That night in Switzerland,” says Bob Dylan, “it all just came to me. All of a sudden I could sing anything. There might’ve been a time when I was going to quit or retire, but the next day it was like, ‘I can’t really retire now because I really haven’t done anything yet,’ you know? I want to see where this will lead me, because now I can control it all. Before, I wasn’t controlling it. I was just being swept by the wind, this way or that way.”
As Dylan speaks, we are seated at a small table in a comfortable hotel suite, located on the beach at Santa Monica. Dylan is dressed in the sort of country-gentleman finery he has tended to favor in recent years — a nicely stitched white Western shirt and sharp-looking black slacks with arrows embroidered at the edges of the pocket seams. Dylan has been talking about a crucial turning point in his life and art, during the time since Rolling Stone last published a lengthy interview with him in 1992. In several of those years, Dylan produced erratic and mixed-up work — and he is the first to admit it. But increasingly, those years also featured some of the most resourceful and remarkable creativity in Dylan’s forty-year recording and performing career — and that progress, it is only fair to say, was sometimes less noted than it should have been. All that changed in 1997. In that year, Dylan fell sick with a rare fungal infection that caused severe swelling around his heart. It was a painful condition that temporarily debilitated him, and it could have proved fatal. Around the same time as his illness, Dylan finished and soon released his first album of original material in seven years, Time Out of Mind. It was a work unlike any other that Dylan had created – a trek through the unmapped frontier that lies beyond loss and disillusion — and it was heralded as a startling work of renewal. Time Out of Mind went on to win the Grammy for Best Album of the Year — Dylan’s first such honor in that category.
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In September, Dylan released another collection of new songs, Love and Theft — his forty-third album. Love and Theft sounds at moments like Dylan is unearthing new revelations with an acerbic wit and impulsive language — in much the same way he did on his early hallmark, Highway 61 Revisited — though Love and Theft also seems to derive from ancient well-springs of American vision and concealment, much like John Wesley Harding or his legendary 1967 Basement Tapes sessions with the Band. Dylan, however, bristles at such comparisons. Love and Theft, as he puts it, plays by its own rules.
The 1980s saw Dylan lose his focus. He mounted widely publicized and well-attended tours with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead — but these were tours in which Dylan seemed to be casting about for a sense of connection and intent. To many observers, Dylan gave the impression that he was adrift. In recent years, he has told the story of an event — a moment of awareness — that came to him onstage in Locarno, Switzerland. He said that a phrase struck him — “I’m determined to stand whether God will deliver me or not” — and in that moment, he realized that it was his vocation to rededicate himself to his music and its performance. Dylan didn’t make any public pronouncements about this realization and how it had changed his purpose as a singer, musician and songwriter. In a low-key yet determined way, Dylan invested himself in his music’s sustaining power perhaps more than ever before. As good as Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft may be, the live shows that Dylan has been playing for years with an evolving, carefully selected band (which presently consists of bassist Tony Garnier, drummer David Kemper, and guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton), make the case that his essential art can be found onstage even more than on record. Indeed, Dylan — who turned sixty this past May — seems to have adopted a viewpoint similar to the one favored by jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis for most of his career: namely, that the truest vital experience of music resides in the moment of its performance, in the living act of its formation and the spontaneous yet hard-earned discoveries that those acts of creation yield. The next time the musicians play the same song, it is not really the same song. It is a new moment and creation, a new possibility, a newfound place on the map, soon to be left behind for the next place. These live shows are the quintessence of Bob Dylan and how he has moved into the new century, bringing with him what he values most from the music of the last century, even as night after night he takes us to unfamiliar and transfixing understandings of what we once thought we knew so well.
