maanantai, 2. lokakuu 2017





maanantai, 24. huhtikuu 2017

Neil Young on the making of his greatest hits

Neil Young on the making of his greatest hits
Uncut February 23, 2015

Shakey recalls the creation of some of his classic songs


In this epic archive feature, from December 2004’s issue of Uncut, Neil Young himself explains the making of every single song on his Greatest Hits album. “I wrote a lot of songs when I couldn’t talk…” Words: Nigel Williamson

Neil Young is just back from playing several dates on the “Vote For Change” tour and he’s still sporting the button badge and a custom-made “Canadians For Kerry” T-shirt to prove it. “Too bad you guys in Europe don’t get to vote. Then it would be a landslide, right?” he jokes.

Politically, Young has often appeared an ambivalent figure. He made potent early socio-political statements with songs such as “Ohio” and “Southern Man”, both of which have a prominent place on his forthcoming best-of compilation (reviewed on p168). But then in the ’80s he appeared to flirt with Reaganism. At the end of the decade, as the Cold War was coming to an end and global communism was collapsing, he wrote “Rockin’ In The Free World”. It’s also on the new ‘hits’ collection, and is one of those ambiguous songs claimed equally by both sides. To the right it’s a celebration of capitalism’s ultimate triumph. To the left it’s a critique of ‘freedom’ American-style, with its litany of victims who fall between democracy’s cracks.

On the Vote For Change tour, it’s become a ‘stop Bush’ anthem, Young performing the song with the likes of Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band.

“It seems to be resonating again,” he says. “But it depends on how you cut it and what words you leave in and what you take out.”

He’s clearly pleased with the way Michael Moore adapted the song for the soundtrack of his recent Fahrenheit 9/11. “The way he edited in the film made it very topical for now,” he enthuses, and reveals that Moore has now made a four-minute video for the song. “I just saw it for the first time half an hour ago,” Young says. “He’s done a great job.”

There are two ways of viewing rock stars who pontificate about politics. On the one hand, there’s the ’60s notion that artists have a duty to “speak out against the madness”, as David Crosby put it on CSN&Y’s “Almost Cut My Hair”. The other holds that just because we enjoy the music of citizens Springsteen, Stipe, Vedder or Young, why should we care a hoot about their political views?

Uncut wonders where Young stands within this spectrum of opinion.

“At both ends, because they’re both right,” he says. “Half the people feel musicians should be listened to simply as artists and shouldn’t step outside their area as political spokesmen. But the other half feel what musicians have to say is meaningful. Maybe it’s not going to change your mind. But it’s going to reinforce what you feel if someone whose music you relate to agrees with you. It can be a very effective thing if people go and vote for whatever they feel the music says.”

Whether humanity has made any progress since the titanic social and cultural battles that rock’n’roll seemed to embody in the ’60s is a moot point.

“It’s 50:50 right now,” Young reckons. “I like to think things are getting better. But there are so many levels of control through the media. It’s confusing. You think you’re making progress. And then you see how strong the other side is and how they’re manipulating the media to change the meaning of things and put out their take on it. People have to learn to think for themselves.”

Away from his contribution to the campaign to oust Bush, Young has been busy readying his new compilation, his first career overview since Decade in 1977. A long-term obsessive about sound quality, typically the record comes in various formats, including not only standard CD but something he calls “super-saturated DVD-Stereo” and a new, enhanced vinyl format he claims is “the best ever”.

“Sound quality hit the dark ages in the early ’80s. But it’s starting to come back thanks to DVD-Stereo,” he enthuses. “There’s just no comparison between that and a regular compact disc or even 5.1 sound. It’s the difference between a true reflection of the music and a mere replica.”

In reality, Young has had very few ‘hits’ in the conventional sense; his only solo Top 30 single to date has been “Heart Of Gold” in 1972. Was the selection his or his record company’s, and what were the criteria?

“There was a large list that was created,” he explains. “Then we based it on sales and airplay and downloading. We took all the information that we could and came up with what would fit.”

The result is a collection on which all but two of the 16 tracks date from the period 1969-79, with only “Rockin’ In The Free World” and “Harvest Moon” to represent the last 25 years.

“Well, that’s when the hottest hits happened, or what you might call hits,” he shrugs. “So that’s real.”

A greatest hits album will hardly satisfy those who were hoping 2004 would see the release of the multi-CD Archives boxset (at various times rumoured to consist of anything between six and 20 CDs) that he’s been promising for years. But, he insists, the project is now “big and real close” and the hits album is intended to “set the bar” for the Archives release.

