Bob Dylan as Filmmaker: 'I'm Sure of My Dream Self. I Live in My Dreams'

Dylan interviewed in 1978, as his audacious four-hour movie 'Renaldo and Clara' is released

Bob Dylan on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz
Bob Dylan on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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We were driving down Sunset Boulevard — Christmastime in L.A. — looking for a place to eat, when Bob Dylan noticed Santa Claus, surrounded by hundreds of stuffed, Day-Glo animals, standing and soliciting on the street. "Santa Claus in the desert," he commented disconcertedly, "it really brings you down."

A few minutes later, we passed a billboard which showed a photo of George Burns pointing to a new album by John Denver and praising it to the skies. "Did you see that movie they appeared in together?" Dylan asked me. "I sort of like George Burns. What was he playing?"

"I saw it on the plane coming out here. He played God," I said.

"That's a helluva role," Dylan replied.

Bob Dylan should know. For years be has been worshiped — and deservedly so. His songs are miracles, his ways mysterious and unfathomable. In words and music, he has reawakened, and thereby altered, our experience of the world. In statement ("He not busy being born is busy dying") and in image ("My dreams are made of iron and steel/With a big bouquet of roses hanging down/From the heavens to the ground") he has kept alive the idea of the poet and artist as vates — the visionary eye of the body politic — while keeping himself open to a conception of art that embraces and respects equally Charles Baudelaire and Charley Patton, Arthur Rimbaud and Smokey Robinson.

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"Mystery is an essential element in any work of art," says the director Luis Buñuel in a recent New Yorker profile by Penelope Gilliatt. "It's usually lacking in film, which should be the most mysterious of all. Most filmmakers are careful not to perturb us by opening the windows of the screen onto their world of poetry. Cinema is a marvelous weapon when it is handled by a free spirit. Of almamal the means of expression, it is the one that is most like the human imagination. What's the good of it if it apes everything conformist and sentimental in us? It's a curious thing that film can create such moments of compressed ritual. The raising of the everyday to the dramatic."

I happened to read these words during my flight to Los Angeles — having just finished watching the "conventional and sentimental" in-flight movie — hardly knowing then that, just a day later, I would be seeing a film that perfectly embodied Buñuel's notion of the possibilities of cinema.

Renaldo and Clara — an audacious and remarkable four-hour movie that will open in New York and Los Angeles on January 25th and soon thereafter in cities around the country — is Bob Dylan's second film. His first, Eat the Document, was a kind of antidocumentary, a night journey through the disjointed landscapes of Dylan's and the Band's 1966 world tour, a magic swirling ship of jump cuts, "ready for to fade." It was a fascinating work, but it came and went after only a few showings.

To remain on a given level, no matter how exalted, is a sin, a spiritual teacher once said. And just as it is impossible for Bob Dylan "to sing the same song the same way twice" — as he himself puts it — so his new film is a departure from Eat the Document, as it announces the arrival of a visionary cinematic free spirit.

Conceived over a period of 10 years, and edited down by Howard Alk and Dylan from 400 hours of footage, Renaldo and Clara was shot during the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue, whose participants make up a cast that includes Bob Dylan (Renaldo), Sara Dylan (Clara), Joan Baez (the Woman in White), Ronnie Hawkins (Bob Dylan), Ronee Blakley (Mrs. Dylan), Jack Elliott (Longheno de Castro), Bob Neuwirth (the Masked Tortilla), Allen Ginsberg (the Father), David Blue (David Blue) and Roger McGuinn (Roger McGuinn).

"Who Are You, Bob Dylan?" was the headline in the French newspaper read by Jean-Pierre Leaud in Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin-Feminin. And the mystery of Renaldo and Clara is: "Who is Bob Dylan?" "Who is Renaldo?" and "What is the relationship between them?"

I decided to ask Bob Dylan himself.

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"There's Renaldo," he told me, "there's a guy in whiteface singing on the stage and then there's Ronnie Hawkins playing Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is listed in the credits as playing Renaldo, yet Ronnie Hawkins is listed as playing Bob Dylan."

"So Bob Dylan," I surmise, "may or may not be in the film."

"Exactly."

"But Bob Dylan made the film."

"Bob Dylan didn't make it. I made it."

"I is another," wrote Arthur Rimbaud, and this statement is certainly demonstrated by Renaldo and Clara, in which characters in masks and hats — often interchangeable — sit in restaurants and talk, disappear, reappear, exchange flowers, argue, visit cemeteries, play music, travel around in trains and vans and, in one exhilarating scene, dance around at the edge of a beautiful bay, where they join hands and begin singing an American Indian/Hindu Indian–sounding chant to the accompaniment of a bop-shoo-op-doo-wah-ditty chorus — a religion and rock & roll reunion.

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To the anagogic eye, however, the film seems to be about just one man — who could pass for the Jack of Hearts, the leading actor of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," a card among cards, an image among images — and just one woman. Together they find themselves in the grip of a series of romantic encounters that are reenactments of the Greal Mystery, culminating in the confrontation of the Woman in White (Joan Baez), Clara (Sara Dylan) and Renaldo (Bob Dylan) — a meeting at the border of myth and reality. Using his physical image and name as the raw material of the film, Bob Dylan — like the Renaissance kings of masque and spectacle — moves daringly and ambiguously between fiction, representation, identification and participation.

Renaldo and Clara, of course, is a film filled with magnificently shot and recorded concert footage of highly charged Dylan performances of songs like "It Ain't Me, Babe," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" — the last of whose delicate and eerie instrumental breaks makes you feel as if you were entering the gates of paradise themselves. Avoiding all of the cinematic clichés of pounding-and-zooming television rock & roll specials, the cameras either subtly choreograph the songs — revealing structures and feelings — or else look at the white-faced Dylan and the accompanying painted musicians in rapturous and intensely held close-ups.

