Bob Dylan: The Paul Zollo Interview

Photo © Elliott Landy/

There’s an unmistakable elegance in Dylan’s words, an almost biblical beauty that he has sustained in his songs throughout the years. He refers to it as a “gallantry” in the following, and pointed to it as the single thing that sets his songs apart from others. Though he’s maybe more famous for the freedom and expansiveness of his lyrics, all of his songs possess this exquisite care and love for the language. As Shakespeare and Byron did in their times, Dylan has taken English, perhaps the world’s plainest language, and instilled it with a timeless, mythic grace.

Ring them bells, sweet Martha, for the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one
Oh, the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep

from “Ring Them Bells”

As much as he has stretched, expanded and redefined the rules of songwriting, Dylan is a tremendously meticulous craftsman. A brutal critic of his own work, he works and reworks the words of his songs in the studio and even continues to rewrite certain ones even after they’ve been recorded and released. “They’re not written in stone,” he said. With such a wondrous wealth of language at his fingertips, he discards imagery and lines other songwriters would sell their souls to discover. The Bootleg Series, a recently released collection of previously unissued recordings, offers a rare opportunity to see the revisions and regrouping his songs go through. “Idiot Wind” is one of his angriest songs (“You don’t hear a song like that every day,” he said), which he recorded on Blood On The Tracks in a way that reflects this anger, emphasizing lines of condemnation like “one day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes, blood on your saddle.” On The Bootleg Series , we get an alternate approach to the song, a quiet, tender reading of the same lines that makes the inherent disquiet of the song even more disturbing, the tenderness of Dylan’s delivery adding a new level of genuine sadness to lines like “people see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act.” The peak moment of the song is the penultimate chorus when Dylan addresses America: ‘Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.” On the Bootleg version, this famous line is still in formation: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your jaw, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Mardi Gras.” His song “Jokerman” also went through a similar evolution, as a still unreleased bootleg of the song reveals. Like “Idiot Wind,” the depth and intensity of the lyric is sustained over an extraordinary amount of verses, yet even more scenes were shot that wound up on the cutting room floor, evidence of an artist overflowing with the abundance of creation:

It’s a shadowy world
Skies are slippery gray
A woman just gave birth to a prince today
And dressed him in scarlet
He’ll put the priest in his pocket,
Put the blade to the heat
Take the motherless children off the street
And place them at the feet of a harlot

from “Jokerman” on Infidels

It’s a shadowy world
Skies are slippery gray
A woman just gave birth to a prince today
And she’s dressed in scarlet
He’ll turn priests into pimps
And make all men bark
Take a woman who could have been Joan of Arc
And turn her into a harlot

from “Jokerman” on Outfidels, a bootleg

Often Dylan lays abstraction aside and writes songs as clear and telling as any of Woody Guthrie’s narrative ballads, finding heroes and antiheroes in our modern times as Woody found in his. Some of these subjects might be thought of as questionable choices for heroic treatment, such as underworld boss Joey Gallo, about whom he wrote the astounding song, “Joey.” It’s a song that is remarkable for its cinematic clarity; Dylan paints a picture of a life and death so explicit and exact that we can see every frame of it, and even experience Gallo’s death as if we were sitting there watching it. And he does it with a rhyme scheme and a meter that makes the immediacy of the imagery even more striking:

One day they blew him down
In a clam bar in New York
He could see it coming through the door
As he lifted up his fork.
He pushed the table over to protect his family
Then he staggered out into the streets
Of Little Italy

from “Joey”

“Yes, well, what can you know about anybody?” Dylan asked, and it’s a good question. He’s been a mystery for years, “kind of impenetrable, really,” Paul Simon said, and that mystery is not penetrated by this interview or any interview. Dylan’s answers are often more enigmatic than the questions themselves, and like his songs, they give you a lot to think about while not necessarily, revealing much about the man.

In person, as others have noted, he is Chaplinesque. His body is smaller and his head bigger than one might expect, giving the effect of a kid wearing a Bob Dylan mask. He possesses one of the world’s most striking faces; while certain stars might seem surprisingly normal and unimpressive in the flesh, Dylan is perhaps even more startling to confront than one might expect. Seeing those eyes , and that nose , it’s clear it could be no one else than he, and to sit at a table with him and face those iconic features is no less impressive than suddenly finding yourself sitting face to face with William Shakespeare. It’s a face we associate with an enormous, amazing body of work, work that has changed the world. But it’s not really the kind of face one expects to encounter in everyday life.

Though Van Morrison and others have called him the world’s greatest poet, he doesn’t think of himself as a poet. “Poets drown in lakes,” he said to us. Yet he’s written some of the most beautiful poetry the world has known, poetry of love and outrage, of abstraction and clarity, of timelessness and relativity. Though he is faced with the evidence of a catalogue of songs that would contain the whole careers of a dozen fine songwriters, Dylan told us he doesn’t consider himself to be a professional songwriter. “For me it’s always been more con -fessional than pro -fessional,” he said in distinctive Dylan cadence. “My songs aren’t written on a schedule.”

Well, how are they written, we asked? This is the question at the heart of this interview, the main one that comes to mind when looking over all the albums, or witnessing the amazing array of moods, masks, styles and forms all represented on the recently released Bootleg Series. How has he done it? It was the first question asked, and though he deflected it at first with his customary humor, it’s a question we returned to a few times. “Start me off somewhere,” he said smiling, as if he might be left alone to divulge the secrets of his songwriting, and our talk began.

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