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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

En español | For a man who has lived in the public eye for more than 50 years, Bob Dylan is fiercely private. When he’s not on stage — since 1988, he’s maintained a performance schedule so relentless it’s known as the Never Ending Tour — he slips back into anonymity. But early last summer, Dylan’s representatives reached out and told me he wanted to speak to AARP The Magazine about his new project. “I don’t work at Rolling Stone anymore,” I told them, thinking it was a case of crossed wires, since I put in 20 years there. No, they said, there’s no mistake; he wants to talk to your readers.

And now, after five months of negotiation, a cross-country flight and days of waiting, it is less than an hour until our interview, and I still don’t know exactly where I will meet the reclusive artist. Driving down into the late October sun from the hills of Berkeley, California, toward the San Francisco Bay, I wait for a phone call with directions to a certain floor of a hotel. Then I’ll be given the room number, told to knock, and wait.

We shake hands. Dylan is wearing a close-fitting black-and-white leather jacket that ends at his waist, black jeans and boots. The 73-year-old singer is not wearing his trademark sunglasses, and his blue eyes are startling. We are here to talk about Shadows in the Night, an album of 10 beloved songs from the 1920s to the 1960s. These are not his compositions — they are part of what is often called the Great American Songbook: familiar standards like “Autumn Leaves,” “That Lucky Old Sun” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” along with others, like 1957’s hymnlike “Stay With Me,” that are a bit obscure. In his 36th studio album, Dylan leads a five-piece band including two guitars, bass and pedal steel, and occasional horns, in austere and beautiful arrangements that were recorded live. It is a quiet, moody record with “no heavy drums and no piano,” he says more than once.

As the afternoon deepens, Dylan talks about youth and aging, songwriting, friends and enemies. He recalls with unvarnished affection the performers who shaped his musical DNA, from gospel singer Mavis Staples to rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. Sitting on the edge of a low-slung couch in a dimly lit hotel suite, coiled and fully present — but in good humor — he seems anxious to begin this, his one and only interview for the new album. What follows is condensed and edited from our original conversation and follow-up correspondence.


Q: Why did you make this record now?

A: Now is the right time. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I heard Willie [Nelson]’s Stardust record in the late 1970s. All through the years, I’ve heard these songs being recorded by other people and I’ve always wanted to do that. And I wondered if anybody else saw it the way I did.

Q: It’s going to be some-thing of a surprise to your traditional fans, don’t you think? 

A: Well, they shouldn’t be surprised. There’s a lot of types of songs I’ve sung over the years, and they definitely have heard me sing standards before.

Q: You are very respectful of these melodies — more than you are of your own songs when you perform.

A: I love these songs, and I’m not going to bring any disrespect to them. To trash those songs would be sacrilegious. And we’ve all heard those songs being trashed, and we’re used to it. In some kind of ways you want to right the wrong.

Q: I noticed that Frank Sinatra recorded every one of these songs. Was he on your mind?

A: When you start doing these songs, Frank’s got to be on your mind. Because he is the mountain. That’s the mountain you have to climb, even if you only get part of the way there. And it’s hard to find a song he did not do. He’d be the guy you got to check with. People talk about Frank all the time. He had this ability to get inside of the song in a sort of a conversational way. Frank sang to you — not at you. I never wanted to be a singer that sings at somebody. I’ve always wanted to sing to somebody. I myself never bought any Frank Sinatra records back then. But you’d hear him anyway — in a car or a jukebox. Certainly nobody worshipped Sinatra in the ’60s like they did in the ’40s. But he never went away — all those other things that we thought were here to stay, they did go away. But he never did.

Q: Do you think of this album as risky? These songs have fans who will say you can’t touch Frank’s version.

A: Risky? Like walking across a field laced with land mines? Or working in a poison gas factory? There’s nothing risky about making records. Comparing me with Frank Sinatra? You must be joking. To be mentioned in the same breath as him must be some sort of high compliment. As far as touching him goes, nobody touches him. Not me or anyone else.

Q: So what do you think Frank would make of this album?

A: I think first of all he’d be amazed I did these songs with a five-piece band. I think he’d be proud in a certain way.

Q: What other kinds of music did you listen to growing up?

A: Early on, before rock ’n’ roll, I listened to big band music: Harry James, Russ Columbo, Glenn Miller. But up north, at night, you could find these radio stations that played pre-rock ’n’ roll things — country blues. You could hear Jimmy Reed. Then there was a station out of Chicago, played all hillbilly stuff. We also heard the Grand Ole Opry. I heard Hank Williams way early, when he was still alive. One night, I remember listening to the Staple Singers, “Uncloudy Day.” And it was the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard. It was like the fog rolling in. What was that? How do you make that? It just went through me. I managed to get an LP, and I’m like, “Man!” I looked at the cover, and I knew who Mavis was without having to be told. She looked to be about the same age as me. Her singing just knocked me out.  This was before folk music had ever entered my life. I was still an aspiring rock ’n’ roller. The descendant, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ’n’ roll —  who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a white hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock ’n’ roll for what it was and what it represented — not least of all it being a black-and-white thing.

Next page: His view from the stage. »

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