Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Always Changing: An Interview with Bob Dylan

Interview by Vojo Sindolic

Bob Dylan and I met for the first time way back in the late Seventies, when I was editor-in-chief of then only Yugoslav rock and roll magazine called Jukebox, and I was often travelling to England and USA to make lengthy interviews with such rock stars and interesting persons like Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson, John Lennon, Patti Smith, Neil Young, and members of rock groups like the Grateful Dead, the Pink Floyd, the Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, etc.

As in all other cases in my literary life connected with the Beat Generation and other related writers, it was the Beats goodwill ambassador Allen Ginsberg who put me in contact with Bob Dylan. Later, which means mostly in the Eighties, Bob Dylan and I met several times, and almost on each occasion I did an interview with him. Usually, we talked about just everything – from politics to religion, from movies to literature. I must say that I never had, not even the slightiest impression that Bob is such a difficult person to talk to, or to approcah to. Maybe the reason lies in the fact that Bob knew and was aware that Allen Ginsberg highly appreciated my friendship and my decades long and successful efforts to translate the works of not only Beat Generation writers (Jack Kerouac, W. S. Burroughs, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, etc.) but also the works of songwriters and poets like Leonard Cohen, James Douglas Morrison, Patti Smith, etc.

But, on the other hand, it’s also true that talking to Bob Dylan is the hardest thing to get going. Actually, talking to Bob is always a great pleasure and a big challenge because you never know if he’s going to be very exuberant and on a roll; if he’s really into something, he’ll want to keep talking about it. But it’s hard to get Bob to sit down and actually try anything.

While during the Spring of 2008 I was working on Croatian translation of Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook, in fact Sam’s recollection of Bob Dylan’s famous Roling Thunder Revue Tour in the Fall of 1975. I got news that Bob and his band will be performing only concert in this part of Europe on June 13, in the old city of Varazdin, Republic of Croatia.

So, with some help of my old friends from the States, I managed to get again in contact with Bob and got his agreement to do an interview with him upon his arrival to Croatia.

Well, Bob appeared together with the members of his band. It’s the same band that plays with him for the last few years (Tony Garnier – bass; George Recile – drums; Stu Kimball – rhythm guitar; Danny Freeman – lead guitar; Donnie Heron – banjo, violin, etc.). Some 15.000 people from Croatia, Serbia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Germany gathered together on a local football stadium in Varazdin, Croatia. Despite rain and bad weather, Dylan and his band played almost two hours and I got impression that he seemed to enjoy himself, took a little bow after most songs and sort of jiggled and bowed a lot at the end looking quite sheepish throughout. Even the selction of songs was quite interesting. For the perfectionists who may want to know what songs Dylan performed that night, here is complete setlist:

Rainy Day Women, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,
Lonesome Day Blues, Just Like A Woman,
Rollin’ And Tumblin’, Tangled Up In Blue,
Things Have Changed, Honest With Me,
Love Sick, Highway 61 Revisited,
Desolation Row, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),
Ain’t Talkin’, Summer Days,
Ballad Of A Thin Man, Thunder On the Mountain,
Like A Rolling Stone

VS: Since I just finished translating Sam Shepard’s book on your famous Rolling Thunder Revue Tour from the Fall of 1975, I immediately want to ask you about your present-day feelings in regard to that tour, but also your movie Renaldo & Clara.

Bob Dylan: Well, Renaldo’s intense dream and his conflict with the present – that’s all the movie’s about. My main interest was not in literal plot but in the associational texture – colours, images, sounds. It’s obvious everyone was acting in that movie for dear life. Nobody was thinking of time. How else? Life itself is improvised. We don’t live life as a scripted thing.

VS: There’s also no sense of time?

Bob Dylan: You’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little that you can’t imagine happening… What I was trying to do with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from one person to another person, and you’re never quite sure who is talking, if the first person is talking or the third person is talking… but to do that consciously is a trick, and if you look at the whole thing, it really doesn’t matter.
In Renaldo & Clara I also used that quality of no-time. And I believe that the concept of creation is more real and true than that which dose have time… The movie creates and holds the time. That’s what it should do – it should hold that time, breathe in that time and stop time in doing that.

