"I'm not going to write a fantasy song. Even a song like 'Mr. Tambourine Man' really isn't a fantasy. There's substance to the dream."
In November of 1985 Columbia Records threw a party for Bob Dylan at New York's Whitney Museum. Banks of video screens were illuminated with images of the Ages of Dylan. There was the scrawny protest poet who wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a Changin'," the wild-haired rock & roll legend who screamed "How does it *feel*?" and "Everybody must get stoned," and all the other Dylans: the pastoral daddy of "Lay Lady Lay" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," the anguished gypsy of "Blood on the Tracks" and the Rolling Thunder Revue, the righteous evangelist of "Slow Train Coming" and "Neighborhood Bully." That week the newspapers were running front page stories about the release from prison of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the boxer whose cause Dylan had championed a decade earlier, and whose murder conviction had finally been overturned. Carter's claim to fame in most of the articles was that he was the subject of a Bob Dylan song.
Downstairs, circling around Dylan himself were old folkies (Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Roger McGuinn), the first wave of punk (Lou Reed, John Cale, Iggy Pop), literate British rockers (Pete Townshend, David Bowie, Ian Hunter), American traveling bands (the Band, the E Street Band), and all manner of New Yorkers - Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Yoko Ono, the Talking Heads - whose art grew out of the lower Manhattan bohemia that Dylan brought into the center of American consciousness. There were older legends, too, such as Roy Orbison and John Hammond, Sr., and Jerry Wexler. "Every one of us here," Ian Hunter said, "owes Dylan thanks for something."
A gaggle of television reporters buttonholed guests at the door and asked about Bob Dylan's significance. No one had an adequate answer. I said that Dylan refused to accept any limits on rock & roll and thus showed everyone else that the form could expand to include all sorts of ideas. Billy Joel said that Dylan was at least the greatest American songwriter, period.
The next afternoon I was with Pete Townshend. He joked about the futility of trying to offer a concise explanation of Dylan's significance. "They asked what effect Bob Dylan had on me," he said. "That's like asking how I was influence by being born."
Joni Mitchell put it this way: "When I head Bob Dylan sing, 'You got a lotta nerve,' I though, 'Hallelujah, man, the American pop song has grown up. It's wide open. Now you can write about anything that literature can write about.' Up until that time rock & roll songs were pretty much limited to, 'I'm a fool for ya, baby,'"
It would be a mistake to claim that Dylan had completely overcome the prejudice that some advocates of the separation of "high" from "low" art still have against anything that rides into town on the back of rock & roll. There are still some critics and academics who claim that Dylan's lyric talent was not as extraordinary as has been alleged; that his greatest gifts were self-promotion and good fortune. These holdouts are fighting a losing battle. For while they roll their eyes and groan that Dylan is, after all, just a rock singer, Dylan's praises are sung by those he's inspired who have themselves triumphed in arts accepted by the old guard. If Dylan is not a great artist then playwrights such as Sam Shephard, filmmakers such as Scorsese, poets such as Allen Ginsberg, actors such as De Niro are not capable of recognizing great art. Sometime between Jimmy Carter's quoting of the "great American poet" at the 1976 Democratic Convention and Dylan's trip to Moscow's International Poetry Festival in 1985 (he represented the United States, at the invitation of Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko), most of those who *just don't get it* shut up and sat down.
When we spoke, Dylan, whose musical style owed a great deal to country and folk singers such as Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and the Stanley Brothers, traced his poetic roots to the Black bluesmen who crossed paths with Willie Dixon and inspired Chuck Berry. "Those blues guys from the thirties and forties," Dylan said, "just used two-line couplets. You can't say things any better than that really. You can say it in a different way, you can say it with more words, but you can't say anything better than what they said. And they covered everything."
Recalling his own early days in New York he said, "All these black guys would come up from south of the border and recite poetry in the park. Now they'd call them rappers. The best was a guy named Big Brown who had long poems. Each one was about fifteen minutes long. They were long, drawn-out badmen stories. Romance, politics, just about everything you could imagine was thrown into his stuff. He came out of Texas, I think, and he was in jail a lot. I always though that was the best poetry I ever heard. Streetwise poetry. There were quite a few of those guys around in the sixties. I heard them at Mardi Gras, too. They were just brilliant speakers.
The following interview took place in New York in March 1985. Hearing that Dylan was mixing what would become his "Empire Burlesque" album in Manhattan, I left a letter for him explaining about this book. I got a message a couple of days later that Dylan would be happy to talk to me. I expected perhaps an hour of his time and prepared for Dylan's historic reluctance to explain his work. To my delight I found Dylan warm, cooperative, and as talkative as anyone I've interviewed. Dylan expressed enthusiasm for the idea of a book of interviews with songwriters and amazement that no one had done it before.
