They say Bob Dylan is the most secretive and elusive person in the entire rock & 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 Raelettes?
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?
Oh 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.
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.
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?
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 fillin’ 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?
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 & roll sound … and started you doing rock & 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 motorcycle 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 questions? 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 – maybe 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 uptight 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 streets, but in the corridors in the hotel. I should say it was uptight.
How often have you seen them subsequently?
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 & 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.
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 us in Manchester. Last time we were in Manchester … that was 1966. Or was it Birmingham? His brother – he’s got a brother named Muff – Muff took us all out to see a haunted house, outside of Manchester, or Birmingham, one of those two. Or was it Newcastle? Something like that. We went out to see a haunted house, where a man and his dog was to have burned up in the 13th century. Boy, that place was spooky. That’s the last time I saw Stevie Winwood.
Have you been listening to his have you heard the Traffic records? The stuff that he’s been doing lately?
I heard them doing “Gimme Some Lovin'”; I love that. I didn’t get all the names … after that. I seem to recall hearing a Traffic record. I know I’ve heard the Traffic … the group, Traffic, on the radio. I’ve heard that.
Do you like them?
Yeah, sure do.
Is there anything happening on the current rock & roll scene that strikes you as good?
Yeah, I heard a record by Johnny Thunder. It’s called “I’m Alive.” Never heard it either, huh? Well, I can’t believe it. Everyone I’ve talked to, I’ve asked them if they’ve heard that record.
Is it on the radio right now?
I don’t know. I heard it on the radio a month ago, two months ago … three months ago. It was one of the most powerful records I’ve ever heard. It’s called “I’m Alive.” By Johnny Thunder. Well, it was that sentiment, truly expressed. That’s the most I can say … if you heard the record, you’d know what I mean. But that’s about all …
Do you like the stuff that Ray Stevens is doing?
Oh, I’ve always liked Ray Stevens. Sure.
Have you had occasion to go to Memphis, you know, when you’re down there … or Muscle Shoals or Pensacola, any of the great musical centers of the South?
No, I’ve never been in any of the recording studios there.
Have you ever met Ray Stevens?
Uh, I’ve been in the same building with Ray Stevens, He was behind another door … but I’ve never met him; I’ve never shook his hand. No.
I don’t want to get nosy or get into your personal life … but there was a series recently in the Village Voice, about your growing up, living and going to high school. Did you read that series?
Yeah I did. At least, I read some of it.
Was it accurate?
Well, it was accurate as far as this fellow who was writing it … this fellow … I wouldn’t have read it if I thought … he was using me to write his story. So I feel a little unusual in this case, ’cause I can see through this writer’s aims. But as far as liking it or disliking it, I didn’t do neither of those things. I mean it’s just publicity from where I am. So if they want to spend six or seven issues writing about me [laughs] … as long as they get it right, you know, as long as they get it in there, I can’t complain.
You must have some feelings about picking up a newspaper that has a hundred thousand circulation and seeing that some guy’s gone and talked to your parents and your cousins, and uncles …
Well, the one thing I did … I don’t like the way this writer talked about my father who has passed away. I didn’t dig him talking about my father and using his name. Now that’s the only thing about the article I didn’t dig. But that boy has got some lessons to learn.
What did he say?
That don’t matter what he said. He didn’t have no right to speak about my father, who has passed away. If he wants to do a story on me, that’s fine. I don’t care what he wants to say about me. But to uhh … I got the feeling that he was taking advantage of some good people that I used to know and he was making fun of a lot of things. I got the feeling he was making fun of quite a few things … this fellow, Toby. You know what I mean, Jann? Soooo … we’ll just let that stand as it is … for now.
I’ve gone through all the collected articles that have appeared, all the early ones and Columbia Records’ biographies, that’s got the story about running away from home at 11 and 12 and 13-one-half … why did you put out that story?
I didn’t put out any of those stories!
Well, it’s the standard Bob Dylan Biography …
Well, you know how it is, Jann … If you’re sittin’ in a room, and you have to have something done … I remember once, I was playing at Town Hall, and the producer of it came over with that biography … you know, I’m a songwriter, I’m not a biography writer, and I need a little help with these things.
So if I’m sitting in a room with some people, and I say “Come on now, I need some help; gimme a biography,” so there might be three or four people there and out of those three or four people maybe they’ll come up with something, come up with a biography. So we put it down, it reads well, and the producer of the concert is satisfied. In fact, he even gets a kick out of it. You dig what I mean?
But in actuality, this thing wasn’t written for hundreds of thousands of people … it was just a little game for whoever was going in there and getting a ticket, you know, they get one of these things too. That’s just show business. So you do that, and pretty soon you’ve got a million people who get it on the side. You know? They start thinkin’ that it’s written all for them. And it’s not written for them – it was written for someone who bought the ticket to the concert. You got all these other people taking it too seriously. Do you know what I mean? So a lot of things have been blown out of proportion.
At the time when all your records were out, and you were working and everybody was writing stories about you, you let that become your story … you sort of covered up your parents, and your old friends . . . you sort of kept people away from them …
Well, that was the impression it gave …
Jann, you know, my best friends … you’re talking about old friends, and best friends … if you want to go by those standards, I haven’t seen my best friends for over 15 years. You know what I mean?
I’m not in the business of covering anything up. If I was from New Jersey, I could make an effort to show people my old neighborhood. If I was from Baltimore, same thing. Well, I’m from the Midwest, boy, that’s two different worlds.
This whole East Coast … there are a few similarities between the East Coast and the Midwest; and, of course, the people are similar, but it’s a big jump. So, I came out of the Midwest, but I’m not interested in leading anybody back there. That’s not my game.
Why do you choose to live in the East?
Well, because we’re nearer New York now. We don’t choose anything … we just go with the wind. That’s it.
