"I'm not going to write a fantasy song. Even a song like 'Mr. Tambourine
Man' really isn't a fantasy. There's substance to the dream."
In November of 1985 Columbia Records threw a party for Bob Dylan at New
York's Whitney Museum. Banks of video screens were illuminated with images
of the Ages of Dylan. There was the scrawny protest poet who wrote
"Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a Changin'," the wild-haired
rock & roll legend who screamed "How does it *feel*?" and "Everybody must get
stoned," and all the other Dylans: the pastoral daddy of "Lay Lady Lay" and
"Knockin' on Heaven's Door," the anguished gypsy of "Blood on the Tracks"
and the Rolling Thunder Revue, the righteous evangelist of "Slow Train
Coming" and "Neighborhood Bully." That week the newspapers were running
front page stories about the release from prison of Rubin "Hurricane"
Carter, the boxer whose cause Dylan had championed a decade earlier, and
whose murder conviction had finally been overturned. Carter's claim to
fame in most of the articles was that he was the subject of a Bob Dylan
Downstairs, circling around Dylan himself were old folkies (Judy Collins,
Arlo Guthrie, Roger McGuinn), the first wave of punk (Lou Reed, John Cale,
Iggy Pop), literate British rockers (Pete Townshend, David Bowie, Ian
Hunter), American traveling bands (the Band, the E Street Band), and all
manner of New Yorkers - Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel,
Yoko Ono, the Talking Heads - whose art grew out of the lower Manhattan
bohemia that Dylan brought into the center of American consciousness.
There were older legends, too, such as Roy Orbison and John Hammond, Sr.,
and Jerry Wexler. "Every one of us here," Ian Hunter said, "owes Dylan
thanks for something."
A gaggle of television reporters buttonholed guests at the door and asked
about Bob Dylan's significance. No one had an adequate answer. I said
that Dylan refused to accept any limits on rock & roll and thus showed
everyone else that the form could expand to include all sorts of ideas.
Billy Joel said that Dylan was at least the greatest American songwriter,
The next afternoon I was with Pete Townshend. He joked about the futility
of trying to offer a concise explanation of Dylan's significance. "They
asked what effect Bob Dylan had on me," he said. "That's like asking how I
was influenced by being born."
Joni Mitchell put it this way: "When I heard Bob Dylan sing, 'You got a
lotta nerve,' I thought, 'Hallelujah, man, the American pop song has grown
up. It's wide open. Now you can write about anything that literature can
write about.' Up until that time rock & roll songs were pretty much
limited to, 'I'm a fool for ya, baby,'" It would be a mistake to claim
that Dylan had completely overcome the prejudice that some advocates of the
separation of "high" from "low" art still have against anything that rides
into town on the back of rock & roll. There are still some critics and
academics who claim that Dylan's lyric talent was not as extraordinary as
has been alleged; that his greatest gifts were self-promotion and good
fortune. These holdouts are fighting a losing battle. For while they roll
their eyes and groan that Dylan is, after all, just a rock singer, Dylan's
praises are sung by those he's inspired who have themselves triumphed in
arts accepted by the old guard. If Dylan is not a great artist then
playwrights such as Sam Shephard, filmmakers such as Scorsese, poets such
as Allen Ginsberg, actors such as De Niro are not capable of recognizing
great art. Sometime between Jimmy Carter's quoting of the "great American
poet" at the 1976 Democratic Convention and Dylan's trip to Moscow's
International Poetry Festival in 1985 (he represented the United States, at
the invitation of Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko), most of those who *just
don't get it* shut up and sat down.
When we spoke, Dylan, whose musical style owed a great deal to country and
folk singers such as Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, and the Stanley
Brothers, traced his poetic roots to the Black bluesmen who crossed paths
with Willie Dixon and inspired Chuck Berry. "Those blues guys from the
thirties and forties," Dylan said, "just used two-line couplets. You can't
say things any better than that really. You can say it in a different way,
you can say it with more words, but you can't say anything better than what
they said. And they covered everything."
Recalling his own early days in New York he said, "All these black guys
would come up from south of the border and recite poetry in the park. Now
they'd call them rappers. The best was a guy named Big Brown who had long
poems. Each one was about fifteen minutes long. They were long, drawn-out
badmen stories. Romance, politics, just about everything you could imagine
was thrown into his stuff. He came out of Texas, I think, and he was in
jail a lot. I always thought that was the best poetry I ever heard.
