Your songs, like Woody’s, always have defied being pop entertainment. In your songs, like his, we know a real person is talking, with lines like, “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend.”
That’s another way of writing a song, of course. Just talking to somebody that ain’t there. That’s the best way. That’s the truest way. Then it just becomes a question of how heroic your speech is. To me, it’s something to strive after.
Until you record a song, no matter how heroic it is, it doesn’t really exist. Do you ever feel that?
No. If it’s there, it exists.
You once said that you only write about what’s true, what’s been proven to you, that you write about dreams but not fantasies.
My songs really aren’t dreams. They’re more of a responsive nature. Waking up from a dream is … when you write a dream, it’s something you try to recollect and you’re never quite sure if you’re getting it right or not.
You said your songs are responsive. Does life have to be in turmoil for songs to come?
Well, to me, when you need them, they appear. Your life doesn’t have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who’s never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really.
Outside of life itself?
No. Outside of the situation you find yourself in. There are different types of songs and they’re all called songs. But there are different types of songs just like there are different types of people, you know? There’s an infinite amount of different kinds, stemming from a common folk ballad verse to people who have classical training. And with classical training, of course, then you can just apply lyrics to classical training and get things going on in positions where you’ve never been in before. Modern twentieth century ears are the first ears to hear these kind of Broadway songs. There wasn’t anything like this. These are musical songs. These are done by people who know music first. And then lyrics. To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter.
Hank? Better than Woody Guthrie?
That’s a good question. Hank Williams never wrote “This Land Is Your Land.” But it’s not that shocking for me to think of Hank Williams singing “Pastures Of Plenty” or Woody Guthrie singing “Cheatin’ Heart.” So in a lot of ways those two writers are similar. As writers. But you mustn’t forget that both of these people were performers, too. And that’s another thing which separates a person who just writes a song … People who don’t perform but who are so locked into other people who do that, they can sort of feel what that other person would like to say, in a song and be able to write those lyrics. Which is a different thing from a performer who needs a song to play on stage year after year.
And you always wrote your songs for yourself to sing …
My songs were written with me in mind. In those situations, several people might say, “Do you have a song laying around?” The best songs to me – my best songs – are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it. Other than that, there have been a lot of ones that haven’t made it. They haven’t survived. They could. They need to be dragged out, you know, and looked at again, maybe.
You said once that the saddest thing about songwriting is trying to reconnect with an idea you started before, and how hard that is to do.
To me it can’t be done. To me, unless I have another writer around who might want to finish it … outside of writing with The Traveling Wilburys, my shared experience writing a song with other songwriters is not that great. Of course, unless you find the right person to write with as a partner … [Laughs] … you’re awfully lucky if you do, but if you don’t, it’s really more trouble than it’s worth, trying to write something with somebody.
Your collaborations with Jacques Levy came out pretty great.
We both were pretty much lyricists. Yeah, very panoramic songs because, you know, after one of my lines, one of his lines would come out. Writing with Jacques wasn’t difficult. It was trying to just get it down. It just didn’t stop. Lyrically. Of course, my melodies are very simple anyway so they’re very easy to remember.
With a song like “Isis” that the two of you wrote together, did you plot that story out prior to writing the verses?
That was a story that meant something to him. Yeah. It just seemed to take on a life of its own, as another view of history [laughs]. Which there are so many views that don’t get told. Of history, anyway. That wasn’t one of them. Ancient history, but history nonetheless.
Was that a story you had in mind before the song was written?
No. With this “Isis” thing, it was “Isis”… you know, the name sort of rang a bell but not in any kind of vigorous way. So therefore, it was name-that-tune time. It was anything. The name was familiar. Most people would think they knew it from somewhere. But it seemed like just about any way it wanted to go would have been okay, just as long as it didn’t get too close [laughs].
Too close to what?
[Laughs] Too close to me or him.
People have an idea of your songs freely flowing out from you, but that song and many others of yours are so well-crafted; it has as ABAB rhyme scheme which is like something Byron would do, interlocking every line.
Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. If you’ve heard a lot of free verse, if you’ve been raised on free verse, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, those kind of people who wrote free verse, your ear is not going to be trained for things to sound that way. Of course, for me it’s no secret that all my stuff is rhythmically oriented that way. Like a Byron line would be something as simple as “What is it you buy so dear/With your pain and with your fear?” Now that’s a Byron line, but that could have been one of my lines. Up until a certain time, maybe in the twenties, that’s the way poetry was. It was that way. It was … simple and easy to remember. And always in rhythm. It had a rhythm whether the music was there or not.
Is rhyming fun for you?
Well, it can be, but, you know, it’s a game. You know, you sit around … you know, it’s more like it’s mentally … it gives you a thrill. It gives you a thrill to rhyme something you might think, “Well, that’s never been rhymed before.” But then again, people have taken rhyming now, it doesn’t have to be exact anymore. Nobody’s going to care if you rhyme ‘represent’ with ‘ferment,’ you know. Nobody’s gonna care.
That was a result of a lot of people of your generation for whom the craft elements of songwriting didn’t seem to matter as much. But in your songs the craft is always there, along with the poetry and the energy.
My sense of rhyme used to be more involved in my songwriting than it is … Still staying in the unconscious frame of mind, you can pull yourself out and throw up two rhymes first and work it back. You get the rhymes first and work it back and then see if you can make it make sense in another kind of way. You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.
So sometimes you will work backwards, like that?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, a lot of times. That’s the only way you’re going to finish something. That’s not uncommon, though.
Do you finish songs even when you feel that maybe they’re not keepers?
Keepers or not keepers … you keep songs if you think they’re any good, and if you don’t … you can always give them to somebody else. If you’ve got songs that you’re not going to do and you just don’t like them … show them to other people, if you want. Then again, it all gets back to the motivation. Why you’re doing what you’re doing. That’s what it is. [Laughs] It’s confrontation with that … goddess of the self. God of the self or goddess of the self? Somebody told me that the goddess rules over the self. Gods don’t concern themselves with such earthly matters. Only goddesses … would stoop so low. Or bend down so low.