VS: What do you think about your performance in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid? And what about song-writting for the same movie. Obviously, they are two completely different things?

Bob Dylan: I think that Sam Peckinpah had cast me quite intentionally. But, you know, nobody asked me what had been my concept of the soundtrack for the movie. And then of course I discovered that they took my music and they re-laid it, the studio did, behind Peckinpah’s back, so I would write a piece of music for particular sequence, and then the studio afterwards, in post-production, re-edited the whole thing and put that piece of music against another sequence and just completely screwed up what had been my concept of the music and movie.

VS: What about the movie Hearts of Fire?

Bob Dylan: What about it?

VS: How did you get involved in that?

Bob Dylan: The way the script came to me was through someone from the William Morris Agency and that person told me to look at the role of Billy Parker, and that the director Richard Marquand had me in mind to play that part. I stayed drunk most of the time. It was a terrible script and we (actors) had no control over it. I did it for money. I mean, why else would I do it?

VS: Do you still read a lot?

Bob Dylan: Some.

VS: Did you always read a lot?

Bob Dylan: I always read some.

VS: What about your new songs?

Bob Dylan: You know, when I was growing up, I used to listen to Hank Williams, Gene Vincent, Little Richard and all those people. I think they formed my style in one way or another. I can’t help this type of music I play, this is just the kind of type I’ve always played…

VS: I want to ask you few things about your poetical, literary works, not only “songwriting”. Not long before his death, during one of our last encounters, our mutual friend Allen Ginsberg told me something about you that I think is very significant so I want to repeat it to you: “Over Kerouac’s grave [during Rolling Thunder Revue Tour in the Fall of 1975], Bob Dylan told me that it was Mexico City Blues that ‘blew his mind’ and tured him on to poetry in 1958 or 1959 in St. Paul. And I asked ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘It’s the first poetry that talked American language to me.’ So you get a line in Dylan’s Gates of Eden like ‘the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver studded phantom lover’ which comes straight out of either Howl or Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues in terms of the ‘chain of flashing images’. Kerouac’s spontaneous pile-up of words. And that’s the way Dylan writes his lyrics. So poetry’s extended itself in its own lineage afterward into John Lennon, the Beatles, named after Beats, and Dylan, so that it’s gone around the world. And I think after the wave of Whitman and then maybe another wave of Pound, it’s probably the strongest wave of American influence on world literature – the combination of Whitman, the Beats and Bob Dylan.”

Bob Dylan: I don’t know if people have seen me sometime in 1963 or 1964. Anyway, I was singing songs back then. One was a song called Desolation Row. It was, “What’s he singing about?” They didn’t understand what I was singing about. I don’t think I did either. However, I understand now pretty much what I’m singing about. So it must have taken a while for Desolation Row, Maggie’s Farm, Subterranean Homesick Blues and all that stuff to catch on, because it wasn’t accepted very well at the time. I’ve always been prepared for adversity. I was always prepared back then, and now I’m even more prepared.

VS: So to say, is there any real difference between “Improvised poetics” and hard re-workings on some poems? I mean, what is the final result?

Bob Dylan: You can make something lasting. I mean, in order to live forever you have to stop time. In order to stop time you have to exist in the moment, so strong as to stop time and prove your point. So that you have stopped time. And if you succeed in doing that, everyone who comes into contact with what you’ve done – whatever it might be, whether you’ve written a poem, carved a statue or painted a painting – will catch some of that. What’s funny is that they won’t realise it, but that’s what they’ll recognise.
My lyrics speak of the inner soul, of private pain, of the self, personal recognition – a private awakening. But people quite often want to be dulled… Don’t wait until it’s too late now. Lotta people wait until they’re old, lotta people wait until they’re at the end of the line. You don’t have to wait that long. Salvation begins right now, today.

Vojo Sindolic was born in Dubrovnik in what is now Croatia. A poet and painter, he has translated the works Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Robert Creeley, and many others.