He asked about different songwriters I'd interviewed, and when I mentioned Lou Reed, Dylan talked about Reed's "Doin' the Things That We Want To" and its reference to Sam Shephard's play "Fool For Love." He said that Reed's song had inspired Dylan and Shephard to write a sort of response - which emerged in 1986 as "Brownsville Girl." Dylan said that just as Reed's song opened with the narrator at the play, the Shephard/Dylan song would open with the narrator at the movie. Maybe what's most surprising about Bob Dylan is that once you connect with his vision, everything he says makes sense.
After a couple of hours of intense conversation Iíd exhausted my questions. I switched off the tape recorded and thanked my host for his generosity. Dylan kept talking, and soon I was turning the recorder back on to catch his amendments.
In "Tangled Up In Blue" Dylan wrote, "She opened up a book of poems and handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet in the fifteenth [sic] century / And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burniní coal / Pouriní off of every page like it was written in my soul."
Posterity is a contrary old bitch, but if she remembers any rock & roller to future generations, it will probably be Bob Dylan.
BILL FLANAGAN: In "Donít Fall Apart On Me Tonight" (Infidels) you wrote, "Itís like Iím stuck inside a painting thatís hanging in the Louvre." In "I And I" (Infidels) you said, "If she wakes up now sheíll just want me to talk / And I got nothiní to say, 'specially about whatever was." People come to you with so much expectation, do you have a hard time finding people who can relate to you normally?
BOB DYLAN: No, not really. I donít know how other people write their songs. I write them lots of different ways. Once they get put into a perspective, they all fall into the same dimension. But they really come out of different dimensions. Sometimes youíll write a song where youíll just stick with it and get it done. Youíll feel that itís not coming from anyplace, but itís for you to do. Thereís nothing to base it on. Youíre in an area where there isnít anybody there and never was. So you just have to be real sensitive to where youíre walking at the time. Not try to go one way or the other, just stay balanced and finish it. "Every Grain of Sand" is a song like that. Writing that song was like, "This is something that Iím going to have to stay steady with." Otherwise it could get out of hand. You must keep it balanced. And thereís no footnotes around. Itís the kind of an area where thereís no precedent for it.
A lot of times youíll just hear things and youíll know that these are the things that you want to put in your song. Whether you say them or not. They donít have to be your particular thoughts. They just sound good, and *somebody* thinks them. Half my stuff falls along those lines. *Somebody* thinks them. Iím sure, when Iím singing something, that Iím not just singing it to sing it. I know that Iíve read it. Somebodyís said it. Iíve heard a voice say that. A song like "Donít Fall Apart on Me Tonight" sort of falls into that category: "Iíll take you to a mountaintop and build you a house out of stainless steel." That kind of stuff just passes by. A guyís getting out of bed saying donít talk to me; itís leaving time. I didnít originate those kinds of thoughts. Iíve felt them, but I didnít originate them. Theyíre out there, so I just use them.
BILL FLANAGAN: Are there thoughts that go by that you resist writing about?
BOB DYLAN: Everything Iíve written about I can relate to. Thereís a lot of stuff I hear that I wouldnít write about, because it donít mean anything to me. You hear people talk every day, and most of it goes in one ear and doesnít even come out. Or it goes in then out the other. Bill Monroe once said he got his best thinking done when people were talking to him. I always liked that.
Not a whole lot of real thought goes into this stuff. Itís more or less remembering things and taking it down. Sometimes youíre just taking notes on stuff and then putting it all together. Sometimes itís just the opposite. A lot of people ask, "What comes first, the words or melody?" I thought about that. Itís very rare that they donít come together. Sometimes the words come first, sometimes the melody comes first, but thatís the exception. Most of the time the words and melody come at the same time, usually with the first line. With me itís usually the first line. I know Bob Seger writes from hooks and titles. A lot of people do that. They come up with a line that sums up everything and then they have to go backwards and figure out how to fill it in. With me I usually start right at the beginning and then wonder where itís going. I sometimes fill in the middle and the end at some other time, but I donít usually work *backwards*.
BILL FLANAGAN: What do you mean when you say that with something like "Every Grain of Sand," you have to be careful to not let it get out of hand?
BOB DYLAN: Youíre not *conscious* of it. In a song like that, thereís no consciousness of any of this stuff having been said before. "Whatís this like?" Well, itís not like anything. "What does it represent?" Well, you donít even know. All you know is that itís a mood piece, and you try to hold onto the mood and finish. Or not even finish, but just get it to a place where you can let it go. Because those kinds of things youíll never finish if you donít do them all at one period of time. Iíve done a lot of stuff where I said, "Iíll finish it next week. " Well, next week never comes. And then you go back and look at the stuff and say, "Wow, this is great." but you canít get connected to it again.
The saddest thing about songwriting is when you get something really good and you put it down for a while, and you take for granted that youíll be able to get back to it with whatever inspired you to do it in the first place - well, whatever inspired you to do it in the first place is never there anymore. So then youíve got to consciously stir up the inspiration to figure what it was about. Usually you get one good part and one not-so-good part, and the not-so-good wipes out the good part.
