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?
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 hellbent 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.
Do you find yourself being a more religious person these days?
A religious person? Religion is supposedly a force for positive good. Where can you look in the world and see that religion has been a force for positive good? Where can you look at humanity and say, "Humanity has been uplifted by a connection to a godly power"?
Meaning organized religion?
Corporations are religions. It depends what you talk about with a religion. . . . Anything is a religion.
At one point, you took on Christianity in a very serious way, and then Judaism. Where are you now with all that?
Religion is something that is mostly outward appearance. Faith is a different thing. How many religions are there in the world? Quite a few, actually.
What is your faith these days?
Faith doesn't have a name. It doesn't have a category. It's oblique. So it's unspeakable. We degrade faith by talking about religion.
When you write songs where you say you walk in "the mystical garden," there's a lot of religious imagery.
In the mystic garden. That kind of imagery is just as natural to me as breathing, because the world of folk songs has enveloped me for so long. My terminology all comes from folk music. It doesn't come from the radio or TV or computers or any of that stuff. It's embedded in the folk music of the English language.
Much of which comes from the Bible.
Yeah, a lot of it is biblical, a lot of it is just troubadour stuff, a lot of it is stuff that Uncle Dave Macon would sing off the top of his head.
What do you take faith in?
Nature. Just elemental nature. I'm still tramping my way through the forest, really, on daily excursions. Nature doesn't change. And if there is any war going on on a big level today, it's against nature.
On Modern Times, it seems like you're dealing with the forces of reckoning.
Reckoning? You mean every day is a judgment? That's all instilled in me. I wouldn't know how to get rid of it.
How is it instilled in you?
It's instilled in me by the way I grew up, where I come from, early feelings. . . .
Is it something you see as coming or something that's happening right now?
We really don't know much about the great Judgment Day that's coming, because we've got nobody to come back and tell us about it. We can only assume certain things because of what we've been taught.
What do you assume is happening in the world around us when you walk in the mystical garden?
You see things closing in, you see the darkness coming.
I could have come up with that line thirty years ago. This is all the same thing from different angles.
It's like the landscape of "Desolation Row," only you've changed from outrage to acceptance.
I think as we get older, we all come to that feeling, one way or another. We've seen enough happening to know that things are a certain way, and even if they're changed, they're still going to be that certain way.
Therefore, we have to accept it?
I've always accepted that. I don't think I've thought about things any differently in the whole time I've been around, really.
You've resisted talking about your past for years. In Chronicles and No Direction Home, you're writing about your legacy. Why are you doing it now?
Well, it probably was because enough things have resolved themselves, and I had an editor who was a good ally. I could have probably done it earlier, but I just didn't have the encouragement.
Did you enjoy it?
When I did it, I did, yeah. What I didn't like about it was the constant rereading and revising, because I'm not used to that. A song is nothing compared to some kind of literary thing. A song, you can keep it with you, you can hum it, you can kind of go over things when you're out and around, you can keep it in your mind. It's all small. But you can't do that with a book. If you want to check it, you have to reread what you've done. It's very time-consuming, and I didn't like that part of it.
If I wasn't inspired to do it, I wouldn't do it. So great flashes would come to me. These waves would come, and I would have to either mark things down or have to go back to where I could write things and keep typewriters here and there and do that. But it was enjoyable in that I only did it when I was inspired to do it and never touched it when I wasn't. I never tried to manufacture the inspiration.
I was struck by your account of coming to New York when you were young, going to the public library, and by the very deliberate and methodical fashion in which you went about learning your craft and building your knowledge.
But I was learning everything I needed to learn from real live people who were really there at the time, so I was in it firsthand. I think that's where my feelings came from, in terms of all of them early songs. Even songs at later dates, it's "What is human nature really like?" Not "What am I like, what do I like, what don't I like, what am I all about?" Not that kind of thing, but "What are all these invisible spirits all about?" I think that's where songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" come from. It's a more ancient struggle than what might currently be seen as the fulcrum of where the lyrics are coming out of.
Are you surprised that you made a record today that's as vital and as important and as creative as any you've made in the past?
No. No, I knew I was going to make it. I'm surprised that it sold as many records as it did, so a lot of people must feel a similar way.
