Special thanks to Sandy Ramer
Bob Dylan--whose songs so powerfully express a generation's conflicts--talks about his life and his music
By Neil Hickey
"My being a Gemini explains a lot, I think," Bob Dylan is saying.
"It forces me to extremes. I'm never really balanced in the middle.
I go from one side to the other without staying in either place
very long. I'm happy, sad, up, down, in, out, up in the sky and
down in the depths of the earth. I can't tell you how Bob Dylan
has lived his life. And it's far from over."
Outside the auto's air-conditioned shell, the Malibu coastline of California, baking in 95-degree heat, is slipping past. Dylan observes the bathers idly. "I'm not reallay very articulate. I save what I have to say for what I do."
What Bob Dylan does is write songs and perform them. Over the last 15 years, since he was 20, he has created a body of work unique among American artists: songs of such power and pertinence that they stand as a definition of the country and the man in those years: songs of rage over inhumanity; songs of inexpressible love, bitter vindictiveness and ribald joy; songs of spiritual longing, confusion and affirmation; songs in such extraordinary numbers that it often seemed miraculous that a largely self-educated youth--son of a Jewish furniture dealer from the Mesabi iron range of northern Minnesota--could have created them all: "Blowin' in the Wind" (an anthem of the 1960s civil-rights movement), "Like a Rollin' Stone" (one of the greatest rock songs ever written), "Masters of War," "With God on Our Side," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." He has been, in sum, the single biggest cultural influence on millions in his own generation. He has taken American music by the hand into uncharted regions.
Dylan turns from consideration of the bathers, smothers a grin,
and says: "Somebody called me the Ed Sullivan of rock and roll."
Indeed, Dylan is both master and star of his own troupe, the so-called Rolling Thunder Revue, a company of strolling players who recently completed a 50-concert tour--one performance of which was taped at Colorado State University and will be visible on NBC Tuesday night (Sept. 14): Bob Dylan's first TV special, "Hard Rain."
Rarely interviewed (the last full-fledged one was seven years ago) and rarely seen publicly or privately over long periods, Dylan has chosen to be one of the least accessible figures in the entertainment world. Born in Duluth, Minn., he grew up in nearby Hibbing and migrated early to New York's Greenwich Village, where he acquired a recording contract and became a major concert star.
After a motorcycle accident in Woodstock, N.Y., in July 1966, in which he almost died (indeed, rumors of his death were persistent), he remained in virtual seclusion for several years. In late 1969 he appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival of Music--his first paid concert in four years--and 200,000 people from Great Britain, the European continent, Canada and the U.S. showed up to hear him. Since then, he has toured the U.S. several times and issued a series of highly successful albums.
"I don't really talk about what I do," Bob Dylan is saying. "I just try to be poetically and musically straight. I think of myself as more than a musician, more than a poet. The real self is something other than that. Writing and performing is what I do in this life and in this country. But I could be happy being a blacksmith. I would still write and sing. I can't imagine not doing that. You do what you're geared for."
This year, along the Presidential campaign trail, Jimmy Carter has been quoting Dylan in many of his stump speeches, and even in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. "I don't know what to think about that. People have told me there was a man running for President and quoting me. I don't know if that's good or bad." He laughs broadly. "But he's just another guy running for President.
"I sometimes dream of running the country and putting all my friends in office." He grins at the thought. "That's the way it works now, anyway. I'd like to see Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and a few of those other guys come back. If they did, I'd go out and vote. They knew what was happening."
Sports cars bearing upturned surfboards stream along Pacific Coast Highway in the noon sun. "Over there," says Dylan, pointing to a roadside cafe rimmed with tables and benches. "There's a place to stop." Striding toward the cafe in a bent-kneed lope, Dylan--wearing jeans, sandals, a thin, frayed, black leather jacket and white burnoose swathing longish brown curls--resembles a hip shepherd from some Biblical Brigadoon. Settled with a beer, he fixes pale blue eyes on his companion and reflects on the press and its treatment of him. "The press has always misrepresented me. They refuse to accept what I am and what I do.
