It was in March 1966 that Playboy published the first full-length interview with Bob Dylan. In the intervening years, he has talked to journalists only rarely, and, shortly before completing his first feature film, he agreed to talk with us. We asked writer Ron Rosenbaum, who grew up listening to Dylan songs, to check in with the elusive artist. His report:
“Call it a simple twist of fate, to use a Dylan line, but perhaps psychic twist of fate is more accurate. Because there was something of a turning point in our ten day series of conversations when we exchanged confidences about psychics.
“Until that point, things had not been proceeding easily. Dylan has seldom been forthcoming with any answers, particularly in interview situations and has long been notorious for questioning the questions rather than answering them, replying with put-ons and tall tales and surrounding his real feelings with mystery and circumlocution. We would go round in circles, sometimes fascinating metaphysical circles, and I’d got a sense of his intellect but little of his heart. He hadn’t given anyone a major interview for many years, but after my initial excitement at being chosen to do this one, l began to wonder whether Dylan really wanted to do it.
“It’s probably unnecessary to explain why getting answers from Bob Dylan has come to mean so much to many people. One has only to recall how Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, burst upon the early Sixties folk-music scene with an abrasive voice and an explosive intensity, how he created songs such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” that became anthems of the civil rights and antiwar movements. How he and his music raced through the Sixties at breakneck speed, leaving his folk followers behind and the politicos mystified with his electrifying, elliptical explorations of uncharted states of mind How, in songs such as ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ ‘Desolation Row,’ ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Just like a Woman,’ he created emotional road maps for an entire generation. How, in the midst of increasingly frenzied rock-‘n’-roll touring, Dylan continued to surround the details of his personal life with mystery and wise-guy obfuscation, mystery that deepened ominously after his near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966. And how, after a long period of bucolic retreat devoted to fatherhood, family and country music, he suddenly returned to the stage with big nationwide tours in 1974 and, most recently, in 1976 with the all-star rock-‘n’-roll ensemble known as The Rolling Thunder Revue. How his latest songs, particularly on the ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and ‘Desire’ albums, take us into new and often painful investigations of love and lust, and pain and loss, that suggest the emotional predicaments of the Seventies in a way few others can approach.
“The anthologies that chronicle all of that are littered with the bodies of interviewers he’s put on, put down or put off. I was wondering if I were on my way to becoming another statistic when we hit upon the psychic connection.
“Late one afternoon, Dylan began telling me about Tamara Rand, an L.A. psychic reader he’d been seeing, because when the world falls on your head, he said, ‘you need someone who can tell you how to crawl out, which way to take.’ I presumed he was referring obliquely to the collapse of his 12-year marriage to Sara Dylan. (Since the child-custody battle was in progress as we talked, Dylan’s lawyer refused to permit him to address that subject directly.) Dylan seemed concerned that I understand that Tamara was no con artist, that she had genuine psychic abilities. I assured him I could believe it because my sister, in addition to being a talented writer, has some remarkable psychic abilities and is in great demand in New York for her prescient readings. Dylan asked her name (it’s Ruth) and when I told him, he looked impressed. ‘I’ve heard of her,’ he said. I think that made the difference, because after that exchange, Dylan became far more forthcoming with me. Some of the early difficulties of the interview might also be explained by the fact that Dylan .was physically and mentally drained from an intense three-month sprint to finish editing and dubbing Renaldo & Clara, the movie he’d been writing, directing and co-editing for a full two years. He looked pale, smoked a lot of cigarettes’and seemed fidgety. The final step in the moviemaking process-the sound mix-was moving slowly, largely because of his own nervous perfectionism.
“Most of our talks took place in a little shack of a dressing room outside dubbing stage five at the Burbank Studios. Frequently, we’d be interrupted as Dylan would have to run onto the dubbing stage and watch the hundredth run-through of one of the film’s two dozen reels to see if his detailed instructions had been carried out. I particularly remember one occasion when I accompanied him onto the dubbing stage. Onscreen, Renaldo, played by Bob Dylan, and Clara, played by Sara Dylan (the movie was shot before the divorce-though not long before), are interrupted in the midst of connubial foolery by a knock at the door. In walks Joan Baez, dressed in white from head to toe, carrying a red rose. She says sine’s come for Renaldo. When Dylan, as Renaldo, sees who it is, his jaw drops. At the dubbing console, one of the sound men stopped the film at the jaw-drop frame and asked, ‘You want me to get rid of that footstep noise in the background, Bob?’ ‘What footstep noise?’ Dylan asked. ‘When Joan comes in and we go to Renaldo, there’s some hind of footstep noise in the background, maybe from outside the door.’ ‘Those aren’t footsteps,’ said Dylan. ‘That’s the beating of Renaldo’s heart.’ ‘What makes you so sure?’ the sound man asked teasingly. ‘I know him pretty well,’ Dylan said, ‘I know him by heart.’ ‘You want it kept there, then?’ ‘I want it louder,’ Dylan said. He turned to me. ‘You ever read that thing by Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”?’ I was surprised at how willing Dylan was to explain the details of his film; he’d never done that with his songs. But he’s put two years and more than a piece of his heart into this five-hour epic and it seems clear that he wants to be taken seriously as a film maker with serious artistic ambitions.
“In the ‘Proverbs of Hell,’ William Blake (one of Dylan’s favorite poets) wrote: ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ Eleven years ago, Dylan’s motorcycle skidded of that road and almost killed him. But unlike most Dionysian Sixties figures, Dylan survived. He may not have reached the palace of wisdom (and, indeed, the strange palace of marble and stone he has been building at Malibu seems, according to some reports, to be sliding into the sea). But despite his various sorrows, he does seem to be bursting with exhilaration and confidence that he can still create explosive art without having to die in the explosion.”
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PLAYBOY: Exactly 12 years ago, we published a long interview with you in this magazine, and there’s a lot to catch up on. But we’d like at least to try to start at the beginning. Besides being a singer, a poet and now a film maker, you’ve also been called a visionary. Do you recall any visionary experiences while you were growing up?
DYLAN: I had some amazing projections when I was a kid, but not since then. And those visions have been strong enough to keep me going through today.
PLAYBOY: What were those visions like?
DYLAN: They were a feeling of wonder. I projected myself toward what I might personally, humanly do in terms of creating any kinds of reality. I was born in, grew up in a place so foreign that you had to be there to picture it.
PLAYBOY: Are you talking about Hibbing, Minnesota?
DYLAN: It was all in upper Minnesota.
PLAYBOY: What was the quality of those visionary experiences?
DYLAN: Well, in the winter, everything was still, nothing moved. Eight months of that. You can put it together. You can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window. There is also the summer, when it gets hot and sticky and the air is very metallic. There is a lot of Indian spirit. The earth there is unusual, filled with ore. So there is something happening that is hard to define. There is a magnetic attraction there. Maybe thousands and thousands of years ago, some planet bumped into the land there. There is a great spiritual quality throughout the Midwest. Very subtle, very strong, and that is where I grew up. New York was a dream.
PLAYBOY: Why did you leave Minnesota?
DYLAN: Well, there comes a time for all things to pass.
PLAYBOY: More specifically, why the dream of New York?
DYLAN: It was a dream of the cosmopolitan riches of the mind.
PLAYBOY: Did you find them there?
DYLAN: It was a great place for me to learn and to meet others who were on similar journeys.
PLAYBOY: People like Allen Ginsberg, for instance?
DYLAN: Not necessarily him. He was pretty established by the time I got there. But it was Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who inspired me at first—and where I came from, there wasn’t the sophisticated transportation you have now. To get to New York, you’d have to go by thumb. Anyway, those were the old days when John Denver used to play sideman. Many people came out of that period of time. Actors, dancers, politicians, a lot of people were involved with that period of time.
PLAYBOY: What period are you talking about?
DYLAN: Real early Sixties.
PLAYBOY: What made that time so special?
DYLAN: I think it was the last go-round for people to gravitate to New York. People had gone to New York since the 1800s, I think. For me, it was pretty fantastic. I mean, it was like, there was a cafe—what was it called?—I forgot the name, but it was Aaron Burr’s old livery stable. You know, just being in that area, that part of the world was enlightening.
PLAYBOY: Why do you say it was the last go-round?
DYLAN: I don’t think it happened after that. I think it finished, New York died after that, late to middle Sixties.
PLAYBOY: What killed it?
