On a typically soggy March mess of a day in Manhattan, Bob Dylan, wearing black jeans, biker boots and a white sport coat over a white T-shirt, sat slouched on a stool at the far end of a small downtown studio. The crowd of cameramen, lighting technicians, makeup people and producers had withdrawn for a bit to consult their equipment, leaving Dylan to strum and hum on his own. As his long nails raked the strings of his Martin guitar, he began huffing softly into the harmonica racked around his neck, and soon a familiar melody filled the air. Could it be? I moved closer to cock an ear as Dylan cranked up the chorus. Yes, no doubt about it — Bob Dylan was running down the first-ever folkie arrangement of “Karma Chameleon,” the Culture Club hit.
Soon, however, he was surrounded by tech people again. The audio crew punched up the tape of “Jokerman,” a song off Dylan’s latest album, Infidels, and as the video cameras rolled, the star obediently lip-synced along. Dylan had been doing take after take of the number all morning and most of the afternoon without complaint. “Jokerman” would be the second video for Infidels, and he knew it had to be good. The first, for the lovely ballad “Sweetheart Like You,” had been a flat and lifeless embarrassment. So two of Dylan’s most trusted friends — Larry “Ratso” Sloman, author of a book about Bob’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and George Lois, a brilliant New York adman who met Dylan during the ill-fated legal-defense concerts for fighter Rubin “Hurricane” Carter a decade ago — were called in to assist.
It was Lois who came up with an agreeable video format for the stiff, camera-shy Dylan. Bob’s face would only be seen onscreen during the song’s choruses; the verses would be illustrated by classic art prints from Lois’ own library: paintings by Michelangelo, Dürer, Munch — and, in a wry touch, a Hieronymus Bosch painting titled The Musicians’ Hell. Lois’ most innovative concept, however, was to superimpose the song’s apocalyptic lyrics over the images throughout the video — a technique Lois laughingly dubbed “poetry right in your fuckin’ face.” The result, as it later turned out, makes most run-of-the-mill rock videos look like the glorified cola commercials they generally are.
But can a single thought-provoking video make Bob Dylan once again relevant to youthful record buyers? The man has been many things over the years: the voice of youth in the Sixties, the voice of aging youth in the Seventies and, now, in the Eighties — what?
Certainly, he remains a completely unpredictable character, as I discovered when we met a few hours later at a Greek café on Third Avenue. Smoking steadily from a pack of Benson & Hedges (“Nothing can affect my voice, it’s so bad”) and downing cup after cup of coffee with cream, he proved both guarded and gracious, sweet and sometimes acerbic. Not at all the arrogant young superstar who verbally demolished a Time magazine reporter in the 1966 documentary Don’t Look Back but still no dummy either.
There was, of course, much to talk about. The man who had transformed the folk world with his raw, exciting acoustic debut LP in 1962, and who later alienated many folkies altogether when he appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival backed by an electric rock band, was still, in 1984, as capable as ever of stirring controversy. Thirteen years ago, to the surprise of virtually everyone, he turned up in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall, wearing a yarmulke and reportedly searching for his “Jewish identity.” Subsequently, he studied at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a Bible school in California, and shocked many fans by releasing three albums of fundamentalist, gospel-swathed rock. (The first, 1979’s Slow Train Coming, went platinum, but the next two, Saved and Shot of Love, didn’t even go gold.) Next, he became associated with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, the Lubavitcher Hasidim, and last year returned to Jerusalem to celebrate his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah. Then came Infidels. Although it continued the Biblical bent of Dylan’s three previous albums (with an added overlay of what some critics took to be cranky political conservatism), Infidels was also one of his best-produced records ever — thanks to Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler’s ministrations at the recording console. With precious little promotional push from Dylan himself, the LP had already sold nearly three-quarters of a million copies, and now he had not only wrapped up an excellent video, but had also made a rare TV appearance on the Late Night With David Letterman show — a rickety but riveting event in which Dylan, backed by a barely prepared, young three-piece band, whomped his way through two Infidels tracks and the old Sonny Boy Williamson tune “Don’t Start Me to Talking.” (It could have been even more curious. At rehearsals, he’d tried out a version of the Roy Head rock nugget “Treat Her Right.”) Bob Dylan was once again on the scene. And with concert promoter Bill Graham already booking dates, he was preparing to embark on a major European tour with Santana on May 28th, four days after his forty-third birthday.
