How does it feel to be on your own?
Bob Dylan talks to Robert Shelton
Melody Maker. July 29, 1978.
(Scans of this interview can be seen at Flickr)
"How does it feel?" I teased Bob Dylan with his own famous
question. He'd just finished his sixth triumphant concert at Earls
Court. Dylan insisted the ovations and the rave reviews were for
"It's not me. It's the songs. I'm just the postman. I deliver the
songs. That's all I have in this world are those songs! That's
what all the legend, all the myth, is about - my songs."
We were huddled at a corner table in a Knightsbridge restaurant.
Dylan was filled with nervous energy, but his dark glasses gave
him some refuge. Although I've known and studied him for 17 years,
it is always exciting to be around him. The air still crackles a
bit when he walks into a room.
"Are you getting this?" he asked me, so I pulled out my notebook.
I'd had a couple of informal backstage interludes with him, but
now he wanted this conversation mostly "for the record".
He knew I wouldn't ask him about God, how he enjoyed his divorce,
or if he dedicated his first song to Brigitte Bardot. It was a
conversation, not an inquisition.
Dylan speaks with the same sort of rhythm that he brings to his
singing. Sometimes his lines are gentle. Sometimes they bite:
"I started writing those songs... before, you know... before I
could walk! George Harrison told me last night that I'd be
singing "It's Alright, Ma" when I'm 90!"
"Nobody else gives my songs life. It's up to me to do it... But
those songs have a life of their own, too. Jimi Hendrix sang
them... Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and Elvis Presley have sung
them," Dylan continued.
How did he react to the death of Elvis Presley? Dylan: "It was so
sad. I had a breakdown! I broke down... one of the very few times
I went over my whole life. I went over my whole childhood. I
didn't talk to anyone for a week after Elvis died. If it wasn't
for Elvis and Hank Williams, I couldn't be doing what I do today."
Presley died young, last summer. The great country singer, Hank
Williams, died even younger - at 29 in 1953. Dylan's adolescence
was death-haunted as one after the other of his idols - James
Dean and Buddy Holly - died long before their time.
Dylan sang about death at 19, outlined his own epitaphs at 23. We
all feared he'd die young, too, but he cheated the undertaker and
hitchhiked from the cemetery.
In his great new song, "Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through
Dark Heat)", the narrator expresses disbelief that's he's still
Yet we've just heard Dylan bring new rampant life back to his
classic old songs. When he sang "Forever Young" it was for his
audiences, but also for his children and, probably, for himself as
There are differences between Dylans mystique in America today and
his grip on the audiences of Britain, Japan, Australia, New
Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and France.
He paid the highest tribute to the warmth of the English audiences
at his final Earls Court concert, saying: "I'm glad the songs mean
as much to you as they do to me... Actually, I'm thinking of
moving up to Liverpool".
After that remarkable turnout at Blackbushe, he told 250,000
picnickers: "I hope to get to see you real soon. I wanna come
I asked him about the differences between audiences. Dylan told
me: "Some American audiences and critics don't find the depth in
my work, in my songs, like they do elsewhere..."
He had praised the sophistication of British audiences to me
earlier: "Why, there were blues singers who were working as
janitors in America until they came here to England."
Would he ever really consider living any place but America? "Yes,
I would," Dylan replied, thoughtfully. "Creatively, I couldn't
live anywhere but America, because I understand the tone behind
the language, I'd love to live somewhere else, but only for a
"I lived in Mexico for three months...", he said, referring to
1973, when he was writing music for, and playing the role of Alias
in, the film Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. He added: "I wrote my
fourth album ("Another Side of Bob Dylan") in Greece, but that was
still an American album."
Dylan spoke with animation about the great feelings he'd gotten
"in Spring... two birthdays ago" at a gypsy festival at
Sainte-Marie-de-la Mer, France, where flamenco music filled the
He'd also spent time on a flower-scented Mediterranean isle, which
I'll leave unnamed in case he wants to find seclusion there again.
"It was wild!" Dylan said, wrapping up the gypsy fires and the
island's unspoiled beauty in a word. But he always brings the
"raging beauty" back home.
"I feel at home in America", he continued, "because, as primitive
as it is, I still can create from America. All my feelings come
out of America. When you leave America, you get peace. America is
a very violent place, so when you leave, you get that peace - to
"My language is still American, though I don't know the language,
the (?) or the structure of other countries. I was never a kid in
any other country."
"In America everybody's got a gun... I've got a few of them."
Remembering his old-style cutting slashes at interviewers and
his knife-throwing in Billy The Kid, my assistant, Gabrielle
Goodchild, said: "You're pretty good with knives, Bob."
Like a badman, Dylan shot back: "I'm better with a gun!" (Dylan's
West Coast rehearseal studio used to be a rifle factory.)
