15 August, 1981 New Musical Express pp29-31
"The diamond voice within"
In a rare interview during his 1981 European tour, Bob Dylan talks about his music and religion to Neil Spencer.
Harmonicas play the skeleton keys of the rain that drapes Munich in grey drizzle for Bob Dylan's two day stay in the city.
Our Mercedes taxi splashes its way through sodden streets toward the muzzled grey modernist shapes of the Olympic complex built to house the '74 games and where tonight's show will be staged, in the splendid indoor sports arena, to an audience of several thousand.
Munich is the eleventh stop on a European tour that will take in eight countries and 23 shows, around a third of them in Britain. Being in the business of a ceaseless quest for a Bob Dylan interview, (one of several score, if not hundred), I get to see shows in Paris, London, and Munich where the quest will, to an extent, be realised; a brief backstage rencontre being promised by Dylan's management.
This was Dylan's sixth or seventh visit to Europe in his 20 year career, and this time round it was different. A lot has changed since Dylan last trod Albion's shores, not least the social and cultural fabric of Britain itself.
The expected media fanfare came, but it was muted in comparison to that afforded the '78 trip, when Dylan was seen as the concensus of the ongoing 'rock' tradition handed down from the 60s; still the enigmatic and unrepentant rebel carrying the standards of alienation, protest and emotional and spiritual exploration forward into the future.
This time it was Bruce Springsteen's turn to be feted as a visiting American superstar supreme, likewise set at the heart of a rock tradition whose myths are, for a growing number of young Europeans, now despoiled, overtaken by everyday reality or the new myths of punk and post-punk.
The national press, radio and tv didn't seem to know quite how to respond to the new, Christian Bob Dylan; and for them it was a case of better the cosy fantasy scenarios of last-chance power drives down endless american highways than the uncomfortable moral imperitives of Dylan's new kingdom.
Dylan's refusal to bow to the myths of rock - he'd always kept an ambiguous, open relation with 'rock' anyway, what with his folk roots, the frequent diversions into country, blues and anything else that took his fancy - and his insistence on his personal salvation had cost him heavy with critics and fans.
To some of them, any type of born-again Christianity smacked of U.S. president Ronald Reagan's 'moral majority', even though Dylan's new songs have consistently spelt out an anti-establishment stance, the protest era rekindled if anything. There again, any spiritual values smack of humbug to a sometimes insensitised youth culture, more caught up with the materialist and consumer values it professes to despise than perhaps it realises or cares to admit.
Christian or not, in the gritty business of attracting paying customers, there are few artists able to command the allegiance that Dylan still does, and ugly rumours of unsold tickets finally gave way to near-capacity audiences. Around 120,000 saw the British shows.
As at Earl's Court a hard look at the Munich crowd reveals plenty of original Dylan fans, many contemporaries now advancing into affluent middle age. Many more, no doubt, couldn't meet the commitment of tickets, transport and babysitters. The younger fans that Dylan has always attracted seem more prominent at the Continental shows, where rock tradition and contemporary protest - the German peace and eco movements and their equivalents in France, Benelux and Scandinavia - have not diverged the way they have in little ol' post-industrial UK.
It hasn't all been "watching the scenery go past the windows" though, as Dylan describes the touring process. A Danish daily paper ran a front pag story attacking Dylan, accusing him of paranoia and claiming he kept a veritable squad of Israeli bodyguards on hand to assuage his fear of assassination. Dylan was so incensed by the story he called an impromptu press conference in north Germany where he denied that John Lennon's slaying had provoked any panic in him.
"I might as easily be run over by a truck or something," went the tone of his reply. I never did see more than a couple of security chaps, backstage or front.
Otherwise, Dylan's European jaunt can be safely judged a success. It didn't even rain at the sometimes optimistically staged open-air shows - aides speak of the way it's, ahem, miraculously stopped raining an hour or so before show-time, recalling some of the talk I'd heard around Marley tours ("he had a voice that could really touch you," Dylan says to me later when he crops up in conversation. The two never actually met however.)