DYLAN: Mass communication killed it. It turned into one big carnival side show. That is what I sensed and I got out of there when it was just starting to happen. The atmosphere changed from one of creativity and isolation to one where the attention would be turned more to the show. People were reading about themselves and believing it. I don’t know when it happened. Sometime around Peter, Paul and Mary, when they got pretty big. It happened around the same time. For a long time, I was famous only in certain circles in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, and that was fine enough for me. I am an eyewitness to that time. I am one of the survivors of that period. You know as well as I do that a lot of people didn’t make it. They didn’t live to tell about it, anyway.
PLAYBOY: Why do you think they didn’t survive?
DYLAN: People were still dealing with illusion and delusion at that time. The times really change and they don’t change. There were different characters back then and there were things that were undeveloped that are fully developed now. But back then, there was space, space—well, there wasn’t any pressure. There was all the time in the world to get it done. There wasn’t any pressure, because nobody knew about it. You know, I mean, music people were like a bunch of cotton pickers. They see you on the side of the road picking cotton, but nobody stops to give a shit. I mean, it wasn’t that important. So Washington Square was a place where people you knew or met congregated every Sunday and it was like a world of music. You know the way New York is; I mean, there could be 20 different things happening in the same kitchen or in the same park; there could be 200 bands in one park in New York; there could be 15 jug bands, five bluegrass bands and an old crummy string band, 20 Irish confederate groups, a Southern mountain band, folk singers of all kinds and colors, singing John Henry work songs. There was bodies piled sky-high doing whatever they felt like doing. Bongo drums, conga drums, saxophone players, xylophone players, drummers of all nations and nationalities. Poets who would rant and rave from the statues. You know, those things don’t happen anymore. But then that was what was happening. It was all street. Cafes would be open all night. It was a European thing that never really took off. It has never really been a part of this country. That is what New York was like when I got there.
PLAYBOY: And do you think that mass communications, such as Time magazine’s putting Joan Baez on the cover—
DYLAN: Mass communication killed it all. Oversimplification. I don’t know whose idea it was to do that, but soon after, the people moved away.
PLAYBOY: Just to stay on the track, what first turned you on to folk singing? You actually started out in Minnesota playing the electric guitar with a rock group, didn’t you?
DYLAN: Yeah. The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. That was in ’58 or something like that. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.
PLAYBOY: What was so special to you about that Odetta record?
DYLAN: Just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record. It was her first and the songs were Mule Skinner, Jack of Diamonds, Water Boy, Buked and Scorned.
PLAYBOY: When did you learn to play the guitar?
DYLAN: I saved the money I had made working on my daddy’s truck and bought a Silvertone guitar from Sears Roebuck. I was 12. I just bought a book of chords and began to play.
PLAYBOY: What was the first song you wrote?
DYLAN: The first song I wrote was a song to Brigitte Bardot.
PLAYBOY: Do you remember how it went?
DYLAN: I don’t recall too much of it. It had only one chord. Well, it is all in the heart. Anyway, from Odetta, I went to Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio, little by little uncovering more as I went along. Finally, I was doing nothing but Carter Family and Jesse Fuller songs. Then later I got to Woody Guthrie, which opened up a whole new world at that time. I was still only 19 or 20. I was pretty fanatical about what I wanted to do, so after learning about 200 of Woody’s songs, I went to see him and I waited for the right moment to visit him in a hospital in Morristown, New Jersey. I took a bus from New York, sat with him and sang his songs. I kept visiting him a lot and got on friendly terms with him. From that point on, it gets a little foggy.
PLAYBOY: Folk singing was considered pretty weird in those days, wasn’t it?
DYLAN: It definitely was. Sing Out was the only magazine you could read about those people. They were special people and you kept your distance from them.
PLAYBOY: What do you mean?
DYLAN: Well, they were the type of people you just observed and learned from, but you would never approach them. I never would, anyway. I remember being too shy. But it took me a long time to realize the New York crowd wasn’t that different from the singers I’d seen in my own home town. They were right there, on the back-road circuit, people like the Stanley Brothers, playing for a few nights. If I had known then what I do now, I probably would have taken off when I was 12 and followed Bill Monroe. ’Cause I could have gotten to the same place.
PLAYBOY: Would you have gotten there sooner?
DYLAN: Probably would have saved me a lot of time and hassles.
PLAYBOY: This comes under the category of setting the record straight: By the time you arrived in New York, you’d changed your name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan. Was it because of Dylan Thomas?
DYLAN: No. I haven’t read that much of Dylan Thomas. It’s a common thing to change your name. It isn’t that incredible. Many people do it. People change their town, change their country. New appearance, new mannerisms. Some people have many names. I wouldn’t pick a name unless I thought I was that person. Sometimes you are held back by your name. Sometimes there are advantages to having a certain name. Names are labels so we can refer to one another. But deep inside us we don’t have a name. We have no name. I just chose that name and it stuck.
PLAYBOY: Do you know what Zimmerman means in German?
DYLAN: My forebears were Russian. I don’t know how they got a German name coming from Russia. Maybe they got their name coming off the boat or something. To make a big deal over somebody’s name, you’re liable to make a big deal about any little thing. But getting back to Dylan Thomas, it wasn’t that I was inspired by reading some of his poetry and going “Aha!” and changing my name to Dylan. If I thought he was that great, I would have sung his poems, and could just as easily have changed my name to Thomas.
PLAYBOY: Bob Thomas? It would have been a mistake.
DYLAN: Well, that name changed me. I didn’t sit around and think about it too much. That is who I felt I was.
PLAYBOY: Do you deny being the enfant terrible in those days—do you deny the craziness of it all that has been portrayed?
DYLAN: No, it’s true. That’s the way it was. But…can’t stay in one place forever.
PLAYBOY: Did the motorcycle accident you had in 1966 have anything to do with cooling you off, getting you to relax?
DYLAN: Well, now you’re jumping way ahead to another period of time.… What was I doing? I don’t know. It came time. Was it when I had the motorcycle accident? Well, I was straining pretty hard and couldn’t have gone on living that way much longer. The fact that I made it through what I did is pretty miraculous. But, you know, sometimes you get too close to something and you got to get away from it to be able to see it. And something like that happened to me at the time.
PLAYBOY: In a book you published during that period, Tarantula, you wrote an epitaph for yourself that begins: “Here lies Bob Dylan / murdered / from behind / by trembling flesh.…”
DYLAN: Those were in my wild, unnatural moments. I’m glad those feelings passed.
PLAYBOY: What were those days like?
DYLAN: [Pause] I don’t remember. [Long pause]
PLAYBOY: There was a report in the press recently that you turned the Beatles on to grass for the first time. According to the story, you gave Ringo Starr a toke at J.F.K. Airport and it was the first time for any of them. True?
DYLAN: I’m surprised if Ringo said that. It don’t sound like Ringo. I don’t recall meeting him at J.F.K. Airport.
PLAYBOY: OK. Who turned you on?
DYLAN: Grass was everywhere in the clubs. It was always there in the jazz clubs and in the folk-music clubs. There was just grass and it was available to musicians in those days. And in coffeehouses way back in Minneapolis. That’s where I first came into contact with it, I’m sure. I forget when or where, really.
PLAYBOY: Why did the musicians like grass so much?
DYLAN: Being a musician means—depending on how far you go—getting to the depths of where you are at. And most any musician would try anything to get to those depths, because playing music is an immediate thing—as opposed to putting paint on a canvas, which is a calculated thing. Your spirit flies when you are playing music. So, with music, you tend to look deeper and deeper inside yourself to find the music. That’s why, I guess, grass was around those clubs. I know the whole scene has changed now; I mean, pot is almost a legal thing. But in the old days, it was just for a few people.
PLAYBOY: Did psychedelics have a similar effect on you?
DYLAN: No. Psychedelics never influenced me. I don’t know, I think Timothy Leary had a lot to do with driving the last nails into the coffin of that New York scene we were talking about. When psychedelics happened, everything became irrelevant. Because that had nothing to do with making music or writing poems or trying to really find yourself in that day and age.
PLAYBOY: But people thought they were doing just that—finding themselves.
DYLAN: People were deluded into thinking they were something that they weren’t: birds, airplanes, fire hydrants, whatever. People were walking around thinking they were stars.
PLAYBOY: As far as your music was concerned, was there a moment when you made a conscious decision to work with an electric band?
