Q&A with Bill Flanagan

Mar 22, 2017

Exclusive to bobdylan.com


This is your third album of standards in a row – Shadows in the Night was a big surprise and a really nice one. Fallen Angels was a sweet encore. Now you really upped the ante. Did you feel after the first two, you had unfinished business?

I did when I realized there was more to it than I thought, that both of those records together only were part of the picture, so we went ahead and did these.

Why did you decide to release three discs of music at once? 

It’s better that they come out at the same time because thematically they are interconnected, one is the sequel to the other and each one resolves the previous one.

Each disc is 32 minutes long – you could have put it all on 2 CDs. Is there something about the 10 song, 32 minute length that appeals to you?

Sure, it’s the number of completion. 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.

What’s the challenge of singing with a live horn section?

No challenge, it’s better than overdubbing them.

You like to be spontaneous in the studio, but here you’re working with tight arrangements and charts. Did that require a new way of thinking for you? 

It did at first but then I got used to it. There’s enough of my personality written into the lyrics so that I could just focus on the melodies within the arrangements. As a vocalist you’re restricted within definite harmonic patterns. But you have more control within those patterns than you would if there were no boundaries whatsoever, it actually takes less thought, hardly any thinking. So I guess you could call that a new way of thinking.

At any point in the recording did you say to the musicians, “Look, we have to change this on the fly – just follow me…?”

No, that never happened. If I did that the song would fall apart, nobody would be able to follow me. Improvising would disrupt the song. You can’t go off track.

Are you concerned about what Bob Dylan fans think about these standards?

These songs are meant for the man on the street, the common man, the everyday person. Maybe that is a Bob Dylan fan, maybe not, I don’t know.

Has performing these songs taught you anything you didn’t know from listening to them?

I had some idea of where they stood, but I hadn’t realized how much of the essence of life is in them – the human condition, how perfectly the lyrics and melodies are intertwined, how relevant to everyday life they are, how non-materialistic.

Up to the sixties, these songs were everywhere – now they have almost faded away. Do they mean more to you when you hear them now? 

They do mean a lot more. These songs are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better. They take you out of that mainstream grind where you’re trapped between differences which might seem different but are essentially the same. Modern music and songs are so institutionalized that you don’t realize it. These songs are cold and clear-sighted, there is a direct realism in them, faith in ordinary life just like in early rock and roll.

It’s hard not to think of World War II when we hear some of these. You were born during the war – do you remember anything about it?

Not much. I was born in Duluth – industrial town, ship yards, ore docks, grain elevators, mainline train yards, switching yards. It’s on the banks of Lake Superior, built on granite rock. Lot of fog horns, sailors, loggers, storms, blizzards. My mom says there were food shortages, food rationing, hardly any gas, electricity cutting off – everything metal in your house you gave to the war effort. It was a dark place, even in the light of day – curfews, gloomy, lonely, all that sort of stuff – we lived there till I was about five, till the end of the war.

Between the Depression and the war, people had to swallow so much pain that songs that might sound overly sentimental to us had tremendous resonance. A line like “as a man who has never paused at wishing wells” – it might sound corny to people who haven’t lived too much. Can you get inside these songs in your 70s in a way you might not have been able to in your 20s and 30s?

Sure, I can get way inside. In my 20s and 30s I hadn’t been anywhere. Since then I’ve been all over the world, I’ve seen oracles and wishing wells. When I was young there were a lot of signs along the way that I couldn’t interpret, they were there and I saw them, but they were mystifying. Now when I look back I can see them for what they were, what they meant. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now. There is no way I could have known it at the time.

When you see footage of yourself performing 40 or 50 years ago, does it seem like a different person? What do you see?

I see Nat King Cole, Nature Boy – a very strange enchanted boy, a terribly sophisticated performer, got a cross section of music in him, already postmodern. That’s a different person than who I am now.

It seems like 20 years after the war ended, all the entertainment was about it – movies, TV shows, novels, everything from South Pacific to Hogan’s Heroes. We assume everyone shares this common vocabulary, but in fact, it’s fading from popular memory. Did you feel an urgency to rescue these songs?

Not anymore than I would try to rescue Beethoven, Brahms, or Mozart. These songs are not hiding behind a wall or at the bottom of the sea, they’re right there out in the open, anyone can find them. They’re truthful. They’re liberating.

