Bob Dylan speaks. Once again. He rarely gives interviews, even less often to non-music journalists.
But ahead of Dylan’s 39th studio album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” arriving on Friday, award-winning historian Douglas Brinkley had two telephone conversations with the Minnesota icon.
The New York Times published Brinkley’s piece this weekend, with Dylan talking about everything from George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and his own mortality to his favorite songs by the Eagles and how he cried after seeing the recent Broadway show filled with his songs.
A professor at Rice University, Brinkley, 59, is known for writing books about presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. He also has edited collections about Hunter Thompson, Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie as well as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Brinkley has talked with Dylan previously.
Here are 11 things we learned from Brinkley’s story.
1. Dylan was surprised that his recent single, the 17-minute “Murder Most Foul,” was his first song to ever land at No. 1 on one of Billboard’s many charts. It topped the rock chart.
2. Dylan thinks about death when it comes to the human race but not his own mortality. “Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death,” Dylan said. “I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
3. For Dylan, it is about the forever young. “We have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. Youngsters don’t have that tendency. They have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything,” the bard observed. “In 20 or 30 years from now, they’ll be at the forefront. When you see somebody that is 10 years old, he’s going to be in control in 20 or 30 years, and he won’t have a clue about the world we knew… As far as technology goes, it makes everybody vulnerable. But young people don’t think like that. They could care less… Telecommunications and advanced technology is the world they were born into. Our world is already obsolete.”
4. Dylan used a question about Little Richard’s underappreciated gospel music to launch into a critique of media and society. “Gospel music is the music of good news and in these days there just isn’t any. Good news in today’s world is like a fugitive, treated like a hoodlum and put on the run. Castigated. All we see is good-for-nothing news. And we have to thank the media industry for that,” Dylan said. “Gospel news is exemplary. It can give you courage. You can pace your life accordingly, or try to, anyway. And you can do it with honor and principles. There are theories of truth in gospel but to most people it’s unimportant. Their lives are lived out too fast. Too many bad influences. Sex and politics and murder is the way to go if you want to get people’s attention. It excites us, that’s our problem.”
5. There is no real person Dylan wants to write a song about like John Lennon or John Kennedy, subjects of songs on his last two albums of original material. “Those kinds of songs for me just come out of the blue, out of thin air. I never plan to write any of them. But in saying that, there are certain public figures that are just in your subconscious for one reason or another. None of those songs with designated names are intentionally written…I’m just as bewildered as anybody else as to why I write them.”
6. Eagles co-leaders Don Henley and Glenn Frey are mentioned in “Murder Most Foul.” So Dylan offers his favorite Eagles songs: “New Kid in Town,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” "Pretty Maids All in a Row." That could be one of the best songs ever.”
7. Jazz has inspired Dylan, who mentions Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson and other jazzmen in “Murder Most Foul.” The singer-songwriter cites Miles Davis’ early recordings for Capitol Records as an influence and then, as he often does, turns the question into questions of his own: “But what’s jazz? Dixieland, bebop, high-speed fusion? What do you call jazz? Is it Sonny Rollins? I like Sonny’s calypso stuff but is that jazz.
“Has any of it ever inspired me? Well yeah. Probably a lot. 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. That song set me off in some direction to do something along those lines. I remember listening to that over and over.”
8. Dylan doesn’t play piano much while sheltered in his Malibu mansion. “I do that mostly in hotel rooms. A hotel room is the closest I get to a private studio.”
9. Dylan has seen the Broadway production of “Girl from the North Country,” featuring two dozen of his songs. “It affected me. I saw it as an anonymous spectator, not as someone who had anything to do with it. I just let it happen. The play had me crying at the end. I can’t even say why. When the curtain came down, I was stunned. I really was. Too bad Broadway shut down because I wanted to see it again.”
10. Dylan sounded depressed (Brinkley’s word) when discussing the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. “It sickened me no end to see George tortured to death like that. It was beyond ugly. Let’s hope that justice comes swift for the Floyd family and for the nation.”
11. He can’t explain his good health at age 79. “Oh, that’s the big question, isn’t it? How does anybody do it? Your mind and body go hand in hand. There has to be some kind of agreement. I like to think of the mind as spirit and the body as substance. How you integrate those two things, I have no idea. I just try to go on a straight line and stay on it, stay on the level.”