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.
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