“Good reviews don’t hurt you, but they don’t help either, It’s better to have a record the critics hate that sells 10 million copies than one the critics love that sells 10.”
~Bob Dylan to Edna Gundersen (August 31, 1990)
31 August 1990
Edna Gundersen Interview, Lincoln, Nebraska
An interview with Edna Gundersen for USA Today. This took place on August 31, 1990 in Lincoln, Nebraska on the day of the concert at the Bob Devaney Sports Center. The article that appeared in the European edition of USA Today was in a considerably abbreviated form.
ROCK ICON IS HAPPY WITH HIS PLACE
The poetic revolutionary reflects on his charmed life in an exclusive Lincoln, Neb. – On the opening day of the interview Nebraska State Fair, Bob Dylan is the star attraction, performing in a rocking 90 minutes of mostly early hits. Most of the Devaney Sports Center’s 6,000 cheering fans are college students who weren’t yet born when rock’s poetic revolutionary held a generation rapt with the show’s climax, Like A Rolling Stone. It’s been 30 years since he left college himself to stake a claim in the Greenwich Village folk scene.
How does it feel? “In some ways, it felt older to be 30 than to be 60 or however old they say I am,” Dylan says after the show. “How old am I now?” He’s 49. “That’s what they say, but nobody knows my real birth date,” he counters teasingly.
His take on aging: “You just can’t help it.” Dylan whose new Under The Red Sky album is out this week, is the only living rocker in Life’s list of the century’s 100 most important Americans. Still godlike to many, he admits he’s less hungry these days.
“You reach a certain place and that’s sufficient,” he says. “Sometimes there is no higher. How much higher can Michael Jackson go? Or Madonna? You get your territory and you’re content with that.”
Friendly and direct, Dylan talks freely about his work – in the present tense, anyway. He steers clear of ancient history (the 1960’s), Dylan mythology or anything remotely personal. “People can learn everything about me through my songs, if they know where to look. They can juxtapose them with certain other songs and draw a clear picture. But why would anyone want to know about me? It’s ridiculous.”
Informed that his childhood home in Hibbing, Minn., recently sold for $84,000 (twice it’s appraised value), Dylan says only, “Well, they better check the furnace.”
Clad in a crisp white shirt, cap, jeans and heavy black boots, Dylan clutches a cup of coffee backstage. Clearly tired, he’s nonetheless witty and enthusiastic, even as he faces a 334-mile bus ride to Hannibal, MO., for the next nights show.
For the third year running, Dylan has surfaced with a tour and album. Red Sky is the 36th in a canon dating back to 1962. The Traveling Wilbury’s second album – “a whole lot better than
the first,” he promises – was recorded last spring and is due in October. A tour may follow, if Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Geoff Lynne can co-ordinate schedules.
“It’s not a drain at all,” he says of this years frantic pace. “Billy Idol’s got the right idea. It’s a charmed life. It beats 9-to-5 now, it did then and it will tomorrow.” “You gotta stick it out though. That’s all there really is at the end of the line in this business. B.B. King and Chuck Berry are still working. Little Richard is as good now as he was then.”
Dylanologists debate whether the constantly evolving performer is as good now as when he transformed pop with his nasal singing, literary imagery and folk/rock meld. “He doesn’t have a
problem living up to his past,” says Ian Woodward, British author of The Wicked Messenger, the 10-years-old definitive Dylan newsletter. “People’s expectations are the problem.”
Woodward recently heard Dylan perform a staggering repertoire over six London concerts. “The range he covers is enormous. There’s a strain in music that goes back to small-town America, rockabilly, rock n’ roll, rhythm and blues, folk and country. He’s keeping that strain of music alive. I don’t see anyone who could carry that baton.” Yet the most quoted songwriter of our time approaches his work with a journeyman’s humble dedication.
“It’s just another record,” Dylan says of Red Sky. “You can only make the records as good as you can and hope they sell.” Red Sky’s 10 originals are less introspective than the atmospheric confessions of last year’s Oh Mercy. Dylan’s playful, minimalistic lyrics are set to bouncy rock, fleshed out by George Harrison, Elton John and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The title cut, about a boy and a girl “baked in a pie,” is a Grimmlike tale “intentionally broad and short, so you can draw all kinds of conclusions,” Dylan says. TV Talkin’ Song, a wry attack on television and false gods, is based on a speech he and rocker Dave Stewart heard in London’s Hyde Park.
The lighter fare, like the waggish romp Wiggle Wiggle, elicited a lukewarm review from Rolling Stone. “Good reviews don’t hurt you, but they don’t help either,” Dylan says dismissively.
“It’s better to have a record the critics hate that sells 10 million copies than one the critics love that sells 10.”
Though a prolific recording artist, Dylan considers performing his primary outlet. He complains that Columbia has not adequately pushed his albums. The label told him Oh Mercy’s title hurt
sales because it didn’t refer to a specific song. “They have a point, OK? But it’s discouraging when you ask the vice-president of your record company why he hasn’t sold more of your records and he says, “Well, the title isn’t all that great”.” Dylan laughs, “Everybody gripes about their record company. I’m no exception.” He is one when it comes to self-promotion. Red Sky songs were conspicuously absent in recent shows. (“They haven’t settled in yet.”) Cornering him for a publicity photo is impossible. “It rubs me the wrong way, a camera,” he says, “It doesn’t matter who it is, someone in my own family could be pointing a camera around. It’s a frightening feeling. It’s not really an instrument that’s been elevated to that world of art. It’s a machine. Cameras make ghosts out of people.” He’s more at ease discussing music philosophy. “People say music is intended to elevate the spirit. But you’ve got a lot of groups and lyrics projecting emptiness and giving you nothing, less than nothing because they’re taking up your time.”
“Music,” he says, “should aim for the soul not the groin.” “It’s not difficult to get people throbbing in their guts. That can lead them down an evil path if that’s all they’re getting. You gotta put something on top of that.” He grins when told that Milli Vanilli declared themselves more talented than Dylan and Paul McCartney. “Who is Milli Vanilli?” Dylan asks, truly stumped. Not every chart-climber is an artist, he says. But talk of art strays too close to the taboo topic of Dylan’s unwitting sainthood.
“What kind of artistry is equal to the silver glisten on a river or a sunset or lightning in the sky? What kind of man’s artistry can compare to the great artistry of creation?”
On that note, he’s heading for the bus. “I got a lot of miles to go,” he says. And like most Dylan utterances, something resonates beneath the surface.
- 1969 – Near Ryde, Isle Of Wight, England, UK
Check out -> August 31: Bob Dylan & The Band at Isle of Wight 1969 (videos)
- 1988 – New York State Fairgrounds, Syracuse, NY, USA
- 1988 – New York State Fairgrounds, Syracuse, NY, USA
- 1989 – Fiddler’s Green, Englewood, CO, USA
- 1990 – Bob Devaney Sports Arena, State Fair Park, Lincoln, NB, USA
- 1992 – The Orpheum Theater, Minneapolis, MN, USA
- 1993 – Pine Knob Music Theatre, Clarkston, MI, USA
- 1997 – Liberty Park, Main Stage, Kansas City, MO, USA
- 2002 – Mesa County Fairgrounds, Grand Junction, CO, USA
- 2004 – Haymarket Park, Lincoln, NE, USA
- 2008 – Deer Valley Resort, Park City, Utah, USA
- 2010 – Allegiance Field, Ogren Park, Missoula, Montana
- 2014 – Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
All Along The Watchtower – Adelaide 2014:
Please give me feedback if you now of an interesting “Bob Dylan event” related to August 31