I heard an outtake from the Infidels sessions called "Blind Willie McTell." Is that ever going to come out? It's a great song.
I didn't think I recorded it right. But I don't know why that stuff gets out on me. I mean, it never seems to get out on other people.
There's a lot of interest out there. You could put all your unreleased stuff out in, like, a twenty-volume set or something.
Yeah, like The Basement Tapes. But it doesn't occur to me to put it out. If I wrote a song three years ago, I seldom go back and get that. I just leave 'em alone.
I never really liked The Basement Tapes. I mean, they were just songs we had done for the publishing company, as I remember. They were used only for other artists to record those songs. I wouldn't have put 'em out. But, you know, Columbia wanted to put 'em out, so what can you do?
You don't think that album has a great feeling to it? That material really has an aura.
I can't even remember it. People have told me they think it's very Americana and all that. I don't know what they're talkin' about.
So, then, it wouldn't occur to you to put out, say, the 1966 tapes of the Royal Albert Hall concert in London, another great bootleg?
No. Uh-uh. I wouldn't put 'em out because I didn't think they were quality.
That stuff's great. I'm amazed you wouldn't want to see it done legitimately and really do the tapes right.
Well, but you see, Columbia's never offered to do that. They have done that with The Basement Tapes and the Budokan album. But they've never offered to put that out as a historical album or whatever. And believe me, if they wanted to do it, they could.
Speaking of the Budokan album . . .
The Budokan album was only supposed to be for Japan. They twisted my arm to do a live album for Japan. It was the same band I used on Street Legal, and we had just started findin' our way into things on that tour when they recorded it. I never meant for it to be any type of representation of my stuff or my band or my live show.
That was when the critics started saying you were going Las Vegas, wasn't it?
Well, I think the only people who would have said somethin' like that were people who've never been to Las Vegas.
I think it was the clothes you wore at the time. They said it made you look like Neil Diamond.
Well, it just goes to show you how times have changed since 1978, if you could be criticized for what you were wearing. I mean, now you can wear anything. You see a guy wearing a dress onstage now, it's like, "Oh, yeah, right." You expect it.
I've seen a lot of stuff written about me. People must be crazy. I mean responsible people. Especially on that Street Legal tour. That band we assembled then, I don't think that will ever be duplicated. It was a big ensemble. And what did people say? I mean, responsible people who know better. All I saw was "Bruce Springsteen" because there was a saxophone player. And it was "disco" — well, there wasn't any disco in it.
It always seemed to me that you were sort of infallible in your career up until Self Portrait, in 1970. What's the story behind that album?
At the time, I was in Woodstock, and I was getting a great degree of notoriety for doing nothing. Then I had that motorcycle accident, which put me outta commission. Then, when I woke up and caught my senses, I realized I was just workin' for all these leeches. And I didn't wanna do that. Plus, I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids.
I'd also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn't know anything about. Like I was supposed to be on acid. It was all storm-the-embassy kind of stuff — Abbie Hoffman in the streets — and they sorta figured me as the kingpin of all that. I said, "Wait a minute, I'm just a musician. So my songs are about this and that. So what?" But people need a leader. People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he's got the people there that want one. I didn't want that, though.
But then came the big news about Woodstock, about musicians goin' up there, and it was like a wave of insanity breakin' loose around the house day and night. You'd come in the house and find people there, people comin' through the woods, at all hours of the day and night, knockin' on your door. It was really dark and depressing. And there was no way to respond to all this, you know? It was as if they were suckin' your very blood out. I said, "Now, wait, these people can't be my fans. They just can't be." And they kept comin'. We had to get out of there.
This was just about the time of that Woodstock Festival, which was the sum total of all this bullshit. And it seemed to have something to do with me, this Woodstock Nation, and everything it represented. So we couldn't breathe. I couldn't get any space for myself and my family, and there was no help, nowhere. I got very resentful about the whole thing, and we got outta there.
We moved to New York. Lookin' back, it really was a stupid thing to do. But there was a house available on MacDougal Street, and I always remembered that as a nice place. So I just bought this house, sight unseen. But it wasn't the same when we got back. The Woodstock Nation had overtaken MacDougal Street also. There'd be crowds outside my house. And I said, "Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can't possibly like, they can't relate to. They'll see it, and they'll listen, and they'll say, 'Well, let's go on to the next person. He ain't sayin' it no more. He ain't givin' us what we want,' you know? They'll go on to somebody else," But the whole idea backfired Because the album went out there, and the people said, "This ain't what we want," and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, "Well, I'm gonna call this album Self Portrait."
Which was duly interpreted by the press as: This is what he is . . .
Yeah, exactly. And to me, it was a joke.
But why did you make it a double-album joke?
Well, it wouldn't have held up as a single album — then it really would've been bad, you know. I mean, if you're gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!
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