So here he is once more — but who is he? A divorced father of five (one is his ex-wife Sara’s daughter, whom he adopted), Dylan divides his time among California, where he owns a sprawling, eccentric heap of a house; Minnesota, where he maintains a farm; and the Caribbean, where he island-hops on a quarter-million-dollar boat. While in New York — a city to which he soon hopes to relocate again — he caught a gig by his former keyboardist, Al Kooper, dropped in on a recording session for ex-J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf and hung out with old pals Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. Despite his spiritual preoccupations, he insists that he’s no prude (“I think I had a beer recently”) and that his religious odyssey has been misrepresented in the press. Although he contends he doesn’t own any of his song-publishing rights prior to 1974’s Blood on the Tracks (“That’s Keith’s favorite”), he is probably quite well-off — “Some years are better than others” is all he’ll say on the subject — and is known to be extraordinarily generous to good friends in need. He apparently does not envision any future retirement from music. When I asked if he thought he’d painted his masterpiece yet, he said, “I hope I never do.” His love life — he’s been linked in the past with singer Clydie King, among others — remains a closed book.
As we spoke, a drunken youth approached our table for an autograph, which Dylan provided. A few minutes later, a toothless old woman wearing hot pants appeared at our side, accompanied by a black wino. “You’re Bob Dylan!” she croaked. “And you’re Barbra Streisand, right?” said Dylan, not unpleasantly. “I only wondered,” said the crone, “because there’s a guy out front selling your autograph.” “Yeah?” said Dylan. “Well, how much is he askin’?”
A good question, I thought. How much might such a souvenir still command in these waning End Days?
People have put various labels on you over the past several years: “He’s a born-again Christian”; “he’s an ultra-Orthodox Jew.” Are any of those labels accurate?
Not really. People call you this or they call you that. But I can’t respond to that, because then it seems like I’m defensive, and, you know, what does it matter, really?
But weren’t three of your albums — Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love — inspired by some sort of born-again religious experience?
I would never call it that, I’ve never said I’m born again. That’s just a media term. I don’t think I’ve ever been an agnostic. I’ve always thought there’s a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come. That no soul has died, every soul is alive, either in holiness or in flames. And there’s probably a lot of middle ground.
What is your spiritual stance, then?
Well, I don’t think that this is it, you know — this life ain’t nothin’. There’s no way you’re gonna convince me this is all there is to it. I never, ever believed that. I believe in the Book of Revelation. The leaders of this world are eventually going to play God, if they’re not already playing God, and eventually a man will come that everybody will think is God. He’ll do things, and they’ll say, “Well, only God can do those things. It must be him.”
You’re a literal believer of the Bible?
Yeah. Sure, yeah. I am.
Are the Old and New Testaments equally valid?
Do you belong to any church or synagogue?
Not really. Uh, the Church of the Poison Mind [laughs].
Do you actually believe the end is at hand?
I don’t think it’s at hand. I think we’ll have at least 200 years. And the new kingdom that comes in, I mean, people can’t even imagine what it’s gonna be like. There’s a lot of people walkin’ around who think the new kingdom’s comin’ next year and that they’re gonna be right in there among the top guard. And they’re wrong. I think when it comes in, there are people who’ll be prepared for it, but if the new kingdom happened tomorrow and you were sitting there and I was sitting here, you wouldn’t even remember me.
Can you converse and find agreement with Orthodox Jews?
And with Christians?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, with anybody.
Sounds like a new synthesis.
Well, no. If I thought the world needed a new religion, I would start one. But there are a lot of other religions, too. There’s those Indian religions, Eastern religions, Buddhism, you know. They’re happening, too.
When you meet up with Orthodox people, can you sit down with them and say, “Well, you should really check out Christianity”?
Well, yeah, if somebody asks me, I’ll tell ’em. But, you know, I’m not gonna just offer my opinion. I’m more about playing music, you know?
Your views apparently seemed clear to many record buyers. Were you frustrated by the commercial resistance — both on record and on the road — to your fundamentalist-influenced music?
Well, after the ’78 gospel tour, I wanted to keep touring in ’79. But I knew that we’d gone everywhere in ’78, so how you gonna play in ’79? Go back to the same places? So, at that point, I figured, “Well, I don’t care if I draw no crowds no more.” And a lotta places we played on the last tour, we filled maybe half the hall.