BILL FLANAGAN: Would you ever sit on something for months or years, waiting until you could connect to it again?
BOB DYLAN: No, I donít have any expectations, if Iím putting something down, that itíll be something great if only I can get back to it. I keep it in front of me for a while, and if I donít have it done by a certain time... Iíll go back and itíll still be there, but I wonít be able to relate to it.
BILL FLANAGAN: "Mr. Tambourine Man" can be interpreted a hundred ways, but it could be about a specific real thing: wanting to keep going when youíve been out all night and everyone else has gone home, and the only other person left awake is some guy standing on the corner banging a tambourine. Do all your songs have a literal reality to you?
BOB DYLAN: Well, songs are just thoughts. For the moment they stop time. Songs are supposed to be heroic enough to give the illusion of stopping time. With just that thought. To hear a song is to hear someoneís thought, no matter what theyíre describing. If you see something and you think itís important enough to describe, then thatís your thought. You only think one thought at a time, so what you come up with is really what youíre given. When you sit around and *imagine* things to do and to write and to think - thatís fantasy. Iíve never been much into that. Anybody can fantasize. Little kids can, old people can, everybodyís got the right to their own fantasies. But thatís all they are. Fantasies. Theyíre not *dreams*. A dream has more substance to it than a fantasy. Because fantasies are usually based on nothing, theyíre based on whatís thrown into your imagination. But I usually have to have proof that something exists before I even want to bother to deal with it at all. I must exist, it must have happened, or the possibility or it happening must have some meaning for me.
Iím not going to write a fantasy song. Even a song like "Mr. Tambourine Man" really isnít a fantasy. Thereís substance to the dream. Because youíve seen it, you know? In order to have a dream, thereís something in front of you. You have to have seen something or have heard something for you to dream it. It becomes *your* dream then. Whereas a fantasy is just your imagination wandering around. I donít really look at my stuff like that. Itís happened, itís been said, Iíve heard it: I have proof of it. Iím a messenger. I get it. It comes to me so I give it back in my particular style.
BILL FLANAGAN: Thatís what I mean about songs having a literal reality: the images arenít just random.
BOB DYLAN: Right. It does have a literal reality. I donít think it could stand up if it didnít. Because other people can identify with it, and they know if itís true or not.
BILL FLANAGAN: Youíve changed the lyrics to "Tangled Up in Blue" since you first recorded it on "Blood on the Tracks".
BOB DYLAN: That was a peculiar record. I always wanted it to be the way I recorded it on "Real Live", but there was no particular reason for it to be that way, because Iíd already made the record. That was another one of those things where I was trying to do something that I didnít think had ever been done before. In terms of trying to tell a story and be a present character in it without it being some kind of fake, sappy attempted tearjerker. I was trying to be somebody in the present time while conjuring up a lot of past images. I was trying to do it in a conscious way. I used to be able to do it in an unconscious way, but I wasnít into it that way anymore. That particular song was built like that, and it was always open to be cut better. But I had no particular reason to do it because Iíd already made the record.
However, thereís a version we used to do on stage with just electric guitar and a saxophone - keeping the same lyrics, thinking that maybe if I did that to it it would bring it out in an emotional way. But it didnít hold up very well that way. So I changed the lyrics, to bring it up to date. But I didnít just change it 'cause I was singing it one night and thought, "Oh, Iím bored with the old words." The old ones were never quite filled in. I rewrote it in a hotel room somewhere. I think it was Amsterdam. I wanted to sing that song so I looked at it again, and I changed it. When I sang it the next night I knew it was right. It was right enough so that I wanted to put it down and wipe the old one out.
That was another of those songs where youíre writing and youíve got it, you know what itís about, but half of it you just donít get the way you wanted to. Then I fixed it up, and now I know itís where it should be. I think it makes a big difference, too.
BILL FLANAGAN: One immediate difference is that itís no longer clear if itís only one guy telling the story. It now starts off in the second person, and goes into the first person when he meets the woman in the bar. The earlier section is now isolated, and the events it described may have happened to someone else.
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, exactly. See, what I was trying to do had nothing to do with the characters or what was going on. I was trying to do something that I donít know if I was prepared to do. I wanted to defy time, so that the story took place in the present and past at the same time. When you look at a painting, you can see any part of it or see all of it together. I wanted that song to be like a painting.
BILL FLANAGAN: Have you ever put something in a song that was too personal? Ever had it come out and then said, "Hmm, gave away too much of myself there"?
