On the evening of September 15th, the Boston Red Sox were in New York City trying to get back into first place. In New Orleans, just before Muhammad Ali made his comeback, TV commentator Howard Cosell introduced the fighter by quoting from the song "Forever Young"; "May your hands always be busy,/May your feet always be swift,/May you have a strong foundation/When the winds of changes shift." And in Augusta, Maine, the composer of that song was inaugurating a three-month tour of the United States and Canada that will include sixty-five concerts in sixty-two cities.
According to an Associated Press review of the opening night, Bob Dylan "drove a packed-house audience of 7200 into shrieks of ecstasy. The thirty-seven-year-old folk-rock singer mixed old songs and new. His audience in the Augusta Civic Center was a mixture of people who first knew Dylan as an angry young poet in the early Sixties and high-school students more accustomed to punk rock. Dylan satisfied both, although his veteran fans seemed the happiest."
After a highly successful series of concerts in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and western Europe earlier this year, it might seem peculiar to think of Dylan's latest American tour as a kind of comeback. But, at least in this country, Dylan recently has been the recipient of some especially negative reviews, both for his film, Renaldo and Clara (which, incidentally, was warmly greeted at this year's Cannes Film Festival), and his latest album, Street Legal. This billingsgate, moreover, has come from a number of Dylan's "veteran fans." In the Village Voice, seven reviewers – a kind of firing squad – administered justice to the film with a fusillade of abuse. And Rolling Stone, in its two August issues, featured a column and review that pilloried the album.
Yet Street Legal seems to me one of Dylan's most passionate, questing and questioning records. It presents two songs of ironic and bitter-sweet explanations and resolutions ("True Love Tends to Forget" and "We Better Talk This Over"); a song of waiting and searching ("Señor"); a song of black magic ("New Pony"); a song of need ("Is Your Love in Vain?"); a song of pleading ("Baby Stop Crying"); a song of the stripping bare of personality ("No Time To Think"); a song of loss and encounters ("Where Are You Tonight?"); and a song that combines medieval romance, Tarot dreams and a Palace of Mirrors in which each image is seen as if on a different floor ("Changing of the Guards"). Street Legal reflects the night and day sides of Dylan's art and personality – the last three songs mentioned being among the singer's most complex lunar landscapes (illumined with imagination, intuition and magic), the first two radiating with the solar attributes of intellection and objectivity – while the other songs hover around like mysterious satellites.
Dylan recorded this album in a week, and much as I like its rough, deglamorized sound, the LP hardly gives an idea of the brilliance, dexterity and inventiveness of his new band – which he has taken on all his recent tours and which includes lead guitarist Billy Cross; rhythm guitarist Steve Soles; bassist Jerry Scheff; keyboardist Alan Pasqua; drummer Ian Wallace; David Mansfield on steel guitar, violin and mandolin; Bobbye Hall on percussion; Steve Douglas on wood-winds; and backup singers Carolyn Dennis, Jo Ann Harris and Helena Springs.
I caught up with Dylan and his group at their second concert, on September 16th at the Portland Civic Center. It began with the band – dressed in black and white velvet and satin – performing a lilting, gossamerlike instrumental version of "My Back Pages" As that concluded, Dylan – wearing white sneakers, black jeans decorated with diamond stars, a black leather jacket and a purple scarf – appeared and led the band in a sultry reworking of Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready," which featured the lines, "I'm read as I can be/I'm ready for you/I hope you're ready for me." (Quite a different opening from "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," which introduced his 1974 tour with the Band.)
Next came an eerily high-pitched and intense rendition of "Is Your Love in Vain?" that combined the vocal inflections of James Brown and Little Anthony with the Dylan voice of Highway 61 Revisited. He furnished "Shelter from the Storm" with a new, romantic, rootless-sounding melodic line, full of unresolved ca-dences, and sang it in a kind of incantatory style reminiscent of Kurt Weill.