Why do you think people reacted so strongly to you in the 1960s ? What did you reach in people that resonated so deeply?
Because I had – and perhaps still do have – that originality that others don't have. Because I come from a time when you had to be original, and you had to have some kind of God-given talent just to begin with. You couldn't manufacture that. Just about everybody and anybody who was around in the Fifties and Sixties had a degree of originality. That was the only way you could get in the door. That was just a necessary part of your makeup, which needed to be there.
My thing was never heard or seen before, but it didn't come out of a vacuum. There's a direct correlation between something like "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blue Yodel No. 9," by Jimmie Rodgers. It just doesn't spring out of the earth without rhyme or reason.
Nobody had heard stuff said that way or spoken that way.
But nobody had heard the stuff that we heard. You came up in the Fifties. There was more freethinking then, there wasn't such mass conformity as there is today. Today, a freethinking person gets ridiculed. Back then, they were just sort of ostracized and maybe avoided. The popular consensus at the time, in this time we're speaking about, was a very mild form of entertainment; it was boring and uninteresting. Beneath that surface, though, there was an entirely different world.
And you tapped into that world?
We all did. Some of us decided we could live in this world. Others decided, well, they could visit it once in a while, but it wasn't necessarily their thing.
So you lived in it.
And everybody else was just visiting?
Yeah, like tourists. Like at the sock hop.
So people entered your world and were awed by it, but couldn't live in it?
No, I don't think you could, any more than . . . did you ever see Little Richard perform? You could be awed by it, but you were not a part of it. Unless, of course, you wanted to be a part of it, then it was open to you.
Last night, you chose to close with "All Along the Watchtower," which has now become an anthem of yours.
Did you rediscover that song because of Hendrix?
Had you heard that before, in your mind, what he did with it?
No, that record's kind of a mystery to me, anyway. When he made it, it caused me to sit up and pay attention. Like, "Oh, there might be more to that than I had dreamed."
What did you do from Highway 61 Revisited last night, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"? How did you choose that one? I love the rearrangement.
You know, it's not rearranged. There's a different dynamic. The dynamic on all of those songs can change from night to night, because of the style of music that I've grown accustomed to playing, which I always could play. But you can't do everything. You can't just display everything at the same time.
You change them to make it more fun for yourself?
Well, it's more contrived than that.
Why is it more contrived?
It's because I have so many different types of songs, speaking musically: fast ballads, slow ballads, minor-key twelve-bar things, major-key twelve-bar things, twelve-bar pieces that differ greatly in the dynamics of the rhythm, which causes the lyrics, the way you deliver them, to change from night to night. It's based on an infinite system where you don't necessarily have to feel good to play it, but if you just follow the rules, you can do different things every night.
Take "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," for instance, which you did last night. Don't people come to the show and want to hear that original, mournful version?
I don't know who would, unless it's somebody who bought that record in 1960-what. But it's the same song, and I'm the same person, and it's always been there. Those early songs I made with just an acoustic guitar. In a way, those are like demos, because that's what people do when they demo a song, they just go in and play it with their acoustic guitar, and that's what it is. Then they develop the song later.
Do you think your performance of it in this way gives it a different meaning? Originally it was lost and sad; now it's assertive.
Yeah. Astrologically, you're dealing with a different day every day of the week. Every day is a different color, a different planet rules it. You could say the same thing, you could feel the same way, you could write the same thing, but if it's on a Tuesday, it's going to be different than if it comes out on Friday. That's just a fact. You can ask any astrologer.
When you see Bono do his Africa relief work or Bruce Springsteen go out and do the Vote for Change Tour, do you think that rock music can be a voice for change?
Maybe to some people it can. A person feels good when they do charity work. What Bono does is a good thing. Bruce has got a certain degree of power. He can use that power any way he sees fit. You have to applaud him for it. He's not playing around, and he means what he says.
But do you think rock music is a voice for change?
It's a change in lifestyle. I don't know. I've never been affected by it that way, so I can't really say.
When you heard music as a young kid, there was a calling of your talent, but wasn't there also a calling of "My life can be different"?
