Bob Dylan Sounds Off On The Origin Of His New Record, Parlor Music, Dr. Dre, And Who His Songs Are About
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 and fifth installment can be read here and here on the Huffington Post. (For a slide show of Dylan's favorite songwriters, as revealed in his conversations with Flanagan, click here.)
In the final installment, published below, Dylan sounds off on the origin of his latest record, parlor music, Dr. Dre, shout-outs in his songs, giving credit to God, the limits of his songwriting and whether he could write a song about George Bush, and just who are the characters in his songs.
Bill Flanagan: "Life is Hard" comes from a tradition that got pretty much wiped out by the popularity of swing and blues and rock 'n' roll. I remember Leon Redbone said once that the big break in 20th century music was not in the '50s when rock came in; it was when swing and jazz knocked off parlor piano ballads in the late '20s and early '30s. Do you ever wish that old style had stuck around a little longer?
Bob Dylan: Today, the mad rush of the world would trample over delicate music like that. Even if it had survived swing and jazz it would never make it past Dr. Dre. Things changed economically and socially. Two world wars, the stock market crash, the depression, the sexual revolution, huge sound systems, techno-pop. How could anything survive that? You can't imagine parlor ballads drifting out of high-rise multi-towered buildings. That kind of music existed in a more timeless state of life. I love those old piano ballads. In my hometown walking down dark streets on quiet summer nights you would sometimes hear parlor tunes coming out of doorways and open windows. Somebody's mother or sister playing "A Bird in a Guilded Cage" off of sheet music. I actually tried to conjure up that feeling once in a song I did called "In the Summertime."
BF: No one was expecting a new album from you right now. I heard even the record company was surprised. How do you know it's time to go in and make a new one?
BD: You never do know. You just think sometimes if not now I'll never do it. This particular album was supposed to come out next fall sometime; September, October; when the movie's released. We made it last year and it was supposed to be put away for a year. But then the guys from the record company heard it, and decided that they would like to put it out in early spring and not wait for the movie.
BF: You don't use elevated language on these songs - it's mostly every-day speech and imagery. Did you decide to keep a lid on the poetry this time out - was it what the musical style demanded?
BD: I'm not sure I agree. It's not easy to define poetry. Hank Williams used simple language too.
BF: "It's All Good" is a terrific song. You use that common catch phrase as a hook and describe a world that gets darker and more miserable with every verse - it's kind of funny and kind of scary. How did that song get started?
BD: Probably from hearing the phrase one too many times.
BF: Every girl named Roxanne feels a connection to Sting. Every Alison thinks Elvis Costello was singing about her. You expecting to meet a lot of Jolenes?
BD: Oh gosh, I hope not.
BF: Any chance your Jolene is the same woman who got Dolly Parton so worked up?
BD: You mean that woman with the flaming locks of auburn hair?
BF: Yeah! Who's smile is like a breath of Spring.
BD: Oh yeah, I remember her.
BF: Is it the same one?
BD: It's a different lady.
BF: At the end of Jolene I noticed that those riffs start happening. I've seen you do that live, but I've never heard that on any of your records. I assume that's Donnie playing with you.
BD: Yeah, it is. The organ sound and steel guitar combined make those riffs.
BF: Tony, your bass player has been with you now for ... what?
BD: Gee, I don't know, probably for a while. Fifteen, twenty years.
BF:How about your drummer, George?
BD: Not as long as Tony but longer than my last drummer.
BF: Where does George come from to play like that?
BD: George is from Louisiana. He's from New Orleans.
BF: There's no characters on this record like the ones in "Desolation Row," except maybe Judge Simpson in "Shake, Shake Mama." Would he be one of these archetypal figures like Cinderella or Shakespeare in the alley?
BD: Oh, most definitely. He's a possum huntin' judge.
BF: Certain singers show up in "it's All Good." Neil Young and Alicia Keys have popped up on your recent albums. Do you think all your musician friends are going to be looking for shout-outs now? Once you start down that road how do you get out of it?
BD: Well these people are archetypes, too. They might not think of themselves like that, but they are. They represent an idea.
BF: Could you write a song about anybody?
BD: Well I bet you could, yeah.
BF: How would you get Stevie Wonder into a song?
BD: When Stevie Wonder recorded "Blowin' in the Wind"/ I was playin' cards/ I was drinkin' gin/
BF: Could you write a song like Stevie wonder?
BD: I could write one like "Superstition" but I couldn't write one like "Sir Duke."
BF: Could you write a song about George Bush?
BD: Well sure. George's name would be easy to rhyme.
BF: In the song "I Feel a Change Coming On" the character says....
BD: Wait a minute Bill. I'm not a playwright. The people in my songs are all me.
I thought we talked about that?
BF: What exactly makes it you?
BD: It's in the way you say things. It's not necessarily the things you say that make you who you are.
BF: Okay, I think the line is, "I see my baby coming, she's walking with the village priest/ I feel a change coming on."
BD: Yeah, but you're leaving a lot out.
BF: Okay, but that's the part I remember. I assume the guy, or you, are talking about being hooked up with somebody and feeling pretty good about it. Given what a hard time women have given the men, or you, in the other songs on the album, we can read this as a happy ending or a sign of trouble ahead. What are the chances that the guy in "Feel a Change" is likely to live happily ever after?
BD: You might be reading too much into it. It's not a fairy tale type song. There are degrees of happiness. You go from one to the other and then back again. It's hard to be completely happy when those around us are suffering and groaning from hunger. But I know what you mean. You are talking about riding off into the sunset hoping that whatever you've done will outlive you.
BF: Isn't that the Hindu point of view?
BD: Maybe it is.
BF: A lot of performers give God credit for their music. How do you suppose God feels about that?
BD: I'm not the one to ask. It sounds like people just giving credit where credit is due.
BF: How do you think this new record will be received?
BD: I know my fans will like it. Other than that, I have no idea.