After a calypso-flavored version of "Love Minus Zero" – which featured his first harmonica solo of the evening – Dylan gave a soulful, torch-ballad rendition of "Tangled Up in Blue," singing it to the accompaniment of tenor sax and Yamaha synthesizer as if he were on the stage of a Parisian music hall. "Ballad in Plain D," "Maggie's Farm" and "I Don't Believe You" followed – the first delivered in an ironically showbiz manner, the second featuring a driving Stax-Volt riff, and the third insinuating itself in a sly, feline ways. In "Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan gave an entraced recitation of the words against a pulsating wall of sound, after which he switched gears and sang "I Shall Be Released" with the vocal timbre he once used on Nashville Skyline. He ended the first half of the set with an occasionally newly worded version of "Going, Going, Gone."
He began the second half with a sardonic, taunting version of "I Threw It All Away." Then, after the band withdrew, the audience started cheering as Dylan performed his one acoustic number of the night, an unadorned version of "It Ain't Me Babe." In the light of Dylan's continually changing presence and sound, this moment betokened both cultural nostalgia and artistic vulnerability.
The band returned to accompany Dylan on one of his recent R&B songs, "You Treat Me like a Stepchild," which was followed by a Bo Diddley-propelled version of "One More Cup of Coffee" and a beautiful, slow, gospel-haunted "Blowin' in the Wind." As with "Tangled Up in Blue," Dylan sang "I Want You" as a torch ballad – you could almost imagine Edith Piaf performing it in the same spirit. After a powerful rendition of "Señor" ("I wrote this song on a train from Monterey to San Diego," he anounced), Dylan sang "Masters of War" as a kind of reggae war chant that concluded with an almost psychedelic blaze. Then came "Just like a Woman" – and it took your breath away: a grave waltz, surrendering, rejecting and erotic, with tenor sax and harmonica solos at the end.
An impassioned version of "Baby Stop Crying" led into "All along the Watchtower," a rhythmic, satanic march that ended with a demonic, tour-de-force violin solo by David Mansfield. A band-clapping, foot-stomping version of "All I Really Want to Do" was followed by an almost orchestral-sounding rendition of "It's Alright, Ma." "You all have a safe trip home and see you next time, y'hear?" he told the audience, and concluded the set with a down-home version of "Forever Young." The encore was a light, brisk performance of "Changing of the Guards."
Dylan and the band have seventy songs in their repertoire. Moreover, they have been rehearsing some brand-new tunes, five of which – spare, intense love songs – I heard during a sound check before the concert in New Haven, Connecticut. At a subsequent New York City concert, Dylan sang one of these, "I Love You Too Much," but basically the Portland concert is the model for the program audiences will be hearing on this tour.
I ran into Dylan in the hallway of his Portland motel at noon on September 17th – an hour before the entourage was to take off for New Haven. He was heading to breakfast and wasn't looking forward to it. "I ran into a girl last night," he told me as we walked to the dining room, "whom I knew in the Village in 1964. She figured the food wouldn't be too good up here, so she said she'd bring some with her this morning. But I haven't seen her."
"Maybe her love's in vain," I joked.
"Maybe," Dylan laughed.
But just after we had sat down and were told that breakfast wasn't being served any longer, a lovely woman appeared next to us with the promised feast in a basket. We ate, saved the muffins to give to the band later on, and went out to catch the Scenicruiser bus that was to drive us to the local airport for the flight – on a chartered Bac III jet – to New Haven, where the group was to perform that night at the Veterans' Memorial Coliseum.
Dylan and I sat at the back of the bus. The musicians and tour organizers – the most organized and sweet-tempered people I've met in years – listened to a cassette recording of Ray Charles and the Raelettes. As the bus started, I foolhardily tried to interest Dylan in a theory I had about "Changing of the Guards" – namely, that the song could be seen to have a coded subtext revealed by the characters of various Tarot cards: the Moon, the Sun, the High Priestess, the Tower and, obviously, the King and Queen of Swords – the two cards Dylan specifically mentions. My idea was that the attributes associated with these images make up the "plot" of the song.
"I'm not really too acquainted with that, you know," he warded me off. (What was that Tarot card doing on the back of the jacket of Desire? I wondered.) Undaunted, I mentioned that it had been said that Tarot diviners discover the future by intuition, with "prophetic images drawn from the vaults of the subconscious," Didn't Dylan think that a song like "Changing of the Guards" wakens in us the image of our subconscious? Certainly, I continued, songs such as that and "No Time to Think." suggested the idea of spirits manifesting their destiny as the dramatis personae of our dreams.