Most people who become successful in records, especially artists, start wondering at some point about whether they’re becoming businessmen, taking care of contracts and making money … did you ever get that?
Yeah, I certainly did. I’d love to become a businessman, [laughs]. Love it.
What do you think of the music business?
I’d love to become a businessman in the music business.
Well, doing that same thing that other businessmen are doing … talking about recording, publishing, producing …
Have you ever wanted to produce an album for some other artist?
Uhh … it’s been a long time. I can’t even remember which one. I saw somebody once, it was down in the Village. Anyway …
Are there any artists around today that you’d like to produce?
Well, there was some talk about producing Burt Lancaster doing the hymn “I Saw St. Augustine” …
Well, the movie business being what it is … going back to reviews that you’ve gotten for various albums; everybody has a lot of strange interpretations and decisions … have you ever read any criticisms about that that you liked or thought was accurate – or possibly got close to what you were trying to do?
Mmmmm … I can’t say that I have. I don’t recall. Like I say, Jann, I don’t keep up with it as much as I should.
At the time when Highway 61 and Bringing It All Back Home were coming out … do you remember anything from them?
Yeah, the liner notes.
What did you like about those liner notes?
I think they were very groovy. They explained what was going on in the album, and how the album came to be recorded, and how it all came to be said. Why didn’t you publish Tarantula?
Why? Well … it’s a long story. It begins with when I suddenly began to sell quite a few records, and a certain amount of publicity began to be carried in all the major news magazines about this “rising young star.” Well, this industry being what it is, book companies began sending me contracts, because I was doing interviews before and after concerts, and reporters would say things like “What else do you write?” And I would say, “Well, I don’t write much of anything else.” And they would say, “Oh, come on. You must write other things. Tell us something else. Do you write books?” And I’d say, “Sure, I write books.”
After the publishers saw that I wrote books, they began to send me contracts … Doubleday, Macmillan, Hill and Range [laughter] … we took the biggest one, and then owed them a book. You follow me?
But there was no book. We just took the biggest contract. Why? I don’t know. Why I did, I don’t know. Why I was told to do it, I don’t know. Anyway, I owed them a book.
So I sat down, and said, “Wow, I’ve done many things before, it’s not so hard to write a book.” So I sat down and wrote them a book in the hotel rooms and different places, plus I got a lot of other papers laying around that other people had written, so I threw it all together in a week and sent it to them.
Well, it wasn’t long after that when I got it back to proofread it. I got it back and I said, “My gosh, did I write this? I’m not gonna have this out.” Do you know what I mean? “I’m not gonna put this out. The folks back home just aren’t going to understand this at all.” I said, “Well, I have to do some corrections on this,” I told them, and set about correcting it. I told them I was improving it.
Boy, they were hungry for this book. They didn’t care what it was. They just wanted … people up there were saying, “Boy, that’s the second James Joyce,” and “Jack Kerouac again” and they were saying “Homer revisited” … and they were all just talking through their heads.
They just wanted to sell books, that’s all they wanted to do. It wasn’t about anything … and I knew that – I figured they had to know that, they were in the business of it. I knew that, and I was just nobody. If I knew it, where were they at? They were just playing with me. My book.
So I wrote a new book. I figured I was satisfied with it and I sent that in. Wow, they looked at that and said, “Well, that’s another book.” And I said, “Well, but it’s better.” And they said, “Okay, we’ll print this.” So they printed that up and sent that back to proofread it. So I proofread it – I just looked at the first paragraph – and knew I just couldn’t let that stand. So I took the whole thing with me on tour. I was going to rewrite it all. Carried a typewriter around … around the world. Trying to meet this deadline which they’d given me to put this book out. They just backed me into a corner. A lot of invisible people. So finally, I had a deadline on it, and was working on it, before my motorcycle accident. And I was studying all kinds of different prints and how I wanted them to print the book, by this time. I also was studying a lot of other poets at this time … I had books which I figured could lead me somewhere … and I was using a little bit from everything.
But still, it wasn’t any book; it was just to satisfy the publishers who wanted to print something that we had a contract for. Follow me? So eventually, I had my motorcycle accident and that just got me out of the whole thing, ’cause I didn’t care anymore. As it stands now, Jann, I could write a book. But I’m gonna write it first, and then give it to them. You know what I mean?
Do you have any particular subject in mind, or plan, for a book?
For yours or mine?
[Laughs.] For any of them.
What writers today do you dig? Like who would you read if you were writing a book? Mailer?
All of them. There’s something to be learned from them all.
What about the poets? You once said something about Smokey Robinson …
I didn’t mean Smokey Robinson, I meant Arthur Rimbaud. I don’t know how I could’ve gotten Smokey Robinson mixed up with Arthur Rimbaud, [laughter] but I did.
Do you see Allen Ginsberg much?
Not at all. Not at all.
Do you think he had any influence on your songwriting at all?
I think he did at a certain period. That period of … “Desolation Row,” that kind of New York–type period, when all the songs were just “city songs.” His poetry is city poetry. Sounds like the city.
Before, you were talking about touring and using drugs. During that period of songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Baby Blue,” which a lot of writers have connected to the drug experience, not in the sense of them being “psychedelic music,” or drug songs, but having come out of the drug experience.
In terms of perceptions. A level of perceptions … awareness of the songs …
Awareness of the minute. You mean that?
An awareness of the mind.
I would say so.
Did taking drugs influence the songs?
No, not the writing of them, but it did keep me up there to pump ’em out.
Why did you leave the city and city songs for the country and country songs?
The country songs?
The songs … you were talking about Highway 61 being a song of the city, and songs of New York City …
What was on that album?
Highway 61? “Desolation Row,” “Queen Jane” …
Well, it was also what the audiences wanted to hear, too … don’t forget that. When you play every night in front of an audience, you know what they want to hear. It’s easier to write songs then. You know what I’m talking about?