Streetwise poetry. There were quite a few of those guys around in the
sixties. I heard them at Mardi Gras, too. They were just brilliant
The following interview took place in New York in March 1985. Hearing that
Dylan was mixing what would become his "Empire Burlesque" album in
Manhattan, I left a letter for him explaining about this book. I got a
message a couple of days later that Dylan would be happy to talk to me. I
expected perhaps an hour of his time and prepared for Dylan's historic
reluctance to explain his work. To my delight I found Dylan warm,
cooperative, and as talkative as anyone I've interviewed. Dylan expressed
enthusiasm for the idea of a book of interviews with songwriters and
amazement that no one had done it before.
He asked about different songwriters I'd interviewed, and when I mentioned
Lou Reed, Dylan talked about Reed's "Doin' the Things That We Want To" and
its reference to Sam Shephard's play "Fool For Love." He said that Reed's
song had inspired Dylan and Shephard to write a sort of response - which
emerged in 1986 as "Brownsville Girl." Dylan said that just as Reed's song
opened with the narrator at the play, the Shephard/Dylan song would open
with the narrator at the movie. Maybe what's most surprising about Bob
Dylan is that once you connect with his vision, everything he says makes
After a couple of hours of intense conversation I'd exhausted my questions.
I switched off the tape recorder and thanked my host for his generosity.
Dylan kept talking, and soon I was turning the recorder back on to catch
In "Tangled Up In Blue" Dylan wrote, "She opened up a book of poems and
handed it to me / Written by an Italian poet in the fifteenth [sic] century
/ And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin' coal /
Pourin' off of every page like it was written in my soul."
Posterity is a contrary old bitch, but if she remembers any rock & roller
to future generations, it will probably be Bob Dylan.
In "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight" (Infidels) you wrote, "It's like I'm
stuck inside a painting that's hanging in the Louvre." In "I And I"
(Infidels) you said, "If she wakes up now she'll just want me to talk / And
I got nothin' to say, 'specially about whatever was." People come to you
with so much expectation, do you have a hard time finding people who can
relate to you normally?
No, not really. I don't know how other people write their songs. I write
them lots of different ways. Once they get put into a perspective, they
all fall into the same dimension. But they really come out of different
dimensions. Sometimes you'll write a song where you'll just stick with it
and get it done. You'll feel that it's not coming from anyplace, but it's
for you to do. There's nothing to base it on. You're in an area where
there isn't anybody there and never was. So you just have to be real
sensitive to where you're walking at the time. Not try to go one way or
the other, just stay balanced and finish it. "Every Grain of Sand" is a
song like that. Writing that song was like, "This is something that I'm
going to have to stay steady with." Otherwise it could get out of hand.
You must keep it balanced. And there's no footnotes around. It's the kind
of an area where there's no precedent for it.
A lot of times you'll just hear things and you'll know that these are the
things that you want to put in your song. Whether you say them or not.
They don't have to be your particular thoughts. They just sound good, and
*somebody* thinks them. Half my stuff falls along those lines. *Somebody*
thinks them. I'm sure, when I'm singing something, that I'm not just
singing it to sing it. I know that I've read it. Somebody's said it.
I've heard a voice say that. A song like "Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight"
sort of falls into that category: "I'll take you to a mountaintop and build
you a house out of stainless steel." That kind of stuff just passes by. A
guy's getting out of bed saying don't talk to me; it's leaving time. I
didn't originate those kinds of thoughts. I've felt them, but I didn't
originate them. They're out there, so I just use them.
Are there thoughts that go by that you resist writing about?
Everything I've written about I can relate to. There's a lot of stuff I
hear that I wouldn't write about, because it don't mean anything to me. You
hear people talk every day, and most of it goes in one ear and doesn't even
come out. Or it goes in then out the other. Bill Monroe once said he got
his best thinking done when people were talking to him. I always liked
that. Not a whole lot of real thought goes into this stuff. It's more or
less remembering things and taking it down. Sometimes you're just taking
notes on stuff and then putting it all together. Sometimes it's just the
opposite. A lot of people ask, "What comes first, the words or melody?" I
thought about that. It's very rare that they don't come together.
Sometimes the words come first, sometimes the melody comes first, but
that's the exception. Most of the time the words and melody come at the
same time, usually with the first line. With me it's usually the first
line. I know Bob Seger writes from hooks and titles. A lot of people do
that. They come up with a line that sums up everything and then they have
to go backwards and figure out how to fill it in. With me I usually start
right at the beginning and then wonder where it's going. I sometimes fill
in the middle and the end at some other time, but I don't usually work
What do you mean when you say that with something like "Every Grain of
Sand," you have to be careful to not let it get out of hand?
You're not *conscious* of it. In a song like that, there's no consciousness
of any of this stuff having been said before. "What's this like?" Well,
it's not like anything. "What does it represent?" Well, you don't even
know. All you know is that it's a mood piece, and you try to hold onto the
mood and finish. Or not even finish, but just get it to a place where you
can let it go. Because those kinds of things you'll never finish if you
don't do them all at one period of time. I've done a lot of stuff where I
said, "I'll finish it next week." Well, next week never comes. And then
you go back and look at the stuff and say, "Wow, this is great." but you
can't get connected to it again.