Dylan wasn't too happy with the drift of the discussion and fell silent. "I guess," I said, "there's no point in asking a magician how he does his tricks."
"Exactly!" Dylan responded cheerfully.
"Okay," I said, "we have to start someplace. What about the first line of 'Changing of the Guards,' Does 'sixteen years' have anything to do with the number of years you've been on the road?"
"No," Dylan replied, "sixteen is two short of eighteen years. Eighteen years is a magical number of years to put in time. I've found that threes and sevens . . . well, things come tip in sevens . . . What am I saving? I mean, what am I saying?"
I started rambling on about the possible mystical significance of numbers (sixteen equals one plus six, which equals seven, love minus zero, etc.), hut by this time I realized that only the bus was going anywhere. It was time to get the interview rolling.
* * *
When I tell Rolling Stone what we've been talking about, they won't believe it.
They had the nerve to run the reviews they did on Street Legal – why should I give them an interview anyway?
Are you going to kick me off the bus?
No, it's your interview. It's okay. But if you were doing it for another magazine, it'd be okay, too.
Think I should go some where else with it?
Yeah – Business Week.
[The tape of Ray Charles and the Raelettes that has been counterpointing our banter has now given way to Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen.] It's strange, but I noticed in your last two performances that your pharsing and the timbre of your voice at certain points resemble those of Little Antbony, Smokey Robinson and Gene Chandler, Are you aware of this?
No. When your environment changes, you change. You've got to go on, and you find new friends. Turn around one day and you're on a different stage, with a new set of characters.
In your new song, "No Time to Think," you list a series of qualities and concepts like loneliness, humility, nobility, patriotism, etc.
Is pregnancy in there?
It wasn't in there the last time I heard it. But I was thinking that it's these kinds of concepts that both free and imprison a person. What do you think?
I never have any time to think.
I should have known you'd say something like that. Maybe someone else should be up here doing this interview – a different character.
Someone who's not so knowledgeable. You're too knowledgeable.
I had the idea of just asking you the questions from "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall"; Where have you been? What did you see? What did you hear? Whom did you meet? What'll you do now?
[Laughing] I'd be here the rest of my life talking to you . . . Just look outside the window at the picket fences and the pine trees. New England falls are so beautiful, aren't they? Look at those two kids playing by the train tracks. They remind me of myself. Both of them.
Did you ever lie down on the tracks?
Not personally. I once knew someone who did.
I lost track of him . . . You should describe in your interview this village we're passing through. Jonathan. It's real special. Go ahead, describe it.
There's little pond at the edge of the road . . .
. . . and here's the Stroudwater Baptist Church. We just turned the corner and are heading on down . . . I'll tell you in a minute. What do you call this kind of architecture? . . . Look at the ducks over there . . .
. . . and that little waterfall.
This is Garrison Street, we've just passed Garrison Street – probably never will again.
You're never coming back?
Oh, I bet we come back.
Clothes on the line behind that house.
Yeah, clothes on the line. Someone's frying chicken – didn't Kristofferson say something like that? You don't see this in New York City . . . well, maybe at McDonald's. [The bus pulls into the airport.] This may be our last chance to talk, Jonathan. I hope we've got it down right this time.
* * *
Let's find something to talk about.
Maybe I should ask a question that Jann Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone, wanted to ask you.
Ask me one of his.
Okay, why are you doing this tour?
Well, why did I do the last one? I'm doing this one for the same reason I did the last one.
And what reason was that?
It was for the same reason that I did the one before that. I'm doing this tour for one reason or another, but I can't remember what the reason is anymore.
Articles about the tour always mention that you're doing it for the money.
They always say that. There are more important things in the world than money. It means that to the people who write these articles, the most important thing in the world is money. They could be saying I'm doing the tour to meet girls or to see the world. Actually, it's all I know how to do. Ask Muhammad Ali why he fights one more fight. Go ask Marlon Brando why he makes one more movie. Ask Mick Jagger why he goes on the road. See what kind of answers you come up with. Is it so surprising I'm on the road? What else would I be doing in this life – meditating on the mountain? Whatever someone finds fulfilling, whatever his or her purpose is – that's all it is.