Who do you think your current audience is? Who do you think you’re selling records to? What kind of people?
Well, I don’t know. When I go out on the road, I’ll find out, won’t I?
Did you get any indication of that from who showed up in the audience in Nashville?
No, they were just people. Just people. I find every audience more or less the same, although you can have a certain attachment or disattachment for one because it may be bigger or smaller. But . . . people are just people.
Many people – writers, college students, college writers – all felt tremendously affected by your music and what you’re saying in the lyrics.
Sure. They felt it had a particular relevance to their lives … I mean, you must be aware of the way that people come on to you.
Not entirely. Why don’t you explain to me.
I guess if you reduce it to its simplest terms, the expectation of your audience – the portion of your audience that I’m familiar with – feels that you have the answer.
Like from the film, Don’t Look Back – people asking you, “Why? What is it? Where is it?” People are tremendously hung-up on what you write and what you say, tremendously hung-up. Do you react to that at all? Do you feel responsible to those people?
I don’t want to make anybody worry about it … but boy, if I could ease someone’s mind, I’d be the first one to do it. I want to lighten every load. Straighten out every burden. I don’t want anybody to be hung-up … [laughs] especially over me, or anything I do. That’s not the point at all.
Let me put it another way. … What I’m getting at is that you’re an extremely important figure in music and an extremely important figure in the experience of growing up today. Whether you put yourself in that position or not, you’re in that position. And you must have thought about it … and I’m curious to know what you think about that …
What would I think about it? What can I do?
You wonder if you’re really that person.
A great “youth leader” …
If I thought I was that person, wouldn’t I be out there doing it? Wouldn’t I be, if I thought I was meant to do that, wouldn’t I be doing it? I don’t have to hold back. This Maharishi, he thinks that– right? He’s out there doing it. If I thought that, I’d be out there doing it. Don’t you … you agree, right? So obviously, I don’t think that.
What do you feel about unwillingly occupying that position?
I can see that position filled by someone else … not by … the position you’re speaking of … I play music, man. I write songs. I have a certain balance about things, and I believe there should be an order to everything. Underneath it all I believe, also, that there are people trained for this job that you’re talking about – “youth leader” type of thing, you know? I mean, there must be people trained to do this type of work. And I’m just one person, doing what I do. Trying to get along … staying out of people’s hair, that’s all.
You’ve been also a tremendous influence on a lot of musicians and writers, they’re very obviously affected by your style, the way you do things …
Well, somebody like Phil Ochs, for example… a lot of people like that.
Phil Ochs, uh … was around the same time I was, I remember when he came to town. He had his … he was doing his “Stand Tall Billy Sol”-type songs. I mean, he had it then. I think he made it, there being a certain amount of momentum – he pushed – from being on the scene. But he did bring his own thing in, when he came in. He didn’t – as some people – come in as a dishwasher, to dig some sounds and suddenly put down the broom, and pick up the guitar. You know what I mean?
I’m thinking also of other singers, of people who were singing before and playing the guitar.
Do you see any influence in the Motown? All those things that the Motown records are doing now? Like “Runaway Child” and those kind of things. I mean, Motown wasn’t doing those kind of records a few years ago, were they? What do you think they’re doing, Jann? Are they really sincere and all that kind of thing?
I think they’re sincere about making good records, and they’re going to sell a lot of them. I dig that. Do you like the Motown records?
Well, yeah … I like them …
Do you like the ones today better than the ones that they were doing before?
Oh I have always liked the Motown records. Always. But because I like them so much, I see that change.
Have you got anything to do with that change?
Have I? Not that I know of.
Do you think that you’ve played any role in the change of popular music in the last four years?
I hope not. [Laughs.]
Well, a lot of people say you have.
[Laughs.] Well, you know, I’m not one to argue. [Laughs.]
There’s a lot of talk about you and Albert Grossman, your relationship with Albert Grossman, and whether he’s going to continue to manage you.
Well …as far as I know, things will remain the same, until the length of our contract. And if we don’t sign another contract, or if he does not have a hand in producing my next concerts or have a hand in any of my next work, it’s only because he’s too busy. ‘Cause he’s got so many acts now … it’s so hard for him to be in all places all the time. I mean you know, it’s the old story … you can’t be in two places at once. That old story. You know what I mean?
When does your contract with him expire?
Sometime this year.
You were supposed to leave Columbia and sign with MGM? A million dollars … what happened to that?
It … went up in smoke.
Did you want a new label?
I didn’t, no.
I believe my advisors.
I take it you haven’t had any recent trouble with Columbia, like you used to have in the beginning …
No … no.
Do you know approximately how many songs that you’ve recorded that have not been released? Like songs left over from recording John Wesley Harding or Blonde on Blonde? Do you have any idea how many?
Well, we try to use them all. There may be a few lying around.
What do you think was the best song, popular song, to come out last year?
Uhh … I like that one … of Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Rolling on the River”?
George Jones had one called “Small Town Laboring Man.”
You’ve been very reluctant to talk to reporters, the press and so on … why is that?
Why would you think?
Well, I know why you won’t go on those things.
Well, if you know why, you tell ’em … ’cause I find it hard to talk about. People don’t understand how the press works. People don’t understand that the press, they just use you to sell papers. And, in a certain way, that’s not bad … but when they misquote you all the time, and when they just use you to fill in some story. And when you read it after, it isn’t anything the way you pictured it happening. Well, anyhow, it hurts. It hurts because you think you were just played for a fool. And the more hurts you get, the less you want to do it. Ain’t that correct?