Yet he denies all this journeying through his past has put him in nostalgic mood. “Like Dylan said, ‘Don’t look back.’ I can only play the old songs if there’s also new material. Greendale is what gave me enough belief in myself to continue and to sing the old songs. If it wasn’t for things like Greendale, I’d just be replicating myself, travelling round the world doing things I’d already done. Which would be very depressing and probably life-threatening.”

At the moment he admits there are no new songs. “I don’t have anything. Greendale completely drained me, to the point where I’m just standing here, the wind is blowing and I’m waiting.”

Perhaps he could fill the time by giving us his literary version of events, like Dylan’s Chronicles?

“Boy, I hope I’ll be too busy doing something else to do that. It’d be a heck of a job. But maybe at some point in my life it will become a relaxing thing to do.”

If he ever does write the book, though, don’t expect too many insights on what inspired the songs.

“Fact is, when it comes to songwriting, it’s all just a bunch of information coming from the same place. And I don’t know how to relate to the thoughts behind it. I really don’t. The songs are on their own little trip, I go out and ride along with them and sing them and sometimes I won’t sing them because I don’t feel like it.”

Despite this protestation, he’s perfectly happy to range over the album’s track selection for Uncut’s edification, and reveals he’s still particularly enamoured of the trio of songs from 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which forged the Crazy Horse sound.

“That was the beginning of playing electric guitar and jamming and being able to play those extended instrumentals for me,” says Young. “That was a great band and Danny Whitten was a great guitar player. I love all those records that I made back then. Those tracks still kick ass.”

Then came the success of “Heart Of Gold” and 1972’s Harvest album, which categorised him in the minds of many as a lovelorn troubadour. Did he then make a conscious decision to subvert that image?

“That’s what success does – it will categorise you. But luckily I haven’t had that much success. That was the one time and the first thing an artist will do if he doesn’t want to be categorised is to react and fight back. There’s a spirit inside you that’s like an animal. And it’s cornered when it’s categorised. So we’re not dealing with thought here. It’s an animal reaction.”

And does he still believe it’s better “to burn out than to fade away”? He wrote the line when he was in his thirties. A quarter of a century on, he appears to have successfully avoided both fates.

“I was exactly 33 and a third when I wrote that so I was on long play,” he jokes. “It wasn’t a literal thing. It was a spontaneous description of a feeling rather than endorsing a way of life. But what a line like that means changes every time you sing it, depending on what’s going on in the world. If you really believe in something when you write it or you’re open to some channel and things comes through you, then that’s going to happen. What you write will reapply itself to whatever’s happening around you. And that’s the fun of what I do.”

Next year, Young will turn 60. With Greendale having left him “drained” and no new songs jostling for his attention, perhaps it will be the year that the long-awaited Archives boxset, with its treasure trove of unreleased tracks, finally makes its appearance. In the meantime, as a curtain-raiser, we give you the low-down on his new best-of…

Down By The River
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

Dissatisfied with the sound of his debut album and bored and exhausted by the long hours in the studio that its endless overdubs entailed, Young determined “to be real instead of fabricating something” when it came to recording the follow-up. And the key turned out to be a band called The Rockets he found playing the clubs on LA’s Sunset Strip.

After sitting in with the band at a gig at the Whiskey A Go-Go in August 1968, he invited three members of the six-piece – Danny Whitten, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot – to help him record his next album. For reasons nobody can now remember, he renamed them Crazy Horse (after his initial suggestion, The War Babies, had been rejected) and by January 1969 they were in the studio recording Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

“Down By The River” defined the guitar sound Young perfected with Crazy Horse, played on a vintage instrument he called “Old Black”, a 1953 Gibson Les Paul that he’d bought in 1967 for $50. Years later, he was still recalling the excitement of the first time he played it through a vintage 1959 Fender Deluxe: “Immediately, the entire room started to vibrate. I went, ‘Holy shit!’ I had to turn it halfway down before it stopped feeding back.” The sessions for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere were the first time he’d used the combination in the studio.

Despite being nine minutes long, “Down By The River” was edited down from a much longer jam. “We got the vibe, but it was just too long and sometimes it fell apart, so we just took the shitty parts out,” Young explained. “Made some radical cuts in there – I mean, you can hear ’em. Danny just played so cool on that. He was playing R’n’B kinda things. He made the whole band sound good.”

Bassist Billy Talbot confirms that it was “Down By The River” which patented the Crazy Horse sound: “At first we played it double-time, faster like the chorus is now. It was almost a jazz thing.” They then borrowed a James Brown-style beat, but slowed down to a more stoned pace.

According to drummer Ralph Molina, Young borrowed the chord sequence from a Danny Whitten composition called “Music On The Road”, although Young’s biographer Jimmy McDonough reckoned it owes more to “Let Me Go”, another Rockets song, which appeared on their only album (released in ’68).

Written in bed with a fever on the same day as “Cinnamon Girl” and “Cowgirl In The Sand”, once the sickness passed Young still didn’t seem to have much idea where “Down By The River” ’s lyric came from, with its “I shot my baby” refrain.

“No, there’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick. It’s a plea, a desperation cry,” he insisted in 1970.

Yet in a long preamble to the song at a 1984 concert in New Orleans, he told a different story, claiming it was about “a guy who had a lot of trouble controlling himself”. He went on to describe a very literal meeting by a river in which the man tells the woman she’s cheated on him once too often: “He reached down into his pocket and pulled a little revolver out and he said, ‘Honey, I hate to do this, but you’ve pushed me too far.’”


Cowgirl In The Sand
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

The second of Young’s ground-breaking early guitar epics with Crazy Horse was written in bed with a fever on that same day as “Down By The River” – on an acoustic guitar, in which style it can be heard in a stunning take on 1970’s live CSN&Y album Four Way Street.

But it’s the electric version that remains the most memorable, and includes some of the finest guitar interplay between Young and Whitten.

“Nobody played guitar with me like that,” Young says of Crazy Horse’s main man, who died of a heroin overdose in 1972. “That rhythm, when you listen to ‘Cowgirl In the Sand’, he keeps changing. Billy and Ralph will get into a groove and everything will be going along and all of a sudden Danny’ll start doing something else. He just led those guys from one groove to another, all within the same groove. So when I played those long guitar solos, it seemed like they weren’t all that long, that I was making all these changes, when in reality what was changing was not one thing but the whole band. Danny was the key. A really great second guitar player, the perfect counterpoint to everything else that was happening.”

On another occasion, Young said of his style with Crazy Horse: “A lot of people think we play simple and there is no finesse. But we’re not trying to impress anybody; we just want to play with the feeling. It’s like a trance we get into.”

The trance-like quality is reflected in a dreamlike lyric, addressed to some idealised woman with intriguing references to sin and rust. In a much-bootlegged performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1971, Young obscured its meaning further by introducing the song as about “beaches in Spain”, a decidedly odd comment given that at the time he’d never even been to Spain.

Cinnamon Girl
Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Released: May 1969
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, Los Angeles, Jan 1969

That day when Young took to his bed in early January 1969 with a debilitating dose of flu turned out to be one of the most productive of his career. Lying in his Topanga Canyon house with his mind in an altered state due to a fever that rolled up to 103 degrees, and with scraps of paper covering the bed, he composed his third classic of the day – “Cinnamon Girl”.

“Sometimes [when] I get sick, get a fever, it’s easy to write,” he explained. “Everything opens up. You don’t have any resistance. You just let things go.”

Within days of his recovery, he was trying the songs out with Crazy Horse. “Cinnamon Girl” was the first one to be recorded, and the euphoric marriage of crunching riffs and sweet melody made a dramatic album opener. Again the dreamy lyrics reflected his feverish state, and the mysterious effect was only enhanced by the hand-scribbled non-explanation that accompanied the song’s inclusion on the 1977 compilation Decade: “Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me through Phil Ochs’ eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife.” Or anyone else, come to that.

The guitar sound was based on an open tuning, which he had first used on Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird”. “We discovered this D modal tuning around the same time in 1966,” he told Nick Kent. “That was when ragas were happening and D modal made it possible to have that droning sound going all the time. That’s where it started, only I took it to the next level, which is how ‘The Loner’ and ‘Cinnamon Girl’ happened.”

A version with a slightly different vocal performance was released as a single in America, where it charted at No 55. “The parts are switched, Danny is on the bottom and me on top,” Young explains. “That was so you could hear my voice clearly, which Reprise wanted for the single. We left the album version alone because it was better and we knew it.”

Album: Déjà Vu
Released: March 1970
Recorded: Wally Heider’s, San Francisco, Oct 1969-Jan 1970

When Stephen Stills took David Crosby and Graham Nash to Young’s house in Topanga Canyon in the early summer of 1969 to persuade them that his old Buffalo Springfield colleague should join the group, “Helpless” was allegedly the song that convinced them. “By the time he finished, we were asking him if we could join his band,” David Crosby recalled.

This doesn’t fit with Young’s own claim in the sleevenotes to the Decade anthology, in which he insists the song was written in New York in 1970. But the simple chronology of the recording of the Déjà Vu album suggests Crosby’s account is more likely.