You recently said that you do new versions of your older songs because you believe in them – as if to believe in something is to make it real.
They are real, and that's why I keep doing them. As I said before, the reason for the new versions is that I've changed. You meet new people in your life, you're involved on different levels with people. Love is a force, so when a force comes in your life – and there's love surrounding you – you can do anything.
Is that what's happening to you now?
Something similar to that, yeah.
When you introduce the singers onstage as your childhood sweethearts, your present girlfriend, your former girlfriend – is that literal?
Oh, of course.
May I list the themes I found on Street Legal?
Survival, homelessness, trust, betrayal, sacrifice, exile, tyranny and victimization.
All right, those themes go through all of my songs because I feel those things. And those feelings touch me, so naturally they're going to appear in the songs.
I've got twenty-two or twenty-three albums out on Columbia alone and about seventy-five bootleg records floating around, so it gets to a point where it doesn't matter anymore. You want each new record to be your best, but you know you're going to write more songs and make another album anyway. People who get hit with the new album for the first time . . . it surprises them, it's coming at them from someplace and maybe they haven't thought about things that way. But that's not for me to say. That's my life, and if they can find identity in that, okay – and if they can't, that's okay, too.
A song like "No Time to Think" sounds like if comes from a very deep dream.
Maybe, because we're all dreaming, and these songs come close to getting inside that dream. It's all a dream anyway.
As in a dream, lines from one song seem to connect with lines from another. For example: "I couldn't tell her what my private thoughts were/But she had some way of finding them out" in "Where Are You Tonight?" and "The captain waits above the celebration/Sending his thoughts to a beloved maid" in "Changing of the Guards."
I'm the first person who'll put it to you and the last person who'll explain it to you. Those questions can be answered dozens of different ways, and I'm sure they're all legitimate. Everybody sees in the mirror what he sees – no two people see the same thing.
Usually you don't specify things or people in your songs. We don't know who Marcel and St. John are in "Where Are You Tonight?" or who the "partner in crime" is in that same song....
Who isn't your partner in crime?
But in a song like "Sara" you seem fairly literal.
I've heard it said that Dylan was never as truthful as when he wrote Blood on the Tracks, but that wasn't necessarily truth, it was just perceptive. Or when people say "Sara" – as written for "his wife Sara" – it doesn't necessarily have to be about her just because my wife's name happened to be Sara. Anyway, was it the real Sara or the Sara in the dream? I still don't know.
Is "Is Your Love in Vain?" to be taken literally? You've been accused of being chauvinistic in that song, especially in the line, "Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow?"
That criticism comes from people who think that women should be karate instructors or airplane pilots. I'm not knocking that – everyone should achieve what she wants to achieve – but when a man's looking for a woman, he ain't looking for a woman who's an airplane pilot. He's looking for a woman to help him out and support him, to hold up one end while he holds up another.
Is that the kind of woman you're looking for?
What makes you think I'm looking for any woman?
You could say that the song isn't necessarily about you, yet some people think that you're singing about yourself and your needs.
Yeah, well, I'm everybody anyway.
There's a lot of talk about magic in Street Legal: "I wish I was a magician/I would wave a wand and tie back the bond/That we've both gone beyond" in "We Better Talk This Over"; "But the magician is quicker and his game/Is much thicker than blood" in "No Time to Think."
These are things I'm really interested in, and it's taken me a while to get back to it. Right through the time of Blonde on Blonde I was doing it unconsciously. Then one day I was half-stepping, and the lights went out.
And since that point, I more or less had amnesia. Now, you can take that statement as literally or metaphysically as you need to, but that's what happened to me. It took me a long time to get to do consciously what I used to be able to do unconsciously.
It happens to everybody. Think about the periods when people don't do anything, or they lose it and have to regain it, or lose it and gain something else. So it's taken me all this time, and the records I made along the way were like openers – trying to figure out whether it was this way or that way, just what is it, what's the simplest way I can tell the story and make this feeling real.
