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Bob Dylan Does the American Standards His Way

In his first interview in nearly three years, the legendary singer-songwriter talks about his new disc, ‘Shadows in the Night,’ his love for Frank Sinatra and about life in his 70s

Quiz: Bob Dylan

Dylan during the recording of his landmark 1965 album "Highway 61 Revisited." — Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Q: Do you mean it’s musical race-mixing and that’s what made it dangerous?

A: Racial prejudice has been around awhile, so, yeah. And that was extremely threatening for the city fathers, I would think. When they finally recognized what it was, they had to dismantle it, which they did, starting with payola scandals. The black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop. They separated it. I think of rock ’n’ roll as a combination of country blues and swing band music, not Chicago blues, and modern pop. Real rock ’n’ roll hasn’t existed since when? 1961,1962? Well, it was a part of my DNA, so it never disappeared from me. I just incorporated it into other aspects of what I was doing. I don’t know if this is answering the question. [Laughs.] I can’t remember what the question was.

The Staple Singers

The Staples Sisters, (L-R) Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne with their father "Pops." — Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, 1970

Q: We were talking about your influences and your crush on Mavis Staples.

A: I said to myself, “One day you’ll be standing there with your arm around that girl.” I remember thinking that. Ten years later, there I was — with my arm around her.

Q: Did you recall your original thought?

A: No! [Laughs.] Not until 10 years more beyond that!

Q: Are the songs on this album laid down in the order you would like people to listen to them? Or do you care whether Apple sells them one by one?

A: The business end of the record — it’s none of my business. I sure hope it sells, and I would like people to listen to it. But the way people listen to music has changed, and I hope they get a chance to hear all the songs in one way or another. But! I did record those songs, believe it or not, in that same order that you hear them. We would usually get one song done in three hours. There’s no mixing. That’s just the way it sounded. No dials, nothing enhanced, nothing — that’s it. It’s been done wrong too many other times. I wanted to do it rightly.

Q: You wrote once that a great performer transmits emotion via alchemy. “I’m not feeling this,” you’re saying. “What I’m doing is I’m putting it across.” Is that right?

A: You’re right, but you don’t want to overstate that. It’s different than being an actor, where you call up sources from your own experience that you can apply to whatever Shakespeare drama you’re in. An actor is pretending to be somebody, but a singer isn’t. He’s not hiding behind anything. So a song like “I’m a Fool to Want You” — I know that song. I can sing that song. I’ve felt every word in that song. I mean, I know that song. It’s like I wrote it. It’s easier for me to sing that song than it is to sing “Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane.” At one time that wouldn’t have been so. But now it is. Because “Queen Jane” might be a little bit outdated. But this song is not outdated. It has to do with human emotion. There’s nothing contrived in these songs. There’s not one false word in any of them. They’re eternal.

Q: Do you wish you wrote them?

Dylan's Greatest Hats

A: In a way I’m glad I didn’t write any of them. I’m good with songs that I haven’t written, if I like them. I already know how the song goes, so I have more freedom with it.

Q: These songs will have a different audience than they originally had. Do you feel like a musical archaeologist? 

A: No. I just like these songs and feel I can connect with them. I would hope people will connect the same way that I do. It would be presumptuous to think these songs are going to find some new audience. The people who first heard these songs are not with us anymore. Besides, when I look out from the stage, I see something different than maybe other performers do.

Q: What are you seeing from the stage?

A: I see a guy dressed up in a suit and tie next to a guy in blue jeans. I see another guy in a sport coat next to another guy wearing a T-shirt. I see women sometimes in evening gowns, and I see punky-looking girls. I can see that there’s a difference in character, and it has nothing to do with age. I went to an Elton John show; there must have been at least three generations of people there. But they were all the same. Even the little kids. They looked just like their grandparents. It was strange. People make a fuss about how many generations follow a certain type of performer. But what does it matter if all the generations are the same?

Q: So we at AARP represent people who are 50 and older. The magazine reaches 35 million readers.

A: Well, a lot of those readers are going to like this record. If it was up to me, I’d give you the records for nothing and you give them to every [reader of your] magazine.

Q: These songs conjure a kind of romantic love that is nearly antique, because there’s no longer much resistance in romance. That sweet, painful pining of the ’40s and ’50s doesn’t exist anymore. Do you think these songs will fall on younger ears as corny?

A: You tell me. I don’t know why they would, but what’s the word “corny” mean exactly? These songs are songs of great virtue. That’s what they are. People’s lives today are filled with vice and the trappings of it. Ambition, greed and selfishness all have to do with vice. Sooner or later, you have to see through it or you don’t survive. We don’t see the people that vice destroys. We just see the glamour of it — everywhere we look, from billboard signs to movies, to newspapers, to magazines. We see the destruction of human life. These songs are anything but that.

Q: What is the best song you’ve ever written about heartbreak and loss?

A: I think “Love Sick” [from 1997’s Time Out of Mind  ].

Q: A lot of your newer songs deal with aging. You once said that people don’t retire, they fade away, they run out of steam. And now you’re 73, you’re a great-grandfather.

A: Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.

Next page: A father takes time off. »

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