Shakespeare in crocodile slippers
DER SPIEGEL Interviews BOB DYLAN 16-10-97

For two decades the musician Bob Dylan celebrated his big life crisis. Now he has delivered a masterly album and gave an interview to a German magazine for the first time at a press talk in Londen. It is not that the models, the bankers and the other rich people who hang around in the lobby of the Londen Metropolitan Hotel are waiting for Bob Dylan. "Bob who?", a creature with very white hair and very long legs asks. When we explain to him (sic!) that "who" is "Dylan", the creature smiles relieved: "Oh, the father of Jakob". Meant is son Jakob Dylan who with his band The Wallflowers in one year has sold three million records - father Bob hasn't sold that much of his most succesfull 1975 album "Blood on the Tracks" up to this day. Bob Dylan's fame is not of the sort that a platoon of marketing people push his videos to music tv stations, wheedling interviews out of him, selling massive numbers of records or chase the man from one sold out football stadium to another. Of course this is due to the fact that Dylan won't have any of this kind of succes. And to the fact that he was searching God for almost twenty years and found himself in a crisis - long enough to enable a whole generation to grow up without having to notice him.

With his new album "Time out of mind" Dylan succeeded to deliver a late masterpiece. In blues and gospel-like songs he tells about the burden of becoming old in a laconic and dark way; about a world in which hope and love exist for other people and in which only one thing is certain: having reached the end of your days you can only rely on yourself to make it through. "It looks like I am moving, but I am standing still", Dylan sings, and it often sounds heroic and funny as if he looked over the shoulder of John Ford and Samuel Beckett alternately. Bob Dylan is proud of this album, so proud that he is willing to give interviews for the first time since his big crisis. Hopping through the door on the tenth floor of the Metropolitan Hotel, he snaps his fingers as if he wanted to storm a concert stage. He's wearing black crocodile slippers, black pants, silver shirt. Just like a nameless musician from an equally nameless bar he only wants to talk about his new album. The myth of being Bob Dylan - he wants to dispose of it like Charlie Chaplin would wipe a piece of shit of his shoe. "The sixties?", Dylan asks when the revolutionary decade all the same comes up and shrugs his shoulders: "I never think of that".

That was the time when Bob Dylan rose as the superior superstar of the counterculture. A charismatic figure who could translate moods and feelings, buzzing around in the leftish, bohemian circles, into songs, poetry and slogans, until The New York Times couldn't do anything else than ennoble him as "the Shakespeare of his generation". He sang about peace, for the black people and in one breath told fairy tales about his background. One time he stemmed from the Sioux, then again he used to play in Elvis's band. Next to Joan Baez he marched in front of the White House and he was quicker, more scornful and cooler than the hangers-on and of course than his enemies - the powerful. "I just want you to know", he sings, "I can see through your masks".

In 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival he wore black sunglasses and high heel boots when he laid down his acoustic guitar and took the electric guitar, played "Like a Rolling Stone" and with this gesture scorned the counterculture. He became the dandy of the Beat 'lite, swallowed amphetamines bagwise and released three incredible albums "Highway 61 revisited", "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (Bringing It All Back Home, in the States [B.N.]) and Blonde on Blonde. About the later he said: "That thin, that wild, mercury sound, metalic and radiant like gold." After that popular music just wasn't the same anymore. In the middle of this flush of creation he had a motor accident, broke a couple of vertebra in his neck and decided that "it was time for something completely different". He withdrew to a farm near Woodstock, founded a family with five kids, invented country rock and stayed away from touring for eight years. When anyone asked if he considered himself as a leader of the young, he answered: "I think there are people who are trained for that kind of work... like the youth worker type, you know? I try to make it through and not get too much on people's nerves." In the seventies his marriage broke up, he toured the world as a superstar and ran into his major crisis. Sometimes, he says, it was that awful that his own songs seemed to be something strange, something he had completely no access to. Bob Dylan didn't look for excuses, only the music he wanted to find again. That's why he recorded two albums of purely acoustic material in the nineties containing old folk and cowboy songs. Now he seems to be able to write good and original material again.

For someone like him, a pioneer, who continually wants to destroy the past, "heading for another joint", it's not getting easier. But now, now that he has the music again, his home is where his music leads him, if necessary on his own, if necessary there where it's dark: a great American. English translation of the interview in Der Spiegel.

"Life is like that - it happens"
Interview with Bob Dylan about popmusic, politics and his new album "Time out of mind".

Q: Mr. Dylan, in the spring you almost died of a heart disease. How are you today? A: I'm better now, but for a certain time I was in for some serious worrying.

Q: Did you think that Elvis had enlisted you in his heavenly choir? A: Absolutely!