So now I'm connected back, and I don't know how long I'll be there because I don't know how long I'm going to live. But what comes now is for real and from a place that's . . . I don't know, I don't care who else cares about it.
John Wesley Harding was a fearful album – just dealing with fear [laughing], but dealing with the devil in a fearful way, almost. All I wanted to do was to get the words right. It was courageous to do it because I could have not done it, too. Anyway, on Nashville Skyline you had to read between the lines. I was trying to grasp something that would lead me on to where I thought I should be, and it didn't go nowhere – it just went down, down, down. I couldn't be anybody but myself, and at that point I didn't know it or want to know it.
I was convinced I wasn't going to do anything else, and I had the good fortune to meet a man in New York City who taught me how to see. He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt. And I didn't know how to pull it off. I wasn't sure it could be done in songs because I'd never written a song like that. But when I started doing it, the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks. Everybody agrees that that was pretty different, and what's different about it is that there's a code in the lyrics and also there's no sense of time. There's no respect for it: you've got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there's very little that you can't imagine not happening.
In Tarantula you write about a woman named Justine who tells you that "only God can be everywhere at the same Time and Space."
That's right, but that was unconscious. And that drilled me down – doing it unconsciously was doing it like a primitive, and it took everything out of me. Everything was gone, I was drained. I found out later that it was much wiser to do it consciously, and it could let things be much stronger, too. Actually, you might even live longer, but I'm not sure about that.
From that point I went on to Desire, which I wrote with Jacques Levy. And I don't remember who wrote what. And then I disappeared for a while. Went on the Rolling Thunder tour, made Renaldo and Clara – in which I also used that quality of no-time. And I believe that that concept of creation is more real and true than that which does have time.
When you feel in your gut what you are and then dynamically pursue it – don't back down and don't give up – then you're going to mystify a lot of folks. Some people say, "I don't like him anymore." But other people do, and my crowd gets bigger and bigger. But who cares, really [laughing]? If you fall down and you're hurting, you care about that immediate situation – if you have the energy to care. Who really cares? It's like that line – how does it go? – "Propaganda, who really cares?...."
I wanted to ask you about love.
Go ahead, but I'm not too qualified on that subject. Love comes from the Lord – it keeps all of us going. If you want it, you got it.
In "Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word," you wrote:
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that's supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be
Assured that love is just a four-letter word.
You've described and communicated the idea of two aspects of love – the love that longs for commitment and the love that longs to be free. Which is the most real to you?
All of it. It's all love that needs to be love.
You often sing about having a twin, a sister/wife, a dream/lover for one's life.
Everyone feels these feelings. People don't like to admit that that's the way things are because it's too confusing.
A famous short poem by William Blake goes: "He who binds to himself a joy/Doth the winged life destroy;/But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in Eternity's sun rise."
Allen Ginsberg quoted that to me all the time. Blake's been a big influence on Kristofferson, too.
What about soul mates?
What about them?
Do they exist?
Sure they do, but sometimes you never meet them. A soul mate . . . what do they mean by soul mate? There's male and a female in everyone, don't they say that? So I guess the soul mate would be the physical mate of the soul. But that would mean we're supposed to be with just one other person. Is a soul mate a romantic notion or is there real truth in that, señor?
That's what I was asking you.
How would I know?
Well, a lot of your songs are concerned with that . . . Someone once said that one's real feelings come out when one's separated from somebody one loves.
Who said that?
Well, I guess he's right. Your real feelings come out when you're free to be alone. Most people draw a line that they don't want you to cross – that's what happens in most petty relationships.
In a song such as "Like a Rolling Stone," and now "Where Are You Tonight?" and "No Time to Think," you seem to tear away and remove the layers of social identity – burn away the "rinds" of received reality – and bring us back to the zero state.
That's right. "Stripped of all virtue as you crawl through the dirt/You can give but you cannot receive." Well, I said it.
[At this point the pilot announces that we'll be landing in five minutes.] Just a few quick questions before we land. Coming back to "Changing of the Guards"...
It means something different every time I sing it.
