You mentioned that when you were writing “Every Grain Of Sand” that you felt you were in an area where no one had ever been before.
Yeah. In that area where Keats is. Yeah. That’s a good poem set to music.
A beautiful melody.
It’s a beautiful melody, too, isn’t it? It’s a folk derivative melody. It’s nothing you can put your finger on, but, you know, yeah, those melodies are great. There ain’t enough of them, really. Even a song like that, the simplicity of it can be … deceiving. A song like that just may have been written in great turmoil, although you would never sense that. Written but not delivered. Some songs are better written in peace and quiet and delivered in turmoil. Others are best written in turmoil and delivered in a peaceful, quiet way. It’s a magical thing, popular song. Trying to press it down into everyday numbers doesn’t quite work. It’s not a puzzle. There aren’t pieces that fit. It doesn’t make a complete picture that’s ever been seen. But, you know, as they say, thank God for songwriters.
Randy Newman said that he writes his songs by going to it every day, like a job.
Tom Paxton told me the same thing. He goes back with me, way back. He told me the same thing. Everyday he gets up and he writes a song. Well, that’s great, you know, you write the song and then take your kids to school? Come home, have some lunch with the wife, you know, maybe go write another song. Then Tom said for recreation, to get himself loose, he rode his horse. And then pick up his child from school, and then go to bed with the wife. Now to me that sounds like the ideal way to write songs. To me, it couldn’t be any better than that.
How do you do it?
Well, my songs aren’t written on a schedule like that. In my mind it’s never really been seriously a profession … It’s been more confessional than professional. Then again, everybody’s in it for a different reason.
Do you ever sit down with the intention of writing a song, or do you wait for songs to come to you?
Either or. Both ways. It can come … some people are … It’s possible now for a songwriter to have a recording studio in his house and record a song and make a demo and do a thing. It’s like the roles have changed on all that stuff. Now for me, the environment to write the song is extremely important. The environment has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out.
It’s a contemplative, reflective thing. Feelings really aren’t my thing. See, I don’t write lies. It’s a proven fact: Most people who say I love you don’t mean it. Doctors have proved that. So love generates a lot of songs. Probably more so than a lot. Now it’s not my intention to have love influence my songs. Any more than it influenced Chuck Berry’s songs or Woody Guthrie’s or Hank Williams’. Hank Williams, they’re not love songs. You’re degrading them songs calling them love songs. Those are songs from the Tree of Life. There’s no love on the Tree of Life. Love is on the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Good and Evil. So we have a lot of songs in popular music about love. Who needs them? Not you, not me. You can use love in a lot of ways in which it will come back to hurt you.
Love is a democratic principle. It’s a Greek thing. A college professor told me that if you read about Greece in the history books, you’ll know all about America. Nothing that happens will puzzle you ever again. You read the history of Ancient Greece and when the Romans came in, and nothing will ever bother you about America again. You’ll see what America is. Now, maybe, but there are a lot of other countries in the world besides America … Two. You can’t forget about them. [Laughs]
Have you found there are better places in the world than others to write songs?
It’s not necessary to take a trip to write a song. What a long, strange trip it’s been, however. But that part of it’s true, too. Environment is very important. People need peaceful, invigorating environments. Stimulating environments. In America there’s a lot of repression. A lot of people who are repressed. They’d like to get out of town, they just don’t know how to do it. And so, it holds back creativity. It’s like you go somewhere and you can’t help but feel it. Or people even tell it to you, you know?
What got me into the whole thing in the beginning wasn’t songwriting. That’s not what got me into it. When “Hound Dog” came across the radio, there was nothing in my mind that said, “Wow, what a great song, I wonder who wrote that?” It didn’t really concern me who wrote it. It didn’t matter who wrote it. It was just … it was just there. Same way with me now. You hear a good song. Now you think to yourself, maybe, “Who wrote it?” Why? Because the performer’s not as good as the song, maybe. The performer’s got to transcend that song. At least come up to it. A good performer can always make a bad song sound good. Record albums are filled with good performers singing filler stuff. Everybody can say they’ve done that. Whether you wrote it or whether somebody else wrote it, it doesn’t matter. What interested me was being a musician. The singer was important and so was the song. But being a musician was always first and foremost in the back of my mind. That’s why, while other people were learning … whatever they were learning. What were they learning way back then?
“Ride, Sally, Ride”?
