An old rock-and-roll legend has it that Bob Dylan and George Harrison were supposed to record with Elvis Presley, but The King was a no-show. As Dylan tells it, though, Presley "did show up, it was us that didn't."
In a rare interview with writer Bill Flanagan, posted to Dylan's website Wednesday night, Dylan was more generous with details of his personal life and his music than he has been in years. Perhaps most striking was his newfound admiration of the American songwriting standards.
His last two albums, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels were covers of standards. On March 31, he will release his 38th studio album Triplicate, a three-disc megarecord of classics such as Stormy Weather, As Time Goes By and The Best is Yet to Come.
"These songs," he said, "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."
Here are the most fascinating, poetic or outright funny takeaways from the interview.
For an artist who delighted in confounding audiences — most famously when he switched to electric guitar and rock-and-roll at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival — Dylan's recent focus on standards might seem odd, until he explains how deeply he has come to love them in his later years.
Though his recent cover songs might seem "nostalgic," Dylan avid he sees the songs as being of the "here and now." "It's not taking a trip down memory lane or longing and yearning for the good old days or fond memories of what's no more," he said.
Nonetheless, in a lyrical passage from the interview, Dylan reflected on the passing of time. There's no reason to look back in sadness, he said.
"From 1970 till now there's been about 50 years, seems more like 50 million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones, group interests triumph over individual ones, poor people themselves have become a commodity. Musical influences too — they get swallowed up, get absorbed into newer things or they fall by the wayside.
"I don't think you need to feel bummed out though, or that it's out of your clutches — you can still find what you're looking for if you follow the trail back. It could be right there where you left it — anything is possible. Trouble is, you can't bring it back with you, you have to stay right there with it. I think that is what nostalgia is all about."
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ON HIS CHILDHOOD IN MINNESOTA
Making clear that he grew up in northern Minnesota — it "has its own Mason Dixon line," he said — Dylan spoke about the "extreme" weather, "frostbite in the winter, mosquito-ridden in the summer, no air conditioning when I grew up, steam heat in the winter and you had to wear a lot of clothes when you went outdoors." But he found strength in the elements.
"Your blood gets thick. It's the land of 10,000 lakes — lot of hunting and fishing. Indian country, Ojibwe, Chippewa, Lakota, birch trees, open pit mines, bears and wolves — the air is raw. . . In the north it's more hardscrabble. It's a rugged environment — people lead simple lives, but they lead simple lives in other parts of the country too."
For all that, though, he said he doesn't necessarily feel special because of his upbringing. After traveling the world, he learned, "people are pretty much the same wherever you go."
ON FRANK SINATRA
Dylan's past two records were packed with covers of standards Frank Sinatra made popular, to the point that many considered them tributes to Ol' Blue Eyes. Sinatra, of course, wasn't around to hear them. Dylan did share a relationship with the swooner, though. Another slice of rock-and-roll legend has it that Bruce Springsteen and Dylan were invited to Sinatra's house for a dinner party.
As it turns out, Sinatra was a quiet fan.
"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."
Dylan was a performer on a televised tributes to Sinatra. All the other artists sang Sinatra songs. Not Dylan, who played his own song, Restless Farewell.
"Frank himself requested that I do it," Dylan said. "One of the producers had played it for him and showed him the lyrics."
ON LISTENING TO JOAN BAEZ
Baez almost certainly served as Dylan's muse, and the two shared the type of love affair that tabloids like the Daily Mail still write about. "I feel very bad about it," Dylan once said, according to the Toronto Star. "I was sorry to see our relationship end." Part of his attraction to her, it seems, was her voice. As he explained in the interview:
"She was something else, almost too much to take. Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island. Just the sound of it could put you into a spell. She was an enchantress. You'd have to get yourself strapped to the mast like Odysseus and plug up your ears so you wouldn't hear her. She'd make you forget who you were."
ON HIS HAIR
Dylan's hair was such a part of his image, Milton Glaser famously created a poster in which he added psychedelic, colorful swirls to the singer's locks. Flanagan asked what we've all wondered: could Dylan slick that hair down?
"Yeah, but I wouldn't have wanted to do that. I was trying to look like Little Richard, my version of Little Richard. I wanted wild hair, I wanted to be recognized."
ON BEING THE 'JESTER' IN 'AMERICAN PIE'
Don McClean's American Pie includes a cast of characters such as the king, queen and jester. For years many thought the "jester" in these lines referred to Bob Dylan.
Dylan sure doesn't seem to think so.
"A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like Masters of War, Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall, It's Alright, Ma — some jester. I have to think he's talking about somebody else. Ask him."
FINALLY, ON ROCK 'N ROLL
Dylan ostensibly began his career as a folk musician, and his full-force leap into the world of rock 'n roll is still discussed today. Though he said he listened to Glenn Miller before Elvis Presley, rock 'n roll hit him like a bomb. Not only was it explosive music, it "busted down the barriers that race and religion, ideologies put up."
"Rock 'n roll was a dangerous weapon, chrome plated, it exploded like the speed of light, it reflected the times, especially the presence of the atomic bomb which had preceded it by several years. Back then people feared the end of time. The big showdown between capitalism and communism was on the horizon. . . We lived under a death cloud; the air was radioactive. There was no tomorrow, any day it could all be over, life was cheap. That was the feeling at the time and I'm not exaggerating."
For all that fear, though, Dylan said, "Rock and roll made you oblivious to the fear."