It's no secret, of course, that Dylan missed the box-office and
critical bullseye with his ambitious film, Renaldo And Clara.
There are still unconfirmed reports that it may soon circulate
Europe in either its original four-hour form, or an abridged
Dylan may yet recoup his losses. His divorce a year ago was
financially, and emotionally, draining. Yet some of the press has
focused on money as the only reason behind this world tour.
Dylan still believes firmly that "the myth of the starving artist"
is just that - "a myth". He told me with obvious annoyance at the
stress that has been put on his box-office appeal:
"I earn everything I make" I'm not getting nothing for nothing.
Reggie Jackson of the New York Yankees gets three million dollars
a year for striking out! For every dollar I make, there's a pool
of sweat on the floor. I feel we're all underpaid - my band, my
singers." After one performance, he said: "I put in an eight-hour
day in two hours on stage."
Part of the excitement that Dylan's been causing in his world tour
has been his new backing group. Dylan made it clear to me that he
was in no way running down his years with The Band or the various
musicians on the Rolling Thunder Revue.
But he is delighted at the range of styles and effects possible
with this dynamic eight-piece and three backing-singer group. "I
got myself a real band!" Dylan exploded with boyish delight.
When did he put them all together? "I started recruiting this band
last January. It was difficult. It was hard. A lot of blood has
gone into this band. This band understands my songs. It doesn't
matter if they understand me or not. They understand my songs!"
Was there some magic mystery arranger at work behind the scenes, I
wondered. With pride, Dylan said: "There's nothing that band does
that can't be worked out on my guitar!"
As much energy as Dylan pours into his performances, as
perfectionist as he is, he seems to get a remarkable input of
energy from appreciative audiences.
Looking back over the years since he arrived in New York at the
age of 19 with a headful of dreams and the drive to conquer and
survive, Dylan thought about those who had made it through the pop
"Who is around?" Dylan asked. "The Rolling Stones? Who else has
come through? Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have come through the
same fire that I've come through. Who else? Gerry Goffin? Leiber
He seemed to be searching his mind for those veterans of rock who
hadn't died, quit or been burned-out. "When it comes down to it,"
he went on, "it's a question of how much of it you can stand. How
much can you stick it out?"
One reason Dylan's ability to "stick it out" is all the more
amazing is that he's several people at once, a polymath as well as
a Protean chameleon. In the past, he's shrugged off labels,
wanting to keep himself free of "confinement and definition",
wanting to change roles or to pursue several at once.
He used to wince at the name "poet", exploding at me once: "That's
such a huge, goddamn word for someone to call themselves - 'A
Poet!' ... When people started calling me a poet... it didn't make
me any happier..."
I asked him now if he had become any more comfortable at being
called "a poet" these days. "Very much so", Dylan
replied. "I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I
live like a poet and I'll die like a poet."
"I've always like my stuff. All you really have to please is
yourself, in any area of life... it doesn't really matter."
Yet, as rock superstar, he had a mass audience to contend with, a
problem faced in the flesh by few living or dead poets.
Could he see his audiences from up there on the stage? "I sure
can", Dylan replied quickly.
Could he feel when he was breaking through to them?
Dylan: "It doesn't matter, really. You can't depend on an audience
to tell you that you're good. You have to know yourself. If you
know it, they'll know it!"
Dylan seemed determined this time to lead a much saner life on the
road than on many of his previous tours. Having travelled with him
during wild, sleepless tours when the pace was more than anyone
could stand, I was pleased to see him conserving his energies.
"I'm not in the pressure-cooker," said the man who'd just cooked
up half-a-dozen steaming concerts.
"Do you get a chance to relax when you're on the road?" With a
slight tone of annoyance, Dylan said: "I am relaxed!" He lit
another cigarette and took another shot of Courvoisier.
Dylan has never set himself a more furious pace. By 11.30 pm July
15 he'd already sung this year to more than 800,000 people in 50
concerts in nine countries. It was hard to believe him when he
told me that he'd be doing 115 shows in 1978.
Later, an associate confirmed that 65 concerts in America would
begin on September 13 in Maine. Even the band members don't have
the full itinerary yet.
In London, Dylan managed to relax nearly every day by swimming. He
churned up several laps at a North London public pool, where few of
the other swimmers recognized him.
He spent his first night in London (June 12) at the German-made
film, The American Friend. His American friends, Dennis Hopper and
David Blue, were in the picture, a study in the attractions and
repulsions of violence. At one point Hopper mouths a phrase from
Dylan's "I Pity The Poor Immigrant".
The next two nights Dylan made the rounds of London music clubs
with Brooklyn-born Elly Smith, CBS Records press manager. Elly had
to cope with more than 50 requests from all the media for
interviews with Bob. She also sorted out hundreds of pleas for
backstage passes from people who wanted to meet their "old buddy"
or distant idol.