BOB DYLAN: I came pretty close with that song "Idiot Wind." That was a song I wanted to make as a painting. A lot of people thought that song, that album "Blood on the Tracks", pertained to me. Because it seemed to at the time. It didnít pertain to me. It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time - yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of a strange way. I've read that that album had to do with my divorce. Well, I didnít get divorced till four years after that. I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with "Idiot Wind." I might have changed some of it. I didnít really think I was giving away too much; I thought that it *seemed* so personal that people would think it was about so-and-so who was close to me. It wasnít. But you can put all these words together and thatís where it falls. You canít help where it falls. I didnít feel that one was too personal, but I felt it *seemed* too personal. Which might be the same thing, I donít know. But it never was *painful*. 'Cause usually with those kinds of things, if you think youíre too close to something, youíre giving away too much of your feelings, well, your feelings are going to change a month later and youíre going to look back and say, "What did I do that for?"
BILL FLANAGAN: But for all the power of "Idiot Wind," thereís part of it that always cracked me up. You talk about being accused of shooting a man, running off with his wife, she inherits a million bucks, she dies, and the money goes to you. Then you say, "I canít help it if Iím lucky." (Laughter.)
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, right. With that particular set-up in the front I thought I could say *anything* after that. If it did seem personal I probably made it overly so - because I said too much in the front and still made it come out like, "Well, so what?" I didnít really think it was too personal. Iíve never really said anything where I thought I was giving away too much. I mean, I give it all away, but Iím not really giving away any secrets. I donít have that many secrets. I donít find myself in that position.
BILL FLANAGAN: What about "Ballad in Plain D" [an early song in which Dylan described, in painful detail, his breakup with Susan Rotolo]?
BOB DYLAN: Oh! Yeah. That one... That one I look back and I say, "I must have been a real schmuck to write that." I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs Iíve written, maybe I could have left that alone. But if thatís the only one I look back and say maybe I shouldnít have written, I think thatís a pretty good record. Thatís maybe five hundred to one.
BILL FLANAGAN: Now, you *had* temporarily split with your wife before "Blood on the Tracks". That album must be at least somewhat about that.
BOB DYLAN: Yeah. Somewhat about that. But Iím not going to make an album and lean on a marriage relationship. Thereís no way I would do that, any more than I would write an album about some lawyersí battles that I had. There are certain subjects that donít interest me to exploit. And I wouldnít really exploit a relationship with somebody. Whereas in "Ballad in Plain D," I did. Not knowing that I did it. At that time my audience was very small. It overtook my mind so I wrote it. Maybe I shouldnít have used that. I had other songs at the time. It was based on an old folk song. But I know what you mean. If youíre going through some relationship and itís not working out well and thatís the way you feel, no matter what else you see or what else you do you keep getting back to that: "Oh, I feel lousy." So you try to take it out and write a song about it. A lot of people canít do that. They have nobody to sing it to. So a person in my position says, "Well, I got this available information, this is the way I really feel; I think Iíll write it and say how I feel."
I donít do that. I donít like feeling those kinds of feelings. Iíve got to think I can do better than that. Itís not going to positively help anybody to hear about my sadness. Just another hard luck story.
BILL FLANAGAN: In Nikos Kazantzakisís "Report to Greco", he wrote that, like every man, as his life drew to a close he had to drag the cross he had made up his own Calvary - and that the work a man leaves behind on that ascent is just the blood on the tracks. Did you read that, or was that just a cosmic connection?
BOB DYLAN: Must have been, I hadnít read that. All the words have been used; itís just how we put them together. And even that - though we might think weíve come up with something super, fantastic, I think if you look in the right place youíll find somebody else has done it.
BILL FLANAGAN: "Blood on the Tracks" was such a powerful work that itís amazing that you followed it with an album, "Desire", on which you collaborated with a second lyricist, Jacques Levy. Why didnít you try to sustain what youíd tapped into with "Blood on the Tracks?" Why not try to keep it going?
BOB DYLAN: I guess I never intended to keep that going. It was an experiment that came off. I had a few weeks in the summer when I wrote the songs. I wrote all the songs for "Blood on the tracks" in about a month and then I recorded them and stepped back out of that place where I was when I wrote them and went back to whatever I was doing before. Sometimes youíll get what you can out of these things, but you canít stay there.
Cowriter. That was probably an album where I didnít have anything and I wasnít even thinking about making a record. I think I ran into Jacques downtown and we went off and just wrote some songs. The people from the Hurricane Carter movement kept calling me and writing me. And Hurricane sent me his book, which I read and which really touched me. I felt that the man was just innocent, from his writings and knowing that part of the country. So I went to visit him and was really behind him, trying to get a new trial. So that was one of the things I brought to Jacques, too. I said, "Why donít you help me write this song and see if we can do something?" So we wrote "Hurricane," and then we just wrote a bunch of others. An album came out of it.
BILL FLANAGAN: Have you been in touch with Hurricane Carter recently?