DYLAN: Well, it had to get there. It had to go that way for me. Because that’s where I started and eventually it just got back to that. I couldn’t go on being the lone folkie out there, you know, strumming Blowin’ in the Wind for three hours every night. I hear my songs as part of the music, the musical background.
PLAYBOY: When you hear your songs in your mind, it’s not just you strumming alone, you mean?
DYLAN: Well, no, it is to begin with. But then I always hear other instruments, how they should sound. The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound. I haven’t been able to succeed in getting it all the time. Mostly, I’ve been driving at a combination of guitar, harmonica and organ, but now I find myself going into territory that has more percussion in it and [pause] rhythms of the soul.
PLAYBOY: Was that wild mercury sound in I Want You?
DYLAN: Yeah, it was in I Want You. It was in a lot of that stuff. It was in the album before that, too.
PLAYBOY: Highway 61 Revisited?
DYLAN: Yeah. Also in Bringing It All Back Home. That’s the sound I’ve always heard. Later on, the songs got more defined, but it didn’t necessarily bring more power to them. The sound was whatever happened to be available at the time. I have to get back to the sound, to the sound that will bring it all through me.
PLAYBOY: Can’t you just reassemble the same musicians?
DYLAN: Not really. People change, you know, they scatter in all directions. People’s lives get complicated. They tend to have more distractions, so they can’t focus on that fine, singular purpose.
PLAYBOY: You’re searching for people?
DYLAN: No, not searching, the people are there. But I just haven’t paid as much attention to it as I should have. I haven’t felt comfortable in a studio since I worked with Tom Wilson. The next move for me is to have a permanent band. You know, usually I just record whatever’s available at the time. That’s my thing, you know, and it’s—it’s legitimate. I mean, I do it because I have to do it that way. I don’t want to keep doing it, because I would like to get my life more in order. But until now, my recording sessions have tended to be last-minute affairs. I don’t really use all the technical studio stuff. My songs are done live in the studio; they always have been and they always will be done that way. That’s why they’re alive. No matter what else you say about them, they are alive. You know, what Paul Simon does or Rod Stewart does or Crosby, Stills and Nash do—a record is not that monumental for me to make. It’s just a record of songs.
PLAYBOY: Getting back to your transition from folk to rock, the period when you came out with Highway 61 must have been exciting.
DYLAN: Those were exciting times. We were doing it before anybody knew we would—or could. We didn’t know what it was going to turn out to be. Nobody thought of it as folk-rock at the time. There were some people involved in it, like the Byrds, and I remember Sonny and Cher and the Turtles and the early Rascals. It began coming out on the radio. I mean, I had a couple of hits in a row. That was the most I ever had in a row—two. The top ten was filled with that kind of sound—the Beatles, too—and it was exciting, those days were exciting. It was the sound of the streets. It still is. I symbolically hear that sound wherever I am.
PLAYBOY: You hear the sound of the street?
DYLAN: That ethereal twilight light, you know. It’s the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time, on a particular type of building. A particular type of people walking on a particular type of street. It’s an outdoor sound that drifts even into open windows that you can hear. The sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartments and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and beating with leather straps. It’s all—it’s all there. Just lack of a jackhammer, you know.
PLAYBOY: You mean if a jackhammer were—
DYLAN: Yeah, no jackhammer sounds, no airplane sounds. All pretty natural sounds. It’s water, you know, water trickling down a brook. It’s light flowing through the—
PLAYBOY: Late-afternoon light?
DYLAN: No, usually it’s the crack of dawn. Music filters out to me in the crack of dawn.
PLAYBOY: The “jingle jangle morning”?
PLAYBOY: After being up all night?
DYLAN: Sometimes. You get a little spacey when you’ve been up all night, so you don’t really have the power to form it. But that’s the sound I’m trying to get across. I’m not just up there re-creating old blues tunes or trying to invent some surrealistic rhapsody.
PLAYBOY: It’s the sound that you want.
DYLAN: Yeah, it’s the sound and the words. Words don’t interfere with it. They—they—punctuate it. You know, they give it purpose. [Pause] And all the ideas for my songs, all the influences, all come out of that. All the influences, all the feelings, all the ideas come from that. I’m not doing it to see how good I can sound, or how perfect the melody can be, or how intricate the details can be woven or how perfectly written something can be. I don’t care about those things.
PLAYBOY: The sound is that compelling to you?
PLAYBOY: When did you first hear it, or feel it?
DYLAN: I guess it started way back when I was growing up.
PLAYBOY: Not in New York?
DYLAN: Well, I took it to New York. I wasn’t born in New York. I was given some direction there, but I took it, too. I don’t think I could ever have done it in New York. I would have been too beaten down.
PLAYBOY: It was formed by the sounds back in the ore country of Minnesota?
DYLAN: Or the lack of sound. In the city, there is nowhere you can go where you don’t hear sound. You are never alone. I don’t think I could have done it there. Just the struggle of growing up would be immense and would really distort things if you wanted to be an artist. Well…maybe not. A lot of really creative people come out of New York. But I don’t know anyone like myself. I meet a lot of people from New York that I get along with fine, and share the same ideas, but I got something different in my soul. Like a spirit. It’s like being from the Smoky Mountains or the backwoods of Mississippi. It is going to make you a certain type of person if you stay 20 years in a place.
PLAYBOY: With your love of the country, what made you leave Woodstock in 1969 and go back to the Village?
DYLAN: It became stale and disillusioning. It got too crowded, with the wrong people throwing orders. And the old people were afraid to come out on the street. The rainbow faded.
PLAYBOY: But the Village, New York City, wasn’t the answer, either.
DYLAN: The stimulation had vanished. Everybody was in a pretty down mood. It was over.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that old scene you’ve talked about might be creeping back into New York?
DYLAN: Well, I was there last summer. I didn’t sense any of it. There are a lot of rock-’n’-roll clubs and jazz clubs and Puerto Rican poetry clubs, but as far as learning something new, learning to teach…New York is full of teachers, that is obvious, but it is pretty depressing now. To make it on the street, you just about have to beg.
PLAYBOY: So now you’re in California. Is there any kind of scene that you can be part of?
DYLAN: I’m only working out here most, or all, of the time, so I don’t know what this town is really like. I like San Francisco. I find it full of tragedy and comedy. But if I want to go to a city in this country, I will still go to New York. There are cities all over the world to go to. I don’t know, maybe I am just an old dog, so maybe I feel like I’ve been around so long I am looking for something new to do and it ain’t there. I was looking for some space to create what I want to do. I am only interested in that these days. I don’t care so much about hanging out.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel older than when you sang, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”?
DYLAN: No, I don’t feel old. I don’t feel old at all. But I feel like there are certain things that don’t attract me anymore that I used to succumb to very easily.
PLAYBOY: Such as?
DYLAN: Just the everyday vices.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that you have managed to resist having to grow up or have you found a way of doing it that is different from conventional growing up?
DYLAN: I don’t really think in terms of growing up or not growing up. I think in terms of being able to fulfill yourself. Don’t forget, you see, I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing since I was very small, so I have never known anything else. I have never had to quit my job to do this. This is all that I have ever done in my life. So I don’t think in terms of economics or status or what people think of me one way or the other.
PLAYBOY: Would you say you still have a rebellious, or punk, quality toward the rest of the world?
DYLAN: Punk quality?
PLAYBOY: Well, you’re still wearing dark sunglasses, right?
PLAYBOY: Is that so people won’t see your eyes?
DYLAN: Actually, it’s just habit-forming after a while. I still do wear dark sunglasses. There is no profound reason for it, I guess. Some kind of insecurity, I don’t know. I like dark sunglasses. Have I had these on through every interview session?
PLAYBOY: Yes. We haven’t seen your eyes yet.
DYLAN: Well, Monday for sure. [The day that Playboy photos were to be taken for the opening page]
PLAYBOY: Aside from the dark glasses, is it something in the punk quality of Elvis or James Dean that makes you dress a certain way or act a certain way?
DYLAN: No. It’s from the early Sixties. Elvis was there. He was there when there wasn’t anybody there. He was Elvis and everybody knows about what Elvis did. He did it to me just like he did it to everybody else. Elvis was in that certain age group and I followed him right from Blue Moon in Kentucky. And there were others; I admired Buddy Holly a lot. But Elvis was never really a punk. And neither was James Dean a punk.
PLAYBOY: What quality did Dean represent?