Among those who did see Dylan backstage were the actors Jack
Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, who are filming The Shining here for
Stanley Kubrick. George Harrison and Ringo Starr were on hand, and
Bianca Jagger and her daughter, Jade, were around. Also backstage
at Earls Court [unreadable]... Bailey and TV comedian Eric Idle.
One night I witnessed a touching reunion with an old folk-singer
friend from Woodstock, Happy Traum, and his family. Happy was
appearing nearby at the Troubadour, the first place Dylan had
ever sung in London, in 1963.
At one late-night Chelsea party, Dylan greeted American pop-artist
Andy Warhol, Bryan Ferry and a few other scene-makers. The only
London journalists Dylan talked to, as far as I know, were Melody
Maker's Ray Coleman and Max Jones and Michael Gray, author of Song
And Dance Man: The Art Of Bob Dylan.
Dylan spoke to Phillippe Adler of L'Express, Paris, and also met
Rolling Stone's Jonathan Cott on the coach from Rotterdam to
Sitting in the Royal Box at one concert was Mrs Shirley Williams,
the Education Secretary, a longtime fan. She was interested when I
told her that Dylan was a college drop-out who'd gotten an
honorary doctorate of music from Princeton University.
Speaking of education, as soon as Dylan arrived in London, he took
a crash course in the current British music scene, with a few
seminars in new wave and reggae. He listened to recordings by the
Sex Pistols, Wire, John Cooper Clarke, Elvis Costello and others.
Dylan and Elly went to hear Merger, the reggae band, at the 100
Club. Impressed with their work, Dylan asked that they be added to
the Blackbushe bill. At Dingwalls, Dylan also heard a set by the
gutsy blues band George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
On Wednesday, June 14, after enduring a small CBS executive party
in his honour at the Next Door Club in Covent Garden, Bob and Elly
started cruising the music haunts again. From Clouds in Brixton
(closed), to the Four Aces in Dalston (open, but not swinging),
they proceeded to the Music Machine in Camden Town. There, Dylan
heard Robert Gordon and Link Wray.
Although some press people and fans besieged Dylan's hotel in
Kensington, it wasn't the crowd mania of the Sixties. One day, he
signed autographs outside the hotel. Anoher day, a carload of
photographers gave Dylan's Mercedes a chase through red lights,
until his chauffeur-cum-bodyguard, Joe, finally eluded the
After Dylan performed for 50,000 people at the open-air Rotterdam
Folk Festival on June 23, he explored Amsterdam, and went to the
home of Rembrandt. He also visited the house where the Jewish
girl, Anne Frank, had written her diary, hiding from the Nazis
before she was taken to her death at Belsen, and while there
questioned Elly searchingly about National Front activities in
England. He had planned to visit a concentration camp site in
Germany, but that was cancelled through lack of time.
Though life on the road this time was kept to a fairly quiet pace,
Dylan did jam through one night with Eric Clapton in Germany, and
there was frequent hotel jamming with his band members. But, David
Mansfield told me at Blackbushe, this leg of the world tour was
much more relaxing, with time for sightseeing and shopping.
In the restaurant where I was talking with Dylan, nearly every eye
was on him. I wondered if he could ever find those secret little
cafes, like he used to in Greenwhich Village, where he could
scribble down lyrics and ideas for songs. Dylan told me:
"Yes, there are thousands of places in this world where I can
write... cafes where I can..." I offered him his old line: "be
"Yes", he went on, "I'm invisible now, I don't have that kind of
fame. People know what my job is. They leave ma alone. In
reality, I'm not that famous. I might be anyone... Fame is awe.
People take me as I am. On stage, I'm just taking them out of what
I couldn't draw Dylan out much on Renaldo And Clara. "I talked too
much about that film already", he said. Clearly, he was hurt by
the way the American press had ravaged the film, yet encouraged by
the warm reaction it had received at the Cannes Film Festival.
"It's not obvious," Dylan said about the film, adding: "You gotta
see it, Bob."
Although bristling with drive, Dylan left me with the general
impression that he is far from happy these days. Naturally, the
great reviews and ovations he's gotten pleased him. But it's
difficult to recall protracted periods when Dylan has been happy.
Perhaps it's all what is called "the divine discontent of the
We can all carry on a dialogue with Dylan, at his performances, or
through his recordings: his work always commands a response from
us. How incredible that as he changes, his music of the past
unfolds new connotations.
When he sings "Like A Rolling Stone" these days, the powerful
lyrics take on a new relevance for and about Dylan, as well as for
In Australia, Dylan said: "I'm on a steady rolling path. It's the
only path I know, so it's the most familiar path to me. I'm
neither happy, nor disillusioned with it." Like a rolling path.
