A MIDNIGHT CHAT WITH BOB DYLAN
Interview by John Dolen
When Bob Dylan calls, it's nearly midnight. When he speaks it is with a clear, distinctive voice. Even though he's at the end of his day, having just returned to a Fort Lauderdale hotel after a band rehearsal, he is contemplative, enigmatic, even poetic.
The Southern leg of his current tour cranks into high gear tonight with the first of two concerts at the Sunrise Musical Theatre. The tour, which as been in progress for more than a year, has earned rave reviews from critics in New York, San Francisco, Dublin. In a nearly hour-long interview with Arts & Features Editor John Dolen, the first in-depth interview he has given to a newspaper this year, Dylan talks about his songs, the creative process and the free gig at The Edge in Fort Lauderdale last Saturday.
Q: Like many others, over the years I've spent thousands of hours listening to your albums. Even now, not a month goes by witbout me reaching for Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, Slow Train Coming, Street Legal, Oh Mercy. Do you sit back and look at all these albums and say, hey, that's pretty good?
A: You know it's ironic, I never listen to those records. I really don't notice them anymore except to pick songs off of them here and there to play. Maybe I should listen to them. As a body of work, there could always be more. But it depends. Robert Johnson only made one record His body of work was just one record. Yet there's no praise or esteem high enough for the body of work he represents. He's influenced hundreds of artists. There are people who put out 40 or 50 records and don't do what he did.
Q: What was the record?
A: He made a record called King of the Delta Blues Singers. In '61 or '62. He was brilliant.
Q: Your performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in Cleveland earlier this month drew a lot of great notices. Is that important to you? What's your feeling about tbat institution?
A: I never visited the actual building, I was just over at the concert, which was pretty long. So I have no comment on the interior or any of the exhibits inside.
Q: But how do you feel about the idea of a rock hall of fame itself?
A: Nothing surprises me anymore. It's a perfect time for anything to happen.
Q: At the Edge show Saturday, you did a lot of covers, including some old stuff, like Confidential . Was that a Johnny Ray song?
A: It's by Sonny Knight. You won't hear that again.
Q: Oh, was that the reason for your "trying to turn bullshit into gold" comment at the show? Were these covers just something for folks at the Edge? Does that mean you aren't going to be doing more material like that on your tour, including the Sunrise shows?
A: It will be the usual show we're used to doing on this tour now, songs most people will have heard already.
Q: In the vein of non-Dylan music, what does Bob Dylan toss on the CD or cassette player these days?
A: Ever heard of John Trudell? He talks his songs instead of singing them and has a real good band. Therešs a lot of tradition to what he is doing. I also like Kevin Lynch. And Steve Forbert.
Q: Are there new bands you think are worth bringing to attention?
A: I hear people here and there and I think they're all great. In most cases I never hear of them again. I saw some groups in London summer. I donšt know their names.
Q: At this stage of your career, when you've earned every kind of honor and accolade that a person can get, what motivates you?
A: I've had it both ways. I have had good and bad accolades. If you pay any attention to them at all, it makes you pathological. It makes us pathological, to read about ourselves. You try not to pay attention or you try to discard it as soon as possible.
Q: For some writers the motivation is that burden, that you have to get what's inside of you out and down on paper. How is it with you?
A: Like that, exactly. But if I can't make it happen when it comes, you know, when other things intrude, I usually don't make it happen. I don't go to a certain place at a certain time every day to build it. In my case, a lot of these songs, they lay around imperfectly...
Q: As a songwriter, what's the creative process? How does a song like "All Along tbe Watchtower" come about?
A: There's three kinds of ways. You write Iyrics and try to find a melody. Or, if you come up with a melody, then you have to stuff the Iyrics in there some kinda way. And then the third kind of a way is when they both come at the same time. Where it all comes in a blur: The words are the melody and the melody is the words. And that's the ideal way for somebody, like myself to get going with something. "All Along the Watchtower" was that way. It leaped out in a very short time. I don't like songs that make you feel feeble or indifferent. That lets a whole lot of things out of the picture for me.
Q: How did you feel when you first heard Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower"?
A: It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day.
Q: "Angelina", off the Bootleg Series, is such a great song, but no matter how hard I try I can't figure out the words; any clues for me?
A: I never try to figure out what they're about. If you have to think about it, then it's not there.
Q: A song that always haunted me was "Senor", from Street Legal Have you played that at all in last few years?
A: We play that maybe once every third, fourth or fifth show.
Q: In the '70s after years abroad, I remember the incredible elation I
felt coming back to the States and hearing your Christian songs, a
validation of experiences I had been through in Spain. I remember the
"You talk about Buddha
You talk about Muhammad
But you never said a word about the one who came to die for us instead ..."
Those were fearless words. How do you feel about those words and the songs your wrote during that period now?
A: Just writing a song like that probably emancipated me from other kind of illusions. I've written so many songs and so many records that I can't address them all. I can't say that I would disagree with that line. On its own level it was some kind of turning point for me, writing that.
Q: With the great catalog you have and with the success this year with the MTV Unplugged disc, why does this concert tour have such a heavy guitar and drums thing going?
A: It's not the kind of music that will put anybody to sleep.
Q: The other night at the Edge you left the harmonicas on the stand without touching them, any reason for that?
A: They are such a dynamo unto themselves. I pick them up when I feel like it.
Q: You've made several passes through here in the past 10 years. Your thoughts on South Florida?
A: I like it a lot, who wouldnšt. There's a lot to like.
Q: Now there is Bob Dylan on CD-ROM, Bob Dylan on the Internet and all that stuff. Are some people taking you too seriously?
A: It's not for me to say. People take everything seriously. You can get too altruistic on your yourself because of the brain ener of other people.
Q: Across the Atlantic is a fellow named Elvis Costello, who, after you, takes a lot of shelf space I my stereo. Both of you are prolific, turn out distinctive albums each time, have great imagery have a lot to say and so on. Is there any reason that in all the years I've never seen your names or faces together?
A: It's funny you should mention that. He just played four or five shows with me in London and Paris. He was doing a lot of new songs, playing them by himself He was doing his thing. You so had So be there.
Q: Is America better or worse than, say, in the days of "The Times They are A-Changin'"?
A: I see pictures of the '50s, the '60s and the '70s and I see there was a difference. But I don't think the human mind can comprehend the past and the future. They are both just illusions that can manipulate you into thinking theres some kind of change. But after you've been around awhile, they both seem unnatural. It seems like we're going in a straight line, but then you start seeing sings that you've seen before. Haven't you experienced that? It seems we're going around in circles.
Q: When you look ahead now, do you still see a Slow Train Coming?
A: When I look ahead now, itšs picked up quite a bit of speed. In fact, it's going like a freight train now.