Did you start out wanting to be a star?
Not really, because I always needed a song to get by. There’s a lot of singers who don’t need songs to get by. A lot of ’em are tall, good-lookin’, you know? They don’t need to say anything to grab people. Me, I had to make it on something other than my looks or my voice.
What was it that made you decide to become a rock & roll songwriter?
Well, now, Chuck Berry was a rock & roll songwriter. So I never tried to write rock & roll songs, ’cause I figured he had just done it. When I started writing songs, they had to be in a different mold. Because who wants to be a second-rate anybody? A new generation had come along, of which I was a part — the second generation of rock & roll people. To me, and to others like me, it was a way of life. It was an all-consuming way of life.
What was the rock scene like when you arrived in New York in the early Sixties?
What was happening was Joey Dee and the Starliters, which was, like, a twisting scene. There was a big twist craze. There were little pockets, I guess, all across the country where people were playin’ rock & roll music. But it was awfully difficult. I knew some guys that played in the Village, and to make some extra money they would play in midtown clubs like the Metropole, which used to be a burlesque house on Seventh Avenue. Those were pretty funky places. You could play for six hours and make ten dollars, and there’d be some girl stripping all that time. Pretty degrading gig. But economics being what they are, you got to make some kinda money to exist with electric instruments. That’s what got me out of it, actually. It was just too hard.
So you opted for folk music.
Folk music creates its own audience. Because you can take a guitar anywhere, anytime. Most of the places we played in the early days were all parties — house parties, rent parties. Any kind of reason to go play someplace and we’d be there.
Were you surprised by the public reaction to your early songs, or by your eventual mass acceptance?
Not really. ‘Cause I paid my dues. It didn’t happen overnight, you know. I came up one step at a time. And I knew when I’d come up with somethin’ good. For instance, “Song to Woody,” on my first record: I knew that no one had ever written anything like that before.
Still, given your unique style of writing and singing, you did seem an unlikely candidate for stardom on the pop scene in the mid-Sixties.
Well, I wasn’t tryin’ to get onto the radio. I wasn’t singin’ for Tin Pan Alley. I’d given up on all that stuff. I was downtown, you know? I wanted to make records, but I thought the furthest I could go was to make a folk music record. It surprised the hell out of me when I was signed at Columbia Records. I was more surprised than anybody. But I never let that stop me [laughs].
Did you ever feel that you had tapped into the Zeitgeist in some special sort of way?
With the songs that I came up with?
As I look back on it now, I am surprised that I came up with so many of them. At the time it seemed like a natural thing to do. Now I can look back and see that I must have written those songs “in the spirit,” you know? Like “Desolation Row” — I was just thinkin’ about that the other night. There’s no logical way that you can arrive at lyrics like that. I don’t know how it was done.
It just came to you?
It just came out through me.
By the time of “Desolation Row”, in 1965, you had gone electric and had been more or less drummed out of the purist folk movement. Was that a painful experience?
No. I looked at that as an opportunity to get back into what I had been into a long time ago and to take it someplace further. Folk-music circles were very cold, anyway. Everybody was pretty strict and severe in their attitudes; it was kind of a stuffy scene. It didn’t bother me that people didn’t understand what I was doing, because I had been doing it long before they were around. And I knew, when I was doin’ that stuff, that that hadn’t been done before, either. Because I’d known all the stuff that had gone down before. I knew what the Beatles were doin’, and that seemed to be real pop stuff. The Stones were doing blues things — just hard city blues. The Beach Boys, of course, were doin’ stuff that I didn’t think had ever been done before, either. But I also knew that I was doing stuff that hadn’t ever been done before.
Did you have more of a drive to write back then? More of a drive to make it?
Well, yeah, you had all those feelings that had been bottled up for twenty-some years, and then you got ’em all out. And once they’re out, then you gotta start up again.
Do you still get inspired the same way these days?
I don’t know. It’s been a while since, uh . . . What moves you to write is something that you care about deeply. You also have to have the time to write. You have to have the isolation to write. And the more demands that are put on you, the harder it is. I mean, it seems like everybody wants a piece of your time at a certain point. There was a time when nobody cared, and that was one of the most productive times, when nobody gave a shit who I was.
Life gets complex as the years go by.
Yeah. You get older; you start having to get more family oriented. You start having hopes for other people rather than for yourself. But I don’t have nothin’ to complain about. I did it, you know? I did what I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it.
A lot of fans would say that the Band, which was backing you up in the mid-Sixties, was the greatest group you ever had. Would you agree?
Well, there were different things I liked about every band I had. I liked the Street Legal band a lot. I thought it was a real tight sound. Usually it’s the drummer and the bass player that make the band.
The Band had their own sound, that’s for sure. When they were playin’ behind me, they weren’t the Band; they were called Levon and the Hawks. What came out on record as the Band — it was like night and day. Robbie [Robertson] started playing that real pinched, squeezed guitar sound — he had never played like that before in his life. They could cover songs great. They used to do Motown songs, and that, to me, is when I think of them as being at their best. Even more so than “King Harvest” and “The Weight” and all of that. When I think of them, I think of them singin’ somethin’ like “Baby Don’t You Do It,” covering Marvin Gaye and that kind of thing. Those were the golden days of the Band, even more so than when they played behind me.
What were some of the most memorable shows you guys did together?
Oh, man, I don’t know. Just about every single one. Every night was like goin’ for broke, like the end of the world.
It’s funny, the music business was small back then, primitive. But the music that came out of it was really affecting. Now the business is enormous, yet it seems to have no real effect on anything. What do you think was lost back there along the way?
The truth of it all was covered up, buried, under the onslaught of money and that wolfish attitude — exploitation. Now it seems like the thing to do is exploit everything, you know?