The saddest thing about songwriting is when you get something really good
and you put it down for a while, and you take for granted that you'll be
able to get back to it with whatever inspired you to do it in the first
place - well, whatever inspired you to do it in the first place is never
there anymore. So then you've got to consciously stir up the inspiration
to figure what it was about. Usually you get one good part and one not-so-
good part, and the not-so-good wipes out the good part.
Would you ever sit on something for months or years, waiting until you
could connect to it again?
No, I don't have any expectations, if I'm putting something down, that
it'll be something great if only I can get back to it. I keep it in front
of me for a while, and if I don't have it done by a certain time... I'll go
back and it'll still be there, but I won't be able to relate to it.
"Mr. Tambourine Man" can be interpreted a hundred ways, but it could be
about a specific real thing: wanting to keep going when you've been out all
night and everyone else has gone home, and the only other person left awake
is some guy standing on the corner banging a tambourine. Do all your songs
have a literal reality to you?
Well, songs are just thoughts. For the moment they stop time. Songs are
supposed to be heroic enough to give the illusion of stopping time. With
just that thought. To hear a song is to hear someone's thought, no matter
what they're describing. If you see something and you think it's important
enough to describe, then that's your thought. You only think one thought
at a time, so what you come up with is really what you're given. When you
sit around and *imagine* things to do and to write and to think - that's
fantasy. I've never been much into that. Anybody can fantasize. Little
kids can, old people can, everybody's got the right to their own fantasies.
But that's all they are. Fantasies. They're not *dreams*. A dream has
more substance to it than a fantasy. Because fantasies are usually based
on nothing, they're based on what's thrown into your imagination. But I
usually have to have proof that something exists before I even want to
bother to deal with it at all. It must exist, it must have happened, or the
possibility of it happening must have some meaning for me.
I'm not going to write a fantasy song. Even a song like "Mr. Tambourine
Man" really isn't a fantasy. There's substance to the dream. Because
you've seen it, you know? In order to have a dream, there's something in
front of you. You have to have seen something or have heard something for
you to dream it. It becomes *your* dream then. Whereas a fantasy is just
your imagination wandering around. I don't really look at my stuff like
that. It's happened, it's been said, I've heard it: I have proof of it.
I'm a messenger. I get it. It comes to me so I give it back in my
That's what I mean about songs having a literal reality: the images aren't
Right. It does have a literal reality. I don't think it could stand up if
it didn't. Because other people can identify with it, and they know if
it's true or not.
You've changed the lyrics to "Tangled Up in Blue" since you first recorded
it on "Blood on the Tracks".
That was a peculiar record. I always wanted it to be the way I recorded it
on "Real Live", but there was no particular reason for it to be that way,
because I'd already made the record. That was another one of those things
where I was trying to do something that I didn't think had ever been done
before. In terms of trying to tell a story and be a present character in
it without it being some kind of fake, sappy attempted tearjerker. I was
trying to be somebody in the present time while conjuring up a lot of past
images. I was trying to do it in a conscious way. I used to be able to do
it in an unconscious way, but I wasn't into it that way anymore. That
particular song was built like that, and it was always open to be cut
better. But I had no particular reason to do it because I'd already made
the record. However, there's a version we used to do on stage with just
electric guitar and a saxophone - keeping the same lyrics, thinking that
maybe if I did that to it it would bring it out in an emotional way. But
it didn't hold up very well that way. So I changed the lyrics, to bring it
up to date. But I didn't just change it 'cause I was singing it one night
and thought, "Oh, I'm bored with the old words." The old ones were never
quite filled in. I rewrote it in a hotel room somewhere. I think it was
Amsterdam. I wanted to sing that song so I looked at it again, and I
changed it. When I sang it the next night I knew it was right. It was
right enough so that I wanted to put it down and wipe the old one out.
That was another of those songs where you're writing and you've got it, you
know what it's about, but half of it you just don't get the way you wanted
to. Then I fixed it up, and now I know it's where it should be. I think
it makes a big difference, too.
One immediate difference is that it's no longer clear if it's only one guy
telling the story. It now starts off in the second person, and goes into
the first person when he meets the woman in the bar. The earlier section
is now isolated, and the events it described may have happened to someone
Yeah, exactly. See, what I was trying to do had nothing to do with the
characters or what was going on. I was trying to do something that I don't
know if I was prepared to do. I wanted to defy time, so that the story
took place in the present and past at the same time. When you look at a
painting, you can see any part of it or see all of it together. I wanted
that song to be like a painting.
