Spy Magazine Interview

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Sometimes in life you spend seven months writing about a blog about Bob Dylan, and then you read a single magazine article and think “Well, damn, that was exactly what I was hoping to say, only better”. It’s a despairing moment.

In 1991 columnist and essayist Joe Queenan set out to do an interview with Bob Dylan on the occasion of the singer’s fiftieth birthday. After jumping through a number of hoops (hilariously detailed in the piece itself), he gets a ludicrously mono-syllabic interview with Dylan. When he writes it up for The New York Times, the paper of record rejects it (probably with good reason), and the piece winds up running in the late, great Spy Magazine.

A quick word about Spy: I adored this magazine for a few years at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. There eventually came a moment when they completely lost their way editorially and became a pale shadow of what they once had been, but until that time they were an astonishing culture industry wrecking ball, spewing bile on celebrity culture of all kinds. There are pieces from that magazine that I still recall with total clarity a quarter of a century later (on David Mamet as a playwright for wealthy Americans with short attention spans; the pieces on Donald Trump; an astonishingly great piece covering the rescue of those whales that were trapped in ice that still causes me to laugh years later just thinking about it). At its height, Spy was awesome.

Queenan fits the Spy mold pretty darn well. There are passages in the piece that are just brilliant, and I can’t recommend it to you enough. You should wander over to Google, which has now archived all of Spy, and read it yourself (hopefully this link works, if not it is in the August 1991 issue, beginning on page 54).

Queenan’s take on Dylan is remarkably simpatico with mine, right down to this list of albums post-motorcycle crash: One that is equal to Blonde on Blonde (Blood on the Tracks), three worth buying (John Wesley Harding, Desire, Slow Train Coming), and three worth thinking about buying (Shot of Love, Infidels, Oh Mercy). That final phrase, I wish I had written that. (Although, he underrates Desire).

I don’t want to just plagiarize all of his good bits – seriously, you should go read the piece. But I will note that it sheds some light on a couple of posts from last week.

First, on the West Point show: Dylan is hilarious here. Queenan opens the piece with that show, and all of its incongruities. He makes a huge deal out of it. Then, when he talks to Dylan, the singer actually says “Uh, the West Point show … was that before New York?”. He can’t be nailed down on the oddness of playing that venue, and he just keeps insisting that his recollection was that it was an enthusiastic crowd and there were problems with the set-up. He completely no sells the collective trauma that a certain generation of fans, including Queenan, seemed to have had with that show.

Second, on the Grammys. Dylan simply explains away the performance by suggesting “the flu greeted me that morning in a big way. All my drainpipes were stopped up. Those kinds of things just happen to me….”. And why that particular song, “Masters of War”? Dylan: “We just did that one… You know, war going on and all that”. Sure. And all that.

As an interview, it is one of Dylan’s worst. As a piece of snark, it is nearly unparalleled. Check it out!

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