"They always sensationalize and blow things up. I let them write whatever they want as long as I don't have to talk to them. They can see me any time--doing what I do. It's best to keep your mouth shut and do your work. It makes me feel better to write one song than talk to a thousand journalists."
He rarely watches television, he says, including news. "I'm not influenced by it. I don't feel that to live in this country you have to watch TV news." How does he absorb the world's information before processing it into the topical songs that are so substantial a part of his work? "You learn from talking to other people. You have to know how people feel, and you don't get that from television news." (In 1963, when Dylan was a skyrocketing young folk balladeer, Ed Sullivan invited him to appear on his show and Dylan accepted. He'd sing a new composition of his own called "Talkin' John Birch Society Blues," Dylan told Sullivan--a satire on the right-wing political group. Sullivan liked the song and scheduled it, but CBS censors refused to let Dylan perform it. Dylan refused to alter his choice of material and angrily chose not to appear on the show. Since then, he has consistently declined offers of network television, except for two brief appearances: one on ABC's old Johnny Cash Show--out of friendship for Cash; another on a recent PBS tribute to Columbia Records executive John Hammond, who gave him his first recording contract.)
What does he read? He laughs. "You don't want to know that. It would sound stupid." Still, the on-screen credits for this week's TV special carry "thanks" to (among others) Arthur Rimbaud, the French symbolist, mystical poet; and to American novelist Herman Melville.
"Yes. Rimbaud has been a big influence on me. When I'm on the road and want to read something that makes sense to me, I go to a bookstore and read his words. Melville is somebody I can identify with because of how he looked at life. I also like Joseph Conrad a lot, and I've loved what I've read of James Joyce. Allen Ginsberg is always a great inspiration."
Dylan visited Israel in 1971, an event that triggered talk among Dylan experts that Judaic tradition was about to become an overt aspect of his art. "There was no great signficance to that visit," he insists. But, he says: "I'm interested in the fact that Jews are Semites, like Babylonians, Hittites, Arabs, Syrians, Ethiopians. But a Jew is different because a lot of people hate Jews. There's something going on here that's hard to explain."
Many of Dylan's songs abound in religious mystical images: the album "John Wesley Harding" for example ("the first biblical rock album," he calls it, and the first to be released after his motorcycle accident), contains songs based almost entirely on stories and symbols from the Bible.
"There's a mystic in all of us," he says. "It's part of our nature. Some of us are shown more than others. Or maybe we're all shown the same things, but some make more use of it."
How does Bob Dylan imagine God? He laughts abruptly, and then says, "How come nobody ever asks Kris Kristofferson questions like that?" After a pause, he says, "I can see God in a daisy. I can see God at night in the wind and rain. I see creation just about everywhere. The highest form of song is prayer. King David's, Solomon's, the wailing of a coyote, the rumble of the earth. It must be wonderful to be God. There's so much going on out there that you can't get to it all. It would take longer than forever.
"You're talking to somebody who doesn't comprehend the values most people operate under. Greed and lust I can understand, but I can't understand the values of definition and confinement. Definition destroys. Besides, there's nothing definite in this world."
He sips at his beer and asks solicitously, "Want to go and sit on the beach for a while?" We return to the car and, Dylan driving, roll slowly northward.
Dylan reminisces about Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and its role as the spawning ground for the great "folk boom" that swept the Nation in those years. One reason he had traveled there was to track down Woody Guthrie, the folk poet and balladeer who was Dylan's idol. The village's cafes and coffeehouses were home to scores of guitar-playing folkniks whose music was filtering out to the marketplace. The enormously popular Newport Folk Festivals, ABC's overslick TV series Hootenanny and hundreds of record albums by folk-style performers all fed the public's new appetite for simple, homemade music. (The folk boom ended, effectively, when the Beatles took the U.S. by storm in 1964, and when Dylan himself turned to the use of electrified instruments at about the same time.)
