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Bob Dylan: The Rolling Stone Interview

The elusive songwriter goes on the record

American, singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. stage, Isle of Wight Festival

American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival in Wootton on August 31st, 1969.

Anwar Hussein/Getty

They say Bob Dylan is the most secretive and elusive person in the entire rock and roll substructure, but after doing this interview, I think it would be closer to the point to say that Dylan, like John Wesley Harding, was “never known to make a foolish move.”

The preparations for the interview illustrates this well. About 18 months ago, I first started writing Bob letters asking for an interview, suggesting the conditions and questions and reasons for it. Then, a little over a year ago, the night before I left New York, a message came from the hotel operator that a “Mr. Dillon” had called.

Two months later, I met Bob for the first time at another hotel in New York: . . . he casually strolled in wearing a sheepskin outfit, leather boots, very well put together but not too tall, y’understand. It was 10 A.M. in the morning, and I rolled out of bed stark naked— – sleep that way, y’understand —– and we talked for half an hour about doing an interview, what it was for, why it was necessary. Bob was feeling out the situation, making sure it would be cool.

That meeting was in the late fall of 1968. It took eight months – —until the end of June this year – —to finally get the interview. The meantime was covered with a lot of phone calls, near misses in New York City, Bob’s trips to California which didn’t take place and a lot of waiting and waiting for that right time when we were both ready for the show.

The interview took place on a Thursday afternoon in New York City at my hotel, right around the corner from the funeral home where Judy Garland was being inspected by ten thousand people, who formed lines around several city blocks. We were removed from all that activity, but somehow it seemed appropriate enough that Judy Garland’s funeral coincided with the interview.

Bob was very cautious in everything he said, and took a long time between questions to phrase exactly what he wanted to say, nothing more and sometimes a little less. When I wasn’t really satisfied with his answers, I asked the questions another way, later. But Bob was hip.

Rather than edit the interview into tight chunks and long answers, I asked Sheryl to transcribe the tapes with all the pauses, asides and laughs left in. So, much of the time, it’s not what is said, but how it is said, and I think you will dig it more just as it went down.

To bring us up to date after all that, August through September was spent trying to get Baron together with Bob to get some new photographs of him, in a natural, non-performance situation. But it proved fruitless. Perhaps if we had had another six months to work on getting the photographs, but Bob was simply not to be rushed or pushed into something he really didn’t feel like doing at the time. (“I’ll have Baron meet you in New York tomorrow.” “Well, tomorrow I might be in Tucson, Arizona,” “Baron will fly to Tucson,” etc.)

The photographs we have used are from rehearsals for the Johnny Cash show and from the Isle of Wight, ones you probably have not seen yet, and some photos of Bob from a long time ago. Bob promised that we would get together soon to take some photos, and if we do, you’ll see them as soon as we get them. But don’t hold your breath.

Meantime, here’s the interview.

When do you think you’re gonna go on the road? 
November . . . possibly December. 

What kind of dates do you think you’ll play – concerts? Big stadiums or small concert halls?
I’ll play medium-sized halls.

What thoughts do you have on the kind of back-up you’re going to use
Well, we’ll keep it real simple, you know . . . drums . . . bass . . . second guitar . . . organ . . . piano. Possibly some horns. Maybe some background voices.

Girls? Like the Raylettes?
We could use some girls.

Do you have any particular musicians in mind at this time?
To go out on the road? Well, I always have some in mind. I’d like to know a little bit more about what I’m gonna do. You see, when I discover what I’m gonna do, then I can figure out what kind of sound I want.

I’d probably use . . . I’d want the best band around, you know?

Are you going to use studio musicians or use some already existing band?
I don’t know . . . you see, it involves putting other people on the bill, full-time. I’d only probably use the Band again . . . if I went around.

And they’d do the first half of the show?
. . . Sure . . . sure . . .

Are you thinking of bringing any other artists with you?
Well, every so often we do think about that. (laughter) We certainly do. I was thinking about maybe introducing Marvin Rainwater or Slim Whitman to “my audience.”

Have you been in touch with either of them
No . . . no. 

What did you think when you saw yourself on the Cash show?
(Laughs) Oh, I’d never see that . . . I can’t stand to see myself on television. No.

Did you dig doing it?
I dig doing it, yeah. Well, you know, television isn’t like anything else . . . it’s also like the movie business, you know, where they call you and then you just sit around. So by the time you finally do something, you have to do it three or four times, and usually all the spirit’s gone.