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Around these musical episodes Dylan has woven a series of multileveled and multileveled scenes — unconsciously echoing similar moments in films by Cocteau, Cassavetes and especially Jacques Rivette — each of which lights up and casts light on all the others. Scenes and characters duplicate and mirror each other, are disassociated and recombined — all of them, in the words of the director, "filled with reason but not with logic." Thus, when Clara (Sara Dylan) says to Renaldo: "I am free . . .  I can change," it brings back to us the words spoken earlier on by the Woman in White (Joan Baez) to Renaldo: "I haven't changed that much. Have you?" To which Renaldo replies: "Maybe."

And then there are the correspondences and the doubled worlds. The scenes in the bordello — with Joan Baez and Sara Dylan playing prostitutes and Allen Ginsberg playing a kind of Buddhist john — become an image of Vajra Hell — the Tantric Buddhist idea of the unbreakable, diamond bell. And a musician blocking someone's way backstage becomes the Guardian at the Gates.

What is most adventurous and mysterious about Renaldo and Clara, however, is the way it counterpoints music with action, lyrics with dialogue, songs with other songs. In one scene, for example, Rodeo (Sam Shepard) is trying to win over Clara, and on the soundtrack you hear, almost subliminally, what sounds like the chord progressions of "Oh, Sister," but which you later realize is "One Too Many Mornings" — as if the songs themselves were trying to communicate with each other, as if they were saying goodbye to each other:

You're right from your side,
I'm right from mine.
We're both just too many mornings
An' a thousand miles behind.

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In another scene, members of the Rolling Thunder Revue join in a reception with members of the Tuscarora Indian tribe, while on the soundtrack we hear Dylan's haunting rehearsal tape version of "People Get Ready." And in finally another scene, Renaldo hurries nervously down a city street — panhandling and making some kind of furtive French connection with the Masked Tortilla (Bob Neuwirth) — to the accompaniment of Dylan's version of "Little Moses," above which we hear powerfully spoken lines from poet Anne Waldman's "Fast Speaking Woman" ("I'm the Druid Woman/I'm the Ibo Woman/I'm the Buddha Woman/I'm the Vibrato Woman").

"Your films make one wonder what's going on in people's minds," says Penelope Gilliatt to Buñuel, to which he responds: "Dreams, and also the most everyday questions: 'What time is it?' 'Do you want to eat?'" And, in spite of the compression and density of most of the scenes in Renaldo and Clara, there is also a presentational immediacy and clarity that fixes the scenes in one's mind — like a very special dream one wants to remember. . .

"I expect this will be a very small film," Buñuel said during the shooting of his recent That Obscure Object of Desire — which might have served as the title of Renaldo and Clara. "One needs just a hole to look out of," Buñuel continued, "like a spider that has spun its web and is remembering what the world outside was like. This hole is the secret of things. An artist can provide an essential margin of alertness."

Renaldo and Clara is a long film, but it is really intimate and evanescent. "Art is the perpetual motion of illusion," says Bob Dylan in the interview that follows — which took place a week before Christmas in L.A. "The highest purpose of art," Dylan continues, "is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?"

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If someone asked me what Renaldo and Clara was about, I'd say: art and life, identity and God — with lots of encounters at bars, restaurants, luncheonettes, cabarets and bus stations.
Do you want to see it again? Would it be helpful for you to see it again?

You think I'm too confused about the film?
No, I don't think so at all. It isn't just about bus stations and cabarets and stage music and identity — those are elements of it. But it is mostly about identity — about everybody's identity. More important, it's about Renaldo's identity, so we superimpose our own vision on Renaldo: it's his vision and it's his dream.

You know what the film is about? It begins with music — you see a guy in a mask [Bob Dylan], you can see through the mask he's wearing, and he's singing "When I Paint My Masterpiece." So right away you know there's an involvement with music. Music is confronting you.

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So are lines like: "You can almost think that you're seein' double."
Right. Also on a lyrical level. But you still don't really know  . . . and then you're getting off that, and there seems to be a tour. You're hearing things and seeing people . . . it's not quite like a tour, but there's some kind of energy like being on a tour. There's a struggle, there's a reporter — who later appears in the restaurant scenes.

All right, then it goes right to David Blue, who's playing pinball and who seems to be the narrator. He's Renaldo's narrator, he's Renaldo's scribe — he belongs to Renaldo.

Yet David Blue talks not about Renaldo but about Bob Dylan and how he, David Blue, first met Dylan in Greenwich Village in the late Fifties.
They seem to be the same person after a while. It's something you can only feel but never really know. Any more than you can know whether Willie Sutton pulled all those bank jobs. Any more than you can know who killed Kennedy for sure.

And right away, David Blue says: "Well, what happened was that when I first left my parents' house, I bought The Myth of Sisyphus." Now, that wasn't really the book, but it was pretty close. It was actually — so he tells us — Existentialism and Human Emotions. So that's it: This film is a postexistentialist movie. We're in the postexistentialist period. What is it? That's what it is.

What could be more existentialist than playing pinball? It's the perfect existentialist game.
It is. I've seen rows and rows of pinball players lined up like ducks. It's a great equalizer.

What about the emotions in Existentialism and Human Emotions?
Human emotions are the great dictator — in this movie as in all movies . . . I'll tell you what I think of the emotions later. But getting back to David Blue: He's left his home, and right away you're in for something like a triple dimension. Just 10 minutes into the movie he says: "I got in the bus, I went down to New York, walked around for four hours, got back on the bus and went home." And that is exactly what a lot of people are going to feel when they walk into the movie theater: They got on the bus, walked around for four hours and walked home.