DYLAN: He let his heart do the talking. That was his one badge. He was effective for people of that age, but as you grow older, you have different experiences and you tend to identify with artists who had different meanings for you.
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk some more about your influences. What musicians do you listen to today?
DYLAN: I still listen to the same old black-and-blue blues. Tommy McClennan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Carter Family, the early Carlyles. I listen to Big Maceo, Robert Johnson. Once in a while, I listen to Woody Guthrie again. Among the more recent people, Fred McDowell, Gary Stewart. I like Memphis Minnie a whole lot. Blind Willie McTell. I like bluegrass music. I listen to foreign music, too. I like Middle Eastern music a whole lot.
PLAYBOY: Such as?
DYLAN: Om Kalthoum.
PLAYBOY: Who is that?
DYLAN: She was a great Egyptian singer. I first heard of her when I was in Jerusalem.
PLAYBOY: She was an Egyptian singer who was popular in Jerusalem?
DYLAN: I think she’s popular all over the Middle East. In Israel, too. She does mostly love and prayer-type songs, with violin-and-drum accompaniment. Her father chanted those prayers and I guess she was so good when she tried singing behind his back that he allowed her to sing professionally, and she’s dead now but not forgotten. She’s great. She really is. Really great.
PLAYBOY: Any popular stuff?
DYLAN: Well, Nana Maskouri.
PLAYBOY: How about the Beatles?
DYLAN: I’ve always lived the way George Harrison plays guitar—restrained and good. As for Lennon, well, I was encouraged by his book [In His Own Write]. Or the publishers were encouraged, because they asked me to write a book and that’s how Tarantula came about. John has taken poetics pretty far in popular music. A lot of his work is overlooked, but if you examine it, you’ll find key expressions that have never been said before to push across his point of view. Things that are symbolic of some inner reality and probably will never be said again.
PLAYBOY: Do you listen to your own stuff?
DYLAN: Not so much.
PLAYBOY: What about your literary influences? You’ve mentioned Kerouac and Ginsberg. Whom do you read now?
DYLAN: Rilke. Chekhov. Chekhov is my favorite writer. I like Henry Miller. I think he’s the greatest American writer.
PLAYBOY: Did you meet Miller?
DYLAN: Yeah, I met him. Years ago. Played ping-pong with him.
PLAYBOY: Did you read Catcher in the Rye as a kid?
DYLAN: I must have, you know. Yeah, I think so.
PLAYBOY: Did you identify with Holden Caulfield?
DYLAN: Uh, what was his story?
PLAYBOY: He was a lonely kid in prep school who ran away and decided that everyone else was phony and that he was sensitive.
DYLAN: I must have identified with him.
PLAYBOY: We’ve been talking about the arts, and as we’ve been speaking, you’ve been in the midst of editing your first film, Renaldo & Clara. What do you feel you can do in films that you can’t do in songs?
DYLAN: I can take songs up to a higher power. The movie to me is more a painting than music. It is a painting. It’s a painting coming alive off a wall. That’s why we’re making it. Painters can contain their artistic turmoil; in another age, moviemakers would most likely be painters.
PLAYBOY: Although Renaldo & Clara is the first movie you’ve produced, directed and acted in, there was a documentary made in 1966 that marked your first appearance in a film—Don’t Look Back. What did you think of it?
DYLAN: Don’t Look Back was…somebody else’s movie. It was a deal worked out with a film company, but I didn’t really play any part in it. When I saw it in a movie house, I was shocked at what had been done. I didn’t find out until later that the camera had been on me all the time. That movie was done by a man who took it all out of context. It was documented from his personal point of view. The movie was dishonest, it was a propaganda movie. I don’t think it was accurate at all in terms of showing my formative years. It showed only one side. He made it seem like I wasn’t doing anything but living in hotel rooms, playing the typewriter and holding press conferences for journalists. All that is true, you know. Throwing some bottles, there’s something about it in the movie. Joan Baez is in it. But it’s one-sided. Let’s not lean on it too hard. It just wasn’t representative of what was happening in the Sixties.
PLAYBOY: Don’t you feel it captured the frenzy of your tour, even though it focused on you in terms of stardom?
DYLAN: I wasn’t really a star in those days, any more than I’m a star these days. I was very obviously confused then as to what my purpose was. It was pretty early, you know. The Times They Are A-Changin’ was on the English charts then, so it had to be pretty early.
PLAYBOY: And you didn’t really know what you were doing then?
DYLAN: Well, look what I did after that. Look what I did after that. I didn’t really start to develop until after that. I mean, I did, but I didn’t. Don’t Look Back was a little too premature. I should have been left alone at that stage.
PLAYBOY: You were involved in another movie around that period—1966—that was never released, called Eat the Document. How did that happen?
DYLAN: That started as a television special. I wasn’t the maker of that film, either. I was the—I was the victim. They had already shot film, but at that time, of course, I did—I had a—if I hadn’t gotten into that motorcycle accident, they would have broadcast it, and that would have been that. But I was sort of—I was taken out of it, you know, and—I think it was the fall of that year. I had a little more time to, you know, concentrate on what was happening to me and what had happened.
Anyway, what had happened was that they had made another Don’t Look Back, only this time it was for television. I had nothing better to do than to see the film. All of it, including unused footage. And it was obvious from looking at the film that it was garbage. It was miles and miles of garbage. That was my introduction to film. My film concept was all formed in those early days when I was looking at that footage.
PLAYBOY: From looking at those miles of garbage, you got your concept of film?
DYLAN: Yeah, it was mostly rejected footage, which I found beauty in. Which probably tells you more—that I see beauty where other people don’t.
PLAYBOY: That reminds us of a poem you wrote for the jacket of an early Joan Baez album, in which you claimed that you always thought something had to be ugly before you found it beautiful. And at some point in the poem, you described listening to Joan sing and suddenly deciding that beauty didn’t have to start out by being ugly.
DYLAN: I was very hung up on Joan at the time. [Pause] I think I was just trying to tell myself I wasn’t hung up on her.
PLAYBOY: OK. Would you talk some more about the film concept you got from the rejected footage?
DYLAN: Well, up until that time, they had been concerned with the linear story line. It was on one plane and in one dimension only. And the more I looked at the film, the more I realized that you could get more onto film than just one train of thought. My mind works that way, anyway. We tend to work on different levels. So I was seeing a lot of those levels in the footage. But technically, I didn’t know how to do what my mind was telling me could be done.
PLAYBOY: What did you feel could be done?
DYLAN: Well, well, now, film is a series of actions and reactions, you know. And it’s trickery. You’re playing with illusion. What seems to be a simple affair is actually quite contrived. And the stronger your point of view is, the stronger your film will be.
PLAYBOY: Would you elaborate?
DYLAN: You’re trying to get a message through. So there are many ways to deliver that message. Let’s say you have a message: “White is white.” Bergman would say, “White is white” in the space of an hour—or what seems to be an hour. Buñuel might say, “White is black, and black is white, but white is really white.” And it’s all really the same message.
PLAYBOY: And how would Dylan say it?
DYLAN: Dylan would probably not even say it. [Laughs] He would—he’d assume you’d know that. [Laughs]
PLAYBOY: You wriggled out of that one.
DYLAN: I’d say people will always believe in something if they feel it to be true. Just knowing it’s true is not enough. If you feel in your gut that it’s true, well, then, you can be pretty much assured that it’s true.
PLAYBOY: So that a film made by someone who feels in his guts that white is white will give the feeling to the audience that white is white without having to say it.
DYLAN: Yes. Exactly.
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk about the message of Renaldo & Clara. It appears to us to be a personal yet fictional film in which you, Joan Baez and your former wife, Sara, play leading roles. You play Renaldo, Baez plays a “woman in white” and Sara plays Clara. There is also a character in the film called Bob Dylan played by someone else. It is composed of footage from your Rolling Thunder Revue tour and fictional scenes performed by all of you as actors. Would you tell us basically what the movie’s about?
DYLAN: It’s about the essence of man being alienated from himself and how, in order to free himself, to be reborn, he has to go outside himself. You can almost say that he dies in order to look at time and by strength of will can return to the same body.
PLAYBOY: He can return by strength of will to the same body…and to Clara?
DYLAN: Clara represents to Renaldo everything in the material world he’s ever wanted. Renaldo’s needs are few. He doesn’t know it, though, at that particular time.
PLAYBOY: What are his needs?
DYLAN: A good guitar and a dark street.