And you don’t think that was because of the material you were doing?
I don’t think so. I don’t think it had to do with anything. I think when your time is your time, it don’t matter what you’re doin’. It’s either your time, or its not your time. And I didn’t feel the last few years was really my time. But that’s no reason for me to make any kinda judgment call on what it is I’m gonna be. The people who reacted to the gospel stuff would’ve reacted that way if I hadn’t done, you know, “Song to Woody.”
You think so?
Yeah, I know it. I can usually anticipate that stuff — what’s going on, what’s the mood. There’s a lotta young performers around. And they look good and they move good, and they’re sayin’ stuff that is, uh, excitable, you know? Face it, a lotta that stuff is just made and geared for twelve-year-old kids. It’s like baby food.
Your latest album, Infidels, is hardly subteen fodder. Some critics have even detected a new note of conservatism in some of the songs — even outright jingoism in “Neighborhood Bully,” in which the metaphorical subject is said to be “just one man” whose “enemies say he’s on their land.” That’s clearly a strong Zionist political statement, is it not?
You’d have to point that out to me, you know, what line is in it that spells that out. I’m not a political songwriter. Joe Hill was a political songwriter; uh, Merle Travis wrote some political songs. “Which Side Are You On?” is a political song. And “Neighborhood Bully,” to me, is not a political song, because if it were, it would fall into a certain political party. If you’re talkin’ about it as an Israeli political song — even if it is an Israeli political song — in Israel alone, there’s maybe twenty political parties. I don’t know where that would fall, what party.
Well, would it be fair to call that song a heartfelt statement of belief?
Maybe it is, yeah. But just because somebody feels a certain way, you can’t come around and stick some political-party slogan on it. If you listen closely, it really could be about other things. It’s simple and easy to define it, so you got it pegged, and you can deal with it in that certain kinda way. However, I wouldn’t do that, ’cause I don’t know what the politics of Israel is. I just don’t know.
So you haven’t resolved for yourself, for instance, the Palestinian question?
Not really, because I live here.
Would you ever live in Israel?
I don’t know. It’s hard to speculate what tomorrow may bring. I kinda live where I find myself.
At another point in the song, you say, “He got no allies to really speak of,” and while “he buys obsolete weapons and he won’t be denied . . . no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side.” Do you feel that America should send troops over there?
No. The song doesn’t say that. Who should, who shouldn’t — who am I to say?
Well, do you think Israel should get more help from the American Jewish community? I don’t want to push this too far, but it just seems so . . .
Well, you’re not pushing it too far, you’re just making it specific. And you’re making it specific to what’s going on today. But what’s going on today isn’t gonna last, you know? The battle of Armageddon is specifically spelled out: where it will be fought and, if you wanna get technical, when it will be fought. And the battle of Armageddon definitely will be fought in the Middle East.
Do you follow the political scene or have any sort of fix on what the politicians are talking about this election year?
I think politics is an instrument of the Devil. Just that clear. I think politics is what kills; it doesn’t bring anything alive. Politics is corrupt; I mean, anybody knows that.
So you don’t care who’s president? It doesn’t make any difference?
I don’t think so. I mean, how long is Reagan gonna be president? I’ve seen like four or five of ’em myself, you know? And I’ve seen two of ’em die in office. How can you deal with Reagan and get so serious about that, when the man isn’t even gonna be there when you get your thing together?
So you don’t think there’s any difference between, say, a Kennedy and a Nixon? It doesn’t matter at all?
I don’t know. It’s very popular nowadays to think of yourself as a “liberal humanist.” That’s such a bullshit term. It means less than nothing. Who was a better president? Well, you got me. I don’t know what people’s errors are; nobody’s perfect, for sure. But I thought Kennedy — both Kennedys — I just liked them. And I liked Martin . . . Martin Luther King. I thought those were people who were blessed and touched, you know? The fact that they all went out with bullets doesn’t change nothin’. Because the good they do gets planted. And those seeds live on longer than that.
Do you still hope for peace?
There is not going to be any peace.
You don’t think it’s worth working for?
No. It’s just gonna be a false peace. You can reload your rifle, and that moment you’re reloading it, that’s peace. It may last for a few years.
