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Bob Dylan on Old America and 'Modern Times'

To celebrate forty years of Rolling Stone, we present interviews with the artists and leaders who helped shape our time

May 3, 2007
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan in New York.
John Cohen/Getty Images

You've been on the road pretty steadily for forty years.
I like the originality of being on the road. It's real life, in real time.

What is it that is so enjoyable?
The groupies and the drinking and the parties backstage . . . [Laughs] Why would anybody? Performers are performers. Why do you still edit your magazine?

It's something I do well, and one gets pleasure out of something one does well.
Exactly. It's the one thing in life you find you can do well.

You said that going out on the road makes you write more.
Yeah. That would be true, to a certain degree. But if you don't have to write songs, why write them? Especially if you've got so many you could never play – there wouldn't be enough time to play them all, anyway. I've got enough where I don't really feel the urge to write anything additional.

You just released this amazing new record. The title, Modern Times, seems to be a very deliberate statement.
Well, I don't know. Can you think of a better title?

Highway 61 Revisited. How did you decide on that title?
Titles are something that come after you've done whatever it is you've done. I don't set out with a title. It was something that probably just passed through my mind. Why, does it have some impact?

It seems that you set out to assess America right now. Is there a general theme to the record?
You would have to ask every individual person who hears it what it would mean. It would probably mean many things on many levels to many different kinds of people.

To me, it seems that it's about war and corruption.
Well, all my records are, to a certain degree. That's the nature of them.

Your records are about power, knowledge, salvation.
That would be not so easy for me to relate to, what a record is about. It is a statement, it's its own statement, its own entity, rather than being about something else. If I was a painter . . . I don't paint the chair, I would paint feelings about the chair.

You're a student of history. If you were to take the current moment and put it in a historical context, where do you think we are?
That would be hard to do, unless you put yourself ten years into the future. It's not the nature of a song to imply what's going on under any current philosophy any more than . . . how can I explain it? Like all the music that came out of the First and Second World Wars. Did you ever notice how lighthearted it was? If you listen to the songs from that period, you would think that there's nothing gloomy on the horizon.

Do you think it's gloomy on the horizon?
In what sense do you mean?

Bob, come on.
No, you come on. In what sense do you mean that? If you're talking about in a political sense …

In a general political, spiritual, historical sense. You're talking about the end of times on this record, you've got a very gloomy vision of the world, you're saying, "I'm facing the end of my life and looking at all this. . . . "
Aren't we all always doing that?

No, some people are trying to avoid it. But I'm trying to interview you, and you're not being very helpful with this.
Jann, have I ever been helpful?

You have been in the past. You gave some really great interviews in the last several years.
Yeah, but I wasn't on tour when I was doing them; I could be fully present. But now, I'm thinking about amps going out and . . .

You don't have people taking care of those for you?
You would hope.

You can't find a good road manager, is that the problem here?
Yeah [laughs].

What can I do to get you to take this seriously?
I'm taking it seriously.

You're not.
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.

Oh, please.
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.

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“Whoomp! (There It Is)”

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Cecil Glenn — a.k.a., "D.C." — was a cook at Magic City, a nude dance club in Atlanta, when he first heard women shout "Whoomp — there it is!" Inspired by the party chant, he and partner Steve "Roll'n" Gibson wrote a song around it. Undaunted by label rejections, they borrowed $2,500 from Glenn's parents and pressed 800 singles, which quickly sold out in the Atlanta area. A record deal came soon after. Glenn said the song was meant for positive partying. "If you're going to say 'Whoomp there it is,' and you're doing something negative, we'd rather it not have come out of your mouth."

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