Dylan's strategy on this tour has been to present a set that straddles almost his entire career, harking back to his coffee-house days on numbers like 'Barbara Allen', 'Girl from the North Country', featuring a healthy slug of 60s hits - 'Like a Rolling Stone', 'Tambourine Man', 'It's all over now Baby Blue' - and reserving pride of place for his post-conversion songs, to which he seems to bring an extra vocal commitment.
His singing this time round was quite astonishing, clearly superior to all his many past styles, from all of which he borrows for the present. With the horn section of 78 now thankfully nudged out - the present group is more supple and understated - the harmonica has found new favour. Indeed, the acoustic and harp spots were among the most affecting of the show. You could almost hear the audience gasp unbelieving joy everytime he picked up his acoustic guitar, feel them tingle whenever Bob whipped a mouth-harp from a pocket and piped that crazy, angular, plaintive harmonica music of his round the hall.
At a time when conventional rock performance is increasingly derided by many musicians and fans, to Dylan it seems that the performance is the crucible of his art, an all important testing point.
"It's so immediate it changes the whole concept of art to me," he tells me later.
Hearing him draw from that awesome vault of material he's stockpiled over the last twoscore years, it was impossible not to marvel at the sheer volume and quality of his writing. Never did 'Masters of War' sound more apt than in the precipitous war-mongering climate of the present. Other songs - 'Like a Rolling Stone' being the obvious one - seemed likewise to acquire a new resonance in the light of Dylan's Christian beliefs.
Dylan's new material continues to reflect his Christianity, though the songs of the new lp, 'Shot of Love' are less directly devotional in their approach, taking the Christian code as the bedrock of his observations rather than merely preaching, as 'Saved' too often did. Dylan's enthusiasm for his new record is only intermittently contagious, but certainly the album boasts some of his finest work in years, particularly the touching melancholic 'Grain of Sand' where Dylan's retrospection over his life leads him to state "no inclination to look back on any mistake/ as I hold this chain of events that I must break".
The new songs - which may or may not be called 'Angelina' (a title already fabled among fans) and 'Caribbean Wind' - he mentioned in my interview sound exciting, promising a fusion of his 60s sound of the 'Blonde on Blonde' era and his 80s sensibilities. One aide spoke of the new songs "being as prophetic in their way as the old ones... maybe their real time will be someway ahead in the future."
Whatever one may feel about Dylan's conversion - and the ridicule and depth of scorn to which he has been subjected for his beliefs is unfair - it's obvious that we will need some kind of spiritual dimension to our credo if we really are to build the New Jerusalem among the dark, satanic mills.
For all that, I was a little taken aback when the man took exception to having a 'Christian label' attached to him when he has so virulently informed everyone of his religious beliefs. People don't constantly refer to Pete Townshend as a Meher Baba follower because he's always kept his beliefs in context. End of sermon.
In the empty lot backstage in the athlete's changing area, Bert, a Dutch Dylanologist from Oor magazine, and I are lined up for our brief audience with Dylan.
"Oh God," comes the unmistakeable voice through the open door of the dressing room as an aide reminds him of our impending presence and we catch a glimpse of Dylan pulling on a sock.
A minute later and we're shaking hands with the maestro, who seems as nervous as we are, with the air of a man slowly exhaling the potent adrenalin charge of two hours onstage at the hub of 7,000 people's attention.
His stage threads - black trousers, the satin bomber jacket with its curious golden design - lie limply across a chair, Dylan now wearing a sloppy white sweatshirt, jeans and training shoes. He looks beefier and stronger than all those "wiry little cat" descriptions of history suggest, more sporty; the scene seems almost collegiate. The eyes are large, washed out electric blue, and rivetting, still topped by the great burst of locks.
We chat about the show, which Dylan didn't like - "you couldn't hear anything and the audience was kinda strange, you should have been at last night's show" - and about press reaction to the show. Dylan seems to feel the papers gave him a hard time whatever he does with the old songs: "you just can't win".
I remark that "Maggie's Farm" is a popular song in Britain these days, and Dylan and the bassman, who's also present, exchange blank looks before the bassie tumbles "Maggie Thatcher" and they break into laughter, me wondering about the slow association after a week playing down on the farm itself.
