I want to step back a bit, to those years preceding Time Out of Mind. First, I'd like to ask you about an occasion at an earlier Grammy Awards, in 1991, when you received a Lifetime Achievement Award. At that point, America was deep into its involvement in the Gulf War. You came out onstage that night with a small band and played a severe version of "Masters of War" — a performance that remains controversial even today. Some critics found it rushed and embarrassing, others thought it was brilliant. Then, after Jack Nicholson presented you the award, you made the following comment: "My daddy [once said], 'Son, it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your ways.'" I've always thought that was one of the more remarkable things I've heard you say. What was going through your mind at that time?
I don't remember the time and place my father said that to me, and maybe he didn't say it to me in that exact way. I was probably paraphrasing the whole idea, really — I'm not even sure I paraphrased in the proper context. It might've been something that just sort of popped in my head at that time. The only thing I remember about that whole episode, as long as you bring it up, was that I had a fever — like 104. I was extremely sick that night. Not only that, but I was disillusioned with the entire musical community and environment. If I remember correctly, the Grammy people called me months before then and said that they wanted to give me this Lifetime Achievement honor. Well, we all know that they give those things out when you're old — when you're nothing, a has-been. Everybody knows that, right? So I wasn't sure whether it was a compliment or an insult. I wasn't really sure about it. And then they said, "Here's what we want to do. . . ." I don't want to name these performers because you know them, but one performer was going to sing "Like a Rolling Stone." Another performer was going to sing "The Times [They] Are A-Changin'." Another was going to sing "All Along the Watchtower," and another was going to sing "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." They were going to sing bits of all these songs, and then they were going to have somebody introduce me, and I would just collect this Lifetime Achievement Award, say a few words and go on my merry way. The performers, they told me, had all agreed to it, so there really wasn't anything for me to do except show up.
Then the Gulf War broke out. The Grammy people called and said, "Listen, we're in a tight fix. So-and-so, who was going to sing 'Times Are A-Changin',' is afraid to get on an airplane. So-and-so, who was going to sing 'Like a Rolling Stone,' doesn't want to travel because he just had another baby and he doesn't want to leave his family." That's understandable. But then so-and-so, who was going to sing "It's All Over, Baby Blue," was in Africa and didn't want to take a chance flying to New York, and so-and-so, who was going to sing "All Along the Watchtower," wasn't sure he wanted to be at any high-visibility place right then, because it may be a little dangerous. So, they said, "Could you come and sing? Could you fill the time?" And I said, "What about the guy who's going to introduce me [Jack Nicholson]?" They said, "He's OK. He's coming." Anyway, I got disillusioned with all the characters at that time — with their inner character and their ability to be able to keep their word and their idealism and their insecurity. All the ones that have the gall to thrust their tortured inner psyches on an outer world but can't at least be true to their word. From that point on, that's what the music business and all the people in it represented to me. I just lost all respect for them. There's a few that are decent and God-fearing and will stand up in a righteous way. But I wouldn't want to count on most of them. And maybe me singing "Masters of War" . . . I've said before that song's got nothing to do with being anti-war. It has more to do with the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower was talking about. Anyway, I went up and did that, but I was sick, and I felt they put me through a whole lot of trouble over nothing. I just tried to disguise myself the best I could. That was more along the line of . . . you know, the press was finding me irrelevant then, and it couldn't have happened at a better time, really, because I wouldn't have wanted to have been relevant. I wouldn't have wanted to be someone that the press was examining — every move. I wouldn't have ever been able to develop again in any kind of artistic way.
But certainly you knew by playing "Masters of War" at the height of the Gulf War, it would be received a certain way.
Yeah, but I wasn't looking at it that way. I knew the lyrics of the song were holding up, and I brought maybe two or three ferocious guitar players, you know? And I always had a song for any occasion.
Truthfully, I was just disgusted in having to be there after they told me what they intended to do and then backed out. I probably shouldn't have even gone myself, and I wouldn't have gone, except the other guy [Nicholson] was true to his word. [Taps his fingers rapidly on the tabletop]
What about that statement you made, about the wisdom your father had shared with you? It could almost be read as a personal statement — you talking about your own life. Or was it about the world around you?
I was thinking more in terms of, like, we're living in a Machiavellian world, whether we like it or we don't. Any act that's immoral, as long as it succeeds, it's all right. To apply that type of meaning to the way I was feeling that night probably has more to do with it than any kind of conscious effort to bring out some religiosity, or any kind of biblical saying about God, one way or another. You hear a lot about God these days: God, the beneficent; God, the all-great; God, the Almighty; God, the most powerful; God, the giver of life; God, the creator of death. I mean, we're hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary. So people better be able to deal with that, too.
That's interesting, because so many people think that God is constant, you know, and unchanging.
But "arbitrary" would seem to imply a rather different view. Is there something about the word "arbitrary" that you would like to clarify or perhaps that I'm not understanding?
No. I mean, you can look it up in the dictionary. I don't consider myself a sophist or a cynic or a stoic or some kind of bourgeois industrialist, or whatever titles people put on people. Basically, I'm just a regular person. I don't walk around all the time out of my mind with inspiration. So what can I tell you about that? Anyway, I wasn't in a good state of mind that night. I was frustrated. It's difficult to attach yourself to the past or be paralyzed by the past in any kind of way, so I just said it and moved on. I was glad to have gotten out of there, really.
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