A lot of people are happy to be exploited.
They stand in line.
Have you ever been approached to do a shoe ad or anything?
Oh, yeah! They’d like to use my tunes for different beer companies and perfumes and automobiles. I get approached on all that stuff. But, shit, I didn’t write them for that reason. That’s never been my scene.
Do you still listen to the artists you started out with?
The stuff that I grew up on never grows old. I was just fortunate enough to get it and understand it at that early age, and it still rings true for me. I’d still rather listen to Bill and Charlie Monroe than any current record. That’s what America’s all about to me. I mean, they don’t have to make any more new records — there’s enough old ones, you know? I went in a record store a couple of weeks ago — I wouldn’t know what to buy. There’s so many kinds of records out.
And CDs too.
CDs too. I don’t know. I’ve heard CDs. I don’t particularly think they sound a whole lot better than a record. Personally, I don’t believe in separation of sound, anyway. I like to hear it all blended together.
The Phil Spector approach.
Well, the live approach. The world could use a new Phil Spector record, that’s for sure. I’d like to hear him do Prince.
Do you think Prince is talented?
Prince? Yeah, he’s a boy wonder.
Lately he’s seemed to be a little trapped inside of it all.
Well, there must be a giant inside there just raving to get out. I mean, he certainly don’t lack talent, that’s for sure.
Who are some of the greatest live performers you’ve ever seen?
I like Charles Aznavour a lot. I saw him in sixty-something, at Carnegie Hall, and he just blew my brains out. I went there with somebody who was French, not knowing what I was getting myself into.
Howlin’ Wolf, to me, was the greatest live act, because he did not have to move a finger when he performed — if that’s what you’d call it, “performing.” I don’t like people that jump around. When people think about Elvis moving around — he didn’t jump around. He moved with grace.
Mick Jagger seems to jump around onstage a bit too much, don’t you think?
I love Mick Jagger. I mean, I go back a long ways with him, and I always wish him the best. But to see him jumping around like he does — I don’t give a shit in what age, from Altamont to RFK Stadium — you don’t have to do that, man. It’s still hipper and cooler to be Ray Charles, sittin’ at the piano, not movin’ shit. And still getting across, you know? Pushing rhythm and soul across. It’s got nothin’ to do with jumping around. I mean, what could it possibly have to do with jumping around?
I don’t know. Showbiz — well, I don’t dig it. I don’t go to see someone jump around. I hate to see chicks perform. Hate it.
Because they whore themselves. Especially the ones that don’t wear anything. They fuckin’ whore themselves.
Even someone like Joni Mitchell?
Well, no. But, then, Joni Mitchell is almost like a man [laughs]. I mean, I love Joni, too. But Joni’s got a strange sense of rhythm that’s all her own, and she lives on that timetable. Joni Mitchell is in her own world all by herself, so she has a right to keep any rhythm she wants. She’s allowed to tell you what time it is.
Well, what about Chrissie Hynde?
Chrissie Hynde’s a rock & roll singer who really should go back and study some country music. She should go deeply into the heart of that stuff and then come back out. Because Chrissie Hynde is a good rhythm-guitar player. That’s all you gotta be is a rhythm-guitar player and singer, and she writes good, and she’s got good thoughts. She knows what’s right and wrong.
So you’re not saying women shouldn’t be performers, are you?
No, absolutely not, man.
Do you see any bands of merit on the scene today? What about U2? They’re friends of yours, aren’t they?
Yeah, U2 will probably be around years from now. John Cougar Mellencamp, he’ll be around as long as anybody will be. Sure, there’s people. But, you know, as time goes on, it gets just a little more diluted . . . In many ways, what’s happening now in music is very corrupting. Especially European rock & roll — it’s so weird. It all comes out of what America did, but it’s so far from the early guys, like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. That was so pure, you know? But what’s become of it? It’s become degraded . . . Like, I like U2 a lot, but, well, U2 are actually pretty original. But they’re Irish; they’re Celtic — they’ve got that thing goin’. You’ve gotta get away from America in order to make anything stick. America will just bombard you with too much shit. You have to make a conscious attempt to stay away from all the garbage. Whereas in the past, I don’t remember ever having to make a conscious attempt to stay away from anything. You could just walk away, you know? Now, you walk away, it gets you no matter where you are.
Do you think there’s any point today in people getting together — the way they did in the Sixties — to try to change things?
Well, people are still strivin’ to do good. But they have to overcome the evil impulse. And as long as they’re tryin’ to do that, things can keep lookin’ up. But there’s so much evil. It spreads wider and wider, and it causes more and more confusion. In every area. It takes your breath away.
Because so many of the things that were scorned in the Sixties, like living your life just to make money, are accepted now?
Yeah. But it isn’t really accepted. Maybe in America it is, but that’s why America’s gonna go down, you know? It’s just gonna go down. It just can’t exist. You can’t just keep rippin’ things off. Like, there’s just a law that says you cannot keep rippin’ things off.
Have you ever considered moving to another country? Where would you feel more at home?
I’m comfortable wherever people don’t remind me of who I am. Anytime somebody reminds me of who I am, that kills it for me. If I wanted to wonder about who I am, I could start dissecting my own stuff. I don’t have to go on other people’s trips of who they think I am. A person doesn’t like to feel self-conscious, you know? Now, Little Richard says if you don’t want your picture taken, you got no business being a star. And he’s right, he’s absolutely right. But I don’t like my picture being taken by people I don’t know.
But you are a star . . .
Yeah, well, I guess so. But, uh . . . I feel like I’m a star, but I can shine for who I want to shine for. You know what I mean?
This is a story from the November 5, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.