By Jeff Burger
Google “Bob Dylan rarely gives interviews” and you’ll discover dozens of articles that use that or a similar phrase—often in the introduction to a Dylan Q&A. Sometimes, as in a 1969 conversation with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, it is Dylan himself who proclaims, “I don’t give interviews.”
This has never been even close to the truth. Granted, there have been periods of several years when he has met with journalists rarely or not at all. He has also complained about talking to the media, loudly and frequently, saying, for example, that “if you give one magazine an interview, then the other magazine wants an interview . . . so pretty soon you’re in the interview business.” He has said that his words get twisted by journalists, and that “performers feel that . . . a lot of times that their points are not taken the right way or they feel imposed upon to answer questions that have really little to do with why they fill halls or sell records.”
But his complaints haven’t stopped him from talking. Dylan has given numerous press conferences; spoken at length with countless large and small print publications and with broadcast media around the world; and even answered listeners’ questions on call-in radio shows. There is far more Q&A material than any one book could accommodate.
Besides claiming that Dylan almost never grants interviews, journalists frequently say that when he does talk to them, he doesn’t reveal much. His responses “are often vague, mystical, or testy,” wrote Jon Bream in the Minneapolis StarTribune in 2013. He “has never spoken extensively about his early career,” proclaimed the BBC in 2003. In no interview, “from what I can tell, did he reveal anything of substance about his nonpublic life,” wrote Andrew Ferguson in London’s Weekly Standard magazine in 2016.
After reading this book—which includes dozens of Dylan’s most interesting interviews plus highlights from more than eighty other Q&As, encounters, and speeches—you’ll understand why journalists make such comments. Like the Beatles, who offered silly answers to silly queries about their hairstyles and similarly trivial matters early in their careers, Dylan can be as evasive and abstruse as he is witty. Sometimes—especially in interviews that contain preposterous questions—he can be cranky and sarcastic. But when he’s in the right mood, likes the interviewer, and hears intelligent questions, he often offers candid, revealing commentary about his groundbreaking music and creative process, and occasionally even about marriage, parenting, and other personal subjects.
You’ll find such interviews in the pages that follow, along with ones in which Dylan’s true feelings remain elusive, and I think you’ll agree that while the former kind shed the most light, the latter can be just as colorful and entertaining. Indeed, Dylan is one of a small number of popular music artists who are nearly always as fascinating in conversation as they are on record.
His Q&As are particularly valuable because they offer one of the few non-musical glimpses we have into the mind of one of the most important performers and songwriters of the last hundred years. He rarely talks to audiences in concert, and he has never produced a full and proper autobiography. There is, of course, the terrific Chronicles, Volume One. But that memoir isn’t nearly as confessional or wide-ranging as, say, Bruce Springsteen’s; and while Chronicles was supposed to be a three-book project, we have yet to see a sequel to volume one, which appeared well over a decade ago. Dylan was reportedly working on volume two as far back as 2008, so it could appear at any moment, maybe even before this book hits the stores. But even if it does, I suspect we’ll find in these interviews many otherwise unavailable clues to the man behind the music.
You have to read those clues carefully, though. Dylan said in 1986 that reporters sometimes “take quotations and turn things around and make you seem like a different kind of person . . . So you felt like you’d been suckered or something.” But sometimes the reader gets suckered, too. A writer named Eduardo Bueno filed a Dylan tour feature in 1991 and found later that an editor had tried to pass it off as an interview, using some quotes from earlier articles and some that the singer had never even uttered. Then there was the case of New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who resigned from that magazine in 2012 after admitting that he’d invented the Dylan quotes that appear in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works. (No, Jonah, that’s not how it works.)
Dylan himself often speaks honestly to the press, but he, too, has at times tried to fool the public. “The press, I figured, you lied to it,” he wrote in Chronicles, and some of the lies were big ones. The transcript of an ostensible 1965 press conference that appeared in the Village Voice was actually written by Dylan and the Voice’s J. R. Goddard. Dylan also told many tall tales about his teen years in early interviews. And when he didn’t like what a Playboy editor did to the transcript of his 1965 conversation with Nat Hentoff, he rejected Hentoff’s suggestion that he simply tell the magazine to cancel its publication of the interview. “I got a better idea,” Dylan reportedly said. “I’m gonna make one up.” And with some help from Hentoff, he did.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Burger. All rights reserved.