PLAYBOY: The guitar because he loves music, but why the dark street?
DYLAN: Mostly because he needs to hide.
PLAYBOY: From whom?
DYLAN: From the demon within. [Pause] But what we all know is that you can’t hide on a dark street from the demon within. And there’s our movie.
PLAYBOY: Renaldo finds that out in the film?
DYLAN: He tries to escape from the demon within, but he discovers that the demon is, in fact, a mirrored reflection of Renaldo himself.
PLAYBOY: OK. Given the personalities involved, how do you define the relationship between you, your personal life, and the film?
DYLAN: No different from Hitchcock making a movie. I am the overseer.
PLAYBOY: Overseeing various versions of yourself?
DYLAN: Well, certain truths I know. Not necessarily myself but a certain accumulation of experience that has become real to me and a knowledge that I acquired on the road.
PLAYBOY: And what are those truths?
DYLAN: One is that if you try to be anyone but yourself, you will fail; if you are not true to your own heart, you will fail. Then again, there’s no success like failure.
PLAYBOY: And failure’s no success at all.
DYLAN: Oh, well, we’re not looking to succeed. Just by our being and acting alive, we succeed. You fail only when you let death creep in and take over a part of your life that should be alive.
PLAYBOY: How does death creep in?
DYLAN: Death don’t come knocking at the door. It’s there in the morning when you wake up.
PLAYBOY: How is it there?
DYLAN: Did you ever clip your fingernails, cut your hair? Then you experience death.
PLAYBOY: Look, in the film, Joan Baez turns to you at one point and says, “You never give any straight answers.” Do you?
DYLAN: She is confronting Renaldo.
PLAYBOY: Evasiveness isn’t only in the mind; it can also come out in an interview.
DYLAN: There are no simple answers to these questions….
PLAYBOY: Aren’t you teasing the audience when you have scenes played by Baez and Sara, real people in your life, and then expect the viewers to set aside their preconceptions as to their relationship to you?
DYLAN: No, no. They shouldn’t even think they know anyone in this film. It’s all in the context of Renaldo and Clara and there’s no reason to get hung up on who’s who in the movie.
PLAYBOY: What about scenes such as the one in which Baez asks you, “What if we had gotten married back then?”
DYLAN: Seems pretty real, don’t it?
DYLAN: Seems pretty real. Just like in a Bergman movie, those things seem real. There’s a lot of spontaneity that goes on. Usually, the people in his films know each other, so they can interrelate. There’s life and breath in every frame because everyone knew each other.
PLAYBOY: All right, another question: In the movie, Ronnie Hawkins, a 300-pound Canadian rock singer, goes by the name of Bob Dylan. So is there a real Bob Dylan?
DYLAN: In the movie?
DYLAN: In the movie, no. He doesn’t even appear in the movie. His voice is there, his songs are used, but Bob’s not in the movie. It would be silly. Did you ever see a Picasso painting with Picasso in the picture? You only see his work. Now, I’m not interested in putting a picture of myself on the screen, because that’s not going to do anybody any good, including me.
PLAYBOY: Then why use the name Bob Dylan at all in the movie?
DYLAN: In order to legitimize this film. We confronted it head on: The persona of Bob Dylan is in the movie so we could get rid of it. There should no longer be any mystery as to who or what he is—he’s there, speaking in all kinds of tongues, and there’s even someone else claiming to be him, so he’s covered. This movie is obvious, you know. Nobody’s hiding anything. It’s all right there. The rabbits are falling out of the hat before the movie begins.
PLAYBOY: Do you really feel it’s an accessible movie?
DYLAN: Oh, perfectly. Very open movie.
PLAYBOY: Even though Mr. Bob Dylan and Mrs. Bob Dylan are played by different people….
DYLAN: Oh, yeah.
PLAYBOY: And you don’t know for sure which one he is?
DYLAN: Sure. We could make a movie and you could be Bob Dylan. It wouldn’t matter.
PLAYBOY: But if there are two Bob Dylans in the film and Renaldo is always changing….
DYLAN: Well, it could be worse. It could be three or four. Basically, it’s a simple movie.
PLAYBOY: How did you decide to make it?
DYLAN: As I said, I had the idea for doing my own film back in ’66. And I buried it until ’76. My lawyer used to tell me there was a future in movies. So I said, “What kind of future?” He said, “Well, if you can come up with a script, an outline and get money from a big distributor.” But I knew I couldn’t work that way. I can’t betray my vision on a little piece of paper in hopes of getting some money from somebody. In the final analysis, it turned out that I had to make the movie all by myself, with people who would work with me, who trusted me. I went on the road in ’76 to make the money for this movie. My last two tours were to raise the money for it.
PLAYBOY: How much of your money are you risking?
DYLAN: I’d rather not say. It is quite a bit, but I didn’t go into the bank. The budget was like $600,000, but it went over that.
PLAYBOY: Did you get pleasure out of the project?
DYLAN: I feel it’s a story that means a great deal to me, and I got to do what I always wanted to do—make a movie. When something like that happens, it’s like stopping time, and you can make people live into that moment. Not many things can do that in your daily life. You can be distracted by many things. But the main point is to make it meaningful to someone.
Take Shane, for example. That moved me. On the Waterfront moved me. So when I go to see a film, I expect to be moved. I don’t want to go see a movie just to kill time, or to have it just show me something I’m not aware of. I want to be moved, because that’s what art is supposed to do, according to all the great theologians. Art is supposed to take you out of your chair. It’s supposed to move you from one space to another. Renaldo & Clara is not meant to put a strain on you. It’s a movie to be enjoyed as a movie. I know nothing about film, I’m not a film maker. On the other hand, I do consider myself a film maker because I made this film: So I don’t know…. If it doesn’t move you, then it’s a grand, grand failure.
PLAYBOY: Is there any way of avoiding the fact that people will undoubtedly make the assumptions we’ve been discussing—that your own myths will subvert what you say is the purpose of the movie?
DYLAN: Don’t forget—I’m not a myth to myself. Only to others. If others didn’t create that myth of Bob Dylan, there would be no myth of Bob Dylan in the movie.
PLAYBOY: Would there even be a movie? Or the money to finance it?
DYLAN: I doubt it.
PLAYBOY: So aren’t you caught in a bind?
DYLAN: You mean by talking out of both sides of my mouth?
PLAYBOY: Well, you’ve made a film that you’d like people to take on its own merits, with characters you’d like them to accept; yet the main reason people will see it is that they’ll want to know about Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Sara Dylan….
DYLAN: I would hope so, yeah.
PLAYBOY: How do you get around that?
DYLAN: What’s there to get around?
PLAYBOY: Your stated purpose that people shouldn’t take their preconceptions to the film.
DYLAN: Well, they shouldn’t. No, I don’t know how to get around that.
PLAYBOY: Could it be that the movie is really intended to take on the gossip about you head on?
DYLAN: There’s truth to that. It does take it on in the sense that gossip is information. Gossip is a weapon traveling through the air. It whispers. But it does have a tremendous influence. It’s one of the driving forces. How did we start talking about gossip?
DYLAN: OK, gossip. What we’re doing now is gossiping.
PLAYBOY: In what sense?
DYLAN: We would have more in common if we went out fishing and said nothing. It would be a more valuable experience, anyway, than sitting around and talking about this movie, or life and death, or gossip, or anything we’ve been talking about. I personally believe that. That’s why I don’t sit around and talk too much.
PLAYBOY: All right, since there aren’t any fishing rods around, let’s continue gossiping for a while longer.
PLAYBOY: One last try: Is there anything to the interpretation that this movie was made in the spirit of “All right, if all you people out there want to talk about Dylan breaking up with his wife, about his having an affair with Joan Baez, I’ll just put those people into my film and rub people’s noses in the gossip, because only I know the truth”?
DYLAN: It’s not entirely true, because that’s not what the movie is about. I’m not sure how much of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez concern anybody. To me, it isn’t important. It’s old news to me, so I don’t think it’s of much interest to anybody. If it is, fine. But I don’t think it’s a relevant issue. The movie doesn’t deal with anything current. This is two years ago. I’m smart enough to know I shouldn’t deal with any current subject on an emotional level, because usually it won’t last. You need experience to write, or to sing or to act. You don’t just wake up and say you’re going to do it. This movie is taking experience and turning it into something else. It’s not a gossipy movie.