Yeah, but that was a calling. People who have a calling to play it are different than people who just play it for frivolity, people who have . . . whose motives aren't sincere. You talk about musicians – maybe one in a thousand are worth listening to. In terms of what they have to say, in terms of what they're putting forth, in terms of the world they're involved in, in terms of moving you from here to there. There's not many musicians capable of that.
A few of your friends and contemporaries: What do you think of Neil Young?
Neil is very sincere, if nothing else. He's sincere, and he's got a God-given talent, with that voice of his, and the melodic strain that runs through absolutely everything he does. He could be at his most thrashy, but it's still going to be elevated by some melody. Neil's the only one who does that. There's nobody in his category.
Tell me about George Harrison.
George got stuck with being the Beatle that had to fight to get songs on records because of Lennon and McCartney. Well, who wouldn't get stuck? If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he'd have been probably just as big as anybody. George had an uncanny ability to just play chords that didn't seem to be connected in any kind of way and come up with a melody and a song. I don't know anybody else who could do that, either. What can I tell you? He was from that old line of playing where every note was a note to be counted.
You were very close, right?
What was the nature of your friendship?
We'd known each other since the old days, really. I knew the Beatles really early on, all of them.
What was your relationship with John Lennon like? Somewhat competitive?
Yeah. Only to a certain extent, but not really. Him and McCartney both, really, they were fantastic singers. Lennon, to this day, it's hard to find a better singer than Lennon was, or than McCartney was and still is. I'm in awe of McCartney. He's about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all. And he's never let up. He's got the gift for melody, he's got the rhythm, he can play any instrument. He can scream and shout as good as anybody, and he can sing a ballad as good as anybody. And his melodies are effortless, that's what you have to be in awe of. . . . He's just so damn effortless. I just wish he'd quit [laughs]. Everything that comes out of his mouth is just framed in melody.
What do you think accounted for that period in the Sixties that was so remarkably creative?
It was a more singular time. I think what we talked about in the early part of the interview is something to be thought about: the first atom bomb that went off. That was explosive, and it gave rise to a different type of personality. You had fiery people, whereas before, everything was more in the backwoods and more secretive. The same things were going on back then, they were just more isolated or taking place in the upper rooms. That's what I think, anyway. I don't know why it was a more powerful period of time. I don't feel it was any less uncomfortable than it is today.
What does it feel like to grow older? Do you feel wiser? Happier? More creaky in your bones?
Things begin to happen that you never considered before. You realize how fragile a human being is and how something insignificant, like what happened to your finger or your toe or something like that, may be enough to really sit you down for a while. I've certainly had trouble in those areas. As you go on, you realize life goes by at a very fast pace, so you've got to slow everything down, because it's going by too quick. I think we all realize it's still going down fast, and we're just not quite as agile as we used to be.
Do you feel wiser?
Wiser? Not necessarily.
I don't think happier. . . . Happiness to me is just being able to breathe well.
You seem happier to me, less angry and amped up and pissed off.
Oh. It depends what hour of the day you catch me in, though. It'll get better before it gets worse.
Do you still try to reach your audience every night, every listener there?
In the same way that the Stanley Brothers would have done or Chuck Berry would do: try to display talent in a way that could be conceivable.
Are you thinking about that person in the last row or up there in the balcony?
No, I'm not. I know a lot of performers say they do, but I don't know how much they really do. To me, the relationship between a performer and the audience is definitely anything but a buddy-buddy thing, any more than me going in and admiring a Van Gogh painting and thinking that me and him are on the same level because I like his painting.
So you're there to do your art, and they're there to appreciate it and try to understand it.
I would hope so. I think so.
How do you describe your influence when you first came out?
Maybe just like what the books say, that my stuff allowed people to write and perform stuff they felt like singing, which hadn't been done before. But I don't think about that as much of an influence.
You just gave them the opportunity to open up their own thinking?
Yeah, but I never opened up my own thinking. My stuff was never about me, per se, so everybody who came after who thought it was about me, per se, or them, per se, they took the wrong road.
Do you think you have any influence on things right now?
Well, how many performers are out there doing what we do night after night? How many shows are you going to go to? We play on some of these festivals, and me and my band are the only performers there doing anything remotely close to what we're doing, in the type of music that it is. It's almost like Tony Bennett or something – it's, like, archaic. You have to be thankful that you still have a generous audience.
This story is from the May 3, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.