The lines, "She's smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born, On midsummer's eve, near the tower," are so quiet and pure.
Those lines seem to go back a thousand year into the past.
They do. "Changing of the Guards" is a thousand years old. Woody Guthrie said he just picked songs our of the air. That meant that they were already there and that he was tuned into them. "Changing of the Guards" might be a song that might have been there for thousands of years, sailing around in the mist, and one day I just tuned into it. Just like "Tupelo Honey" was floating around and Van Morrison came by.
It's been said that the Stones' song, "Some Girls," hints at being about you a bit.
I've never lived at Zuma Beach.
Jagger imitates your phrasing, though.
He always does . . . He imitates Otis Redding, too, and Riley Puckett and Slim Harpo.
In "One More Cup of Coffee" you sing about a sister who see the future, and in "Changing of the Guards" you sing about "treacherous young witches."
I meet witchy women. Somehow I attract them. I wish they'd leave me alone.
Well, there are some good witches, too, though that voodoo girl in "New Pony" was giving you some trouble.
That's right. By the way, the Miss X in that song is Miss X, not ex-.
In "We Better Talk This Over," is the line, "I'm exiled, you can't convert me," in some way about being Jewish?
Listen, I don't know how Jewish I am, because I've got blue eyes. My grandparents were from Russia, and going back that far, which one of those women didn't get raped by the Cossacks? So there's plenty of Russian in me, I'm sure. Otherwise, I wouldn't be the way I am.
Do you agree with Octavio Paz' idea "that "all of us are alone, because all of us are two"?
I can't disagree, but I've got to think there's more than two. Didn't Leonard Cohen sing something like, "I'm the one who goes from nothing to two"? I don't remember.
We're back to numbers.
Leonard Cohen was really interested in numbers: "I'm the one who goes from nothing to one."
You're a Gemini, and the Gemini twins been seen by one writer, Marius Schneider, as symbols of the "harmonious ambiguity of paradise and inferno, love and hate, peace and war, birth and death, praise and insult, clarity and obscurity, scorching rocks and swamps surrounding the fountains and waters of salvation." That sounds like a good description of some of your new songs.
Right, but you can't choose the month of the year you're born in.
"Sacrifice is the code of the road" is what you sing in "Where Are You Tonight?" To die before dying, shedding your skin, making new songs out of old ones.
That's my mission in life...."He not busy being born is busy dying." Did you bring your parachute?
The interview was that bad, huh?
[Talking to a friend] Bring a parachute for Jonathan.
I'd prefer the pathway that leads up to the stars.
THE DRESSING ROOM
[I ran into Dylan backstage half an hour before a sound check at the Veterans' Memorial Coliseum in New Haven, He invited me into his room, where we concluded out talk.]
When I was waiting to pick up my ticket for your Portland concert last night, I happened to ask the woman behind the desk where all these kids were coming from and she said: "For Babby Dylan, from heaven – far Black Sabbath, who Knows?"
Well, I believe it, don't you? Where else could my particular audience come from?
I've already met two angelic types – one in your dressing room here in New Haven, the other the girl whom you knew fifteen years ago who brought you a breakfast in Portland.
They're all angels . . . But I wanted to ask you about something Paul Wasserman [who's in charge of Dylan's publicity] said that you said to him, and that is: "A genius can't be a genius on instinct alone."
I said that? Maybe, but really late at night.
Well, I disagree. I believe that instinct is what makes a genius a genius.
What do you think of all the criticisms of Street Legal?
I read some of them. In fact, I didn't understand them: I don't think these people have had the experiences I've had to write those songs. The reviews didn't strike me as being particularly interesting one way or another, or as compelling to my particular scene. I don't know who these people are. They don't travel in the same crowd, anyway. So it would be like me criticizing Pancho Villa.
The reviews in this country of Renaldo and Clara weren't good, either, the writers went out of their way to call you presumptious, pretentious and egocentric.
These people probably don't like to eat what I like to eat, they probably don't like the same things I like, or the same people. Look, just one time I'd like to see any one of those assholes try and do what I do. Just once let one of them write a song to show how they feel and sing it in front of ten, let alone 10,000 or 100,000 people. I'd like to see them just try that one time.
Some of these critics have suggested that you need more sophisticated record production.
I probably do. The truth of it is that I can hear the same sounds that other people like to hear, too. But I don't like to spend the time trying to get those sounds in the studio.
So you're really not a producer-type?
I'm not. Some musicians like to spend a lot of time in the studio. But a lot of people try to make something out of nothing. If you don't have a good song, you can go into the studio and make it appear to be good, but that stuff don't last.
You've had producers – Tom Wilson, Bob Johnson, Don DeVito...
But that wasn't all that sophisticated. I mean, John Hammond produced my first record, and it was a matter of singing into a microphone. He'd say, "It sounded good to me," and you'd go on to the next song. That's still the way I do it.
Nowadays, you start out with anything but the song – the drum track, for instance – and you take a week getting the instruments all sounding the way they should. They put down the rhythm track or whatever sound they want to hear in the ghost tracks. If you have a good song, it doesn't matter how well or badly it's produced. Okay, my records aren't produced that well, I admit it.
Personally, I love the "primitive" sound of Buddy Holly demo tapes or the original Chuck Berry discs.
But in those days they recorded on different equipment and the records were thicker. If you buy one of my early records – and you can't today – they weren't like Saran Wrap, as they are now. There was quality to them . . . and the machinery was different and the boards were different. The Beach Boys did stuff on two-track in the garage.
But you do need a producer now?
I think so. You see, in the recent past my method, when I had the songs, was to go in, record them and put them out. Now I'm writing songs on the run again – they're dear to me, the songs I'm doing now – and I can't perfect them. So if I can just block time out, here and there, I can work on an album the way the Eagles do. I've got so many records out that it doesn't matter when I put out a new one. I could release one a year from now – start working on it in January and have it produced right.
What's the longest it's taken you to record a song?
About six or seven hours. It took us a week to make Street Legal – we mixed it the following week and put it out the week after. If we hadn't done it that fast we wouldn't have made an album at all, because we were ready to go back on the road.
You're got a bigger sound now – on record and onstage – than you've ever had before.
I do – and I might hire two more girls and an elephant – but it doesn't matter how big the sound gets as long as it's behind me emphasizing the song. It's still pretty simple. There's nothing like it in Vegas – no matter what you've heard – and it's anything but disco. It's not rock & roll – my roots go back to the Thirties, not the Fifties.
On this tour, you've again been changing some of the radically new versions of songs that I heard you perform in Europe this past summer.
Yeah, we've changed them around some – it's a different tour and a different show. The band has to relearn the songs, but they're fast and the best at that.
Do you write songs now with them in mind?
I've had this sound ever since I was a kid – what grabs my heart. I had to play alone for a long time, and that was good because by playing alone I had to write songs. That's what I didn't do when I first started out, just playing available songs with a three-piece honky-tonk band in my hometown. But when I was first living in New York City – do you remember the old Madison Square Garden? Well, they used to have gospel shows there every Sunday, and you could see everyone from the Five Blind Boys, the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones to Clara Ward and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. I went up there every Sunday. I'd listen to that and Big Bill Broonzy. Then I heard the Clancy Brothers and hung out with them – all of their drinking songs, their revolutionary and damsel-in-distress songs. And I listened to Jean Ritchie, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly.
What about the doo-wop groups?
They played at shows, and those artists didn't have to be onstage for more than twenty minutes. They just got on and got off, and that was never what I wanted to do. I used to go to the Brooklyn Fox a lot, but the band I liked the best at that time was Bobby Blue Bland's, and I heard them at the Apollo. But the people whose floors I was sleeping on were all into the Country Gentlemen, Uncle Dave Macon, the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe. So I heard all that, too.
You seem to like music that's real and uncorrupted, no matter what its tradition. But some of your folk-music followers didn't care much for your own musical changes.
But don't forget that when I played "Maggie's Farm" electric at Newport, that was something I would have done years before. They thought I didn't know what I was doing and that I'd slipped over the edge, but the truth is . . . Kooper and Michael Bloom-field remember that scene very well. And what the newspapers say happened didn't actually happen that way. There wasn't a whole lot of resistance in the crowd. Don't forget they weren't equipped for what we were doing with the sound. But I had a legitimate right to do that.