 

There's another guy, later in the film, who walks out into the night and says to a girl: "This has been a great mistake."
Yeah. You can pick any line in a movie to sum up your feeling about it. But don't forget you don't see that guy anymore after that . . . He's gone. And that means Renaldo isn't being watched anymore because he was watching Renaldo.

Talking about mistakes and seeing double: it's fascinating how easy it is to mistake people in the film for one another. I mistook you, for instance, for the guy driving the carriage (maybe it was you); for Jack Elliott; and I even mistook you for you.
The Masked Tortilla [Bob Neuwirth] is mistaken for Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan is mistaken for Renaldo. And . . . Bob Dylan is the one with the hat on. That's who Bob Dylan is — he's the one with the hat on.

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Almost every man in the film has a hat on.
Right.

All those disguises and masks!
The first mask, as I said, is one you can see through. But they're all masks. In the film, the mask is more important than the face.

All the women in the film seem to turn into one person, too, and a lot of them wear hats. It reminds me of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest":

He just stood there staring
At that big house as bright as any sun,
With four and twenty windows
And a woman's face in ev'ry one.

This film was made for you. [Laughing] Did you see the Woman in White who becomes a different Woman in White? One's mistaken for the other. At first she's only an idea of herself — you see her in the street, later in the carriage . . . I think the women in the movie are beautiful. They look like they've stepped out of a painting. They're vulnerable, but they're also strong-willed.

"Breaking just like a little girl."
That's the child in everyone. That's the child in everyone that has to be confronted.

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"Just like a Woman" always seemed to me to be somehow about being born: "I can't stay in here . . . I just can't fit." So by confronting the child in you, saying goodbye to childhood, you're born into something bigger . . . In a way, it's a frightening song.
It always was a frightening song, but that feeling needs to be eliminated.

I was thinking of what looked like a Yiddish cabaret filled with older women listening intently to Allen Ginsberg reading passasges from "Kaddish," his great elegy to his mother.
Those women are strong in the sense that they know their own identity. It's only the layer of what we're going to reveal in the next film, because women are exploited like anyone else. They're victims just like coal miners.

The poet Robert Bly has written about the image of the Great Mother as a union of four force fields, consisting of the nurturing mother, like Isis (though your Isis seems more ambiguous); the Death Mother (like the woman in "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"); the Ecstatic Mother (like the girl in "Spanish Harlem Incident"); and the Stone Mother who drives you mad (like Sweet Melinda who leaves you howling at the moon in "Just like Tom Thumb's Blues "). Traces of these women seem to be in this film as well.
The Death Mother is represented in the film, but I don't know what I should say or can say or shouldn't say about who is who in the movie. I mean who is the old woman everyone calls Mamma — the woman who sings, plays guitar and reads palms? She reads Allen's palm, saying: "You've been married twice." And me, later on I'm looking at the gravestone marked HUSBAND; Ginsberg asks: "Is that going to happen to you?" And I say: "I want an unmarked grave." But of course I'm saying this as Renaldo.

In Tarantula you wrote your own epitaph:

Here lies Bob Dylan
killed by a discarded Oedipus
who turned
around
to investigate a ghost
and discovered that
the ghost too was more than one person.

Yeah, way back then I was thinking of this film. I've had this picture in mind for a long time — years and years. Too many years . . . Renaldo is oppressed. He's oppressed because he's born. We don't really know who Renaldo is. We just know what he isn't. He isn't the Masked Tortilla. Renaldo is the one with the hat, but he's not wearing a hat. I'll tell you what this movie is: It's like life exactly, but not an imitation of it. It transcends life, and it's not like life.

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That paradox is toppling me over.
I'll tell you what my film is about: It's about naked alienation of the inner self against the outer self — alienation taken to the extreme. And it's about integrity. My next film is about obsession. The hero is an arsonist . . . but he's not really a hero.

Renaldo and Clara seems to me to be about obsession, too.
That's true, but only in the way it applies to integrity.

The idea of integrity comes across in a lot of your songs and in lines like: "To live outside the law, you must be honest" and "She doesn't have to say she's faithful/Yet she's true, like ice, like fire."
We talked about emotions before. You can't be a slave to your emotions. If you're a slave to your emotions you're dependent on your emotions, and you're only dealing with your conscious mind. But the film is about the fact that you have to be faithful to your subconscious, unconscious, superconscious — as well as to your conscious. Integrity is a facet of honesty. It has to do with knowing yourself.

At the end of the film, Renaldo is with two women in a room (the Woman in White played by Joan Baez and Clara played by Sara Dylan), and he says: "Evasiveness is only in the mind — truth is on many levels . . . Ask me anything and I'll tell you the truth." Clara and the Woman in White both ask him: "Do you love her?" as they point to each other — not: "Do you love me?"
Possessiveness. It was a self-focused kind of question. And earlier, one of the women in the whorehouse talks about the ego-protection cords she wears around her neck. Do you remember that? . . . In the scene you mentioned, did you notice that Renaldo was looking at the newspaper which had an article on Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in it? Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at this point are an illusion. It wasn't planned that way. Joan Baez without Bob Dylan isn't too much of an illusion because she's an independent woman and her independence asserts itself. But Joan Baez with Bob Dylan is.

So at the moment you open up that newspaper, art and life really come together.
Exactly.

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And what about the moment when Joan Baez, looking at Clara, says: "Who is this woman?" and you cut to your singing "Sara"? Talk about art and life!
It's as far as you can take it — meaning personally and generally. Who is this woman? Obviously, this woman is a figment of the material world. Who is this woman who has no name? Who is this woman, she says . . . who is this woman, as if she's talking about herself. Who this woman is is told to you, earlier on, when you see her coming out of the church carrying a rope. You know she means business, you know she has a purpose.

