>Bob Dylan -2-. Aprenda inglés (del bueno) con Harlem
In that song Chicago after dark, were you thinking about the new President?
Not really. It’s more about State Street and the wind off Lake Michigan and how sometimes we know people and we are no longer what we used to be to them. I was trying to go with some old time feeling that I had.
You liked Barack Obama early on. Why was that?
I’d read his book and it intrigued me.
Audacity of Hope?
No it was called Dreams of My Father.
What struck you about him?
Well, a number of things. He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage – cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.
In what way?
First of all, Barack is born in Hawaii. Most of us think of Hawaii as paradise – so I guess you could say that he was born in paradise.
And he was thrown out of the garden.
Not exactly. His mom married some other guy named Lolo and then took Barack to Indonesia to live. Barack went to both a Muslim school and a Catholic school. His mom used to get up at 4:00 in the morning and teach him book lessons three hours before he even went to school. And then she would go to work. That tells you the type of woman she was. That’s just in the beginning of the story.
What else did you find compelling about him?
Well, mainly his take on things. His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.
What in his book would make you think he’d be a good politician?
Well nothing really. In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second – selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.
Do you think he’ll make a good president?
I have no idea. He’ll be the best president he can be. Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men. Johnson would be a good example of that … Nixon, Clinton in a way, Truman, all the rest of them going back. You know, it’s like they all fly too close to the sun and get burned.
Did you ever read any other presidential autobiographies?
Yeah, I read Grant’s.
What was he like? Any similarities?
The times were different obviously. And Grant wrote his book after he’d left office.
What did you find interesting about him?
It’s not like he’s a great writer. He’s analytical and cold, but he does have a sense of humor. Grant, besides being a military strategist, was a working man. Worked horses. Tended the horses, plowed and furrowed. Brought in all the crops – the corn and potatoes. Sawed wood and drove wagons since the time he was about eleven. Got a crystal clear memory of all the battles he’d been in.
Do you remember any particular battle that Grant fought?
There were a lot of battles but the Shiloh one is most interesting. He could’ve lost that. But he was determined to win it at any price, using all kinds of strategies, even faking retreat. You could read it for yourself.
When you think back to the Civil War, one thing you forget is that no battles, except Gettysburg, were fought in the North.
Yeah. That’s what probably makes the Southern part of the country so different.
There is a certain sensibility, but I’m not sure how that connects?
It must be the Southern air. It’s filled with rambling ghosts and disturbed spirits. They’re all screaming and forlorning. It’s like they are caught in some weird web – some purgatory between heaven and hell and they can’t rest. They can’t live, and they can’t die. It’s like they were cut off in their prime, wanting to tell somebody something. It’s all over the place. There are war fields everywhere. . . a lot of times even in people’s backyards.
Have you felt them?
Oh sure. You’d be surprised. I was in Elvis’s hometown – Tupelo. And I was trying to feel what Elvis would have felt back when he was growing up.
Did you feel all the music Elvis must have heard?
No, but I’ll tell you what I did feel. I felt the ghosts from the bloody battle that Sherman fought against Forrest and drove him out. There’s an eeriness to the town. A sadness that lingers. Elvis must have felt it too.
Any thoughts about why?
I think it’s the land. The streams, the forests, the vast emptiness. The land created me. I’m wild and lonesome. Even as I travel the cities, I‘m more at home in the vacant lots. But I have a love for humankind, a love of truth, and a love of justice. I think I have a dualistic nature. I’m more of an adventurous type than a relationship type.
But the album is all about love – love found, love lost, love remembered, love denied.
Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.
Getting back to politics, what did you think of Jesse Ventura, being a Minnesotan and all?
He did some good things or tried to. I never met him. All I know about the governor is that he’s a Rolling Stones fan.
Your old cohorts?
I hear from Keith once in a while but that’s about it.
What do you think of the Stones?
What do I think of them? They’re pretty much finished, aren’t they?
They had a gigantic tour last year. You call that finished?
Oh yeah, you mean Steel Wheels. I’m not saying they don’t keep going, but they need Bill. Without him they’re a funk band. They’ll be the real Rolling Stones when they get Bill back.
Bob, you’re stuck in the 80’s.
I know. I’m trying to break free.
Do you really think the Stones are finished?
Of course not, They’re far from finished. The Rolling Stones are truly the greatest rock and roll band in the world and always will be. The last too. Everything that came after them, metal, rap, punk, new wave, pop-rock, you name it . . . you can trace it all back to the Rolling Stones. They were the first and the last and no one’s ever done it better.
