Bob Dylan Exclusive Interview: Reveals His Favorite Songwriters, Thoughts On His Own Cult Figure Status
In anticipation of the release of his 33rd album, Together Through Life, Bob Dylan sat down with rock critic and MTV producer Bill Flanagan for a rare and unusually candid conversation. The first three portions of their meeting can be read at bobdylan.com, and the fourth installment can be read here on the Huffington Post).
In the fifth installment, published below, Dylan reveals his favorite songwriters, discusses whether he's a cult figure, and gives his thoughts on trading on nostalgia and if he's a mainstream artist (to view a slide show of Dylan's favorite's, click here).
Bill Flanagan: Going back to that song you wrote for the movie that you mentioned earlier, "Life is Hard," has the formality of an old Rudy Vallee or Nelson Eddy ballad right down to the middle eight ("Ever since the day..."). Do you figure that if you start a song in that style, you stick with the rules right down the line?
Bob Dylan: Sure, I try to stick to the rules. Sometimes I might shift paradigms within the same song, but then that structure also has its own rules. And I combine them both, see what works and what doesn't. My range is limited. Some formulas are too complex and I don't want anything to do with them.
BF: "Forgetful Heart" - how do you decide to put an Appalachian banjo on a minor key blues? Is it something you think of ahead of time or does it come up in the session?
BD: I think it probably came up at the studio. A banjo wouldn't be out of character though. There is a minor key modality to "Forgetful Heart." It's like Little Maggie or Darling Cory, so there is no reason a banjo shouldn't fit or sound right.
BF: You wrote a lot of these songs with Robert Hunter. How does that process work?
BD: There isn't any process to speak of. You just do it. You drive the car. Sometimes you get out from behind the wheel and let someone else step on the gas.
BF: You must have known Hunter a long time. Do you remember where you first met?
BD: It was either back in '62 or '63 when I played in the Bay area. I might have met him in Palo Alto or Berkley or Oakland. I played all those places then and I could have met Hunter around that time. I know he was around.
BF: Didn't Hunter play in a bluegrass band with Jerry Garcia?
BD: Yeah, it was either that or a jug band.
BF: Have you ever thought about composing anything with those Nashville songwriters?
BD: I've never thought about that.
BF: Neil Diamond did an album years ago where he co-wrote with different Nashville songwriters.
BD: Yeah, that might have worked for him. I don't think it would work for me.
BF: You don't think it would work for you?
BD: No. I'm okay without it. I'm not exactly obsessed with writing songs. I go back a ways with Hunter. We're from the same old school so it makes it's own kind of sense.
BF: Do you listen to a lot of songs?
BD: Yeah - sometimes.
BF: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
BD: Buffett I guess. Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy. John Prine. Guy Clark. Those kinds of writers.
BF: What songs do you like of Buffett's?
BD: "Death of an Unpopular Poet." There's another one called "He Went to Paris."
BF: You and Lightfoot go way back.
BD: Oh yeah. Gordo's been around as long as me.
BF: What are your favorite songs of his?
BD: "Shadows," "Sundown," "If You Could Read My Mind." I can't think of any I don't like.
BF: Did you know Zevon?
BD: Not very well.
BF: What did you like about him?
BD: "Lawyers, Guns and Money." "Boom Boom Mancini." Down hard stuff. "Join me in L.A." sort of straddles the line between heartfelt and primeval. His musical patterns are all over the place, probably because he's classically trained. There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they're all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a musician's musician, a tortured one. "Desperado Under the Eaves." It's all in there.
BF: Randy Newman?
BD: Yeah, Randy. What can you say? I like his early songs, "Sail Away," "Burn Down the Cornfield," "Louisiana," where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton. His style is deceiving. He's so laid back that you kind of forget he's saying important things. Randy's sort of tied to a different era like I am.
BF: How about John Prine?
BD: Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about "Sam Stone" the soldier junky daddy and "Donald and Lydia," where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that. If I had to pick one song of his, it might be "Lake Marie." I don't remember what album that's on.
BF: A lot of the acts from your generation seem to be trading on nostalgia. They play the same songs the same way for the last 30 years. Why haven't you ever done that?
BD: I couldn't if I tried. Those guys you are talking about all had conspicuous hits. They started out anti-establishment and now they are in charge of the world. Celebratory songs. Music for the grand dinner party. Mainstream stuff that played into the culture on a pervasive level. My stuff is different from those guys. It's more desperate. Daltrey, Townshend, McCartney, the Beach Boys, Elton, Billy Joel. They made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly ... exactly the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them. Anyway, I'm no mainstream artist.
BF: Then what kind of artist are you?
BD: I'm not sure, Byronesque maybe. Look, when I started out, mainstream culture was Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Sound of Music. There was no fitting into it then and of course, there's no fitting into it now. Some of my songs have crossed over but they were all done by other singers.
BF: Have you ever tried to fit in?
BD: Well, no, not really. I'm coming out of the folk music tradition and that's the vernacular and archetypal aesthetic that I've experienced. Those are the dynamics of it. I couldn't have written songs for the Brill Building if I tried. Whatever passes for pop music, I couldn't do it then and I can't do it now.
BF: Does that mean you create outsider art? Do you think of yourself as a cult figure?
BD: A cult figure, that's got religious connotations. It sounds cliquish and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when you're young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers - bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn't make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn't change.
BF: But you've sold over a hundred million records.
BD: Yeah I know. It's a mystery to me too.
To see a slide show of Dylan's favorite songwriters mentioned above, click here.