During the sessions for the album, Young stayed in the sleazy Caravan Lodge Motel in San Francisco’s run-down Tenderloin district, possibly because it was the only place that would tolerate the presence in his room of his two pet bush babies Harriet and Speedy.

Young also attempted to record “Helpless” with Crazy Horse at Sunset Sound around the same time, but when he and the band had completed what he believed to be the perfect take, he turned around to the control room to find the tape machine hadn’t been running.

“We were doing it live, everybody playing and singing at once and we did an eight- or nine-minute version of it with a long instrumental in the middle. And the engineer didn’t press the button down,” he says. “I took that as an omen. That’s why I did it with CSN.”

But it took CSN some time to get the song right, with Young consistently complaining that they were taking it too fast. “I had to play it with them until four in the morning, doing it over and over again to get everybody tired enough so that they would stop doing this extra stuff where everyone was playing too much,” he said in a 1989 radio documentary. “We kept on going for a long time. Finally we got one where they were half-asleep and they didn’t know they were doing it.”

The song gave Young more trouble when he performed an inept version in November 1976 at The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz. His appearance was not helped by the cocaine binge he had been on for the previous 48 hours and a large rock of the white stuff, which was horribly visible in his nostril, had to be rotoscoped away from the scene in the film at a cost of several thousand dollars.


After The Gold Rush
Album: After The Gold Rush
Released: Sept 1970
Recorded: Topanga, early 1970

“After The Gold Rush” shared its title with a screenplay by Dean Stockwell for a disaster movie in which Young had entertained hopes of making his acting debut. In the event, the movie failed to secure financial backing, and was never made.

Stockwell was a neighbour of Young’s in Topanga, and the plot of his proposed film involved the flooding of the canyon by a tidal wave following an earthquake. The screenplay then followed the effect of the disaster on a number of residents, including a local folk singer – a part that was tailor-made for Young.

Performed solo at the piano, accompanied only by a mournful French horn, the title song opened with an apocalyptic vision of ecological catastrophe. But then it took off into the realms of science fiction, with extra-terrestrials arriving in silver ships to save life on earth by transporting it to start a new colony in space. According to producer David Briggs, the song was written within half an hour.

Many years later, Young claimed the track to be an exercise in time travel, with scenes set in past, present and future: “There’s a Robin Hood scene, there’s a fire scene in the present and there’s the future. The air is yellow and red, ships are leaving, certain people can go and certain people can’t. I think it’s going to happen.”

To biographer Jimmy McDonough, he elaborated: “Civilisations. Dropping seeds. Races. Blending. Species getting stronger. Like plants do. I see it all as the same thing. Who knows how big the fucking universe is?”


Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Album: After The Gold Rush
Released: Sept 1970
Recorded: Topanga, early 1970

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” might sound heart-breakingly self-confessional and have helped to cement the early-’70s image of Young as a forlorn, lovesick troubadour, but the song was actually written for Graham Nash, whose relationship with Joni Mitchell had just hit the rocks.

As such, it contributes to the soap opera that was the CSN&Y axis at the time, for Young became the third songwriter to document the relationship, Nash having written the sentimental “Our House” for Déjà Vu and Mitchell including “Willy” (her nickname for Nash) on Ladies Of The Canyon.

Coincidentally, the same Mitchell album included “The Circle Game”, written for Young in response to his “Sugar Mountain”. In turn, Young would write another, unreleased song about Mitchell called “Sweet Joni”, which he played several times in concert during 1972-73. It was also rumoured – probably unfairly – that “Stupid Girl” on Young’s 1975 album Zuma was also about her.

Not to be left out of the tangled web, Stephen Stills recorded “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” on his 1984 album Right By You – and Crosby and Mitchell had been lovers before Nash even arrived on the scene.

Released as a single, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” gave Young his first solo Top 40 hit in America in December 1970.

Southern Man
Album: After The Gold Rush
Released: Sept 1970
Recorded: Topanga, early 1970

A scathing indictment of racism and bigotry, “Southern Man” had its roots in an incident that took place during a Buffalo Springfield tour of the Deep South with The Beach Boys in early 1968. Beating up longhairs was at the time a popular sport in certain parts of the South and, sitting in a diner one night with members of the tour retinue after a gig, Young heard a bunch of rednecks planning to attack them.

A quick phone call to summon reinforcements from the road crew prevented an Easy Rider-type scenario. But Young was left both angry and shaken by the event. Dennis Dragon, one of The Beach Boys’ backing line-up, recalls: “Neil was really upset. Just the vibration, the ignorance, the stupidity. He’s a very sensitive guy. That did it. He went straight to work writing ‘Southern Man’.”