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were already popular in this country at that time, though.
I remember hanging out with Brian Jones in 1964. Brian could play the blues. He was an excellent guitar player – he seemed afraid to sing for some reason – but he could play note for note what Robert Johnson or Son House played.
In songs like "Buckets of Rain" or "New Pony," you seem just to go in and out of musical traditions, pick up what you want and need, and transform then as you please.
That's basically what I do, but so do the Stones. Mick and Keith know all that music. America's filled with all kinds of different music.
When you sang "Baby Stop Crying" the other night in Portland, I remember thinking that your voice sounded as if it combined the following qualities: tenderness, sarcasm, outraged innocence, indignation, insouciant malice and wariness.
The man in that song has his hand out and is not afraid of getting it bit.
He sounds stronger than the woman he's singing to and about.
Not necessarily. The roles could be reversed at any time – don't you remember "To Ramona"? "And someday maybe, who knows baby, I'll come and be cryin' to you."
In the song. "Baby Stop Crying," it sounds as if the singer is getting rejected – that the woman's in love with someone else.
She probably is.
There's also a "bad man" in the song. It's almost as if three or four different movies were taking place in one song, all held together by the chorus. And the some thing seems to be happening in "Changing of the Guards" and some of your other new songs. What's that all about?
How come you write in that way?
I wouldn't be doing it unless some power higher than myself were guiding me on. I wouldn't be here this long. Let me put it another way . . . What was the question?
There are all these different levels in many your recent songs.
That's right, and that's because my mind and my heart work on all those levels. Shit, I don't want to be chained down to the same old level all the time.
I've seen you tell people who don't know you that some other person standing nearby is you.
Well sure, if some old fluff ball comes wandering in looking for the real Bob Dylan, I'll direct him down the line, but I can't be held accountable for that.
A poet and critic named Elizabeth Sewell once wrote, "Discovery, in science and poetry, is a mythological situation in which the mind unites with a figure of its own devising as a means toward understanding the world." And it seems as if you have created a figure named Bob Dylan . . .
I didn't create Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan has always been here . . . always was. When I was a child there was Bob Dylan. And before I was born, there was Bob Dylan.
Why did you have to play that role?
I'm not sure. Maybe I was best equipped to do it.
The composer Arnold Schönberg once said the same thing: someone had to be Arnold Schönberg.
Sometimes your parents don't even know who you are. No one knows but you. Lord, if your own parents don't know who you are, who else in the world is there who would know except you?
Then why do children keep on wanting things from their parents they can't give them?
In contradistinction to the idea of being true to oneself, there's an idea of personality – suggested by Yeats – which states that "man is nothing till he is united to an image." You seems to have you foot in both camps.
I don't know about that. Sometimes I think I'm ghost. Don't you have to have some poetic sense to be involved in what we're talkingahout? It's like what you were saying about people putting my record down. I couldn't care less if they're doing that but, I mean, who are these people, what qualifications do they have? Are they poets, are they musicians? You find me some musician or poet, and then maybe we'll talk. Maybe that person will know something I don't know, and I'll see it that way. That could happen. I'm not almighty. But my feelings come from the gut, and I'm not too concerned with someone whose feelings come from the head. That don't bother me none.
This criticism has been going on for a long time. It's like a lover: you like somebody and then you don't want to like them anymore because you're atraid to admit to yourself that you like them so much...I don't know, you've just got to try, try to do some good for somebody. The world is full of nonsupporters and backbiters – people who chew on wet rags. But it's also filled with people who love you.
There are lines in your new songs about the one you love being so hard to recognize, or about you love being so hard to recognize, or about feeling displaced and in extle. It seems as if the tyranny of love makes people unhappy.
That's tryanny of man-woman love. That ain'too much love.
What's your idea of love?
[Pause] Love like a driving whell, that's my idea of lvoe.
What about Cupid with his bow and arrows aimed toward your head?
Naw, Cupid comes in a beard and a mustached, you know, Cupid has dark hair.