>Bob Dylan -y 3-. Aprenda inglés (del bueno) con Harlem
Hay que echarle morro.
“My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them. Anyway, I’m no mainstream artist”
Going back to that song you wrote for the movie that you mentioned earlier, Life is hard has the formality of an old Rudy Vallee or Nelson Eddy ballad right down to the middle eight (“Ever since the day. . .”). Do you figure that if you start a song in that style, you stick with the rules right down the line?
Sure, I try to stick to the rules. Sometimes I might shift paradigms within the same song, but then that structure also has its own rules. And I combine them both, see what works and what doesn’t. My range is limited. Some formulas are too complex and I don’t want anything to do with them.
Forgetful heart. how do you decide to put an Appalachian banjo on a minor key blues? Is it something you think of ahead of time or does it come up in the session?
I think it probably came up at the studio. A banjo wouldn’t be out of character though. There is a minor key modality to “Forgetful heart”. It’s like Little Maggie or Darling Cory, so there is no reason a banjo shouldn’t fit or sound right.
You wrote a lot of these songs with Robert Hunter. How does that process work?
There isn’t any process to speak of. You just do it. You drive the car. Sometimes you get out from behind the wheel and let someone else step on the gas.
You must have known Hunter a long time. Do you remember where you first met?
It was either back in ’62 or ‘63 when I played in the Bay area. I might have met him in Palo Alto or Berkeley or Oakland. I played all those places then and I could have met Hunter around that time. I know he was around.
Didn’t Hunter play in a bluegrass band with Jerry Garcia?
Yeah, it was either that or a jug band.
Have you ever thought about composing anything with those Nashville songwriters?
I’ve never thought about that.
Neil Diamond did an album years ago where he co-wrote with different Nashville songwriters.
Yeah, that might have worked for him. I don’t think it would work for me.
You don’t think it would work for you?
No. I’m okay without it. I’m not exactly obsessed with writing songs. I go back a ways with Hunter. We’re from the same old school so it makes it’s own kind of sense.
Do you listen to a lot of songs?
Yeah – sometimes.
Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
Buffett I guess. Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy. John Prine. Guy Clark. Those kinds of writers.
What songs do you like of Buffett’s?
“Death of an unpopular poet”. There’s another one called “He went to Paris”.
You and Lightfoot go way back.
Oh yeah. Gordo’s been around as long as me.
What are your favorite songs of his?
“Shadows”, “Sundown”, “If you could read my mind”. I can’t think of any I don’t like.
Did you know Zevon?
Not very well.
What did you like about him?
“Lawyers”, “Guns and money”, “Boom boom Mancini”. Down hard stuff. “Join me in L.A.” sort of straddles the line between heartfelt and primeval. His musical patterns are all over the place, probably because he’s classically trained. There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they’re all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a musician’s musician, a tortured one. “Desperado under the eaves”. It’s all in there.
What can you say?
I like his early songs, “Sail away”, “Burn down the cornfield”, “Louisiana”…, where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton. His style is deceiving. He’s so laid back that you kind of forget he’s saying important things. Randy’s sort of tied to a different era like I am.
How about John Prine?
Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about “Sam Stone” the soldier junky daddy and “Donald and Lydia”, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that. If I had to pick one song of his, it might be “Lake Marie”. I don’t remember what album that’s on.
A lot of the acts from your generation seem to be trading on nostalgia. They play the same songs the same way for the last 30 years. Why haven’t you ever done that?
I couldn’t if I tried. Those guys you are talking about all had conspicuous hits. They started out anti-establishment and now they are in charge of the world. Celebratory songs. Music for the grand dinner party. Mainstream stuff that played into the culture on a pervasive level. My stuff is different from those guys. It’s more desperate. Daltrey, Townshend, McCartney, The Beach Boys, Elton, Billy Joel. They made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly … exactly the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them. Anyway, I’m no mainstream artist.
Then what kind of artist are you?
I’m not sure, Byronesque maybe. Look, when I started out, mainstream culture was Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Sound of Music. There was no fitting into it then and of course, there’s no fitting into it now. Some of my songs have crossed over but they were all done by other singers.
Have you ever tried to fit in?
Well, no, not really. I’m coming out of the folk music tradition and that’s the vernacular and archetypal aesthetic that I’ve experienced. Those are the dynamics of it. I couldn’t have written songs for the Brill Building if I tried. Whatever passes for pop music, I couldn’t do it then and I can’t do it now.
Does that mean you create outsider art? Do you think of yourself as a cult figure?
A cult figure, that’s got religious connotations. It sounds cliquish and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when you’re young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers – bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn’t make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn’t change.
But you’ve sold over a hundred million records.
Yeah I know. It’s a mystery to me too.
“Life is hard” comes from a tradition that got pretty much wiped out by the popularity of swing and blues and rock n roll. I remember Leon Redbone said once that the big break in 20th century music was not in the 50’s when rock came in; it was when swing and jazz knocked off parlor piano ballads in the late 20’s and early 30’s. Do you ever wish that old style had stuck around a little longer?