Q: Your new album 'Time out of Mind' is considered to be your best in more than twenty years. But it sounds bitter, dark and very lonely...

A: I don't agree at all. What's happening in Bosnia or in South America, that's bitter.

Q: You sing: "Walking through streets that are dead" and "the party is over, there is less and less to say; you complain "My sense of humanity is going down the drain"; and you don't even care much for the women. While you don't care much for love you sing you have to live in "the same old cage".

A: On my first album I already dealt with unhappy relationships. People shouldn't take everything so literal. Elvis sang: "You ain't nothing but a hound dog". It would be very stupid to ask Elvis whether he was serious. You just change from minute to minute. A record catches the atmosphere of the moment. An hour later, everything is different. Whatever is said in this collection of songs - it somehow fits.

Q: Your call "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters" was back then in the sixties a super trick because after that you were worshipped even more by a lot of your fans. You're considered to be an incorruptible artist who hates commerce, whose work is authentic and truthful.

A: I sure would like to be spared of the burden to muse about what my fans think about me or my songs. But it's true all right, I seem to be one of the few artists who attract that kind of people.

Q: Since the middle of the sixties it seems that you have enough of being the icon of the counterculture or even their mouth-piece.

A: I don't take these titles as a compliment. I think that words like "icon" or "legend" are just other terms for guys of the day before yesterday of which nobody wants to know these days.

Q: Is it getting to you to be Bob Dylan?

A: It's easier to be me than someone else. But just like most famous people, I just want to be left alone most of the time.

Q: Are you still interested in politics?

A: No. All I care about is my performance as a musician and as a singer. Everything in my life is about the music which I love.

Q: Is it still possible nowadays to influence the world by songs? To be political by means of messages?

A: No, there are newspapers for that. When people want to deal with the world, they should watch television.

Q: That's very passive.

A: The world has become like that. People are going to the football stadium, they don't play themselves anymore.

Q: Did you ever think you could be politically active through your songs?

A: No, no, no. If I had wanted to do that, I would have gone to Harvard or Yale, would have studied and would have a become a politician after that.

Q: But then again you did write songs like "Masters of War", in which you threaten the politicians to spit on their graves. And in "The lonesome death of Hattie Carol" and "Hurricane" you protest against race justice.

A: To tell you the truth, I really don't know what politics are. When I am seriously dealing with something, I find my self to be on the side of the right this time and the next moment I am completely on the side of the left side.

Q: Your fellow performers of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are convinced that they stopped the Vietnam war.

A: I believe that immediately. They were that kind of guys.

Q: How was it for you to be playing for the Pope in Bologna a few weeks ago?

A: A great show.

Q: Why?

A: It just was.

Q: Isn't it strange that a great enemy of the establishment suddenly performs for the Pope?

A: Why? It's not the same Pope as back then. Part II

Q: So, in your view of the world there is still a past and a future?

A: Yes, but actually people haven't changed since Moses. Feelings don't change.

Q: Before the Pope you played your songs honestly and pure like on the record. Normally the audience should be aware that you might massacre your own songs. Are you bored to play your songs as close to the original as possible? Or do you want to punish your audience?

A: Above all, the critics are the problem. They come with ears that are tuned to 1975 or even more back. And then, my songs lead their own lives, they have an inner truth which is changed from evening to evening. That's why people don't recognise all of the songs. I have recorded my albums at various points of my life, with various musicians using various instruments. If I was to replicate all of that in the original way, I had to drag onehundred people up on the stage.

Q: At the end of the eighties you announced the so-called "Never Ending Tour" and up until now you have performed about 150 times a year. Isn't that becoming just a little bit too much?

A: It's my job, my craft, my trade. Being on stage is to me as natural as breathing. Besides, I am the only one to play this kind of songs. Popular music nowadays is in the same situation as when I was beginning to perform. When somebody is a serious musician, nobody listens to him. Back then we knew when something sounded wrong and we were strong enough to look for people who told the truth. I am a musician, not someone who buys a record every now and then.To me it is all more than just entertainment.

Q: Recently you said: "Sometimes I feel just a little bit above a pimp."

A: When you are up there and you look at the audience and the audience look back, then you - willy-nilly - have the feeling to be in a burlesque. I am pretty sure Pavarotti feels the same way.

Q: Are the people in the audience in Vienna different from a crowd in San Francisco?

A: When I'm up there, I just see faces. A face is a face, they are all the same.

Q: Do you envy the 17 year-olds in your audience for their youth?

A: I am a grandfather. I have grandchildren who like other singers. That's the way young people are. I play for people who understand my feelings.

Q: On your new record that sounds a bit darker. There you sing the line: I wish somebody would push back the clock for me."