It was a Tuesday in September when Dylan and I sat down to discuss his recent art — two weeks to the day after the shocking attacks that destroyed New York’s World Trade Center buildings. (The tragedy’s date, September 11th, was also the release date for Love and Theft.) As we talked, Dylan and I were near the room’s open balcony doors and windows, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The Los Angeles airport is just down the highway, and every few minutes you could see an airplane in its ascent as it embarked on its journey. Once or twice, we just watched without comment, but there was a sense that nobody will ever look at the commonplace sight of a plane moving across the sky in quite the same way again. It would be unfair to Dylan to make the claim that anything in his music anticipated the horrific turn of recent events. And yet clearly he has been writing about dread realities and dangerous likelihoods for four decades now, from the end-times vision of 1963’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” to his current remorseful statement about personal and national spirit in Love and Theft’s “Mississippi.” Bob Dylan may no longer be the young firebrand who tore through the world with such energy and disdain in the 1960s, but he is still a songwriter, singer and literary artist of continuing power and depth. If there was any principal meaning to Dylan’s early music, perhaps it was that it is hardly trouble-free for a smart, conscientious person to live in times that witness the betrayal or inversion of our best values and dreams. To live through such times with scruples and intellect intact, Dylan has declared in his music, one has to hold an honest and fearless mirror up to the face of cultural and moral disorder.
Dylan was convivial and confident as we talked on this day, but in his speech, just as in his songs and vocals, one senses that he carries a dignified knowledge of enduring mysteries that probably unsettle him every bit as much as his awareness of them distinguishes him. And in conversation, just as in his music, Bob Dylan lets go of his insights in constantly surprising and singular turns of phrase and temperament.
In 1998, when you received the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, you said something that surprised me — maybe surprised other people as well. You said, “We didn’t know what we had when we did it, but we did it anyway.” That was interesting because Time Out of Mind plays as an album made with purpose and vision, with a consistent mood and set of themes. Was it, in fact, an album you approached with forethought, or was its seeming cohesiveness incidental?
What happened was, I’d been writing down couplets and verses and things, and then putting them together at later times. I had a lot of that — it was starting to pile up — so I thought, “Well, I got all this — maybe, I’ll try to record it.” I’d had good luck with Daniel Lanois [producer of the 1989 album Oh Mercy], so I called him and showed him a lot of the songs. I also familiarized him with the way I wanted the songs to sound. I think I played him some Slim Harpo recordings — early stuff like that. He seemed pretty agreeable to it, and we set aside a certain time and place. But I had a schedule — I only had so much time — and we made that record, Time Out of Mind, that way. It was a little rougher. . . . I wouldn’t say rougher. . . . It was . . . I feel we were lucky to get that record.
Well, I didn’t go into it with the idea that this was going to be a finished album. It got off the tracks more than a few times, and people got frustrated. I know I did. I know Lanois did. There were myriad musicians down there. At that point in time, I didn’t have the same band I have now. I was kind of just auditioning players here and there for a band, but I didn’t feel like I could trust them man-to-man in the studio with unrecorded songs. So we started to use some musicians that Lanois would choose and a couple that I had in mind: [keyboardist] Jim Dickinson; [drummer] Jim Keltner; [guitarist] Duke Robillard. I started just assembling people that I knew could play. They had the right soulful kind of attitude for these songs. But we just couldn’t . . . I felt extremely frustrated, because I couldn’t get any of the up-tempo songs that I wanted.
Don’t you think a song like “Cold Irons Bound” certainly has a drive to it?
Yeah, there’s a real drive to it, but it isn’t even close to the way I had it envisioned. I mean, I’m satisfied with what we did. But there were things I had to throw out because this assortment of people just couldn’t lock in on riffs and rhythms all together. I got so frustrated in the studio that I didn’t really dimensionalize the songs. I could’ve if I’d had the willpower. I just didn’t at that time, and so you got to steer it where the event itself wants to go. I feel there was a sameness to the rhythms. It was more like that swampy, voodoo thing that Lanois is so good at. I just wish I’d been able to get more of a legitimate rhythm-oriented sense into it. I didn’t feel there was any mathematical thing about that record at all. The one beat could’ve been anywhere, when instead, the singer should have been defining where the drum should be. It was tricky trying to steer that ship.
I think that’s why people say Time Out of Mind is sort of dark and foreboding: because we locked into that one dimension in the sound. People say the record deals with mortality — my mortality for some reason! [Laughs] Well, it doesn’t deal with my mortality. It maybe just deals with mortality in general. It’s one thing that we all have in common, isn’t it? But I didn’t see any one critic say: “It deals with my mortality” — you know, his own. As if he’s immune in some kind of way — like whoever’s writing about the record has got eternal life and the singer doesn’t. I found this condescending attitude toward that record revealed in the press quite frequently, but, you know, nothing you can do about that.
