Have you ever sung with Bob Dylan?
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Yeah, I have. He asked me to sing on Under The Red Sky, which was produced by Don Was. I had done some work with Don and I think he suggested to Bob that I would be good to sing harmonies. He has known me peripherally since The Byrds.
Was that an overdub session, or did you sing at the same time?
We recorded those at the same time and [laughs]… he’s got his own style! He tends to want to catch some kind of magic in the moment that isn’t too rehearsed. He said, “Well let’s do this song”, and I said, “Sure, why don’t you show it to me so we can work out a harmony?” He said “urrgghh… okay” and sings me the song. I asked if he could do it again and he said, “Let’s just go in the studio.” We go in and I try my level best to sing something that makes with the song but, of course, when he goes in the studio he sings it different than the time before. That’s his nature. He’s anything but a harmony singer. He’s fun to hang with, certainly fun to talk to, and writes fantastic lyrics, but he doesn’t make it easy on somebody to sing harmony with.
You know Bob pretty well. What’s he like as a person?
Pretty much fascinating. He’s brilliant, and he likes to puzzle people. He doesn’t like to speak in direct, clear communication. Not that he doesn’t tell you what he means to tell you, but it’s usually not an outright statement.
It seems like his lyrics are just a product of his thinking style.
The lyrics that anyone writes are usually a very good window into who they are, their soul, and their mind. His are definitely that.
Many say that he’s a gentle and nice person, but a lot of his lyrics have a twist…
He’s always been a nice person to me, but yeah, he will take a shot at, particularly, qualities that he doesn’t like such as hypocrisy, greed, or ignorance. Also, the more obvious human failings like violence and racism. He has not problem taking a swipe at them. Bob does the town crier and troubadour part of our gig as well as, or better than, anybody.
Do you remember when you first heard him? Was it when the first record came out?
I heard him before then. I first heard him in New York City and he was the hot new thing right then. Everybody was listening to him and was very impressed with him so I went to hear him. Of course, my first thought was, “Well shit, I can sing better than that!” Then I started listening to the words [laughs]… I had to think really hard if I wanted to try and stay in the music business. He was such a good lyricist. His songs took you on voyages and I was completely impressed by the time I walked out of there.
One of the early controversies, which resurfaced later in his career, was his borrowing from other artists. What’s your take on all that?
Well, I did it. I used “freak flag fly” on “Almost Cut My Hair”, which I got from Jimi Hendrix. Everybody does it. Whether they do it consciously or unconsciously, everybody does. I don’t think he ever consciously sat down and cribbed something from somebody else. It’s like if you write, “I love you” in a song, are you cribbing from 8,496,000 people who have used “I love you” in a song before?
Do you think The Byrds would have been as successful without their cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man?”
No. Hell no. It was a great song and it was the first time anybody put real poetry on the radio… as far as I know. It was a good exchange. When he came to the studio to listen to The Byrds we got something terrific from him, which was to use his songs, rearrange them, and turn them into radio songs. We did that several times and I think that [Roger] McGuinn was better than anybody who ever did it, but Bob learned something too. When he saw us doing “Mr. Tambourine Man” as a rock and roll band, it sparked something completely different in him.
Any memorable experiences of seeing him play live?
I’ve heard him play live a number of times and they were all memorable. I remember a benefit that [Graham] Nash put together in Pasadena at The Rose Bowl called Peace Sunday. Bob was sitting there with [Joan] Baez and if anybody can sing harmony with Bob its Joan [laughs]. He was quite good. Really good.
Do you have any favorite Dylan songs?
I really love “Girl From The North Country” because it’s a simple love song, but I love an awful lot of more complicated and stronger songs that he’s written too. I wanted very much to be his friend and hang out with him. I go with him one time to accept an honorary degree from Princeton. He said, “I don’t think I want it” and I said, “You should go do it. I’ll go with ya.” So we rode down there and I wound up in one of his songs, but he’s not an easy guy to get close to. He is a fascinating guy though.
What do you admire about him as an artist?
A number of things. He’s a brilliant lyricist and the fact that he continues to try his level best to write stuff that will make you think, make you feel, or both at the same time. He’s one of the two best songwriters of the century I would say. Bob and Joni Mitchell.
Read more 30 Days of Dylan.