"There was a lot of space to be born in then," Dylan is saying. "The media were onto other things. You could develop whatever creative interests you had without having to deal with categories and definitions. It lasted about three years. There's just as much going on now, but it's not centrally located like it was then."
A few skeptics have suggested that Dylan wrote his so-called protest songs in the 1960s because his finely attuned commercial antennae told him there was a market for them. He denies it. "I wrote them because that's what I was in the middle of. It swept me up. I felt `Blowin' in the Wind.' When Joan [Baez] and I sing it [as they do on the TV special], it's like an old folk song to me. It never occurs to me that I'm the person who wrote that.
"The bunch of us who came through that time probably have a better sense about today's music. A lot of people in the '70s don't know how all this music got here. They think Elton John appeared overnight. But the '50s and '60s were a high-energy period."
And how did the Beatles fit into all this? Dylan wags his head earnestly.
"America should put up statues to the Beatles. They helped give this country's pride back to it. They used all the music we'd been listening to-- everything from Little Richard to the Everly Brothers. A lot of barriers broke down, but we didn't see it at the time because it happened too fast."
Dylan draws up at the curb, exits the car and walks to a 20-foot-high bluff over a near-vertical incline leading down to the beach. He scrambles down agilely and turns to catch cans of beer thrown after him. Settled in the sun, burnoose in place, peering out at the ocean, he resumes: "I consider myself in the same spirit with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. That music has meaning for me. And Joan Baez means more to me than 100 of these singers around today. She's more powerful. That's what we're looking for. That's what we respond to. She always had it and always will--power for the species, not just for a select group."
What records does he play for his own amusement? "Personally, I like sound-effects records," he says, laughing. "Sometimes late at night, I get a mint julep and just sit there and listen to sound effects. I'm surprised more of them aren't on the charts." He is still laughing. "If I had my own label, that's what I'd record."
A teen-age girl approaches Dylan, Frisbee in hand, and asks if it belongs to him. "No," says Bob Dylan politely, and the girl nods and ambles off down the beach, obviously unaware tht she has addressed (in the view of many) the generation's greatest rock-and-roll singer-writer. "I pass on crowded streets without being recognized. I don't want to be one of those big stars who can't go nowhere. Change that to anywhere. My mother might read this."
How is it, he is asked, that the Bob Dylan one encounters today, recumbent on this Malibu beach, seems so much more serene than the turbulent, often self-destructive, angry young man one recalls from the 1960s. (He's now the father of five, married to the former Sara Lowndes, living in the languor of Southern California rather than New York's bustle.) He squints toward the horizon. "Anger is often directed at oneself. It all depends on where you are in place and time. A person's body chemistry changes every seven years. No one on earth is the same now as he was seven years ago, or will be seven years from today. It doesn't take a whole lot of brains to know that if you don't grow you die. You have to burst out; you have to find the sunlight."
Where is he, musically, these days? "I play rag rock. It's a special brand of music that I play. I'll be writing some new songs soon, and then, look out! The music will be up to a whole new level." Does he write every day, and does it come easily? "Are you kidding? Almost anything else is easy except writing songs. The hardest part is when the inspiration dies along the way. Then you spend all your time trying to recapture it. I don't write every day. I'd like to but I can't. You're talking to a total misfit. Gershwin, Bacharach--those people--they've got song-writing down. I don't really care if I write." Pause. "I can say that now, but as soon as the light changes, it'll be the thing I care about most. When I'm through performing, I'll still be writing, probably for other people."
Any regrets? "The past doesn't exist. For me there's the next song, the next poem, the next performance." Any messages to the world? "I've been thinking about that. I'd like to extend my gratitude to my mother. I'd like to say hello to her if she's reading this." Ever see her? Pause. "Not as much as when I was a kid."
He plucks his beer can from the sand. "I hope there's not a snake in my beer," he says, apropos of not very much. Then he reclines languorously and watches the sun descend slowly to the Pacific horizon.