Were there any writers that you met that you liked? That you felt did good jobs? Wrote accurate stories …
On you. For instance, I remember two big pieces – one was in the New Yorker, by Nat Hentoff…
Yeah, I like ’em. I like that. In a way, I like ’em all, whether I feel bad about ’em or not, in a way I like ’em all. I seldom get a kick out of them, Jann, but … I mean, I just can’t be spending my time reading what people write. [Laughter.] I don’t know anybody who can, do you?
Do you set aside a certain amount of time during the day to … how much of the day do you think about songwriting and playing the guitar?
Well, I try to get it when it comes. I play the guitar wherever I find one. But I try to write the song when it comes. I try to get it all … ’cause if you don’t get it all, you’re not gonna get it. So the best kinds of songs you can write are in motel rooms and cars . . . places which are all temporary. ‘Cause you’re forced to do it. Rather, it lets you go into it.
You go into your kitchen and try to write a song, and you can’t write a song – I know people who do this – I know some songwriters who go to work every day, at 8:30 and come home at 5:00. And usually bring something back … I mean, that’s legal, too. It just depends on … how you do it. Me, I don’t have those kind of things known to me yet, so I just get ’em when they come. And when they don’t come, I don’t try for it.
There’s been a lot of artists who have done your songs … songs that you have released and songs that you haven’t released. Have you written any songs lately for any other artists to do, specifically for that artist? Or any of your old songs.
I wrote “To Be Alone With You” – that’s on Nashville Skyline – I wrote it for Jerry Lee Lewis. The one on Nashville Skyline. [Laughter.] He was down there when we were listening to the playbacks, and he came in. He was recording an album next door. He listened to it … I think we sent him a dub.
“Peggy Day,” I kind of had the Mills Brothers in mind when I did that one. [Laughter]
Have you approached them yet? [Laughter.]
No, unfortunately, I haven’t.
During what period of time did you write the songs on Nashville Skyline? During the month before you went down to do it or …
Yeah, about a month before we did it. That’s why it seemed to be all connected.
I don’t know, Jann. I don’t know where I’m gonna be doing the next album. Sometimes I envy the Beatles … they just go down to the studio, and play around … I mean, you’re bound to get a record. You know what I mean? Bound to get a record. Their studio is just a drive away … boy, I’d have an album out every month. I mean, how could you not?
Have you ever thought about getting four- or eight-track equipment up where you live?
Well, everyone’s talking about that now. But it’s just talk as far as I know. I would come to New York if I wanted to use the studio, because it’s all here … if you need a good engineer, or if you need a song, or somebody to record it, an artist … whereas, some place like up in the country there, in the mountains, you could get a studio in, but that doesn’t guarantee you anything else but the studio. You can get violin players, cello players, you can get dramatic readers … you can get anybody at the drop of a hat, in New York City. I imagine it’s that way over in London, where the Beatles make their records. Anything they want to put on their record, they just call up and it’s there. I’d like to be in that position.
What do you look for when you make a record … I mean, what qualities, do you judge it by when you hear it played back?
Ummmm … for the spirit. I like to hear a good lick once in a while. Maybe it’s the spirit … don’t you think so? I mean, if the spirit’s not there, it don’t matter how good a song it is or …
What do you think of the current rock & roll groups doing all the country music?
Well, once again, it really doesn’t matter what kind of music they do, just so long as people are making music. That’s a good sign. There are certainly more people around making music than there was when I was growing up. I know that.
Do you find any that are particularly good – country rock, or merely rock & roll bands, doing country material, using steel guitars?
As long as it sounds good …
Do any particular one of those groups appeal to you?
Who . . . who are in those groups?
Oh, Flying Burrito Brothers …
Boy, I love them … the Flying Burrito Brothers, unh-huh. I’ve always known Chris, you know, from when he was in the Byrds. And he’s always been a fine musician. Their records knocked me out. [Laughs.] That poor little hippie boy on his way to town … [laughs.]
What about the Byrds … they did a country album …
Sweetheart? Well, they had a distinctive sound, the Byrds … they usually were hanging in there …
Of all the versions of “This Wheel’s on Fire,” which do you like the best?
Uh … the Band’s. Who else did it?
Julie Driscoll … the Byrds did it.
I remember hearing the Julie Driscoll one … I don’t remember hearing the Byrds.
What was the origin of that collection of songs, of that tape?
The origin of it? What do you mean?
Where was that done?
Well that was done out in … out in somebody’s basement. Just a basement tape. It was just for …
Did you do most, did you write most of those songs, those demos, for yourself?
And then decide against them?
No, they weren’t demos for myself, they were demos of the songs. I was being pushed again … into coming up with some songs. So, you know … you know how those things go.
Do you have any artists in mind for any of those particular songs?
No. They were just fun to do. That’s all. They were a kick to do. Fact, I’d do it all again. You know … that’s really the way to do a recording – in a peaceful, relaxed setting – in somebody’s basement. With the windows open … and a dog lying on the floor.
Let me explain something about this interview. If you give one magazine an interview, then the other magazine wants an interview. If you give one to one, then the other one wants one. So pretty soon, you’re in the interview business … you’re just giving interviews. Well, as you know, this can really get you down. Doing nothing but giving interviews.
So the only way you can do it is to give press conferences. But you see, you have to have something to give a press conference about. Follow me? So that’s why I don’t give interviews. There’s no mysterious reason to it, there’s nothing organized behind it … it’s just that if you give an interview to one magazine, then another one’ll get mad.
Why have you chosen to do this interview?
‘Cause this is a music paper. Why would I want to give an interview to Look magazine? Tell me, why?
I don’t know … to sell records.
To sell records, I could do it. Right. But I have a gold record without doing it, do you understand me? Well, if I had to sell records, I’d be out there giving interviews to everybody. Don’t you see? Mr. Clive Davis, he was president of Columbia Records, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if this last album sold a million units. Without giving one interview. Now you tell me, Jann, why am I going to go out and give an interview?
