Judging from his comments in a new Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan may have a more "Tempest"-uous personality than many of us knew.
Interviewer Mikal Gilmore writes in the introduction to the cover story that Dylan "opened up unflinchingly, with no apologies," and that's certainly true when it comes to the legend taking on his critics, especially those who've accused him of plagiarizing literary figures. "People have tried to stop me every inch of the way," Dylan says in the interview. "They've always had bad stuff to say about me… F--- 'em. I'll see them all in their graves."
Dylan also refers to those who've passed judgment on him as "wussies and pussies," "idiots (who) don't know what they're talking about," and "evil motherf---ers (who) can rot in hell."
And, perhaps the Dylan quote to end all Dylan quotes: "Why is it that when people talk about me they have to go crazy? What the f--- is the matter with them?" It's not quite the same as "How many roads must a man walk down...," but close enough for the 21st century.
The purpose behind this fascinating and very rare interview—which officially hits the streets on Friday—was to promote the highly acclaimed new album Tempest, which arrived in stores this week. And Dylan does discuss in detail the songs he wrote on the new record about the Titanic and John Lennon. But the sections of the conversation that are likely to get the most attention have to do with his unsentimental recollections of the 1960s, his refusal to say much about President Obama, and the choice four-letter words he reserves for some of the detractors who've gotten under his skin.
When Gilmore inquires about scholars having found Dylan borrowing chunks of the work of Japanese author Junichi Saga and Civil War poet Henry Timrod for lyrics on some of his most recent albums, the singer/songwriter gets his gander up.
Dylan agrees with Gilmore's suggestion that "in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition" and adds: "I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who's been reading him lately? And who's pushed him to the forefront? Who's been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it's so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It's an old thing—it's part of the tradition. It goes way back."
He goes on, "These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me," referring to a famous 1966 concert where someone shouted the J-word at him for abandoning folk for rock & roll. "Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you've been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherf---ers can rot in hell."
For Dylan, the plagiarism accusations are old hat, he says. "People have tried to stop me every inch of the way. They've always had bad stuff to say about me... Newsweek printed that some kid from New Jersey wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' and it wasn't me at all. And when that didn't fly, people accused me of stealing the melody from a 16th-century Protestant hymn. And when that didn't work, they said they made a mistake and it was really an old Negro spiritual. So what's so different? It's gone on for so long I might not be able to live without it now. F--- 'em. I'll see them all in their graves."
He also bristles at the idea that his post-Time Out of Mind work is infused with a sense of mortality.
"I can name you a hundred songs where everything ends in tragedy," Dylan tells Rolling Stone. "It's called tradition, and that's what I deal in. Traditional, with a capital T. Maybe people have to have a simplistic way of identifying something, if they can't grasp it properly — use some term that they think they can understand, like mortality. Oh, like, 'These songs must be about mortality. I mean, Dylan, isn't he an old guy? He must be thinking about that.' You know what I say to that horses---? I say these idiots don't know what they're talking about. Go find somebody else to pick on."
Dylan isn't that irascible throughout the entire interview. And it's clear veteran rock critic Gilmore established a rapport with him few other writers would manage. But when Gilmore tries to pin the elusive singer down on a few topics where he seems vague, contradictory, or waffly, Dylan is having none of it.
Pressed repeatedly for his thoughts on Obama, Dylan finally says, "What do I think of him? I like him. But you're asking the wrong person. You know who you should be asking that to? You should be asking his wife what she thinks of him. She's the only one that matters. Look, I only met him a few times. I mean, what do you want me to say? He loves music. He's personable. He dresses good. What the f--- do you want me to say?"
And on the subject of whether Dylan is consciously enigmatic or just misunderstood, the artist gets prickly again. "I mean, what's there, like, to understand?... Who's supposed to understand? My in-laws? Am I supposed to be some misunderstood artist living in an attic? You tell me. What's there to understand? Please, can we stop now?"
Dylan also suggests that there's no point diving into the psychology of why, at age 71, he seems more driven than ever to tour endlessly. "Is there something strange about touring? About playing live shows? If there is, tell me what it is. Willie [Nelson]'s been playing them for years, and nobody ever asks him why he still tours."