Another way of putting it is: The singer's character onstage is always becoming Renaldo. By singing "Sara," the singer comes as close to Renaldo as he can get. It brings everything as close as possible without two becoming one.

It was pretty amazing to see you use your personal life and the myth of your life so nakedly in that scene with Renaldo and the two women.
Right, but you're talking to me as a director now.

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Still, you do have that scene with Joan Baez and Sara Dylan.
Well, Sara Dylan here is working as Sara Dylan. She has the same last name as Bob Dylan, but we may not be related. If she couldn't have played the role of Clara, she wouldn't have done it.

Is she talking about her real problems or pretending that she's an adventurer?
We can make anybody's problems our problems.

Some people will obviously think that this film either broke up your marriage or is a kind of incantation to make your marriage come back together.
Either one of those statements I can't relate to. It has nothing to do with the breakup of my marriage. My marriage is over. I'm divorced. This film is a film.

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Why did you make yourself so vulnerable?
You must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality. And to me being vulnerable is just another way of saying that one has nothing more to lose. I don't have anything but darkness to lose. I'm way beyond that. The worst thing that could happen is that the film will be accepted and that the next one will be compared unfavorably to this one.

Strangely, the scene where the two women confront Renaldo reminds me of King Lear, in which each of the daughters has to say how much she loves her father.
You're right. Renaldo sees himself as Cordelia.

I've always interpreted some of the Basement Tapes as being concerned with ideas from King Lear: "Too much of nothing/Can make a man abuse a king": "Oh what dear daughter 'neath the sun/Would treat a father so/To wait upon him hand and foot/And always tell him, 'No'?"
Exactly. In the later years it changed from "king" to "clown."

King Lear had a fool around him, too, and when the fool leaves, Cordelia comes back. She takes his place, and he takes hers.
The roles are all interchangeable.

As in "Tangled Up in Blue" and as in your movie.
Yes it is.

Were you specifically influenced by King Lear when you wrote songs like "Tears of Rage"?
No, Songs like that were based on the concept that one is one.

". . . and all alone and ever more shall be so."
Exactly. What comes is gone forever every time.

But one is difficult to deal with, so Christians gave us the Trinity.
The Christians didn't bring in anything — it was the Greeks.

Jesus is a very strong figure in Renaldo and Clara, I noticed. There's that song by you called "What Will You Do When Jesus Comes?" There's the woman who says to you in the restaurant: "There's nowhere to go. Just stand and place yourself like the cross and I'll receive you." And then there are the shots of the huge cement crucifix in the Catholic Grotto.
Right. Jesus is the most identifiable figure in Western culture, and yet he was exploited, used and exploited. We all have been.

There's also that scene, near the end of the film, where Allen Ginsberg takes you around to see the glassed-in sculptures of the Stations of the Cross — and we see Jesus killed for the second time and then buried under the weight of the cross. On one level, the film is about the Stations of the Cross, isn't it?
Yeah, you're right, like the double vision having to be killed twice. Like why does Jesus really die?

Spiritually or politically?
Realistically . . . Because he's a healer. Jesus is a healer. So he goes to India, finds out how to be a healer and becomes one. But see, I believe that he overstepped his duties a little bit. He accepted and took on the bad karma of all the people he healed. And he was filled with so much bad karma that the only way out was to burn him up.

In my film, we're looking at masks a lot of the time. And then when the dream becomes so solidified that it has to be taken to the stage of reality, then you'll see stone, you'll see a statue — which is even a further extension of the mask: the statue of Mary in front of the statue of Jesus on the cross in the Crucifix Grotto.

Throughout the film, I also noticed the continual reappearance of the red rose. Every woman has a rose.
It has a great deal to do with what's happening in the movie. Do you remember the woman in the carriage? She's bringing a rose to Renaldo, who gives it back to her.

But then it appears in your hat when you're singing.
By that time it's all fallen apart and shattered, the dream is gone . . . it could be anywhere after that.

Joan Baez carries one when she's with Mamma. And then the violinist Scarlet Rivera gives it to you in your dressing room.
That's right. The rose is a symbol of fertility.

Also of the soul. The Romance of the Rose — the dreamer's vision of the soul.
That's right . . . The most mysterious figure in the film is the conductor on the train. Do you remember him?

He's the guy who tells the Masked Tortilla — who says he's going to a wedding — that he's only been on the train for four hours (there's that magical four hours again!) and not for the six days that he imagines.
Yeah, he tells him, too, that he's going to possibly the largest city in the East.

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I figured it was New York.
No. The largest city in the East!

The Magi!
That's not exactly what he's talking about — it's more like the holy crossroads.

There's another scene like that in which Mick Ronson is blocking Ronnie Hawkins' way to a backstage area. He seemed like some kind of guardian.
He's the Guardian of the Gates. But scenes like these work in terms of feeling. It's like with Tarot cards — you don't have to be confused as to what they mean . . . someone else who knows can read them for you.

"Nothing is revealed," you sing at the end of "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest." Is anything revealed at the end of Renaldo and Clara?
Yeah, I'll tell you what the film reveals: This film reveals that there's a whole lot to reveal beneath the surface of the soul, but it's unthinkable.

[Silence]
That's exactly what it reveals. It reveals the depths that there are to reveal. And that's the most you can ask, because things are really very invisible. You can't reveal the invisible. And this film goes as far as we can to reveal that.

Under a statue of Isis in the city of Sais is the following inscription: "I am everything that was, that is, that shall be . . . Nor has any mortal ever been able to discover what lies under my veil."
That's a fantastic quotation. That's true, exactly. Once you see what's under the veil, what happens to you? You die, don't you, or go blind?