Isn’t it worth fighting for that?
Nah, none of that matters. I heard somebody on the radio talkin’ about what’s happenin’ in Haiti, you know? “We must be concerned about what’s happening in Haiti. We’re global people now.” And they’re gettin’ everybody in that frame of mind — like, we’re not just the United States anymore, we’re global. We’re thinkin’ in terms of the whole world because communications come right into your house. Well, that’s what the Book of Revelation is all about. And you can just about know that anybody who comes out for peace is not for peace.
But what if someone genuinely is for peace?
Well, you can’t be for peace and be global, It’s just like that song “Man of Peace.” But none of this matters, if you believe in another world. If you believe in this world, you’re stuck; you really don’t have a chance. You’ll go mad, ’cause you won’t see the end of it. You may wanna stick around, but you won’t be able to. On another level, though, you will be able to see this world. You’ll look back and say, “Ah, that’s what it was all about all the time. Wow, why didn’t I get that?”
That’s a very fatalistic view, isn’t it?
I think it’s realistic. If it is fatalistic, it’s only fatalistic on this level, and this level dies anyway, so what’s the difference? So you’re fatalistic, so what?
There’s a lyric in “License to Kill”: “Man has invented his doom/First step was touching the moon.” Do you really believe that?
Yeah, I do. I have no idea why I wrote that line, but on some level, it’s like just a door into the unknown.
Isn’t man supposed to progress, to forge ahead?
Well . . . but not there. I mean, what’s the purpose of going to the moon? To me, it doesn’t make any sense. Now they’re gonna put a space station up there, and it’s gonna cost, what — $600 billion, $700 billion? And who’s gonna benefit from it? Drug companies who are gonna be able to make better drugs. Does that make sense? Is that supposed to be something that a person is supposed to get excited about? Is that progress? I don’t think they’re gonna get better drugs. I think they’re gonna get more expensive drugs.
Everything is computerized now, it’s all computers. I see that as the beginning of the end. You can see everything going global. There’s no nationality anymore, no I’m this or I’m that: “We’re all the same, all workin’ for one peaceful world, blah, blah, blah.”
Somebody’s gonna have to come along and figure out what’s happening with the United States. Is this just an island that’s going to be blown out of the ocean, or does it really figure into things? I really don’t know. At this point right now, it seems that it figures into things. But later on, it will have to be a country that’s self-sufficient, that can make it by itself without that many imports.
Right now, it seems like in the States, and most other countries, too, there’s a big push on to make a big global country — one big country — where you can get all the materials from one place and assemble them someplace else and sell ’em in another place, and the whole world is just all one, controlled by the same people, you know? And if it’s not there already, that’s the point it’s tryin’ to get to.
In “Union Sundown,” the Chevrolet you drive is “put together down in Argentina by a guy makin’ thirty cents a day.” Are you saying he’d be better off without that thirty cents a day?
What’s thirty cents a day? He don’t need the thirty cents a day. I mean, people survived for 6,000 years without having to work for slave wages for a person who comes down and . . . well, actually, it’s just colonization. But see, I saw that stuff firsthand, because where I come from, they really got that deal good, with the ore.
In Minnesota, in the Iron Range, where you grew up?
Yeah. Everybody was workin’ there at one time. In fact, ninety percent of the iron for the Second World War came out of those mines, up where I’m from. And eventually, they said, “Listen, this is costing too much money to get this out. We must be able to get it someplace else.” Now the same thing is happening, I guess, with other products.
What was it like growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, in the Fifties?
You’re pretty much ruled by nature up there. You have to sort of fall into line with that, regardless of how you’re feeling that day or what you might want to do with your life, or what you think about. And it still is like that, I think.
Were you aware of any anti-Semitism there when you were a kid?
No. Nothing really mattered to me except learning another song or a new chord, or finding a new place to play, you know? Years later, when I’d recorded a few albums, then I started seeing in places: “Bob Dylan’s a Jew,” stuff like that. I said, “Jesus, I never knew that.” But they kept harping on it; it seemed like it was important for people to say that — like they’d say “the one-legged street singer” or something. So after a period of time, I thought, “Well, gee, maybe I’ll look into that.”
