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.
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