As part of our Bob Dylan birthday week celebration, we’re happy to bring you this, our 1991 interview with Dylan, his only one ever to focus exclusively on songwriting
It was May 8, 1991, and I’d returned to my Hollywood office after lunch to find a pink phone message tacked to the board with an unlikely haiku: “Mr. Dylan appreciates your magazine. He will be in touch.”
At first I suspected it was a joke. I’d been trying to land an interview with Dylan since 1987, when I was appointed editor of SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters. But it was no joke; the call came from the office of Elliot Mintz, who was then Dylan’s press rep.
The arrangements surrounding the interview were cryptic and incremental. Elliot’s assistant called me periodically, each time divulging a little more information. At first I was given no time or location, told only that it would take place in the middle of the week at a hotel somewhere in the middle of Los Angeles. Also that I should come alone. It felt like arranging a meeting with Batman.
On the designated day I was summoned to the Beverly Hills Hotel, the big pink lady where stars have stayed and played since the birth of Hollywood. In a bungalow far in the back, Bob Dylan was in a giddy mood. He sang a few lines from the song “People.” Yes, that “People,” the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill standard from Funny Girl made famous by Barbra Streisand. “People who need people,” he sang a capella in that most famous nasality ever, “are the luckiest people in the world …” Then he paused to ask, with much seriousness: “Do you think people who need people are really the luckiest people in the world?”
That he would even know this song, let alone question its premise, says a lot about this man. He thinks deeply about songs, even unlikely ones like this one. Unlike the prevalent perception of him as someone far removed from life as we know it, Dylan pays attention. Searching for some clue as to why he agreed to do this interview with me, he muttered, somewhat in passing, “Man, you and Paul Simon sure talked a lot,” referring to my recent extensive interview with Simon.
The “People” exchange, however, was ultimately omitted from the final interview at the insistence of Mintz, who also demanded the deletion of a few other sections, including one in which Dylan questioned if kids who watched Hendrix burn the flag would do so themselves. Mintz also ended the interview himself by physically turning off both of my tape recorders while Bob was in the middle of discussing his song “Joey,” about the mobster Joey Gallo. I’m still not sure why he was impelled to stop our talk then, but I knew Bob could have kept talking for an hour easy. But it wasn’t to be.
What was to be was Bob having a lot of fun talking about this elusive art form so profoundly impacted by his own hand. His love for songs and songwriters was palpable as was his curiosity. When I told him I loved playing his songs, he asked, “On guitar or on piano?” He wanted to know. Never before or since has he spoken so directly and extensively about songwriting itself, about walking that fine line between unconscious and conscious creation, and ultimately achieving what he defines here himself as “gallantry.”
When you read this, keep in mind that he was smiling.
“I’ve made shoes for everyone, even you, while I still go barefoot”
From “I and I”
“Songwriting? What do I know about songwriting?” Bob Dylan asked, and then broke into laughter. He was wearing blue jeans and a white tank-top T-shirt, and drinking coffee out of a glass. “It tastes better out of a glass,” he said grinning. His blonde acoustic guitar was leaning on a couch near where we sat. Bob Dylan’s guitar. His influence is so vast that everything that surrounds takes on enlarged significance: Bob Dylan’s moccasins. Bob Dylan’s coat.
And the ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face
Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.
The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain
And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain
from “Visions of Johanna”
Pete Seeger said, “All songwriters are links in a chain,” yet there are few artists in this evolutionary arc whose influence is as profound as that of Bob Dylan. It’s hard to imagine the art of songwriting as we know it without him. Though he insists in this interview that “somebody else would have done it,” he was the instigator, the one who knew that songs could do more , that they could take on more. He knew that songs could contain a lyrical richness and meaning far beyond the scope of all previous pop songs, and they could possess as much beauty and power as the greatest poetry, and that by being written in rhythm and rhyme and merged with music, they could speak to our souls.
Starting with the models made by his predecessors, such as the talking blues, Dylan quickly discarded old forms and began to fashion new ones. He broke all the rules of songwriting without abandoning the craft and care that holds songs together. He brought the linguistic beauty of Shakespeare, Byron, and Dylan Thomas, and the expansiveness and beat experimentation of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti, to the folk poetry of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. And when the world was still in the midst of accepting this new form, he brought music to a new place again, fusing it with the electricity of rock and roll.
“Basically, he showed that anything goes,” Robbie Robertson said. John Lennon said that it was hearing Dylan that allowed him to make the leap from writing empty pop songs to expressing the actuality of his life and the depths of his own soul. “Help” was a real call for help, he said, and prior to hearing Dylan it didn’t occur to him that songs could contain such direct meaning. When I asked Paul Simon how he made the leap in his writing from fifties rock and roll songs like “Hey Schoolgirl” to writing “Sound Of Silence” he said, “I really can’t imagine it could have been anyone else besides Bob Dylan.”
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea,
Circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.
from “Mr. Tambourine Man”
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
“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. 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.
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]
Van Morrison said that you are our greatest living poet. Do you think of yourself in those terms?
[Pause] Sometimes. It’s within me. It’s within me to put myself up and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. [Softly] It’s a big dedication. [Pause] Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA. Poets, you know, they don’t go picket the Better Housing Bureau, or whatever. Poets don’t … Poets don’t even speak on the telephone. Poets don’t even talk to anybody. Poets do a lot of listening and … and usually they know why they’re poets!
