Interviewer: Margaret Steen
Interview Date: November 15 or 16, 1965 Publication: The Toronto Star Weekly
Publication Date: January 29, 1966
Not Bob Dylan! The anguished folkniks would've believed it of
anyone else but not of him. Bob Dylan is, for the uninitiated, a
mopheaded throaty-voiced 24-year-old folk singer-poet-composer.
But not an ordinary folk singer. From 1961 when his melodious
'Blowing in the Wind' asked some important, unanswerable questions
about the world and first gained him mass recognition, his visionary
lyrics to guitar have made him the spokesman for a whole restless,
Unlike most musical idols of the young, his ability to handle folk and blues idioms had established him as a major - an original! - talent with even the most highbrow, purist critics; his image-filled verses had won the respect of serious poets. To his fans Bob Dylan means the ultimate in far-out , the untouchable, the incorruptible, the uncompromising - the man who sees through the Image Makers and the Mass Market and the Big Sell.
But what was this at Toronto's Massy Hall? Bob Dylan to an electric music band - boom boom, deafening, cacophony! I mean, you have to call it rock and roll. Bob Dylan, how could you do this to us?
Bob Dylan stares at the cigaret butt he is jamming into an already crowded ashtray, looks resigned but amused.
"A lot of people don't dig it, or say they don't dig it, or tell people not to dig it." (His speaking voice is musical, rises and falls constantly, phrases intensely.) "It don't matter.
"It's easy for people to classify it as rock and roll, to put it down. Rock and roll is a straight 12-bar blues progression. My new songs aren't. I used to play rock and roll a long time ago, before I even started playing old-fashioned folk, 10 years ago when I was a kid for God's sake....
"Nowadays the music industry is totally different. You know who the rock and roll singers were 10 years ago - Fabian, Ricky Nelson, Bobby Rydell. Rock and roll singers now are a different kind of people; they make the old people look sick."
He picks up a Toronto Daily Star folded to a review of his Massey Hall concert the night before. He doesn't usually read much that's written about him, but one of the fellows in the band showed him this one line that really got him; The reviewer said Bob Dylan who once prefaced a song with the announcement that it "wasn't written in Tin Pan Alley, where most of the folk songs come from these days - it was written down in the United States," now belongs to Tin Pan Alley.
"Tin Pan Alley! I know that scene. Fat guys chewing cigars and carrying around gold records, and selling songs, selling talent, selling an image. I never hung out there'neither did anyone else who is big now. The singers 10 years ago were kids but the old guys ran things; now the people actually in control are younger - the managers, the record company-bosses, kids, in their 20's. Man, these old guys have no idea, they've been left behind and by the time they figure it out they'll be so old it won't matter. Then the pace was slower, you could sell a 'talent'; now you can't do that, the industry is too big, exposure too great, you can't manufacture an image because sooner or later that image is gonna have to talk"
He runs down like a record when you switch it off without removing the needle, averts his face, embarrassed at having gone on so long. For he is the exception to what he's just said; he doesn't talk.
"Like I write, I don't have to talk," he says with a grin when I catch him up on this; and he means it. These days with the Beatles loving press conferences, tossing out one-liners that make great copy, exposing their witty, whimsical selves like verbal pin-ups, Bob Dylan is really unique.
He says he doesn't like giving interviews, doesn't like talking to the press and he really means it. Take this concert tour he's dong with Levon and the Hawks, the Toronto electric-music group he's adopted. If you were a reporter in one of the Canadian or U.S. cities they played, you pestered an entourage of road managers, personal managers, press managers - all kids! in their 20's - and kept getting the polite response, "I'll talk to him and let you know, but I don't think there's much chance. He doesn't like interviews."
