Why is that? Was it just too much upheaval, being at the white-hot center of it?
Yeah, that and a whole lot of other stuff. Things were beginning to get corporatized. That wouldn't have mattered to me, but it was happening to the music, too. And I truly loved the music. I saw the death of what I love and a certain way of life that I'd come to take for granted.
Yet people thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that's also the case with your music since 1997?
Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let's not forget human nature isn't bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they're not communal. I wouldn't want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I'm not playing campfire meetings. I don't remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he's doing what he's supposed to do, doesn't feel any emotion at all. It's a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has.
Don't you think you're a particularly American voice – for how your songs reference our history, or have commented on it?
They're historical. But they're also biographical and geographical. They represent a particular state of mind. A particular territory.
What others think about me, or feel about me, that's so irrelevant. Any more than it is for me, when I go see a movie, say, Wuthering Heights or something, and have to wonder what's Laurence Olivier really like. When I see an actor on the stage or something, I don't think about what they're like. I'm there because I want to forget about myself, forget about what I care or do not care about. Entertaining is a type of sport.
[Dylan suddenly seems excited.] Let me show you something. I want to show you something. You might be interested in this. You might take this someplace. You might want to rephrase your questions, or think of new ones [laughs]. Let me show you this. [Gets up and walks to another table.]
You want me to come with you?
No, no, no, I got it right here. I thought this might interest you. [Brings a weathered paperback to the table!] See this book? Ever heard of this guy? [Shows me Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, by Sonny Barger.]
He's a Hell's Angel.
He was "the" Hell's Angel.
Look who wrote this book. [Points at coauthors' names, Keith Zimmerman and Kent Zimmerman.] Do those names ring a bell? Do they look familiar? Do they? You wonder, "What's that got to do with me?" But they do look familiar, don't they? And there's two of them there. Aren't there two? One's not enough? Right? [Dylan's now seated, smiling.]
I'm going to refer to this place here. [Opens the book to a dog-eared page.] Read it out loud here. Just read it out loud into your tape recorder.
"One of the early presidents of the Berdoo Hell's Angels was Bobby Zimmerman. On our way home from the 1964 Bass Lake Run, Bobby was riding in his customary spot – front left – when his muffler fell off his bike. Thinking he could go back and retrieve it, Bobby whipped a quick U-turn from the front of the pack. At that same moment, a Richmond Hell's Angel named Jack Egan was hauling ass from the back of the pack toward the front. Egan was on the wrong side of the road, passing a long line of speeding bikes, just as Bobby whipped his U-turn. Jack broadsided poor Bobby and instantly killed him. We dragged Bobby's lifeless body to the side of the road. There was nothing we could do but to send somebody on to town for help." Poor Bobby.
Yeah, poor Bobby. You know what this is called? It's called transfiguration. Have you ever heard of it?
Well, you're looking at somebody.
That . . . has been transfigured?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm not like you, am I? I'm not like him, either. I'm not like too many others. I'm only like another person who's been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?
By transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?
Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966.1 already explained to you about new and old. Right? Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it's a real concept. It's happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it's happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It's not like something you can dream up and think. It's not like conjuring up a reality or like reincarnation – or like when you might think you're somebody from the past but have no proof. It's not anything to do with the past or the future.
So when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I've lived through a lot. Have you ever heard of a book called No Man Knows My History? It's about Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. The title could refer to me.
Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That's how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.
When you say I'm talking to a person that's dead, do you mean the motorcyclist Bobby Zimmerman, or do you mean Bob Dylan?
Bob Dylan's here! You're talking to him.
Then your transfiguration is . . .
It is whatever it is. I couldn't go back and find Bobby in a million years. Neither could you or anybody else on the face of the Earth. He's gone. If I could, I would go back. I'd like to go back. At this point in time, I would love to go back and find him, put out my hand. And tell him he's got a friend. But I can't. He's gone. He doesn't exist.
OK, so when you speak of transfiguration . . .
I only know what I told you. You'll have to go and do the work yourself to find out what it's about.
I'm trying to determine whom you've been transfigured from, or as.
I just showed you. Go read the book.
That's who you have in mind? What could the connection to that Bobby Zimmerman be other than name?
I don't have it in mind. I didn't write that book. I didn't make it up. I didn't dream that. I'm not telling you I had a dream last night. Remember the song "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream"? I didn't write that, either.
I'm showing you a book that's been written and published. I mean, look at all the connecting things: motorcycles, Bobby Zimmerman, Keith and Kent Zimmerman, 1964, 1966. And there's more to it than even that. If you went to find this guy's family, you'd find a whole bunch more that connected. I'm just explaining it to you. Go to the grave site.
When did you come across this book?
Uh, you know. When did I come across that book? Somebody put it in my hand years ago. I'd met Sonny Barger in the Sixties, but didn't know him very well. He was friends with Jerry Garcia. Maybe I saw it on a bookshelf out there and the bookseller slipped it into my hand. But I began to read it, and I thought I was reading about Sonny, but then I got to that part and realized it wasn't about him at all. I didn't even really check the authors' names until later and that blew my mind, too. About a year later, I went to a library in Rome and I found a book about transfiguration, because it's nothing you really hear about every day, and it's in that mystical realm, and I found out only enough to know that, uh, OK, I'm not an authority on it, but it kind of sets you straight on what sets you apart.
I'd always been different than other people, but this book told me why. Like certain people are set apart. You know, it's just like the phrase, "peers" – I mean, I see this, "Well, your peers this, your peers that." And I've always wondered, who are my peers? When I received the Medal of Freedom I started thinking more about it. Like, who are they? But then it became clear. My peers are Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, John Glenn, Madeleine Albright, Pat Summitt, Toni Morrison, Jasper Johns, Martha Graham, Sidney Poitier. People like that, and they are set apart, too. And I'm proud to be counted among them.
You don't write the kind of songs I write just being a conventional type of songwriter. And I don't think anybody will write them like this again, any more than anybody will ever write a Hank Williams or Irving Berlin song. That's pretty much for sure. I just think I've taken things to a new level because I've had to. Because I've been forced to. You have to constantly reshape things because everything keeps expanding on you. Life has a way of spreading out.
Why do you have that need to constantly reshape things?
Because that's the nature of existence. Nothing stays where it is for very long. Trees grow tall, leaves fall, rivers dry up and flowers die. New people are born every day. Life doesn't stop.
Is that part of what touring is about for you?
Touring is about anything you want it to be about. Is there something strange about touring? About playing live shows? If there is, tell me what it is. Willie [Nelson]'s been playing them for years, and nobody ever asks him why he still tours. Look, you travel to different places and you encounter things that you might not encounter every day if you stayed home. And you get to play music for the people – all of the people, every nationality and in every country. Ask any performer or entertainer that does this, they'll all tell you the same thing. That they like doing it and that it means a lot to people. It's just like any other line of work, only different.
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