To get hassled …
Why would I want to go out and get hassled? If they’re gonna pay me, I mean … who wants to do that? I don’t.
Do you have any idea how much money your publishing has brought in over the last five years?
Well, now, that’s difficult to answer because my songs are divided up into three, no, four companies. So there you have it. There you have it right there.
Well, I’ve got songs with Leeds Music. I’ve got songs with Whitmark Music. I’ve got a bunch of songs with Dwarf Music. I’ve got songs in Big Sky Music. So you see, my songs are divided up, so …
Do you own Big Sky Music wholly yourself?
It’s my company. I chose to start this company.
You put all the estimated income from those four companies together, or estimated gross income from publishing from those, it must be a considerable …
Not as much as the Beatles.
Yeah, but other than the Beatles?
Not as much as those writers from Motown.
Other than the writers from Motown …
You know there are many more musical organizations than me. They’ve got staffs of writers bringing in more money than you can dream of.
What songwriters do you like? Do you like any of the teams like Holland, Dozier, Holland or Hayes and Porter …
Yeh, I do. I know that fellow – what’s his name, Isaac Hayes? – he does a real nice song called “The Other Woman.” I believe that’s the title to it. It’s on his album. I think it’s on his new one. I don’t believe he wrote it, though.
Otis Redding was playing at the Whiskey A Go Go, a coupla years ago, you came in and talked to Otis. What was that all about?
He was gonna do “Just Like A Woman.” I played him a dub of it. I think he mighta cut it for a demo … I don’t think he ever recorded it, though. He was a fine man.
Why did you think “Just Like A Woman” would be a good song for him to do?
Well, I didn’t necessarily think it was a good song for him to do, but he asked me if I had any material. It just so happened that I had the dubs from my new album. So we went over and played it. I think he took a dub … that was the first and only time I ever met him.
I take it that you dug Otis real well. Are there any other soul singers that you dig as much as Otis?
You mean rhythm & blues pop? Well, you know I’ve always liked Mavis Staples ever since she was a little girl. She’s always been my favorite … she’s always had my favorite voice.
Have you heard their new Stax album?
I heard one of those … the ones they’re doing with other people. Yeah, I heard that, that one that Pop Staples did. [Laughs.] It’s ridiculous. Oh, Steve Cropper did do a nice song on that album … that he wrote, called “Water.”
On his own album?
No, not on his own album. On the Jammed Together album. I find it interesting seeing … Mr. Staples being referred to as “Pop.” [Laughter.]
Have you heard the Steve Cropper solo album?
Yeah, I heard that too.
Do you like that?
Sure. I’ve always dug Steve Cropper … his guitar playing. Ever since the first Booker T. record. I heard that back in the Midwest. Yeah, everybody was playing like him.
What records of Otis’ did you dig?
I’ve got one that contained that song where he was born in a tent by the river – [hums and sings] “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Yeah, I like that one.
What is your day-to-day life like?
Hmmmm … there’s no way I could explain that to you, Jann. Every day is different. Depends on what I’m doing.
Do you paint a lot?
Well, I may be fiddling around with the car or I may be painting a boat, or … possibly washing the windows. I just do what has to be done. I play a lot of music, when there’s a call in … I’m always trying to put shows together, which never come about. I don’t know what it is, but sometimes we get together and I say, “Okay, let’s take six songs and do ’em up.” So we do six songs, we got ’em in, let’s say, 40 minutes … we got a stopwatch timing ’em. But I mean nothing happens to it. We could do anything with it, but I mean …
Boy, I hurried … I hurried for a long time. I’m sorry I did. All the time you’re hurrying, you’re not really as aware as you should be. You’re trying to make things happen instead of just letting it happen. You follow me?
That’s the awkwardness of this interview.
Well, I don’t find anything awkward about it. I think it’s going real great.
The purpose of any interview is to let the person who’s being interviewed unload his head.
Well, that’s what I’m doing.
And trying to draw that out is …
Boy, that’s a good … that’d be a great title for a song. “Unload my head. Going down to the store … going down to the corner to unload my head.” I’m gonna write that up when I get back [laughter], “Going to Tallahassee to unload my head.”
What do you think can happen with your career as a singer?
What are the possibilities?
Go on the road, continue to make records … for instance, do you foresee continuing to make records?
If they’re enjoyable. I’m going to have to receive a certain amount of enjoyment out of my work pretty soon. I’d like to keep a little closer to the studios than I am now. It’s awful hard for me to make records when I’ve got to go 4,000 miles away, you know? Like I say, when you do have these companies around who’re just there to serve …
Are you thinking of moving to Nashville? I mean that would be …
Well, if I moved to Nashville, I’d still have to book studio time, wouldn’t I?
But still, you’d have the accessibility of the session men and the engineers …
That’s true. But I’d have to do everything with that same sound, wouldn’t I? I couldn’t really use a variety of techniques.
Can you see a time when you would stop making records?
Well, let’s put it this way: Making a record isn’t any more than just recording a song, for me. Well, that’s what it’s been up ’til now. Not necessarily going into the studio for any other reason than to record a song. So, if I was to stop writing songs, I would stop recording. Or let’s say, if I was to stop singing, I guess I would stop recording. But I don’t forsee that. I’ll be recording, ’cause that’s a way for me to unload my head.
You said in one of your songs on Highway 61 … “I need a dump truck, mama, to unload my head.” Do you still need a dump truck or something? [Laughter.]
What album was that?
It was on Highway 61. What I’m trying to ask is what are the changes that have gone on between the time you did Highway 61 and Nashville Skyline or John Wesley Harding?
The changes. I don’t think I know exactly what you mean.
How has life changed for you? Your approach to … your view of what you do …
Not much. I’m still the same person. I’m still uhh … going at it in the same old way. Doing the same old thing.