BOB DYLAN: No, I havenít seen him since the seventies. He got re-incriminated or whatever. I heard a lot of stories, good and bad, about what really happened. It just got a little out of hand, a little too complicated. But as I understand, he was set up again. They knew what buttons to push [note: Shortly after this conversation, Hurricane Carterís conviction was overturned.]
BILL FLANAGAN: Anything youíve ever tried to write about and been unable to do?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah. *Anything* I try to write about, I canít do it. If I try to write *about* something - "I want to write about horses" or "I want to write about Central Park" or "I want to write about the Cocaine industry" - I canít get anywhere with that. I have to always take it out. Itís like that "Hurricane" song. I wanted to write a song about Hurricane Carter, I wanted to spread the message. It really doesnít come out about Hurricane. Really, the essence of it is never what itís about. Itís really about you. Unless youíre standing in somebody elseís shoes you just donít know what it feels like. You donít know what itís about.
You can go to a movie and say, "Whatís this about?" A movie is something that gives the illusion of stopping time. You go someplace and you sit there for a while. youíre looking at something. Youíre trapped. Itís all happening in your brain and it seems like nothing else is going on in the world. Time has stopped. The world could be coming to an end outside, but for you time has stopped. Then someone says, "What was it about?" "Well, I donít know. It was about two guys who were after the same girl." Or, "It was about the Russian Revolution." Well, yeah, that was what it was about, but that wasnít *it*. Thatís not what made you stay there and stare at the screen, at a light on the wall. In another way you could say, "Whatís life about?" Itís just going by like a movie all the time. It doesnít matter if youíre here for a hundred years, it still goes by. You canít stop it.
So you canít say what itís about. But what you can do is try to give the illusion of the moment of it. And even thatís not what itís about. Thatís just proof that you existed.
Whatís anything about? Itís not about anything. It is what it is.
BILL FLANAGAN: Jackson Browne said that he thought "Every Breath You Take" was kind of unfair to the woman to whom it was directed, 'cause the song is told so powerfully from Stingís point of view and itís so inescapable.
BOB DYLAN: Oh, I donít think so. That was a good song. Sort of reminds me of "Stand By Me." You can take any side you want. You donít have to tell the other personís side. Thereís no law that says you have to do that. I think he said whatever he had to say in that song pretty bluntly and right to the point. He didnít try to make it cute or clever or anything. He did it and was gone. I think that was a really good song.
BILL FLANAGAN: Do you think itís appropriate to write in the voice of a killer, as Bruce Springsteen did in "Nebraska?"
BOB DYLAN: Iím not too familiar with that particular song of Bruceís. But itís not inappropriate to put yourself in somebody elseís place. Thatís a quite common thing to do. Folksingers used to do that all the time, and Iíve done a bit of that, too. "House of the Rising Sun" is written from a womanís point of view, and up until Eric Burdon did it, men used to sing it from a womanís point of view. That was something that you just did. if you go back and listen to the Stanley Brothers or the Country Gentlemen or Jim and Jesse, any of the bluegrass groups, thereís quite a few songs where they put themselves into the first person. Iíve done that myself. Iíve written songs from the first person. I havenít recorded too many of them, but I have done it. Thatís legitimate.
BILL FLANAGAN: Sure. What Iím wondering about is, once you get in that person, once you give that person a voice, do you have a moral responsibility not to give voice to evil, not to say, "Whyíd I kill all these people? I guess thereís just a meanness in this world?"
BOB DYLAN: Is that what "Nebraska" says?
BILL FLANAGAN: Yes.
BOB DYLAN: I donít know. I donít know why you give a voice to one person and not another. But everybodyís got a voice and thereís *somebody* who can get inside of everybody and be their lawyer. Why not write a song for the guy who killed all the people at the McDonaldís out in San Diego? Iím sure heís got a voice, too. And if he talked from the grave Iím sure he could get a lot of people to feel sorry for him, to sympathize with him. It depends on what your *cause* is. Is your cause to just go out and randomly shoot people? Kinky Friedman, I think, wrote a song about the guy who went up on the Texas tower and did that. But itís hard to tell.
Usually you do that if somebodyís been given a bad rap and you sort of know it. But I donít know what Bruceís intentions were. That song was about Charlie Starkweather? Well, I grew up in the same area as Charlie Starkweather and I remember that happening. That affected everybody out there. And everybody pretty much kept their mouth shut about it. Because he did have a sort of a James Dean quality to him. He was in the papers a lot. I must have been about seventeen or eighteen when that happened. I donít recall how most people felt about it. Nobody glorified him, though.
BILL FLANAGAN: Did you see "Badlands", Terence Malickís movie about it?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, I love Martin Sheen, I think heís a fantastic actor. But that didnít really remind me of Charlie Starkweather. I donít think it had anything to do with Charlie Starkweather. I went through that period of time and I remember it firsthand. I remember what the impact of that was. I donít think thereís any way you can elevate Charlie up above what he did or what happened.