The language in Time Out of Mind seems very stripped down, as if the songs don’t have the patience or room to bear any unessential imagery.
I just come down the line too far to make any superfluous song. I mean, I’m sure I’ve made enough of them, or that I’ve got enough superfluous lines in a lot of songs. But I’ve kind of passed that point. I have to impress myself first, and unless I’m speaking in a certain language to my own self, I don’t feel anything less than that will do for the public, really.
“Highlands” strikes me as the album’s most singular song. It begins in a place of isolation; it tells a story but rambles. It’s poignant as hell, but it’s also very funny — especially the conversation it portrays between the narrator and the waitress in the cafe. And by the time we get to the end of it, we don’t know if we’re in a place of desolation or release.
That particular song, we worked with a track that I had done at a sound check once in some hall. The assembled group of musicians we had down at the studio just couldn’t get it, so I said, “Just use that original track, and I’ll sing over it.” It was just some old blues song I always wanted to use, and I felt that once I was able to control it, I could’ve written about anything with it. But you’re right — I forgot that was on that record. You know, I’m not really quite sure why it seems to people that Time Out of Mind is a darker picture. In my mind, there’s nothing dark about it. It’s not like, you know, Dante’s Inferno or something. It doesn’t paint a picture of goblins and goons and grotesque-looking creatures or anything like that. I really don’t understand why it is looked at as such a dark album, really. It does have that song “Highlands” at the end.
In the end, are you happy with Time Out of Mind? After all, it was seen as not merely a return to form for you but also as a real extension of your gifts — and as your most powerful work since 1975’s “Blood on the Tracks.”
Well, you know, I never listen to my records. Once they’re turned in, I’m done with them. I don’t want to hear them anymore. I know the songs. I’ll play them, but I don’t want to hear them on a record. It sounds superficial to me to hear a record — I don’t feel like it tells me anything in particular. I’m not going to learn anything from it.
It was during the final stages of the album that you were hit with a serious swelling around your heart and were laid up in the hospital. You’ve said that that infection was truly painful and debilitating. Did it alter your view of life in any way?
No. No, because it didn’t! You can’t even say something like, “Well, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Even that excuse didn’t work. It was like I learned nothing. I wish I could say I put the time to good use or, you know, got highly educated in something or had some revelations about anything. But I can’t say that any of that happened. I just laid around and then had to wait for my strength to come back.
Do you think that the proximity of your illness to the album’s release helped account for why reviewers saw so many themes of mortality in Time Out of Mind?
When I recorded that album, the media weren’t paying any attention to me. I was totally outside of it.
True, but the album came out not long after you’d gone through the illness.
Yes. You were in the hospital in the spring of 1997, and Time Out of Mind was released in autumn that same year.
OK, well, then it could’ve been perceived that way in the organized media. But that would just be characterizing the album, really.
I want to step back a bit, to those years preceding Time Out of Mind. First, I’d like to ask you about an occasion at an earlier Grammy Awards, in 1991, when you received a Lifetime Achievement Award. At that point, America was deep into its involvement in the Gulf War. You came out onstage that night with a small band and played a severe version of “Masters of War” — a performance that remains controversial even today. Some critics found it rushed and embarrassing, others thought it was brilliant. Then, after Jack Nicholson presented you the award, you made the following comment: “My daddy [once said], ‘Son, it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your ways.'” I’ve always thought that was one of the more remarkable things I’ve heard you say. What was going through your mind at that time?
I don’t remember the time and place my father said that to me, and maybe he didn’t say it to me in that exact way. I was probably paraphrasing the whole idea, really — I’m not even sure I paraphrased in the proper context. It might’ve been something that just sort of popped in my head at that time. The only thing I remember about that whole episode, as long as you bring it up, was that I had a fever — like 104. I was extremely sick that night. Not only that, but I was disillusioned with the entire musical community and environment. If I remember correctly, the Grammy people called me months before then and said that they wanted to give me this Lifetime Achievement honor. Well, we all know that they give those things out when you’re old — when you’re nothing, a has-been. Everybody knows that, right? So I wasn’t sure whether it was a compliment or an insult. I wasn’t really sure about it. And then they said, “Here’s what we want to do. . . .” I don’t want to name these performers because you know them, but one performer was going to sing “Like a Rolling Stone.” Another performer was going to sing “The Times [They] Are A-Changin’.” Another was going to sing “All Along the Watchtower,” and another was going to sing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” They were going to sing bits of all these songs, and then they were going to have somebody introduce me, and I would just collect this Lifetime Achievement Award, say a few words and go on my merry way. The performers, they told me, had all agreed to it, so there really wasn’t anything for me to do except show up.