He's ill at ease in this interview, one of the few lengthy ones he's ever given. He's sitting beside me on a couch, dressed in an outrageous navy blue shirt with white polka dots and huge billowing sleeves (looking just as he does in pictures, the mop of hair, everything! only more graceful) and somehow making his standard hotel room in Toronto's swanky Inn on the Park seem a world away from the gray flannel conventioneers roaming around the lobby below. He fidgets constantly, keeps twisting his legs up under him and stretching them out again, pushing cigaret butts around the ashtray, sitting bolt upright and slouching back down. I sort of want to reassure him, to quote from his own song.
I ain't lookin' to compete with you, Beat or cheat or mistreat you, Simplify you, classify you, Deny, defy or crucify you. All I really want to do Is Baby, be friends with you.
But that would be pretty silly so we keep talking about the New Sound, which has put Dylan records on top of the teen charts in addition to all the high-class prestige symbols he's accumulated; and which is making some purists shriek, "Rock and roll! Sell-out!" and others shriek "Marvellous!" On the concert tour he does the first half of the show by himself, with guitar and harmonica, the social-comment songs that first won him renown and - mostly - the more recent love songs. But then he brings on Levon and the Hawks with their array of electric guitars, electric Fender bass, electric organ and piano and drums. Dylan plays an electric guitar himself! And they do the New Sound. The words are as brilliant, surrealistic, meaningful as ever. But it's harder to hear them. And quite a few folkniks have been booing their one-time idol.
"If they like it or don't like it, that's their business," Bob Dylan tells me gently. "You can't tell people what to do at a concert. Anyway, paying out $4 for a ticket to come and boo - is anyone groovy gonna do that anyway? Four years ago I used to sing in Village coffee houses, 50 people and they were packed, fire inspectors all over the place, you know? Then I knew my real fans. Now, these concerts, I don't know them, I don't know why they're there' I don't know what they think about when they go away."
To Bob Dylan the idea of pinning a "folk idiom" and therefore "all right" label on his old songs is as absurd as calling his new songs rock or folk-rock, a distortion of an old form and thus "commercial! a sell-out!" He says, "It's all music' nothing more, nothing less." He has no prejudices about music; when he was learning, he soaked up every influence - early Elvis Presley as well as the folkniks's darling, Woody Gutherie, who is said to have had the greatest influence on his work. He is constantly experimenting - and how can you call one experiment more "commercial" than the other? He made as much money on his folk albums as he does on his rock singles, and as for the money "that's something I haven't come to terms with yet" anyway. He literally has no idea how much he earns (though associates say it was well over $250,000 last year); he's incorporated so he won't be taxed too brutally, but he leaves all that to business managers, and except for the private plane which taxis him from one concert stand to the next, his life is luxury-less in the conventional "star" sense.
When he first came to the Village from the town of Hibbing, Minnesota, 60 miles from the Ontario border, where he grew up, he did real old-fashioned folk songs -- you know, written by the people. Then he said, "I can't do this. I don't care how pure the song is, or how great its tradition - it don't mean anything to me, today." So he started singing about stuff that means something to him, today - 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' about the 1962 Cuban missle crisis; 'Oxford Town' about the ordeal of James Meredith, the first Negro to enroll in the University of Mississippi; 'Blowing in the Wind' of course - and developed the modern protest song which now, three years later, has spawned scores of imitators, ("the children of Bobby Dylan," Life magazine called them recently) and has become the thing in popular music.
But though his words are new he was still writingin old musical forms - and why was this any less artificial than singing dated lyrics? I mean the way-out electronic Space Age sound was the natural next step - electric music is what's happening today, it's sheer 20th-century.
"Before," he says of his first protest songs, leaning forward with one of his rare stares right at me, "every song had to have a specific point behind it, a person, a thing. I would squeeze a shapeless concept into this artificial shape, like, like...."
Like 'With God on Our Side, his ironic commentary of three years ago on how people justify fighting, which ends with the lines:
The words fill my head And fall to the floor, If God's on our side He'll stop the next war.
"Yeah! Yeah! Like that one," says Dylan, excited that I'm catching on to what he means. "It's a good song, I'm not putting it down; but this thing I wanted to say, I had to jam it into a very timed, rigid stylized pattern.