I don’t know. I never noticed it occurring with any other artists; I mean, I’ve never seen it about Barbra Streisand or Neil Diamond. But it has occurred with me. As a kid, though, I never felt anything, like, I had to fight my way through schoolyard crowds, you know. As long as I had a guitar, I was happy.
Was Hibbing an oppressive place? Did it just make you want to get out?
Not really. I didn’t really know anything else except, uh, Hank Williams. I remember hearin’ Hank Williams one or two years before he died. And that sort of introduced me to the guitar. And once I had the guitar, it was never a problem. Nothing else was ever a problem.
Did you get to see any of the original rock & roll guys, like Little Richard, Buddy Holly?
Yeah, sure. I saw Buddy Holly two or three nights before he died. I saw him in Duluth, at the armory. He played there with Link Wray. I don’t remember the Big Bopper. Maybe he’d gone off by the time I came in. But I saw Ritchie Valens. And Buddy Holly, yeah. He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I’ll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand. And he died — it must have been a week after that. It was unbelievable.
Late at night, I used to listen to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf blastin’ in from Shreveport. It was a radio show that lasted all night. I used to stay up till two, three o’clock in the morning. Listened to all those songs, then tried to figure them out. I started playing myself.
How did you take to the guitar?
First, I bought a Nick Manoloff book. I don’t think I could get past the first one. And I had a Silvertone guitar from Sears. In those days, they cost thirty or forty dollars, and you only had to pay five dollars down to get it. So I had my first electric guitar.
I had a couple of bands in high school, maybe three or four of ’em. Lead singers would always come in and take my bands, because they would have connections, like maybe their fathers would know somebody, so they could get a job in the neighboring town at the pavilion for a Sunday picnic or something. And I’d lose my band. I’d see it all the time.
That must have made you a little bitter.
Yeah, it did, actually. And then I had another band with my cousin from Duluth. I played, you know, rock & roll, rhythm & blues. And then that died out, pretty much, in my last year of high school.
And after that, I remember I heard a record — I think maybe it was the Kingston Trio or Odetta or someone like that — and I sorta got into folk music. Rock & roll was pretty much finished. And I traded my stuff for a Martin that they don’t sell anymore, an 0018, maybe, and it was brown. The first acoustic guitar I had. A great guitar. And then, either in Minneapolis or St Paul, I heard Woody Guthrie. And when I heard Woody Guthrie, that was it, it was all over.
What struck you about him?
Well, I heard them old records, where he sings with Cisco Houston and Sonny [Terry] and Brownie [McGhee] and stuff like that, and then his own songs. And he really struck me as an independent character. But no one ever talked about him. So I went through all his records I could find and picked all that up by any means I could. And when I arrived in New York, I was mostly singing his songs and folk songs. At that time, I was runnin’ into people who were playing the same kind of thing, but I was kinda combining elements of Southern mountain music with bluegrass stuff, English-ballad stuff. I could hear a song once and know it. So when I came to New York, I could do a lot of different stuff. But I never thought I’d see rock & roll again when I arrived here.
Did you miss it?
Not really, because I liked the folk scene. It was a whole community, a whole world that was all hooked up to different towns in the United States. You could go from here to California and always have a place to stay, and always play somewhere, and meet people. Nowadays, you go to see a folk singer — what’s the folk singer doin’? He’s singin’ all his own songs. That ain’t no folk singer. Folk singers sing those old folk songs, ballads.
I met a lot of folk singers in New York, and there were a lot of ’em in the Twin Cities. But I ran into some people in England who really knew those songs. Martin Carthy, another guy named Nigel Davenport. Martin Carthy’s incredible. I learned a lot of stuff from Martin. “Girl From the North Country” is based on a song I heard him sing — that “Scarborough Fair” song, which Paul Simon, I guess, just took the whole thing.
Could folk ever become big again?
Well, yeah, it could become big again. But people gotta go back and find the songs. They don’t do it no more. I was tellin’ somebody that thing about when you go to see a folk singer now, you hear somebody singin’ his own songs. And the person says, “Yeah, well, you started that.” And in a sense, it’s true. But I never would have written a song if I didn’t play all them old folk songs first. I never would have thought to write a song, you know? There’s no dedication to folk music now, no appreciation of the art form.
Do you notice that you’ve influenced a lot of singers over the years?
