Conversation with Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is interviewed by Bill Flanagan following his Musicares speech last week:

I NOTICED THAT SOME PEOPLE WHO WERE NOT AT THE EVENT READ THE TRANSCRIPT OF YOUR SPEECH AND DIDN’T GET THAT SOME OF IT WAS TONGUE IN CHEEK. WHEN YOU SAID, “WHY ME, LORD?” IN THE ROOM YOU WERE LAUGHING AND SO WAS THE AUDIENCE. IN PRINT, SOME PEOPLE THOUGHT IT WAS ALL SERIOUS.

Yeah, well you had to be there.

HOW DID YOU SELECT ALL THE PERFORMERS FOR THE MUSICARES TRIBUTE, WAS THAT DIFFICULT?

It really wasn’t. Most all of them had recorded versions of those songs over the years. Garth had made “Make You Feel My Love” a number one hit. Tom Jones had done an incredible version of “What Good Am I.” Beck had recorded “Leopard skin Pillbox Hat.” Bonnie had recorded astonishing versions of “Standing in the Doorway” and “Million Miles.” John Doe had done “Pressin’ On” for that movie and that was just a once in a lifetime recording. Los Lobos had also recorded “On a Night Like This,” same thing with Crosby, Stills and Nash. I had heard them do a beautiful version of “Girl From The North Country.” So no, it wasn’t that hard. I’d even seen Alanis Morissette sing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” somewhere and I couldn’t believe she got that so right, something I’d never been able to do. Neil of course, he’s been doing “Blowin’ In the Wind” for a while and he does it the way it should be done and that song needed to be there. Some people called up right away and wanted to be on the show, so Don Was found a few songs for them. But mostly, they were all recorded versions that we were hearing except maybe for Aaron Neville’s version of “Shooting Star.” I could always hear him singing that song. He’s recorded other songs of mine, all great performances, but for some reason I kept thinking about “Shooting Star,” something he’s never recorded but I knew that he could. I could always hear him singing it for some reason, even when I wrote it. I mean, what can you say? He’s the most soulful of singers, maybe in all of recorded history. If angels sing, they must sing in that voice. I just think his gift is so great. The man has no flaws, never has. He’s always been one of my favorite singers right from the beginning. “Tell it Like it Is,” that could be my theme song. It’s strange, because he’s the kind of performer that can do your songs better than you, but you can’t do his better than him. Really, you can’t say enough about Aaron Neville. We won’t see his likes again. I wanted to get hold of Eric, he’s recorded a lot of my songs too, all great versions. But I didn’t want to impose on him, because I don’t think he’s performing anymore. Rod’s done some early songs of mine as well. I just didn’t think to ask him – I probably should have. There were others, Toots and the Maytals, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Wonder, even the Rolling Stones. But it gets overwhelming after a while and you just can’t get to everybody.

WHAT WAS THAT THING ABOUT MERLE, SOUNDS LIKE YOU WERE DISSING HIM, WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT?

No, not at all, I wasn’t dissing Merle, not the Merle I know. What I was talking about happened a long time ago, maybe in the late sixties. Merle had that song out called “Fighting Side of Me” and I’d seen an interview with him where he was going on about hippies and Dylan and the counter culture, and it kind of stuck in my mind and hurt, lumping me in with everything he didn’t like. But of course times have changed and he’s changed too. If hippies were around today, he’d be on their side and he himself is part of the counter culture … so yeah, things change. I’ve toured with him and have the highest regard for him, his songs, his talent – I even wanted him to play fiddle on one of my records and his Jimmie Rodgers tribute album is one of my favorites that I never get tired of listening to. He’s also a bit of a philosopher. He’s serious and he’s funny. He’s a complete man and we’re friends these days. We have a lot in common. Back then, though, Buck and Merle were closely associated; two of a kind. They defined the Bakersfield sound. Buck reached out to me in those days, and lifted up my spirits when I was down, I mean really down – oppressed on all sides and down and that meant a lot, that Buck did that. I wasn’t dissing Merle at all, we were different people back then. Those were difficult times. It was more intense back then and things hit harder and hurt more.

LEIBER AND STOLLER TOO?

Yeah, them too.

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF BRUCE’S PERFORMANCE?

Incredible! He did that song like the record, something I myself have never tried. I never even thought it was worth it. Maybe never had the manpower in one band to pull it off. I don’t know, but I never thought about it. To tell you the truth, I’d forgotten how the song ought to go. Bruce pulled all the power and spirituality and beauty out of it like no one has ever done. He was faithful, truly faithful to the version on the record, obviously the only one he has to go by. I’m not a nostalgic person, but for a second there it all came back, Peckinpah, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, James Coburn, the dusty lawless streets of Durango, my first wife, my kids when they were small. For a second it all came back … it was that powerful. Bruce is a deep conscientious cat and the evidence of that was in the performance. He can get to your heart, my heart anyway.

HE PLAYED SOME EXPLOSIVE GUITAR THAT WASN’T ON THE ORIGINAL RECORDING.

Yeah, well that’s just Bruce being Bruce. He’s got to remind people that he can play that thing. It wasn’t incessant though. It didn’t detract from the song. He brought it in quick and pulled it back quick. He definitely knows when and how to stick something in and then move it back. He’s a great performer all around.

