Journalist Jonathan Cott's Interviews, Captured

With his wide-ranging interviews, Jonathan Cott explores "the indispensable and transformative powers of the imagination."

Listening: Interviews, 1970–1989
Jonathan Cott

University of Minnesota Press

April 2020


Jonathan Cott's Listening: Interviews, 1970 – 1989, is a welcome companion for challenging times. Cott, author of 20 books and a contributor to The Washington Post, The New York Times,The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone, covers a broad cut of topics and subjects in the interviews he's compiled. He talks writing with Chinua Achebe, film with Federico Fellini, acting with Richard Gere, science with Carl Sagan, political systems with Oriana Fallaci, dance with George Balanchine, and songwriting with Lou Reed.

As an interviewer, Cott is nimble, present, and staggeringly well-versed in an array of subjects. The conversations in the book are rarely linear, and it's Cott's agile thinking that keeps them from careening into nothingness.

In his Introduction, he writes that "All I really need to do is simply ask a question. And then listen." He's being modest, though. He builds a rapport with his subjects; many of whom, like Bob Dylan or John Lennon, were certainly interviewed countless times by other journalists prior to speaking to Cott, that can't be achieved through just any line of questioning. Cott is engaged in a way that seems complimentary to a subject's work, but which is also capable of challenging it and bumping up against it, all while looking for a new way to understand it.

Often, the most spirited moments come when Cott offers his own deeply sincere -- sometimes valid, sometimes misguided, sometimes just plain weird -- take on an artist's work. When it lands, you can almost feel a spark of gratitude and excitement from the subject. When it misfires, it results in hilarious near-derailments of the conversation. "You ask me too much," Fallaci tells him. "If I could answer you I would have resolved the problem. If you said to me: 'All right, socialism as its been applied until now hasn't worked. Capitalism doesn't work. What should we do?' I'd have to respond: 'My dear, if I could answer these questions, I'd be the philosopher of my time.'"

Cott is unafraid, too, to follow hard lines of questioning. He pushes Mick Jagger on the aggressive sexualization of women in some Rolling Stones lyrics ("What you're saying," Jagger tells Cott, "is that there are two different types of girls in my songs: there's the beautiful dreamy type and the vicious bitch type. There are also one or two others, but, yeah, you're right – there are two kinds of girls...only I never thought about it before.")

He deftly tries to coax a comment from Ray Davies on the haunting hopelessness in much of the Kinks's music from the late 1960s. "If people are second class," Cott asks, "and if, when they start making it, they become dedicated followers of fashions, what alternative do they have, given the way things are?" "Be like me and be unhappy," Davies replies.

Twenty-one of the twenty-two interviews were conducted between 1970 and 1989 (a 2001 interview with Studs Terkel is also included), and almost all of the interview subjects are now deceased. Listening, in that respect, has something of a mournful quality. It may also be tempting to see it as dated. There's no discussion of the internet, or of contemporary politics, or of the powerful social movements that have taken hold in recent years.

"It seems to me," Cott writes, "that that common thread running through all of these individuals' lives and work is their unwavering affirmation of the indispensable and transformative powers of the imagination." It's this dedication to ideas, of where they come from and how they're nurtured and what value they hold, that ultimately brings these conversations to life.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.