You do some great singing here – “When the World Was Young,” “These Foolish Things” – which begs the question, if you can sing like that, why don’t you always sing like that?

Depends what kind of song it is. “When the World Was Young,” “These Foolish Things,” are conversational songs. You don’t want to be spitting the words out in a crude way. That would be unthinkable. The emphasis is different and there is no reason to force the vernacular. “An airline ticket to romantic places” is a contrasting type of phraseology, than, say, “bury my body by the highway side.” The intonation is different, more circumspectual, more internal.

Do you pick vocal approaches like an actor playing a role?

No, it’s more like hypnosis, you instill it in your mind and you keep repeating it over and over until you got it. An actor playing a role? Like who? Scatman Crothers? George C. Scott? Steve McQueen?  It would probably be more like a method actor, whatever a method actor is. Remembrance of things past, I do that all the time.

One song you don’t sing perfectly is “September of My Years.” Your voice cracks on that, but fits the lyric. Did you consider fixing that or did you realize it works?

My voice cracking here and there wouldn’t bother me, bum notes or wrong chords would bother me more. On “September of My Years,” I didn’t fix anything. That would be impossible to pull off anyway because we were all in the same room playing together at the same time and there was a lot of leakage into other mics. You only fix things if you overdub the vocals separately and we didn’t do that here. If you mangle a lyric on records like this, you have to go back and start over. It’s a live recording. My voice cracking here or there just might mean it was recorded too early in the day, but it doesn’t hurt the overall effect, it wouldn’t bother me.

People called Shadows in the Night a tribute to Frank Sinatra. Did you know Sinatra had recorded all those songs when you put that record out?

Yeah, I knew he did, but a lot of other people recorded them as well, it just so happened that he had the best versions of them. When I recorded these songs I had to make believe that I never heard of Sinatra, that he didn’t exist. He’s a guide. He’ll point the way and lead you to the entrance but from there you’re on your own.

There is a famous story that you and Springsteen were invited to a dinner party at Sinatra’s house around the time you did that TV tribute to him. Had you met him before? Did you feel like he knew your stuff?

Not really. 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.

Everybody on that show did a Sinatra song except you. You sang “Restless Farewell.” How come?

Frank himself requested that I do it. One of the producers had played it for him and showed him the lyrics.

Was that the last time you saw Sinatra?

Maybe once after that.

What was the first time you saw him?

Pittsburgh, maybe ‘67 or ‘68 at the Civic Arena. He sang “Summer Wind,” “Day In, Day Out,” “Moonlight in Vermont.”

Sinatra did a lot of songs about growing old, but “The Best Is Yet to Come” is about defying age. It was the last song he ever sang on stage. How did you get inside that song? What do you think you bring to it that makes it worth your cutting? 

It wasn’t difficult. I didn’t bring anything unusual to it. There are a lot of key shifts and modulations in that song and you have to slide your way in and out of them. It’s a bit of a challenge, but once you figure it out, it’s pretty easy. It’s just a straight-ahead blues-based ballad, unique in its own way. It’s like “Mack the Knife,” but nothing like “Mack the Knife.” It’s such an old-fashioned phrase, you wouldn’t think anybody could do anything with it. “The best is yet to come” could be both a threat and a promise; the lyrics sort of insinuate that even though the world is falling down, a better one is already in its place. The song kind of levitates itself, you don’t have to do much to get it off the ground. I like all of Carolyn Leigh’s lyrics too; she wrote the lyrics to “Stay with Me.”

No one can hear “As Time Goes By” and not think of Casablanca. What are some movies that have inspired your own songs?

The Robe, King of Kings, Samson and Delilah, some others too. Maybe, like, Picnic and A Face in the Crowd.

A song like “Imagination” calls for an entirely different kind of drumming than rock and roll demands. It’s not as solid in the groove, it flies around the beat. Did it take you a minute to sing to that sort of rhythm? 

Yeah, but only a minute. Tommy Dorsey plays this kind of rhythm all the time. The drumming does fly around the beat because it has to, the drummer is observant to the bass line and there is a walking bass line that is ticking like a clock, like a heart palpitation. There’s a stomp to it too, that’s buried in there, almost like a Son House thing, but it’s buried so deep you hardly notice it. On the top it sounds all dreamy-like, like a pure ballad, but that can be deceiving. The melody makes this song what it is, not necessarily the drumming.

What does a drummer coming into your band need to know? What should he avoid?

