Bob Dylan has always had a kind of love/hate relationship with journalists.
With some regularity he has spoken to reporters from the start of his career.
Robert Shelton helped Dylan get the attention of Columbia Records, and Nat Hentoff’s New Yorker profile in 1964 provided Dylan with the credibility one can only get by being profiled in that most esteemed publication.
It was the interview in “Don’t Look Back” that gave us the impression that Dylan disliked the press. But in fact, it’s to his advantage, when he can use the press to promote his latest project (album, film, book) he’ll talk to Rolling Stone or some other high profile outlet. And why not?
Perhaps the most outrageous and flat out amazing interview Dylan ever gave was when he spoke to Nat Hentoff in February 1966 for Playboy.
Here are some excerpts:
PLAYBOY: Do you feel that acquiring a combo and switching from folk to folkrock has improved you as a performer?
DYLAN: I’m not interested in myself as a performer. Performers are people who perform for other people. Unlike actors, I know what I’m saying. It’s very simple in my mind. It doesn’t matter what kind of audience reaction this whole thing gets. What happens on the stage is straight. It doesn’t expect any rewards or fines from any kind of outside agitators. It’s ultra-simple, and would exist whether anybody was looking or not.
As far as folk and folk-rock are concerned, it doesn’t matter what kind of nasty names people invent for the music. It could be called arsenic music, or perhaps Phaedra music. I don’t think that such a word as folk-rock has anything to do with it. And folk music is a word I can’t use. Folk music is a bunch of fat people. I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die. It’s all those paranoid people who think that someone’s going to come and take away their toilet paper – they’re going to die. Songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “I Love You, Porgy” – they’re not folk-music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead. Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact. I listen to the old ballads; but I wouldn’t go to a party and listen to the old ballads. I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad. It strikes me funny that people actually have the gall to think that I have some kind of fantastic imagination. It gets very lonesome. But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected. Nobody’s going to hurt it. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player. But like anything else in great demand, people try to own it. It has to do with a purity thing. I think its meaninglessness is holy. Everybody knows that I’m not a folk singer.
PLAYBOY: Some of your old fans would agree with you – and not in a complimentary vein – since your debut with the rock-‘n’-roll combo at last year’s Newport Folk Festival, where many of them booed you loudly for “selling out” to commercial pop tastes. The early Bob Dylan, they felt, was the “pure” Bob Dylan. How do you feel about it?
DYLAN: I was kind of stunned. But I can’t put anybody down for coming and booing: after all, they paid to get in. They could have been maybe a little guieter and not so persistent, though. There were a lot of old people there, too; lots of whole families had driven down from Vermont, lots of nurses and their parents, and well, like they just came to hear some relaxing hoedowns, you know, maybe an Indian polka or two. And just when everything’s going all right, here I come on, and the whole place turns into a beer factory. There were a lot of people there who were very pleased that I got booed. I saw them afterward. I do resent somewhat, though, that everybody that booed said they did it because they were old fans.
PLAYBOY: What about their charge that you vulgarized your natural gifts?
DYLAN: What can I say? I’d like to see one of these so-called fans. I’d like to have him blindfolded and brought to me. It’s like going out to the desert and screaming and then having little kids throw their sandbox at you. I’m only 24. These people that said this – were they Americans?
PLAYBOY: Americans or not, there were a lot of people who didn’t like your new sound. In view of tbis widespread negative reaction, do you think you may have made a mistake in changing your style?
DYLAN: A mistake is to commit a misunderstanding. There could be no such thing, anyway, as this action. Either people understand or they pretend to understand – or else they really don’t understand. What you’re speaking of here is doing wrong things for selfish reasons. I don’t know the word for that, unless it’s suicide. In any case, it has nothing to do with my music.
PLAYBOY: Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-‘n’-roll route?
DYLAN: Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a “before” in a Charles Atlas “before and after” ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy – he ain’t so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I’m in Omaha. It’s so cold there, by this time I’m robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain’t much to look at, but who’s built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything’s going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?
PLAYBOY: And that’s how you became a rock-‘n’-roll singer?
DYLAN: No, that’s how I got tuberculosis.
PLAYBOY: In their admiration for you, many young people have begun to imitate the way you dress – which one adult commentator has called “selfconsciously oddball and defiantly sloppy.” What’s your reaction to that kind of put-down?
DYLAN: Bullshit. Oh, such bullshit. I know the fellow that said that. He used to come around here and get beat up all the time. He better watch it; some people are after him. They’re going to strip him naked and stick him in Times Square. They’re going to tie him up, and also put a thermometer in his mouth. Those kind of morbid ideas and remarks are so petty – I mean there’s a war going on. People got rickets; everybody wants to start a riot; 40-year-old women are eating spinach by the carload; the doctors haven’t got a cure for cancer – and here’s some hillbilly talking about how he doesn’t like somebody’s clothes. Worse than hat, it gets printed and innocent people have to read it. This is a terrible thing. And he’s a terrible man. Obviously, he’s just living off the fat of himself, and he’s expecting his kids to take care of him. His kids probably listen to my records. Just because my clothes are too long, does that mean I’m unqualified for what I do?