A: Don't we all feel that way? I for one feel like that plenty of times. I would prefer to start my life anew over and over again. Learn a new trade, marry another girl, live in another place.

Q: Isn't that just what you did during your career? In the early sixties you were the folk singer of the movement for civil rights. A few years later you took the electric guitar and sang "Like a rolling stone" mocking the counterculture which had you for a hero. People yelled "Judas" at you and you took to the countryside, got settled with a family and played country rock. In other words: during your career you always reinvented yourself and never stayed the way your fans wanted you to be.

A: That is just human nature.

Q: But did you do that consciously or did it just happen?

A: Everything in life just happens. That's the way life is; it happens.

Q: Without meaning or goal?

A: I am sure that there is a great divine meaning behind everything.

Q: Where do your songs come from? Do they come to you just flying through the universe?

A: The folksinger Woody Guthrie was the first to have that idea and I think he is right.

Q: Which music is an influence to you these days?

A: Simple music from the twenties and thirties and a little bit from the fifties. The influence is very limited: american folkmusic, Blues, some Rockabilly. But certainly not Rock 'n Roll. I think Rock 'n Roll never was of any great importance to my work.

Q: Do you listen to the radio these days? Or are you annoyed by popmusic?

A: Every now and then I listen to old radio shows. Sometimes they play the same theatre companies that I grew up with. I think that will come back now.

Q: Would you recognise a contemporary popsong, for example a song by Bon Jovi?

A: No, really, no.

Q: On your new record there is a song that lasts for over 16 minutes and is called "Highlands". It sounds as if it was improvised. How well do you prepare yourself before you enter the studio?

A: I haven't recorded a song like "Highlands" in a long time. I wouldn't say "Highlands" is improvised, but while playing many ideas were connected in a different way than they were written down. Actually it's just a simple blues which can go either this way or that way.

Q: In these cases, don't you wish sometimes you could work again with writer and musician Sam Shepard, who helped you writing songs in the eighties?

A: Well, in the course life you find yourself with different people in different rooms. Working with Sam was not necessarily easier, but it was certainly less meaningless. In every case writing a song is done faster when you got someone like Sam and are not on your own.

Q: It seems, though, that you and Sam would not be able to work it out these days.

A: Sam does his thing, I do mine. He is a writer and I am on the road. It's not that we see each other a lot. Part III

Q: What does the blues mean to you?

A: The blues? An extremely simple and open form by which you can say anything; also, what's being said comes out the way you meant it. But the blues has become rare. I don't even know if people know what to do with it in this world which has become a rat race. The blues stems from the coutryside, from the cotton fields in the south. And they dragged it to the big cities and charged it with electricity. Today this has turned into electronics. One does not perceive that out there there is a person that breathes or that there is still a heart out there. And the more people get away from this, the less they are connected with what I call the blues. Like I said, the blues is simple and it comes from the countryside just like country music.

Q: You were raised in the North of the USA, in Minnesota to be precise. How did you get in touch with the blues?

A: When I was young, America was connected above all by means of the radio. The radio was the most important. You had stations who could play whatever they wanted. And all of this was broadcast over thousands of miles. Take Jimmy Hendrix, he grew up in Seatlle. The radio connected us all. I don't know when they started to play all that pap, I only know that radio today is different. Someone like the singer Johnny Ray, who was kind of a leper back then, he wouldn't stand a chance today. Johnny Ray had a whole different kind of dynamic, he had heart and soul and he really wanted us to feel something when he sang.

Q: When did you decide that you - the white, Jewish son of a hardware store owner in a northern state of the USA - that you could also play music that made people feel things?

A: My memory does not go that way back or I can't remember ever doing anything else than sing, for that matter. But if somebody back then had an influence on me it must have been the folksinger Woody Guthrie - without really wanting to be influenced.

Q: What did strike you especially in Woody Guthrie?

A: He worked extremely hard and wrote very much and writing was easy for him. He probably didn't have time at all to think about a song very long: being a socialist he wanted to bring the news very quick to the people. In those times, whenever a mine collapsed, songs were written about it instantly. But since we have television people all over the world know what has happened in an instant.

Q: Do you listen to your old songs when your at home?

A: I never listen to my old stuff. I don't want to be reminded of my self or be an influence on my self. I want to go on, always go on...

Q: ... to the old music?

A: There's nothing better.

Q: The times they are a-changin' ...

A: ... but way back.

Q:Last year you sold your protest song "The times they are a-changin'" to the Bank of Montreal, who used it in a commercial. Do you regret this?

A: Not at all.

Q:It is said, you play golf now. What's your handicap?

A: 17 - I hit as if it were a baseball bat.