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Knockin' on Dylan's door

Bob Dylan The Essential Interviews Edited by Jonathan Cott Wenner Books: 448 pp, $23.95

July 02, 2006|Jim Fusilli | Jim Fusilli, a music critic for the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio, is the author of the novels "Hard, Hard City," "Tribeca Blues" and "Closing Time."

IT'S best to begin "Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews" aware that many of its 31 entries, culled from Dylan's infrequent meetings with media over the last 44 years, were the result of the singer-songwriter and his people wanting to move product and sell tickets.

In 1978, "the inscrutably aloof" artist, as Nat Hentoff described him 12 years earlier in Playboy, emerged for his film "Renaldo and Clara" and album "Street Legal"; two years later, he spoke about his Christian-themed recording "Slow Train Coming"; in 1997, after recovering from a serious heart infection, he met with reporters to discuss the release of his "Time Out of Mind" album. But there's not a whit of promotional slickness in Dylan here, nor, thankfully, is he an ingratiating phony who pretends to be the interviewers' and, by extension, the readers' best bud. Most times, he's trying to make sense of a meeting arranged to sell something.

A great interviewer always trumps the artificial construct of the rock Q&A. We pray the journalist, as our advocate, understands that though he's in the room as a cog in the marketing machinery, he isn't obliged to check his guile at the door. Sure enough, several of these interviewers succeed in turning their time with Dylan into something valuable.

Though we wade through much gibberish and an occasional jolt of justification and sophistry, what's revealed in the best of these interviews is how thoroughly Dylan understands the essence of what he's accomplished. He readily promotes the idea that his greatest achievement is that he found a new way to write a popular song, creating a bold platform for his insight on life's vital matters. That's no small task; it's why Dylan and his admirable body of work will resonate 100 years from now when just about everyone else we listen to today will have been forgotten. This collection allows us to better understand how this now-65-year-old man has married poetic and novelistic points of view to rhythm and, in doing so, crafted plain-spoken songs that remain revealing and mysterious, quaint and penetrating, romantic and brutally disarming.

When an interview goes awry, Dylan tries to wrestle it back to the subject of his songwriting. Stupid questions -- a pretty good parlor game would be to rank the dumbest questions he was asked -- generate dismissive replies or nonsensical rants. He knows that his opinions about world affairs aren't extraordinary -- though, as his autobiography, "Chronicles, Volume One," demonstrated, his way with language makes him almost always entertaining. He also understands that his fans have invented their own personal Bob Dylan to satisfy their needs. "[N]o one cares to see it the way I'm seeing it now," he told photographer and writer John Cohen in a 1968 article for Sing Out! "I no longer have the capacity to feed this force which is needing all these songs."

That dovetails neatly into his view of celebrity and those who worship it: "[T]here's a certain crowd -- if you want to call it a crowd -- that would assume certain things about me or anybody which simply aren't true," he told Rolling Stone's Mikal Gilmore in 2001. Such "celebrity-minded" people, he said, "live in their own universe, and they try to project it outwardly, and it doesn't work. Usually, those people have a touch of insanity."

And so "Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews" shines when the interviewers probe him about his craft. "Songwriting, he finally realized, was what could set him apart," longtime L.A. Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote following a 2004 session with Dylan. He "had toyed with the idea earlier, but he felt he didn't have enough vocabulary or life experience." "Earlier" was 1960; by 1963, he had written "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Masters of War," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and other songs that drew from a familiar folk tradition but whose lyrics were forthright and obtuse, intimate and vast, and were delivered with rock 'n' roll urgency.

We learn again, as in "Chronicles" and last year's Dylan-approved Martin Scorsese documentary "No Direction Home," that Dylan understands there are artists who speak to the ages. In a 1978 Rolling Stone interview, he told Jonathan Cott (who edited this collection), "[Y]ou've got yesterday, today and tomorrow in the same room, and there's very little that you can't imagine not happening."

"[M]y songs speak volumes," he said to the New York Times' Jon Pareles 19 years later. "All I have to do is lay them down correctly, lyrically, and they'll do what they need to."

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