Bob Dylan: The Rolling Stone Interview

January 26, 1978 -- Excerpts

Where were you in December 1977? Jonathan Cott was in Los Angeles for an interview with Bob Dylan that ran in Rolling Stone magazine, January 26, 1978.

The interview is a period piece; Bob is pushing Renaldo and Clara -- not explaining it too much, but mostly agreeing with what Cott proposes, putting him on at times; Cott is wearing his new age erudition on his sleeve. I've gone through the interview culling gems, such as they are. Jumps in the text are indicated by ***s. Hope someone finds it of interest.


Cott: We were driving down Sunset Boulevard -- Christmastime in LA -- looking for a place to eat, when Bob Dylan noticed Santa Claus, surrounded by hundreds of stuffed, Day-Glo animals, standing and soliciting on the street. "Santa Claus in the desert," he comments disconcertedly, "it really brings you down."

A few minutes later, we passed a billboard which showed a photo of George Burns pointing to a new album by John Denver and praising it to the skies. "Did you see that movie they appeared in together?" Dylan asked me. "I sort of like George Burns. What was he playing?"

"I saw it on the plane coming out here. He played God," I said.

"That's a helluva role," Dylan replied.

"Mystery is an essential element in any work of art," says the director Luis Bunuel in a recent New Yorker [December 5, 1977] profile by Penelope Gilliatt. "It's usually lacking in film, which should be the most mysterious of all. Most filmmakers are careful not to perturb us by opening the windows of the screen onto their world of poetry. Cinema is a marvellous weapon when it is handled by a free spirit. Of all the means of expression, it is the one that is most like the human imagination. What's the good of it if it apes everything conformist and sentimental in us? It's a curious thing that film can create such moments of compressed ritual. The raising of the everyday to the dramatic."

"Who Are You, Bob Dylan?" was the headline in the French newspaper read by Jean- Pierre Leaud in Jean-Luc Godard's "Masculin-Feminin".

From the Interview:

BD: [re R&C] It isn't just about bus stations and cabarets and stage music and identity -- those are elements of it. but it _is_ mostly about identity -- about eveybody's identity. More important, it's about Renaldo's identity, so we superimpose our own vision on Renaldo: it's his vision and it's his dream....All right, then it goes right to David Blue, who's playing pinball and who seems to be the narrator. He's Renaldo's narrator, he's Renaldo's scribe -- he belongs to Renaldo.

JC: Yet David Blue talks not about Renaldo but about Bob Dylan and how he, David Blue, first met Dylan in Greenwich Village in the late Fifties.

BD: They seem to be the same person after a while. It's something you can only feel but never really know. Any more than you can know whether Willie Sutton pulled all those bank jobs. Any more than you can know who killed Kennedy for sure.

And right away, David Blue says: "Well, what happened was that when I first left my parents' house, I bought "The Myth of Sisyphus." Now, that wasn't really the book, but it was pretty close. It was actually -- so he tells us -- "Existentialism and Human Emotions". So that's it: this film is a postexistentialist movie. We're in the postexistentialist period. What is it? That's what it is.

JC: What could be more existentialist than playing pinball? It's the perfect existentialist game.

BD: It is. I've seen rows and rows of pinball players lined up like ducks. It's a great equalizer.

JC: What about the emotions in "Existentialism and Human Emotions"?

BD: Human emotions are the great dictator -- in this movie as in all movies --I'll tell you what I think of the emotions later.

BD: In the film, the mask is more important than the face.

BD: It ["Just Like a Woman"] was a frightening song, but that feeling needs to be eliminated.

JC: I was thinking of what looked like a Yiddish cabaret filled with older women listening intently to Allen Ginsberg reading passages from "Kaddish," his great elegy to his mother.

BD: Those women are strong in the sense that they know their own identity. It's only the layer of what we're going to reveal in the next film, because women are exploited like anyone else. They're victims just like coal miners....later on I'm looking at the gravestone marked HUSBAND; Ginsberg asks: "Is that going to happen to you?" And I say: "I want an unmarked grave." But of course I'm saying this as Renaldo.

JC: In "Tarantula" you wrote your own epitaph:

          Here lies bob dylan
          killed by a discarded Oedipus
          who turned
          to investigate a ghost
          and discovered that
          the ghost too was more than one person.

