Bob Dylan

Expecting Rain

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 his work: "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 alive. 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 well. 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 back." 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 while." "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 air. 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 create." "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 two-hour version. 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 jungle. "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 and Stoller?" 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 Amsterdam. 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 pursuers. 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 invisible". "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 they were." 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 artist". 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 his listeners. 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 in "Street-Legal". 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 enemy within"? 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 You Tonight?". 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 country..." 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 greatest challenges. 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 and without. "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 renew us. 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.

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