Yet his sense of tradition is strong. He likes to think of himself as part of a brotherhood of writers whose roots are in the raw country, blues and folk strains of Guthrie, the Carter Family, Robert Johnson and scores of Scottish and English balladeers.
Over the course of the evening, he offers glimpses into how his ear and eye put pieces of songs together using everything from Beat poetry and the daily news to lessons picked up from contemporaries.
He is so committed to talking about his craft that he has a guitar at his side in case he wants to demonstrate a point. When his road manager knocks on the door after 90 minutes to see if everything is OK, Dylan waves him off. After three hours, he volunteers to get together again after the next night’s concert.
“There are so many ways you can go at something in a song,” he says. “One thing is to give life to inanimate objects. Johnny Cash is good at that. He’s got the line that goes, ‘A freighter said, “She’s been here, but she’s gone, boy, she’s gone.” ‘ That’s great. ‘A freighter says ‘ “She’s been here.” ‘ That’s high art. If you do that once in a song, you usually turn it on its head right then and there.”
The process he describes is more workaday than capturing lightning in a bottle. In working on “Like a Rolling Stone,” he says, “I’m not thinking about what I want to say, I’m just thinking ‘Is this OK for the meter?’ “
But there’s an undeniable element of mystery too. “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.”
Some listeners over the years have complained that Dylan’s songs are too ambiguous — that they seem to be simply an exercise in narcissistic wordplay. But most critics say Dylan’s sometimes competing images are his greatest strength.
Few in American pop have consistently written lines as hauntingly beautiful and richly challenging as his “Just Like a Woman,” a song from the mid-’60s:
Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside
That Baby’s got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
Have fallen from her curls.
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like
a little girl.
Dylan stares impassively at a lyric sheet for “Just Like a Woman” when it is handed to him. As is true of so many of his works, the song seems to be about many things at once.
“I’m not good at defining things,” he says. “Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn’t. It’s up to the listener to figure out what it means to him.”
As he stares at the page in the quiet of the room, however, he budges a little. “This is a very broad song. A line like, ‘Breaks just like a little girl’ is a metaphor. It’s like a lot of blues-based songs. Someone may be talking about a woman, but they’re not really talking about a woman at all. You can say a lot if you use metaphors.”
After another pause, he adds: “It’s a city song. It’s like looking at something extremely powerful, say the shadow of a church or something like that. I don’t think in lateral [sic] terms as a writer. That’s a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers…. They are so lateral. There’s no circular thing, nothing to be learned from the song, nothing to inspire you. I always try to turn a song on its head. Otherwise, I figure I’m wasting the listener’s time.”
Discovering Folk Music
Dylan’s pop sensibilities were shaped long before he made his journey east in the winter of 1960-61.
Growing up in the icy isolation of Hibbing, Minn., Dylan, who was still Robert Allen Zimmerman then, found comfort in the country, blues and early rock ‘n’ roll that he heard at night on a Louisiana radio station whose signal came in strong and clear. It was worlds away from the local Hibbing station, which leaned toward mainstream pop like Perry Como, Frankie Laine and Doris Day.
Dylan has respect for many of the pre-rock songwriters, citing Cole Porter, whom he describes as a “fearless” rhymer, and Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” as a favorite. But he didn’t feel most of the pre-rock writers were speaking to him.
“When you listened to [Porter’s] songs and the Gershwins’ and Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wrote some great songs, they were writing for their generation and it just didn’t feel like mine,” he says. “I realized at some point that the important thing isn’t just how you write songs, but your subject matter, your point of view.”
The music that did speak to him as a teenager in the ’50s was rock ‘n’ roll — especially Elvis Presley. “When I got into rock ‘n’ roll, I didn’t even think I had any other option or alternative,” he says. “It showed me where my future was, just like some people know they are going to be doctors or lawyers or shortstop for the New York Yankees.”
He became a student of what he heard.
“Chuck Berry wrote amazing songs that spun words together in a remarkably complex way,” he says. “Buddy Holly’s songs were much more simplified, but what I got out of Buddy was that you can take influences from anywhere. Like his ‘That’ll Be the Day.’ I read somewhere that it was a line he heard in a movie, and I started realizing you can take things from everyday life that you hear people say.
“That I still find true. You can go anywhere in daily life and have your ears open and hear something, either something someone says to you or something you hear across the room. If it has resonance, you can use it in a song.”
After rock took on a blander tone in the late ’50s, Dylan looked for new inspiration. He began listening to the Kingston Trio, who helped popularize folk music with polished versions of “Tom Dooley” and “A Worried Man.” Most folk purists felt the group was more “pop” than authentic, but Dylan, new to folk, responded to the messages in the songs.
He worked his way through such other folk heroes as Odetta and Leadbelly before fixating on Guthrie. Trading his electric guitar for an acoustic one, he spent months in Minneapolis, performing in clubs, preparing himself for the trip east.
Going to New York rather than rival music center Los Angeles was a given, he says, “because everything I knew came out of New York. I listened to the Yankees games on the radio, and the Giants and the Dodgers. All the radio programs, like ‘The Fat Man,’ the NBC chimes — would be from New York. So were all the record companies. It seemed like New York was the capital of the world.”
‘I always admired true artists, so I learned from them’: The enigmatic Bob Dylan opens up – Los Angeles Times