Then the Gulf War broke out. The Grammy people called and said, “Listen, we’re in a tight fix. So-and-so, who was going to sing ‘Times Are A-Changin’,’ is afraid to get on an airplane. So-and-so, who was going to sing ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ doesn’t want to travel because he just had another baby and he doesn’t want to leave his family.” That’s understandable. But then so-and-so, who was going to sing “It’s All Over, Baby Blue,” was in Africa and didn’t want to take a chance flying to New York, and so-and-so, who was going to sing “All Along the Watchtower,” wasn’t sure he wanted to be at any high-visibility place right then, because it may be a little dangerous. So, they said, “Could you come and sing? Could you fill the time?” And I said, “What about the guy who’s going to introduce me [Jack Nicholson]?” They said, “He’s OK. He’s coming.” Anyway, I got disillusioned with all the characters at that time — with their inner character and their ability to be able to keep their word and their idealism and their insecurity. All the ones that have the gall to thrust their tortured inner psyches on an outer world but can’t at least be true to their word. From that point on, that’s what the music business and all the people in it represented to me. I just lost all respect for them. There’s a few that are decent and God-fearing and will stand up in a righteous way. But I wouldn’t want to count on most of them. And maybe me singing “Masters of War” . . . I’ve said before that song’s got nothing to do with being anti-war. It has more to do with the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower was talking about. Anyway, I went up and did that, but I was sick, and I felt they put me through a whole lot of trouble over nothing. I just tried to disguise myself the best I could. That was more along the line of . . . you know, the press was finding me irrelevant then, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time, really, because I wouldn’t have wanted to have been relevant. I wouldn’t have wanted to be someone that the press was examining — every move. I wouldn’t have ever been able to develop again in any kind of artistic way.
But certainly you knew by playing “Masters of War” at the height of the Gulf War, it would be received a certain way.
Yeah, but I wasn’t looking at it that way. I knew the lyrics of the song were holding up, and I brought maybe two or three ferocious guitar players, you know? And I always had a song for any occasion.
Truthfully, I was just disgusted in having to be there after they told me what they intended to do and then backed out. I probably shouldn’t have even gone myself, and I wouldn’t have gone, except the other guy [Nicholson] was true to his word. [Taps his fingers rapidly on the tabletop]
What about that statement you made, about the wisdom your father had shared with you? It could almost be read as a personal statement — you talking about your own life. Or was it about the world around you?
I was thinking more in terms of, like, we’re living in a Machiavellian world, whether we like it or we don’t. Any act that’s immoral, as long as it succeeds, it’s all right. To apply that type of meaning to the way I was feeling that night probably has more to do with it than any kind of conscious effort to bring out some religiosity, or any kind of biblical saying about God, one way or another. You hear a lot about God these days: God, the beneficent; God, the all-great; God, the Almighty; God, the most powerful; God, the giver of life; God, the creator of death. I mean, we’re hearing about God all the time, so we better learn how to deal with it. But if we know anything about God, God is arbitrary. So people better be able to deal with that, too.
That’s interesting, because so many people think that God is constant, you know, and unchanging.
But “arbitrary” would seem to imply a rather different view. Is there something about the word “arbitrary” that you would like to clarify or perhaps that I’m not understanding?
No. I mean, you can look it up in the dictionary. I don’t consider myself a sophist or a cynic or a stoic or some kind of bourgeois industrialist, or whatever titles people put on people. Basically, I’m just a regular person. I don’t walk around all the time out of my mind with inspiration. So what can I tell you about that? Anyway, I wasn’t in a good state of mind that night. I was frustrated. It’s difficult to attach yourself to the past or be paralyzed by the past in any kind of way, so I just said it and moved on. I was glad to have gotten out of there, really.