BILL FLANAGAN: Mark Knopfler told me that you wrote a song called "Prison Guard" about a complete skunk, and Mark took that song to be a sort of reaction to "Nebraska."
BOB DYLAN: Oh, yeah, Mark heard that song. (Smiles.) I did write a song like that but I never recorded it. I didnít think I needed to record it. It was a talking thing about this prison guard whoís just sort of [a?] rough character. He doesnít mind throwing people off the fourth tier and busting anybodyís head in. And then it goes on to describe his family and his town. Then when I got done I just thought it was pretty pathetic. The whole picture was just too pathetic. I donít know what was in my mind when I was doing that.
BILL FLANAGAN: But it wasnít inspired by or a takeoff on "Nebraska?"
BOB DYLAN: Uhhh. I donít know what inspired it. No. It was more or less one of these things where somebody in a uniform can get away with something that somebody whoís not wearing a uniform canít.
BILL FLANAGAN: "Masters of War" is a very harsh song: "Iíll stand oíer your grave 'til Iím sure that youíre dead." "Neighborhood Bully" is equally hard, yet a lot of critics expressed surprise at its militancy. I donít understand why so many people assume youíre a pacifist. The critic Mark Rowland said you were always more concerned with justice than politics.
BOB DYLAN: (Laughs.) Yeah. I donít know why people choose to think whatever they think. Is pacifism a philosophy? Iím not really sure what it is.
BILL FLANAGAN: If someone strikes you, you turn the other cheek.
BOB DYLAN: Thatís not pacifism, though. Turning the other cheek is an aggressive move, actually. There is some strategy where if someone pushes on you, you can go with their push and make their strength work against them.
Pacifism. I know Iím not comfortable with those words and I wonder if other people are as comfortable with those broad terminologies like *pacifism*, *rightism*, *leftism*, *militarism*, *republicanism*. In this country a Republican is one thing: you can go to Ireland and say youíre a Republican youíll get a different reaction. You can use all these words *here*. Itís pretty safe to say anything you want to say. But whether thereís any meaning to it or not, I donít know. I donít comprehend those terms simply because I donít think other people do. They talk about humanism and secularism, everythingís got an *ism*. Not that Iím so stupid that I canít understand what they mean, but I donít think anybody else knows what they mean. To be perfectly honest, I donít think people know what theyíre talking about when they use all these words. They have no idea what theyíre saying. Itís like saying, "I saw a house yesterday." Oh yeah, I saw one, too. But it probably wasnít the same one you saw.
But I hear that a lot. People seem to think they know all about me. Maybe they donít. Maybe everything Iíve done has been one side of something. One part. Certainly nothing that Iíve written defines me as a total person. Thereís no one song that does that. Nothing I do really should surprise anybody. It seems like Iíve been doing it for so long I canít remember when I wasnít doing it. Thereís nothing I could say that isnít documented somewhere in the past so you could think, "Yeah, he would say something like that."
BILL FLANAGAN: Itís funny. When I was growing up people would always say, "Bob Dylan, oh, he writes a lot of songs against the Viet Nam War" and I had all those albums and Iíd always say...
BOB DYLAN: Which ones? (Laughs.)
BILL FLANAGAN: Right, 'cause the songs theyíd cite - like "Hard Rain" and "Blowiní in the Wind" - all predated Viet Nam. "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" has that very powerful image, "I dreamed I was amongst the ones that put him out to death." Itís human nature to point at other people. Itís rare an artist takes the position of saying, "Weíre all capable of being the villain."
BOB DYLAN: Well, I donít mind taking that position. Because thatís just a true statement. Weíre all sinners. People seem to think that because their sins are different from other peopleís sins, theyíre not sinners. People donít like to think of themselves as sinners. It makes them feel uncomfortable. "What do you mean sinner?" It puts them at a disadvantage in their mind. Most people walking around have this strange conception that theyíre born good, that theyíre really good people - but the *world* has just made a mess of their lives. I had another point of view. But itís not hard for me to identify with anybody whoís on the wrong side. Weíre all on the wrong side, really.
BILL FLANAGAN: You integrate your faith into the songs more subtly than at the time of "Slow Train Coming."
BOB DYLAN: Now Iím just writing from instinct. I do that most of the time anyway. I just write from instinct and however it comes out is how it comes out. Other people can make of it what they choose to. But for me I canít expound too much on what Iím doing because I really donít have any idea what Iím doing. But Iíll tell you one thing, if youíre talking just on a scriptural type of thing, thereís no way I could write anything that would be scripturally incorrect. I mean, Iím not going to put forth ideas that arenít scripturally true. I might reverse them, or make them come out a different way, but Iím not going to say anything thatís just totally *wrong*, that thereís not a law for.
BILL FLANAGAN: One of the nice things about "Sweetheart Like You" is that anyone brought up with the Bible will hear that song one way, but the song will still work on a different level for someone else.