[Laughs] Yeah, there are … what can you say? The world don’t need any more poems, it’s got Shakespeare. There’s enough of everything. You name it, there’s enough of it. There was too much of it with electricity, maybe, some people said that. Some people said the lightbulb was going too far. Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code. [Pause] And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings. Look at Keats’ life. Look at Jim Morrison , if you want to call him a poet. Look at him. Although some people say that he is really in the Andes.
Do you think so?
Well, it never crossed my mind to think one way or the other about it, but you do hear that talk. Piggyback in the Andes. Riding a donkey.
People have a hard time believing that Shakespeare really wrote all of his work because there is so much of it. Do you have a hard time accepting that?
People have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.
Might they think that of you, years from now, that no one man could have produced so much incredible work?
They could. They could look back and think nobody produced it. [Softly] It’s not to anybody’s best interest to think about how they will be perceived tomorrow. It hurts you in the long run.
But aren’t there songs of your own that you know will always be around?
Who’s gonna sing them? My songs really aren’t meant to be covered. No, not really. Can you think of … Well, they do get covered, but it’s covered. They’re not intentionally written to be covered, but okay, they do.
Your songs are much more enjoyable to sing and play than most songs.
Do you play them on piano or guitar?
Do you play jazz? It never hurts to learn as many chords as you can. All kinds. Sometime it will change the inflection of a whole song, a straight chord, or, say, an augmented seventh chord.
Do you have favorite keys to work in?
On the piano, my favorite keys are the black keys. And they sound better on guitar, too. Sometimes when a song’s in a flat key, say B flat, bring it to the guitar, you might want to put it in A. But … that’s an interesting thing you just said. It changes the inflection. Mainly in mine the songs sound different. They sound … when you take a black key song and put it on the guitar, which means you’re playing in A flat, not too many people like to play in those keys. To me it doesn’t matter. [Laughs] It doesn’t matter because my fingering is the same anyway.
So there are songs that, even without the piano, which is the dominant sound if you’re playing in the black keys – why else would you play in that key except to have that dominant piano sound? – the songs that go into those keys right from the piano, they sound different. They sound deeper. Yeah. They sound deeper. Everything sounds deeper in those black keys. They’re not guitar keys, though. Guitar bands don’t usually like to play in those keys, which kind of gives me an idea, actually, of a couple of songs that could actually sound better in black keys.
Do keys have different colors for you?
Sure. Sure. [Softly] Sure.
You’ve written some great A minor songs. I think of “One More Cup Of Coffee.”
Right. B minor might sound even better.
Well, it might sound better because you’re playing a lot of open chords if you’re playing in A minor. If you play in B minor, it will force you to play higher. And the chords … you’re bound, someplace along the line, because there are so many chords in that song, or seem to be anyway, you’re bound someplace along the line to come down to an open chord on the bottom. From B. You would hit E someplace along the line. Try it in B minor. [Laughs] Maybe it will be a hit for you. A hit is a number one song, isn’t it? Yeah.
When you sit down to write a song, do you pick a key first that will fit a song? Or do you change keys while you’re writing?
Yeah. Yeah. Maybe like in the middle of the thing. There are ways you can get out of whatever you’ve gotten into. You want to get out of it. It’s bad enough getting into it. But the thing to do as soon as you get into it is realize you must get out of it. And unless you get out of it quickly and effortlessly, there’s no use staying in it. It will just drag you down. You could be spending years writing the same song, telling the same story, doing the same thing.
So once you involve yourself in it, once you accidentally have slipped into it, the thing is to get out. So your primary impulse is going to take you so far. But then you might think, well, you know, is this one of these things where it’s all just going to come? And then all of the sudden you start thinking. And when my mind starts thinking, “What’s happening now? Oh, there’s a story here,” and my mind starts to get into it, that’s trouble right away. That’s usually big trouble. And as far as never seeing this thing again. There’s a bunch of ways you can get out of that. You can make yourself get out of it by changing key. That’s one way. Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not, that will take you down the road. You don’t want to be on a collision course. But that will take you down the road. Somewhere.
And then if that fails, and that will run out, too, then you can always go back to where you were to start. It won’t work twice, it only works once. Then you go back to where you started. Yeah, because anything you do in A, it’s going to be a different song in G. While you’re writing it, anyway. There’s too many wide passing notes in G [on the guitar] not to influence your writing, unless you’re playing barre chords.
Do you ever switch instruments, like from guitar to piano, while writing?
Not so much that way. Although when it’s time to record something, for me, sometimes a song that has been written on piano with just lyrics here in my hand, it’ll be time to play it now on guitar. So it will come out differently. But it wouldn’t have influenced the writing of the song at all. Changing keys influences the writing of the song. Changing keys on the same instrument. For me, that works. I think for somebody else, the other thing works. Everything is different.
I interviewed Pete Seeger recently.
He’s a great man, Pete Seeger.
I agree. He said, “All songwriters are links in a chain.” Without your link in that chain, all of songwriting would have evolved much differently. You said how you brought folk music to rock music. Do you think that would have happened without you?
Somebody else would have done it in some other kind of way. But, hey, so what? So what? You can lead people astray awfully easily. Would people have been better off? Sure. They would have found somebody else. Maybe different people would have found different people, and would have been influenced by different people.
You brought the song to a new place. Is there still a new place to bring songs? Will they continue to evolve?
[Pause] The evolution of song is like a snake with its tail in its mouth. That’s evolution. That’s what it is. As soon as you’re there, you find your tail.