Have you ever put something in a song that was too personal? Ever had it
come out and then said, "Hmm, gave away too much of myself there"?
I came pretty close with that song "Idiot Wind." That was a song I wanted
to make as a painting. A lot of people thought that song, that album
"Blood on the Tracks", pertained to me. Because it seemed to at the time.
It didn't pertain to me. It was just a concept of putting in images that
defy time - yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all
connect in some kind of a strange way. I've read that that album had to do
with my divorce. Well, I didn't get divorced till four years after that.
I thought I might have gone a little bit too far with "Idiot Wind." I
might have changed some of it. I didn't really think I was giving away too
much; I thought that it *seemed* so personal that people would think it was
about so-and-so who was close to me. It wasn't. But you can put all these
words together and that's where it falls. You can't help where it falls.
I didn't feel that one was too personal, but I felt it *seemed* too
personal. Which might be the same thing, I don't know. But it never was
*painful*. 'Cause usually with those kinds of things, if you think you're
too close to something, you're giving away too much of your feelings, well,
your feelings are going to change a month later and you're going to look
back and say, "What did I do that for?"
But for all the power of "Idiot Wind," there's part of it that always
cracked me up. You talk about being accused of shooting a man, running off
with his wife, she inherits a million bucks, she dies, and the money goes
to you. Then you say, "I can't help it if I'm lucky." (Laughter.)
Yeah, right. With that particular set-up in the front I thought I could
say *anything* after that. If it did seem personal I probably made it
overly so - because I said too much in the front and still made it come out
like, "Well, so what?" I didn't really think it was too personal. I've
never really said anything where I thought I was giving away too much. I
mean, I give it all away, but I'm not really giving away any secrets. I
don't have that many secrets. I don't find myself in that position.
What about "Ballad in Plain D" [an early song in which Dylan described, in
painful detail, his breakup with Susan Rotolo]?
Oh! Yeah. That one... That one I look back and I say, "I must have been a
real schmuck to write that." I look back at that particular one and say,
of all the songs I've written, maybe I could have left that alone. But if
that's the only one I look back and say maybe I shouldn't have written, I
think that's a pretty good record. That's maybe five hundred to one.
Now, you *had* temporarily split with your wife before "Blood on the
Tracks". That album must be at least somewhat about that.
Yeah. Somewhat about that. But I'm not going to make an album and lean on
a marriage relationship. There's no way I would do that, any more than I
would write an album about some lawyers' battles that I had. There are
certain subjects that don't interest me to exploit. And I wouldn't really
exploit a relationship with somebody. Whereas in "Ballad in Plain D," I
did. Not knowing that I did it. At that time my audience was very small.
It overtook my mind so I wrote it. Maybe I shouldn't have used that. I
had other songs at the time. It was based on an old folk song. But I know
what you mean. If you're going through some relationship and it's not
working out well and that's the way you feel, no matter what else you see
or what else you do you keep getting back to that: "Oh, I feel lousy." So
you try to take it out and write a song about it. A lot of people can't do
that. They have nobody to sing it to. So a person in my position says,
"Well, I got this available information, this is the way I really feel; I
think I'll write it and say how I feel." I don't do that. I don't like
feeling those kinds of feelings. I've got to think I can do better than
that. It's not going to positively help anybody to hear about my sadness.
Just another hard luck story.
In Nikos Kazantzakis's "Report to Greco", he wrote that, like every man,
as his life drew to a close he had to drag the cross he had made up his own
Calvary - and that the work a man leaves behind on that ascent is just the
blood on the tracks. Did you read that, or was that just a cosmic
Must have been, I hadn't read that. All the words have been used; it's
just how we put them together. And even that - though we might think we've
come up with something super, fantastic, I think if you look in the right
place you'll find somebody else has done it.
"Blood on the Tracks" was such a powerful work that it's amazing that you
followed it with an album, "Desire", on which you collaborated with a
second lyricist, Jacques Levy. Why didn't you try to sustain what you'd
tapped into with "Blood on the Tracks?" Why not try to keep it going?
I guess I never intended to keep that going. It was an experiment that
came off. I had a few weeks in the summer when I wrote the songs. I wrote
all the songs for "Blood on the tracks" in about a month and then I
recorded them and stepped back out of that place where I was when I wrote
them and went back to whatever I was doing before. Sometimes you'll get
what you can out of these things, but you can't stay there. Cowriter.