This dream of you has this wonderful South of the Border feel, but at the same time, I detect echoes of Sam Cooke, the Coasters, the Brill Building, and Phil Spector. Were those records from the 50’s and 60’s important to you? Did you try to capture some of that flavor in This dream of you?
Those fifties and sixties records were definitely important. That might have been the last great age of real music. Since then or maybe the seventies its all been people playing computers. Sam Cooke, the Coasters, Phil Spector, all that music was great but it didn’t exactly break into my consciousness. Back then I was listening to Son House, Leadbelly, the Carter family, Memphis Minnie and death romance ballads. As far as songwriting, I wanted to write songs like Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. Timeless and eternal. Only a few of those radio ballads still hold up and most of them have Doc Pomus’ hand in them. Spanish Harlem, Save the Last Dance for Me, Little Sister… a few others. Those were fantastic songs. Doc was a soulful cat. If you said there was a little bit of him in This dream of you I would take it as a compliment.Even though many of the tracks on the album are about love, the album is full of pain – sometimes in the same song. In Beyond here lies nothing, the song is underscored by a feeling of foreboding. You’re moving down “boulevards of broken cars.” You’re going to love “as long as love will last.” Is pain a necessary part of loving? Oh yeah, in my songs it is. Pain, sex, murder, family – it goes way back. Kindness. Honor. Charity. You have to tie all that in. You’re supposed to know that stuff.
Getting back to This dream of you, the character sings, “How long can I stay in this nowhere café?” Where is that café?
It sounds like it’s south of the border or close to the border.
You’re not saying?
Well, no, it’s not like I’m not saying. But if you have those kind of thoughts and feelings you know where the guy is. He’s right where you are. If you don’t have those thoughts and feelings then he doesn’t exist.
The character in the song reminds me a lot of the guy who is in the song Across the borderline.
I know what you’re saying, but it’s not a character like in a book or a movie. He’s not a bus driver. He doesn’t drive a forklift. He’s not a serial killer. It’s me who’s singing that, plain and simple. We shouldn’t confuse singers and performers with actors. Actors will say, “My character this, and my character that.” Like beating a dead horse. Who cares about the character? Just get up and act. You don’t have to explain it to me.
Well can’t a singer act out a song?
Yeah sure, a lot of them do. But the more you act the further you get away from the truth. And a lot of those singers lose who they are after a while. You sing, “I’m a lineman for the county,” enough times and you start to scamper up poles.
What actor could you hear singing This dream of you?
Gosh I don’t know, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney…
How about Humphrey Bogart?
Yeah, sure, him too. Funny thing about actors and that identity thing. Every time I run into Val Kilmer, I can’t help myself. I say, “Why, Johnny Ringo – you look like somebody just walked on your grave.” Val always says, “Bob, I’m not Johnny Ringo. That’s just a role I played in a movie.” He could be right, he could be wrong. I think he’s wrong but he says it in such a sincere way. You have to think he thinks he’s right.
Do you think actors have to be sincere?
Not at all. Mae West wasn’t. She was just who she was on the screen. Just like Jimmy Stewart and Burt Lancaster.
And Johnny Weissmuller.
Yeah, Lon Chaney, too.
Could that mean that Alec Guinness is Hitler?
Well sure, a part of him is. But of course he’s not Hitler. And neither is anybody else. Hitler was Hitler.
Do you remember images of Hitler from growing up?
No, not growing up. He was dead by the time I was four or five. I never had a real understanding of that.
Never had an understanding of what?
How you take a failed landscape painter and turn him into a fanatical mad man who controls millions. That’s some trick. I mean the powers that created him must have been awesome.
Well, the social and economic conditions of the Weimar Republic were so different than now.
Yeah sure, looking back in hindsight, you can see that someone would have to take control. But still, it’s so perplexing. Like why him? You could see that the man’s a total mutt. No Aryan characteristics whatsoever. You couldn’t guess his ancestry. Brown hair, brown eyes, pasty complexion, no particular type of stature, Hitler mustache, raincoat, riding whip, the whole works. He knew something. He knew that people didn’t think. Look at the faces of the millions who worshipped him and you see that he inspired love. It’s scary and sad. The torch of the spoken word. They were glad to follow him anywhere, loyal to the bone. Then of course, he filled up the cemeteries with them.
It brings to mind Hitler talking to the crowd in Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl.
Yeah, it’s clear as day.