It’s phrasing. I think I’ve phrased everything in a way that it’s never been phrased before. I’m not tryin’ to brag or anything — or maybe I am [laughs]. But yeah, I hear stuff on the radio, doesn’t matter what kinda stuff it is, and I know that if you go back far enough, you’ll find somebody listened to Bob Dylan somewhere, because of the phrasing. Even the content of the tunes. Up until I started doin’ that stuff, nobody was talkin’ about that sort of thing. For music to succeed on any level. . . . Well, you’re always gonna have your pop-radio stuff, but the only people who are gonna succeed, really, are the people who are sayin’ somethin’ that is given to them to say. I mean, you can only carry “Tutti Frutti” so far.
Like the current rockabilly revival?
The rockabilly revival was just about spirit and attitude.
Were you aware of punk rock when it happened — the Sex Pistols, the Clash?
Yeah. I didn’t listen to it all the time, but it seemed like a logical step, and it still does. I think it’s been hurt in a lotta ways by the fashion industry.
You’ve seen the Clash, I understand?
Yeah. I met them way back in 1977, 1978. In England. I think they’re great. In fact, I think they’re greater now than they were.
You mean since Mick Jones left?
Yeah. It’s interesting. It took two guitar players to replace Mick.
How about Prince — have you ever run into him in Minneapolis?
No, I never have.
Have you met Michael Jackson yet?
No, I don’t think so. I met Martha and the Vandellas.
Do your kids tell you about new groups: “You gotta check out Boy George”?
Well, they used to, a few years ago. I kind of like everything.
Are your kids musical?
Yeah, they all play.
Would you encourage them to go into the music business?
I would never push ’em or encourage ’em to. I mean, I never went into it as a business. I went into it as a matter of survival. So I wouldn’t tell anybody to go into it as a business. It’s a pretty cutthroat business, from what I’ve seen.
What do you tell your kids about things like sex and drugs?
Well, they don’t really ask me too much about that stuff. I think they probably learn enough just by hangin’ around me, you know?
You had a drug period at one time, didn’t you?
I never got hooked on any drug — not like you’d say, uh, “Eric Clapton: his drug period.”
Ever take LSD?
I don’t wanna say anything to encourage anybody, but, uh, who knows? Who knows what people stick in your drinks, or what kinda cigarettes you’re smokin’?
When people like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin started dropping away, did you look upon that as a waste?
Jimi, I thought, was a big waste. I saw Jimi. . . . Oh, man, that was sad when I saw him. He was in the back seat of a limousine on Bleecker Street, just. . . . I couldn’t even tell then whether he was dead or alive.
Do your old songs still mean the same to you as when you wrote them?
Yeah. Sittin’ here, it’s hard to imagine it, but yeah. Once you lock into that stuff, it’s like it was just written yesterday. When I’m singin’ the stuff, sometimes I say, “Wow! Where’d these lyrics come from?” It’s amazing.
Do you still look back on some of it as protest material? Or did you ever see it as protest material?
I think all my stuff is protest material in some kinda way. I always felt like my position and my place came after that first wave, or maybe second wave, of rock & roll. And I felt like I would never have done the things I did if I just had to listen to popular radio.
At one point, didn’t you disassociate yourself from the protest form?
Well, you see, I never called it protest. Protest is anything that goes against the ordinary and the established. And who’s the founder of protest? Martin Luther.
Is it true that “Like a Rolling Stone” was done in one take?
Yeah, one take. It’s amazing. It sounds like it’s so together. That was back in the days when we used to do . . . oh, man, six, eight, ten tunes a session. We used to just go in and come out the next day.
Wasn’t Another Side of Bob Dylan the result of an all-night session, too?
Well, that was pretty quick, too. But that was easier to do; it was just me. But we used to do the same thing when there was a band in there. I don’t think a song like “Rolling Stone” could have been done any other way. What are you gonna do, chart it out?
How do you maintain a balance between the requirements of the modern recording studio and the fact that a lot of your best stuff in the past has been done very quickly?
Right now, I’m changing my views on that. But I plan to do a little bit more acoustic stuff in the future. I think my next album is probably just gonna be me and my guitar and harmonica. I’m not saying all of it will be that way, but I’m sure a few songs will be. I know they will be.
What’s your latest stuff like?