He'd heard about The Specials' version but wasn't familiar with it. He mumbles something about "punk waves and new waves" as he packs his stuff, before offering "I like george's song."
"Boy, george's song is great."
Oh, George Harrison. (It transpires the two spent some time together on Dylan's stay, inspiring him to play 'Here Comes the Sun' at one Earl's Court gig. One wonders whether they discussed Monty Python's "Life of Brian" which Harrison financed.) I mumble something about whether he thinks the old songs seem to get new meaning in the light of changing times and his new beliefs, and Dylan fixes me with a piercing look.
"I'm different," he says. "The songs are the same.
"The songs don't mean that much to me actually," he continues. "I wrote them and I sing them..."
There's nothing from 'Desire' or 'Street Legal' though.
"We could do a completely different set with completely different songs. they're all old songs, even the ones from 'Slow Train' are old now.
"I tell you though, I feel very strongly about this show. I feel it has something to offer. No-one else does this show, not Bruce Springsteen or anyone."
Was he surprised at the amount of hostility the conversion to Christianity had brought?
"Not surprised at all. I'm just surprised to hear applause every time I play. I appreciate that. You can feel everything that comes off an audience... little individual things that are going on. It's a very instant thing."
Outside the tour bus is ticking over and filling up with musicians and road crew, and one of the gospel quartet is doing a soft shoe shuffle in the rain. Tomorrow, comes the word, is a proper interview, at the hotel. Maybe.
I went to see the gypsy, staying in a big hotel in the centre of the town, where the occasional appearance of a denim clad roadie provides colourful contrast to the assembled grey ranks of German businessmen.
Pre-match nerves vanish as I trot out onto the turf of Dylan's fourth floor suite. To one side, a tv flickers without sound. Dylan wanders in wearing a black leather jacket and white jeans, and we start committing words to tape. He talks slowly, his speaking voice deeper than you'd expect from his singing, and not at all like sand and glue. The replies come carefully considered and usually as evasive and non-committal as we've come to expect over the years.
NS: Somone told me you'd been working with Smokey Robinson. is that right?
BD: No... we were doing a session, along with Ringo and Willy, as he was rehearsing across the street with his new band, a new show. I'd seen him on the street going in so we went out on a break and said hello.
NS: You didn't work with him?
NS: Are you pleased with the new album?
BD: The last time I heard it I was. I haven't heard it since I left for Chicago. Which was at the beginning of June. I was satisfied enough to leave town.
NS: The sound is a lot rawer. A much looser sound.
BD: Well, I had more control over this record... That's the type of record I like to make. I just haven't been able to make them.
NS: Why's that?
BD: Well, usually, I've been working quickly in the studio, and for one reason or another I just get locked into whoever's producing, their sound, and I just wanna get it over with.
NS: Who produced this one?
BD: Chuck (Plotkin) and myself produced it. Bumps Blackwell did 'Shot of Love' with me, which he helped with a great deal. You remember him?
NS: No, who's that?
BD: Bumps did all the early Little Richard records and Don and Dewey records; he handled all the speciality records.
NS: That's the rockiest track, right? The rest is bluesy, or some of it has a reggae lilt. Do you still like reggae?
BD: There's not much difference between country and reggae when you take away the bass and the drums; they're very similar.
NS: You've always seemed to have one foot in rock'n'roll, Little Richard and all that, and the other in blues, folk, country, traditions...
BD: Well, I love it all, whatever might be popular at the moment.
NS: Do you still do everything in a couple of takes?
BD: On this album we did.
NS: I'd heard you like to work in a very spontaneous way.
BD: With this new band we can usually work very quickly with a new tune.
NS: Is it nearer your 'mercurial sound' with this band?
BD: Yeah... it's a little hard to produce that on stage of course. The only time we were able to do that was with The Band on those Bob Dylan and The Band tours in the 60s. Because the sound back then was so raw and primitive the sound systems wouldn't give us anything else. And when The Beatles played, you could never hear The Beatles. Even The Stones' people were screaming and there wasn't much sound. You could never hear what you were doing.