No one comes into my band. I like the drummer I have now, he is one of the best around, but if he ever left me for some reason, like to join The Rolling Stones or something, I’d have to replace him. What should the guy avoid? Probably trying to get to know anybody too quick – no big cymbal crashes on the word “kick” in the song “I Get a Kick Out of You.” The drummer is not the leader, he follows the steady pulse of the song and the rhythmic phrasing. If he does that and keeps it simple, he doesn’t have to avoid anything.

What drummers do you like?

Lots of them, Krupa, Elvin Jones, Fred Below, Jimmy Van Eaton, Charlie Watts. I like Casey Dickens, the drummer who played with Bob Wills. There are a lot of great drummers.

You had a lot to do with songwriters singing and singers writing – ever think it would have been better for people to keep their jobs separate?

Maybe some, but I can’t say who offhand. There’s a lot of great singers who write weak songs and a lot of great songwriters who don’t sing. Trouble for them is they don’t have the outlets we used to have – nowhere to place these songs, no movies, no radio shows, TV variety shows, recording sessions, programs that were always calling for songs. So they have to sing them themselves. Songwriters have to have a reason to write songs, there has to be some purpose to performing it too. And sometimes it doesn’t connect. There is no magic formula to make that happen. All the standards on Triplicate have been written by more than one person, different combinations of people, and none of the singers who originally recorded them wrote them. If you can write your own songs, that’s ideal, but nobody will fault you if you don’t. Barbara Streisand and Tom Jones don’t.

“Make You Feel my Love” has become a new standard – it’s been covered by Adele, Garth Brooks, Billy Joel. Any version that knocked you out?

Yeah, one after the other, they all did.

“Braggin’” was done by Duke Ellington in 1938 – it’s the sort of big band swinging blues that led directly to rock and roll. As a kid, did rock and roll feel like a new thing to you or an extension of what was already going on?

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. 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. Doo-wop was the counterpart to rock and roll. Songs like “In the Still of the Night,” “Earth Angel,” “Thousand Miles Away,” those songs balanced things out, they were heartfelt and melancholy for a world that didn’t seem to have a heart. The doo-wop groups might have been an extension, too, of the Ink Spots and gospel music, but it didn’t matter; that was brand new too. Groups like the Five Satins and the Meadowlarks seemed to be singing from some imaginary street corner down the block. Jerry Lee Lewis came in like a streaking comet from some far away galaxy. Rock and roll was atomic powered, all zoom and doom. It didn’t seem like an extension of anything but it probably was.

On songs like “Bye and Bye” and “Moonlight,” you were working with pop styles from the early days of movies and recording. “Duquesne Whistle” was a swing number that Duke Ellington could have done. Do you think those songs laid the groundwork for these recent albums?

Yeah, I think so, those two songs and “Sugar Baby,” too. “Duquesne Whistle” actually started out at as a Fats Waller song, “Jitterbug Waltz.” I altered it somewhat but that was the blueprint. But yeah, those earlier tunes did lay the groundwork for songs like “But Beautiful” and “It Gets Lonely Early,” which are both on Triplicate. I didn’t want to tamper with them so I sang them the way they were.

Some records are social, good for parties and dancing. Some records are great in the car. This is an album made for late nights, solitude and reflection. When you find yourself in that place, what records do you reach for?

Sarah Vaughan’s My Kinda Love. Also the one she did with Clifford Brown.

The first two discs are fun, but it’s on the third disc that you really get into the heart-bearing stuff, and your best singing. Why save the best for last?

It seems that way because it’s a human story that builds to a climax and it’s personal from end to end. You start out wondering why you bought those blue pajamas and later you’re wondering why you were born. You go from the foolishly absurd to the deadly serious and you’ve passed through the gaudy and the nasty along the way. You get to the edge and you’re played out and you wonder where’s the good news? Isn’t there supposed to be good news? It’s a journey like the song “Skylark,” where your heart goes a-journeying over the shadows and the rain. And that’s pretty much it. It’s a journey of the heart. The best had to be saved for last.

I noticed that if you had an odd song that didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album, you put it first – “Rainy Day Women,” “John Wesley Harding,” the Johnny Cash duet of “Girl from the North Country,” “All the Tired Horses,” “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.” It’s like, “here’s a strange song” – and then the album begins. Why do you do that?

