I’ve seen one Dylan concert in my life. It was at Bonnaroo, back in 2004. The day was a scorcher. Bob wore a white cowboy shirt, dark sunglasses, and played organ most of the show, serving up covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho And Lefty” and Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” – two of my personal favorites in the American songbook.
Maybe he played these songs because he was in Tennessee and then again maybe not. I remember getting vaguely emotional during the performance of these tunes: my endorphins and ketone bodies were kicking hard that day, as I was undernourished, dehydrated and had been imbibing for what seemed like a month of Sundays at the time.
In that fevered dream I stood by myself and took in the show. I tried to attach weighty significance to the experience. I half-convinced myself that I was in the presence of a quasi-religious figure and that the show transcended mere entertainment … Of course this sounds ridiculous now, but it was my first Bonnaroo.
A friend marred the sanctity of my experience later that day when he said: “God that Bob Dylan show sucked! You couldn’t understand a thing. I didn’t even know what songs he was singing.” My face colored but I held my tongue. I felt like he’d just insulted my granddad or something.
Looking back on that show, the fact that I remember cover songs and not Dylan originals is a bit ironic, given that Dylan’s generally regarded as the cream of the crop when it comes to songwriting. But in a way it’s fitting.
In this issue, Ruth Gerson tells a great story about a private jam session she had with the maestro. “Don’t let them call you that [a songwriter],” he says, pointing to a critic’s blurb on the back of her album. “You’re a song performer, not a songwriter. You don’t write the song to sit there on a page. You write it to sing it.”
An interesting take by a man responsible for elevating songwriting to the level of high art. Most of the songwriters that have been featured in these pages throughout the years are indebted to him, if only for the fact that he created the pathway, as it were. Other artists interviewed in the issue, like Joan Baez and T Bone Burnett, have a long, intertwined history with the man. The Avett Brothers and a host of other young artists weigh in on Dylan’s influence and stature. The White Buffalo, an ascendant California singer-songwriter, says that “Dylan set the possibilities of songwriting free. To an utterly limitless level. He dissolved the notion of song structure even before it was discussed.”
Tracking Dylan down for an interview is no easy task. But Senior Editor Paul Zollo managed to do it back in the early ‘90s, when he was working for SongTalk magazine. The circumstances surrounding the talk were as cryptic as one might expect. Zollo was told the interview would happen sometime in the middle of the week, at a hotel somewhere in the wilds of Los Angeles.
We publish the interview here in its entirety for the first time, in honor of Dylan’s 70th birthday. In the wide-ranging discussion, we hear Dylan expound on a multitude of subjects. He declares that Hank Williams is the best songwriter that ever lived, and speculates that Jim Morrison may still be alive, riding piggyback on a donkey in the Andes. Some classic lines for sure. And his thoughts on songwriting are priceless.
And don’t miss Stephen Deusner’s thought-provoking essay on the modern Dylan albums, “The Reawakening Of Bob Dylan,” in which he argues that Dylan has redefined “how a legendary figure can age and grow and become more human without sacrificing quality or mystery.”
It’s that mystery which still keeps us listening – and guessing. How he’s managed to maintain it for fifty years is beyond me.