You didn’t watch it on TV?
(Laughs) I did watch it on TV . . . just because I wanted to see Johnny. I didn’t realize they slowed Doug Kershaw down, too. They slowed his song down to . . . his song was like this . . . (taps out steady beat) . . . and they slowed him down to . . . (taps slow rhythm) . . . you know?

Just by slowing down the tape?
They just slowed him down. I don’t know how. I don’t know what happened. I think the band slowed him down or something, but boy he was slowed down. During rehearsals and just sitting around, he played these songs . . . the way we was going at it, maybe 3/4 time, and they slowed him down to about 2/3 time, you know?

Did you have any difficulty working with the TV people doing something like that?
O no, no, they’re wonderful people . . . they really are. It was by far the most enjoyable television program I’ve ever done. I don’t do television just because you get yourself in such a mess . . . so I don’t do it.

You told me once that you were going to do a TV special?
That’s what I’m talking about.

In Hollywood?
No, I’m talking about CBS.

In New York?
Well, we don’t know that yet. They don’t have in mind exactly what they would like. They kind of leave it wide open, so we’re trying to close the gap now.

What do you have in mind for it?
Oh, I just have some free-from type thing in mind. A lot of music.

[Q] Presenting other artists?
Sure. . . I don’t mind. I don’t know who, but. . .

Why haven’t you worked in so long?
Well, uh . . . I do work.

I mean on the road.
On the road . . . I don’t know, working on the road . . . Well, Jann, I’ll tell ya— – I was on the road for almost five years. It wore me down. I was on drugs, a lot of things. A lot of things just to keep going, you know? And I don’t want to live that way anymore. And uh . . . I’m just waiting for a better time– – you know what I mean?

What would you do that would make the tour that you’re thinking about doing different from the ones you did do?
Well, I’d like to slow down the pace a little. The one I did do . . . the next show’s gonna be a lot different from the last show. The last show, during the first half, of which there was about an hour, I only did maybe six songs. My songs were long, long songs. But that’s why I had to start dealing with a lot of different methods of keeping myself awake, alert . . . because I had to remember all the words to those songs. Now I’ve got a whole bag of new songs. I’ve written ’em for the road, you know. So I’ll be doing all these songs on the road. They’re gonna sound a lot better than they do on record. My songs always sound a lot better in person than they do on the record. 

Well, I don’t know why. They just do.

On Nashville Skyline– – who does the arrangements? The studio musicians, or. . .
Boy, I wish you could’ve come along the last time we made an album. You’d probably enjoyed it . . . ’cause you see right there, you know how it’s done. We just take a song; I play it and everyone else just sort of fills in behind it. No sooner you got that done, and at the same time you’re doing that, there’s someone in the control booth who’s turning all those dials to where the proper sound is coming in. . . and then it’s done. Just like that.

Just out of rehearsing it? It’ll be a take?
Well, maybe we’ll take about two times.

Were there any songs on Nashville Skyline that took longer to take?
I don’t know . . . I don’t think so. There’s a movie out now, called Midnight Cowboy. You know the song on the album, “Lay, Lady, Lay”? Well, I wrote that song for that movie. These producers, they wanted some music for their movie. This was last summer. And this fellow there asked me, you know, if I could do some music for their movie. So I came up with that song. By the time I came up with it, though it was too late (Laughs) It’s the same old story all the time. It’s just too late . . . so I kept the song and recorded it.

There’s something going on with Easy Rider – –you wrote the lyrics for a song that Roger McGuinn wrote the music for, or something? Something. . . writing a song for Easy Rider, the Peter Fonda film? Were you involved in that at all?
They used some of my music in it. They used a song of the Band’s, too. They also used Steppenwolf music. I don’t know anything more about it than that.

Do you know which song of yours they used?
“It’s Alright, Ma” – –but they had Roger McGuinn singing it.

Have you been approached to write music for any other movies?

Considering any of them?

Why? Scripts?
Ummmm. . . I don’t know. I just can’t seem to keep my mind on it. I can’t keep my mind on the movie. I had a script awhile ago, that was called Zachariah and the Seven Cowboys. (laughs) That was some script. Every line in it was taken out of the Bible. And just thrown together. Then there was another one, called The Impossible Toy. Have you seen that? (laughs) Yeah. Let’s see, what else? Ummm . . . no, I’m not planning on doing any music for movies.

When are you going to do another record?
You mean when am I going to put out an album? 

Have you done another record?
No . . . not exactly. I was going to try and have another one out by the fall.

Is it done in Nashville again?
Well, we . . . I think so . . . I mean it’s. . . seems to be as good a place as any.

