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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009


All credit to Bill Flanagan for earning enough of Dylan's respect to be given the job, and for doing it so well. The final part, officially published yesterday, again elicits a bounty of interesting stuff from Dylan:

Conversation With Bill Flanagan –Part Six

LIFE IS HARD comes from a tradition that got pretty much wiped out by the popularity of swing and blues and rock n roll. I remember Leon Redbone said once that the big break in 20th century music was not in the 50’s when rock came in; it was when swing and jazz knocked off parlor piano ballads in the late 20’s and early 30’s. Do you ever wish that old style had stuck around a little longer?

Today, the mad rush of the world would trample over delicate music like that. Even if it had survived swing and jazz it would never make it past Dr. Dre. Things changed economically and socially. Two world wars, the stock market crash, the depression, the sexual revolution, huge sound systems, techno-pop. How could anything survive that? You can’t imagine parlor ballads drifting out of hi rise multi-towered buildings. That kind of music existed in a more timeless state of life. I love those old piano ballads. In my hometown walking down dark streets on quiet summer nights you would sometimes hear parlor tunes coming out of doorways and open windows. Somebody’s mother or sister playing A BIRD IN A GUILDED CAGE off of sheet music. I actually tried to conjure up that feeling once in a song I did called IN THE SUMMERTIME.

No one was expecting a new album from you right now. I heard even the record company was surprised. How do you know it’s time to go in and make a new one?

You never do know. You just think sometimes if not now I’ll never do it. This particular album was supposed to come out next Fall sometime; September, October; when the movie’s released. We made it last year and it was supposed to be put away for a year. But then the guys from the record company heard it, and decided that they would like to put it out in early spring and not wait for the movie.

You don’t use elevated language on these songs – it’s mostly every-day speech and imagery. Did you decide to keep a lid on the poetry this time out - was it what the musical style demanded?

I’m not sure I agree. It’s not easy to define poetry. Hank Williams used simple language too.

IT’S ALL GOOD is a terrific song. You use that common catch phrase as a hook and describe a world that gets darker and more miserable with every verse – it’s kind of funny and kind of scary. How did that song get started?

Probably from hearing the phrase one too many times.

Every girl named Roxanne feels a connection to Sting. Every Alison thinks Elvis Costello was singing about her. You expecting to meet a lot of Jolenes?

Oh gosh, I hope not.

Any chance your Jolene is the same woman who got Dolly Parton so worked up? You mean that woman with the flaming locks of auburn hair?

Yeah! Who’s smile is like a breath of Spring. Oh yeah, I remember her.

Is it the same one?

It’s a different lady.

At the end of JOLENE I noticed that those riffs start happening. I’ve seen you do that live, but I’ve never heard that on any of your records. I assume that’s Donnie playing with you.

Yeah, it is. The organ sound and steel guitar combined make those riffs.

Tony, your bass player has been with you now for … what?

Gee, I don’t know, probably for a while. Fifteen, twenty years.*

How about your drummer, George?

Not as long as Tony but longer than my last drummer.

Where does George come from to play like that?

George is from Louisiana. He’s from New Orleans.

There’s no characters on this record like the ones in DESOLATION ROW, except maybe Judge Simpson in SHAKE, SHAKE MAMA. Would he be one of these archetypal figures like Cinderella or Shakespeare in the alley?

Oh, most definitely. He’s a possum huntin’ judge.

Certain singers show up in IT’S ALL GOOD. Neil Young and Alicia Keys have popped up on your recent albums. Do you think all your musician friends are going to be looking for shout-outs now? Once you start down that road how do you get out of it?

Well these people are archetypes, too. They might not think of themselves like that, but they are. They represent an idea

Could you write a song about anybody?

Well I bet you could, yeah.

How would you get Stevie Wonder into a song?

When Stevie Wonder recorded BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND/ I was playin’ cards/ I was drinkin’ gin/

Could you write a song like Stevie wonder?

I could write one like SUPERSTITION but I couldn’t write one like SIR DUKE.

Could you write a song about George Bush?

Well sure. George’s name would be easy to rhyme.

In the song I FEEL A CHANGE COMING ON the character says….

Wait a minute Bill. I’m not a playwright. The people in my songs are all me. I thought we talked about that?

What exactly makes it you?

It’s in the way you say things. It’s not necessarily the things you say that make you who you are.

Okay, I think the line is, “I see my baby coming, she’s walking with the village priest/I feel a change coming on.”

Yeah, but you’re leaving a lot out.

Okay, but that’s the part I remember. I assume the guy, or you, are talking about being hooked up with somebody and feeling pretty good about it. Given what a hard time women have given the men, or you, in the other songs on the album, we can read this as a happy ending or a sign of trouble ahead. What are the chances that the guy in FEEL A CHANGE is likely to live happily ever after?

You might be reading too much into it. It’s not a fairy tale type song. There are degrees of happiness. You go from one to the other and then back again. It’s hard to be completely happy when those around us are suffering and groaning from hunger. But I know what you mean. You are talking about riding off into the sunset hoping that whatever you’ve done will outlive you.

Isn’t that the Hindu point of view?

Maybe it is.

A lot of performers give God credit for their music. How do you suppose God feels about that?

I’m not the one to ask. It sounds like people just giving credit where credit is due.

How do you think this new record will be received?

I know my fans will like it. Other than that, I have no idea.

* Tony Garnier first played with Dylan on June 3, 1989 (in Dublin), and became his regular bass player (and more) as of June 10th that year.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw an article (I think it was in the Guardian) that said Dylan's interviews are now more interesting than his music. I sadly agree.

4:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Dylan interview is unnerving. Reads like it was scripted, in which case it would still be brilliant. The guy just has a lot of tools in his bag.
Don't know who's idea the video was, but it works. It works for Davidson as well, I notice his street gang photos are being republished in a 400 dollar book.
Pat Ford

1:49 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is some evidence suggesting that Flanagan interview was scripted. There are some passages in the interview where he is quoting from Susanna Braund's translations of the satires of Juvenal. I go into detail in a series of posts on my blog, starting with

Compare and contrast:

Dylan: "Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers."

From Braund's translation of Satire 8: "It is our practice to call someone's dwarf 'Atlas,' his Ethiopian slave 'Swan,' and his bent and deformed girl 'Miss Europe.'"

Dylan: "Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it kind of freed me up."

From Braund's translation of Satire 6: "Whatever the astrologer says they'll believe has come from Ammon's fountain, now that the oracles at Delphi are silent and the human race is doomed to darkness about the future. Yet the most important of these is the one that's been exiled most often. That's the source of their faith in his skill, if his right hand has clanked with iron. There's no talent in any astrologer without a criminal record, but only in the one who nearly died, who just managed to get sent to a Cycladic island and finally languished on tiny Seriphus."

The way those are structured suggests to me that it was written, rather than spoken.

Scott Warmuth

2:31 pm  

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