Free to Absurd

Nat Hentoff on interviewing Bob Dylan
By Jayson Whitehead

Nat Hentoff was a music critic for The New Yorker when he was asked by Columbia Records producer John Hammond to write the liner notes for Bob Dylan's 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. As published, the notes were a song-by-song description, with comments provided by the songwriter himself that Hentoff gathered in a phone conversation with the then 21-year-old Dylan. Hentoff concluded the liner notes with particularly flattering praise: "It is this continuing explosion of a total individual, a young man growing free rather than absurd, that makes Bob Dylan so powerful and so personal and so important a singer."

Hentoff next caught up with Dylan for a feature for The New Yorker, attending the June 9, 1964 recording of his fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. In addition to providing a fascinating portrait of the emerging recording artist, Hentoff also talked at length with the now 23-year-old singer about his recent shift away from so-called protest songs. "I looked around and saw all these people pointing fingers at the bomb. But the bomb is getting boring, because what's wrong goes much deeper than the bomb," he told Hentoff over a bottle of Beaujolais. "What's wrong is how few people are free. Most people walking around are tied down to something that doesn't let them really speak, so they just add their confusion to the mess. I mean, they have some vested interest in the way things are now. Me, I'm cool."

Dylan and Hentoff both lived in the Village at the time (as Hentoff still does), and the writer recalls being peppered by Dylan about the publication date of the first feature article to be centered on the performer. "He would stop me in the street and ask me, 'When is it coming out? When is it coming out?'"

A year and a half later, Hentoff showed up at Columbia Records to interview Dylan again, this time for Playboy magazine (published March 1966). The result was anything but straightforward. This was a typical exchange.

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.

It was the comic hipster Dylan, hurling non-sequiturs and playing with images as he did in his songs. If you could follow them, there was some meaning down there somewhere, at least some of the time. After that surrealistic, elusive exchange (altogether over 7,000 words!), Hentoff and Dylan lost contact and it was the last time Hentoff would interview the songwriter. Recently published in Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, the profile from The New Yorker and the Playboy interview are emblematic of an artist at perhaps his most creative. Gadfly recently spoke with Hentoff, who graciously took a break from his busy schedule writing for the Village Voice and USA Today (among others) to talk about his conversations with Dylan.

Gadfly: Do you remember the first time you met Dylan and saw him perform?

Nat Hentoff: The first time I saw him perform was not long after he came to New York. He used to work at a place called Gerdes Folk City that was around the corner from where we lived. I was writing a lot about folk music at the time and wasn't much impressed with his guitar playing or, for that matter, his voice, but the lyrics really got to me. I knew he was a disciple, to say the least, of Woody Guthrie, but he also had a kind of presence that was interesting. At one point, John Hammond—who brought him to Columbia and who I knew—called me up and said, "I know you have a lot of recordings, but go down the pile and make sure you find the Bob Dylan ones." So then I paid even more attention to his music and was able to listen to it more carefully. Then when I was asked to do the liner notes for his second album, we were able to talk. I always do liner notes based on what the musicians say.

Gadfly: One of the most enduring moments of the Freewheelin' liner notes comes when Dylan says, "I don't carry myself yet the way Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday..."

NH: I think what he meant by that, and I can only speculate, is that these were people who had been around a long time, on the road a long time, had been through a lot. So he hasn't had the life experience—like the people he just named—that you can tell just by the way they stand or move.

Gadfly: Then you covered the recording session for Another Side of Bob Dylan for The New Yorker. One of the things that really stands out about that article is Dylan consciously saying he was moving away from "finger-pointing songs."

NH: There was a notorious occasion where he was being honored with the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. That is what he said at the time, and people were furious at him. But that was nothing new—he had mentioned that to me a couple of times. It's interesting because I still think he can be very elliptical. I am sure you have read Chronicles, Volume One. I am no expert of his collected works, but I think that's pretty much the authentic Bob Dylan. When he was coming up and conscious of the media, it was hard for me to tell. But I think he really was honest when he realized he had become the spokesperson for this anti-war movement, and he's not comfortable being a spokesperson. He is not political in the sense that he sees himself as a political figure. He sees himself as a composer and as a singer and an artist, if you like.