Today, the mad rush of the world would trample over delicate music like that. Even if it had survived swing and jazz it would never make it past Dr. Dre. Things changed economically and socially. Two world wars, the stock market crash, the depression, the sexual revolution, huge sound systems, techno-pop. How could anything survive that? You can’t imagine parlor ballads drifting out of hi rise multi-towered buildings. That kind of music existed in a more timeless state of life. I love those old piano ballads. In my hometown walking down dark streets on quiet summer nights you would sometimes hear parlor tunes coming out of doorways and open windows. Somebody’s mother or sister playing “A bird in a gilded cage” off of sheet music. I actually tried to conjure up that feeling once in a song I did called “In the summertime”.No one was expecting a new album from you right now. I heard even the
record company was surprised. How do you know it’s time to go in and make a new one?
You never do know. You just think sometimes if not now I’ll never do it. This particular album was supposed to come out next Fall sometime; September, October; when the movie’s released. We made it last year and it was supposed to be put away for a year. But then the guys from the record company heard it, and decided that they would like to put it out in early spring and not wait for the movie.
You don’t use elevated language on these songs – it’s mostly every-day
speech and imagery. Did you decide to keep a lid on the poetry this time
out – was it what the musical style demanded?
I’m not sure I agree. It’s not easy to define poetry. Hank Williams used simple language too.
“It’s all good” is a terrific song. You use that common catch phrase as a
hook and describe a world that gets darker and more miserable with every
verse – it’s kind of funny and kind of scary. How did that song get
Probably from hearing the phrase one too many times.
Every girl named Roxanne feels a connection to Sting. Every Alison
thinks Elvis Costello was singing about her. You expecting to meet a lot of
Oh gosh, I hope not.
Any chance your Jolene is the same woman who got Dolly Parton so worked up?
You mean that woman with the flaming locks of auburn hair?
Yeah! Whose smile is like a breath of Spring.
Oh yeah, I remember her.
Is it the same one?
It’s a different lady.
At the end of “Jolene” I noticed that those riffs start happening. I’ve seen you do that live, but I’ve never heard that on any of your records. I assume that’s Donnie playing with you.
Yeah, it is. The organ sound and steel guitar combined make those riffs.
Tony, your bass player has been with you now for. . . what?
Gee, I don’t know, probably for a while. Fifteen, twenty years.
How about your drummer, George?
Not as long as Tony but longer than my last drummer.
Where does George come from to play like that?
George is from Louisiana. He’s from New Orleans.
There’s no characters on this record like the ones in “Desolation row”, except maybe Judge Simpson in “Shake, shake mama”. Would he be one of these archetypal figures like Cinderella or Shakespeare in the alley? Oh, most definitely. He’s a possum huntin’ judge.
Certain singers show up in “It’s all good”. Neil Young and Alicia Keys
have popped up on your recent albums. Do you think all your musician
friends are going to be looking for shout-outs now? Once you start down
that road how do you get out of it?
Well these people are archetypes, too. They might not think of themselves like that, but they are. They represent an idea.
Could you write a song about anybody?
Well I bet you could, yeah.
How would you get Stevie Wonder into a song?
When Stevie Wonder recorded “Blowin’ in the wind”/ I was playin’ cards/ I was drinkin’ gin/
Could you write a song like Stevie wonder?
I could write one like “Superstition” but I couldn’t write one like “Sir Duke”.
Could you write a song about George Bush?
Well sure. George’s name would be easy to rhyme.
In the song “I feel a change coming on” the character says. . .
Wait a minute Bill. I’m not a playwright. The people in my songs are all me. I thought we talked about that?
What exactly makes it you?
It’s in the way you say things. It’s not necessarily the things you say that make you who you are.
Okay, I think the line is, “I see my baby coming, she’s walking with the village priest/I feel a change coming on”.
Yeah, but you’re leaving a lot out.
Okay, but that’s the part I remember. I assume the guy, or you, are talking about being hooked up with somebody and feeling pretty good about it. Given what a hard time women have given the men, or you , in the other songs on the album, we can read this as a happy ending or a sign of trouble ahead. What are the chances that the guy in “Feel a change” is likely to live happily ever after?
You might be reading too much into it. It’s not a fairy tale type song. There are degrees of happiness. You go from one to the other and then back again. It’s hard to be completely happy when those around us are suffering and groaning from hunger. But I know what you mean. You are talking about riding off into the sunset hoping that whatever you’ve done will outlive you.
Isn’t that the Hindu point of view?
Maybe it is.
A lot of performers give God credit for their music. How do you suppose
God feels about that?
I’m not the one to ask. It sounds like people just giving credit where credit is due.
How do you think this new record will be received?
I know my fans will like it. Other than that, I have no idea.