Bob Dylan on Old America and 'Modern Times'

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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?
Mystic 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.

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