BOB DYLAN: Oh, I think so, yeah. Because the Bible runs through all U.S. life, whether people know if or not. Itís the founding book. The founding fathersí book anyway. People canít get away from it. you canít get away from it wherever you go. Those ideas were true then and theyíre true now. Theyíre scriptural, spiritual laws. I guess people can read into that what they want. But if youíre familiar with those concepts theyíll probably find enough of them in my stuff. Because I always get back to that.
BILL FLANAGAN: Do people you know recognise themselves in your songs?
BOB DYLAN: Oh, yeah, a lot of people do. They tell me theyíre so-and-so. They used to anyway. "Einstein disguised as Robin Hood" would be in the hallway. A lot of people would tell me they were this person or that person. Not so much anymore. It used to be more common than it is now.
BILL FLANAGAN: Did people sometimes get it right?
BOB DYLAN: No. Not really. But a lot of people can identify with the feelings I have and what I describe something as. I donít think itís anything more than that.
BILL FLANAGAN: A reporter for "Time" magazine named Jones went around saying that he was the inspiration for "Ballad of a Thin Man." He got some articles written about him. I thought, "Geez, what a thing to brag about!"
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, there were a lot of Mister Joneses at that time. There obviously must have been a tremendous amount of them for me to write *that* particular song. It wasnít just one person. It was like, "Oh, man, hereís the thousandth Mister Jones."
BILL FLANAGAN: Letís talk about the mechanics of writing. Do you write on guitar or piano, and does the music come into your head before you go to your instrument?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, a lot of times *riffs* will come into my head. And Iíll transpose them with the guitar or piano. A lot of times Iíll wake up with a certain riff, or itíll come to me during the day. Iíll try to get that down, and then lines will come from that. Or it could come on any instrument I can play. Electric guitar is different from acoustic guitar. Banjo style is really good, you can write good songs on the banjo. These are all real instruments. Then they have all the technological instruments, these little keyboard things. They give you all kinds of sounds. Those are - sort of - okay.
BILL FLANAGAN: Youíre not completely sold?
BOB DYLAN: They sound real good, but I havenít been too successful at using any of that stuff. But I write with a combination of instruments. My melodies are usually very simple. They have to be simple. Otherwise I couldnít remember them. If they were a little more complicated I couldnít remember them. So they have to be simple. And thatís really about it.
And then I write lines down. I have notes scribbled all over the place. Sometimes I'll go out and say, "Whatever else I do today, I'm going to write down all the lines that seem interesting to me. Either that I think of or that I overhear." I'll try to stay committed to that for a certain period of time. Because most of the time you don't do that. The stuff that goes by, you think of and then say, "Okay, I thought about it. Big deal. Who cares?" Or you'll hear something amusing and then forget that, too. Sometimes I'll make an effort to just go out and get that stuff and see if it means anything. And sometimes it does. I'll just put it somewhere and then get back to it sometime. Usually if it has meaning for me, it's important. There's a lot of great things you hear that aren't really that relevant. That's really about it. There's no real complicated deep genius quality to it.
BILL FLANAGAN: That's easy for you to say, you've written all these great songs.
BOB DYLAN: Well, I think it has more to do with instinct. There's nothing studied about it. I think you just have to trust your own instinct.
BILL FLANAGAN: You sang at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s march on Washington. Did you ever meet him?
BOB DYLAN: No. I heard him speak but I never met him.
BILL FLANAGAN: Did you know John Coltrane?
BOB DYLAN: I've *seen* John Coltrane. Yeah. I watched him play. I've seen him, I've seen Monk, Miles a lot, Horace Silver. I did some sessions once with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. I really don't know what happened to that stuff. There were a lot of jazz guys around in the coffeehouse scene in the Village. The folk music and jazz clubs and poetry were all kind of the same thing back then. I used to see those guys a lot. What they had that I picked up on in my singing - I can hardly even call myself a *singer* - was a sense of phrasing and dynamics.
BILL FLANAGAN: I heard Bill Cosby say one night that when he was starting out as a comic in the Village he'd walk back and forth across the street and hear you playing in one club and John Coltrane in another. Were you conscious of how much ground was being broken?
BOB DYLAN: No. Nobody was really conscious of what was happening. But there were a lot of different people on the street. I remember when Bill Cosby came to town. He used to work at the club I worked at. He was a stand-up comedian then. He was just another one of the guys, another entertainer. He got work a little faster than most people, I think, but I'd already started playing. I used to eat with Bill all the time.
BILL FLANAGAN: You're famous for going into the studio and recording very quickly to catch the moment. But a couple of your recent albums, "Slow Train" and "Infidels", were more labored over.