NS: I have to ask you about the Lenny Bruce song ('Lenny Bruce is Dead'). You said it was very spontaneous.
BD: That was a really quick song for me to write. I wrote that in about five minutes... I didn't even know why I was writing it, it just naturally came out. I wasn't, you know, meditating on Lenny Bruce before I wrote it.
NS: It's a very compassionate song.
BD: It is.
NS: It's in the tradition of your songs about folk heroes like 'Hurricane', 'George Jackson'...
BD: Ithought 'Joey' was a good song. I know no one said much about it, I thought it was one of those songs that came off and you didn't hear that much about it.
NS: Looking at the other songs on the album there are a lot of criticisms of people in high places. Would you say that's true?
BD: (Laughs) Yeah, that's always true I guess... Idon't really know, y'know. I'm not sure how it hangs together as a concept because there were some real long songs on this album that we recorded, a couple of really long songs, like there was one we did - do you remember 'Visions of Johanna'?
BD: Well, there was one like that. I'd never done anything like it before. It's got the same kind of thing to it. It seems to be very sensitive and gentle on one level, then on another level the lyrics aren't sensitive and gentle at all. We left that off the album.
We left another thing off the album which is quite different to anything I wrote, that I think in just a musical kind of way you'd like to hear. And in a lyric-content way it's interesting. The way the story line changes from third person to first person and that person becomes you, then these people are there and they're not there. And then the time goes way back and then it's brought up to the present. And I thought it was really effective, but that again is a long song and when it came to putting the songs on the album we had to cut some, so we cut those. Now what we have left is an album which seems to make its kind of general statement, but it's too soon to say what that general statement is.
NS: There's a reference to "the politics of sin" on 'Dead Man'.
BD: Yeah, well that's what sin is, politics. It just came to me when I was writing that's the way it is... the diplomacy of sin. The way they take sin, and put it in front of people... the way that they say this is good and that's bad, you can do this and you can't do that, the way sin is taken and split up and categorised and put on different levels so it becomes more of a structure of sin, or, "these sins are big ones, these are little ones, these can hurt this person, these can hurt you, this is bad for this reason, and that is bad for another reason." the politics of sin; that's what I think of it.
NS: Do you still feel politics is part of the illusion?
BD: I've never really been into politics, mostly I guess because of the world of politics. The people who are into politics as a profession, you know, it's... the art of politics hasn't changed much over the years. Were there politics in Roman times? And are there politics in communist countries? I'm sure there are.
NS: You feel what the world is facing is more of a spiritual crisis?
BD: Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely. People don't know who the enemy is. They think the enemy is something they can see, and the reality of the enemy is a spirtual being they can't see, and it influences all they can see and they don't go to the top, the end line of the real enemy - like the enemy who's controlling who you think who's your enemy.
NS: Who's that?
BD: What, who you think your enemy is?
BD: You would think the enemy is someone you could strike at and that would solve the problem, but the real enemy is the devil. That's the real enemy, but he tends to shade himself and hide himself and put it into people's minds that he's really not there and he's really not so bad, and that he's got a lot of good things to offer too. So there's this conflict going, to blind the minds of men.
NS: A conflict in all of us?
BD: Yeah, he puts the conflict there, without him there'd be no conflict.
NS: Maybe that struggle is necessary?
BD: Well, that's a whole other subject... yes, I've heard that said too.
NS: When you said "strengthen the things that remain" (from 'When You Gonna Wake Up') what were you thinking of?
BD: Well, the things that remain would be the basic qualities that don't change, the values that do still exist. It says in the bible, "resist not evil, but overcome evil with good". And the values that can overcome evil are the ones to strengthen.
NS: People feel that fighting oppression is more important than spiritual interests.
BD: That's wrong. The struggle against oppression and injustice is always going to be there, but the devil himself is the one who creates it. You can come to know yourself, but you need help in doing it.
The only one who can overcome all that is the great creator himself. If you can get his help you can overcome it. To do that you must know something about the nature of the creator. What Jesus does for an ignorant man like myself is to make the qualities and characteristics of God more beliveable to me, cos I can't beat the devil. Only God can. He already has. Satan's working everywhere. You're faced with him constantly. If you can't see him he's inside you making you feel a certain way. He's feeding you envy and jealousy, he's feeding you oppression, hatred...