Do you think you’ve settled down, and slowed down?
I hope so. I was going at a tremendous speed … at the time of my Blonde on Blonde album, I was going at a tremendous speed.
How did you make the change? The motorcycle accident?
I just took what came. That’s how I made the changes. I took what came.
What do they come from?
What was what coming from? Well, they come from the same sources that everybody else’s do. I don’t know if it comes from within oneself anymore than it comes from without oneself. Or outside of oneself. Don’t you see what I mean? Maybe the inside and the outside are both the same. I don’t know. But, I feel it just like everyone else. What’s that old line – there’s a line from one of those old songs out … “I can recognize it in others, I can feel it in myself.” You can’t say that’s from the inside or the outside, it’s like both.
What people do you think from the outside have influenced a change?
Uhh … what change are you talking about?
The change from Highway 61 to Nashville Skyline …
I’m not probably as aware of that change as you are, because I haven’t listened to that album Highway 61 … I’d probably do myself a lot of good going back and listening to it. I’m not aware of that change. I probably could pinpoint it right down if I heard that album, but I haven’t heard it for quite a while.
Are there any old albums that you do listen to?
Well, I don’t sit around and listen to my records, if that’s what you mean.
Like picking up a high school yearbook, and just …
Oh, I love to do that … every once in a while. That’s the way I listen to my records – every once in a while. Every once in a while I say, “Well, I’d like to see that fellow again.”
Are there any albums or tracks from the albums that you think now were particularly good?
On any of my old albums? Uhh … as songs or as performances?
Oh, yeah, quite a few.
Well, if I was performing now … if I was making personal appearances, you would know which ones, because I would play them. You know? But I don’t know which ones I’d play now. I’d have to pick and choose. Certainly couldn’t play ’em all.
Thinking about the titles on Bringing It All Back Home.
I like “Maggie’s Farm.” I always liked “Highway 61 Revisited.” I always liked that song. “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Blowing In the Wind” and “Girl From the North Country” and “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Times They Are A’Changing'” … I liked “Ramona.”
Where did you write “Desolation Row”? Where were you when you wrote that?
I was in the back of a taxicab.
In New York?
During the period where you were recording songs with a rock & roll accompaniment, with a full-scale electric band, of those rock & roll songs that you did, which do you like?
The best rock & roll songs … which ones are there?
Uhh . . . “Like A Rolling Stone” …
Yeah, I probably liked that the best.
And that was the Tom Wilson record … how come you never worked with that collection of musicians again?
Well, Michael Bloomfield, he was touring with Paul Butterfield at that time … and I could only get ‘im when I could. So I wouldn’t wait on Michael Bloomfield to make my records. He sure does play good, though. I missed having him there, but what could you do?
In talking about the songs as performances, which of the performances that you did, that were recorded …
I like “Like a Rolling Stone” . .. I can hear it now, now that you’ve mentioned it. I like that sound. You mean, which recorded performances?
Yeah, I mean in your performance of the song …
Oh … I like some of them on the last record, but I don’t know, I tend to close up in the studio. After I’ve … I could never get enough presence on me. Never really did sound like me, to me.
On Nashville Skyline, you see a lot of echo, and a lot of limiting. What made you decide to alter your voice technically and use those kind of studio tricks? Rather than doing it more or less flat.
Well, how would you have liked it better? Would you have liked it flat?
I dig the echo.
I do, too. I dig the echo myself. That’s why … we did it that way. The old records do sound flat. I mean there’s just a flatness to them, they’re like two-dimensional. Isn’t that right? Well in this day and age, there’s no reason to make records like that.
“Nashville Skyline Rag” was that a jam that took place in a studio, or did you write the lyrics before? …
Ummm … I had that little melody quite a while before I recorded it.
There’s a cat named Alan Weberman who writes in the East Village Other. He calls himself the world’s leading Dylanologist. You know him?
No … oh, yes, I did. Is this the guy who tears up all my songs? Well, he oughta take a rest. He’s way off. I saw something he wrote about “All Along the Watchtower,” and boy, let me tell you, this boy’s off. Not only did he create some type of fantasy – he had Allen Ginsberg in there – he couldn’t even hear the words to the song right. He didn’t hear the song right. Can you believe that? I mean this fellow couldn’t hear the words … or something. I bet he’s a hard-working fellow, though. I bet he really does a good job if he could find something to do but it’s too bad it’s just my songs, ’cause I don’t really know if there’s enough material in my songs to sustain someone who is really out to do a big job. You understand what I mean?
I mean a fellow like that would be much better off writing about Tolstoy, or Dostoevesky, or Freud … doing a really big analysis of somebody who has countless volumes of writings. But here’s me, just a few records out. Somebody devoting so much time to those few records, when there’s such a wealth of material that hasn’t even been touched yet, or hasn’t even been heard or read … that escapes me. Does it escape you?
I understand putting time into it, but I read this, in this East Village Other; I read it … and it was clever. And I got a kick out of reading it [laughter] on some level, but I didn’t want to think anybody was taking it too seriously. You follow me?
He’s just representative of thousands of people who do take it seriously.
Well, that’s their own business. Why don’t I put it that way. That’s their business and his business. But … I’m the source of that and I don’t know if it’s my business or not, but I’m the source of it. You understand? So I see it a little differently than all of them do.
People in your audience, they obviously take it very seriously, and they look to you for something …
Well, I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. So, I owe them … my music, which I would be playing for them.
Does the intensity of some of the response annoy you?
No. No, I rather enjoy it.
I’m trying to get back to the thing about being a symbol of youth culture, being a spokesman for youth culture . . . what’re your opinions or thoughts on that? At some point you pick up the paper or the magazine and find out that this is happening and you know that you’re considered like this that people are watching you for that . . . and you’ve got to say to yourself, “Am I hung-up?”
