Jonathan Cott (ed.) | Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews

The Essential Interviews effectively does the most important work a book on Dylan can do—namely, it lets him speak.



(Wenner; 440 pgs; $23.95)
No other artist this century has so completely stood in as the image of a generation as Bob Dylan. Moving from the certainty of vision in the political panorama of the ’60s to the unstable, quixotic, and self-contradicting voice of postmodern America, the Bob Dylan myth has seemingly never been crafted around the man himself, but as a mirror towards the tumult surrounding him. The continuing fascination with the life of Bob Dylan is an unmistakable signal that we still wish to believe in the singular icon. We insist on a heroic stance, grace, and glory, the American soldier returning home with a story, solitary auteur with a pure heart. The story is more central than the individual. Yet we’re not sure where our allegiance lies, Dylan or Zimmerman—the image written for us, or the kid from Hibbing, Minn.

Given the accumulating secondary sources on the man, we certainly don’t seem to believe him when he speaks. The common theme throughout The Essential Interviews is an incredulity of anything about Dylan other than his lyrics. Traces of anger, outrage, and abandonment surface throughout the interviews as Dylan continually refuses to be reducible to any ascribed role. Even in interviews—perhaps especially in interviews—Dylan is always in character. The aura of a New World prophet hangs around his life, although a part of him never entered the language game. He speaks as an outsider. In the interviews, he sometimes seems a stranger even to himself. If there is anything heroic in him, it is that he has retained a silence that only his music is able to express.

The paradox this career-spanning collection of interviews retains is how transparent Dylan is about the fact that he is playing a role. The Essential Interviews effectively does the most important work a book on Dylan can do—namely, it lets him speak. The bulk of books on Dylan carry the residue of an editorial gaze that seeks to simplify his contradictions and misdirections into a psychological analysis. Bob Dylan is not the man we say he is, nor is he the man he says he is. Bob Dylan is the accumulation of our myths sung back to us.

In one telling interview about songwriting, he says, “…talking to someone that ain’t there. That’s the best way. That’s the truest way. Then it just becomes a question of how heroic your speech is.” Bob Dylan was not just invented, he was twisted and rewritten, both by an adoring public and by the man absorbed into the character. He was scripted to take the heroic stance, to relay American Homeric Odysseys to a public that isn’t really there. The idea that takes shape over the course of the book is that, in fact, he is really writing to himself, Dylan to Zimmerman, and this overheard conversation tells us more than we can tell ourselves.

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