Photo © Elliott Landy/www.LandyVision.com
Arlo Guthrie recently said, “Songwriting is like fishing in a stream; you put in your line and hope you catch something. And I don’t think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything.”
Dylan: [Much laughter]
Any idea how you’ve been able to catch so many?
[Laughs] It’s probably the bait.
What kind of bait do you use?
Uh … bait … You’ve got to use some bait. Otherwise you sit around and expect songs to come to you. Forcing it is using bait.
Does that work for you?
Well, no. Throwing yourself into a situation that would demand a response is like using bait. People who write about stuff that hasn’t really happened to them are inclined to do that.
When you write songs, do you try to consciously guide the meaning or do you try to follow subconscious directions?
Well, you know, motivation is something you never know behind any song, really. Anybody’s song, you never know what the motivation was. It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down. Edgar Allan Poe must have done that. People who are dedicated writers, of which there are some, but mostly people get their information today over a television set or some kind of a way that’s hitting them on all their senses. It’s not just a great novel anymore. You have to be able to get the thoughts out of your mind.
How do you do that?
Well, first of all, there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts. Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you want to be a good song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of all them thoughts. Then you can do something from some kind of surveillance of the situation. You have some kind of place where you can see but it can’t affect you. Where you can bring something to the matter, besides just take, take, take, take, take. As so many situations in life are today. Take, take, take, that’s all that it is. What’s in it for me? That syndrome which started in the “Me Decade,” whenever that was. We’re still in that. It’s still happening.
Is songwriting for you more a sense of taking something from some place else?
Well, someplace else is always a heartbeat away. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. There’s no rule. That’s what makes it so attractive. There isn’t any rule. You can still have your wits about you and do something that gets you off in a multitude of ways. As you very well know, or else you yourself wouldn’t be doing it.
Your songs often bring us back to other times, and are filled with mythic, magical images. A song like “Changing Of The Guard” seems to take place centuries ago, with lines like, “They shaved her head/she was torn between Jupiter and Apollo/A messenger arrived with a black nightingale.” How do you connect with a song like that?
[Pause] A song like that, there’s no way of knowing, after the fact, unless somebody’s there to take it down in chronological order, what the motivation was behind it. [Pause] But on one level, of course, it’s no different from anything else of mine. It’s the same amount of metric verses like a poem. To me, it’s like a poem.
The melodies in my mind are very simple, they’re just based on music we’ve all heard growing up. And that and music which went beyond that, which went back further, Elizabethan ballads and whatnot … To me, it’s old. [Laughs] It’s old. It’s not something, with my minimal amount of talent, if you could call it that, minimum amount …
To me, somebody coming along now would definitely read what’s out there if they’re seriously concerned with being an artist who’s going to still be an artist when they get to be Picasso’s age. You’re better off learning some music theory. You’re just better off, yeah, if you want to write songs. Rather than just take a hillbilly twang, you know, and try to base it all on that. Even country music is more orchestrated than it used to be. You’re better off having some feel for music that you don’t have to carry in your head, that you can write down. To me those are the people who … are serious about this craft. People who go about it that way. Not people who just want to pour out their insides and they got to get a big idea out and they want to tell the world about this, sure, you can do it through a song, you always could. You can use a song for anything, you know. The world don’t need any more songs.
You don’t think so?
No. They’ve got enough. They’ve got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred records, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs. Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story.
But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it. If you see me do it, any idiot could do it. [Laughs] It’s just not that difficult of a thing. Everybody writes a song just like everybody’s got that one great novel in them. There aren’t a lot of people like me. You just had your interview with Neil [Young], John Mellencamp … Of course, most of my ilk that came along write their own songs and play them. It wouldn’t matter if anybody ever made another record. They’ve got enough songs.
To me, someone who writes really good songs is Randy Newman. There’s a lot of people who write good songs. As songs. Now Randy might not go out on stage and knock you out, or knock your socks off. And he’s not going to get people thrilled in the front row. He ain’t gonna do that. But he’s gonna write a better song than most people who can do it. You know, he’s got that down to an art. Now Randy knows music. But it doesn’t get any better than “Louisiana” or “Cross Charleston Bay” [“Sail Away”]. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s like a classically heroic anthem theme. He did it.
There’s quite a few people who did it. Not that many people in Randy’s class. Brian Wilson. He can write melodies that will beat the band. Three people could combine on a song and make it a great song. If one person would have written the same song, maybe you would have never heard it. It might get buried on some … rap record. [Laughs]
Still, when you’ve come out with some of your new albums of songs, those songs fit that specific time better than any songs that had already been written. Your new songs have always shown us new possibilities.
It’s not a good idea and it’s bad luck to look for life’s guidance to popular entertainers. It’s bad luck to do that. No one should do that. Popular entertainers are fine, there’s nothing the matter with that but as long as you know where you’re standing and what ground you’re on, many of them, they don’t know what they’re doing either.
But your songs are more than pop entertainment …
Some people say so. Not to me.
Pop entertainment means nothing to me. Nothing. You know, Madonna’s good. Madonna’s good, she’s talented, she puts all kind of stuff together, she’s learned her thing … But it’s the kind of thing which takes years and years out of your life to be able to do. You’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot to do that. Sacrifice. If you want to make it big, you’ve got to sacrifice a whole lot. It’s all the same, it’s all the same. [Laughs]