I just write ’em as they come, you know? They’re not about anything different than what I’ve ever written about, but they’re probably put together in a way that other ones aren’t put together. So it might seem like somethin’ new. I don’t think I’ve found any new chords or new progressions, or any new words that haven’t been said before. I think they’re pretty much all the same old thing, just kinda reworked.
I heard an outtake from the Infidels sessions called “Blind Willie McTell.” Is that ever going to come out? It’s a great song.
I didn’t think I recorded it right. But I don’t know why that stuff gets out on me. I mean, it never seems to get out on other people.
There’s a lot of interest out there. You could put all your unreleased stuff out in, like, a twenty-volume set or something.
Yeah, like The Basement Tapes. But it doesn’t occur to me to put it out. If I wrote a song three years ago, I seldom go back and get that. I just leave ’em alone.
I never really liked The Basement Tapes. I mean, they were just songs we had done for the publishing company, as I remember. They were used only for other artists to record those songs. I wouldn’t have put ’em out. But, you know, Columbia wanted to put ’em out, so what can you do?
You don’t think that album has a great feeling to it? That material really has an aura.
I can’t even remember it. People have told me they think it’s very Americana and all that. I don’t know what they’re talkin’ about.
So, then, it wouldn’t occur to you to put out, say, the 1966 tapes of the Royal Albert Hall concert in London, another great bootleg?
No. Uh-uh. I wouldn’t put ’em out because I didn’t think they were quality.
That stuff’s great. I’m amazed you wouldn’t want to see it done legitimately and really do the tapes right.
Well, but you see, Columbia’s never offered to do that. They have done that with The Basement Tapes and the Budokan album. But they’ve never offered to put that out as a historical album or whatever. And believe me, if they wanted to do it, they could.
Speaking of the Budokan album . . .
The Budokan album was only supposed to be for Japan. They twisted my arm to do a live album for Japan. It was the same band I used on Street Legal, and we had just started findin’ our way into things on that tour when they recorded it. I never meant for it to be any type of representation of my stuff or my band or my live show.
That was when the critics started saying you were going Las Vegas, wasn’t it?
Well, I think the only people who would have said somethin’ like that were people who’ve never been to Las Vegas.
I think it was the clothes you wore at the time. They said it made you look like Neil Diamond.
Well, it just goes to show you how times have changed since 1978, if you could be criticized for what you were wearing. I mean, now you can wear anything. You see a guy wearing a dress onstage now, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, right.” You expect it.
I’ve seen a lot of stuff written about me. People must be crazy. I mean responsible people. Especially on that Street Legal tour. That band we assembled then, I don’t think that will ever be duplicated. It was a big ensemble. And what did people say? I mean, responsible people who know better. All I saw was “Bruce Springsteen” because there was a saxophone player. And it was “disco” — well, there wasn’t any disco in it.
It always seemed to me that you were sort of infallible in your career up until Self Portrait, in 1970. What’s the story behind that album?
At the time, I was in Woodstock, and I was getting a great degree of notoriety for doing nothing. Then I had that motorcycle accident, which put me outta commission. Then, when I woke up and caught my senses, I realized I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I didn’t wanna do that. Plus, I had a family, and I just wanted to see my kids.
I’d also seen that I was representing all these things that I didn’t know anything about. Like I was supposed to be on acid. It was all storm-the-embassy kind of stuff — Abbie Hoffman in the streets — and they sorta figured me as the kingpin of all that. I said, “Wait a minute, I’m just a musician. So my songs are about this and that. So what?” But people need a leader. People need a leader more than a leader needs people, really. I mean, anybody can step up and be a leader, if he’s got the people there that want one. I didn’t want that, though.
But then came the big news about Woodstock, about musicians goin’ up there, and it was like a wave of insanity breakin’ loose around the house day and night. You’d come in the house and find people there, people comin’ through the woods, at all hours of the day and night, knockin’ on your door. It was really dark and depressing. And there was no way to respond to all this, you know? It was as if they were suckin’ your very blood out. I said, “Now, wait, these people can’t be my fans. They just can’t be.” And they kept comin’. We had to get out of there.
This was just about the time of that Woodstock Festival, which was the sum total of all this bullshit. And it seemed to have something to do with me, this Woodstock Nation, and everything it represented. So we couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get any space for myself and my family, and there was no help, nowhere. I got very resentful about the whole thing, and we got outta there.
