In 1978, Jonathan Cott conducted a legendary Rolling Stone interview with Bob Dylan. The occasion was the release of Renaldo and Clara, a dense and complicated four-hour film that hardly anyone saw. But the conversation between Dylan and Cott proved more fascinating. Cott charmed Dylan with questions like, "Another Hasidic rabbi once said that you can learn something from everything. Even from a train, a telephone and a telegram. From a train, he said, you can learn that in one second one can miss everything. From a telephone you can learn that what you say over here can be heard there. And from a telegram, that all words are counted and charged." "Where do you get all of these rabbis' sayings ?" Dylan marveled. "Those guys are really wise." By virtue of living in London on a Fulbright scholarship, Cott — who'd begun his association with Rolling Stone while a student at Berkeley in the mid-Sixties — had been dubbed the magazine's "European Correspondent" in its earliest years. "As long as you didn't ask for money, you could have any title you wanted," Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner recalls.
In exhaustive talks with the likes of Pete Townshend, Phil Spector and Mick Jagger, Wenner and Cott had defined the twin approaches of the Rolling Stone Interview in the late Sixties. Wenner's style was focused, intent, clear and comprehensive. Cott, on the other hand, was an intellectual bomb thrower, though an eminently gracious one. His technique was to present material from unexpected sources — scenes from films, quotes from philosophical texts and, yes, even "rabbis' sayings" — in an effort to provoke his subjects into previously unexplored territory.
In that regard, Cott hit the jackpot with Dylan. "We were drinking a lot of wine in a restaurant during the interview, so our discussion got a little bit . . . lively — and full of associative 'leaps,'" says Cott, whose 1978 interview is included in a new collection of Dylan interviews he edited this year. "But with Bob Dylan you're talking about a guy who makes use of all of these references. I mean, take 'Forever Young' — the title itself is from a John Keats poem. So he's got the roots of American music, and he's also got Keats, Rimbaud, Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare and everything else."
Cott brought an equally impressive aesthetic arsenal to the interview; and the endlessly suggestive Renaldo and Clara provided an ideal jumping-off point. The film, a phantasmagoric exploration of identity, is a series of dreamlike vignettes interspersed with footage of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review performances. According to the credits, the role of Renaldo is played by "Bob Dylan," while a character named "Bob Dylan" is played by singer Ronnie Hawkins. "Bob Dylan didn't make it," Dylan tells Cott at one point about the film. "I made it."
Those issues are beautifully reflected in the three portraits of Dylan taken by Annie Leibovitz that ran along with Cott's interview. The cover is a full-on image of Dylan wearing dark sunglasses. "That's the 'Bob Dylan' mask," Cott says. The next photo shows Dylan with the glasses off but circling his eyes with his fingers, like a child making a mask or pretending he's wearing glasses. The final image is a surprisingly warm, endearing shot. Dylan's head is tilted almost shyly, his blue eyes look directly into the camera, and he's smiling. "How she got him to do that, I don't know," Cott says. "They're pretty remarkable photographs."
"He's extraordinary," Leibovitz says of Dylan. "I loved him. Back then, I'd seen a lot of reportage on him, but I hadn't seen photographs of him in the studio in a long, long time. So I thought it would be interesting to take him back in the studio.
"He met me there," she continues, "and we did a few pictures. Then he said, 'What are we doing in here? Why don't we get outside and look at the world?' So we went outside, walked around the block, and I took these pictures that were really weird — and really great. He said, 'Let's get out of the studio,' and it was like taking a drug that showed you an alternative reality. He was definitely silly and playful."
"The highest purpose of art is to inspire," Dylan told Cott. "What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?" In drawing work of this singular quality out of Leibovitz and Cott, Dylan clearly had achieved his purpose.
This is a story from the May 18th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.