By Robbie Robertson
Bob Dylan and I started out from different sides of the tracks. When I first heard him, I was already in a band, playing rock & roll. I didn't know a lot of folk music. I wasn't up to speed on the difference he was making as a songwriter. I remember somebody playing "Oxford Town," from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, for me. I thought, "There's something going on here." His voice seemed interesting to me. But it wasn't until we started playing together that I really understood it. He is a powerful singer and a great musical actor, with many characters in his voice. I could hear the politics in the early songs. It's very exciting to hear somebody singing so powerfully, with something to say. But what struck me was how the street had had such a profound effect on him: coming from Minnesota, setting out on the road and coming into New York. There was a hardness, a toughness, in the way he approached his songs and the characters in them. That was a rebellion, in a certain way, against the purity of folk music. He wasn't pussyfooting around on "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Ballad of a Thin Man." This was the rebel rebelling against the rebellion.
I learned early on with Bob that the people he hung around with were not musicians. They were poets, like Allen Ginsberg. When we were in Europe, there'd be poets coming out of the woodwork. His writing came directly out of a tremendous poetic influence, a license to write in images that weren't in the Tin Pan Alley tradition or typically rock & roll, either. I watched him sing "Desolation Row" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" in those acoustic sets in 1965 and '66. I had never seen anything like it — how much he could deliver with a guitar and a harmonica, and how people would just take the ride, going through these stories and songs with him.
When he and I went to Nashville in 1966, to work on Blonde on Blonde, it was the first time I'd ever seen a songwriter writing songs on a typewriter. We'd go to the studio, and he'd be finishing up the lyrics to some of the songs we were going to do. I could hear this typewriter — click, click, click, ring, really fast. He was typing these things out so fast; there was so much to be said.
And he'd be changing things during a session. He'd have a new idea and try to incorporate that. That was something else he taught me early on. The Hawks were band musicians. We needed to know where the song was going to go, what the chord changes were, where the bridge was. Bob has never been big on rehearsing. He comes from a place where he just did the songs on acoustic guitar by himself. When we'd play the song with him, it would be, "How do we end it?" And he'd say, "Oh, when it's over, it's over. We'll just stop." We got so we were ready for anything — and that was a good feeling. We'd think, "OK, this can take a left turn at any minute — and I'm ready."
More than anything, in my own songwriting, the thing I learned from Bob is that it's OK to break those traditional rules of what songs are supposed to be: the length of a song, how imaginative you could get telling the story. It was great that someone had broken down the gates, opened up the sky to all of the possibilities.
I think Bob has a true passion for the challenge, for coming up with something in the music that makes him feel good, to keep on doing it and doing it, as he does now. The songs Bob is writing now are as good as any songs he's ever written. There's a wonderful honesty in them. He writes about what he sees and feels, about who he is. We spent a lot of time together in the 1970s. We were both living in Malibu and knew what was going on in our respective day-to-day lives. And I know Blood on the Tracks is a reflection of what was happening to him then. When he writes songs, he's holding up a mirror — and I'm seeing it all clearly, like I've never seen it before.
I don't think Bob ever wanted to be more than a good songwriter. When people are like, "Oh, my God, you're having an effect on culture and society" — I doubt he thinks like that. I don't think Hank Williams understood why his songs were so much more moving than other people's songs. I think Bob is thinking, "I hope I can think of another really good song." He's putting one foot in front of the other and just following his bliss.
But Bob is a great barometer for young singers and songwriters. As soon as they think they've written something good — "I'm pushing the envelope here, I've made a breakthrough" — they should listen to one of his songs. He will always stand as the one to measure good work by. That's one of the greatest accomplishments of all.