BD: Yeah, way back then I was thinking of this film. I've had this picture in mind for a long time -- years and years. Too many years ....Renaldo is oppressed. He's oppressed because he's born. We don't really know who Renaldo is. We just know what he isn't. He isn't the Masked Tortilla. Renaldo is the one with the hat, but he's not wearing a hat. I'll tell you what this movie is: it's like life exactly, but not an imitation of it. It transcends life, and it's not like's about naked alienation of the inner self against the outer self -- alienation taken to the extreme. And it's about integrity. My next film is about obsession. The hero is an arsonist ... but he's not really a hero.

BD: We talked about emotions before. You can't be a slave to your emotions. If you're a slave to your emotions you're dependent on your emotions, and you're only dealing with your conscious mind. But the film is about the fact that you have to be faithful to your subconsciousness, unconscious, superconscious -- as well as to your conscious. Integrity is a facet of honesty. It has to do with knowing yourself.

JC: At the end of the film, Renaldo is with two women in a room (the Woman in White played by Joan Baez and Clara played by Sara Dylan), and he says: "Evasiveness is only in the mind -- truth is on many levels...ask me anything and I'll tell you the truth." Clara and the Woman in White both ask him: "Do you love _her_?" as they point to each other -- not, "Do you love me?"

BD: Possessiveness. It was a self-focused kind of question. And earlier, one of the women in the whorehouse talks about the ego-protection cords she wears around her neck. Do you remember that?...In the scene you mentioned, did you notice that Renaldo was looking at the newspaper which had an article on Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in it? Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at this point are an illusion. It wasn't planned that way. Joan Baez without Bob Dylan isn't too much of an illusion because she's an independent woman and her independence asserts itself. But Joan Baez with Bob Dylan _is_....

JC: And what about the moment when Joan Baez, looking at Clara, says: "Who is this woman?" and you cut to you singing "Sara"? Talk about art and life!

BD: It's as far as you can take it -- meaning personally and generally. Who is this woman? Obviously, this woman is a figment of the material world. Who is this woman who has no name? Who is this woman, she says...who is this woman, as if she's talking about herself. Who this woman is told to you, earlier on, when you see her coming out of the church carrying a rope. You know she means business, you know she has a purpose....

Sara Dylan is here working as Sara Dylan....If she couldn't have played the role of Clara, she wouldn't have done it.

JC: Some people will obviously think that this film either broke up your marriage or is a kind of incantation to make your marriage come back together.

BD: Either of those statements I can't relate to. It has nothing to do with the breakup of my marriage. My marriage is over. I'm divorced. This film is a film.

JC: Why did you make yourself so vulnerable?

BD: You must be vulnerable to be sensitive to reality. And to me being vulnerable is just another way of saying that one has nothing more to lose. I don't have anything but darkness to lose. I'm way beyond that. The worst thing that could happen is that the film will be accepted and that the next one will be compared unfavourably to this one.

JC: On one level, the film is about the Stations of the Cross, isn't it?

BD: Yeah, you're right, like the double vision having to be killed twice. Like why does Jesus really die?

JC: Spiritually or politically?

BD: Realistically...Because he's a healer. Jesus is a healer. So he goes to India, finds out how to be a healer and becomes one. But see, I believe that he overstepped his duties a little bit. He accepted and took on the bad karma of all the people he healed. And he was filled with so much bad karma that the only way out was to burn him up. In my film, we're looking at masks a lot of the time. And then when the dream becomes so solidified that it has to be taken to the stage of reality, then you'll see stone, you'll see a statue -- which is even a further extension of the mask: the statue of Mary in front of the statue of Jesus on the cross in the Crucifix Grotto.

BD: Renaldo & Clara there's no guilt. But that's why people will take offense at it, if they are offended by it in any way, because of the lack of guilt in the movie.

BD: For some reason I've just thought of my favourite singer.

JC: Who is that?

BD: Om Kalsoum -- the Egyptian woman who died a few years ago. She was my favourite.

JC: What did you like about her?

BD: It was her heart.

JC: Do you like dervish and Sufi singing, by the way?

BD: Yeah, that's where my singing really comes from...except that I sing in America. I've heard too much Leadbelly really to be too much influenced by the whirling dervishes.

JC: Now that we somehow got onto this subject, who else do you like right now? New Wave groups?

BD: No. I'm not interested in them. I think Alice Cooper is an overlooked songwriter. I like Ry Cooder. And I like Dave Mason's version of something which is on the jukebox right now.

JC: Rock & roll isn't rock & roll anymore.

BD: You're right, there's no more rock & roll. It's an imitation, we can forget about that. Rock & roll has turned itself inside out. I never did do rock & roll. I'm just doing the same old thing I've always done.

