The Bob Dylan Interview
The 71-year-old veteran musician opens up unflinchingly, with no aplogies
Even though you’re so identified with it?
Evidently I was, and maybe even still am. I was there during that time, but I really couldn’t identify with what was happening. It didn’t mean that much to me. I had my own family by then. You know, for instance, [Timothy] Leary and others like him, they wouldn’t have lasted a second in earlier days. Of course, the Vietnam War didn’t help any.
Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see “Rainy Day Women” as coded about getting high.
It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts.
Sometimes you seem to have a distaste for the 1960s.
The Fifties were a simpler time, at least for me and the situation I was in. I didn’t really experience what a lot of the other people my age experienced, from the more mainstream towns and cities. Where I grew up was as far from the cultural center as you could get. It was way out of the beaten path. You had the whole town to roam around in, though, and there didn’t seem to be any sadness or fear or insecurity. It was just woods and sky and rivers and streams, winter and summer, spring, autumn. The changing of the seasons. The culture was mainly circuses and carnivals, preachers and barnstorming pilots, hillbilly shows and comedians, big bands and whatnot. Powerful radio shows and powerful radio music. This was before supermarkets and malls and multiplexes and Home Depot and all the rest. You know, it was a lot simpler. And when you grow up that way, it stays in you. Then I left, which was, I guess, toward the end of the Fifties, but I saw and felt a lot of things in the Fifties, which generates me to this day. It’s sort of who I am.
I guess the Fifties would have ended in about ’65. I don’t really have a warm feeling for that period of time. Why would I? Those days were cruel.
Why is that? Was it just too much upheaval, being at the white-hot center of it?
Yeah, that and a whole lot of other stuff. Things were beginning to get corporatized. That wouldn’t have mattered to me, but it was happening to the music, too. And I truly loved the music. I saw the death of what I love and a certain way of life that I’d come to take for granted.
Yet people thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that’s also the case with your music since 1997?
Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has.
Don’t you think you’re a particularly American voice – for how your songs reference our history, or have commented on it?
They’re historical. But they’re also biographical and geographical. They represent a particular state of mind. A particular territory. What others think about me, or feel about me, that’s so irrelevant. Any more than it is for me, when I go see a movie, say, Wuthering Heights or something, and have to wonder what’s Laurence Olivier really like. When I see an actor on the stage or something, I don’t think about what they’re like. I’m there because I want to forget about myself, forget about what I care or do not care about. Entertaining is a type of sport.
[Dylan suddenly seems excited.]
Let me show you something. I want to show you something. You might be interested in this. You might take this someplace. You might want to rephrase your questions, or think of new ones [laughs]. Let me show you this. [Gets up and walks to another table.]
You want me to come with you?
No, no, no, I got it right here. I thought this might interest you. [Brings a weathered paperback to the table.] See this book? Ever heard of this guy? [Shows me “Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club,” by Sonny Barger.]
He’s a Hells Angel.
He was “the” Hells Angel.
Look who wrote this book. [Points at coauthors’ names, Keith Zimmerman and Kent Zimmerman.] Do those names ring a bell? Do they look familiar? Do they? You wonder, “What’s that got to do with me?” But they do look familiar, don’t they? And there’s two of them there. Aren’t there two? One’s not enough? Right? [Dylan’s now seated, smiling.] I’m going to refer to this place here. [Opens the book to a dog-eared page.] Read it out loud here. Just read it out loud into your tape recorder.