PLAYBOY: We began this discussion of your movie by comparing film makers to painters. Were you as interested in painting as in, say, rock music when you were growing up?
DYLAN: Yeah, I’ve always painted. I’ve always held on to that one way or another.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel you use colors in the same way you use notes or chords?
DYLAN: Oh, yeah. There’s much information you could get on the meaning of colors. Every color has a certain mood and feeling. For instance, red is a very vital color. There’re a lot of reds in this movie, a lot of blues. A lot of cobalt blue.
PLAYBOY: Why cobalt blue?
DYLAN: It’s the color of dissension.
PLAYBOY: Did you study painting?
DYLAN: A lot of the ideas I have were influenced by an old man who had definite ideas on life and the universe and nature—all that matters.
PLAYBOY: Who was he?
DYLAN: Just an old man. His name wouldn’t mean anything to you. He came to this country from Russia in the Twenties, started out as a boxer and ended up painting portraits of women.
PLAYBOY: You don’t want to mention his name, just to give him a plug?
DYLAN: His first name was Norman. Every time I mention somebody’s name, it’s like they get a tremendous amount of distraction and irrelevancy in their lives. For instance, there’s this lady in L.A. I respect a lot who reads palms. Her name’s Tamara Rand. She’s for real, she’s not a gypsy fortune teller. But she’s accurate! She’ll take a look at your hand and tell you things you feel but don’t really understand about where you’re heading, what the future looks like. She’s a surprisingly hopeful person.
PLAYBOY: Are you sure you want to know if there’s bad news in your future?
DYLAN: Well, sometimes when the world falls on your head, you know there are ways to get out, but you want to know which way. Usually, there’s someone who can tell you how to crawl out, which way to take.
PLAYBOY: Getting back to colors and chords, are there particular musical keys that have personalities or moods the way colors do for you?
DYLAN: Yeah. B major and B-flat major.
PLAYBOY: How would you describe them?
DYLAN: [Pause] Each one is hard to define. Assume the characteristic that is true of both of them and you’ll find you’re not sure whether you’re speaking to them or to their echo.
PLAYBOY: What does a major key generally conjure up for you?
DYLAN: I think any major key deals with romance.
PLAYBOY: And the minor keys?
DYLAN: The supernatural.
PLAYBOY: What about other specific keys?
DYLAN: I find G major to be the key of strength, but also the key of regret. E major is the key of confidence. A-flat major is the key of renunciation.
PLAYBOY: Since we’re back on the subject of music, what new songs have you planned?
DYLAN: I have new songs now that are unlike anything I’ve ever written.
PLAYBOY: What are they like?
DYLAN: Well, you’ll see. I mean, unlike anything I’ve ever done. You couldn’t even say that Blood on the Tracks or Desire have led up to this stuff. I mean, it’s that far gone, it’s that far out there. I’d rather not talk more about them until they’re out.
PLAYBOY: When the character Bob Dylan in your movie speaks the words “Rock ’n’ roll is the answer,” what does he mean?
DYLAN: He’s speaking of the sound and the rhythm. The drums and the rhythm are the answer. Get into the rhythm of it and you will lose yourself; you will forget about the brutality of it all. Then you will lose your identity. That’s what he’s saying.
PLAYBOY: Does that happen to you, to the real Bob Dylan?
DYLAN: Well, that’s easy. When you’re playing music and it’s going well, you do lose your identity, you become totally subservient to the music you’re doing in your very being.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel possessed?
DYLAN: It’s dangerous, because its effect is that you believe that you can transcend and cope with anything. That it is the real life, that you’ve struck at the heart of life itself and you are on top of your dream. And there’s no down. But later on, backstage, you have a different point of view.
PLAYBOY: When you’re onstage, do you feel the illusion that death can’t get you?
DYLAN: Death can’t get you at all. Death’s not here to get anybody. It’s the appearance of the Devil, and the Devil is a coward, so knowledge will overcome that.
PLAYBOY: What do you mean?
DYLAN: The Devil is everything false, the Devil will go as deep as you let the Devil go. You can leave yourself open to that. If you understand what that whole scene is about, you can easily step aside. But if you want the confrontation to begin with, well, there’s plenty of it. But then again, if you believe you have a purpose and a mission, and not much time to carry it out, you don’t bother about those things.
PLAYBOY: Do you think you have a purpose and a mission?
PLAYBOY: What is it?
DYLAN: Henry Miller said it: The role of an artist is to inoculate the world with disillusionment.
PLAYBOY: To create rock music, you used to have to be against the system, a desperado. Is settling down an enemy of rock?
DYLAN: No. You can be a priest and be in rock ’n’ roll. Being a rock-’n’-roll singer is no different from being a house painter. You climb up as high as you want to. You’re asking me, is rock, is the lifestyle of rock ’n’ roll at odds with the lifestyle of society in general?
PLAYBOY: Yes. Do you need to be in some way outside society, or in some way an outlaw, some way a—
DYLAN: No. Rock ’n’ roll forms its own society. It’s a world of its own. The same way the sports world is.
PLAYBOY: But didn’t you feel that it was valuable to bum around and all that sort of thing?
DYLAN: Yes. But not necessarily, because you can bum around and wind up being a lawyer, you know. There isn’t anything definite. Or any blueprint to it.
PLAYBOY: So future rock stars could just as easily go to law school?
DYLAN: For some people, it might be fine. But, getting back to that again, you have to have belief. You must have a purpose. You must believe that you can disappear through walls. Without that belief, you’re not going to become a very good rock singer, or pop singer, or folk-rock singer, or you’re not going to become a very good lawyer. Or a doctor. You must know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
PLAYBOY: Why are you doing what you’re doing?
DYLAN: [Pause] Because I don’t know anything else to do. I’m good at it.
PLAYBOY: How would you describe “it”?
DYLAN: I’m an artist. I try to create art.
PLAYBOY: How do you feel about your songs when you perform them years later? Do you feel your art has endured?
DYLAN: How many singers feel the same way ten years later that they felt when they wrote the song? Wait till it gets to be 20 years, you know? Now, there’s a certain amount of act that you can put on, you know, you can get through on it, but there’s got to be something to it that is real—not just for the moment. And a lot of my songs don’t work. I wrote a lot of them just by gut—because my gut told me to write them—and they usually don’t work so good as the years go on. A lot of them do work. With those, there’s some truth about every one of them. And I don’t think I’d be singing if I weren’t writing, you know. I would have no reason or purpose to be out there singing. I mean, I don’t consider myself…the life of the party. [Laughs]
PLAYBOY: You’ve given new life to some songs in recent performances, such as I Pity the Poor Immigrant in the Rolling Thunder tour.
DYLAN: Oh, yes. I’ve given new life to a lot of them. Because I believe in them, basically. You know, I believe in them. So I do give them new life. And that can always be done. I rewrote Lay, Lady, Lay, too. No one ever mentioned that.
PLAYBOY: You changed it to a much raunchier, less pretty kind of song.
DYLAN: Exactly. A lot of words to that song have changed. I recorded it originally surrounded by a bunch of other songs on the Nashville Skyline album. That was the tone of the session. Once everything was set, that was the way it came out. And it was fine for that time, but I always had a feeling there was more to the song than that.
PLAYBOY: Is it true that Lay, Lady, Lay was originally commissioned for Midnight Cowboy?
DYLAN: That’s right. They wound up using Freddy Neil’s tune.
PLAYBOY: How did it feel doing Blowin’ in the Wind after all those years during your last couple of tours?
DYLAN: I think I’ll always be able to do that. There are certain songs that I will always be able to do. They will always have just as much meaning, if not more, as time goes on.
PLAYBOY: What about Like a Rolling Stone?
DYLAN: That was a great tune, yeah. It’s the dynamics in the rhythm that make up Like a Rolling Stone and all of the lyrics. I tend to base all my songs on the old songs, like the old folk songs, the old blues tunes; they are always good. They always make sense.
PLAYBOY: Would you talk a little about how specific songs come to you?
DYLAN: They come to me when I am most isolated in space and time. I reject a lot of inspiring lines.
PLAYBOY: They’re too good?
DYLAN: I reject a lot. I kind of know myself well enough to know that the line might be good and it is the first line that gives you inspiration and then it’s just like riding a bull. That is the rest of it. Either you just stick with it or you don’t. And if you believe that what you are doing is important, then you will stick with it no matter what.
PLAYBOY: There are lines that are like riding wild bulls?
