Catching Up With Bob Dylan: "I Portray Life As a Game of Chance"

He's not sorry about the Victoria's Secret ad and not sure you should call 'Chronicles' a book

Bob Dylan in New York.
John Cohen/Getty Images
Bob Dylan in New York.
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Bob Dylan has proved that his prose can be as elegant as his poetry. In his new memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan takes us on a circular ride through the most intense periods of his professional life, from Greenwich Village in 1961 to his retreat to Woodstock in 1968 and his regeneration in the late Eighties. It's less an autobiography than a historical document – a philosophical and personal analysis of life in America – and it will make your head spin. Ladies and gentlemen, Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan, checking in from a tour stop in Manhattan, Kansas.

In Chronicles you write about the guitar technique that Lonnie Johnson taught you. Only a serious musician could comprehend the language you use. Why'd you choose to go into such great detail?
I think it might be helpful for people to understand that my style has got a structure to it. Maybe I wrote that for people who play. Some people might pick it up. Why? Do you find it irrelevant in some way?

The Greatest Rock Memoirs of All Time: Bob Dylan: Chronicles, Volume One

On the contrary.
I can't say whether a bus driver would find it interesting. To me it was important.

You also describe watching La Dolce Vita "intently, thinking that I might not see it again." Do you have a photographic memory?
I leave my mind open. I don't fill it up with a lot of things. I'm very careful as to what I get distracted by. With the book, what I try and do is put a feeling across. It's not the kind of book where it's a short life and a merry one. It's more abstract, drawn out over long periods of time. I worked the book, if you want to call it that, in patterns. I portray life as a game of chance. It works on a variety of levels, like some of the best songs do.

You write about the night Woody Guthrie sent you to his house in Coney Island to get a box of his lyrics. What would have happened if you'd found them?
I don't know if I would have been capable of doing much with them at all, really, though I suppose I would have. I don't think I would have made a record of that stuff, like the record that eventually came out [Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II]. Who'd really heard of me?

You downplay a chunk of your career in Chronicles. Am I crazy to love Street Legal, Slow Train Coming and Infidels?
Not at all. I can play those songs, but I probably can't listen to those records. I'll hear too many faults. I was just being swept along with the current when I was making those records. I don't think my talent was under control. But there's probably good stuff on all of them. Shelley said the point was to make unpremeditated art. I don't think those records fall into that category.

Lyrically, does it get any better than "It's Alright, Ma"?
It's hard to live up to that kind of thing. You can't try to top it – that's not the point. Lyrically you can't top it, no. I still can play that song, and I know what it can do. That song was written with a hunger that can break down stone walls. That was the motivation.

Have you ever hung with Little Richard?
Yeah!

What was that like? Did you tell him that in your high school yearbook you wrote your ambition was to be in his band?
He's a fantastic person. Very exciting guy to be around, as you can imagine. I don't think I told him about the yearbook – I don't think I needed to. He knows I've been a fan of his from way back.

In the book you don't talk too much about playing harp. What harmonica performances of your own are you most proud of?
A lot of them, really. I don't know if proud is the word. . . . I play the harmonica like I play the piano. I don't really need to listen to what I'm playing. Of course, I can tell if I'm playing it wrong, when it's not going to appeal to anybody. It might on a technological level, but it won't on a gut level. If I put it into the beat, right on the one or the three, that's really basically all I have to do to get the point across. It will form a melodic structure on its own. Someone can always play it better, but you've heard a lot of great musicians where it sounds great at the time, but you forget about it two minutes later. I stay away from that showoff thing.

This is how I see it: You fly to Italy, hang out with beautiful women, make a little scratch and next thing you're in a Victoria's Secret commercial.
Yeah. Was I not supposed to do that?

I enjoyed it.
I wish I would have seen it. Maybe I'd have something to say about it. I don't see that kind of stuff. That's all for other people to see and make up what they will.

Why do you leave your Oscar on your guitar amp?
I think it's welded to it now. The guys who work with me backstage are so thrilled about seeing it that they keep putting it up there.

What's the last song you'd like to hear before you die?
How 'bout "Rock of Ages"?

I heard you've written songs for a new album.
I have a bunch of them. I do.

When will you crank 'em out?
Maybe in the beginning of the year. I'm not sure where and when.

Can you tell me about them?
No, I couldn't explain them to you. After you listen to them, call me back. It's difficult to paraphrase them or tell you what kind of style they're in. You won't be surprised.

Why not?
The musical structure you're used to hearing – it might be rearranged a bit. The songs themselves will speak to you.

I saw you play at the Newport Folk Festival a couple of years ago. What was up with the wig and fake beard?
Is that me who you saw up there?

This story is from the December 9, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 963: December 9, 2004