What can I do to get you to take this seriously?
I'm taking it seriously.
Of course I am. You're the one who's here to be celebrated. Forty years. . . . forty years with a magazine that obviously now has intellectual recognition. Did you ever think that would happen when you started?
I was taking it seriously.
Look how far you've come. You're the one to be interviewed. I want to know just as much from you as you want to know from me. I would love to have you on our radio show and interview you for an hour.
I'm going to do that as soon as we're done with this. We'll just turn it around and flip it and do that.
You've seen more music changes than me.
No, no please. You please. You've seen it all from the top. I've seen it maybe from . . . also near the top.
From the bottom up, what's the view today? Modern Times is not lighthearted. And it seems like you are worried about the times we're in and what we may or may not have learned as a country. It seems not distant from Highway 61 or earlier records where you describe a pretty difficult situation in the country, but nothing in this record indicates anything has gotten better – indeed, it's gotten worse.
Well, America's a different place than it was when those other records were made. It was more like Europe used to be, where every territory was different – every county was different, every state was different. A different culture, different architecture, different food. You could go a hundred miles in the States, and it would be like going from Stalingrad to Paris or something. It's just not that way anymore. It's all homogenized. People wear the same clothes, eat the same food, think the same things.
This style of music, which punctuates my music, comes from an older period of time, a period of time that I lived through. So it's very accessible to me. Someone who was not around at that period of time, it wouldn't be accessible to them. For them, it would be more of a revivalist thing or a historical thing. You're from that time, too. I'm sure you know all these same things. The first time I ever went to London, which was in the early Sixties, '61, they still had the rubble and the damaged buildings from Hitler's bombs. That was how close the complete destruction of Europe was to the period of time when I was coming up.
Robert Johnson had just died, three years before I was born. All the great original artists were still there to be heard, felt and seen. Once that gets into your blood, you can't get rid of it that easily.
What gets in your blood?
That whole culture, that period of time, that old America.
You mean the 1920s and 1930s?
It wouldn't have made sense to talk to somebody who was, say, in their fifties [back then], to ask him, "What was it like in the late 1800s or 1900s?" It wouldn't have interested anybody. But for some reason, the 1950s and 1960s interest people now. A part of the reason, if not the whole reason, is the atom bomb. The atom bomb fueled the entire world that came after it. It showed that indiscriminate killing and indiscriminate homicide on a mass level was possible . . . whereas if you look at warfare up until that point, you had to see somebody to shoot them or maim them, you had to look at them. You don't have to do that anymore.
With the atom bomb, man – suddenly, and for the first time – had the power to utterly destroy mankind.
I think so. I'm sure that fueled all aspects of society. I know it gave rise to the music we were playing. If you look at all these early performers, they were atom-bomb-fueled. Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran . . .
How were they atom-bomb-fueled?
They were fast and furious, their songs were all on the edge. Music was never like that before, Lyrically, you had the blues singers, but Ma Rainey wasn't singing about the stuff that Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee were singing about, nobody was singing with that type of fire and destruction. They paid a heavy price for that, because obviously the older generation took notice and kind of got rid of them as quickly as they could recognize them. Jerry Lee got ostracized, Chuck Berry went to jail, Elvis, of course, we know what happened to him. Buddy Holly in a plane crash, Little Richard, all that stuff . . .
Then, in this new record, you're still dealing with the cultural effects of the bomb?
I think so.
But doing it in the musical styles of earlier generations? I don't hear much rock in there.
You don't hear any rock in there, because I'm not familiar with rock music. It's not something that I feel assimilated into. It's too spacey, there's too much space in it. It doesn't get to the point quick enough, if there is a point. It's what's taken over, but the rock & roll element's been kind of taken out . . . I don't know how to put it. It either reaches you or it doesn't reach you. I just like the older music better.
What do you think of the historical moment we're in today? We seem to be hell-bent on destruction. Do you worry about global warming?
Where's the global warming? It's freezing here.
It seems a pretty frightening outlook.
I think what you're driving at, though, is we expect politicians to solve all our problems. I don't expect politicians to solve anybody's problems.
Who is going to solve them?
Our own selves. We've got to take the world by the horns and solve our own problems. The world owes us nothing, each and every one of us, the world owes us not one single thing. Politicians or whoever.
Do you think America is a force for good in the world today?
But in practical fact . . .
The practical fact is always different than theory.
What do you think the practical fact is right now?
With what's going on? Human nature hasn't really changed in 3,000 years. Maybe the obstacles and actualities and daily customs change, but human nature really hasn't changed. It cannot change. It's not made to change.
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