Young tells a more confused story. “This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch Gone With The Wind,” he joked later. Then he claimed, “Actually, I think I wrote it in the Fillmore East dressing room in 1970.” Even later, he told McDonough he had written it in his home studio in Topanga.

Certainly CSN&Y were playing it live by May of that year, and an epic version appears on Four Way Street. But the studio recording is more indignant and angry, although, according to Young, this had as much to do with marital strife with his wife Susan as his hatred of racism. “Susan was angry at me for some reason, throwing things. They were crashing against the [studio] door. We fought a lot. There’s some reason for it, I’m sure. It was probably my fault.”

He revisited the theme of the South on his 1972 Harvest album with the song “Alabama”, which provoked Lynyrd Skynyrd to respond with “Sweet Home Alabama”, in which they chided: “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.”

Young later announced that he had stopped singing the song: “I don’t feel like it’s particularly relevant. It’s not Southern Man. It’s White Man. It’s much bigger than Southern Man.”

Single: with CSN&Y (B-side “Find The Cost Of Freedom”)
Released: May 1970
Recorded: Los Angeles, May 1970

On May 4, 1970, four student protesters were gunned down and killed by National Guards at Kent State University, Ohio. At the time, Young was hanging out with David Crosby at road manager Leo Makota’s place in Pescadero. When Crosby expressed his outrage, the far less political Young picked up a guitar and wrote “Ohio” on the spot.

The pair then took a plane to LA, rounded up Stills and Nash and went straight into the studio to cut the song live. According to Crosby, the tape was delivered to Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun that same night. Within little more than a week it was in the stores, with Stills’ “Find The Cost Of Freedom” as the B-side. Banned by various radio stations, it nevertheless climbed to No 14 in the US singles chart.

“It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song,” Young observed in 1977 when he included “Ohio” on the retrospective Decade. “It’s ironic that I capitalised on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”

Crosby, whose voice can be heard towards the end of the song emotionally yelling, “Why? How many more?”, broke down in tears after they had finished. “I was so moved, the hair was standing up on my arms. I freaked out because I felt it so strongly,” he recalled.

The track remains Young’s proudest moment as part of CSN&Y. “That’s the only recording where CSN&Y is truly a band,” he says. “It felt really good to hear it come back so fast – that whole idea of using music as a message and unifying generations and giving them a point of view. That song gave the band a depth. Aside from that one thing, I was a hindrance to their progress.”


The Needle And The Damage Done
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: UCLA (live), Feb 1971

The inspiration behind Young’s stripped-down junkie lament, which stood in stark contrast to the other tracks on the bucolic Harvest, was the descent into heroin addiction of Crazy Horse’s Danny Whitten. It’s less dark than some of the drug songs that would subsequently appear on Tonight’s The Night (1975), for by then Whitten was dead. In 1971, Young still hoped that he could save his friend, whose addiction had already led him to sack Crazy Horse in March 1970 after Whitten had reputedly nodded off onstage at the Fillmore East.

Young began playing the song live during his solo tour in early 1971. He introduced the cautionary tale by telling the audience: “This is a serious song I’d like to do about some people you know, some people I know and some people that neither one of us knows. It’s about heroin addiction. Somewhere in the universe there’s probably a place where all the great art is that didn’t get out. A museum of incredible lost art that didn’t get out because of heroin.”

Hearing that Whitten had cleaned up, Young took him back into the fold in the fall of 1972, when he invited him to rehearsals for the forthcoming Time Fades Away tour at his Broken Arrow ranch. When it turned out Whitten was as wasted as ever and barely able to hold a guitar, Young sacked him for a second time on November 18, giving him $50 and a ticket back to LA. He used the money to score, and died of an overdose later that same night. The following day Young wrote “Don’t Be Denied”, which would later appear on 1973’s Time Fades Away album.

“I loved Danny. I felt responsible,” he later told Cameron Crowe.

Old Man
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: Nashville, Feb 8, 1971

Never a great one for literal explanations of his songs, Young made an exception over “Old Man” when even his own father, Scott, a well-known Canadian sports writer/broadcaster, came to believe the song was about him. In fact, as Young took to making clear when introducing the song onstage, the inspiration was Louis Avila, a foreman who worked on his Broken Arrow ranch at La Honda.

“When I bought the place there was this old man who was working there for the people I bought it from. He was about 70 years old. He was a cattleman and that’s like something that’s never going to happen again, so I wrote a song about it,” he explained.