I don’t think “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” is a strange song at all, by any measure. I think it was pretty standard then and I think the same now, so that particular song could go anywhere. But the rest of them, most likely I did wonder what can I do with this, it doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. I probably did put these songs first and got them out of the way. Not sure about “Rainy Day Women,” though, I think it was like a bell tower announcement of what was to come. “All the Tired Horses” was only a mood piece, like a prelude, but the others would have broken up the flow of the rest of the songs on the record.

“There’s a Flaw in My Flue,” it’s a very weird song – it feels like a parody of a certain kind of torch song, especially the line “smoke gets in my nose.” Do you think Sammy Kahn was goofing when he wrote it?

No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a sincere romantic ballad. Smoke getting in my nose could be metaphorical, but it’s also very real at face value. There are a lot of lines like that in blues and folk music, “My bucket’s got a hole in it,” “there are stones in my passway,” “my motor don’t turn,” “there’s a ring in my tub,” “there’s smoke in my nose.” It’s not unlike a Blind Lemon line, “it’s been a meatless and wheatless day.” Sure, it’s a romantic ballad, but I don’t think it can be dismissed that easily. A fire in the fireplace could burn your place down.

What gives this song life and what all those other songs lack, is an exquisite melody which intertwines with the words, perfectly. I’ve seen images in my fireplace too. I’ve always thought that the line in “My Funny Valentine,” “are you smart,” is a goofy line. I kind of look at it this way – the melody in this song is kind of like the background in the Mona Lisa painting, a mystical, phantasmagorical fantasy land. To me that’s the real painting, like a science fiction world. The person looking at me is just a face, I can’t tell if she’s smiling or sneering, she has no particular spiritual nature. I’m not even convinced she’s a woman, but I’m captivated by the background, the melody. It’s kind of like this song, where you might see that “there’s a flaw in my flue” and not look past it or hear past it. I think it’s a great song, not goofy at all.

You’ve been spending a lot of time in all these old songs. Do you think the next song you write will be influenced by them? 

I doubt it. These melodies are so structured in musical theory, they’re so tricky with time signatures and shifting melodies, that it’s beyond me. It’s hard to be influenced by any of it if you’re not familiar with that world. I could be influenced by a part of a melody or a phrase, but that would be about it. I don’t think I’d be influenced by anything lyrically.

Would you ever want to write songs specifically for someone who works in this style? Diana Krall or Harry Connick? Ever thought of writing a song for Tony Bennett?

No, I’ve never thought about writing a song for Tony. He’s never asked me and I don’t think I could even if he did.

A lot of singers leave off the intros when they record these songs, but you did them – “September of My Years,” “P.S. I Love You,” “When the World Was Young.” The Beatles occasionally wrote an intro to a song (“to lead a better life, I need my love to be here…”) but hardly any other composers of your generation or after did. Have you ever done it? 

I’ve never done it. I think you have to put those in last after you write the song. I’ve always liked the one from “Mr. Blue,” the one where our guardian star lost all his glow. That’s one of the most beautiful intros. There’s an intro to “Stardust,” too, that nobody ever does. We call it an intro, but back then they called it the verse. What we call the song, they called the refrain. “Stardust” doesn’t need it, but “September of My Years” does. The song doesn’t make sense without it.

The Beatles also wrote a song called “P.S. I Love You.” “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis repurposed “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night.” The first ten years of rock songwriters were students of the music that came before – but from about 1970 on, all the new rockers knew was rock, maybe a little blues. What was lost?

From 1970 till now there’s been about 50 years, seems more like 50 million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones, group interests triumph over individual ones, poor people themselves have become a commodity. Musical influences too – they get swallowed up, get absorbed into newer things or they fall by the wayside. I don’t think you need to feel bummed out though, or that it’s out of your clutches – you can still find what you’re looking for if you follow the trail back. It could be right there where you left it – anything is possible. Trouble is, you can’t bring it back with you, you have to stay right there with it. I think that is what nostalgia is all about.

Some people would call Triplicate nostalgic.

Nostalgic? No I wouldn’t say that. It’s not taking a trip down memory lane or longing and yearning for the good old days or fond memories of what’s no more. A song like “Sentimental Journey” is not a way back when song, it doesn’t emulate the past, it’s attainable and down to earth, it’s in the here and now.

The way you do “Sentimental Journey” reminds me a little of Roger Miller – it’s kind of a folk song, isn’t it?