But Dylan is responsible for bringing on some of these lines of questioning that he ultimately resists. The subject of Obama arises because Dylan spends a great deal of time thoughtfully reflecting on the legacy of the Civil War on race relations and America itself... but he rejects a line of questioning about the country's first black president. When Gilmore presses him to remember that he made a statement on Election Night 2008 that "it looks like things are gonna change now," Dylan finally admits, "I don't know what I could have meant by that. You say things sometimes, you don't know what the hell you mean. But you're sincere when you say it."
And in the section of the interview most likely to be picked over by serious Dylanologists, the artist eagerly talks about how he was changed forever by a 1966 motorcycle accident that resulted in a "transfiguration"—though he grows increasingly cryptic when Gilmore presses him on the meaning of that.
Dylan shows the writer a paperback edition of a biography of one of the Hell's Angels, pointing out that the names of the authors are both "Zimmerman"—like his own given name—and that the book goes into detail about the death in a motorcycle accident of a Bobby Zimmerman. "Look at all the connecting things," Dylan tells Gilmour. "I had a motorcycle accident in 1966... Transfiguration: You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church, you can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it's a real concept. It's happened throughout the ages...So when you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. You're asking them to a person that doesn't exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time."
But when Gilmore tries to get more details on what "transfiguration" meant for Dylan in '66, the artist seems to grow defensive again. "Why is it that when people talk about me they have to go crazy? What the f--- is the matter with them? Sure, I had a motorcycle accident. Sure, I played with the Band. Yeah, I made a record called John Wesley Harding. And sure, I sounded different. So f---ing what? They want to know what can't be known... Why are they doing this? They don't really know... May the Lord have mercy on them. They are lost souls... It's sad for me, and it's sad for them."
Anyone wanting a take on Dylan's religious beliefs may also come away unenlightened. He tells RS that he almost released an album of all-new religious songs instead of Tempest, and even now he isn't sure he made the right choice of which collection to put out. Asked if these unreleased tracks were along the lines of his 1979 Slow Train Coming period, Dylan demurs and explains that they were closer to the hymn "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
But when he's questioned about the pervasive influence of the Bible on his work, Dylan doesn't seem to want to single that text out. "I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure, you know? There's truth in all books. In some kind of way. Confucius, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, the Buddhist sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many thousands more. You can't go through life without reading some kind of book."
One topic he's not vague about: the decade he's most identified with—and would rather not be. "I really wasn't so much a part of what they call 'the Sixties,'" he insists to RS. "I was there during that time, but I really couldn't identify with what was happening." He calls one counterculture hero out for derision: "You know, for instance, [Timothy] Leary and others like him, they wouldn't have lasted a second in earlier days."
"The Fifties were a simpler time," Dylan says fondly. "You had the whole town to roam around in, and there didn't seem to be any sadness or fear or insecurity. It was just woods and sky and rivers and streams, winter and summer, spring, autumn. The changing of the seasons. The culture was mainly circuses and carnivals, preachers and barnstorming pilots, hillbilly shows and comedians, big bands and whatnot. Powerful radio shows and powerful radio music... And when you grow up that way, it stays in you... I guess the Fifties would have ended in about '65. I don't really have a warm feeling for that period of time [in the late '60s]. Why would I? Those days were cruel."
And he's not at all ambiguous about his pleasure over having received the Medal of Freedom. "Oh, of course it's a thrill! I mean, who wouldn't want to get a letter from the White House? And the kind of people they were putting me in the category with was just amazing. People like John Glenn and Madeleine Albright, Toni Morrison and Pat Summitt, John Doer, William Foege and some others, too... Pat Summitt alone has won more basketball games with her teams than any NCAA coach. John Glenn, we all know what he did. And Toni Morrison is as good as it gets. I loved spending time with them. What's the alternative? Hanging around with hedge-fund hucksters or Hollywood gigolos?"
Bob Dylan: He may be equal parts malcontent and enigma, but no one will ever accuse him of being just a gigolo.