You said a moment ago that this happened during a time when you weren’t being seen as relevant and didn’t want to be seen as relevant. Though you would continue to tour through most of the 1990s, more than seven years would pass between albums of new songs. Some biographers have more or less referred to this as a time when you seemed adrift and confused — a time in which you seemed unhappy and disconnected from your music. What was going on during this period?
I really thought I was through making records. I didn’t want to make any more. I thought, “I’ll make a couple more records and just have them be folk songs, in a really simplified way — no big production or anything.” Beyond that, I didn’t want to record anymore. I was more concerned with what I do in personal appearances. It was clear to me I had more than enough songs to play. Forever.
See, I’d made that record with Lanois in 1988 [Oh Mercy]. I was already playing over a hundred shows a year at that point. I decided I would just go back to live performing, which I hadn’t really thought I’d done since maybe 1966. Some performers make a lot of sacrifices to make a record — they forfeit an abundance of time and energy. I did that with Lanois back then, and it worked out rather well. But then around that same time I was making a Traveling Wilburys record, and then I started this record with Don Was, Under the Red Sky. All of this was happening in the same period. Looking back on it now, it seems kind of unthinkable. I would leave the Wilburys and go down to Sunset Sound and record Under the Red Sky simultaneously, all within a set schedule because I needed to be in Prague or someplace on a certain date. And then both records — the Wilburys record and Under the Red Sky — I’d just leave them hanging and see the finished product later. All those things happened at the same time, and that was when I found I’d really had it. My rational mind didn’t know what to make of that. I’d really had my fill. I was going to stick to my declaration and definitely not make any records. I didn’t feel the need to announce that, but I had come to that conclusion. I didn’t care to record no more. I’d rather play on the road. Recording was too mental. Also, I didn’t feel I was writing any of the songs that I really wanted to write. I wasn’t getting the help I needed to record right, I didn’t like the sound of the records. . . . I don’t really remember. It was just . . . one thing leads to another, you know? I reckoned I was done with it. But then you go out and play live shows, and you do get thoughts, and you do get an inspiration here and there. So I just reluctantly started writing things down, in the way I described that led to the making of Time Out of Mind.
Did you ever consider just flat-out retiring?
Well, I really don’t have any defined retirement plan! More than a few times I probably felt I had retired. I felt I’d had retired in 1966 and 1967. I was fulfilling my recording contracts, but outside of that I think I felt like I had retired from the cultural scene at the time.
Did you have comparable feelings at any point in the 1980s or 1990s?
Something would always come up that put the idea off. But sure, at times I felt like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Then something would always lead me to something else, which would keep me at it.
According to a couple of recent biographies, the late 1980s and early 1990s were troubling for you in other ways. Some people have claimed that these were years when you were drinking too frequently — and that your drinking was interfering with your music or was a reflection of a deeper unhappiness for you. According to these biographers, it wasn’t until you quit drinking — some time in the early 1990s — that your performances and writing really rebounded.
That’s completely inaccurate. [Laughs] I can drink or not drink. I don’t know why people would associate drinking or not drinking with anything that I do, really. I’ve never thought about it one way or another. For some reason there’s a certain crowd — if you want to call it a crowd — that would assume certain things about me or anybody which simply aren’t true. They perceive it by appearances. They might hear rumors. They might start rumors, but it’s their own minds going to work. Therefore, if they believe a certain thing about that person, then any act that person does they would apply it to that. “Oh, he fell down — he must be drinking.” Or, “He smashed his car into a tree. I guess he was hopped-up on something.” But those are people who are celebrity-minded. They live in their own universe, and they try to project it outwardly, and it doesn’t work. Usually, those people have a touch of insanity, and they have to be knocked down to earth. It’s like you got to choose. Either there’s order or there’s chaos, and you got to choose. People of that nature don’t seem to understand either one. And they apply it to, well, in this country, to celebrities. But I don’t think any of us who could fit the description of that can pay any mind to what people think or how many books are written or any of that if we want to exist and have a certain amount of free will about what we do. I mean, these kind of people are the ones who would make laws against free will, that are contrary to free will. They’re just not serious people. Unfortunately, I guess, all performers have a bunch of them hanging on. Anybody and everybody can get typecast, you know, in a second, by just doing great work. But the truth is, it’s my job to drive my own car, if you know what I mean. It’s not somebody else’s job.