Yeah, kind of, it’s in that realm, it’s like a song Lead Belly might have written. There are a lot of songs like that – “Moanin’ Low,” “He’s Gone Away,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” The writers of those songs were folk and blues influenced.

Some of these songs are very sentimental, a lot deal with heartbreak. I won’t ask you who, but tell me – is there a real woman you picture when you sing some of these? More than one? 

Real? Of course they’re real. I hope so.

Tell me about working with the arranger, James Harper. What direction did you give him? “Stormy Weather” gets a really elaborate arrangement – a dramatic drone, like a submarine resolving into Hawaiian guitar. Did he bring in anything that made you say, “It’s too much, dial it back?”

Maybe a couple of times the trumpet was too shrill, and had to be dialed back. But outside of that, he didn’t need much direction. I can’t arrange horn parts anyway. In a situation like that, you don’t want to direct anybody. You have to have confidence in their ability, you have to know they’re capable. I didn’t want to have to get in James’s way. I wouldn’t have hired him if I did. He orchestrated “Stormy Weather” flawlessly and that’s a hard song to do because so many people have done it.

“My One and Only Love” is a rewrite of a song called, “Music from Beyond the Moon.” The original version was a flop, so a new lyricist came in and put in a whole new set of words to the melody and the second time it was a hit. When that happens with folk or blues songs, it’s called the folk tradition; when it happens with rock songs, people yell about plagiarism; in hip hop, it’s sampling. But it has always gone on in every form of music, hasn’t it?

I’m sure it has, there’s always some precedent – most everything is a knockoff of something else. You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you. It’s as if you were looking at something far off and now you’re standing in the middle of it. Once you get the idea, everything you see, read, taste or smell becomes an allusion to it. It’s the art of transforming things. You don’t really serve art, art serves you and it’s only an expression of life anyway; it’s not real life. It’s tricky, you have to have the right touch and integrity or you could end up with something stupid. Michelangelo’s statue of David is not the real David. Some people never get this and they’re left outside in the dark. Try to create something original, you’re in for a surprise.

Jazz musicians have always played standards, no matter what else they were up to. “Why Was I Born” and “My One and Only Love” were recorded by John Coltrane. Coltrane was playing in the Village at the same time you were. Did your paths ever cross? 

I saw him at The Village Gate on Bleecker Street a couple of times with Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner.

A few years ago I went to one of your concerts and found myself sitting next to Ornette Coleman. After the show I went backstage and there were some very famous rock musicians and actors waiting around, but the only person you invited into your dressing room was Ornette. Do you feel a connection with those jazz guys?

Yeah, I always have. I knew Ornette a little bit and we did have a few things in common. He faced a lot of adversity, the critics were against him, other jazz players that were jealous. He was doing something so new, so groundbreaking, they didn’t understand it. It wasn’t unlike the abuse that was thrown at me for doing some of the same kind of things, although with different forms of music.

I can’t imagine you writing a song as vulnerable and sentimental as “Where Is the One.” Do some of these songs allow you to go to a place you can’t go in your own writing?

Sure they do. I would never write “Where Is the One,” but it’s as if it was written for me, so I didn’t have to write it. It’s a tough place to get to, it’s vulnerable and protected. You’d have to be like the invisible man to get through, or you’d have to batter down walls, strip yourself naked, and then even if you did get in you’d have to wonder what’s the point. Someone else has been here and gone and took everything. Someone else had to write this song for me. Its nerves are too raw. You leave yourself too open. I’d rather not go there, especially to write songs.

Do you ever sit at the piano and come up with a great melody that is out of your range as a singer? Ever write songs with another singer in mind? 

I play variations of contrasting themes on piano and if I extend that into higher or lower octaves, the melody does get sometimes out of my range. But I’m not trying to sing anything, I’m just playing a melody. As far as other singers go, I never write a song with another singer in mind.

For the last few years you’ve mostly been playing piano on stage, very little guitar. How come?

I play at sound checks and at home, but the chemistry is better when I’m at the piano. It changes the dynamics of the band if I play the guitar. Maybe it’s just too tedious to go back and forth from one to the other. I’m strictly a rhythm player anyway. I’m not a solo player and when the piano gets locked in with the steel guitar, it’s like big band orchestrated riffs. That doesn’t happen when I’m playing guitar. When I play guitar it’s a different band.

Tough to take on “Stardust” after Willie. Did you think about his version?

“Stardust” is a dance ballad and I played it like that. I was thinking about Artie Shaw.