DYLAN: There are lines like that. A lot of lines that would be better off just staying on a printed page and finishing up as poems. I forget a lot of the lines. During the day, a lot of lines will come to me that I will just say are pretty strange and I don’t have anything better to do. I try not to pay too much attention to those wild, obscure lines.
PLAYBOY: You say you get a single line and then you ride it. Does the melody follow after you write out the whole song?
DYLAN: I usually know the melody before the song.
PLAYBOY: And it is there, waiting for that first line?
PLAYBOY: Do you hear it easily?
DYLAN: The melody? Sometimes, and sometimes I have to find it.
PLAYBOY: Do you work regularly? Do you get up every morning and practice?
DYLAN: A certain part of every day I have to play.
PLAYBOY: Has your playing become more complex?
DYLAN: No. Musically not. I can hear more and my melodies now are more rhythmic than they ever have been, but, really, I am still with those same three chords. But, I mean, I’m not Segovia or Montoya. I don’t practice 12 hours a day.
PLAYBOY: Do you practice using your voice, too?
DYLAN: Usually, yeah, when I’m rehearsing, especially, or when I’m writing a song, I’ll be singing it.
PLAYBOY: Someone said that when you gave up cigarettes, your voice changed. Now we see you’re smoking again. Is your voice getting huskier again?
DYLAN: No, you know, you can do anything with your voice if you put your mind to it. I mean, you can become a ventriloquist or you can become an imitator of other people’s voices. I’m usually just stuck with my own voice. I can do a few other people’s voices.
PLAYBOY: Whose voices can you imitate?
DYLAN: Richard Widmark. Sydney Greenstreet. Peter Lorre. I like those voices. They really had distinctive voices in the early talkie films. Nowadays, you go to a movie and you can’t tell one voice from the other. Jane Fonda sounds like Tatum O’Neal.
PLAYBOY: Has your attitude toward women changed much in your songs?
DYLAN: Yeah; in the early period, I was writing more about objection, obsession or rejection. Superimposing my own reality on that which seemed to have no reality of its own.
PLAYBOY: How did those opinions change?
DYLAN: From neglect.
PLAYBOY: From neglect?
DYLAN: As you grow, things don’t reach you as much as when you’re still forming opinions.
PLAYBOY: You mean you get hurt less easily?
DYLAN: You get hurt over other matters than when you were 17. The energy of hurt isn’t enough to create art.
PLAYBOY: So if the women in your songs have become more real, if there are fewer goddesses—
DYLAN: The goddess isn’t real. A pretty woman as a goddess is just up there on a pedestal. The flower is what we are really concerned about here. The opening and the closing, the growth, the bafflement. You don’t lust after flowers.
PLAYBOY: Your regard for women, then, has changed?
DYLAN: People are people to me. I don’t single out women as anything to get hung up about.
PLAYBOY: But in the past?
DYLAN: In the past, I was guilty of that shameless crime.
PLAYBOY: You’re claiming to be completely rehabilitated?
DYLAN: In that area, I don’t have any serious problems.
PLAYBOY: There’s a line in your film in which someone says to Sara, “I need you because I need your magic to protect me.”
DYLAN: Well, the real magic of women is that throughout the ages, they’ve had to do all the work and yet they can have a sense of humor.
PLAYBOY: That’s throughout the ages. What about women now?
DYLAN: Well, here’s the new woman, right? Nowadays, you have the concept of a new woman, but the new woman is nothing without a man.
PLAYBOY: What would the new woman say to that?
DYLAN: I don’t know what the new woman would say. The new woman is the impulsive woman….
PLAYBOY: There’s another line in your movie about “the ultimate woman.” What is the ultimate woman?
DYLAN: A woman without prejudice.
PLAYBOY: Are there many?
DYLAN: There are as many as you can see. As many as can touch you.
PLAYBOY: So you’ve run into a lot of ultimate women?
DYLAN: Me, personally? I don’t run into that many people. I’m working most of the time. I really don’t have time for all that kind of intrigue.
PLAYBOY: Camus said that chastity is an essential condition for creativity. Do you agree?
DYLAN: He was speaking there of the disinvolvement with pretense.
PLAYBOY: Wasn’t he speaking of sexual chastity?
DYLAN: You mean he was saying you have to stay celibate to create?
PLAYBOY: That’s one interpretation.
DYLAN: Well, he might have been onto something there. It could have worked for him.
PLAYBOY: When you think about rock and the rhythm of the heartbeat—is it tied into love in some way?
DYLAN: The heartbeat. Have you ever lain with somebody when your hearts were beating in the same rhythm? That’s true love. A man and a woman who lie down with their hearts beating together are truly lucky. Then you’ve truly been in love, m’ boy. Yeah, that’s true love. You might see that person once a month, once a year, maybe once a lifetime, but you have the guarantee your lives are going to be in rhythm. That’s all you need.
PLAYBOY: Considering that some of your recent songs have been about love and romance, what do you feel about the tendency some people used to have of dividing your work into periods? Did you ever feel it was fair to divide your work, for example, into a political period and a nonpolitical period?
DYLAN: Those people disregarded the ultimate fact that I am a songwriter. I can’t help what other people do with my songs, what they make of them.
PLAYBOY: But you were more involved politically at one time. You were supposed to have written Chimes of Freedom in the back seat of a car while you were visiting some SNCC people in the South.
DYLAN: That is all we did in those days. Writing in the back seats of cars and writing songs on street corners or on porch swings. Seeking out the explosive areas of life.
PLAYBOY: One of which was politics?
DYLAN: Politics was always one because there were people who were trying to change things. They were involved in the political game because that is how they had to change things. But I have always considered politics just part of the illusion. I don’t get involved much in politics. I don’t know what the system runs on. For instance, there are people who have definite ideas or who studied all the systems of government. A lot of those people with college-educational backgrounds tended to come in and use up everybody for whatever purposes they had in mind. And, of course, they used music, because music was accessible and we would have done that stuff and written those songs and sung them whether there was any politics or not. I never did renounce a role in politics, because I never played one in politics. It would be comical for me to think that I played a role. Gurdjieff thinks it’s best to work out your mobility daily.
PLAYBOY: So you did have a lot of “on the road” experiences?
DYLAN: I still do.
PLAYBOY: Driving around?
DYLAN: I am interested in all aspects of life. Revelations and realizations. Lucid thought that can be translated into songs, analogies, new information. I am better at it now. Not really written yet anything to make me stop writing. Like, I haven’t come to the place that Rimbaud came to when he decided to stop writing and run guns in Africa.
PLAYBOY: Jimmy Carter has said that listening to your songs, he learned to see in a new way the relationship between landlord and tenant, farmer and sharecropper and things like that. He also said that you were his friend. What do you think of all that?
DYLAN: I am his friend.
PLAYBOY: A personal friend?
DYLAN: I know him personally.
PLAYBOY: Do you like him?
DYLAN: Yeah, I think his heart’s in the right place.
PLAYBOY: How would you describe that place?
DYLAN: The place of destiny. You know, I hope the magazine won’t take all this stuff and edit—like, Carter’s heart’s in the right place of destiny, because it’s going to really sound—
PLAYBOY: No, it would lose the sense of conversation. The magazine’s pretty good about that.
DYLAN: Carter has his heart in the right place. He has a sense of who he is. That’s what I felt, anyway, when I met him.
PLAYBOY: Have you met him many times?
DYLAN: Only once.
PLAYBOY: Stayed at his house?
DYLAN: No. But anybody who’s a governor or a Senate leader or in a position of authority who finds time to invite a folk-rock singer and his band out to his place has got to have…a sense of humor…and a feeling of the pulse of the people. Why does he have to do it? Most people in those kinds of positions can’t relate at all to people in the music field unless it’s for some selfish purpose.
PLAYBOY: Did you talk about music or politics?
DYLAN: Music. Very little politics. The conversation was kept in pretty general areas.
PLAYBOY: Does he have any favorite Dylan songs?
DYLAN: I didn’t ask him if he had any favorite Dylan songs. He didn’t say that he did. I think he liked Ballad of a Thin Man, really.
PLAYBOY: Did you think that Carter might have been using you by inviting you there?
DYLAN: No, I believe that he was a decent, untainted man and he just wanted to check me out. Actually, as Presidents go, I liked Truman.
DYLAN: I just liked the way he acted and things he said and who he said them to. He had a common sense about him, which is rare for a President. Maybe in the old days it wasn’t so rare, but nowadays it’s rare. He had a common quality. You felt like you could talk to him.