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I wanted to tie in two things we've talked about: the idea of integrity and the idea of Jesus. In your song "I Want You," you have the lines:

Now all my fathers, they've gone down,
True love they've been without it.
But all their daughters put me down
'Cause I don't think about it.

These are some of my favorite lines of yours, and to me they suggest that real desire is stronger than frustration or guilt.
I know. It's incredible you find that there. I know it's true. And in Renaldo and Clara there's no guilt. But that's why people will take offense at it, if they are offended by it in any way, because of the lack of guilt in the movie. None at all.

This brings us back to Jesus.
Jesus is . . . well, I'm not using Jesus in the film so much as I'm using the concept of Jesus — the idea of Jesus as a man, not the virgin birth.

But what about the concept of masochism associated with Jesus?
That's what happened to Jesus. People relate to the masochism, to the spikes in his hand, to the blood coming out, to the fact that he was crucified. What would have happened to him if he hadn't been crucified? That's what draws people to him. There are only signals of that in this film — like a fingernail blade at one point.

What about the line in "Wedding Song": "Your love cuts like a knife."
Well, it's bloodletting, it's what heals all disease. Neither aggression nor anger interests me. Violence only does on an interpretive level, only when it's a product of reason.

People are attracted to blood. I'm personally not consumed by the desire to drink the blood. But bloodletting is meaningful in that it can cure disease. But we didn't try to make a film of that nature. This film concerns itself with the dream. There's no blood in the dream, the dream is cold. This film concerns itself only with the depth of the dream — the dream as seen in the mirror.

The next film might have some blood . . . I'm trying to locate Lois Smith to be in it. She would represent the idea of innocence. Do you know who she is? She was the barmaid in East of Eden. I'm trying to line up some people for the film, and I can't find her....

For some reason I've just thought of my favorite singer.

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Who is that?
Om Kalsoum — the Egyptian woman who died a few years ago. She was my favorite.

What did you like about her?
It was her heart.

Do you like dervish and Sufi singing, by the way?
Yeah, that's where my singing really comes from . . . except that I sing in America. I've heard too much Lead Belly really to be too much influenced by the whirling dervishes.

Now that we somehow got onto this subject, who else do you like right now? New Wave groups?
No, I'm not interested in them. I think Alice Cooper is an overlooked songwriter. I like Ry Cooder. And I like Dave Mason's version of something which is on the jukebox right now.

I wonder what you think of the guy who ends your movie singing this fulsome, crooning version of "In the Morning " with those memorable lines: "I'll be yawning into the morning of my life." Why is he there?
The film had to end with him because he represents the fact that Renaldo could be dreaming. And he might be singing for Renaldo — representing him, the darkness representing the light.

He's like what's happened to one sentimental part of rock & roll in the Seventies.
He's not rock & roll.

Rock & roll isn't rock & roll anymore.
You're right, there's no more rock & roll. It's an imitation, we can forget about that. Rock & roll has turned itself inside out. I never did do rock & roll, I'm just doing the same old thing I've always done.

You've never sung a rock & roll song?
No, I never have, only in spirit.

You can't really dance to one of your songs.
I couldn't.

Imagine dancing to "Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35." It's kind of alienating. Everyone thought it was about being stoned, but I always thought it was about being all alone.
So did I. You could write about that for years . . . Rock & roll ended with Phil Spector. The Beatles weren't rock & roll, either. Nor the Rolling Stones. Rock & roll ended with Little Anthony and the Imperials. Pure rock & roll.

With "Goin' Out of My Head"?
The one before that . . . Rock & roll ended in 1959.

When did it begin for you?
1954.

What is there now?
Programmed music. Quadruple tracking.

What do you think about the Seventies?
The Seventies I see as a period of reconstruction after the Sixties, that's all. That's why people say: Well, it's boring, nothing's really happening, and that's because wounds are healing. By the Eighties, anyone who's going to be doing anything will have his or her cards showing. You won't be able to get back in the game in the Eighties.

I came across something you wrote a while back:

Desire . . . never fearful
finally faithful
it will guide me well
across all bridges
inside all tunnels
never failin'.

I even remember where I wrote that. I wrote that in New Hampshire. I think I was all alone.

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Here's something else you wrote:

Mine shall be a strong loneliness
dissolvin' deep
t' the depths of my freedom
an' that, then, shall
remain my song.

You seem to have stayed true to that feeling.
I haven't had any reason to stray.

In "The Times They Are A-Changin" you sing: "He that gets hurt/Will be he who has stalled." What has kept you unstalled?
I don't know. Mainly because I don't believe in this life.

The Buddhist tradition talks about illusion. The Jewish tradition about allusion. Which do you feel closer to?
I believe in both, but I probably lean to allusion. I'm not a Buddhist. I believe in life, but not this life.

What life do you believe in?
Real life.

Do you ever experience real life?
I experience it all the time, it's beyond this life.

I wanted to read to you two Hasidic texts that somehow remind me of your work. The first says that in the service of God, one can learn three things from a child and seven from a thief. "From a child you can learn (1) always to be happy; (2) never to sit idle; and (3) to cry for everything one wants. From a thief you should learn: (1) to work at night; (2) if one cannot gain what one wants in one night to try again the next night; (3) to love one's coworkers just as thieves love each other; (4) to be willing to risk one's life even for a little thing; (5) not to attach too much value to things even though one has risked one's life for them — just as a thief will resell a stolen article for a fraction of its real value; (6) to withstand all kinds of beatings and tortures but to remain what you are; and (7) to believe that your work is worthwhile and not be willing to change it."
Who wrote that?

A Hasidic rabbi.
Which one?

Dov Baer, the Mazid of Mezeritch.
That's the most mind-blazing chronicle of human behavior I think I've ever heard . . . How can I get a copy of that?