Recorded one weekend in Nashville in early February 1971, Young had in mind a sound similar to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and asked producer Elliott Mazer to recruit similar personnel. In the end, he got Dylan’s drummer Kenny Buttrey, supported by Ben Keith on pedal-steel and Tim Drummond on bass. They became the nucleus of the band Young would call The Stray Gators. James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who were in Nashville as Young’s fellow guests on a Johnny Cash TV show the day before, added harmony vocals. Taylor also contributed the six-string banjo picking – the only time he has ever played the instrument on record.

Released as a follow-up to the US No 1 single “Heart Of Gold”, “Old Man” was to prove less successful, only reaching No 31 on the Billboard chart.


Heart Of Gold
Album: Harvest
Released: March 1972
Recorded: Nashville, Feb 8, 1971

“This song put me in the middle of the road,” Young remarked of “Heart Of Gold” – before he famously added that’s when he decided it was time to head for the ditch. A No 1 single in America and a Top 10 hit in Britain, the song has been dividing his fans ever since, with music writer Sylvie Simmons – otherwise one of Young’s most fervent supporters – claiming in her book on the man that she winces every time she hears it.

Critics point to a trite lyric and simplistic rhyming scheme. But those present in the studio knew instantly they had a hit on their hands. The first track tackled during the same Nashville session which spawned “Old Man” in February 1971, producer Elliott Mazer recalled: “We all knew there was something very special going on. When Neil played ‘Heart Of Gold’, Kenny [Buttrey] just looked at me and raised one finger in the air to say, ‘That’s a No 1.’”

The melody was allegedly inspired by “Love Is Blue”, once recorded by Jeff Beck. After the basic track had been laid down, Taylor and Ronstadt then added harmony vocals, just as they did to “Old Man”.

“I’d happened to be in the right place at the right time to do a really mellow record that was really open because that’s where my life was at the time,” Young later remarked. “I was in love when I made Harvest. So that was it. I was an in-love and on-top-of-the-world type of guy.”

That he then added, “Good thing I got past that stage,” is indicative of how swiftly he came to regard the success of “Heart Of Gold” as a mixed blessing. “I thought the record was good. But I knew something else was dying,” he observed.

There’s an interesting postscript in the decidedly odd reaction the song produced in Bob Dylan. “I used to hate it when it came on the radio,” he complained. “I always liked Neil Young but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart Of Gold’. I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’ I needed to lay back for a while, forget about things, myself included, and I’d get so far away and turn on the radio and there I am. But it’s not me. It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it and, you know, I never got over it.”


Like A Hurricane
Album: American Stars ’n Bars
Released: June 1977
Recorded: Broken Arrow, La Honda, autumn 1975

One of Young’s most ferocious guitar epics, “Like A Hurricane” came together in typically unpredictable Young fashion. “We’d been trying to record it with two guitars, bass and drums and Neil was giving up on it,” recalls guitarist Frank Sampedro, who had replaced Danny Whitten in Crazy Horse. “We kept playing it two guitars and Neil didn’t have enough room to solo. When he started walking out of the studio I started diddling with this Stringman [keyboard] and he decided to pick up his guitar.

If you listen to the take on the record, there’s no beginning, no count-off, it just goes voom! They just turned on the machines when they heard us playing because we were done for the day. We played it once and at the end of the take he said, ‘I think that’s the way it goes.’ And that’s the take on the record. The only time we ever played it that way.”

Young later attempted to describe the song’s hypnotic power on a promotional interview disc. “If you listen to that, I never play anything fast,” he said. “All it is is four notes on the bass. Billy [Talbot] plays a few extra notes now and then, and the drumbeat’s the same all the way through… Sometimes it does sound as if we’re really playing fast, but we’re not. It’s just everything starts swimming around in circles.”

The song was written in July 1975 after Young had just undergone an operation for nodes on his vocal cords. He couldn’t sing, so he partied instead, and “Hurricane” was written after a cocaine-fuelled night with friend and La Honda neighbour Taylor Phelps in the back of his car, a Desoto Suburban.

“We were all really high, fucked up,” Young recalls. “Been out partying. Wrote it sitting up at Vista Point on Skyline. Supposed to be the highest point in San Mateo County, which was appropriate. I wrote it when I couldn’t sing. I was on voice rest. It was nuts – I was whistling it. I wrote a lot of songs when I couldn’t talk.”

It was premiered live with Crazy Horse in Britain in March 1976, a full 14 months before it appeared on record on the American Stars ’n Bars album.

Comes A Time
Album: Comes A Time
Released: November 1978
Recorded: Florida and Nashville, 1977

“Comes A Time” and the rest of the album that bears its name was originally recorded as a solo acoustic record in Florida, but when Young played it to Warner Brothers label boss Mo Ostin, he suggested the sound needed filling out. For once Young, who usually greeted such record company interventions with truculence, took the advice.

