Sun, May 28, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Bob Dylan hits 65 and has the last word to write, sing and say

His lyrics and often combative manner have confounded analysts for years, but now a new collection of interviews puts the man behind the mic into perspective

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Among those who best subvert Dylan to their own purposes is Sam Shepard, who turns an interview into a two-man, one-act play. It is terse, playful and then abruptly confessional, with a fade-out at the finale. ("Bob stays still, staring off right.")

Here and elsewhere Cott identifies the major sea changes in Dylan's life via conversational format, without undue commentary. The book flags in overusing the interviewers' introductions, which rehash the same biographical details and voice-of-a-generation hyperbole.

In a book that extends from 1962 to 2004 (and shows that in September 2001 the voice of his generation was as speechless as any other), Dylan's assessments of his life and work are steadily illuminating. "There's just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them," he remarked in 1991. "And that might be all they have going for them. However, it's no small thing." Passages like that reaffirm an overriding certitude: Nobody can explain Dylan as well as he, when he cares to do it, can explain himself.

Which is not to say that many, many others do not try. Michael Gray, who has spent years trying to capture Dylan's lightning in a bottle, has produced Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (coming out in the middle of next month), a heavy, utterly idio-syncratic compendium. It's even up-to-date enough to make reference to The Essential Interviews and include a snarky reference to Cott. Among its many other categories: "book endorsements, unfortunate," "blues, inequality of reward in," "co-option of real music by advertising, the," "radical political activity in 1960s-70s US, the strange disappearance of" and "repertoire, Dylan's early, unsuited to commercial radio."

The many entries on individual songs and performers are arbitrary in their length. Sometimes they are Webermanesque in their fury. Under the heading "interviews and the myth of their rarity," Gray assails the claim by Cott and many others that Dylan is any sort of sphinx. According to Gray, Dylan has been averaging an interview a month for four and a half decades.

Neither book performs what would have been a vital function: providing annotations that refer back to Dylan's versions of events in Chronicles. (Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiehl, the New York couple who supposedly made the young Dylan their houseguest amid a cornucopia of wonders, remain elusive in the extreme.) The facts of Dylan's life exist in many variations, and Chronicles tried to correct the record. If he had to be pigeonholed as the voice of a generation, surely he is entitled to the last word.

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