And so you made the best out of the anti-folk scene.
It was an insular scene, but there was a lot of space within there to do almost anything you wanted. I remember going in and getting as drunk as possible and getting up and playing a few tunes. We could take our cue from KRS-One, rewrite an old Woody Guthrie song, make it something totally different. It felt powerful because we didn't need guitars, amps, a practice space or anything; each person was a one-person band.
I guess you could say that was a time of realization or de-realization – forgetting what you know and starting over. It was before all that '90s alternative thing. It still felt that something was possible, that there was no way it was going to get turned into something commercial, that it would always remain true, that you wouldn't be able to work a formula out for it. There was a feeling that "We will not be fooled." It was innocent in the sense that it wasn't a post-post-post-post-thing, you know?
Then you moved back to L.A., "Loser" happened, and you were suddenly introduced to the wonderful world of Innocence Lost: the power of celebrity in the '90s. How have you dealt with all the attention?
The thing that frustrates me is just how simplified things can be made – cut down to the lowest common denominator. How can you sum up my life – or any life – in a paragraph in USA Today? It takes all the dignity and all the expansiveness out of it.
If you don't fit into someone's mission of what a musical personality should be in 1997, then they'll just make you into it. They air brush out Neil Young's sideburns and give Patti Smith a nose job. People, music, everything in our culture – it's so disposable now. That was the most upsetting thing about a recent magazine cover I was on. I wasn't cool enough, so they just made me look the way they wanted me to look. They put makeup on me and made my hair a different color. They even changed the structure of my face! That's weird. It's fucked up. The bottom line is, they made me look like a junkie. But I'm not a junkie. I'm not self-destructive.
What gets me is that it's just too easy. I'm shocked when I see people take the easy way out. It's easy to be a rock musician with a drug problem because it's been done before. There's already a romance to that. It's already been applauded. It's like doing a cover of a song that was No. 1 years ago. It's a safe bet. There's nothing creative about it.
Some might say that you do the same thing with musical styles, using technology, dabbling in the past to create something new.
Yeah, but that's not really the same because I'm not trying to get to the artifice, I'm trying to get to what it is. People have this conception that I put on different characters. But to me, there's a definite continuity in what I do. If there wasn't, it wouldn't work. If I was just trying on a bunch of silly outfits, then there wouldn't be any weight to what I do. I would be a dilettante. But I'm not a dilettante. I'm committed to what I do. There's nothing dilettantish about it.
You spend a lot of time crafting your sonic collages. How important are the words of your songs?
I couldn't sing my songs every night if I thought, "Oh, I just scribbled this down – it doesn't really mean anything." It's got to have some connection to me. It's weird that in America, almost every review I see says, "Oh, the lyrics are nonsense; they don't mean anything; they're not important; he's not really saying anything." I've written hundreds of songs, and I got bored of saying things the same way. I wanted to use the language differently.
But I didn't want to be pretentious or pompous in the way some songwriters suddenly decide, "OK, now I'm a poet; I'm going to turn these lyrics into poetry." For me, the words still have to be funky. Especially in the area of music I'm working in: It's not art music; it's not conceptual. The words have got to feel good, and they have to sound good; they have to fit the rhythm. That's the hardest thing. You got a melody, you got this thing that's musical, and you want to stick words on it. Words can really weigh something down. And if you put in the wrong words, I'm telling you, it'll ruin the music; it'll ruin the melody.
Dylan put a lot of thought into things like that – "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Tombstone Blues." And some of your more surreal songs, like "Loser" and "Devil's Haircut," remind me of that stuff.
Oh, yeah. A lot of Dylan's work, the music was writing the words. But there's meaning there, too – a lot of meaning. I would say that people are just being lazy if they can't find meaning in words like that. You know: Be creative! I don't want to fill out the picture. You fill in the blanks. That's the way it should be.
Like when you sing "She's alone in the new pollution," you want people to really explore the lyrics, ask, "What the hell's he saying? What does that mean?"
Yes. But I'm not trying to confuse people. I want to communicate. A song like "The New Pollution" – I mean, pollution, it's a presence in our lives. And isn't it interesting to use a word like that – something with such horrible connotations – in the context of almost a love song? That's where you create friction. That's where you can start to get to someplace where you aren't dealing in the banalities of everyday, pedestrian rock lyrics. Not that I mean to be snobby about it – I can appreciate the good ol' song, and I still like to write that way sometimes.
Let's talk about "Devil's Haircut."
I would like to say that everyone should have their own idea of what that song means, from the most obvious – "Oh, gee, I got a bad haircut" – to something incredibly involved and academic. For me, I had this idea to write a song based on the Stagger Lee myth. The chorus is like a blues lyric. You can imagine it being sung to a country-blues guitar riff [sings like an old bluesman]: "Got a devil's haircut – in my mind." And all the images in the song – "Something's wrong/My mind's fadin'/Everywhere I look there's a devil waitin'" – it's a blues song. So that's where I wrote it from. And that's why I get frustrated when people say, "Oh, that's a bunch of gibberish." It's the way you perceive it. Maybe people just aren't patient enough to get into it.
Patience, observation, scrutiny – the loss of these qualities in our contemporary culture seems to make you sad.
Yeah, and each generation loses it a little bit more. They lose their ability to articulate their experiences. That's why the so-called Generation X is an easy target. Most of Generation X can't even defend themselves. They don't know how to put the words together to bring out their inner experience. That's a loss – a big loss. And then when somebody does come out full of angst – which is something commonly associated with this generation – it's written off simply as whining. As if it's not real. As if it's just made up. But it's not; it's more substantial than that.
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