“I decided, ‘Hey, that sounds like fun. I’ll try that – go to Nashville, have ’em all play on it at once,” he recalls. “So I got all these people out there to play along with these existing tracks of me. Bobby Charles was like our guru. He was at all the sessions.”

The band included Drummond and Keith from The Stray Gators, augmented by, among others, Spooner Oldham and Rufus Thibodeaux, who plays the Cajun-style fiddle on the title track and went on to play with Young in his Hawks & Doves band (1980). According to Keith, Charles’ role was to “roll the joints”, which, given Young’s smoking habits, certainly qualified him for ‘guru’ status.

Also appearing on the sessions was Nicolette Larson. At the time she and Young were having a brief romance, and as they harmonise on the title track you have to imagine they’re thinking about their own situation, as they sing, “You and I we were captured/We took our souls and we flew away.”

“We sang on the same mic. I could look in his eyes and keep up with him and that’s as much rehearsal as he wants,” recalled Larson, who died in 1997.

Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)
Album: Rust Never Sleeps
Released: July 1979
Recorded: The Cow Palace, San Francisco, Oct 28, 1978

The idea of Neil Young as a punk, of course, was ludicrous. By the time the Sex Pistols arrived to consign rock’s bloated dinosaurs to the dustbin, he was a 31-year-old superstar millionaire. Nevertheless, when he first witnessed the gathering punk explosion on tour in Britain during 1976, he immediately identified with its ethos. He liked punk’s rejection of pomposity, saw in it a resurrection of the original rebel spirit of rock’n’roll, and proudly sported a Never Mind The Bollocks T-shirt.

Young expanded on his enthusiasm for punk in an LA radio interview: “When you look back at the old bands, they’re just not that funny. People want to have a good time. That’s why the punk thing is so good and healthy. People who make fun of the established rock scene, like Devo and The Ramones, are much more vital to my ears than what’s been happening in the last four or five years.”

In turn, the punks recognised in Young a true maverick, and exempted him from the brickbats they hurled at his CSN&Y bandmates.

“Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”, with its name-checking of Johnny Rotten, encapsulated Young’s sympathy with the punk zeitgeist, and its insistence that “it’s better to burn out” sounded like a sentiment Sid Vicious would have subscribed to.

Some, including John Lennon, criticised Young for glorifying rock’n’roll’s self-destructing casualties. But Young stood by the song, and when challenged in a 1979 radio interview, he explained: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away or rust because it makes a bigger flash in the sky.”

The words returned to haunt him in April 1994 when Kurt Cobain made a sizeable flash by blowing his brains out. Near the body was found a suicide note which quoted the line from Young’s song. Young then wrote “Sleeps With Angels” about Cobain and his widow Courtney Love, and was (mis)quoted as saying he would never perform “Hey Hey” again. In fact, he sang it on his second live appearance after Cobain’s death. “It just made it a little more focused for a while,” said Young. “Now it’s just another face to think about while you’re singing it.”

Love responded by including the line “It’s better to rise than fade away” on Hole’s 1998 album Celebrity Skin, and Oasis have also played the song live, dedicating it to Cobain’s memory.

The Rust Never Sleeps album opened with an acoustic version of the song listed as “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” and closed with the dramatic electric version, recorded live with Crazy Horse at the Cow Palace, San Francisco on October 28, 1978. Somewhat hilariously, Frank Sampedro reckons that Crazy Horse based their approach to the song on the stomping beat of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.

The song is co-credited to Jeff Blackburn, part of the ’60s San Francisco duo Blackburn & Snow and who later toured with The Ducks, the incognito band Young put together to play local bars in the Bay area. The line “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust” first appeared in one of Blackburn’s songs. Young reports: “I called him up after I’d written the song and said, ‘Hey, I used a line from your song. Want credit?”


Rockin’ In The Free World
Album: Freedom
Released: October 1989
Recorded: LA/San Francisco, summer 1989

As the 1980s came to a close, the post-WWII international settlement was crumbling. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had ushered in the era of “perestroika” and “glasnost”. Soon the old communist regimes were crumbling all over eastern Europe, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. The Berlin Wall was about to be torn down and Germany reunited. The Cold War was over. The free world had won.

Many of these events were yet to happen when Young recorded “Rockin’ In The Free World” but they were already in train, and the song found Young astutely tapping into a moment of world-shattering change. Indeed, when the Berlin Wall did come down, television footage was often accompanied by the strains of the song.