I brought it for you, actually. I photocopied it from a book called The Wisdom of the Jewish Mystics.
I'll put it on my wall. There's a man I would follow. That's a real hero. A real hero.

Another Hasidic rabbi once said that you can learn something from everything. Even from a train, a telephone and a telegram. From a train, he said, you can learn that in one second one can miss everything. From a telephone you can learn that what you say over here can be heard over there. And from a telegram that all words are counted and charged.
It's a cosmic statement. Where do you get all of these rabbis' sayings? Those guys are really wise. I tell you, I've heard gurus and yogis and philosophers and politicians and doctors and lawyers, teachers of all kinds . . . and these rabbis really had something going.

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They're like Sufis, but they speak and teach with more emotion.
As I said before, I don't believe in emotion. They use their hearts, their hearts don't use them.

In one second missing everything on a train . . . do you think that means that you can miss the train or miss seeing something from the train window?
That's a statement of revelation. I think it means that in one moment you can miss everything because you're not there. You just watch it, and you know you're missing it.

What about the telephone — what you say here is heard over there?
That means you're never that far away from the ultimate God.

And words being counted and charged.
That's very truthful, too. That's everything you say and think is all being added up.

How are you coming out?
You know, I'll tell you: Lately I've been catching myself. I've been in some scenes, and I say: "Holy shit, I'm not here alone." I've never had that experience before the past few months. I've felt this strange, eerie feeling that I wasn't all alone, and I'd better know it.

Do you watch what you say?
I always try to watch what I say because I try not to say anything I don't mean.

Maybe Renaldo has that problem at the end of your movie?
No, Renaldo's on top of it, he's on top of circumstance. He's not going to say too much 'cause he knows he doesn't know much. Now me, obviously I'm talking and saying things, and I will talk and say things, but that's because I think I'm going to mean them . . . or I feel I mean them now. I'm not just talking to hear myself. But Renaldo is not saying anything just because he knows that what he says is being heard and that therefore he doesn't know what to say. No, he says some very incredible and important things when he's confronted with his allusion. You know, he does say: "Do I love you like I love her? No." "Do I love her like I love you? No." He can't say any more than that . . . you don't have to know any more about him than that. That's all you have to know about him, that's all you have to know about Bob Dylan.

At that moment in the film, you cut into a performance of your song "Catfish" — "Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can." It's almost jokey after that intense preceding scene.
It's treated more in the way of music, getting back to the idea that music is truthful. And music is truthful. Everything's okay, you put on a record, someone's playing an instrument — that changes the vibe. Music attracts the angels in the universe. A group of angels sitting at a table are going to be attracted by that.

So we always get back to the music in the film. We made a point of doing it, as if we had to do it. You're not going to see music in the movies as you do in this film. We don't have any filler. You don't see any doors close or any reverse shots which are just there to take up time until you get to the next one. We didn't want to take time away from other shots.

A lot of hold shots, not enough of them. When the woman is walking down the street with that rope, that's a hold shot. David Blue is on a hold shot for six minutes the first time you see him.

I know this film is too long. It may be four hours too long — I don't care. To me, it's not long enough. I'm not concerned how long something is. I want to see a set shot. I feel a set shot. I don't feel all this motion and boom-boom. We can fast cut when we want, but the power comes in the ability to have faith that it is a meaningful shot.

You know who understood this? Andy Warhol. Warhol did a lot for American cinema. He was before his time. But Warhol and Hitchcock and Peckinpah and Tod Browning . . . they were important to me. I figured Godard had the accessibility to make what he made, he broke new ground. I never saw any film like Breathless, but once you saw it, you said: "Yeah, man, why didn't I do that, I could have done that." Okay, he did it, but he couldn't have done it in America.

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But what about a film like Sam Fuller's Forty Guns or Joseph Lewis' Guns Crazy?
Yeah, I just heard Fuller's name the other day. I think American filmmakers are the best. But I also like Kurosawa, and my favorite director is Buñuel; it doesn't surprise me that he'd say those amazing things you quoted to me before from the New Yorker.

I don't know what to tell you. In one way I don't consider myself a filmmaker at all. In another way I do. To me, Renaldo and Clara is my first real film. I don't know who will like it. I made it for a specific bunch of people and myself, and that's all. That's how I wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" — they were written for a certain crowd of people and for certain artists, too. Who knew they were going to be big songs?

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The film, in a way, is a culmination of a lot of your ideas and obsessions.
That may be true, but I hope it also has meaning for other people who aren't that familiar with my songs, and that other people can see themselves in it, because I don't feel so isolated from what's going on. There are a lot of people who'll look at the film without knowing who anybody is in it. And they'll see it more purely.

Eisenstein talked of montage in terms of attraction — shots attracting other shots — then in terms of shock, and finally in terms of fusion and synthesis, and of overtones. You seem to be really aware of the overtones in your film, do you know what I mean?
I sure do.

Eisenstein once wrote: "The Moscow Art is my deadly enemy. It is the exact antithesis of all I am trying to do. They string their emotions together to give a continuous illusion of reality. I take photographs of reality and then cut them up so as to produce emotions."
What we did was to cut up reality and make it more real . . . Everyone from the cameramen to the water boy, from the wardrobe people to the sound people was just as important as anyone else in the making of the film. There weren't any roles that well defined. The money was coming in the front door and going out the back door: The Rolling Thunder tour sponsored the movie. And I had faith and trust in the people who helped me do the film, and they had faith and trust in me.

In the movie, there's a man behind a luncheonette counter who talks a lot about truth — he's almost like the Greek chorus of the film.
Yeah, we often sat around and talked about that guy. He is the chorus.

