Who knew that Bob Dylan was not only determinedly pro-Eagles — take that, Henley/Frey haters! — but that he thinks the Joe Walsh-penned “Pretty Maids in a Row,” probably the least revived song on the “Hotel California” album, is “one of the best songs ever”?
No one, probably, prior to Friday’s publication in the New York Times of Dylan’s first interview in at least four years, and the only one he’s known to be giving in support of his new album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” which comes out June 19.
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The Q&A by history professor and author Douglas Brinkley mainly drifts toward weightier issues than Dylan’s unexpected Walsh fandom, including the pandemic, the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and, not to put too frivolous a point on it, the inevitable extinction of the human race. Plus: which Rolling Stones song he wishes he’d written.
Here are a dozen things we learned from Dylan’s very rare meet-the-press (or meet-the-prof) moment:
The one-time “protest singer” has remained tuned in to distressing current events. Brinkley describes him as “sounding depressed” in a recent follow-up phone call as talk turned to events in his home state of Minnesota. ““It sickened me no end to see George tortured to death like that,” Dylan says. “It was beyond ugly. Let’s hope that justice comes swift for the Floyd family and for the nation.”
The pandemic leads him to quote Barry McGuire (or P.F. Sloan). “Extreme arrogance can have some disastrous penalties. Maybe we are on the eve of destruction,” he says. But he bristles at the interviewer’s suggestion that we might think of the plague “in biblical terms.” “You mean like some kind of warning sign for people to repent of their wrongdoings? That would imply that the world is in line for some sort of divine punishment,” he says, nixing that line of theology.
He loved the Broadway show “Girl in the North Country,” based on his songs, which had just opened before the lockdowns. “I saw it as an anonymous spectator, not as someone who had anything to do with it,” he says. “The play had me crying at the end. … When the curtain came down, I was stunned. I really was. Too bad Broadway shut down because I wanted to see it again.”
The Rolling Stones songs he wishes he’d written probably aren’t the ones you’d think. Well, “Wild Horses” is perhaps an obvious pick. Less so, though: “Angie” and “Ventilator Blues.”
He adored Little Richard, whose gospel period is underrated, for him. The late rock pioneer “lit a match under me. Tuned me into things I never would have known on my own. … Little Richard was a great gospel singer. But I think he was looked at as an outsider or an interloper in the gospel world. They didn’t accept him there. And of course the rock ’n’ roll world wanted to keep him singing ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly.’ So his gospel music wasn’t accepted in either world. I think the same thing happened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I can’t imagine either of them being bothered too much about it. Both are what we used to call people of high character.”
His other favorite Eagles songs? He favors “Hotel California” through and through. Besides “Pretty Maids,” Dylan mentions “New Kid in Town” and “Life in the Fast Lane.”
He acknowledges his recent songwriting is stream-of-consciousness. He says the writing occurs “kind of in a trance state. Most of my recent songs are like that… The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.
He has no second thoughts about directly juxtaposing Anne Frank, the Stones and Indiana Jones in one of his new songs, as people he likens himself to. When it’s pointed out that Indiana Jones, unlike the others, is a fictional character, he answers, “Yeah, but the John Williams score brought him to life. Without that music it wouldn’t have been much of a movie. It’s the music which makes Indy come alive. So that maybe is one of the reasons he is in the song. I don’t know, all three names came at once.”
Dylan doesn’t feel especially musically creative at home — that happens primarily in his off moments while he’s on the road. Asked if he explores musical ideas in a private studio, Dylan says this is something that happens “mostly in hotel rooms. A hotel room is the closest I get to a private studio.”
Don’t call him a jam band. Fans may enthuse over how Dylan reinvents his classics on tour, but asked what role improvisation plays in his performances, Dylan flat-out answers: “None at all. There’s no way you can change the nature of a song once you’ve invented it. … You basically play the same thing time after time in the most perfect way you can.”
He has many jazz influences. After some extended riffing on the subject of what jazz even is, Dylan acknowledges: “Ella Fitzgerald as a singer inspires me. Oscar Peterson as a piano player, absolutely. Has any of it inspired me as a songwriter? Yeah, ‘Ruby, My Dear’ by Monk.”
When it comes to mortality, he thinks less about his own than about the bell tolling for humanity. “I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape,” Dylan says, pointing out that “everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
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