That was probably an album where I didn't have anything and I wasn't even
thinking about making a record. I think I ran into Jacques downtown and we
went off and just wrote some songs. The people from the Hurricane Carter
movement kept calling me and writing me. And Hurricane sent me his book,
which I read and which really touched me. I felt that the man was just
innocent, from his writings and knowing that part of the country. So I
went to visit him and was really behind him, trying to get a new trial. So
that was one of the things I brought to Jacques, too. I said, "Why don't
you help me write this song and see if we can do something?" So we wrote
"Hurricane," and then we just wrote a bunch of others. An album came out
Have you been in touch with Hurricane Carter recently?
No, I haven't seen him since the seventies. He got re-incriminated or
whatever. I heard a lot of stories, good and bad, about what really
happened. It just got a little out of hand, a little too complicated. But
as I understand, he was set up again. They knew what buttons to push [note:
Shortly after this conversation, Hurricane Carter's conviction was
Anything you've ever tried to write about and been unable to do?
Yeah. *Anything* I try to write about, I can't do it. If I try to write
*about* something - "I want to write about horses" or "I want to write
about Central Park" or "I want to write about the Cocaine industry" - I
can't get anywhere with that. I have to always take it out. It's like
that "Hurricane" song. I wanted to write a song about Hurricane Carter, I
wanted to spread the message. It really doesn't come out about Hurricane.
Really, the essence of it is never what it's about. It's really about you.
Unless you're standing in somebody else's shoes you just don't know what it
feels like. You don't know what it's about.
You can go to a movie and say, "What's this about?" A movie is something
that gives the illusion of stopping time. You go someplace and you sit
there for a while. You're looking at something. You're trapped. It's all
happening in your brain and it seems like nothing else is going on in the
world. Time has stopped. The world could be coming to an end outside, but
for you time has stopped. Then someone says, "What was it about?" "Well,
I don't know. It was about two guys who were after the same girl." Or,
"It was about the Russian Revolution." Well, yeah, that was what it was
about, but that wasn't *it*. That's not what made you stay there and stare
at the screen, at a light on the wall. In another way you could say,
"What's life about?" It's just going by like a movie all the time. It
doesn't matter if you're here for a hundred years, it still goes by. You
can't stop it. So you can't say what it's about. But what you can do is
try to give the illusion of the moment of it. And even that's not what
it's about. That's just proof that you existed. What's anything about?
It's not about anything. It is what it is.
Jackson Browne said that he thought "Every Breath You Take" was kind of
unfair to the woman to whom it was directed, 'cause the song is told so
powerfully from Sting's point of view and it's so inescapable.
Oh, I don't think so. That was a good song. Sort of reminds me of "Stand
By Me." You can take any side you want. You don't have to tell the other
person's side. There's no law that says you have to do that. I think he
said whatever he had to say in that song pretty bluntly and right to the
point. He didn't try to make it cute or clever or anything. He did it and
was gone. I think that was a really good song.
Do you think it's appropriate to write in the voice of a killer, as Bruce
Springsteen did in "Nebraska?"
I'm not too familiar with that particular song of Bruce's. But it's not
inappropriate to put yourself in somebody else's place. That's a quite
common thing to do. Folksingers used to do that all the time, and I've
done a bit of that, too. "House of the Rising Sun" is written from a
woman's point of view, and up until Eric Burdon did it, men used to sing it
from a woman's point of view. That was something that you just did. If
you go back and listen to the Stanley Brothers or the Country Gentlemen or
Jim and Jesse, any of the bluegrass groups, there's quite a few songs where
they put themselves into the first person. I've done that myself. I've
written songs from the first person. I haven't recorded too many of them,
but I have done it. That's legitimate.
Sure. What I'm wondering about is, once you get in that person, once you
give that person a voice, do you have a moral responsibility not to give
voice to evil, not to say, "Why'd I kill all these people? I guess
there's just a meanness in this world?"
Is that what "Nebraska" says?
I don't know. I don't know why you give a voice to one person and not
another. But everybody's got a voice and there's *somebody* who can get
inside of everybody and be their lawyer. Why not write a song for the guy
who killed all the people at the McDonald's out in San Diego? I'm sure
he's got a voice, too. And if he talked from the grave I'm sure he could
get a lot of people to feel sorry for him, to sympathize with him. It
depends on what your *cause* is. Is your cause to just go out and randomly
shoot people? Kinky Friedman, I think, wrote a song about the guy who went
up on the Texas tower and did that. But it's hard to tell. Usually you do
that if somebody's been given a bad rap and you sort of know it. But I
don't know what Bruce's intentions were. That song was about Charlie
Starkweather? Well, I grew up in the same area as Charlie Starkweather and
I remember that happening. That affected everybody out there. And
everybody pretty much kept their mouth shut about it. Because he did have
a sort of a James Dean quality to him. He was in the papers a lot. I must
have been about seventeen or eighteen when that happened. I don't recall
how most people felt about it. Nobody glorified him, though.
Did you see "Badlands", Terence Malick's movie about it?
