I love that film.
I'm glad some people like it. I know people who do. There's some performances in there. John Goodman. Isn't he great? And Jessica Lange. Everybody was really good in it. Everybody except me. Ha-ha! I had no business being in it, to tell you the truth. What's her name, Cate Blanchett [among the actors who played Dylan in I'm Not There], should've played the character that I played. It probably would've been a hit movie.
Will there be a Chronicles 2?
Oh, let's hope so. I'm always working on parts of it. But the last Chronicles I did all by myself. I'm not even really so sure I had a proper editor for that. I don't want really to say too much about that. But it's a lot of work. I don't mind writing it, but it's the rereading it and the time it takes to reread it – that for me is difficult.
You've said before there are certain things you just don't remember. I came away from Chronicles thinking that you remember almost everything. Why didn't you ever talk before about that life of the mind you've gone through?
It's not like I have a great memory. I remember what I want to remember. And what I want to forget, I forget. When you're writing like that, it's just kind of like one thing leads to another and another, you just keep opening doors and sliding in and finding a way out. It's like links in a chain – you make connections as you go along.
In recent years, you've received numerous high honors, including one recently at the White House, where you were presented with a Medal of Freedom. You weren't always comfortable with this sort of event. What makes you more accepting now of these laurels?
I turn down far more of those medals and honors than I pick up. They come in from all over the place – all parts of the world. Most of them will get turned down because I can't physically be there to get them all. But every once in a while, there's something that is important, an incredibly high honor that I would never have dreamed to be receiving, like the Medal of Freedom. There's no way I would turn that down.
Do you accept the awards in part for your family, for your posterity?
I accept them for myself and myself only. And I don't think about it any other way, and I don't waste a lot of time over-thinking it. It's an incredible honor.
Receiving the Medal of Freedom had to be a bit of a thrill.
Oh, of course it's a thrill! I mean, who wouldn't want to get a letter from the White House? And the kind of people they were putting me in the category with was just amazing. People like John Glenn and Madeleine Albright, Toni Morrison and Pat Summitt, John Doer, William Foege and some others, too. These people who have done incredible things and have outstanding achievements. Pat Summitt alone has won more basketball games with her teams than any NCAA coach. John Glenn, we all know what he did. And Toni Morrison is as good as it gets. I loved spending time with them. What's the alternative? Hanging around with hedge-fund hucksters or Hollywood gigolos? You know what I mean?
The Medal of Freedom, it's an encircled star on a ribbon that hangs around your neck?
Yeah, I guess so. You should've told me you wanted to see it. I'd've brought it by and you could look at it, if you wanted.
Maybe next time.
Yeah. Sure, next time.
In July 2009, the police picked you up in Long Branch, New Jersey, while you were on a walk, supposedly looking for Bruce Springsteen's old home. What happened on that occasion?
We were staying at a hotel. The bus was pulling out; I just decided I'd go for a walk. It was raining, and I guess that in that neck of the woods, they're not used to seeing people walking in the rain. I was the only one on the street. Somebody saw me out of a window and reported me. Next thing I know, a cop car pulled up and asked me for ID. Well, I didn't have any [laughs]. I wear so many changes of clothes all the time. The woman who was the police officer, she didn't know me. Because most people don't. They've heard the name. I might be in a place, nobody knows me. Right? All of a sudden, somebody will walk in who knows me, and I'll have to tell everybody in the place, and then . . . it gets uncomfortable.
That's the side of people I see. People like to betray people. There's something in people that they just want to betray somebody. "That's him over there." They want to deliver you up. Like they delivered Jesus. They want to be the one to do it. There's something in people that's just like that. I've experienced that. A lot.
Before we end the conversation, I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers, such as Japanese author Junichi Saga's "Confessions of a Yakuza," and the Civil War poetry of Henry Timrod. Some critics say that you didn 't cite your sources clearly. Yet in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. What's your response to those kinds of charges?
Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It's true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who's been reading him lately? And who's pushed him to the forefront? Who's been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it's so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It's an old thing – it's part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you've been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.
I'm working within my art form. It's that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It's called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.
When those lines make their way into a song, you're conscious of it happening?
Well, not really. But even if you are, you let it go. I'm not going to limit what I can say. I have to be true to the song. It's a particular art form that has its own rules. It's a different type of thing. All my stuff comes out of the folk tradition – it's not necessarily akin to the pop world.
Do you find that sort of criticism irrelevant, or silly?
I try to get past all that. I have to. When you ask me if I find criticism of my work irrelevant or silly, no, not if it's constructive. If someone could point out here or there where my work could be improved upon, I guess I'd be willing to listen. The people who are obsessed with criticism – it's not honest criticism. They are not the people who I play to anyway.
But surely you've heard about this particular controversy?
People have tried to stop me every inch of the way. They've always had bad stuff to say about me. Newsweek magazine lit the fuse way back when. Newsweek printed that some kid from New Jersey wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" and it wasn't me at all. And when that didn't fly, people accused me of stealing the melody from a 16th-century Protestant hymn. And when that didn't work, they said they made a mistake and it was really an old Negro spiritual. So what's so different? It's gone on for so long I might not be able to live without it now. Fuck 'em. I'll see them all in their graves.
Everything people say about you or me, they are saying about themselves. They're telling about themselves. Ever notice that? In my case, there's a whole world of scholars, professors and Dylanologists, and everything I do affects them in some way. And, you know, in some ways, I've given them life. They'd be nowhere without me.
No, they're not good for that.
The flip side of people being critical . . .
Yeah, to hold someone in high admiration [laughs].
The flip side is, there's also the audience that really loves you.
Of course. They think they do. They love the music and songs I play, not me.
Why do you say that?
Because that's the way people are. People say they love a lot of things, but they really don't. It's just a word that's been overused. When you put your life on the line for somebody, that's love. But you'll never know it until you're in the moment. When someone will die for you, that's love, too.
This story is from the September 27th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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