The 1960s are often idealized as times of great innocence and wonder. Although your own work has been recorded in the Seventies and Eighties, some of your best songs seem haunted by the strife of that era. Looking back, do you see the Sixties as a period in which a great deal was at stake in American culture?
I think that in the Sixties there was a rebellion against what people felt was the dehumanization of society, where people were counted as less than people, less than human. It was almost as if there were a temper tantrum against that particular threat. In the Sixties moral lines were drawn relatively easily. "Hey, this is wrong, this is right – I'm standing here!" That idea busted up nearly every house in the nation. And people expected revolution. I think some people thought it was going to happen in an explosive burst of some sort of radical, joyous energy, and that all the bullshit and all the Nixons were going to be swept away, and, man, we were going to start all over again and do it right this time. Okay, that was a childlike fantasy. But a lot of those ideas were good ideas.
It's funny, but because of the naiveness of the era, it's easily trivialized and laughed at. But underneath it, I think, people were trying in some sense to redefine their own lives and the country that they lived in, in some more open and free and just fashion. And that was real – that desire was real. But I think that as people grew older, they found that the process of changing things actually tends to be unromantic and not very dramatic. In fact, it's very slow and very small, and if anything, it's done in inches.
The values from that time are things that I still believe in. I think that all my music – certainly the music I've done in the past five or six years – is a result of that time and those values. I don't know, it seems almost like a lost generation. How do the ideals of that time connect in some pragmatic fashion to the real world today? I don't know if anybody's answered that particular question.
One of the central events that inspired the idealism of that era – the war in Vietnam – was also the most horrific thing to happen to this society in the last twenty years. It tore us apart along political and generational lines, but it also drew a hard line across the nation and forced many of us to take a clear stand.
That's true: that was the last time things ever felt that morally clear. Since then – from Watergate on down – who or what the enemy is has grown more obfuscated. It's just too confusing. But you can't wait for events like Vietnam, because if you do, then maybe 55,000 men end up dying and the country is left changed forever. I mean, that experience is still not over. And without those particular memories, without the people who were there reminding everybody, it would've happened again already, I'm sure. Certainly, it would have happened in the past eight years if they thought they could have gotten away with it.
So what went wrong? Why is it that so few of the brave ideals of those times carried over to the social and political realities of today?
I think the problem is that people yearn for simple answers. The reason the image of the Reagan presidency is so effective is that it appeared to be very simple. I think that's also the whole reason for the canonization of Oliver North: he said all the right words and pushed all the right buttons. And people yearn for those sorts of simple answers. But the world will never ever be simple again, if it ever was. The world is nothing but complex, and if you do not learn to interpret its complexities, you're going to be on the river without a paddle.
The classic thing for me is the misinterpretation of "Born in the U.S.A." I opened the paper one day and saw where they had quizzed kids on what different songs meant, and they asked them what "Born in the U.S.A." meant. "Well, it's about my country," they answered. Well, that is what it's about – that's certainly one of the things it's about – but if that's as far in as you go, you're going to miss it, you know? I don't think people are being taught to think hard enough about things in general – whether it's about their own lives, politics, the situation in Nicaragua or whatever. Consequently, if you do not learn to do that – if you do not develop the skills to interpret that information – you're going to be easily manipulated, or you're going to walk around simply confused and ineffectual and powerless.
People are being dumped into this incredibly unintelligible society, and they are swimming, barely staying afloat, and then trying to catch on to whatever is going to give them a little safe ground.
I guess when I started in music I thought, "My job is pretty simple. My job is I search for the human things in myself, and I turn them into notes and words, and then in some fashion, I help people hold on to their own humanity – if I'm doing my job right."
You can change things – except maybe you can affect only one person, or maybe only a few people. Certainly nothing as dramatic as we expected in the Sixties. When I go onstage, my approach is "I'm going to reach just one person" – even if there's 80,000 people there. Maybe those odds aren't so great, but if that's what they are, that's okay.
Was that what you had in mind at the end of the last tour, when before performing Edwin Starr's "War" you told your audience to think twice about committing itself to any of America's future military involvements?
With that, I guess we were playing the percentages, you know? [Laughs,] I mean, I've met people on the street who I could tell misunderstood my work, and I've also met people who have understood it. It was the same thing when we'd play in a club – it was just fewer numbers. But when we started to do "War," which we only did the last four nights of the whole tour, I was looking for some way to reshape that part of the show to make it as explicit as I could, without sloganeering. But "War" . . . a lot of people heard it, and some people didn't hear it. I'm sure that when we're on tour, I'll be singing that song again. And maybe people that didn't hear it will hear it differently this time. My job is to try to make sure that they do. I never thought, "Well, I'll do this because this feels like the right thing to do." I did it because it was the only thing that I felt I could do. I think that people get tired and frustrated. I learned that again during the week when Oliver North was testifying. It was a frustrating time. I was walking around arguing with everybody [laughs]. It was like "I don't believe this is happening." It reminded me that you've got to wake up in the morning and go to work again.
You keep talking about your involvement in rock & roll as a job. That's a far cry from the view that many of us had in the Sixties, when we looked upon artists - such as Bob Dylan - not so much as people performing a job but as cultural revolutionaries.
Dylan was a revolutionary. So was Elvis. I'm not that. I don't see myself as having been that. I felt that what I would be able to do, maybe, was redefine what I did in more human terms than it had been defined before, and in more everyday terms. I always saw myself as a nuts-and-bolts kind of person. I felt what I was going to accomplish I would accomplish over a long period of time, not in an enormous burst of energy or genius. To keep an even perspective on it all, I looked at it like a job – something that you do every day and over a long period of time.
To me, Dylan and Elvis – what they did was genius. I never really saw myself in that fashion. I'm sure there was a part of me that was afraid of having that kind of ambition or taking on those kinds of responsibilities.
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