Yeah, I love Martin Sheen, I think he's a fantastic actor. But that didn't
really remind me of Charlie Starkweather. I don't think it had anything
to do with Charlie Starkweather. I went through that period of time and I
remember it firsthand. I remember what the impact of that was. I don't
think there's any way you can elevate Charlie up above what he did or what
Mark Knopfler told me that you wrote a song called "Prison Guard" about a
complete skunk, and Mark took that song to be a sort of reaction to
Oh, yeah, Mark heard that song. (Smiles.) I did write a song like that but
I never recorded it. I didn't think I needed to record it. It was a
talking thing about this prison guard who's just sort of a rough character.
He doesn't mind throwing people off the fourth tier and busting anybody's
head in. And then it goes on to describe his family and his town. Then
when I got done I just thought it was pretty pathetic. The whole picture
was just too pathetic. I don't know what was in my mind when I was doing
But it wasn't inspired by or a takeoff on "Nebraska?"
Uhhh. I don't know what inspired it. No. It was more or less one of
these things where somebody in a uniform can get away with something that
somebody who's not wearing a uniform can't.
"Masters of War" is a very harsh song: "I'll stand o'er your grave 'til I'm
sure that you're dead." "Neighborhood Bully" is equally hard, yet a lot of
critics expressed surprise at its militancy. I don't understand why so
many people assume you're a pacifist. The critic Mark Rowland said you
were always more concerned with justice than politics.
(Laughs.) Yeah. I don't know why people choose to think whatever they
think. Is pacifism a philosophy? I'm not really sure what it is.
If someone strikes you, you turn the other cheek.
That's not pacifism, though. Turning the other cheek is an aggressive
move, actually. There is some strategy where if someone pushes on you, you
can go with their push and make their strength work against them.
Pacifism. I know I'm not comfortable with those words and I wonder if
other people are as comfortable with those broad terminologies like
*pacifism*, *rightism*, *leftism*, *militarism*, *republicanism*. In this
country a Republican is one thing: you can go to Ireland and say you're a
Republican you'll get a different reaction. You can use all these words
*here*. It's pretty safe to say anything you want to say. But whether
there's any meaning to it or not, I don't know. I don't comprehend those
terms simply because I don't think other people do. They talk about
humanism and secularism, everything's got an *ism*. Not that I'm so stupid
that I can't understand what they mean, but I don't think anybody else
knows what they mean. To be perfectly honest, I don't think people know
what they're talking about when they use all these words. They have no
idea what they're saying. It's like saying, "I saw a house yesterday." Oh
yeah, I saw one, too. But it probably wasn't the same one you saw. But I
hear that a lot. People seem to think they know all about me. Maybe they
don't. Maybe everything I've done has been one side of something. One
part. Certainly nothing that I've written defines me as a total person.
There's no one song that does that. Nothing I do really should surprise
anybody. It seems like I've been doing it for so long I can't remember
when I wasn't doing it. There's nothing I could say that isn't documented
somewhere in the past so you could think, "Yeah, he would say something
It's funny. When I was growing up people would always say, "Bob Dylan, oh,
he writes a lot of songs against the Viet Nam War" and I had all those
albums and I'd always say...
Which ones? (Laughs.)
Right, 'cause the songs they'd cite - like "Hard Rain" and "Blowin' in the
Wind" - all predated Viet Nam. "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" has that
very powerful image, "I dreamed I was amongst the ones that put him out to
death." It's human nature to point at other people. It's rare an artist
takes the position of saying, "We're all capable of being the villain."
Well, I don't mind taking that position. Because that's just a true
statement. We're all sinners. People seem to think that because their
sins are different from other people's sins, they're not sinners. People
don't like to think of themselves as sinners. It makes them feel
uncomfortable. "What do you mean sinner?" It puts them at a disadvantage
in their mind. Most people walking around have this strange conception
that they're born good, that they're really good people - but the *world*
has just made a mess of their lives. I had another point of view. But
it's not hard for me to identify with anybody who's on the wrong side.
We're all on the wrong side, really.
You integrate your faith into the songs more subtly than at the time of
"Slow Train Coming."
Now I'm just writing from instinct. I do that most of the time anyway. I
just write from instinct and however it comes out is how it comes out.
Other people can make of it what they choose to. But for me I can't
expound too much on what I'm doing because I really don't have any idea
what I'm doing. But I'll tell you one thing, if you're talking just on a
scriptural type of thing, there's no way I could write anything that would
be scripturally incorrect. I mean, I'm not going to put forth ideas that
aren't scripturally true. I might reverse them, or make them come out a
different way, but I'm not going to say anything that's just totally
*wrong*, that there's not a law for.