Well, not any more than anybody else is who performs in public. I mean, everyone has his following.
What do you think your following is like?
Well, I think there are all kinds … I imagine they’re … you would probably know just as much about that as I would. You know, they’re all kinds of people. I remember when I used to do concerts, you couldn’t pin ’em down. All the road managers and the sound equipment carriers, and even the truck drivers would notice how different the audiences were, in terms of individual people. How different they … like sometimes I might have a concert and all the same kind of people show up, I mean, what does that mean?
Did you vote for President?
We got down to the polls too late [laughter].
People are always asking about what does this song mean and what does that song mean, and a lot of them seem to be based on some real person, just like any kind of fiction, you expect … are there any songs that you can relate to particular people, as having inspired the song?
Not now I can’t.
What do you tell somebody who says, “What is ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’ about?”
It’s just about that. I think that’s something I mighta taken out of the newspaper. Mighta seen a picture of one in a department store window. There’s really no more to it than that. I know it can get blown up into some kind of illusion. But in reality, it’s no more than that. Just a leopard skin pillbox. That’s all.
How did you come in contact with the Band?
Well. There used to be this young lady that worked up at Al Grossman’s office – her name was Mary Martin, she’s from Canada. And she was a rather persevering soul, as she hurried around the office on her job; she was a secretary; did secretarial work, and knew all the bands and all the singers from Canada. She was from Canada. Anyway, I needed a group to play electric songs.
Where did you hear them play?
Oh, I never did hear them play. I think the group I wanted was Jim Burton and Joe Osborne. I wanted Jim Burton, and Joe Osborne to play bass, and Mickey Jones. I knew Mickey Jones, he was playing with Johnny Rivers. They were all in California, though. And there was some difficulty in making that group connect. One of them didn’t want to fly, and Mickey couldn’t make it immediately, and I think Jim Burton was playing with a television group at that time.
He used to play with Ricky Nelson?
Oh, I think this was after that. He was playing with a group called the Shindogs, and they were on television. So he was doing that job. Anyway, that was the way it stood, and Mary Martin kept pushing this group who were out in New Jersey – I think they were in Elizabeth, New Jersey or Hartford, Connecticut, or some town close to around New York. She was pushing them, and she had two of the fellows come up to the office, so we could meet. And it was no more … no more, no less. I just asked them if they could do it and they said they could. [Laughs.] These two said they could. And that was how it started. Easy enough, you know.
How come you never made an album with them?
We tried. We cut a couple sides in the old New York Columbia studios. We cut two or three and right after “Positively 4th Street,” we cut some singles and they didn’t really get off the ground. You oughta hear ’em. You know, you could find ’em. They didn’t even make it on the charts.
Consequently, I’ve not been back on the charts since the singles. I never did much care for singles, ’cause you have to pay so much attention to them. Unless you make your whole album full of singles. You have to make them separately. So I didn’t really think about them too much that way.
But, playing with the Band was a natural thing. We have a real different sound. Real different. But it wasn’t like anything heard. I heard one of the records recently … it was on a jukebox. “Please Crawl Out Your Window.”
That was one of them? What were the others?
There were some more songs out of that same session … “Sooner or Later” – that was on Blonde on Blonde. That’s one of my favorite songs.
What role did you play in the Big Pink album, the album they made by themselves.
Well, I didn’t do anything on that album. They did that with John Simon.
Did you play piano on it or anything?
What kind of sound did you hear when you went in to make John Wesley Harding?
I heard the sound that Gordon Lightfoot was getting, with Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey. I’d used Charlie and Kenny both before, and I figured if he could get that sound, I could. But we couldn’t get it. [Laughs.] It was an attempt to get it, but it didn’t come off. We got a different sound … I don’t know what you’d call that … it’s a muffled sound.
There used to be a lot of friction in the control booth, on these records I used to make. I didn’t know about it, I wasn’t aware of them until recently. Somebody would want to put limiters on this and somebody would want to put an echo on that, someone else would have some other idea. And myself, I don’t know anything about any of this. So I just have to leave it up in the air. In someone else’s hands.
The friction was between the engineer and the producer …
No, the managers and the advisors and the agents.
Do you usually have sessions at which all these people are there, or do you prefer to close them up?
Well, sometimes there’s a whole lot of people. Sometimes you can’t even move there’s so many people … other times, there’s no one. Just the musicians.
Which is more comfortable for you?
Well, it’s much more comfortable when there’s … oh, I don’t know, I could have it both ways. Depends what kind of song I’m gonna do. I might do a song where I want all those people around. Then I do another song, and have to shut the lights off, you know?
Was “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” originally planned as a whole side?
That song is an example of a song … it started out as just a little thing, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” but I got carried away, somewhere along the line. I just sat down at a table and started writing. At the session itself. And I just got carried away with the whole thing … I just started writing and I couldn’t stop. After a period of time, I forgot what it was all about, and I started trying to get back to the beginning [laughs]. Yeah.
Did you plan to go down and make a double record set?
No. Those things just happen when you have the material.
Do you like that album?
Blonde on Blonde? Yeah. But like I always think that a double set could be made into a single album. But I dug Blonde on Blonde and the Beatles thing. They are like huge collections of songs. But a real great record can usually be compacted down … although the Beatles have that album, and Blonde on Blonde … I’m glad that there’s two sides, that there’s that much …
How long did that take to record?
Blonde on Blonde? Well, I cut it in between. I was touring and I was doing it whenever I got a chance to get into the studio. So it was in the works for awhile. I could only do maybe two or three songs at a time.
How long did John Wesley Harding take?
You mean how many sessions? That took three sessions, but we did them in a month. The first two sessions were maybe three weeks to a month apart, and the second one was about two weeks from the third.