JC: You've never sung a rock & roll song?

BD: No, I never have, only in spirit.

JC: You can't really dance to one of your songs.

BD: I couldn't.

JC: Imagine dancing to "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35". It's kind of alienating. Everyone thought it was about being stoned, but I always thought it was about being all alone.

BD: So did I. You could write about that for years...Rock & roll ended with Phil Spector. The Beatles weren't rock & roll either. Nor the Rolling Stones. Rock & roll ended with Little Anthony and the Imperials. Pure rock & roll.

JC: What do you think about the Seventies?

BD: The Seventies I see as a period of reconstruction after the Sixties, that's all. That's why people say: well, it's boring, nothing's really happening, and that's because wounds are healing. By the Eighties, anyone who's going to be doing anything will have his or her cards showing. You won't be able to get back in the game in the Eighties.

JC: I wanted to read to you two Hasidic texts that somehow remind me of your work. The first says that in the service of God, one can learn three things from a child and seven from a thief. "From a child you can learn 1) always to be happy; 2) never to sit idle; and 3) to cry for everything one wants. From a thief you should learn: 1) to work at night; 2) if one cannot gain what one wants in one night to try again the next night; 3) to love one's coworkers just as thieves love each other; 4) to be willing to risk one's life even for a little thing; 5) not to attach too much value to things even though one has risked one's life for them -- just as a thief will resell a stolen article for a fraction of its real value; 6) to withstand all kinds of beatings and tortures but to remain what you are; and 7) to believe that your work is worthwhile and not be willing to change it.

BD: Who wrote that?

JC: Don Baer, the Mazid of Mezeritch.

BD: That's the most mind-blazing chronicle of human behaviour I think I've ever heard....There's a man I would follow.

JC: Another Hasidic rabbi once said that you can learn something from everything. Even from a train, a telephone and a telegram. From a train, he said, you can learn that in one second one can miss everything. From a telephone you can learn that what you say over here can be heard over there. And from a telegram that all words are counted and charged.

BD: It's a cosmic statement. Where do you get all of these rabbis' sayings? Those guys are really wise. I tell you, I've heard gurus and yogis and philosophers and politicians and doctors and lawyers, teachers of all kinds ... and these rabbis really had something going.

JC: They're like Sufis, but they speak and teach with more emotion.

BD: As I said before, I don't believe in emotion. They use their hearts, their hearts don't use them.

JC: Do you watch what you say?

BD: I always try to watch what I say because I try not to say anything I don't mean.

JC: Maybe Renaldo has that problem at the end of your movie?

BD: No. Renaldo's on top of it, he's on top of circumstance. He's not going to say too much because he knows he doesn't know too much. Now me, obviously I'm talking and saying things, and I _will_ talk and say things, but that's because I think I'm going to mean them ... or feel I _mean_ them now. I'm not just talking to hear myself....

I know this film is too long. It may be four hours too long -- I don't care. To me, it's not long enough. I'm not concerned how long something is. I want to see a set shot. I _feel_ a set shot. I don't feel all this motion and boom-boom. We can fast cut when we want, but the poser comes in the ability to have faith that it is a meaningful shot. You know who understood this? Andy Warhol. Warhol did a lot for American cinema. He was before his time. but Warhol and Hitchcock and Peckinpah and Tod Browning ... they were important to me. I figured Godard had the accessibility to make what he made, he broke new ground. I never saw any film like "Breathless", but once you saw it, you said: "Yeah, man, why didn't I do that, I could have done that." Okay, he did it, but he couldn't have done it in America.

JC: But what about a film like Sam Fuller's "Forty Guns" or Joseph Lewis' "Gun Crazy"?

BD: Yeah, I just heard Fuller's name the other day. I think American film makers are the best. But I also like Kurosawa, and my favourite director is Bunuel; it doesn't surprise me that he'd say those amazing things you quoted to me before from the New Yorker.

I don't know what to tell you. In one way I don't consider myself a film maker at all. In another way I do. To me. Renaldo & Clara is my first real film. I don't know who will like it. I made it for a specific bunch of people and myself, and that's all. That's how I wrote "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times they are a Changin" -- they were written for a certain crowd of people and for certain artists, too. Who knew they were going to be big songs?

JC: How come you didn't sell out and just make a commercial film?

BD: I don't have any cinematic vision to sell out. It's all for me so I can't sell out. I'm not working for anybody. What was there to sell out?