One of the nice things about "Sweetheart Like You" is that anyone brought
up with the Bible will hear that song one way, but the song will still work
on a different level for someone else.
Oh, I think so, yeah. Because the Bible runs through all U.S. life,
whether people know if or not. It's the founding book. The founding
fathers' book anyway. People can't get away from it. You can't get away
from it wherever you go. Those ideas were true then and they're true now.
They're scriptural, spiritual laws. I guess people can read into that what
they want. But if you're familiar with those concepts they'll probably
find enough of them in my stuff. Because I always get back to that.
Do people you know recognise themselves in your songs?
Oh, yeah, a lot of people do. They tell me they're so-and-so. They used
to anyway. "Einstein disguised as Robin Hood" would be in the hallway. A
lot of people would tell me they were this person or that person. Not so
much anymore. It used to be more common than it is now.
Did people sometimes get it right?
No. Not really. But a lot of people can identify with the feelings I have
and what I describe something as. I don't think it's anything more than
A reporter for "Time" magazine named Jones went around saying that he was
the inspiration for "Ballad of a Thin Man." He got some articles written
about him. I thought, "Geez, what a thing to brag about!"
Yeah, there were a lot of Mister Joneses at that time. There obviously
must have been a tremendous amount of them for me to write *that*
particular song. It wasn't just one person. It was like, "Oh, man, here's
the thousandth Mister Jones."
Let's talk about the mechanics of writing. Do you write on guitar or
piano, and does the music come into your head before you go to your
Yeah, a lot of times *riffs* will come into my head. And I'll transpose
them with the guitar or piano. A lot of times I'll wake up with a certain
riff, or it'll come to me during the day. I'll try to get that down, and
then lines will come from that. Or it could come on any instrument I can
play. Electric guitar is different from acoustic guitar. Banjo style is
really good, you can write good songs on the banjo. These are all real
instruments. Then they have all the technological instruments, these
little keyboard things. They give you all kinds of sounds. Those are -
sort of - okay.
You're not completely sold?
They sound real good, but I haven't been too successful at using any of
that stuff. But I write with a combination of instruments. My melodies
are usually very simple. They have to be simple. Otherwise I couldn't
remember them. If they were a little more complicated I couldn't remember
them. So they have to be simple. And that's really about it. And then I
write lines down. I have notes scribbled all over the place. Sometimes
I'll go out and say, "Whatever else I do today, I'm going to write down all
the lines that seem interesting to me. Either that I think of or that I
overhear." I'll try to stay committed to that for a certain period of
time. Because most of the time you don't do that. The stuff that goes
by, you think of and then say, "Okay, I thought about it. Big deal. Who
cares?" Or you'll hear something amusing and then forget that, too.
Sometimes I'll make an effort to just go out and get that stuff and see if
it means anything. And sometimes it does. I'll just put it somewhere and
then get back to it sometime. Usually if it has meaning for me, it's
important. There's a lot of great things you hear that aren't really that
relevant. That's really about it. There's no real complicated deep genius
quality to it.
That's easy for you to say, you've written all these great songs.
Well, I think it has more to do with instinct. There's nothing studied about
it. I think you just have to trust your own instinct.
You sang at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s march on Washington. Did you ever
No. I heard him speak but I never met him.
Did you know John Coltrane?
I've *seen* John Coltrane. Yeah. I watched him play. I've seen him, I've
seen Monk, Miles a lot, Horace Silver. I did some sessions once with Don
Cherry and Billy Higgins. I really don't know what happened to that stuff.
There were a lot of jazz guys around in the coffeehouse scene in the
Village. The folk music and jazz clubs and poetry were all kind of the
same thing back then. I used to see those guys a lot. What they had that
I picked up on in my singing - I can hardly even call myself a *singer* -
was a sense of phrasing and dynamics.
I heard Bill Cosby say one night that when he was starting out as a comic
in the Village he'd walk back and forth across the street and hear you
playing in one club and John Coltrane in another. Were you conscious of
how much ground was being broken?
No. Nobody was really conscious of what was happening. But there were a
lot of different people on the street. I remember when Bill Cosby came to
town. He used to work at the club I worked at. He was a stand-up comedian
then. He was just another one of the guys, another entertainer. He got
work a little faster than most people, I think, but I'd already started
playing. I used to eat with Bill all the time.
You're famous for going into the studio and recording very quickly to catch
the moment. But a couple of your recent albums, "Slow Train" and
"Infidels", were more labored over.