But something did seem to turn around for you in the early 1990s. You’ve said as much yourself. You’ve spoken about some epiphany that changed your purpose and commitment — some recognition that came to you onstage. You’ve described it as a moment when you realized that what was important was not your legend or how that weighed you down. What was important, you seemed to say, was for you to stand by your work — and that meant playing music on a regular basis, no matter who you were playing it for.
It happened — or had its beginning, anyway — when I was playing some shows with the Grateful Dead [in 1987]. They wanted to play some of my songs that I hadn’t played in years and years. I had already been on a long string of dates with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and night after night I was only playing maybe fifteen to twenty of the songs I had written, and I couldn’t really grasp the older ones. But when I began to play with the Grateful Dead, those are the only songs they wanted to play: the ones that I wasn’t playing with Petty. I really had some sort of epiphany then on how to do those songs again, using certain techniques that I had never thought about. When I went back and played with Petty again, I was using those techniques, and I found I could play anything. But then there was a show in Switzerland when the techniques failed me, and I had to come up with another one really quick. I was kind of standing on a different foundation at that point and realized, “I could do this.” I found out I could do it effortlessly — that I could sing night after night after night and never get tired. I could project it out differently.
Not only that, but Lonnie Johnson, the blues-jazz player, showed me a technique on the guitar in maybe 1964. I hadn’t really understood it when he first showed it to me. It had to do with the mathematical order of the scale on a guitar, and how to make things happen, where it gets under somebody’s skin and there’s really nothing they can do about it, because it’s mathematical. He didn’t even play that way himself. He played mostly jazz — a kind of guitar I can’t play at all, though when I think of a guitar player, I think of somebody like Eddie Lang or Charlie Christian or Freddie Green. I don’t listen to many people in the rock & roll area. Anyway, he just told me, “I want to show you something. You might be able to use this someday.” It’s more kind of an ancient way of playing. I always wanted to use this technique, but I never was really able to do it with my own songs.
One of the things I’ve noticed about your shows is that starting in the 1990s they grew more and more musical. You’ve opened the songs up to more instrumental exploration and new textures and rhythmic shifts — like you’re trying to stretch or reinvent them — and you seem very much at the heart of that. You’re your own band director at this point.
Well, I don’t think you’ve seen me play too many mindless jams. What I do is all done with technique and certain stratagems. But they’re not intellectual ones; they’re designed to make people feel something. And I understand that it’s not necessarily the same for everyone who hears me play and sing. Everyone is feeling a different thing. I would like to be a performer who maybe could read and write music and play the violin. Then I could design a bigger band with more comprehensive parts of harmony in different arrangements, and still have the songs evolve within that. But if anything, I do know my limitations, and so I don’t try to transcend those limitations. Or if I do transcend the limitations, it’s all done with the technique I was talking about. Which is to say, you can do it whether you feel good or you don’t feel good, or no matter how you’re feeling. It really doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with personality. It’s difficult even to find the words to talk about it.
It seems that some of your most impassioned and affecting performances, from night to night, are your covers of traditional folk songs.
Folk music is where it all starts and in many ways ends. If you don’t have that foundation, or if you’re not knowledgeable about it and you don’t know how to control that, and you don’t feel historically tied to it, then what you’re doing is not going to be as strong as it could be. Of course, it helps to have been born in a certain era because it would’ve been closer to you, or it helps to be a part of the culture when it was happening. It’s not the same thing, relating to something second- or third-hand off of a record.
I think one of the best records that I’ve ever been even a part of was the record I made with Big Joe Williams and Victoria Spivey. Now that’s a record that I hear from time to time and I don’t mind listening to it. It amazes me that I was there and had done that.
In Invisible Republic — Greil Marcus’ book about you, the Band, the Basement Tapes sessions and the place of all that in American culture [now retitled The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes] — Marcus wrote about the importance of Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music and its influence on all of your work, from your earliest to most-recent recordings.
Well, he makes way too much of that.
Why do you say that?