JC: Well, movies like "Welcome to LA" and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" are moralistic exploitation films -- and many people nowadays think that they're significant statements. You could have sold out to the vision of the times.

BD: Right. I have my point of view and my vision, and nothing tampers with it because it's all that I've got. I don't have anything to sell out.

JC: I should have asked you this before, but how much of the film is improvised and how much determined beforehand?

BD: About a third is improvised, about a third is determined, and about a third is blind luck.

JC: Hitchcock puts himself into each of his films -- once. You put yourself in hundreds of places and times!

BD: [laughing]. I've tried to learn a lack of fear from Hitchcock.

JC: Did John Cassavetes' movies influence you at all...?

BD: Not, not at all. But I think it all comes from the same place. I'm probably interested in the same things Cassavetes is interested in.

JC: What are those?

BD: Timing, for example, and the struggle to break down complexity into simplicity.

JC: Timing of relationships?

BD: The relationships of human reason. It's all a matter of timing. The movie creates and holds the time. That's what it should do -- it should hold that time, breathe in that time and stop time in doing that. I's like if you look at a painting by Cezanne, you get lost in that painting for that period of time. And you breathe -- yet time is going by and you wouldn't know it, you're spell-bound.

JC: you told me that you plan to make twelve more films, but I gather you're not giving up on songwriting and touring.

BD: I have to get back to playing music because unless I do, I don't really feel alive. I don't feel I can be a filmmaker all the time. I have to play in front of the people in order just to keep going.

JC: Why have you been able to keep so in touch with your anger throughout the years, as recorded in songs like "Can you Please Crawl Out your Window?" and "Positively 4th Street"?

BD: Will power. With strength of will you can do anything. With will power you can determine your destiny.

JC: Can you really know where your destiny is leading you?

BD: Yeah, when you're on top of your game...Anger and sentimentality go right next to each other, and they're both superficial. chagall made a lot of sentimental paintings. And Voltaire wrote a lot of angry books.

JC: What is "Idiot Wind"?

BD: It's a little bit of both because it uses all the textures of strict philosophy, but basically it's a shattered philosophy that doesn't have a title, and it's driven across with will power. Will power is what you're responding to.

JC: In your film you show a bearded poet in Hasidic garb who speaks in an Irish brogue and carries a gun. He tells us that he doesn't care about being fast but about being accurate. Is that how you feel now?

BD: Yeah. Everyone admires the poet, no matter if he's a lumberjack or a football player or a car thief. If he's a poet he'll be admired and respected....

JC: Rimbaud's grave doesn't even mention the fact that he was a poet, but rather that he was an adventurer.

BD: Exactly. but I don't try to adopt or imitate Rimbaud in my work. I'm not interested in imitation.

JC: What's real to you? Art?

BD: Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?

J: What are your new songs like?

BD: My new songs are new for me, and they accomplish what I wanted to accomplish when I started thinking about them. Very seldom do you finish something and then abandon it, and very seldom do you abandon something with the attitude that you've gotten what you started out to get. Usually you think, well, it's too big, you get wasted along the way someplace, and it just trails off... and what you've got is what you've got and you just do the best with it. But very seldom do you ever come out with what you put in. And I think I've done that now for the first time since I was writing two songs a day way back when. My experience with film helped me in writing the songs. I probably wouldn't have written any more songs if I hadn't made this film. I would have been bummed out, I wouldn't have been able to do what I knew could be done.

J: Who understands "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"?

BD: I do ...It's strange. I finally feel in the position of someone who people want to interview enough that they'll fly you into town, put you up in a hotel, pay all your expenses and give you a tour of the city. I'm finally in that position.

I once went to see the king of the Gypsies in southern France. This guy had twelve wives and 100 children. He was in the antique business and had a junkyard, but he'd had a heart attack before I'd come to see him. All his wives and children had left. And the gypsy clan had left him with only one wife and a couple of kids and a dog. What happens is that after he dies they'll all come back. They smell death and they leave. That's what happens in life. and I was very affected by seeing that.

J: Did you feel something like that in the past five years?

BD: Your'e talking about 1973? I don't even remember 1973. I'm talking about the spring of 1975. There was a lack of targets at that time. But I don't remember what happened last week.

J: But you probably remember your childhood clearly.

BD: My childhood is so far's like I don't even remember being a child. I think it was someone else who was a child. Did you ever think like that? I'm not sure that what happened to me yesterday was true.

J: But you seem sure of yourself.

BD: I'm sure of my dream self. I live in my dreams. I don't really live in the actual world.

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