Something like that. Or “Run, Rudolph, Run.” When the others were doing “Run, Rudolph, Run,” my interests were going more to Leadbelly kind of stuff, when he was playing a Stella 12-string guitar. Like, how does the guy do that? Where can one of these be found, a 12-string guitar? They didn’t have any in my town. My intellect always felt that way. Of the music. Like Paul Whiteman. Paul Whiteman creates a mood. Bing Crosby’s early records. They created a mood, like that Cab Calloway, kind of spooky horn kind of stuff. Violins, when big bands had a sound to them, without the Broadway glitz. Once that Broadway trip got into it, it became all sparkly and Las Vegas, really. But it wasn’t always so. Music created an environment. It doesn’t happen anymore. Why? Maybe technology has just booted it out and there’s no need for it. Because we have a screen which supposedly is three-dimensional. Or comes across as three -imensional. It would like you to believe it’s three-dimensional. Well, you know, like old movies and stuff like that that’s influenced so many of us who grew up on that stuff. [Picks up Peruvian flute] Like this old thing, here, it’s nothing, it’s some kind of, what is it? … Listen: [Plays a slow tune on the flute] Here, listen to this song. [Plays more] Okay. That’s a song. It don’t have any words. Why do songs need words? They don’t. Songs don’t need words. They don’t.
Do you feel satisfied with your body of work?
Most everything, yeah.
Do you spend a lot of time writing songs?
Well, did you hear that record that Columbia released last year, Down In The Groove ? Those songs, they came in pretty easy.
I’d like to mention some of your songs, and see what response you have to them.
“One More Cup Of Coffee” [from Desire]
[Pause] Was that for a coffee commercial? No … It’s a gypsy song. That song was written during a gypsy festival in the south of France one summer. Somebody took me there to the gypsy high holy days which coincide with my own particular birthday. So somebody took me to a birthday party there once, and hanging out there for a week probably influenced the writing of that song. But the “valley below” probably came from someplace else. My feeling about the song was that the verses came from someplace else. It wasn’t about anything, so this “valley below” thing became the fixture to hang it on. But “valley below” could mean anything.
“Precious Angel” [from Slow Train Comin’]
Yeah. That’s another one, it could go on forever. There’s too many verses and there’s not enough. You know? When people ask me, “How come you don’t sing that song anymore?” It’s like it’s another one of those songs: it’s just too much and not enough. A lot of my songs strike me that way. That’s the natural thing about them to me. It’s too hard to wonder why about them. To me, they’re not worthy of wondering why about them. They’re songs. They’re not written in stone. They’re on plastic.
To us, though, they are written in stone, because Bob wrote them. I’ve been amazed by the way you’ve changed some of your great songs.
Right. Somebody told me that Tennyson often wanted to rewrite his poems when he saw them in print.
“I And I” [from Infidels]
[Pause] That was one of them Caribbean songs. One year a bunch of songs just came to me hanging around down in the islands, and that was one of them.
“Joey” [from Desire]
To me, that’s a great song. Yeah. And it never loses its appeal.
And it has one of the greatest visual endings of any song.
That’s a tremendous song. And you’d only know that singing it night after night. You know who got me singing that song? [Jerry] Garcia. Yeah. He got me singing that song again. He said that’s one of the best songs ever written. Coming from him, it was hard to know which way to take that [laughs]. He got me singing that song again with them [The Grateful Dead]. It was amazing how it would, right from the get go, it had a life of its own, it just ran out of the gate and it just kept on getting better and better and better and better, and it keeps on getting better. It’s in its infant stages, as a performance thing. Of course, it’s a long song. But, to me, not to blow my own horn, but to me the song is like a Homer ballad. Much more so than “A Hard Rain,” which is a long song, too. But, to me, “Joey” has a Homeric quality to it that you don’t hear everyday. Especially in popular music.
“Ring Them Bells” [from Oh Mercy]
It stands up when you hear it played by me. But if another performer did it, you might find that it probably wouldn’t have as much to do with bells as what the title proclaims. Somebody once came and sang it in my dressing room. To me. To try to influence me to sing it that night [laughs]. It could have gone either way, you know.
Elliot Mintz: Which way did it go?
It went right out the door [laughs]. It went out the door and didn’t come back. Listening to this song that was on my record, sung by someone who wanted me to sing it … There was no way he was going to get me to sing it like that. A great performer, too.
“Idiot Wind” [from Blood On The Tracks]
“Idiot Wind.” Yeah, you know, obviously, if you’ve heard both versions you realize, of course, that there could be a myriad of verses for the thing. It doesn’t stop. It wouldn’t stop. Where do you end? You could still be writing it, really. It’s something that could be a work continually in progress. Although, on saying that, let me say that my lyrics, to my way of thinking, are better for my songs than anybody else’s. People have felt about my songs sometimes the same way as me. And they say to me, your songs are so opaque that, people tell me, they have feelings they’d like to express within the same framework. My response, always, is go ahead, do it, if you feel like it. But it never comes off. They’re not as good as my lyrics. There’s just something about my lyrics that just have a gallantry to them. And that might be all they have going for them [laughs]. However, it’s no small thing.