August 28, 2006

"The trouble with Elvis was that he had very little to say; he was mainly concerned about sounding polite."

So you wouldn't want to read a big book of Elvis interviews, quips Louis Menand, who's saying a big book of Dylan interviews isn't much better:
Dylan is rarely concerned about sounding polite, and he says things, but he sometimes makes them up. He also contradicts himself, answers questions with questions, rambles, gets hostile, goes laconic, and generally bewilders. What makes it truly frustrating is that, somewhere in the stream of inconsequence and obstreperousness, there are usually a few nuggets of gold. The nuggets make interviewers think that the other stuff must be a put-on, that Dylan could speak with the tongue of angels all the time if he wanted to, and this makes them press harder, hoping that the next question will break through the misdirection and resistance, and the man in front of them will turn into “Bob Dylan.” Since there is nothing Dylan likes less than being mistaken for “Bob Dylan” — “If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers,” he once said — this is not a productive interview dynamic.
(Yeah, 2 of 3 posts so far this morning are about Bob Dylan. I can't help what washes up with the tide any given morning.)


SippicanCottage said...

It's useful to read that snipppet from what's proffered as the example of a wholly unsatisfactory interview.

The interviewer has no idea what to ask him. They have an angle they wish to pursue and Bob's not buying. Each question begs a question and he refuses to reply in a way that skips over that. The hard news variety of questions like that begin: "Isn't it true..." or "Some people say..." Yeah, right. The interviewer's making a speech and using Dylan for a prop. So he refuses to cooperate.

Bob Dylan is a self-invented person. That's the rarest of things. Ask him about something he's interested in, and he'd answer you. He said something interesting last week and everybody did the same thing: took whatever they wanted out of it to paste on their own worldview. Pay attention, the man knows things about music.

He's not uninteresting, Mr. Interviewer, he's uninterested in you.

John Stodder said...

I always enjoyed reading the oh-so-serious interviews that writers like Jonathan Cott and Greil Marcus, and for that matter Jann Wenner, would publish in Rolling Stone. They wanted to discuss the fate of the world; he wanted to perform a comedy act while disabusing them of any notion that he was who they thought he was.

He explains what he was thinking in sections of Chronicles, Part 1, which is a worthwhile read. But at times in that book, too, he hauls out his straw boater and his cane.

Richard Dolan said...

A few weeks ago, I was watching a long retrospective on Dylan that was broadcast on the public TV station in NYC (Ch 13). As the film made clear, interviewers and others have been trying to put Dylan in a box of their making, not his, since he first came on the national scene with his protest songs in the early 60s. Lots of folks were bemoaning Dylan's turning his back on "the cause" -- always theirs, not his --as his music evolved away from protest songs in other musical directions. Sippican gets that exactly right.

It's interesting that this sort of thing happens mostly to pop singers who, for one reason or another, get anointed as rebels of some kind. I remember seeing attempts at interviewing the Beatles in the 1960s, where the interviewer was asking them about Vietnam, the riots in the US, and other social/political headlines of the day. Like Dylan, Lennon et al. would usually just swat the questions away.

In contrast, I've never read or heard of anyone doing that kind of "interview" with, say, Placido Domingo or Cecilia Bartoli. It's weird just trying to imagine an interview of Horowitz or Ashkenazy or Schwarzkopf, in which the interviewer would be pressing them for their views on social or political issues of interest to the interviewer but completely unrelated to the interviewee's music.

A pop star like Dylan may have attracted more of that sort of thing than others because of the content of his early protest songs. I'm sure that the general turmoil of the 60s added to it, just as it did for the Beatles. A few classical musicians sought to inject themselves into that turmoil -- Leonard Bernstein comes to mind. But I can't think of any classical musicians for whom there was this presumption that they ought to have something of interest to say on whatever social/political issues an interviewer might throw at them.

Perhaps it's just that those who normally interview classical musicians are, in a way, intimidated by the musician and so are more respectful and circumspect; whereas those who interviewed Dylan and the Beatles basically looked down on them in some way and couldn't quite take Dylan and the Beatles seriously.

Bruce Hayden said...

I have always found Elvis' politeness to be one of his more endearing traits. Here was the "King" showing a lot of southern curtesy. Probably his most famous line was "Thank you, very, very much", and you almost believed when you heard it that he meant it.

Of course, that doesn't end up yielding good interviews, but it is part of why I love him more now than ever.

JorgXMcKie said...

Well, even if you're a huge celebrity, did you really set out to be a 'celebrity' or did you just set out to do something you liked, or make a living or what?

Now, obviously, some celebrities *did* set out to do so, but for those who didn't (Elvis and Dylan appear to be among these) imagine having such prying into your life by interviewers. Or imagine them asking questions apparently designed to force you into some box in a social/cultural dispute.

Not only that, imagine that no matter how many times you've answered a question, either that interviewer or another wants to dig even deeper in an attempt to get something "new and newsworthy" i.e. to enhance their own reputation.

I'm frankly surprised that Dylan or someone doesn't punch one of these idiots out. Instead, they merely (looks to me) make fun of them by the way they do answer.

jim simonson said...

i've always thought of dylan as a vessel. so interviewing him is like mistaking the speaker for the sound emanating from it. there seems to be this obvious disconnect from dylan in performance and dylan during interview. this strengthens my argument. then again i am easily convinced by myself. i know all my weak points.