An awful lot of greats have died in the last year, Muhammad Ali, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell. Any of them hit you especially hard?

Sure, they all did – we were like brothers, we lived on the same street and they all left empty spaces where they used to stand. It’s lonesome without them.

You’ve known so many legendary musicians, actors, writers – was there anyone you look back on and say, “Man, I wish I had appreciated how great he was when he was still around?”

I can’t say who’s great or who isn’t. If somebody does achieve greatness it’s only for a minute and anyone is capable of that. Greatness is beyond your control – I think you get it by chance, but it’s only for a short time.

Some of your opening acts and co-bills, even very big names, have expressed disappointment that you don’t hang out or socialize on the road. Why is that?

Beats me – why would they want to hang out with me anyway?  I hang out with my band on the road.

For The New Basement Tapes, T Bone Burnett put together a group with Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Jim James, Marcus Mumford and Taylor Goldsmith, to finish songs based on old lyrics of yours. Did you hear any of those songs and say, “I don’t remember writing that?”

Did you say Taylor Swift?

Taylor Goldsmith.

Yeah, OK. No, I don’t remember writing any of those songs. They were found in an old trunk which came out of what people called the Big Pink house in Woodstock,

mostly lyrics left over when we were recording all those Basement Tapes songs.

T Bone said he could do something with them, said he could finish them. I didn’t remember anything about them. For years I thought we’d used them all.

You’ve had all sorts of celebrated people in your audience – presidents, kings, a pope, movie stars, the Beatles, Muhammad Ali. Anyone make you nervous? 

All of them.

I heard you and George Harrison were once supposed to do a recording session with Elvis, but he never showed up. What’s the real story?

He did show up, it was us that didn’t.

Warren Beatty says he wanted you to play Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Did that offer get to you?

No, the offer was sent to my manager’s office and we weren’t speaking; we had had a falling out. I didn’t get any mail or offers that were sent there.

You could have had some love scenes with Faye Dunaway – any regrets?


Let’s talk about singer songwriters. Are there qualities that make English songwriters different from American, or Southern songwriters different from, say, Canadian?

You got me. If I was an anthropologist maybe I could tell you, but I really have no idea. Everybody crosses cultures and time zones and nations now anyway. You know who could probably tell you? Alan Lomax, or maybe Cecil Sharp, one of those guys.

When you write a song about a contemporary person, Hurricane Carter, or Joey Gallo, or George Jackson, or Catfish Hunter – do you then have to deal with their relatives calling you up and asking for favors?

Not often. Willie McTell’s niece came to see me once and showed me some old photographs. She didn’t want anything, she was just a nice person.

Which one of your songs do you think did not get the attention it deserved? 

“Brownsville Girl,” or maybe “In the Garden.”

You’ve traveled a lot for a long while. Is there still something that makes Minnesota different from other places? Is there any quality people have there that you don’t find elsewhere?

Not necessarily. Minnesota has its own Mason Dixon line. I come from the north and that’s different from southern Minnesota; if you’re there you could be in Iowa or Georgia. Up north the weather is more extreme – frostbite in the winter, mosquito-ridden in the summer, no air conditioning when I grew up, steam heat in the winter and you had to wear a lot of clothes when you went outdoors. Your blood gets thick. It’s the land of 10,000 lakes – lot of hunting and fishing. Indian country, Ojibwe, Chippewa, Lakota, birch trees, open pit mines, bears and wolves – the air is raw. Southern Minnesota is farming country, wheat fields and hay stacks, lots of corn fields, horses and milk cows. In the north it’s more hardscrabble. It’s a rugged environment – people lead simple lives, but they lead simple lives in other parts of the country too. People are pretty much the same wherever you go. There is good and bad in most people, doesn’t matter what state you live in. Some people are more self-sufficient than other places – some more secure, some less secure – some people mind their own business, some don’t.

Did you grow up around a lot of Indians?

No, they lived on the reservation, hardly ever came to town, had their own schools and whatnot.

Were you into hunting or fishing?

I went into the woods with my uncle, my mother’s brother – he was an expert hunter and tried to teach me. But it wasn’t for me, I hated it.

How about fishing?

Oh sure, everybody did that, bass, sturgeon, flatheads, lake trout, we caught and cleaned them too.

Were you into guns?

Single shot revolvers, nothing automatic. Shooting pellet guns through 2x4s, that was fun. A pellet gun is as lethal as a .22.