Gadfly: Did you understand his frustration and wanting to move away from the finger-pointing songs?

NH: Well, it was very clear to me, and he said it with some passion. Another part of that interview that was very interesting was that The New Yorker magazine—and I was there for over 25 years eventually—has a legendary fact-checking department. I don't know how this one slipped by, but he told me in the interview that he had run away from home and that he went on the road with Big Joe Williams, the blues singer. But he never did that.

Gadfly: He tells you some really far-fetched stuff about his youth for the Freewheelin' liner notes as well.

NH: At the time, I had no way of knowing that he would do that. But that was part of his whole thing when he was getting known and in a sense inventing himself and reinventing himself, depending on what he thought at the moment would catch people's attention.

Gadfly: I want to read you a sentence from The New Yorker article. You wrote: "His songs sound as if they were being created out of oral street history rather than carefully written in tranquility." What did you mean by that?

NH: What I meant was obviously what I felt at the time, and that has been borne out. He really depends on his ear and what he hears on the street or anywhere else. He is like very good country music writers in that. I would have put it in more idiomatic language now, but that stands up, I think.

Gadfly: You also wrote, "Dylan's sound and beat are of the past, the gestalt is anachronistic."

NH: I don't think I meant it pejoratively. I meant that he comes out of an older tradition like Guthrie and all those people. In other words, he wasn't trying to be hip at the time or fashionable or whatever. He had his particular principles, and that's what he stood by. Of course, he would change them as time went on.

Gadfly: I also wanted to ask you about the Playboy interview.

NH: Now what happened there was—I don't know about it now—but the rule at that time of Playboy was after you submitted the interview and they edited it, it was then shown to the person who was being interviewed, which was a bad idea. I don't know why I went along with it, but what we had done was a very conventional interview at the studios of Columbia Records. Dylan was polite and all that, but not much was happening in the interview. Then I got a call one Saturday morning. It was Dylan, and he said, "I saw what they did to that interview, and they had me say things I never said." So I said, "Okay, that's simple. You just call them up and tell them you won't permit them to run the interview." And he said, "No, we are going to do another one right now." I didn't have a tape recorder handy so for the next hour or so I practically wrote my hand off. And the rest of it was entirely composed spontaneously by Dylan. All I was doing was being the straight man so I would ask very ordinary questions and he would go off into these—I must say—very imaginative, surrealistic answers in many parts.

Gadfly: You were in a unique position to be an eyewitness of Dylan from Freewheelin' through Highway 61 Revisited. Were you conscious that you were witnessing a great artistic awakening?

NH: I've interviewed Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. I recognize Dylan's singularity, and I rather like the guy. I'm glad to see he is still around, and I was impressed with Chronicles. But by my criteria—which are personal and subjective—he is not of the stature of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane. So it wasn't that awesome for me to be writing about him. When I was a kid and the Ellington band played at a movie theater in Boston where I grew up and I saw Johnny Hodges, the alto saxophonist, going through the door, I was so awestruck I couldn't even speak. Everybody has their own list of preferences.

Gadfly: Do you still follow Dylan's music?

NH: No. I have heard a little of the new album, but I am not competent to comment on it because I am so overwhelmed with my day job. The only music I keep up with in any kind of intense, continuing way is jazz and some forms of country music.

Gadfly: From what you have heard in the last five or six years, do you think Dylan has fulfilled that ambition to carry himself like Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie and Lightnin' Hopkins did?

NH: You know, from what I've heard—which admittedly is fragmentary—I think he has achieved that by his persona and the way that reverberates. To what extent he intends it, I don't know—and the fact that there is so much written about him and talked about him. So yeah, he carries himself like the person that is the signature of so many people's attention, but I don't consider that as necessarily part of his growth as a musician. What I have heard of the new album, this is not a notable voice, still not a notable guitarist, but his choice of songs is interesting. So he's a figure, there's no question about that. It's like any jazz man, if you can tell who it is after the first few bars, then that's a person who carries himself with gravitas. He's been that way for many years.

Nat Hentoff wrote for Gadfly magazine on Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong and Lenny Bruce.

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