DID YOU REALLY MEAN WHAT YOU SAID ABOUT THE CRITICS? CERTAINLY NOT ALL OF THEM GET ON YOUR NERVES?

No, not at all, I got no bitterness towards critics. Like Elvis said, “I know they have a job to do.” Some critics are better than others … some know how to write better, think better, some understand more of what they’re seeing and hearing better … some are more experienced in life. There are all kinds of critics … they’re not all on the same level. And sometimes, if they’re not saying bad things about you, you don’t really count. It’s nice to have their support, but then on a lot of different levels, it really doesn’t matter one way or another. The people will decide. Some seem to do a lot of griping for no reason, but you have to be sort of understanding. They don’t have any idea what it takes to be on a public stage and couldn’t do what you do not even for one single second. I particularly don’t like the ones who talk down with that attitude of superiority, like they know and you don’t. It’s nice to have their support, but if you don’t, you can’t let it bother you, they’re not players. I have no bitterness towards any of them, not at all.

WHAT WAS THAT THING ABOUT THE BLUES BEING A COMBINATION OF STRAUSS WALTZES AND ARABIC VIOLINS? WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?

I read it in a musicology book. In the 16 or 1700’s there were African tribal wars and instead of slaughtering their enemies like they would do today, the African chiefs roped up their captives and sold them as slaves to Arab slave traders, who were basically middlemen in the slave trading business. Then the slaves had to be marched to where the ships were at the landings; Dutch ships, English ships, Spanish ships, whatever. And that march was a long hard tedious journey, sometime covering hundreds of miles. The Arabs played their violins at night around campfires. And that sound must have drifted into their dreams. A lot of these slaves died before they even got to the boats. When they got to the ports they’d be sold to the sea captains, then they’d make another long journey over the water to the New World. Hard to tell how many of them actually survived from the whole ordeal. Agents in America would buy the slaves from the sea captains, then the agents would sell them to plantation owners. In the new world, they’d hear a lot of minuets played at plantation parties … that’s sort of how it happened according to the book, two different influences, it was so interesting. The 12 bar blues pattern, that’s something else. That evidently comes out of field hollers, where one guy sings a line and a whole bunch of others repeat that line and maybe after that there is a third different line. It all gets mixed up. I can’t remember everything in the book, but this one chapter intrigued me. It pertained to the Delta blues and for that type of music it made sense. North Carolina stuff and Georgia and Florida songs are different – have less of a twang and are more melodic, seem to have more of a waltz minuet vibe, maybe because of who the slaves were and what they were exposed to along the way, musically speaking. The Delta blues has always been eerie and suspenseful, middle eastern in tone, so to me it made sense. I’ve always had a feeling for the blues, even back when I was a little boy … before I even knew what it was … mostly the sound of the Delta blues, because it’s probably in my DNA. I guess I must have both Arab in me and waltz time European blood as well.

YOU TALKED ABOUT ROCK & ROLL ENDING IN THE EARLY SIXTIES AND I TAKE YOUR POINT – THE EARLY ROCK & ROLL WAS DISPLACED BY THE BRITISH INVASION AND MOTOWN. BUT THE HALL OF FAME TAKES A BROADER VIEW – THAT ALL THE MUSIC THAT GREW OUT OF THAT FIRST EXPLOSION, FROM LED ZEPPELIN TO P-FUNK TO TOM WAITS ARE BRANCHES ON THE TREE OF ROCK & ROLL AND DESERVE TO BE REPRESENTED IN THE HALL OF FAME. YOU DON’T BUY IT?

I don’t buy what I don’t need, but I see your point. Perhaps mine is more of a pedantic point of view, maybe one I ought not have.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER PERFORMERS BESIDES BILLY LEE RILEY THAT YOU CAN RECOMMEND FOR THE HALL OF FAME?

Yeah sure, Willy DeVille for one, he stood out, his voice and presentation ought to have gotten him in there by now.

I AGREE WITH YOU, MAYBE HE’S BEEN OVERLOOKED. HE CARRIED A LOT OF HISTORY. THE DRIFTERS, BEN E. KING, SOLOMON BURKE, STREET CORNER DOO WOP AND JOHN LEE HOOKER WERE ALL THERE IN WHAT HE DID AND HOW HE PERFORMED.

I think so too.

YOU SUGGESTED THAT SOME OF THE ACTS IN THE HALL OF FAME MIGHT NOT BE TRUE ROCK & ROLL. YOU MENTIONED THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS, ABBA, ALICE COOPER. I HAVE TO STICK UP FOR STEELY DAN. NOT EVERYTHING THEY DID WAS ROCK & ROLL BUT “BODHISATTVA,” “SHOW BIZ KIDS,” “MY OLD SCHOOL” – THOSE SONGS ROCKED LIKE A BASTARD.

Yeah they might have rocked like a bastard, and I’m not saying that they didn’t, but put on any one of those records and then put on “In The Heat of the Moment” by Willy or “Steady Driving Man” or even “Cadillac Walk.” I’m not going to belittle Steely Dan but there is a difference.