A close listening to many of the lyrics of "Street-Legal" reveals
a set of narrators who are oppressed, lonely, wandering and
alienated - in a foreign country.
"Where Are You Tonight?" may very well be his most direct
confessional of pain and loss. Yet at Blackbushe, he'd changed the
new song, brightened its tempo, muted the oppresive tone.
The pained lyrics hid behind the music of dark glasses, yet they
were still there. That time, the song seemed less to express
anguish than to convey that anguish had been exercised.
Recently, Dylan's been showing rare candour in stepping out from
behind another persona by introducing "Shelter From The Storm" as
"the story of my life".
The song tells of the flight of a man, who is living in a foreign
country, from toil, blood and doom. In his moment of greatest
need, the narrator finds that safe, warm shelter with a woman. Then,
he loses her. I find the desperation of that search still strong
I pressed Dylan to tell me more about one of his most intriguing
formulations: "No man can fight another like the man who fights
himself. Who could be a stronger enemy?"
"It's true that a man is his own worst enemy, just as he is his
own best friend. If you deal with the enemy within, then no enemy
without can stand a chance", Dylan says.
I probed dangerous territory. What is "the enemy without"? Dylan
replied tersely: "Suspicion". Could he put his finger on "the
He laughed at my question. "I'll draw you a picture for the cover
of your book", he said, "with a big finger pointing to the enemy
within!" He poked his index-finger toward his heart.
"Come on, man", I pleaded. Cautiously, Bob said: "It's all in
those two verses of that last song,", directing me to "Where Are
The lines begin: "I fought with my twin, that enemy within/'til
both of us fell by whe way..." (Copyright © 1978, Big Ben Music,
Ltd.) The clue haunts me. Is "the enemy within" Dylan's Gemini
twins locked in mortal combat? Is it the id battling the ego? Is
it the death-trip threatening the life-force?
In an earlier song, there was an encounter with a different kind
of "twin". In "Simple Twist Of Fate" Dylan sang: "People tell me
it's a sin/To know and feel too much within". (Copyright © 1978,
Big Ben Music, Ltd.)
That's how we can all have our dialogue with Dylan, and he with
us. During most interviews, he has used wit and cunning to conceal
his personal emotions. Then he'll turn around and tell the whole
world about his feelings in his lyrics, if you can penetrate the
ambiguities and the codes and the shifting personas.
Dylan fights like a demon to protect his privacy, then stands
naked in his songs. That's where the best dialogues with Dylan may
always be, for he asks us better questions than anyone can ever
ask him. The question itself is often the answer.
Dylan and the press have long carried on a duel of wits. He puts
it this way: "If I don't talk to the press, I'm a hermit... If I
do talk to the press, then I'm trying to manipulate reporters...
In my position, I can't win." I don't agree. Without a single
formal interview in the English press, Dylan won completely at
Earsl Court and Blackbushe.
Dylan has long held a democratic view about the creativity that
resides in everyone. He once told me: "To be a poet does not
necessarily mean that you have to write words on paper... One of
those truck-drivers... is a poet. He talks like a poet..."
Dylan maintains that "the purpose of art is to inspire" others
with the belief that they, too, can be creative.
I reminded him about something he'd told his old Minneapolis gang
back in 1962 after he'd gained some initial recognition in New
York. Then he'd said: "There are a million me's all over the
Die he still really believe that today? "Yes," he answered, "only
now, there are a million more million me's"
The cheers and the excitement have subsided. Dylan's back on the
road again, maybe toward "ecstasy", maybe toward the highway
blues. With the American audience, he is facing perhaps his
For all the rapport he has with millions around the world, I still
sense a foreboding loneliness about him. That may be the curse of
knowing and feeling too much within. That may be the enemy within
"A lonely man with money is still lonely..." he wrote in 1964. Two
years later, he said: "It's always lonely where I am." We can
only hope that his rapport with his new band will help.
To show my appreciation for his survival as a great artist who is
always busy being reborn, I wanted to give him some token. He's
shown fascination with Tarot cards in recent years, and "Desire"
and "Street-Legal" are rampant with Tarot imagery.
I handed him a Judgement card from my deck. It shows a winged
angel blowing a trumpet, raising the dead from their graves, and
they are reborn again as little children. The Judgement card is
like "Forever Young", telling us that music can revitalize and
Dylan thanked me warmly for the token gift. "But you shouldn't
break up your pack of cards", he said. I told him I'd already sent
off The Magician card - which amazingly resembles Dylan, visually,
and in its symbolic meanings - to my publisher in New York.
Dylan accepted the card. What else can you give a man who has
given us all so much?
Copyright - 1978, Robert Shelton. All rights reserved.
Transcribed by Givaldo Mota. December 18, 2009.