We moved to New York. Lookin’ back, it really was a stupid thing to do. But there was a house available on MacDougal Street, and I always remembered that as a nice place. So I just bought this house, sight unseen. But it wasn’t the same when we got back. The Woodstock Nation had overtaken MacDougal Street also. There’d be crowds outside my house. And I said, “Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s go on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t givin’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else,” But the whole idea backfired Because the album went out there, and the people said, “This ain’t what we want,” and they got more resentful. And then I did this portrait for the cover. I mean, there was no title for that album. I knew somebody who had some paints and a square canvas, and I did the cover up in about five minutes. And I said, “Well, I’m gonna call this album Self Portrait.“
Which was duly interpreted by the press as: This is what he is . . .
Yeah, exactly. And to me, it was a joke.
But why did you make it a double-album joke?
Well, it wouldn’t have held up as a single album — then it really would’ve been bad, you know. I mean, if you’re gonna put a lot of crap on it, you might as well load it up!
In the Sixties, there was feeling that this society really was changing. Looking back, do you feel it changed that much?
I think it did. A lot of times people forget these modern days that we know now, where you can get on an airplane and fly anywhere you want nonstop, direct, and be there — that’s recent. That’s since what, 1940? Not even that — after the war, it was. And telephones? Forget it. I mean, when I was growin’ up, I remember we had a phone in the house, but you had to dial it; and I also remember there was a party line of maybe six other people. And no matter when you got on the phone, you know, there might be somebody else on it. And I never grew up with television. When television first came in, it came on at like four in the afternoon, and it was off the air by seven at night. So you had more time to . . . I guess to think. It can never go back to the way it was, but it was all changing in the Fifties and Sixties.
My kids, they know television, they know telephones. They don’t think about that stuff, you know? Even airplanes: I never rode on an airplane until 1964 or somethin’. Up till that time, if you wanted to go across the country, you took a train or a Greyhound bus, or you hitchhiked. I don’t know. I don’t think of myself as that old, or having seen that much, but . . .
Do you have MTV at home?
No, I don’t get that I have to go to the city to see MTV. And then, once I do find a set that has it, I’ll just watch it for, you know, as long as my eyes can stay open. Until they pop out, I’ll just watch it.
What do you make of video? Do you think it’s all that important?
Uh, to sell records, yeah. But videos have always been around. David Bowie’s been makin’ ’em since he started. There was one thing I saw on a video, and I thought it was great. Then I heard the record on the radio, and it was nothin‘, you know? But video does give you something to hook onto.
I was just talkin’ to Ronnie Wood the other night. He went to the Duran Duran show at the Garden, and he said it was really funny, because they had a great big screen up over the stage with huge close-ups of the band members. And every time they showed a close-up of somebody in the band, the audience would just go crazy — they’d go mad, you know? So while they were showing a close-up of somebody in the band, the guitar player’d be playing a lick. So he’d think they were all doing it for him. Then he’d play the same lick again to get the same response — and get nothing.
I remember you were trying to get together with Ronnie and Keith [Richards] the other night. How’d it go?
It was pretty subdued, actually. But I always like to see Keith or Woody or Eric or. . . . There’s a few people I like to see whenever I can. People who play like that. It has to do with a style of music, you know?
Do you ever collaborate?
Yeah, but usually it never happens. It’s “Okay, that’s great, we’ll pick that up later and finish it.” But nothin’ ever really gets finished.
Are your best friends mostly musicians?
My best friends? Jeez, let me try to think of one [laughs].
There must be a few.
Best friends? Jesus, I mean, that’s. . . .
You’ve got to have a best friend.
Whew! Boy, there’s a question that’ll really make you think. Best friend? Jesus, I think I’d go into a deep, dark depression if I were to think about who’s my best friend.
There have to be one or two, don’t there?
Well, there has to be. . . . there must be . . . there’s gotta be. But hey, you know, a best friend is someone who’s gonna die for you. I mean, that’s your best friend, really. Yeah, I’d be miserable trying to think who my best friend is.
What do you do with your year, aside from doing an album and maybe a tour?
Well, I’m happy doin’ nothin’ [laughs].
Do you spend a lot of time in Minnesota?
I get back there when I can, yeah, I got some property outside of St. Paul back in ’74, a sort of farm.
Do you actually farm on this farm?