What first got you involved with or attracted you to the musicians at the Columbia studios.
Nashville? Well we always used them since Blonde on Blonde. Well, we didn’t use Pete on Blonde on Blonde.

What was Joe South like to work with?
Joe South? Well he was quiet. He didn’t say too much. I always did like him though.

Do you like his record?
I love his records.

That album, Introspect?
Um-hmm, I always enjoyed his guitar playing. Ever since I heard him.

Does he have any solos on Blonde on Blonde?
Um-hmm. Yes he does. He has a. . . he’s playing a high guitar lick on. . . well, if you named me the songs, I could tell you which one it was, but it’s catchin’ my mind at the moment. He was playing. . . he played a big, I believe it was a Gretsch, guitar–one of those Chet Atkins models. That’s the guitar he played it on.

“Absolutely Sweet Marie”?
Yeah, it could’ve been that one. Or “Just Like a Woman”. . . one of those. Boy he just. . . he played so pretty.

On Nashville Skyline, do you have any song on that that you particularly dig? Above the others.
Uh. . . “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” I like “Tell Me That It Isn’t True,” although it came out completely different than I’d written it. It came out real slow and mellow. I had it written as sort of a jerky, kind of polka-type thing. I wrote it in F. That’s what gives it kind of a new sound. They’re all in F. . . not all of them, but quite a few. There’s not many on that album that aren’t in F. So you see –I had those chords. . .which gives it a certain sound. I try to be a little different on every album.

I’m sure you read the reviews of Nashville Skyline. Everybody remarks on the change of your singing style. . .
Well Jann, I’ll tell you something. There’s not too much of a change in my singing style, but I’ll tell you something which is true. . . I stopped smoking. When I stopped smoking, my voice changed. . . so drastically, I couldn’t believe it myself. That’s true. I tell you, you stop smoking those cigarettes (laughter). . . and you’ll be able to sing like Caruso.

How many songs did you go into Nashville Skyline with?
I went in with uhh. . . the first time I went into the studio I had, I think, four songs. I pulled that instrumental one out. . . I needed some songs with an instrumental. . . then Johnny came in and did a song with me. Then I wrote one in the motel. . . then pretty soon the whole album started fill in’ in together, and we had an album. I mean, we didn’t go down with that in mind. That’s why I wish you were there. . . you could’ve really seen it happen. It just manipulated out of nothing.

How many songs did you do with Johnny?
Well, we did quite a few. We just sat down and started doing some songs. . . but you know how those things are. You get into a room with someone, you start playing and singing, and you sort of forget after a while what you’re there for. (laughs)

You must have a lotta songs with him on tape. . . are you thinking of putting out a collection of them?
Well I’m not, no. But you usually have to leave those things in the hands of the producers.

Is there one afoot?
A tape?

No, an album.
No. . . not that I know of. If there was an album, I believe that we would both have to go back into the studio and record some more songs.

There’s not enough there already. . . or it’s just not good enough
Well, it’s uhh. . . what it comes down to is a choice of material. If they wanted an album– – a joint album– – they could probably get a lot more material with a broader range on it. If we went there with actually certain songs in mind to do. . . see, that didn’t happen last time.

How did you make the change. . . or why did you make the change, of producers, from Tom Wilson to Bob Johnston?
Well, I can’t remember, Jann. I can’t remember. . . all I know is that I was out recording one day, and Tom had always been there– – I had no reason to think he wasn’t going to be there –– and I looked up one day and Bob was there. (laughs)

There’s been some articles on Wilson and he says that he’s the one that gave you the rock and roll sound. . . and started you doing rock and roll. Is that true?
Did he say that? Well, if he said it. . . (laughs) more power to him. (laughs) He did to a certain extent. That is true. He did. He had a sound in mind.

Have you ever thought of doing an album. . . a very arranged, very orchestrated album, you know, with chicks and. . .?
Gee, I’ve thought of it. . . I think about it once in a while. Yeah.

You think you might do one?
I do whatever comes naturally. I’d like to do an album like that. You mean using my own material and stuff?

Yeah, using your own material but with vocal background and. . .
I’d like to do it. Who wouldn’t?

When did you make the change from John Hammond. . . or what caused the change from John Hammond?
John Hammond. He signed me in 1960. He signed me to Columbia Records. I think he produced my first album. I think he produced my second one, too.

And Tom Wilson was also working at Columbia at the time?
He was. . . you know, I don’t recall how that happened. . . or why that switch took place. I remember at one time I was about to record for Don Law. You know Don Law? I was about to record for Don Law, but I never did. I met Don Law in New York, in 1962 . . . and again recently, last year when I did the John Wesley Harding album I met him down in the studio. He came in . . . he’s a great producer. He produced many of the earlier records for Columbia and also for labels which they had before– – Okeh and stuff like that. I believe he did the Robert Johnson records.

