The recent interview with Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone is, without a doubt, the most fascinating thing I’ve read all year. It’s contentious, sure, but a lot of Dylan interviews are contentious–you know, where you get the sense he’s almost enjoying confounding the interviewer. Or at least not willing to put up with an ounce of nonsense or non-wisdom, especially when it comes to his work and person. For example, reading how Dylan responds when the interviewer, Mikal Gilmore, tries to lure him onto the partisan bandwagon-of-the-month is worth the price of admission alone. In fact, we watch as Dylan’s worldview, if it can be called such, completely collides with Gilmore’s on pretty much every subject. One can’t help but notice that as much as Bob might talk about his 50s roots and love for the American music tradition, he stands almost prophetically outside of time and circumstance. The man thinks in eternal terms. Which makes sense, especially if you take his claim about being transfigured at face value (which I do!). The interview is not available online, so you may have to fork over some cash for the hard copy… And naturally, it was done in conjunction with the release of his brilliant new record, Tempest. But here are some of the juicier exchanges:
It doesn’t surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren’t familiar with the Book of Acts…
People thought your music spoke to and reflected the 1960s. Do you feel that’s also the case with your music since 1997?
Sure, my music is always speaking to times that are recent. But let’s not forget human nature isn’t bound to any specific time in history. And it always starts with that. My songs are personal music; they’re not communal. I wouldn’t want people singing along with me. It would sound funny. I’m not playing campfire meetings. I don’t remember anyone singing along with Elvis, or Carl Perkins, or Little Richard. The thing you have to do is make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, doesn’t feel any emotion at all. It’s a certain kind of alchemy that a performer has..
[When you talk about] transfiguration, you mean it in the sense of being transformed? Or do you mean transmigration, when a soul passes into a different body?
Transmigration is not what we are talking about. This is something else. I had a motorcycle accident in 1966… Now, you can put this together any way you want. You can work on it any way you want. Transfiguration: You can go learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept. It’s happened throughout the ages. Nobody knows who it’s happened to, or why. But you get real proof of it here and there. It’s not like something you can dream up and think. It’s not like conjuring up a reality or like incarnation–or like when you might think you’re somebody from the past but have no proof. It’s not anything to do with the past or the future.
So when you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time…
If you’re not fulfilled in other ways, performing can never make you happy. Performing is something you have to learn how to do. You do it, you get better at it and you keep going. And if you don’t get better at it, you have to give it up. Is it a fulfilling way of life? Well, what kind of way of life is fulfilling? No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed…
You said that you originally wanted to make a more religious album this time–can you tell me more about that?
The songs on Tempest were worked out in rehearsals on stages during soundchecks before live shows. The religious songs maybe I felt were too similar to each other to release as an album. Someplace along the line, I had to go with one or the other, and Tempest is what I went with. I’m still not sure if it was the right decision.
When you say religious songs…
Newly written songs, but one that are traditionally motivated.
More like “Slow Train Coming”?
No. No. Not at all. They’re more like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”…
Has your sense of faith changed?
Certainly it has, o ye of little faith. Who’s to say that I even have any faith or what kind? I see God’s hand in everything. Every person, place and thing, every situation…
Clearly, the language of the Bible still provides imagery in your songs.
Of course, what else could there be? I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know?
Are you saying that you can’t really be known?
Nobody knows nothing. Who knows who’s been transfigured and who has not? Who knows? Maybe Aristotle? Maybe he was transfigured? I can’t say. Maybe Julius Caesar was transfigured. I have no idea. Maybe Shakespeare. Maybe Dante. Maybe Napoleon. Maybe Churchill. You just never know, because it doesn’t figure into the history books. That’s all I’m saying.
Sometimes we can deepen ourselves or give aid to other people by trying to know them.
If we’re responsible to ourselves, then we can be responsible for other people, too. But we have to know ourselves first. People listen to my songs and they must think I’m a certain type of way, and maybe I am. But there’s more to it than that. I think they can listen to my songs and figure out who they are, too.
It doesn’t mean that at all! [Laughs] I mean, what’s there, like, to understand? I mean — no, no. Just the opposite. Who’s supposed to understand? My in-laws? Am I supposed to be some misunderstood artist living in an attic? You tell me. What’s there to understand? Please, can we stop now?
Before we end the conversation, I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers, such as Japanese author Junichi Saga’s “Confessions of a Yakuza,” and the Civil War poetry of Henry Timrod. Some critics say that you didn’t cite your sources clearly. Yet in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. What’s your response to those kinds of charges?
Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? What’s been making you read him? And ask his descendent what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him, and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get… It’s an old thing–it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified…