In a new, wide-ranging interview with author Bill Flanagan, Bob Dylan gets candid on an impressively wide range of topics, from meeting Frank Sinatra, to his favorite recent Iggy Pop album, skipping a recording session with Elvis and why he keeps releasing standards collections. The chat, ostensibly timed to coincide with the March 31 release of Dylan's triple-album of covers, Triplicate, is a rare peek behind the curtain of one of rock's most consistently unpredictable legends.
One of the most fascinating bits comes early on when Flanagan asks Dylan about the time he and Bruce Springsteen were invited to a dinner party at Sinatra's house and whether Bob thought Frank had ever heard his songs.
"Not really," Dylan says. "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."
You never really know what path a question will lead you down, such as the one Flanagan asks about Duke Ellington's 1938 song "Braggin'," which he suggests bridged the gap from big band swinging blues to rock and roll. Did a young Dylan feel like rock and roll was a new thing, or just an extension of Ellington's groove?
"Rock and roll was indeed an extension of what was going on - the big swinging bands - Ray Noble, Will Bradley, Glenn Miller, I listened to that music before I heard Elvis Presley. But rock and roll was high energy, explosive and cut down," says Dylan in the most extensive answer of the 8,000-word interview. "It was skeleton music, came out of the darkness and rode in on the atom bomb and the artists were star headed like mystical Gods. Rhythm and blues, country and western, bluegrass and gospel were always there - but it was compartmentalized - it was great but it wasn't dangerous. Rock and 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. Rock and roll made you oblivious to the fear, busted down the barriers that race and religion, ideologies put up. 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."
Like all of us, Dylan says he's been hit hard over the past couple of years by the deaths of such icons as Muhammad Ali, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell. "We were like brothers," he says of the fallen legends. "We lived on the same street and they all left empty spaces where they used to stand. It's lonesome without them."
But when asked why he rarely hangs out with his opening acts or co-headliners at shows -- often to their dismay -- Dylan was, well, Dylan. "Beats me -- why would they want to hang out with me anyway?" he says. "I hang out with my band on the road."
The clearer answer, though, comes a short time later, when Dylan is asked if who among the presidents, kings, popes, movie stars and Beatles in his audiences over the years have ever made him nervous. "All of them," he says.
Speaking of the Beatles, Flanagan relates an apocryphal story that Dylan and George Harrison were once supposed to record a song with Elvis, only to have Presley flake on them. "He did show up," says Dylan. "It was us that didn't." Dylan, who prefers listening to CDs than streaming music, offers up that one of his favorite recent releases is punk godfather Pop's 2012 album of mostly French covers Aprés, as well as albums by Valerie June, The Stereophonics, the 2011 Ray Charles tribute album Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles featuring Willie Nelson and Norah Jones and Amy Winehouse's Back to Black.
Asked if he was a fan of the tragic singer Winehouse, Dylan says, "Yeah, absolutely. She was the last real individualist around."
As to why Triplicate is coming out as a three-disc set, Dylan says, "thematically they are interconnected, one is a sequel to the other and each resolves the previous one." There is also a numerological magic to the fact that each one is 32 minutes long, apparently.
"It's the number of completion," Dylan explains. "It's a lucky number, and it's symbolic of light. As far as the 32 minutes, that's about the limit to the number of minutes on a long playing record where the sound is most powerful, 15 minutes to a side. My records were always overloaded on both sides. Too many minutes to be recorded or mastered properly. My songs were too long and didn't fit the audio format of an LP. The sound was thin and you would have to turn your record player up to nine or ten to hear it well. So these CDs to me represent the LPs that I should have been making."
For the full interview, click here.