Hubert Humphrey was a big figure in Minnesota when you were growing up. Did you ever see him in person or meet him?

I never did, never saw him.

When you first fell in love with rock and roll, did you have a pal who shared your enthusiasm? Anyone you tried to write songs with as a teenager? 

Only my girlfriend. I strummed my guitar and we’d make up new lyrics to other songs. I was playing in rock and roll bands around town too, but somewhere along the way I had had an epiphany. I had heard Lead Belly and Josh White and that changed everything.

What was Minneapolis like when you first came there?

Minneapolis and St. Paul – the Twin Cities, they were rock and roll towns. I didn’t know that. I thought the only rock and roll towns were Memphis and Shreveport. In Minneapolis they played northwest rock and roll, Dick Dale and the Ventures, The Kingsmen played there a lot, The Easy Beats, The Castaways, all surf bands, high voltage groups. A lot of Link Wray stuff like “Black Widow” and “Jack the Ripper,” all those northwest instrumentals like “Tall Cool One.” “Flyin’ High” by the Shadows was a big hit. The Twin Cities was surfing rockabilly – all of it cranked up to ten with a lot of reverb; tremolo switches, everything Fender – Esquires, Broadcasters, Jaguars, amps on folding chairs – the chairs even looked Fender. Sandy Nelson drumming. “Surfing Bird” came out of there a little while later, it didn’t surprise me.

Did it make you want to consider changing your direction?

I was traveling down a different path and already my consciousness had been recast. I had heard Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley and had read Ginsberg and Kerouac, so I had a heightened sense of being. I was hanging out with a different crowd too, more stimulating and free-spirited – real live poets, rebel girls, folk singers – it was a self-ruling world, aloof and detached from the mainstream. I had been bailed out of the past and had broke free, I wasn’t going to go back to that other place with button down shirts and crew cuts for anyone or anything. What I was listening to on my little portable record player was Gus Cannon, Memphis Minnie, Sleepy John Estes, players like that. Charlie Poole, too, and even Joan Baez. I was looking for my identity and I knew it was in there somewhere.

What do you think of Joan Baez?

She was something else, almost too much to take. Her voice was like that of a siren from off some Greek island. Just the sound of it could put you into a spell. She was an enchantress. You’d have to get yourself strapped to the mast like Odysseus and plug up your ears so you wouldn’t hear her. She’d make you forget who you were.

Back in the beginning of your career, you walked off The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a live show; were all your friends and family back in Minnesota sitting around the TV waiting for you to appear?

I doubt it, they wouldn’t have known me by name anyway. I don’t even think they would have known my face. If they saw my name in the TV listings, they wouldn’t know it was me. Wouldn’t know it was the boy who used to live there.

A lot of other songwriters have mentioned you in their songs – John Lennon in “Yer Blues,” Ricky Nelson in “Garden Party,” David Bowie in “Song for Bob Dylan.” It’s quite a list. Do you have a favorite?

“Garden Party.”

In Don McLean’s “American Pie,” you’re supposed to be the jester.

Yeah, Don McLean, “American Pie,” what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “It’s Alright, Ma” – some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.


Tom Wilson is kind of a mysterious figure, not much is known about him. What did he bring to the party as a producer?

Tom was a jazz guy, produced a lot of jazz records, mostly Sun Ra. I just turned around one day and he was there. Nowadays they’d call him a producer, but back then they didn’t call him that; he was a typical A&R man, responsible for your repertoire. I didn’t exactly need a repertoire because I had songs of my own, so I didn’t know what an A&R man did. Somebody had to be there from the record company to communicate with the engineer. Back then I don’t think I was ever allowed to talk to an engineer. The board was simple – two, at the most four, tracks. In those early years you went into the studio and recorded live, take after take. If someone made a mistake you had to start over, or you just had to work your way through a song until you got the right version. Nobody at the major recording studios was doing Brian Wilson and Phil Spector type records, bouncing tracks around, freeing up other tracks.

Tom was Harvard-educated but he was street-wise too. When I met him he was mostly into offbeat jazz, but he had a sincere enthusiasm for anything I wanted to do, and he brought in musicians like Bobby Gregg and Paul Griffin to play with me. Those guys were first class, they had insight into what I was about. Most studio musicians had no idea, they hadn’t listened to folk music or blues or anything like that. I think working with me opened up Tom’s world too, because after working with me he started recording groups like The Velvet Underground and The Mothers of Invention. Tom was a genuinely good guy and he was very supportive.

