The Bob Dylan Interview
The 71-year-old veteran musician opens up unflinchingly, with no aplogies
Before we end the conversation, I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers, such as Japanese author Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza, and the Civil War poetry of Henry Timrod. Some critics say that you didn’t cite your sources clearly. Yet in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. What’s your response to those kinds of charges?
Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.
I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.
When those lines make their way into a song, you’re conscious of it happening?
Well, not really. But even if you are, you let it go. I’m not going to limit what I can say. I have to be true to the song. It’s a particular art form that has its own rules. It’s a different type of thing. All my stuff comes out of the folk tradition – it’s not necessarily akin to the pop world.
Do you find that sort of criticism irrelevant, or silly?
I try to get past all that. I have to. When you ask me if I find criticism of my work irrelevant or silly, no, not if it’s constructive. If someone could point out here or there where my work could be improved upon, I guess I’d be willing to listen. The people who are obsessed with criticism – it’s not honest criticism. They are not the people who I play to anyway.
But surely you’ve heard about this particular controversy?
People have tried to stop me every inch of the way. They’ve always had bad stuff to say about me. Newsweek magazine l it the fuse way back when. Newsweek printed that some kid from New Jersey wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” and it wasn’t me at all. And when that didn’t fly, people accused me of stealing the melody from a 16th-century Protestant hymn. And when that didn’t work, they said they made a mistake and it was really an old Negro spiritual. So what’s so different? It’s gone on for so long I might not be able to live without it now. Fuck ’em. I’ll see them all in their graves. Everything people say about you or me, they are saying about themselves. They’re telling about themselves. Ever notice that? In my case, there’s a whole world of scholars, professors and Dylanologists, and everything I do affects them in some way. And, you know, in some ways, I’ve given them life. They’d be nowhere without me.
No, they’re not good for that.
The flip side of people being critical . . .
Yeah, to hold someone in high admiration. [laughs].
The flip side is, there’s also the audience that really loves you.
Of course. They think they do. They love the music and songs I play, not me.
Why do you say that?
Because that’s the way people are. People say they love a lot of things, but they really don’t. It’s just a word that’s been overused. When you put your life on the line for somebody, that’s love. But you’ll never know it until you’re in the moment. When someone will die for you, that’s love, too.