BOB DYLAN: See, when I started to record they just turned the microphones on and you recorded. That was the way they did it back in the sixties. Whatever you got on one side of the glass was what came in on the controls on the other side of the glass. It was never any problem. What you did out front was what you got on the tape. And it always happened that way. Whether you played by yourself or played with a band didn't really matter - there'd be leakage and that stuff, but you were pretty much guaranteed that whatever you did on that side of the glass was going to be perceived in the same kind of way. That was never any problem. So what happened to me was, I kept working that way through the seventies. I didn't realize things had changed! (Laughs.) I really didn't. I don't think I knew you could do an overdub until 1978. I just didn't think about it. Maybe I was *so* outside of it that I hadn't realized that. The problem is, you can't record that way anymore. If you go into a studio now, the technology is so different that you might have a live sound that you want and you'll put that live sound down, but it won't sound that way on the other side of the glass. So then you have to contrive the sound to make it sound the way you really want. in other words, if you want to sound a certain way, whatever that way is, it'll never happen in the studio.
There's a kind of an outdated thing called "live excitement in the studio." It doesn't happen anymore, because people don't record that way. A lot of people put things down one track at a time. Things are so advanced that you'll be able to *phone* in your parts pretty soon. Anyway, the problem with it is that no matter what you do, it's not going to come out that way anyway. People try. Some people use a certain studio because it used to have a certain sound. But they might have changed all the equipment in the place, so it's not going to have that sound anymore. I like the old sound, but it's done. It's never going to come back. So you just have to deal with what the modern way is.
A lot of my records have been made because it's - quote - time to make a record. "When's your new record going to be delivered?" "Oh, next month." Time for me to go in and make a record. I never used to think about it during the year. I had other things to do. Some of the seventies records were made on just one block of time. "This month I'm going to block all this time out, write the songs, record the songs, mix 'em, press 'em, get a cover together, and it's all out in a month or two." It took me a long time to get off that particular style. I didn't really enjoy it that way.
Sometimes I've never done the songs before - I'll just write 'em and put 'em somewhere. Then when I'm making a record I'll need some songs, and I'll start digging through my pockets and drawers trying to find these songs. Then I'll bring one out and I've never sung it before, sometimes I can't even remember the melody to it, and I'll get it in. Sometimes great things happen, sometimes not-so-great things happen. But regardless of what happens, when I do it in the studio it's the first time I've ever done it. I'm pretty much unfamiliar with it.
In the past what's come out is what I've usually stuck with, whether it really knocked me out or not. For no apparent reason. I've stuck with it, just from lack of commitment to taking the trouble to really get it right. I didn't want to record that way anymore. Now I'm recording more than I used to record. About two years ago I decided to get serious about it and just record. Because I do need records out and I do have deadlines and commitments. It's been a big struggle to come up with them at certain times. So rather than do that, what I do now is just record all the time. Sometimes nothing comes out and other times I get a lot of stuff that I keep. I recorded this album ["Empire Burlesque"] for a long time. I just put down the songs that I felt as I wanted to put them down. Then I'd listen and decide if I liked them. And if I didn't like them I'd either re-record them or change something about them. I wanted to be the first one to judge it rather than put them out there to the people and have them do it.
BILL FLANAGAN: Does the producer make a big difference?
BOB DYLAN: I produce my own records, really. I don't even know what a producer does. Producers usually get in the way. They're fine for picking you up at the airport and making sure all the bills are paid at your hotel. If they're really good producers, they'll find songs for you to sing that really make sense for you. But the producers I have aren't even really like producers. They make a record sound right, but I haven't run into any that know any more about what I'm doing than I do.
BILL FLANAGAN: You've mentioned a couple of times how much you value conciseness but you're more responsible than anyone for breaking out of tight, structured song forms.
BOB DYLAN: Yeah. Well, I come out of that folk music/rock & roll structure. So that's the only kind of structure I really deal with. I don't consider myself a pop songwriter like Burt Bacharach/Hal David, even Lionel Richie. I think you have to be too relaxed a person, you have to have too much patience (laughs) to do that sort of thing. But I don't know what I've done. I usually think of myself as last. When I think of songwriters I don't really think of myself. I think of other people. I know I'm doing it, too. But it gives me more of a kick to see somebody else do it. I *need* to do it. Like that Jonathan Richman. I get a kick out of that. I'd rather listen to that. Whereas my stuff, I need to do it, I have to do it, I'm inside it all the time. So I've got a get *out* of it. When I hear my old stuff I just think of how badly it was recorded.
BILL FLANAGAN: Has there ever been a time when you didn't want to write, to perform? There've been periods when we didn't hear from you.
BOB DYLAN: I've tried to get away from it, but I never could. It's all I've ever done, really. I'm still hearing stuff that was made in the fifties and the sixties that maybe I heard once and forgot about or maybe I never heard.
BILL FLANAGAN: Do you ever think maybe you'd like not to be tuned into it all the time, not receiving? Maybe the muse could give you a break?
BOB DYLAN: No. That would scare me. I wouldn't know what else to do. I would be lost.