John Wesley Harding – why did you call the album that?
Well, I called it that because I had that song, “John Wesley Harding.” It didn’t mean anything to me. I called it that, Jann, ’cause I had the song “John Wesley Harding,” which started out to be a long ballad. I was gonna write a ballad on … like maybe one of those old cowboy … you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a tune, and I didn’t want to waste the tune, it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and I recorded that.
But it was a silly little song [laughs] … I mean, it’s not a commercial song, in any kind of sense. At least, I don’t think it is. It was the one song on the album which didn’t seem to fit in. And I had it placed here and there, and I didn’t know what I was gonna call the album anyway. No one else had any ideas either. I placed it last and I placed it in the middle somewhere, but it didn’t seem to work. So somehow that idea came up to just put it first and get done with it right away, and that way when it comes up, no one’ll … you know, if someone’s listening to “All Along the Watchtower” and that comes up, and they’ll say, “Wow, what’s that?” [Laughs.]
You knew that cowboy …
I knew people were gonna be brought down when they heard that, and say, “Wow,” what’s that?” You know a lot of people said that to me, but I knew it in front. I knew people were gonna listen to that song and say that they didn’t understand what was going on, but they would’ve singled that song out later, if we hadn’t called the album John Wesley Harding and placed so much importance on that, for people to start wondering about it … if that hadn’t been done, that song would’ve come up and people would have said it was a throw-away song. You know, and it would have probably got in the way of some other songs.
See, I try very hard to keep my songs from interfering with each other. That’s all I’m trying to do. Place ’em all out on the disc. Sometimes it’s really annoying to me, when I listen to all these dubs; I listen to one, and then I put on another one, and the one I heard before is still on my mind. I’m trying to keep away from that.
Why did you choose the name of the outlaw John Wesley Harding?
Well, it fits in tempo. Fits right in tempo. Just what I had at hand.
What other titles did you have for the album?
Not for that one. That was the only title that came up for that one. But for the Nashville Skyline one, the title came up John Wesley Harding, Volume II. We were gonna do that … the record company wanted to call the album Love Is All There Is. I didn’t see anything wrong with it, but it sounded a little spooky to me …
What about Blonde on Blonde?
Well, that title came up when … I don’t even recall how exactly it came up, but I do know it was all in good faith. It has to do with just the word. I don’t know who thought of that. I certainly didn’t.
Of all the albums as albums, excluding your recent ones, which one do you think was the most successful in what it was trying to do? Which was the most fully realized, for you?
I think the second one. The second album I made.
Well, I got a chance to … I felt real good about doing an album with my own material. My own material and I picked a little on it, picked the guitar, and it was a big Gibson – I felt real accomplished on that. “Don’t Think Twice.” Got a chance to do some of that. Got a chance to play in open tuning … “Oxford Town,” I believe that’s on that album. That’s open tuning. I got a chance to do talking blues. I got a chance to do ballads, like “Girl From the North Country.” It’s just because it had more variety. I felt good at that.
Of the electric ones, which do you prefer?
Well, sound-wise, I prefer this last one. ‘Cause it’s got the sound. See, I’m listening for sound now.
As a collection of songs?
Songs? Well, this last album maybe means more to me, ’cause I did undertake something. In a certain sense. And … there’s a certain pride in that.
It was more premeditated than the others? I mean, you knew what you were gonna go after?
Where did the name Nashville Skyline …
Well, I always like to tie the name of the album in with some song. Or if not some song, some kind of general feeling. I think that just about fit because it was less in the way, and less specific than any of the other ones on there.
Certainly couldn’t call the album Lay, Lady Lay. I wouldn’t have wanted to call it that, although that name was brought up. It didn’t get my vote, but it was brought up. Peggy Day – Lay, Peggy Day, that was brought up. A lot of things were brought up. Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With Peggy Day. That’s another one. Some of the names just didn’t seem to fit. Girl From the North Country. That was another title which didn’t really seem to fit. Picture me on the front holding a guitar and Girl From the North Country printed on top. [Laughs.] Tell Me That It Isn’t Peggy Day. I don’t know who thought of that one.
What general thing was happening that made you want to start working with the Band, rather than working solo?
I only worked solo, because there wasn’t much going on. There wasn’t. There were established people around … yeah, The Four Seasons … there were quite a few other established acts. But I worked alone because it was easier to. Plus, everyone else I knew was working alone, writing and singing. There wasn’t much opportunity for groups or bands then; there wasn’t. You know that.
When did you decide to get one together, like that? You played at Forest Hills, that was where you first appeared with a band? Why did you feel the time had come?
To do that? Well, because I could pay a backing group now. See, I didn’t want to use a backing group unless I could pay them.
Do you ever get a chance to work frequently with the Band? In the country.
Work? Well, work is something else. Sure, we’re always running over old material. We’re always playing, running over old material. New material … and different kinds of material. Testing out this and that.
What do you see yourself as – a poet, a singer, a rock & roll star, married man …
All of those. I see myself as it all. Married man, poet, singer, songwriter, custodian, gatekeeper … all of it. I’ll be it all. I feel “confined” when I have to choose one or the other. Don’t you?
You’re obligated to do one album a year?
Is that all you want to do?
No, I’d like to do more. I would do dozens of them if I could be near the studio. I’ve been just lazy, Jann. I’ve been just getting by, so I haven’t really thought too much about putting out anything really new and different.
You’ve heard the Joan Baez album of all your songs …
Yeah, I did … I generally like everything she does.
Are there any particular artists that you like to see do your songs?
Yeah, Elvis Presley. I liked Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley recorded a song of mine. That’s the one recording I treasure the most’ … it was called “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” I wrote it but never recorded it.
Which album is that on?
I’m not familiar with it at all.
He did it with just guitar.
This story is from the November 29, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.