What is your own description of what the songs on Love and Theft are about?
You're putting me in a difficult position. A question like that can't be answered in the terms that you're asking. A song is just a mood that an artist is attempting to convey. To be truthful, I haven't listened to this record since it was made — since probably last spring. Actually, I don't need to hear it. I just need to look at the lyrics, and we can start from there. But I really don't know what the summation of all these songs would really represent. [Pauses again, drumming his fingers on the table] The whole album deals with power. If life teaches us anything, it's that there's nothing that men and women won't do to get power. The album deals with power, wealth, knowledge and salvation — the way I look at it. If it's a great album — which I hope it is — it's a great album because it deals with great themes. It speaks in a noble language. It speaks of the issues or the ideals of an age in some nation, and hopefully, it would also speak across the ages. It'd be as good tomorrow as it is today and would've been as good yesterday. That's what I was trying to make happen, because just to make another record at this point in my career . . . career, by the way, isn't how I look at what I do. Career is a French word. It means "carrier." It's something that takes you from one place to the other. I don't feel like what I do qualifies to be called a career. It's more of a calling.
This album holds ruminations every bit as dark as those found in Time Out of Mind, but this time you put them across without the previous album's spooky musical ambience. Since you produced this album yourself, you must have wanted a different sound.
The way the record is presented is just as important as what it's presenting. Therefore, anybody — even if they'd been a great producer — would only have gotten in the way on this, and there really wasn't a lot of time. I would've loved to have somebody help me make this record, but I couldn't think of anybody on short notice. And besides, what could they do? For this particular record it wouldn't have mattered.
There's also a good deal of humor on this record — maybe more than on any record of yours since the 1960s.
Well . . .
C'mon, there are some pretty funny lines on this album — like the exchange between Romeo and Juliet in "Floater (Too Much to Ask)," and that knock-knock joke in "Po' Boy."
Yeah, funny . . . and dark. But still, in my own mind, not really poking fun at the principles that would guide a person's life or anything. Basically, the songs deal with what many of my songs deal with — which is business, politics and war, and maybe love interest on the side. That would be the first level you would have to appreciate them on.
In a recent interview you said that you saw this album as autobiographical.
Oh, absolutely. It would be autobiographical on every front. It obviously plays by its own set of rules, but a listener wouldn't really have to be aware of those rules when hearing it. But absolutely. It's not like the songs were written by some kind of Socrates, you know, some kind of buffoon, the man about town pretending to be happy [laughs]. There wouldn't be any of that in this record.
Both Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft have been received as some of the best work you've ever done. Does songwriting now feel more accessible to you than it did before?
Well, I follow the dictates of my conscience to write a song, and I don't really have a time or place I set aside. I don't really preconceive it. I couldn't tell you when I could come up with something. It just happens at odd times, here and there. It's amazing to me that I'm still able to do it, really. And I do them as well as I seem able to handle it. When you're young, you're probably writing stronger and a lot quicker, but in my case, I just try to use the traditional values of logic and reason no matter what age I've ever written any of my songs.
This record was released on September 11th — the same date as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I've talked with several people in the time since then who have turned to Love and Theft because they find something in it that matches the spirit of dread and uncertainty of our present conditions. For my part, I've kept circling around a line from "Mississippi": "Sky full of fire, pain pourin' down." Is there anything you would like to say about your reaction to the events of that day?
One of those Rudyard Kipling poems, "Gentlemen-Rankers," comes to my mind: "We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth/We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung/And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth/God help us, for we knew the worst too young!" If anything, my mind would go to young people at a time like this. That's really the only way to put it.
You mean because of what's at stake for them right now, as we apparently go to war?
Exactly. I mean, art imposes order on life, but how much more art will there be? We don't really know. There's a secret sanctity of nature. How much more of that will there be? At the moment, the rational mind's way of thinking wouldn't really explain what's happened. You need something else, with a capital E, to explain it. It's going to have to be dealt with sooner or later, of course.
Do you see any hope for the situation we find ourselves in?
I don't really know what I could tell you. I don't consider myself an educator or an explainer. You see what it is that I do, and that's what I've always done. But it is time now for great men to come forward. With small men, no great thing can be accomplished at the moment. Those people in charge, I'm sure they've read Sun-Tzu, who wrote The Art of War in the sixth century. In there he says, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat." And he goes on to say, "If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." Whoever's in charge, I'm sure they would have read that.
Things will have to change. And one of these things that will have to change: People will have to change their internal world.
This story is from the November 22nd, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.
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