The Bob Dylan Interview
The 71-year-old veteran musician opens up unflinchingly, with no aplogies
You live in these times, you have reactions to various national ups and downs. Are you, for example, disappointed by the resistance the president has met with? Would you like to see him re-elected?
I’ve lived through a lot of presidents! And you have too! Some are re-elected and some aren’t. Being re-elected isn’t the mark of a great president. Sometimes the guy you get rid of is the guy you wish you had back.
I’ve brought up the subject partly because of something you said the night he was elected: “It looks like things are gonna change now.” Do you feel that the change you anticipated has been borne out?
You want to repeat that again? I have no idea what I said.
It was Election Night 2008. Onstage at the University of Minnesota, introducing your band’s members, you indicated your bassist and said, “Tony Garnier, wearing the Obama button. Tony likes to think it’s a brand-new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 – that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I been living in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are gonna change now.”
I don’t know what I said or didn’t say. As far as Tony goes, yeah, maybe he was wearing an Obama button and maybe I said some stuff because right there in the moment it all made sense. Maybe I said things looked like they could change. And maybe they did change. I don’t think I could have predicted how they would change, but whatever was said, it was said for people in that hall for that night. You know what I’m saying? It wasn’t said to be played on a record forever. Or did I go down to the middle of town and give a speech?
It was onstage.
It was on the streets?
OK. It was on the stage. I don’t know what I could have meant by that. You say things sometimes, you don’t know what the hell you mean. But you’re sincere when you say it. I would hope that things have changed. That’s all I can say, for whatever it is that I said. I’m not going to deny what I said, but I would have hoped that things would’ve changed. I certainly hope they have.
I get the impression when we talk that you’re reluctant to say much about the president or how he’s been criticized.
Well, you know, I told you what I could.
In that case, let’s return to Tempest. Can you talk a little about your songwriting method these days?
I can write a song in a crowded room. Inspiration can hit you anywhere. It’s magical. It’s really beyond me.
What about your role as a producer? How would you describe the sound that you were trying to achieve here?
The sound goes with the song. But that’s funny. Somebody was telling me that Justin Bieber couldn’t sing any of these songs. I said I couldn’t sing any of his songs either. And that person said, “Baby, I’m so grateful for that.”
There’s a fair amount of mortality, certainly in the last three songs – “Tin Angel,” “Tempest” and “Roll On John.” People come to hard endings.
The people in “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stagger Lee” and “El Paso” have come to hard endings, too, and definitely it’s that way in one of my favorite songs, “Delia.” I can name you a hundred songs where everything ends in tragedy. It’s called tradition, and that’s what I deal in. Traditional, with a capital T. Maybe people have to have a simplistic way of identifying something, if they can’t grasp it properly – use some term that they think they can understand, like mortality. Oh, like, “These songs must be about mortality. I mean, Dylan, isn’t he an old guy? He must be thinking about that.” You know what I say to that horseshit? I say these idiots don’t know what they’re talking about. Go find somebody else to pick on.
There’s plenty of death songs. You may well know, in folk music every other song deals with death. Everybody sings them. Death is a part of life. The sooner you know that, the better off you’ll be. That’s the only way to look at it. As far as agreeing with what the common consensus is of what my songs mean or don’t mean, it’s just foolish. I can’t really verify or not verify what other people say my songs are about.
It was interesting that in the aftermath of the Titanic sinking there were many folk and blues and country songs on the subject. Why do you think that was?
Folk musicians, blues musicians did write a lot of songs about the Titanic. That’s what I feel that I’m best at, being a folk musician or a blues musician, so in my mind it’s there to be done. If you’re a folk singer, blues singer, rock & roll singer, whatever, in that realm, you oughta write a song about the Titanic, because that’s the bar you have to pass.
Today we have so much media that before something happens, you see it. You know about it or you think you do. No one can tell you a thing. You don’t need a song about the fire that happened in China town last night because it was all over the news. In songs, you have to tell people about something they didn’t see and weren’t there for, and you have to do it as if you were. Nobody can contradict you on a song about the Titanic any more than they can contradict you on a song about Billy the Kid.
Those folk musicians, though, were people who never would’ve been let aboard the Titanic, or would’ve been in steerage.
No, but all the old country singers, country blues, hillbilly singers, rock & roll singers, what they all had in common was a powerful imagination. And I have that, too. It’s not that unusual for me to write a song about the Titanic tragedy any more than it was for Leadbelly. It might be unusual to write such a long ballad about it, but not necessarily about the disaster itself.
In some Titanic songs, there were those who saw the event as a judgment on modern times, on mankind for assuming that it could be unsinkable. Is there some of that in your song?
No, no, I try to stay away from all that stuff. I don’t imply any of it. I’m not interested in it. I’m just interested in showing you what happened, on the level that it happened on. That’s all. The meaning of it is beyond me.