Where to begin? Bob Dylan just gave one of the most in-depth interviews he’s done in at least three decades, and it’s fantastic. It’s a full 8,200 words, and was posted to his website. The interviewer–writer, MTV editorial director, and CBS Sunday Morning contributor Bill Flanagan–leads Dylan past and forth from his recent work interpreting American standards, to his early days as a boy first hearing surf rock in the Twin Cities, to some of the most pivotal moments of his career.
They talked about everything from Amy Winehouse (of whom Dylan was a fan), to “Wagon Wheel” (which, if you didn’t know, he mostly wrote), to hanging out with Frank Sinatra and Ornette Coleman, to why Dylan elects to sing “badly” sometimes even though he, as many of these standards recordings reveal, can croon quite beautifully.
I’ve humbly deigned to select some of the best passages from the sprawling Q&A below.
10. Dylan reveals what he watches on his tourbus.
“I Love Lucy, all the time, non-stop.”
9. Dylan gives a good one-liner about the privatization of pop-music genres in the rock’n’roll era:
From the 20s into the early 50s, the line between blues and pop and country and jazz was very flexible. Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, all tried their hand at everything. Why do fences come up between different styles of American music?
Because of the pressure to conform.
8. Dylan mistakenly thinks that the interviewer says “Taylor Swift.”
For The New Basement Tapes, T Bone Burnett put together a group with Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Jim James, Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith, to finish songs based on old lyrics of yours. Did you hear any of those songs and say, “I don’t remember writing that?”
Did you say Taylor Swift?
Yeah, OK. No, I don’t remember writing any of those songs. They were found in an old trunk which came out of what people called the Big Pink house in Woodstock,mostly lyrics left over when we were recording all those Basement Tapes songs.
7. A bunch of Bob Dylan songs, apparently, are influenced by Biblical epics from the ’40s and ’50s.
No one can hear “As Time Goes By” and not think of Casablanca. What are some movies that have inspired your own songs?
The Robe, King of Kings, Samson and Delilah, some others too. Maybe, like, Picnic and A Face in the Crowd.
6. Dylan describes Amy Winehouse.
“She was the last real individualist around.”
5. Dylan discusses his friendship with Ornette Coleman, and why he felt an affinity with the free-jazz icon.
A few years ago I went to one of your concerts and found myself sitting next to Ornette Coleman. After the show I went backstage and there were some very famous rock musicians and actors waiting around, but the only person you invited into your dressing room was Ornette. Do you feel a connection with those jazz guys?
Yeah, I always have. I knew Ornette a little bit and we did have a few things in common. He faced a lot of adversity, the critics were against him, other jazz players that were jealous. He was doing something so new, so groundbreaking, they didn’t understand it. It wasn’t unlike the abuse that was thrown at me for doing some of the same kind of things, although with different forms of music.
4. Dylan speaks eloquently about his love of the American Songbook, and what he says to people who criticize him for recording standards.
Are you concerned about what Bob Dylan fans think about these standards?
These songs are meant for the man on the street, the common man, the everyday person. Maybe that is a Bob Dylan fan, maybe not, I don’t know.
Has performing these songs taught you anything you didn’t know from listening to them?
I had some idea of where they stood, but I hadn’t realized how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition, how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.
Up to the sixties, these songs were everywhere – now they have almost faded away. Do they mean more to you when you hear them now?
They do mean a lot more. These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better. They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.
3. Dylan remembers the most important of the several times he met Frank Sinatra.
There is a famous story that you and Springsteen were invited to a dinner party at Sinatra’s house around the time you did that TV tribute to him. Had you met him before? Did you feel like he knew your stuff?
Not really. I think he knew “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ In the Wind.” I know he liked “Forever Young,” he told me that. He was funny, we were standing out on his patio at night and he said to me, “You and me, pal, we got blue eyes, we’re from up there,” and he pointed to the stars. “These other bums are from down here.” I remember thinking that he might be right.
2. Dylan remembers his early career by quoting Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.”
When you see footage of yourself performing 40 or 50 years ago, does it seem like a different person? What do you see?
I see Nat King Cole, Nature Boy – a very strange enchanted boy, a terribly sophisticated performer, got a cross section of music in him, already postmodern. That’s a different person than who I am now.
1. Dylan says this beautiful thing about the allusion of “original” creativity.
…most everything is a knockoff of something else. You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you. It’s as if you were looking at something far off and now you’re standing in the middle of it. Once you get the idea, everything you see, read, taste or smell becomes an allusion to it. It’s the art of transforming things. You don’t really serve art, art serves you and it’s only an expression of life anyway; it’s not real life. It’s tricky, you have to have the right touch and integrity or you could end up with something stupid. Michelangelo’s statue of David is not the real David. Some people never get this and they’re left outside in the dark. Try to create something original, you’re in for a surprise.
Believe it or not, this is far from the full interview. Do yourself a favor and read the rest at BobDylan.com. Also, Dylan’s new triple-LP of American Songbook selections is out on March 31, and selections from the album are streaming now via NPR.