NS: Do you feel the only way to know the creator is through Christ?
BD: I feel the only way... let me see. Of course you can look on the desert and wake up to the sun and the sand and the beauty of the stars and know there is a higher being, and worship that creator.
But being thrown into the cities you're faced more with man than with God. We're dealing here with man, y'know, and in order to know where man's at you have to know what God would do if he was man. I'm trying to explain to you in intellectual mental terms, when it actually is more of a spiritual understanding than something which is open to debate.
NS: You can't teach people things they don't experience for themselves...
BD: Most people think that if God became a man he would go up on a mountain and raise his sword and show his anger and his wrath or his love and compassion in one blow. And that's what people expected the Messiah to be - someone with similar characteristics, someone to set things straight, and here comes a Messiah who doesn't measure up to those characteristics and causes a lot of problems.
NS: Someone who put the responsibility back on us?
NS: From your songs like 'Dead Man' and 'When He Returns' it's obvious you believe the second coming is likely in our lifetimes.
BD: Possibly. Possibly at any moment. It could be in our lifetimes. It could be a long time. This earth supposedly has a certain number of years which I think is 7,000 years, 7,000 or 6,000.
We're in the last cycle of it now. Going back to the first century there's like 3000 years before that and 4000 after it, one of the two, the last thousand would be the millenium years.
I think that everything that's happened is like a preview of what's going to happen.
NS: How strict is your interpretation of Christianity? The original Christians seems to have a different faith and belief that got lost.
BD: I'm not that much of a historian about Christianity. I know it's been changed over the years but I go strictly according to the gospels.
NS: Have you seen the gnostic gospels?
BD: Some place I have. I don'r recall too much about them but I've seen them.
NS: Are you going to make any more movies?
BD: If we can get a story outline we will, I'd like to.
NS: Renaldo and Clara was very symbolist, and your songs on 'Street Legal' were full of Tarot imagery. Have those interests left you now?
BD: Those particular interests have, yes.
NS: Do you think that 'occult' interests like the Tarot are misleading?
BD: I don't know. I didn't get into the Tarot cards all that deeply. I do think they're misleading for people though. You're fixed on something which keeps a hold on you. If you can't or don't understand why you're feeling this way at that moment, with those cards you come up with a comfortable feeling that doesn't have any necessary value.
NS: You were also interested in Judaism at one point. You visited Israel and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Do you feel that your interests at that time are compatible with your present beliefs?
BD: There's really no difference between any of it in my mind. Some people say they're Jews and they never go to a synagogue or anything. I know some gangsters who say they're Jews. I don't know what that's got to do with anything. Judaism is really the laws of Moses. If you follow the laws of Moses you're automatically a Jew I would think.
NS: You've always had a strong religious theme in your songs even before you became a Christian.
BD: (Angrily) I don't really want to walk around with a sign on me saying 'Christian'.
NS: It might appear that way to a lot of people...
BD: Yeah, but a lot of people want to hang a sign on you for whatever. It's like mick jagger said, 'they wanna hang a sign on you'.
NS: In a Playboy interview three years ago you said you agreed with Henry Miller's saying that "the purpose of the artist is to inoculate the world with disillusionment". Do you still agree with that?
BD: (Laughs) That's pretty good for Henry Miller... maybe that would be good for what he wanted to do. Maybe that's the purpose of his art.
NS: Not yours?
BD: Well, what I do is more of an immediate thing; to stand up on stage and sing - you get it back immediately. It's not like writing a book or even making a record. And with a movie - it's so difficult to get anything back working on a movie, you never know what you're doing and the results never come in until usually years afterwards. What I do is so immediate it changes the nature, the concept, of art to me. I don't know what it is. It's too immediate. It's like the man who made that painting there (points to painting on wall of hotel room) has no idea we're sitting here now looking at it or not looking at it or anything... performing is more like a stage play.
NS: You haven't painted your masterpiece yet then?
BD: No. I don't know if I ever will, I've given up thinking about it though.