See, when I started to record they just turned the microphones on and you
recorded. That was the way they did it back in the sixties. Whatever you
got on one side of the glass was what came in on the controls on the other
side of the glass. It was never any problem. What you did out front was
what you got on the tape. And it always happened that way. Whether you
played by yourself or played with a band didn't really matter - there'd be
leakage and that stuff, but you were pretty much guaranteed that whatever
you did on that side of the glass was going to be perceived in the same
kind of way. That was never any problem. So what happened to me was, I
kept working that way through the seventies. I didn't realize things had
changed! (Laughs.) I really didn't. I don't think I knew you could do an
overdub until 1978. I just didn't think about it. Maybe I was *so*
outside of it that I hadn't realized that. The problem is, you can't
record that way anymore. If you go into a studio now, the technology is so
different that you might have a live sound that you want and you'll put
that live sound down, but it won't sound that way on the other side of the
glass. So then you have to contrive the sound to make it sound the way you
really want. In other words, if you want to sound a certain way, whatever
that way is, it'll never happen in the studio.
There's a kind of an outdated thing called "live excitement in the studio."
It doesn't happen anymore, because people don't record that way. A lot of
people put things down one track at a time. Things are so advanced that
you'll be able to *phone* in your parts pretty soon. Anyway, the problem
with it is that no matter what you do, it's not going to come out that way
anyway. People try. Some people use a certain studio because it used to
have a certain sound. But they might have changed all the equipment in the
place, so it's not going to have that sound anymore. I like the old sound,
but it's done. It's never going to come back. So you just have to deal
with what the modern way is.
A lot of my records have been made because it's - quote - time to make a
record. "When's your new record going to be delivered?" "Oh, next month."
Time for me to go in and make a record. I never used to think about it
during the year. I had other things to do. Some of the seventies records
were made on just one block of time. "This month I'm going to block all
this time out, write the songs, record the songs, mix 'em, press 'em, get a
cover together, and it's all out in a month or two." It took me a long
time to get off that particular style. I didn't really enjoy it that way.
Sometimes I've never done the songs before - I'll just write 'em and put
'em somewhere. Then when I'm making a record I'll need some songs, and
I'll start digging through my pockets and drawers trying to find these
songs. Then I'll bring one out and I've never sung it before, sometimes I
can't even remember the melody to it, and I'll get it in. Sometimes great
things happen, sometimes not-so-great things happen. But regardless of
what happens, when I do it in the studio it's the first time I've ever done
it. I'm pretty much unfamiliar with it.
In the past what's come out is what I've usually stuck with, whether it
really knocked me out or not. For no apparent reason. I've stuck with it,
just from lack of commitment to taking the trouble to really get it right.
I didn't want to record that way anymore. Now I'm recording more than I
used to record. About two years ago I decided to get serious about it and
just record. Because I do need records out and I do have deadlines and
commitments. It's been a big struggle to come up with them at certain
times. So rather than do that, what I do now is just record all the time.
Sometimes nothing comes out and other times I get a lot of stuff that I
keep. I recorded this album ["Empire Burlesque"] for a long time. I just
put down the songs that I felt as I wanted to put them down. Then I'd
listen and decide if I liked them. And if I didn't like them I'd either
re-record them or change something about them. I wanted to be the first
one to judge it rather than put them out there to the people and have them
Does the producer make a big difference?
I produce my own records, really. I don't even know what a producer does.
Producers usually get in the way. They're fine for picking you up at the
airport and making sure all the bills are paid at your hotel. If they're
really good producers, they'll find songs for you to sing that really make
sense for you. But the producers I have aren't even really like producers.
They make a record sound right, but I haven't run into any that know any
more about what I'm doing than I do.
You've mentioned a couple of times how much you value conciseness but
you're more responsible than anyone for breaking out of tight, structured
Yeah. Well, I come out of that folk music/rock & roll structure. So
that's the only kind of structure I really deal with. I don't consider
myself a pop songwriter like Burt Bacharach/Hal David, even Lionel Richie.
I think you have to be too relaxed a person, you have to have too much
patience (laughs) to do that sort of thing. But I don't know what I've
done. I usually think of myself as last. When I think of songwriters I
don't really think of myself. I think of other people. I know I'm doing
it, too. But it gives me more of a kick to see somebody else do it. I
*need* to do it. Like that Jonathan Richman. I get a kick out of that.
I'd rather listen to that. Whereas my stuff, I need to do it, I have to do
it, I'm inside it all the time. So I've got a get *out* of it. When I
hear my old stuff I just think of how badly it was recorded.
Has there ever been a time when you didn't want to write, to perform?
There've been periods when we didn't hear from you.
I've tried to get away from it, but I never could. It's all I've ever
done, really. I'm still hearing stuff that was made in the fifties and the
sixties that maybe I heard once and forgot about or maybe I never heard.
Do you ever think maybe you'd like not to be tuned into it all the time,
not receiving? Maybe the muse could give you a break?
No. That would scare me. I wouldn't know what else to do. I would be