That guy at one point talks about the Movement going astray and about how everyone got bought off. How come you didn't sell out and just make a commercial film?
I don't have any cinematic vision to sell out. It's all for me so I can't sell out. I'm not working for anybody. What was there to sell out?

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Well, movies like Welcome to L.A. and Looking for Mr. Goodbar are moralistic exploitation films — and many people nowadays think that they're significant statements. You could have sold out to the vision of the times.
Right. I have my point of view and my vision, and nothing tampers with it because it's all that I've got. I don't have anything to sell out.

Renaldo and Clara has certain similarities to the recent films of Jacques Rivette. Do you know his work?
I don't. But I wish they'd do it in this country. I'd feel a lot safer. I mean I wouldn't get so much resistance and hostility. I can't believe that people think that four hours is too long for a film. As if people had so much to do. You can see an hour movie that seems like 10 hours. I think the vision is strong enough to cut through all of that. But we may be kicked right out of Hollywood after this film is released and have to go to Bolivia. In India, they show 12-hour movies. Americans are spoiled, they expect art to be like wallpaper with no effort, just to be there.

I should have asked you this before, but how much of the film is improvised and how much determined beforehand?
About a third is improvised, about a third is determined, and about a third is blind luck.

What about, for instance, the scene in which Ronnie Hawkins tries to get a farm girl to go on tour with him, trying to convince her by saying something like: "God's not just in the country, God's in the city, too . . . God's everywhere, so let's seize the day."
In that scene, Ronnie was given five subjects to hit on. He could say anything he wanted as long as he covered five points. Obviously, God was a subject relevant to the movie. Then he talked about the Father. Now get this: In the film there's the character of the Father played by Allen Ginsberg. But in Ronnie's scene, the farmer's daughter talks about her father. That's the same father.

Another half-improvised scene is the one in which Ramone — the dead lover of Mrs. Dylan [played by Ronee Blakley] — appears as a ghost in the bathroom, and they argue in front of the mirror.

How does the audience know that that's "Mrs. Dylan"?
She's so identified later on in the film. It's just like Hitchcock. Hitchcock would lay something down, and an hour later you'd figure it out — but if you want to know, you wait and find out. It's not given to you on a platter.

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Hitchcock puts himself into each of his films — once. You put yourself in hundreds of places and times!
Right [Laughing]. I've tried to learn a lack of fear from Hitchcock.

Did the John Cassavetes movies influence you at all in scenes such as the one in the bathroom?
No, not at all. But I think it all comes from the same place. I'm probably interested in the same things Cassavetes is interested in.

What are those?
Timing, for example, and the struggle to break down complexity into simplicity.

Timing of relationships?
The relationships of human reason. It's all a matter of timing. The movie creates and holds the time. That's what it should do — it should hold that time, breathe in that time and stop time in doing that. It's like if you look at a painting by Cézanne, you get lost in that painting for that period of time. And you breathe — yet time is going by and you wouldn't know it, you're spellbound.

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In Cézanne, things that you might take as being decoration actually turn out to be substantial.
That's exactly what happens in Renaldo and Clara. Things which appear merely decorative usually, later on, become substantial. It just takes a certain amount of experience with the film to catch on to that. For example, Allen Ginsberg. You first hear his name, just his name. . .

And then you get a glimpse of him at that weird, monomaniacal poetry reading.
It's not as weird as it should be. Weirdness is exactness.

One quick question about Hurricane Carter, whom you show in the film. Do you think that he was guilty?
I don't personally think he is. I put that sequence in the film because he's a man who's not unlike anyone else in the film. He's a righteous man, a very philosophic man — he's not your typical bank robber or mercy slayer. He deserves better than what he got.

You told me that you plan to make 12 more films, but I gather you're not giving up on songwriting and touring.
I have to get back to playing music because unless I do, I don't really feel alive. I don't feel I can be a filmmaker all the time. I have to play in front of the people in order just to keep going.

In "Wedding Song" you sing: "I love you more than ever/Now that the past is gone." But in "Tangled Up in Blue" you sing: "But all the while I was alone/The past was close behind." Between these two couplets lies an important boundary.
We allow our past to exist. Our credibility is based on our past. But deep in our soul we have no past. I don't think we have a past, any more than we have a name. You can say we have a past if we have a future. Do we have a future? No. So how can our past exist if the future doesn't exist?

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So what are the songs on Blood on the Tracks about?
The present.

Why did you say "I love you more than ever/Now that the past is gone"?
That's delusion. That's gone.

And what about "And all the while I was alone/The past was close behind"?
That's more delusion. Delusion is close behind.

When your "Greek chorus" restaurant owner talks about the Movement selling itself out, you next cut to your singing "Tangled Up in Blue" which is, in part, about what has happened in and to the past.
But we're only dealing with the past in terms of being able to be healed by it. We can communicate only because we both agree that this is a glass and this is a bowl and that's a candle and there's a window here and there are lights out in the city. Now I might not agree with that. Turn this glass around and it's something else. Now I'm hiding it in a napkin. Watch it now. Now you don't even know it's there. It's the past . . . I don't even deal with it. I don't think seriously about the past, the present or the future. I've spent enough time thinking about these things and have gotten nowhere.

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But didn't you when you wrote Blood on the Tracks? Why is it so intense?
Because there's physical blood in the soul, and flesh and blood are portraying it to you. Will power. Will power is what makes it an intense album . . . but certainly not anything to do with the past or the future. Will power is telling you that we are agreeing on what is what.

What about "Idiot Wind"?
Will power.

Why have you been able to keep so in touch with your anger throughout the years, as revealed in songs like "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" and "Positively 4th Street"?
Will power. With strength of will you can do anything. With will power you can determine your destiny.

