Bob Dylan turned 65 on Wednesday to the strains of Forever Young, a song likely to be played by radio stations as if it were the national anthem. What did this symbolize? What were its ramifications? Will reaching that milestone have resonance for an entire generation?
This much is certain: He will hate hearing any of this stuff. "It's horrible," he told Playboy 40 years ago, on one of the countless occasions when he was asked if being a folk hero was a position of great responsibility. "I'll bet Tony Bennett doesn't have to go through this kind of thing. I wonder what Billy the Kid would have answered to such a question."
Billy the Kid didn't engage in a book's worth of verbal showdowns with the press. But Dylan has, and now those interviews have been invaluably collected. In an irresist-ible new anthology edited by Jonathan Cott, one of the original editors of Rolling Stone and arguably the most simpatico writer ever to converse with Dylan, the interview format remains eminently readable through more than 400 pages. And it yields far more than an extended conversation.
The mosaic of discussions found here (very first question: "Bob Dylan, you must be 20 years old now") is many things: biography, oral history, cultural time capsule, music lesson and psychodrama. It expands upon the mesmerizing portrait of Dylan that both his memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, and Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home have lately provided.
Arranged chronologically, these interviews vary wildly. That accounts for much of their cumulative appeal. A lot depends upon who was asking the questions and how combative or cooperative Dylan happened to be feeling. "What do you think of people who analyze your songs?" he was asked at his only televised full-length news conference, in 1965. "I welcome them -- with open arms," he replied, in much the same unwelcoming spirit on display in Don't Look Back, the 1967 documentary he subsequently renounced.
Sarcasm is an understandable response, given what he found himself up against. Here's another sampling of the same session: Does he prefer songs with messages, like Eve of Destruction? A. "Do I prefer that to what?" Q. "I don't know, but your songs are supposed to have a subtle message." A. "Subtle message???" Q. "Well, they're supposed to." A. "Where'd you hear that?" Q. "In a movie magazine." A. "Oh -- Oh God!"
Clearly, Dylan interviews are not entirely about their subject.
Questioners reveal much about themselves just by talking to him. Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone's editor, managed to inform readers that he slept stark naked and found more importance in his Dylan run-in than might have been warranted. ("It somehow seemed appropriate enough that Judy Garland's funeral coincided with the interview.")
Nat Hentoff, writing for Playboy, gives Dylan's speaking voice a suave vocabulary and syntax it doesn't have elsewhere and remarks that the singer's "tonsorial tastes are on the conservative side," compared with those of other male performers of the 1960s. "How do you feel about these far-out hair styles?" Hentoff wants to know.
Cott, whose own worshipful side emerged via Dylan ("his songs are miracles, his ways mysterious and unfathomable"), could easily have compiled a book's worth of comic absurdities. But he has sought and captured a broad spectrum of Dylan's thinking, and of others' efforts to engage him. The book finds the rising star visiting Kenyon College in 1964, in a precociously good school newspaper account written by the future film critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks. It views Dylan through the beady eyes of A. J. Weberman, who stalked Dylan, stole his garbage and treated him to the occasional political screed. "I went on & gave D a rap against Imperialism, Racism & Sexism (he didn't seem like he was listening)," Weberman declares.