Yet for a long time, from, 1966 to 1974, you left touring behind. Did you always expect to return to live performance, as part of doing what it is that you do?
I know I left it behind, but then I picked it up again. Things change. Also, there are performers that don't go on the road. They might go to Vegas and just stay there. You could do it that way – who knows, I may do that, too, someday. There are a lot of worse ways to end up.
It's always been this way for everybody who's ever done it, going back to those ancient days. The carnival came to town, the carnival left and you ran off with them. It's just what you did. You don't travel to the end of the line until someone gives you a gold watch and a pat on the back. That's not the way the game works. People really don't retire. They fade away. They run out of steam. People aren't interested in them anymore.
What do you think of Bruce Springsteen? U2?
I love Bruce like a brother. He's a powerful performer – unlike anybody. I care about him deeply. U2's a force to be reckoned with. Bono's energy has far-reaching effects, and in some ways, he's his own tempest.
Miles Davis had this idea that music was best heard in the moments in which it was performed – that that's where music is truly alive. Is your view similar?
Yeah, it's exactly the same as Miles' is. We used to talk about that. Songs don't come alive in a recording studio. You try your best, but there's always something missing. What's missing is a live audience. Sinatra used to make records like that – used to bring people into the studio as an audience. It helped him get into the songs better.
So live performance is a purpose you find fulfilling?
If you're not fulfilled in other ways, performing can never make you happy. Performing is something you have to learn how to do. You do it, you get better at it and you keep going. And if you don't get better at it, you have to give it up. Is it a fulfilling way of life? Well, what kind of way of life is fulfilling? No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn't been redeemed.
You've described what you do not as a career but as a calling.
Everybody has a calling, don't they? Some have a high calling, some have a low calling. Everybody is called but few are chosen. There's a lot of distraction for people, so you might not never find the real you. A lot of people don't.
How would you describe your calling?
Mine? Not any different than anybody else's. Some people are called to be a good sailor. Some people have a calling to be a good tiller of the land. Some people are called to be a good friend. You have to be the best at whatever you are called at. Whatever you do. You ought to be the best at it – highly skilled. It's about confidence, not arrogance. You have to know that you're the best whether anybody else tells you that or not. And that you'll be around, in one way or another, longer than anybody else. Somewhere inside of you, you have to believe that.
Some of us have seen your calling as somebody who has done his best to pay witness to the world, and the history that made that world.
History's a funny thing, isn't it? History can be changed. The past can be changed and distorted and used for propaganda purposes. Things we've been told happened might not have happened at all. And things that we were told that didn't happen actually might have happened. Newspapers do it all the time; history books do it all the time. Everybody changes the past in their own way. It's habitual, you know? We always see things the way they really weren't, or we see them the way we want to see them. We can't change the present or the future. We can only change the past, and we do it all the time.
There's that old wisdom "History is written by the victors."
Absolutely. And then there's Henry Ford. He didn't have much use for history at all.
But you have a use for it. In Chronicles, you wrote about your interest in Civil War history. You said that the spirit of division in that time made a template for what you've written about in your music. You wrote about reading the accounts from that time. Reading, say, Grant's remembrances is different than reading Shelby Foote's history of the Civil War.
The reports are hardly the same. Shelby Foote is looking down from a high mountain, and Grant is actually down there in it. Shelby Foote wasn't there. Neither were any of those guys who fight Civil War re-enactments. Grant was there, but he was off leading his army. He only wrote about it all once it was over. If you want to know what it was about, read the daily newspapers from that time from both the North and South. You'll see things that you won't believe. There is just too much to go into here, but it's nothing like what you read in the history books. It's way more deadly and hateful.
There doesn't seem to be anything heroic or honorable about it at all. It was suicidal. Four years of looting and plunder and murder done the American way. It's amazing what you see in those newspaper articles. Places like the Pittsburgh Gazette, where they were warning workers that if the Southern states have their way, they are going to overthrow our factories and use slave labor in place of our workers and put an end to our way of life. There's all kinds of stuff like that, and that's even before the first shot was fired.
But there were also claims and rumors from the South about the North . . .
There's a lot of that, too, about states' rights and loyalty to our state. But that didn't make any sense. The Southern states already had rights. Sometimes more than the Northern states. The North just wanted them to stop slavery, not even put an end to it – just stop exporting it. They weren't trying to take the slaves away. They just wanted to keep slavery from spreading. That's the only right that was being contested. Slavery didn't provide a working wage for people. If that economic system was allowed to spread, then people in the North were going to take up arms. There was a lot of fear about slavery spreading.
Do you see any parallels between the 1860s and present-day America?
Mmm, I don't know how to put it. It's like . . . the United States burned and destroyed itself for the sake of slavery. The USA wouldn't give it up. It had to be grinded out. The whole system had to be ripped out with force. A lot of killing. What, like, 500,000 people? A lot of destruction to end slavery. And that's what it really was all about.
This country is just too fucked up about color. It's a distraction. People at each other's throats just because they are of a different color. It's the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back – or any neighborhood back. Or any anything back. Blacks know that some whites didn't want to give up slavery – that if they had their way, they would still be under the yoke, and they can't pretend they don't know that. If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.
It's doubtful that America's ever going to get rid of that stigmatization. It's a country founded on the backs of slaves. You know what I mean? Because it goes way back. It's the root cause. If slavery had been given up in a more peaceful way, America would be far ahead today. Whoever invented the idea "lost cause . . . ." There's nothing heroic about any lost cause. No such thing, though there are people who still believe it.
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