Can you really know where your destiny is leading you?
Yeah, when you're on top of your game . . . Anger and sentimentality go right next to each other, and they're both superficial. Chagall made a lot of sentimental paintings. And Voltaire wrote a lot of angry books.

What is "Idiot Wind"?
It's a little bit of both because it uses all the textures of strict philosophy, but basically it's a shattered philosophy that doesn't have a title, and it's driven across with will power. Will power is what you're responding to.

In your film you show a bearded poet in Hasidic garb who speaks in an Irish brogue and carries a gun. He tells us that he doesn't care about being fast but about being accurate. Is that how you feel now?
Yeah. Everyone admires the poet, no matter if he's a lumberjack or a football player or a car thief. If he's a poet he'll be admired and respected.

You used to say you were a trapeze artist.
Well, I see the poet in every man and woman.

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Rimbaud's grave doesn't even mention the fact that he was a poet, but rather that he was an adventurer.
Exactly. But I don't try to adopt or imitate Rimbaud in my work. I'm not interested in imitation.

I've always associated you with Rimbaud. Illuminations and Fireworks. Do you believe in reincarnation?
I believe in this — if you want to take reincarnation as a subject: Let's say a child is conceived inside of a woman's belly, and was planted there by a man.

Nine months before that seed is planted, there's nothing. Ten, twelve, thirteen months . . . two years before that seed is planted, maybe there's the germination of that seed. That comes from food intake into the bloodstream. Food can be a side of beef or a carrot on a shelf. But that's what makes it happen.

In another lifetime — you're in a supermarket and there's a package of carrots right there . . . that possibly could be you.That kind of reincarnation . . . And how did that carrot get there? It got there through the ground. It grew through the ground with the help of a piece of animal shit. It has to do with the creation and destruction of time. Which means it's immense. Five million years is nothing — it's a drop in a bucket. I don't think there's enough time for reincarnation. It would take thousands or millions of years and light miles for any real kind of reincarnation.

I think one can be conscious of different vibrations in the universe, and these can be picked up. But reincarnation from the twelfth to the twentieth century — I say it's impossible.

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So you take reincarnation on a cellular level, and when I say "Rimbaud and you," you take it as an affinity.
Maybe my spirit passed through the same places as his did. We're all wind and dust anyway, and we could have passed through many barriers at different times.

What about your line: "Sweet Goddess/Born of a blinding light and a changing wind" in the song "Tough Mama"?
That's the mother and father, the yin and yang. That's the coming together of destiny and the fulfillment of destiny.

George Harrison once said that your lines:

Look out kid
It's somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doin' it again

from "Subterranean Homesick Blues" seemed to be a wonderful description of karma.
Karma's not reincarnation. There's no proof of reincarnation and there's no proof of karma, but there's a feeling of karma. We don't even have any proof that the universe exists. We don't have any proof that we are even sitting here. We can't prove that we're really alive. How can we prove we're alive by other people saying we're alive?

All I have to do is kick a rock.
Yeah, you're saying you're alive, but the rock isn't going to tell you. The rock don't feel it.

If you take reality to be unreal, than you make unreality real. What's real to you? Art?
Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?

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What are your new songs like?
My new songs are new for me, and they accomplish what I wanted to accomplish when I started thinking about them. Very seldom do you finish something and then abandon it, and very seldom do you abandon something with the attitude that you've gotten what you started out to get. Usually you think, well, it's too big, you get wasted along the way someplace, and it just trails off . . . and what you've got is what you've got is what you've got and you just do the best with it. But very seldom do you ever come out with what you put in. And I think I've done that now for the first time since I was writing two songs a day way back when. My experience with film helped me in writing the songs. I probably wouldn't have written any more songs if I hadn't made this film. I would have been bummed out. I wouldn't have been able to do what I knew could be done.

I know I'm being nostalgic, but I loved hearing you sing "Little Moses" in Renaldo and Clara.
I used to play that song when I performed at Gerde's Folk City. It's an old Carter Family song, and it goes something like:

Away by the waters so wide
The ladies were winding their way,
When Pharoah's little daughter
Stepped down in the water
To bathe in the cool of the day.
And before it got dark,
She opened the ark,
And saw the sweet infant so gay.

Then little Moses grows up, slays the Egyptian, leads the Jews — it's a great song. And I thought it fit pretty well into the movie.

Everybody's in this film: the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Beethoven. Who is going to understand this film? Where are the people to understand this film — a film which needs no understanding?

Who understands "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"?
I do . . . It's strange. I finally feel in the position of someone who people want to interview enough that they'll fly you into town, put you up in a hotel, pay all your expenses and give you a tour of the city. I'm finally in that position.

I once went to see the king of the Gypsies in southern France. This guy had 12 wives and 100 children. He was in the antique business and had a junkyard, but he'd had a heart attack before I'd come to see him. All his wives and children had left. And the gypsy clan had left him with only one wife and a couple of kids and a dog. What happens is that after he dies they'll all come back. They smell death and they leave. That's what happens in life. And I was very affected by seeing that.

Did you feel something like that in the past five years?
You're talking about 1973? I don't even remember 1975. I'm talking about the spring of 1975. There was a lack of targets at that time. But I don't remember what happened last week.

But you probably remember your childhood clearly.
My childhood is so far away . . . it's like I don't even remember being a child. I think it was someone else who was a child. Did you ever think like that? I'm not sure that what happened to me yesterday was true.

But you seem sure of yourself.
I'm sure of my dream self. I live in my dreams. I don't really live in the actual world.

'I'll let you be in my dreams
if I can be in yours.'
I said that."

Bob Dylan: 1963

See all of our Bob Dylan at 70 coverage here.

This story is from the January 26th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 257: January 26, 1978