What format do you listen to music on? Do you stream music?

I listen on CDs mostly.

Heard any good records lately?

Iggy Pop’s Après, that’s a good record. Imelda May, I like her. Valerie June, The Stereophonics. I like Willie Nelson and Norah Jones’ album with Wynton Marsalis, the Ray Charles tribute record. I liked Amy Winehouse’s last record.

Were you a fan of hers?

Yeah, absolutely. She was the last real individualist around.

How old were you when your family got their first TV? What shows made an impression on you?

I was about 14 or 15 when we got one, my dad put it in the basement. It came on at 3:00 and went off at 9, most of the other time it showed a test pattern, some kind of weird circular symbol. The reception wasn’t that good, there was a lot of snow on the screen and you always had to adjust the antenna to get anything to come in. I liked everything I saw – Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Highway Patrol, Father Knows Best. There were theater dramas, too, like Studio One, Fireside Theatre. Quiz shows, too – Beat the Clock, To Tell the Truth, Queen for a Day, they were all good. There was one called You Are There with Walter Cronkite, The Twilight Zone, there were a bunch of them.

When you’re on your bus, what shows do you watch on TV?

I Love Lucy, all the time, non-stop.

Every time I turn on PBS, they’re running another documentary about folk music in the 60s and all sorts of people from that scene are talking about you like you were best friends. Does that bug you?

I don’t know, maybe we were best friends. I don’t remember.

In 1966 you had the wildest hair anybody had ever seen. Could you slick it down and go out and no one would recognize you?

Yeah, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do that. I was trying to look like Little Richard, my version of Little Richard. I wanted wild hair, I wanted to be recognized.

You met John Wayne in 1966 – how did you two hit it off?

Pretty good actually – the Duke, I met him on a battleship in Hawaii where he was filming a movie, he and Burgess Meredith. One of my former girlfriends was in the movie too, and she told me to come over there; she introduced me to him and he asked me to play some folk songs. I played him “Buffalo Skinners,” “Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” and I think “I’m a Rambler, I’m a Gambler.” He told me if I wanted to I could stick around and be in the movie. He was friendly to me.

“Wagon Wheel” was an old unfinished song of yours that got picked up and completed by Old Crow Medicine Show, who had a hit with it. Since then it’s been covered by Mumford and Sons. Darius Rucker’s version won a Grammy. Are you ever going to record it?
I did record it, it’s on one of my old bootleg records. I recorded it with Roger McGuinn and Rita Coolidge and Booker T, at a movie studio in Hollywood. That’s where they got it, it just had a different title.

Speaking of Hollywood, that’s where you made Triplicate.

That’s right. At the Capitol Studios.

The title Triplicate brings to mind Sinatra’s trilogy. Did that album have any influence on this one?

Yeah, in some ways, the idea of it. I was thinking in triads anyway, like Aeschylus, The Oresteia, the three linked Greek plays. I envisioned something like that.

Each of the three discs tells a different story. Did you set out knowing it was going to be that way or did the themes reveal themselves as you went along?

The themes were decided beforehand in a theatrical sense – grand themes, each of them incidental to survivors and lovers or better yet, wisdom and vengeance, or maybe even exile – one disc foreshadowing the next and I didn’t want to give any one song preeminence over any other. No old wives’ tales and memoirs, but just hard plain earthly life, the hidden realities of it. That’s my perception.

Did you think about it all in that exact way?

No, not in so many words, but I think subconsciously I did.

Were there songs you considered but left off because they didn’t fit any of the three stories?

Yeah there were; “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Any tracks here where you came in with one approach and ended up with something completely different?

No, that happens more with my songs. A couple of times I picked the wrong approach to a song I wanted to do; “Deep in a Dream,” I recorded that but it didn’t resonate so I didn’t use it. It was the wrong approach to begin with.

What’s a line or lyric here that you would never write, but you’re glad someone else did?

Lots of them… “The thrill of the thought that you might give a thought to my plea,” “the stumbling words that told you what my heart meant,” “when you’re all alone, all the children grown, and, like starlings, flown away.” I’m glad someone else wrote these lines. I never would.

From the 20s into the early 50s, the line between blues and pop and country and jazz was very flexible. Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, all tried their hand at everything. Why do fences come up between different styles of American music?

Because of the pressure to conform.