What did you do in the year between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding?
Well I was on tour part of that time . . . Australia, Sweden . . . an overseas tour. Then I came back. . .and in the spring of that year, I was scheduled to go out–it was One month off, I had a one-month vacation –– I was gonna go back on the road again in July. Blonde on Blonde was up on the charts at this time. At that time I had a dreadful motorcyle accident . . . Which put me away for awhile . . . and I still didn’t sense the importance of that accident till at least a year after that. I realized that it was a real accident. I Mean I thought that I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before . . . but I couldn’t do it anymore.

What did I do during that year? I helped work on a film . . . which was supposed to be aired on Stage 67, a television show which isn’t on anymore . . . I don’t think it was on for very long.

What change did the motorcyle accident make?
What change? Well, it . . . it limited me. It’s hard to speak about the change, you Know? It’s not the type of change that one can put into words . . . besides the physical change. I had a busted vertebrae; neck vertebrae. And there’s really not much to talk about. I don’t want to talk about it.

Laying low for a year . . . you must have had time to think. That was the ABC-TV show? What happened to the tapes of that? How come that never got shown?
Well, I could make an attempt to answer that, but . . . (laughs)
. . . I think my manager could probably answer it a lot better.

I don’t think he answers too many questions.
Doesn’t he? He doesn’t answer question? Well he’s a nice guy. He’ll usually talk to you if you show some enthusiasm for what you’re talking about.

So what happened to the tapes?
You mean that film? As far as I know, it will be sold .. or a deal will be made, for its sale. That’s what I’m told, But you see, Jann, I don’t hold these movie People in too high a position. You know this movie, Don’t Look Back? Well, that splashed my face all over the world, that movie Don’t Look Back. I didn’t get a penny from that movie, you know . . . so when people say why don’t you go out and work and why don’t you do this and why don’t you do that, people don’t know half of what a lot of these producers and people, lawyers . . . they don’t know the half of those stories. I’m an easy-going kind of fellow, you know . . . I’m forgive and forget. I like to think that way. But I’m a little shy of these people. I’m not interested in finding out anymore about any film. 

Did you like Don’t Look Back?
I’d like it a lot more if I got paid for it. (laughter)

There was supposed to be another film that Pennebaker shot – I don’t know when or where – may be it was the ABC film . . .
That was it. Sure it was. That’s the one you’re talking about.

Is it a good one?
Well, we cut it fast on the eye. It’s fast on the eye. I’d have to let you see it for yourself, to think about if it’s a good one. I don’t Know if it’s a good one. For me, it’s too fast for the eye . . . but there are quite a few people who say it’s really good. Johnny Cash is in it. John Lennon’s in it. The Band’s in it. Who else . . . a lot of different people from the European capitals of the world are in it.

Princes and princesses? (laughs)
Well not princesses, (laughs) but presidents (laughs) and people like that.

What is the nature of your acquaintance with John Lennon?
Oh, I always love to see John. Always. He’s a wonderful fellow . . . and I always like to see him.

He said that the first time that you met, in New York, after one of the concerts or something like that, it was a very up tight situation.
It probably was, yes. Like, you know how it used to be for them. They couldn’t go out of their room. They used to tell me you could hardly get in to see them. There used to be people surrounding them, not only in the strects, but in the corridors in the hotel. I should say it was up tight.

How often have you seen them sub sequently?
Well, I haven’t seen them too much recently.

What do you think of the bed-ins for Peace? Him and Yoko.
Well, you know . . . everybody’s doing what they can do. I don’t mind what he does, really . . . I always like to see him.

Do you read the current critics? The music critics, so-called “rock and roll writers?”
Well I try to keep up. I try to keep up-to-date . . . I realize I don’t do a very good job in keeping up to date, but I try to. I don’t know half the groups that are playing around now. I don’t know half of what I should.

Are there any that you’ve seen that you dig?
Well I haven’t seen any.

I mean like Traffic, and . . .
See, I never saw Traffic . . . I never even saw Cream. I feel bad about those things, but what can I do?

See them? (laughs)
Well, I can’t now. I’m going to see this new group, called Blind Faith. I’m going to make it my duty to go see them . . . ’cause they’ll probably be gone (laughter) in another year or so. So I’d better get up there quick and see them.

Do you like Stevie Winwood singing?
Oh sure, sure . . . Stevie Winwood, he came to see u