PLAYBOY: No, but there are those who think it does – and many of them seem to feel the same way about your long hair. But compared with the shoulder-length coiffures worn by some of the male singing groups these days, your tonsorial tastes are on the conservative side. How do you feel about these far-out hair styles?
DYLAN: The thing that most people don’t realize is that it’s warmer to have long hair. Everybody wants to be warm. People with short hair freeze easily. Then they try to hide their coldness, and they get jealous of everybody that’s warm. Then they become either barbers or Congressmen. A lot of prison wardens have short hair. Have you ever noticed that Abraham Lincoln’s hair was much longer than John Wilkes Booth’s?
PLAYBOY: Do you think Lincoln wore his hair long to keep his head warm?
DYLAN: Actually, I think it was for medical reasons, which are none of my business. But I guess if you figure it out, you realize that all of one’s hair surrounds and lays on the brain inside your head. Mathematically speaking, the more of it you can get out of your head, the better. People who want free minds sometimes overlook the fact that you have to have an uncluttered brain. Obviously, if you get your hair on the outside of your head, your brain will be a little more freer. But all this talk about long hair is just a trick. It’s been thought up by men and women who look like cigars – the anti-happiness committee. They’re all freeloaders and cops. You can tell who they are: They’re always carrying calendars, guns or scissors. They’re all trying to get into your quicksand. They think you’ve got something. I don’t know why Abe Lincoln had long hair.
PLAYBOY: As a college dropout in your freshman year, you seem to take a dim view of schooling in general, whatever the subject.
DYLAN: I really don’t think about it.
PLAYBOY: Well, have you ever had any regrets about not completing college?
DYLAN: That would be ridiculous. Colleges are like old-age homes; except for the fact that more people die in colleges than in old-age homes, there’s really no difference. People have one great blessing – obscurity – and not really too many people are thankful for it. Everybody is always taught to be thankful for their food and clothes and things like that, but not to be thankful for their obscurity. Schools don’t teach that; they teach people to be rebels and lawyers. I’m not going to put down the teaching system; that would be too silly. It’s just that it really doesn’t have too much to teach. Colleges are part of the American institution; everybody respects them. They’re very rich and influential, but they have nothing to do with survival. Everybody knows that.
PLAYBOY: Would you advise young people to skip college, then?
DYLAN: I wouldn’t advise anybody to do anything. I certainly wouldn’t advise somebody not to go to college; I just wouldn’t pay his way through college.
PLAYBOY: Don’t you think the things one learns in college can help enrich one’s life?
DYLAN: I don’t think anything like that is going to enrich my life, no – not my life, anyway. Things are going to happen whether I know why they happen or not. It just gets more complicated when you stick yourself into it. You don’t find out why things move. You let them move; you watch them move; you stop them from moving: you start them moving. But you don’t sit around and try to figure out why there’s movement – unless, of course, you’re just an innocent moron, or some wise old Japanese man. Out of all the people who just lay around and ask “Why?”, how many do you figure really want to know?
PLAYBOY: Can you suggest a better use for the four years that would otherwise be spent in college?
DYLAN: Well, you could hang around in Italy; you could go to Mexico; you could become a dishwasher; you could even go to Arkansas. I don’t know; there are thousands of things to do and places to go. Everybody thinks that you have to bang your head against the wall, but it’s silly when you really think about it. I mean, here you have fantastic scientists working on ways to prolong human living, and then you have other people who take it for granted that you have to beat your head against the wall in order to be happy. You can’t take everything you don’t like as a personal insult. I guess you should go where your wants are bare, where you’re invisible and not needed.
PLAYBOY: Would you classify sex among your wants, wherever you go?
DYLAN: Sex is a temporary thing; sex isn’t love. You can get sex anywhere. If you’re looking for someone to love you, now that’s different. I guess you have to stay in college for that.
PLAYBOY: Since you didn’t stay in college, does that mean you haven’t found someone to love you?
DYLAN: Let’s go on to the next question.
PLAYBOY: Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
DYLAN: Well, I guess I’ve always wanted to be Anthony Quinn in “La Strada”. Not always – only for about six years now; it’s not one of those childhood-dream things. Oh, and come to think of it, I guess I’ve always wanted to be Brigitte Bardot, too; but I don’t really want to think about that too much.
For the whole interview, head here.
“Ballad of a Thin Man,” September 3, 1965, Hollywood Bowl, L.A.:
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