Because those records were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that’s not what everybody was listening to. Sure, there were all those songs. You could hear them at people’s houses. I know in my case, I think Dave Van Ronk had that record. But in those days we really didn’t have places to live, or places to have a lot of records. We were sort of living from this place to that — kind of a transient existence. I know I was living that way. You heard records where you could, but mostly you heard other performers. All those people [Marcus is] talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around. He intellectualizes it too much. Performers did know of that record, but it wasn’t, in retrospect, the monumental iconic recordings at the time that he makes them out to be.
It wasn’t like someone discovered this pot of gold somewhere. There were other records out that were on rural labels. Yazoo had records out. They weren’t all compiled like they are now. In New York City, there was a place called the Folklore Center that had all the folk-music records. It was like a library, and you could listen to them there. And they had folk-music books there. Certain other towns had it, too. There was a place in Chicago called the Old Town School of Folk Music. You could find the stuff there. It wasn’t the only thing that people had — that Anthology of American Folk Music. And the Folkways label itself had many other folk recordings of all kinds of people. They just were highly secretive. And they weren’t really secretive because they were trying to be secretive. The people I knew — the people who were like-minded as myself — were trying to be folk musicians. That’s all they wanted to be, that’s all the aspirations they had. There wasn’t anything monetary about it. There was no money in folk music. It was a way of life. And it was an identity which the three-buttoned-suit postwar generation of America really wasn’t offering to kids my age: an identity. This music was impossible to get anywhere really, except in a nucleus of a major city, and a record shop might have a few recordings of the hard-core folklore music. There were other folk-music records, commercial folk-music records, like those by the Kingston Trio. I never really was an elitist. Personally, I liked the Kingston Trio. I could see the picture. But for a lot of people it was a little hard to take. Like the left-wing puritans that seemed to have a hold on the folk-music community, they disparaged these records. I didn’t particularly want to sing any of those songs that way, but the Kingston Trio were probably the best commercial group going, and they seemed to know what they were doing.
What I was most interested in twenty-four hours a day was the rural music. But you could only hear it, like, in isolated caves [laughs], like, on a few bohemian streets in America at that time. The idea was to be able to master these songs. It wasn’t about writing your own songs. That didn’t even enter anybody’s mind.
In a way, this line of talk brings us to your newest album, Love and Theft. On one hand, parts of this record sound like work that might have heralded from the early forms of twentieth-century folk music we’ve been discussing. Its sense of timelessness and caprices reminds me of some of the songs we hear on The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding — records that emanated from your strong folk background. But Love and Theft also seems to recall Highway 61 Revisited and that album’s delight in discovering new world-changing methods of language and sharp wit, and the way in which the music digs down deep into ancient blues structures to yield something wholly unexpected. Just as important, Love and Theft, like your other albums I just mentioned, feels like a work made specifically from inside an American temperament — the America we live in now, but also the America we have left behind. Or am I reading too much into this record?
For starters, no one should really be curious or too excited about comparing this album to any of my other albums. Compare this album to the other albums that are out there. Compare this album to other artists who make albums. You know, comparing me to myself [laughs] is really like . . . I mean, you’re talking to a person that feels like he’s walking around in the ruins of Pompeii all the time. It’s always been that way, for one reason or another. I deal with all the old stereotypes. The language and the identity I use is the one that I know only so well, and I’m not about to go on and keep doing this — comparing my new work to my old work. It creates a kind of Achilles’ heel for myself. It isn’t going to happen.
Maybe a better way to put it is to ask: Do you see this as an album that emanates from your experience of America at this time?
Every one of the records I’ve made has emanated from the entire panorama of what America is to me. America, to me, is a rising tide that lifts all ships, and I’ve never really sought inspiration from other types of music. My problem in writing songs has always been how to tone down the rhetoric in using the language. I don’t really give it a whole lot of soulful thought. A song is a reflection of what I see all around me all the time. I’m only speaking about . . . [Pauses] See, I’m still back on your other question. I really don’t think it’s fair to compare this album to any of my past albums. I mean, I’m still the same person. You know, like Hank Williams would say, my hair’s still curly, my eyes are still blue. And that’s all I know.
What is your own description of what the songs on Love and Theft are about?
