You said a moment ago that this happened during a time when you weren't being seen as relevant and didn't want to be seen as relevant. Though you would continue to tour through most of the 1990s, more than seven years would pass between albums of new songs. Some biographers have more or less referred to this as a time when you seemed adrift and confused — a time in which you seemed unhappy and disconnected from your music. What was going on during this period?
I really thought I was through making records. I didn't want to make any more. I thought, "I'll make a couple more records and just have them be folk songs, in a really simplified way — no big production or anything." Beyond that, I didn't want to record anymore. I was more concerned with what I do in personal appearances. It was clear to me I had more than enough songs to play. Forever.
See, I'd made that record with Lanois in 1988 [Oh Mercy]. I was already playing over a hundred shows a year at that point. I decided I would just go back to live performing, which I hadn't really thought I'd done since maybe 1966. Some performers make a lot of sacrifices to make a record — they forfeit an abundance of time and energy. I did that with Lanois back then, and it worked out rather well. But then around that same time I was making a Traveling Wilburys record, and then I started this record with Don Was, Under the Red Sky. All of this was happening in the same period. Looking back on it now, it seems kind of unthinkable. I would leave the Wilburys and go down to Sunset Sound and record Under the Red Sky simultaneously, all within a set schedule because I needed to be in Prague or someplace on a certain date. And then both records — the Wilburys record and Under the Red Sky — I'd just leave them hanging and see the finished product later. All those things happened at the same time, and that was when I found I'd really had it. My rational mind didn't know what to make of that. I'd really had my fill. I was going to stick to my declaration and definitely not make any records. I didn't feel the need to announce that, but I had come to that conclusion. I didn't care to record no more. I'd rather play on the road. Recording was too mental. Also, I didn't feel I was writing any of the songs that I really wanted to write. I wasn't getting the help I needed to record right, I didn't like the sound of the records. . . . I don't really remember. It was just . . . one thing leads to another, you know? I reckoned I was done with it. But then you go out and play live shows, and you do get thoughts, and you do get an inspiration here and there. So I just reluctantly started writing things down, in the way I described that led to the making of Time Out of Mind.
Did you ever consider just flat-out retiring?
Well, I really don't have any defined retirement plan! More than a few times I probably felt I had retired. I felt I'd had retired in 1966 and 1967. I was fulfilling my recording contracts, but outside of that I think I felt like I had retired from the cultural scene at the time.
Did you have comparable feelings at any point in the 1980s or 1990s?
Something would always come up that put the idea off. But sure, at times I felt like, "I don't want to do this anymore." Then something would always lead me to something else, which would keep me at it.
According to a couple of recent biographies, the late 1980s and early 1990s were troubling for you in other ways. Some people have claimed that these were years when you were drinking too frequently — and that your drinking was interfering with your music or was a reflection of a deeper unhappiness for you. According to these biographers, it wasn't until you quit drinking — some time in the early 1990s — that your performances and writing really rebounded.
That's completely inaccurate. [Laughs] I can drink or not drink. I don't know why people would associate drinking or not drinking with anything that I do, really. I've never thought about it one way or another. For some reason there's a certain crowd — if you want to call it a crowd — that would assume certain things about me or anybody which simply aren't true. They perceive it by appearances. They might hear rumors. They might start rumors, but it's their own minds going to work. Therefore, if they believe a certain thing about that person, then any act that person does they would apply it to that. "Oh, he fell down — he must be drinking." Or, "He smashed his car into a tree. I guess he was hopped-up on something." But those are people who are celebrity-minded. They live in their own universe, and they try to project it outwardly, and it doesn't work. Usually, those people have a touch of insanity, and they have to be knocked down to earth. It's like you got to choose. Either there's order or there's chaos, and you got to choose. People of that nature don't seem to understand either one. And they apply it to, well, in this country, to celebrities. But I don't think any of us who could fit the description of that can pay any mind to what people think or how many books are written or any of that if we want to exist and have a certain amount of free will about what we do. I mean, these kind of people are the ones who would make laws against free will, that are contrary to free will. They're just not serious people. Unfortunately, I guess, all performers have a bunch of them hanging on. Anybody and everybody can get typecast, you know, in a second, by just doing great work. But the truth is, it's my job to drive my own car, if you know what I mean. It's not somebody else's job.
But something did seem to turn around for you in the early 1990s. You've said as much yourself. You've spoken about some epiphany that changed your purpose and commitment — some recognition that came to you onstage. You've described it as a moment when you realized that what was important was not your legend or how that weighed you down. What was important, you seemed to say, was for you to stand by your work — and that meant playing music on a regular basis, no matter who you were playing it for.
It happened — or had its beginning, anyway — when I was playing some shows with the Grateful Dead [in 1987]. They wanted to play some of my songs that I hadn't played in years and years. I had already been on a long string of dates with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and night after night I was only playing maybe fifteen to twenty of the songs I had written, and I couldn't really grasp the older ones. But when I began to play with the Grateful Dead, those are the only songs they wanted to play: the ones that I wasn't playing with Petty. I really had some sort of epiphany then on how to do those songs again, using certain techniques that I had never thought about. When I went back and played with Petty again, I was using those techniques, and I found I could play anything. But then there was a show in Switzerland when the techniques failed me, and I had to come up with another one really quick. I was kind of standing on a different foundation at that point and realized, "I could do this." I found out I could do it effortlessly — that I could sing night after night after night and never get tired. I could project it out differently.
Not only that, but Lonnie Johnson, the blues-jazz player, showed me a technique on the guitar in maybe 1964. I hadn't really understood it when he first showed it to me. It had to do with the mathematical order of the scale on a guitar, and how to make things happen, where it gets under somebody's skin and there's really nothing they can do about it, because it's mathematical. He didn't even play that way himself. He played mostly jazz — a kind of guitar I can't play at all, though when I think of a guitar player, I think of somebody like Eddie Lang or Charlie Christian or Freddie Green. I don't listen to many people in the rock & roll area. Anyway, he just told me, "I want to show you something. You might be able to use this someday." It's more kind of an ancient way of playing. I always wanted to use this technique, but I never was really able to do it with my own songs.
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