With the later records, that resolve seemed to have more and more political resonance. In 1979 you took part in the No Nukes benefit concert, and in November 1980 you made some scathing remarks onstage in Arizona on the evening following Ronald Reagan's election. How did events of recent years inspire your new-found political concern and awareness?
I think my response was based on an accumulation of things. I never considered myself a particularly political person. I wasn't when I was younger, and I don't think I really am now. But if you live in a situation where you have seen people's lives wasted . . . I think the thing that frightened me most was seeing all that waste. There wasn't any one specific thing that made me go in that particular direction, but it seemed like if you're a citizen, and if you're living here, then it's your turn to take out the garbage. Your tour of duty should come around.
It just seemed that people's lives are being shaped by forces they do not understand, and if you are going to begin to take a stand and fight against those things, you got to know the enemy – and that's getting harder to do. People are so easily affected by buzzwords; they're getting their button pushed with God, mother, country, apple pie – even in soda commercials. And so it's like "Where is the real thing? Where is the real America?"
What's also disturbing is the casualness with which people are getting used to being lied to. To me, Watergate felt like this big hustle was going down. And in the end it seemed to legitimize the dope dealer down on the street. "Hey, the president's doing it, so why can't I?" I guess we're pretty much left to find our way on our own these days. That sense of community that there was in the Sixties made you feel like there were a lot of people along for the ride with you. It felt like the whole country was trying to find its way. You do not have a sense that the country is trying to find its way today. And that's a shame. As a result, I think you feel more on your own in the world today. Certainly, I feel more isolated in it.
Maybe everybody's just got to grab hold of each other. The idea of America as a family is naive, maybe sentimental or simplistic, but it's a good idea. And if people are sick and hurting and lost, I guess that it falls on everybody to address those problems in some fashion. Because injustice, and the price of that injustice, falls on everyone's heads. The economic injustice falls on everybody's head and steals everyone's freedom. Your wife can't walk down the street at night. People keep guns in their homes. They live with a greater sense of apprehension, anxiety and fear than they would in a more just and open society. It's not an accident, and it's not simply that there are "bad" people out there. It's an inbred part of the way that we are all living: it's a product of what we have accepted, what we have acceded to. And whether we mean it or not, our silence has spoken for us in some fashion. But the challenge is still there: eight years of Reagan is not going to change that.
That seemed part of what Nebraska was about: a reaction to the Reagan years. Was that how you intended people to see that record?
In a funny way, I always considered it my most personal record, because it felt to me, in its tone, the most what my childhood felt like. Later on, a bunch of people wrote about it as a response to the Reagan era, and it obviously had that connection.
I think people live from the inside out. Your initial connection is to your friends and your wife and your family. From there your connection may be to your immediate community. And then if you have the energy and the strength, then you say, "Well, how do I connect up to the guy in the next state or, ultimately, to people in the world?" I think that whatever the political implications of my work have been, they've just come out of personal insight. I don't really have a particular political theory or ideology. It came from observations, like, okay, this man is being wasted. Why is this man being wasted? This person has lost himself. Why is that? And just trying to take it from there. How does my life interconnect and intertwine with my friends and everybody else? I don't know the answers yet. I'm a guitar player – that's what I do.
But millions of people see you as more than a guitar player. In fact, many see you as nothing less than an inspiring moral leader. But there's a certain irony to being a modern-day hero for the masses. Back in the Sixties nobody ever spoke of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Dylan as being overexposed. Yet these days, any pop artist who has a major, sustained impact on a mass audience runs the risk of seeming either overly promoted by the media or too familiar to his audience. In recent years, performers like you, Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna have all faced this dilemma. Do you ever feel that you're running the danger of overexposure?
Well, what does that mean? What is "overexposed"? It really has no meaning, you know? It's kind of a newspaper thing. I just ignore it, to be honest with you. I make the best records I can make. I try to work on them and put them out when it feels right and they feel like they're ready. That's what it is – not whether I'm overexposed or underexposed or not exposed. It's like "Hey, put the record on. Is it good? Do you like it? Is it rockin' ya? Is it speaking to you? Am I talking to you?" And the rest is what society does to sell newspapers or magazines. You gotta fill 'em up every month. You have an entire counterlife that is attached to your own real life by the slimmest of threads. In the past year, if you believe what was in the newspapers about me, I'd be living in two houses that I've never seen, been riding in cars that I've never had [laughs]. This is just what happens. It's, like, uncontrollable: the media monster has to be fed.
So all that sort of stuff, if you believe that it has anything really to do with you, you know, you're gonna go nuts. In the end, people will like my records and feel they were true or feel they weren't. They'll look at the body of work I've done and pull out whatever meaning it has for them. And that's what stands. The rest is transient. It's here today and gone tomorrow. It's meaningless. Whether Michael Jackson is sleeping in a tank or not, what does it mean to you? It's just a laugh for some people; that's all it really is. And I feel like, hey, if it's a laugh for you, then have one on me. Because when you reach for and achieve fame, one of the byproducts of fame is you will be trivialized, and you will be embarrassed. You will be, I guarantee it. I look at that as a part of my job. And I ain't seen nothing compared to, you know, if you look at Elvis's life or even Michael J.'s. I've had it pretty easy, but I know a little bit of what it's about. These things are gonna happen, and if you don't have a strong enough sense of who you are and what you're doing, they'll kick you in the ass and knock you down and have a good time doing it. That's the nature of our society, and it's one of the roles that people like me play in society. Okay, that's fine, but my feeling is simple: my work is my defense. Simple as that I've done things I never thought I'd be able to do, I've been places I never thought I'd be. I've written music that is better than I thought I could write. I did stuff that I didn't think I had in me.
You've also come to mean a lot to an awful lot of people.
That's a good thing, but you can take it too far. I do not believe that the essence of the rock & roll idea was to exalt the cult of personality. That is a sidetrack, a dead-end street. That is not the thing to do. And I've been as guilty of it as anybody in my own life. When I jumped over that wall to meet Elvis that night [at Graceland], I didn't know who I was gonna meet. And the guard who stopped me at the door did me the biggest favor of my life. I had misunderstood. It was innocent, and I was having a ball, but it wasn't right. In the end, you cannot live inside that dream. You cannot live within the dream of Elvis Presley or within the dream of the Beatles. It's like John Lennon said: "The dream is over." You can live with that dream in your heart, but you cannot live inside that dream, because it's a perversion, you know? What the best of art says is, it says, "Take this" - this movie or painting or photograph or record – "take what you see in this, and then go find your place in the world. This is a tool: go out and find your place in the world."
I think I made the mistake earlier on of trying to live within that dream, within that rock & roll dream. It's a seductive choice, it's a seductive opportunity. The real world, after all, is frightening. In the end, I realized that rock & roll wasn't just about finding fame and wealth. Instead, for me, it was about finding your place in the world, figuring out where you belong.
It's a tricky balance to do it correctly. You got to be able to hold a lot of contradictory ideas in your mind at one time without letting them drive you nuts. I feel like to do my job right, when I walk out onstage I've got to feel like it's the most important thing in the world. Also I got to feel like, well, it's only rock & roll. Somehow you got to believe both of those things.
This story is from the November 5, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.
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