Rock & Roll Books

Summer reading

Rock & Roll Books

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews

edited by Jonathan Cott

Wenner Books, 447 pp., $23.95

For Bob Dylan at 65, The Essential Interviews surely ranks right up there as a worst nightmare: 31 handpicked instances of somebody catching him unaccompanied and on the record. Four decades' worth of outsmarting and being outsmarted, of connecting and misdirecting, all contextualized in a code-breaking foreword. "Throughout his career he has played off his role of 'Bob Dylan' ... against the silent center of his inner life," writes Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott. "Elusive, oblique, mercurial, and always in motion, he has resisted in both his life and work being categorized, encapsulated, finalized, conventionalized, canonized, and deified. ... How does one, therefore, go about interviewing someone as mutable and multiple ... a person who once sang 'Don't ask me nothin' about nothin'/I might just tell you the truth'?" Cott, whose 1978 discussions with Dylan rank as rare and worthy classics, tries on some of his subject's masks and gets a couple of great "how I got that story" responses out of the likes of Robert Hilburn and Mikal Gilmore – legendary Dylan tamers, both – before exploring the philosophical idea of interview itself, of how "glimpsing and sensing requires, on the part of both interviewer and interviewee, a delicate balance between 'seeing between' and 'seeing through,' ... between openness and a respect for the mysteries and boundaries of personality." In other words, while the interviewee's bizarrely paraphrased 1971 clash with Dylan Liberation Front Minister of Defense A.J. Weberman is included here, his awkward, ugly showdown with the unfortunate-for-so-many-reasons Time reporter in Don't Look Back isn't. Neither, sadly, is a press conference in Rome marking the release of 2001's Love and Theft, during which Dylan actually said "My songs are all singable." Not all of Cott's selections meet his own criteria – and he's left out a few that do – but there are revelatory stretches everywhere you look: John Cohen and Happy Traum's 1968 effort for Sing Out!, certainly, and Paul Zollo's measured and affectionate SongTalk piece. "That's another way of writing a song, of course," Dylan told Zollo in 1991. "Just talking to somebody that ain't there. That's the best way. That's the truest way."

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