On Dylan On Dylan

Dylan On Dylan, edited by Jonathan Cott

As an exercise once a year Georges Perec described the houses on the street he lived on as a child. He did this to compare how his memories and his expressions of them would change over the years, when he was in different places and at different ages.

This put me in mind of Bob Dylan in this collection of interviews spanning the years; from 1962, when he was 20 years old, to 2004 when he was 63. He’s consistently asked similar questions, such as what his influences were, how he feels about his songs and, from the late 60s onwards, he’s often asked about being seen as “the voice of  generation”. And obviously this changes as time goes on, a common thread running through his answers but different none the less.

Anyway, I wondered when I picked this book up in a second hand book shop in the Lake District on a particularly rainy Sunday, whether I would ever read it, let alone enjoy it. As any budding young muso has I’ve had my own “Dylan phase” but that was years ago, plus a book of interviews from a man who is a famously acerbic interviewee, wanting to reveal nothing, often offended by questions – that’s going to be pretty tedious, right?

Well, not for (supernerd) me it turns out. Firstly, I think (and so does the book, in case you’re worrying I’ll ever have an original opinion) Dylan’s reputation as being terrible to interview stems a lot from “Don’t Look Back”, when he is both a) being pissed off by facile questions about being a protest singer and b) being a 24 year old dick. But, as seen through these selected interviews, he can be funny and illuminating but, importantly, only on subjects he wishes to be. I think he sensibly does not see interviews as any kind of therapy, instead only revealing what he wishes to reveal. This is not to say he hates the interview process, obviously treating it as some type of game during the period covered here.

After a while I stopped thinking of this book as a collection of interviews, and more of a biography written in the eye of the storm, by  a multitude of people, pin-pointing Dylan at various points in his life without the benefit of hindsight – instead concentrating on the present at all points. It’s obviously not a diary, or a ‘tell-all’ – for example Dylan keeping variously a marriage, family and heroin habit secret during the time covered – and it’s not unbiased – some of the articles verge on sycophantic, talking about pieces of work that could be charitably called “not his best” – but it is a great snapshot of how the outside world viewed Dylan as he lived his life.

In terms of subjects covered I found a few things fascinating. Obviously in the 60s there was a lot of talk of why he didn’t align himself  more with political movements and why he didn’t sing protest songs anymore. Thinking about this after a while for me  it became a case of “well, why should he?” I don’t spend my whole life protesting, no matter how shitty the world is… but listening back to his first few albums you can see where these interviewers were coming from, full of incendiary protest songs as they are. Also, in a typically contrary measure, when people shut up about him protesting he wrote a few protest songs and started getting involved in Farm Aid.

I loved  the way he talks about his songs. It’s heart warming to see he never rejects his material, beloved by so many, as he changes styles (as might be expected) and as he gets older he talks of his awe at how he used to write. He does, however, refuse to be drawn into specifics about his songs instead talking more of a mood that may have inspired them or that he just channelled them from somewhere else, which to me makes sense: why kill the mystery of a song by going into specifics? Besides, he may not even know himself.

Another thing I enjoyed was the generosity and insight with which Dylan talked about other writers. He thinks Ray Davies is really great and wonders why people don’t ask him about Ray more. On Paul Simon he quite rightly points out that Simon has written some amazing songs and some bad ones too, “but hasn’t everyone?”

Some tidbits: Dylan thinks all of his albums sound pretty crappy; Dylan can spout gibberish with the best of them; when he started out he was asked why his “fans were all between 18 and 25”.

I also got to thinking if there was any body else I’d be interested in seeing given this type of treatment – and I struggled. Recently Haruki Murakami, someone I respect greatly and an esteemed polymath, has been giving a bevy of interviews promoting his latest novels… and if you’ve read one you’ve read them all. On the other side of the coin Noel Gallagher (not a hero of mine by any stretch of the imagination) is an undoubtedly great interviewee but I think a whole  book would fail to kepp my attention, no matter how many amusing soundbites it contained. In the middle of these two, Tom Waits, a hero, has actually had a similar book published; whilst he’s known as giving fantastic interview I’ve always found these a bit stagey, a bit too “look how interesting and strange I am”.

Finally, an answer is given as to why Bobby did the Victoria’s Secret advert in 2007…

From a televised press conference, KQED (San Francisco), December 3, 1965

If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?

Ladies garments

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