Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews

By Webb, Stephen H. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August/September 2006 | Go to article overview

Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews


Webb, Stephen H., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


It Ain't Me, Babe 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. …

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