The Playboy Interview (1978)

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January 1978 saw the release of Bob Dylan’s second major interview in Playboy (cover dated March), this time with Ron Rosenbaum. This is a vastly, vastly superior interview to the one the Jonathan Cott published in Rolling Stone (you can read a transcript here). Dylan is far less cagey, though there are certainly moments, and he reflects a little bit on his past experiences while also discussing Renaldo and Clara.

It is clear from the interview, and the questions that Rosenbaum raises, that Dylan is still regarded as a figure of the 1960s even by the late-1970s. While it is clear that the interviewer is knowledgeable about the changes that Dylan made to his songs during his tours in 1974 and 1975/6, it is still the Village scene of the early-60s that draws his questions. Dylan isn’t that forthcoming about any of it, really. Reading his interviews is always a frustrating experience because of that.

There are plenty of good moments here, including a discussion of the accessibility of Renaldo and Clara that seems a little off the mark. Dylan also discusses his thoughts on Christianity, and I will return to that when he fully turns his attention to the Gospel period. It was clear, however, that at the time of this interview (late 1977) that he was still a skeptic.

The late-1970s highlights of the piece is the discussion of President Carter, who Dylan had met in 1974, and then this question:

PLAYBOY: Would you say you still have a rebellious, or punk, quality toward the rest of the world?

DYLAN: Punk quality?

PLAYBOY: Well, you’re still wearing dark sunglasses, right?

DYLAN: Yeah.

PLAYBOY: Is that so people won’t see your eyes?

DYLAN: Actually, it’s just habit-forming after a while, I still do wear dark sunglasses. There is no profound reason for it, I guess. Some kind of insecurity, I don’t know: I like dark sunglasses. Have I had these on through every interview session?

PLAYBOY: Yes. We haven’t seen your eyes yet.

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I’m not sure if Dylan and Rosenbaum are talking about “punk” in the way that we assume most musicians in 1978 would be thinking through that term. I take Rosenbaum to mean it that way in the question – in asking about the New York scene and its vitality elsewhere in the interview Dylan claims that the New York scene is dead, and Rosenbaum seems to be sticking up for the new scene in the East Village without actually identifying it as such – but it doesn’t seem that Dylan gets the reference – he segues into talking about Elvis and James Dean.

I think a lot of critics and interviewers wanted to get Dylan’s take on CBGBs and The Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Rolling Stone asked him about the new wave bands, he blew them all off, and Playboy seems to sidle up to it without actually asking. Obviously, those bands owe a great debt to Dylan even if they were rejecting what he was all about, but no one seems to be able to nail Dylan down on the topic. It’s likely he just wasn’t very aware of it – he says in this interview that he mostly listens to bluegrass, after all.

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