pozzo, the imaginal psychologist James Hillman expresses his own distrust of the interview form in terms that Bob Dylan might well assent to: “Interviews belong to an ego genre: one ego asking another ego. So one thinks one has to proceed in terms of ‘I answer a question’ and ‘stick to the topic,’ ‘the given subject,’ and one tries to say it . . . you know, nicely, tightly, rationally. ‘Directed thinking’ it’s called in psychiatry. All ego. Now, the kind of psychology that I want to do is not addressed to the ego. It is to evoke imagination, it’s to be extremely complex, it’s to talk with emotion and from emotion and to emotion; so how can you, in an interview, bring in that complexity? How can you speak to the whole psyche at the same time?”
How does one, therefore, go about interviewing someone as mutable and multiple as Bob Dylan—a person who once sang, “Don’t ask me nothin’ about nothin’/I might just tell you the truth” (“Outlaw Blues”), someone who doesn’t give himself (or his self) up lightly?
Mikal Gilmore, who conducted five interviews with Dylan, comments: “His reputation precedes him, more than anybody I’ve ever encountered. And like so many others, I’ve seen varying documentations of what that reputation is based on. In his appearance in Don’t Look Back, he has a conversation with a young man who’s referred to as a science student, and he asks Dylan what’s his attitude when he first meets somebody, and Dylan says, ‘I don’t like them.’ And in that and other documentations both in film and on the page you expect someone who can be pretty sharp and acerbic. But in my initial meeting with him I was relieved early on in our conversation. There were moments when some of that pride and flair could rise up. But on that occasion he was generous and relaxed.
“The first time I talked to him was between the release of Infidels and Biograph when I was working at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. I was initially supposed to see him at his house out in Malibu, but he ended up just coming over to my apartment in West Hollywood. It was a nervous-making prospect having him visit me at my place. I anticipated an hour’s length conversation but he stayed for four or five hours, just sitting on my sofa. We had a couple of beers, and I found him amazingly gracious and relaxed, maybe because it was the change of environment that didn’t focus on his world so much—it may be that he might have been more guarded if someone came to his home. I talked to him several times after that over the years, and that was pretty much my experience except for one occasion when we got into an argument about something, but even then, at the end of that moment, he lapsed back into being the gracious host.
“I’ve always felt that there are parts of himself that he doesn’t give up easily, if at all, in an interview. I don’t think he gives it up even in Chronicles, which is an autobiography of the mind. There are parts of his experience and frame of mind that he doesn’t go into readily—he may eventually, though I don’t think he has yet. But it must not be easy facing questions asking you to analyze yourself and your work and how you’ve measured up in cultural expectations, because not only can that be so grueling personally, but it must take a toll on one’s will to be an artist.”
Robert Hilburn, who has interviewed Dylan ten times for The Los Angeles Times, remarks: “Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan were the two people I was most nervous about ever meeting because they were such heroes of mine. And I had seen Don’t Look Back and read about how he was difficult and mysterious and manipulative in interviews. So you bring a nervousness to an interview with him, thinking, My goodness, if I say the wrong thing we’re not going to connect. So I think the writer brings a lot of preconceptions to it that sometimes make it difficult to have a conversation with him.
“In his mind, he’s seen himself misused in the press, with people misunderstanding or trying to label and categorize him, so that he’s a little bit suspicious of the whole interview and media process. And if you come to him with a lot of nervousness, you can almost freeze as an interviewer. You really want to ask certain questions and your focus is on that. But Dylan will often reject those questions. And you have to step back and say, Okay, what does he want to talk about, and then let him find a comfort zone or a topic he’s happy with, and then keep going down that path. But as an interviewer you have to make that kind of transition. There’s a generosity and straightforwardness about him, and a hidden intelligence that you don’t often notice when you’re talking to him. You have to get back to the tape and listen to it when the interview is done to discover it because your nervousness has hidden it from you when you were speaking to him.
“He once told me that from his point of view the hard thing was that people often asked him questions he hadn’t ever thought about and wanted an answer right then. And he didn’t want to give a shallow reply, so sometimes he’d be hesitant or pause, and if he saw that there was no way to do it, he’d just want to move on to something else. A lot of times interviewers try to keep him on that question, and that’s why he sometimes starts playing games just to try to get past that.
“He also once told me that he doesn’t like interviews because he often didn’t know what he should say until he was driving away. So I mentioned to him that he could call me at the paper the next day if he thought of something. And so he did call—it was a Saturday—and he had a couple of things he had written down, like Johnny Carson jokes, and one of them was: ‘The country is so confused these days they don’t know whether to follow the president or the Green Bay Packers.’ So he’d thought about those lines and called back to say them for my article.
“If he can talk about things he feels comfortable about, you don’t need to pull or prod him, he’ll just start talking. You simply have to relax and let him take the reins a bit. The Don’t Look Back thing really does hang over him, but that’s not the way he always is. Sometimes you just want to give him a hug when he does feel comfortable and starts talking in a meaningful way. And I really treasure those moments and his warmth a lot.”
Those of us fortunate enough to have been invited to interview Bob Dylan were usually forewarned to expect a hyperequivocal, trickster-like character, someone ineluctably prone to caustic put-ons and put-downs. In fact, he is—as most of the interviews in this collection make clear—at once obviously reluctant, self-pr...
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