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Revisiting classic Playboy interviews with e-books

The Reading Life

September 06, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Cover of "Miles Davis: The Playboy Interview" e-book.
Cover of "Miles Davis: The Playboy Interview" e-book. (Playboy )

This post has been corrected. See the note below.

The announcement this week that Playboy is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Playboy Interview with a 50-interviews-in-50-days e-book series sent me back to my bookshelves, where I’ve kept a copy G. Barry Golson’s “The Playboy Interview” for 30 years.

Golson’s book, which I bought in college, collected the most prominent interviews of Playboy’s first two decades, including in-depth conversations with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Jimmy Hoffa, Miles Davis, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Jimmy Carter, who during the 1976 presidential campaign famously admitted that he had “committed adultery in my heart.”

All these interviews (with the exception of Hoffa and Malcolm X, and you have to wonder why they’re missing) appear as part of the e-book series, which is an attempt to bring the magazine into the digital age. Playboy, after all, is very much a product of a certain moment: the 1950s, when beneath the scrim of buttoned-down suburbia, of middle-class conformity, a more roiling sense of liberation (cultural, political, sexual) was beginning to assert itself.

For Hugh Hefner, who founded the magazine in 1954, the intention was to create a unified “philosophy,” to combine somehow the physical with the intellectual, to find a balance between the body and the soul.

This was always the silliest part of the Playboy zeitgeist — all those articles on fine living, wrapped around the pinup pictures. And yet it’s undeniable that over the years the magazine has fulfilled its mission, publishing writers from Arthur C. Clarke to Marshall McLuhan, serving (or aspiring to serve) as a caldron in which to stir up new ideas.

The Playboy interview was a key part of this, as important as the Rolling Stone interview or the Paris Review Writers at Work series in teaching me the art of the Q&A. Playboy interviews were (and remain) open-ended, sprawling, a kind of "Charlie Rose Show" of the printed page.

As the new e-books show, subjects have come from all across the cultural spectrum: entertainment, politics, literature. On Oct. 8, the series will reprint a 1990 interview with Stephen Hawking; two days later, a 1964 discussion between futurist Alvin Toffler and Ayn Rand.

I have my own favorites in this bunch: Alex Haley’s 1962 interview with Miles Davis, which kicked off the series on Tuesday, and Haley’s conversation with the Rev. King from January 1965, which is republished today.

But the two I most look forward to revisiting are those with Carter and John and Yoko, which I remember reading back in the day. The first was stunningly candid even in its moment, although now it seems the stuff of science fiction, in an election season so micromanaged that the candidates appear as airbrushed bloodless as a Playboy centerfold. (It will be available on Election Day.)

The latter is a model — not just of the Playboy interview but of interviews in general: opinionated, engaged, reflective, in which Lennon goes back over his career song by song, talking about the joys and frustrations of working with the Beatles, his years away from the public and his return to the recording life. Originally published in January 1981, just a month after his murder, it is another piece that seems profoundly rooted in its moment, a reminder (among other things) of everything we had lost.

But the beauty of these interviews is the way they linger, the way that, over time, they come to take on different resonances, different meanings — which is, of course, the very thing that makes them art.

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[Updated, 3:24 p.m., Sept. 6: It is not the 50th anniversary of Playboy, but of the Playboy interview. Initially this post said it was the 50th anniversary of Playboy.]

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