You’re putting me in a difficult position. A question like that can’t be answered in the terms that you’re asking. A song is just a mood that an artist is attempting to convey. To be truthful, I haven’t listened to this record since it was made — since probably last spring. Actually, I don’t need to hear it. I just need to look at the lyrics, and we can start from there. But I really don’t know what the summation of all these songs would really represent. [Pauses again, drumming his fingers on the table] The whole album deals with power. If life teaches us anything, it’s that there’s nothing that men and women won’t do to get power. The album deals with power, wealth, knowledge and salvation — the way I look at it. If it’s a great album — which I hope it is — it’s a great album because it deals with great themes. It speaks in a noble language. It speaks of the issues or the ideals of an age in some nation, and hopefully, it would also speak across the ages. It’d be as good tomorrow as it is today and would’ve been as good yesterday. That’s what I was trying to make happen, because just to make another record at this point in my career . . . career, by the way, isn’t how I look at what I do. Career is a French word. It means “carrier.” It’s something that takes you from one place to the other. I don’t feel like what I do qualifies to be called a career. It’s more of a calling.
This album holds ruminations every bit as dark as those found in Time Out of Mind, but this time you put them across without the previous album’s spooky musical ambience. Since you produced this album yourself, you must have wanted a different sound.
The way the record is presented is just as important as what it’s presenting. Therefore, anybody — even if they’d been a great producer — would only have gotten in the way on this, and there really wasn’t a lot of time. I would’ve loved to have somebody help me make this record, but I couldn’t think of anybody on short notice. And besides, what could they do? For this particular record it wouldn’t have mattered.
There’s also a good deal of humor on this record — maybe more than on any record of yours since the 1960s.
Well . . .
C’mon, there are some pretty funny lines on this album — like the exchange between Romeo and Juliet in “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” and that knock-knock joke in “Po’ Boy.”
Yeah, funny . . . and dark. But still, in my own mind, not really poking fun at the principles that would guide a person’s life or anything. Basically, the songs deal with what many of my songs deal with — which is business, politics and war, and maybe love interest on the side. That would be the first level you would have to appreciate them on.
In a recent interview you said that you saw this album as autobiographical.
Oh, absolutely. It would be autobiographical on every front. It obviously plays by its own set of rules, but a listener wouldn’t really have to be aware of those rules when hearing it. But absolutely. It’s not like the songs were written by some kind of Socrates, you know, some kind of buffoon, the man about town pretending to be happy [laughs]. There wouldn’t be any of that in this record.
Both Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft have been received as some of the best work you’ve ever done. Does songwriting now feel more accessible to you than it did before?
Well, I follow the dictates of my conscience to write a song, and I don’t really have a time or place I set aside. I don’t really preconceive it. I couldn’t tell you when I could come up with something. It just happens at odd times, here and there. It’s amazing to me that I’m still able to do it, really. And I do them as well as I seem able to handle it. When you’re young, you’re probably writing stronger and a lot quicker, but in my case, I just try to use the traditional values of logic and reason no matter what age I’ve ever written any of my songs.
This record was released on September 11th — the same date as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I’ve talked with several people in the time since then who have turned to Love and Theft because they find something in it that matches the spirit of dread and uncertainty of our present conditions. For my part, I’ve kept circling around a line from “Mississippi”: “Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down.” Is there anything you would like to say about your reaction to the events of that day?
One of those Rudyard Kipling poems, “Gentlemen-Rankers,” comes to my mind: “We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth/We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung/And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth/God help us, for we knew the worst too young!” If anything, my mind would go to young people at a time like this. That’s really the only way to put it.
You mean because of what’s at stake for them right now, as we apparently go to war?
Exactly. I mean, art imposes order on life, but how much more art will there be? We don’t really know. There’s a secret sanctity of nature. How much more of that will there be? At the moment, the rational mind’s way of thinking wouldn’t really explain what’s happened. You need something else, with a capital E, to explain it. It’s going to have to be dealt with sooner or later, of course.
Do you see any hope for the situation we find ourselves in?
I don’t really know what I could tell you. I don’t consider myself an educator or an explainer. You see what it is that I do, and that’s what I’ve always done. But it is time now for great men to come forward. With small men, no great thing can be accomplished at the moment. Those people in charge, I’m sure they’ve read Sun-Tzu, who wrote The Art of War in the sixth century. In there he says, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself and not your enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat.” And he goes on to say, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Whoever’s in charge, I’m sure they would have read that.
Things will have to change. And one of these things that will have to change: People will have to change their internal world.