"Now!....Well for one thing, the music, the rhyming and rhythm, what I call the mathematics of a song, are more second-nature to me. I used to have to go after a song, seek it out. But now, instead of going to it I stay where I am and let everything disappear and the song rushes to me. Not just the music, the words, too. Those old songs I used to write, everyone is imitating them now. What I'm doing now you can't learn by studing, you can't copy it, someone else can't say he's writing a song 'like that'."
This is true. Lyrics like this from 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' get the message across all right, but not in a lecture - in a rush of feelings.
Ah get born, keep warm Short pants, romance, learn to dance Get dressed, get blessed Try to be a success.
It's the same with the love songs. Take the girl of whom he sings:
You will start out standing Proud to steal her anything she sees But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole Down upon your knees.
Is she a real girl? He smiles enigmatically. "She's a lot of real girls. You know girls like that, don't you?" And, of course, you do, but you would never have thought of describing her quite that way. In an age when love song lyrics must be either terribly flippant and rhyme-y, or else sheer gibberish, Dylan's evocative imagery may make him the 1960's answer to the romantic poets of the past.
There is silence for a few moments while I think of some of the more intriguing lines from his songs. What, I asked him did he mean by:
Ah, but I was much older then, I'm younger than that now.
"My God, did I write that line?" He smiles. "I was in my New Youk phase then, or at least, I was just coming out of it. I was still keeping the things that are really really real out of my songs, for fear they'd be misunderstood. Now," with another smile, "I don't care if they are."
Like, he had all the answers, then. If we can get rid of the Bomb nobody will fight any more. If we integrate the schools every one will love one another. It was so simple, he as so much older then.
"No, I'm not disillusioned. I'm just not illusioned, either. The civil rights and protest songs, I wrote when nobody else was writing them. Now everyone is. But I've found out some things. The groups promoting these things, the movement, would try to get me involved with them, be their singing spokesman - and inside these groups, with all their president vice-president secretary stuff, it's politics, all politics. Inside their own pettinesses they're as bad as the hate groups. I won't even have a fan club because it'd have to have a president, it'd be a group."
He's wound up now, veering off toward something else that he feels very strongly about.
"They think the more people you have behind something the more influence it has. Maybe so, but the more it gets watered down, too. I'm not a believer in doing things by numbers. I believe that the best things get done by individuals.
"Back when I used to play in the rock and roll bands I used to get in these hang-ups on the group, the lowest common denominator. I knew I couldn't make it that way. So I discovered folk, and sang by myself"
But now he's back to playing with a group again.....
"Yes but we play my songs."
As always when he works himself up to a pitch about something he's
saying, his mood breaks visibly, and he sinks down into his seat
with a look of resignation, trying to expand a bit more but not
really interested: "It's different now, there aren't the same
Again, it's like a line fom one of his songs:
There's no success like failure and...failure's no success at all
But what does it really mean? He smiles that faraway, enigmatic smile again "When you've tried to write this story about me if you're any good you'll feel you've failed. But when you've tried and failed, and tried and failed - then you'll have something.
"Look." He's sitting up again, intense, eyes bright. "If I met you in a bar somewhere, or even at a party, I could tell you more, we could talk better, I know it. But you're a reporter, you're here for your interview - and where will it all get either of us? Nothing will happen. You're not even writing this story under your own conditions. And how much can you say? How much room would you have to say it in, even if you could say it?
"Look. I'm sorry. I know you couldn't get everything, but you did get something didn't you?"
Yes Oh, yes, and thanks. I know he doesn't like talking to reporters, and I really appreciate it....
He is saying goodbye, across a great gulf, already weighing the experience that isn't quite over yet, probably deciding it was useless but weighing it just the same, face blank, but eyes giving him away, the mind behind them whirring away like crazy. I can understand how he could say, as he did earlier when I asked him about material for songs, "Why man, just with the experiences I've experienced already, I could never step outside this room again and still write songs until the end of time."
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