PLAYBOY: You obviously feel you can talk to President Carter.
DYLAN: You do feel like you can talk to him, but the guy is so busy and overworked you feel more like, well, maybe you’d just leave him alone, you know. And he’s dealing with such complicated matters and issues that people are a little divided and we weren’t divided in Truman’s time.
PLAYBOY: Is there anything you’re angry about? Is there anything that would make you go up to Carter and say, “Look, you fucker, do this!”?
DYLAN: Right. [Pause] He’s probably caught up in the system like everybody else.
PLAYBOY: Including you?
DYLAN: I’m a part of the system. I have to deal with the system. The minute you pay taxes, you’re part of the system.
PLAYBOY: Are there any heroes or saints these days?
DYLAN: A saint is a person who gives of himself totally and freely, without strings. He is neither deaf nor blind. And yet he’s both. He’s the master of his own reality, the voice of simplicity. The trick is to stay away from mirror images. The only true mirrors are puddles of water.
PLAYBOY: How are mirrors different from puddles?
DYLAN: The image you see in a puddle of water is consumed by depth: An image you see when you look into a piece of glass has no depth or life-flutter movement. Of course, you might want to check your tie. And, of course, you might want to see if the make-up is on straight. That’s all the way. Vanity sells a lot of things.
PLAYBOY: How so?
DYLAN: Well, products on the market. Everything from new tires to bars of soap. Need is—need is totally overlooked. Nobody seems to care about people’s needs. They’re all for one purpose. A shallow grave.
PLAYBOY: Do you want your grave unmarked?
DYLAN: Isn’t that a line in my film?
DYLAN: Well, there are many things they can do with your bones, you know. [Pause] They make neckpieces out of them, bury them. Burn them up.
PLAYBOY: What’s your latest preference?
DYLAN: Ah—put them in a nutshell.
PLAYBOY: You were talking about vanity and real needs. What needs? What are we missing?
DYLAN: There isn’t anything missing. There is just a lot of scarcity.
PLAYBOY: Scarcity of what?
DYLAN: Inspirational abundance.
PLAYBOY: So it’s not an energy crisis but an imagination crisis?
DYLAN: I think it’s a spiritual crisis.
PLAYBOY: How so?
DYLAN: Well, you know, people step on each other’s feet too much. They get on each other’s case. They rattle easily. But I don’t particularly stress that. I’m not on a soapbox about it, you know. That is the way life is.
PLAYBOY: We asked about heroes and saints and began talking about saints. How about heroes?
DYLAN: A hero is anyone who walks to his own drummer.
PLAYBOY: Shouldn’t people look to others to be heroes?
DYLAN: No; when people look to others for heroism, they’re looking for heroism in an imaginary character.
PLAYBOY: Maybe that in part explains why many seized upon you as that imaginary character.
DYLAN: I’m not an imaginary character, though.
PLAYBOY: You must realize that people get into a whole thing about you.
DYLAN: I know they used to.
PLAYBOY: Don’t you think they still do?
DYLAN: Well, I’m not aware of it anymore.
PLAYBOY: What about the 1974 tour? Or the Rolling Thunder tour of 1976?
DYLAN: Well, yeah, you know, when I play, people show up. I’m aware they haven’t forgotten about me.
PLAYBOY: Still, people always think you have answers, don’t they?
DYLAN: No, listen: If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers myself.
PLAYBOY: Would you be right?
DYLAN: I don’t think so. Maybe he’d have a lot of answers for him, but for me? Maybe not. Maybe yes, maybe no. Bob Dylan isn’t a cat, he doesn’t have nine lives, so he can only do what he can do. You know: not break under the strain. If you need someone who raises someone else to a level that is unrealistic, then it’s that other person’s problem. He is just confronting his superficial self somewhere down the line. They’ll realize it, I’m sure.
PLAYBOY: But didn’t you have to go through a period when people were claiming you had let them down?
DYLAN: Yeah, but I don’t pay much attention to that. What can you say? Oh, I let you down, big deal, OK. That’s all. Find somebody else, OK? That’s all.
PLAYBOY: You talked about a spiritual crisis. Do you think Christ is an answer?
DYLAN: What is it that attracts people to Christ? The fact that it was such a tragedy, is what. Who does Christ become when he lives inside a certain person? Many people say that Christ lives inside them: Well, what does that mean? I’ve talked to many people whom Christ lives inside; I haven’t met one who would want to trade places with Christ. Not one of his people put himself on the line when it came down to the final hour. What would Christ be in this day and age if he came back? What would he be? What would he be to fulfill his function and purpose? He would have to be a leader, I suppose.
PLAYBOY: Did you grow up thinking about the fact that you were Jewish?
DYLAN: No, I didn’t. I’ve never felt Jewish. I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish. I don’t have much of a Jewish background. I’m not a patriot to any creed. I believe in all of them and none of them. A devout Christian or Moslem can be just as effective as a devout Jew.
PLAYBOY: You say you don’t feel Jewish. But what about your sense of God?
DYLAN: I feel a heartfelt God. I don’t particularly think that God wants me thinking about Him all the time. I think that would be a tremendous burden on Him, you know. He’s got enough people asking Him for favors. He’s got enough people asking Him to pull strings. I’ll pull my own strings, you know. I remember seeing a Time magazine on an airplane a few years back and it had a big cover headline, “Is God Dead?” I mean, that was—would you think that was a responsible thing to do? What does God think of that? I mean, if you were God, how would you like to see that written about yourself? You know, I think the country’s gone downhill since that day.
PLAYBOY: Since that particular question was asked?
DYLAN: Yeah; I think at that point, some very irresponsible people got hold of too much power to put such an irrelevant thing like that on a magazine when they could be talking about real issues. Since that day, you’ve had to kind of make your own way.
PLAYBOY: How are we doing, making our own way?
DYLAN: The truth is that we’re born and we die. We’re concerned here in this life with the journey from point A to point Z, or from what we think is point A to point Z. But it’s pretty self-deluding if you think that’s all there is.
PLAYBOY: What do you think is beyond Z?
DYLAN: You mean, what do I think is in the great unknown? [Pause] Sounds, echoes of laughter.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel there’s some sense of karmic balance in the universe, that you suffer for acts of bad faith?
DYLAN: Of course. I think everybody knows that’s true. After you’ve lived long enough, you realize that’s the case. You can get away with anything for a while. But it’s like Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart or Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment: Somewhere along the line, sooner or later, you’re going to have to pay.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel you’ve paid for what you got away with earlier?
DYLAN: Right now, I’m about even.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t that what you said after your motorcycle accident—“Something had to be evened up”?
PLAYBOY: And you meant…?
DYLAN: I meant my back wheel had to be aligned. [Laughter]
PLAYBOY: Let’s take one last dip back into the material world. What about an artist’s relationship to money?
DYLAN: The myth of the starving artist is a myth. The big bankers and prominent young ladies who buy art started it. They just want to keep the artist under their thumb. Who says an artist can’t have any money? Look at Picasso. The starving artist is usually starving for those around him to starve. You don’t have to starve to be a good artist. You just have to have love, insight and a strong point of view. And you have to fight off depravity. Uncompromising, that’s what makes a good artist. It doesn’t matter if he has money or not. Look at Matisse; he was a banker. Anyway, there are other things that constitute wealth and poverty besides money.
PLAYBOY: What we were touching on was the subject of the expensive house you live in, for example.
DYLAN: What about it? Nothing earthshaking or final about where I live. There is no vision behind the house. It is just a bunch of trees and sheds.
PLAYBOY: We read in the papers about an enormous copper dome you had built.
DYLAN: I don’t know what you read in the papers. It’s just a place to live for now. The copper dome is just so I can recognize it when I come home.
PLAYBOY: OK, back to less worldly concerns. You don’t believe in astrology, do you?
DYLAN: I don’t think so.
PLAYBOY: You were quoted recently as having said something about having a Gemini nature.
DYLAN: Well, maybe there are certain characteristics of people who are born under certain signs. But I don’t know, I’m not sure how relevant it is.
PLAYBOY: Could it be there’s an undiscovered twin or a double to Bob Dylan?
DYLAN: Someplace on the planet, there’s a double of me walking around. Could very possibly be.
PLAYBOY: Any messages for your double?
DYLAN: Love will conquer everything—I suppose.