Yet like Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”, “Rockin’ In The Free World” is misunderstood if it’s regarded as some kind of celebratory anthem to the triumph of Western capitalism, for its lyric actually focuses on the heavy price which can accompany democracy, painting a nightmarish picture of a free world populated by derelicts, burnt-out cases and junkie mothers.

As a father, Young admitted he was particularly worried about the availability of drugs on the streets. “The lyrics are just a description of events going on every day in America. Sure I’m concerned for my children, particularly my eldest son, and he’s a Guns N’Roses fan,” he told Nick Kent in Vox. “He has to face drugs every day in the school yard that are way stronger than anything I got offered in most of my years as a professional musician.”

“This is like the Bible. It’s all completely out of control,” he went on. “The drugs are gonna be all over the streets of Europe. We’ve got a lot to deal with here.”

Asked if the song was intended to be a celebration or an indictment, Young answered: “Kinda both, you know? You asking the question means you got the song.”

As with “Hey Hey” on Rust Never Sleeps, two versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World” were used to bookend the Freedom album. The acoustic take which opened the LP was recorded live at Jones Beach, Long Island, while the electric version which closed it contained an additional verse.

Harvest Moon
Album: Harvest Moon
Released: November 1992
Recorded: Woodside, California, summer 1992

The ghost of Harvest, the most commercially successful album of Young’s career, had haunted him ever since its release in 1972, creating what he regarded as a false impression of him as a gentle singer-songwriter to rank alongside the likes of James Taylor and Jackson Browne.

Although there had been further acoustic records, notably 1978’s Comes A Time, he spent much of the next 20 years attempting not to follow-up his most successful release. It was a considerable surprise, therefore, when he let it be known in 1992 that he was assembling an album that he openly referred to as “Harvest II”.

“There’s nothing angry or violent about this new music. It’s about relationships and feelings. There’s a lot of love in it,” he told Nick Kent prior to the album’s release. “It certainly sounds like the sequel to Harvest. I have no problem with that, though. I’m not backing away from that side of me any more. When’s the next Harvest coming out? Farmers have been asking me that for years.”

He even reassembled The Stray Gators and arranger Jack Nitzsche, along with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who’d provided backing vocals on Harvest.

Yet by the time Harvest Moon was released, Young had grown more wary of the comparison. “This is not ‘Harvest II’, ” he insisted to Johnnie Walker on Radio 1. “They only compared it to Harvest because Harvest was a big success and this has Harvest in the title. There are obvious things to connect up the two. But without Harvest this would still be Harvest Moon and stand on its own.”

The title track typified the album, an acoustic collection of songs about relationships, but written from the perspective of someone in their forties rather than their twenties.

“The idea is I sang about the same subject matter with 20 years more experience,” Young explained. To Allan Jones, he added: “Harvest Moon is about continuance, about trying to keep the flame burning. It’s about the feeling that you don’t have to be young to be young.”

Nigel Williamson is the author of Journey Through The Past – The Stories Behind The Classic Songs Of Neil Young (Carlton Books)

The following works were also invaluable in preparing this article: Shakey – Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough (Jonathan Cape); Neil Young – Zero To Sixty by Johnny Rogan (Calidore Books)

maanantai, 24. huhtikuu 2017

Jeesuksen ”kadonneet vuodet” Aasiassa

Jeesuksen ”kadonneet vuodet” Aasiassa
 Jussi Sohlberg


istock-475281288Jeesuksen syntymän ja julkisen toiminnan alun välissä on pitkä ajanjakso, josta ei tiedetä mitään. Nämä vuodet ovat aika ajoin herättäneet spekulaatioita esimerkiksi siitä, olisiko Jeesus mahdollisesti käynyt Aasiassa saakka ja ammentanut sieltä vaikutteita?  Suomessakin voi vaihtoehtoisen henkisyyden kentällä törmätä tuohon väitteeseen yllättävän usein. Tänä vuonna ilmestyi tunnetun joogaopettajan Taavi Kassilan kirja Nasaretin miehen salaisuus (Gummerus), jossa jälleen kerran tuodaan esille tätä näkemystä.

Keskeinen innoittaja olettamukselle Jeesuksen matkasta Aasiaan on Nicolas Notovitchin kirja, jossa kerrotaan salaperäisestä käsikirjoituksesta. Nicolas Notovitch (1858–1916) oli venäläinen vakooja ja sotakirjeenvaihtaja.  Matkustellessaan Intiassa hän kertoi käyneensä Hemin luostarissa, Ladakhissa, Intiassa. Kertomansa mukaan hän vielä palasi kyseiseen luostariin, koska oli loukannut jalkansa. Toipuessaan luostarissa hänelle luettiin ja käännettiin teksti, joka oli nimeltään ”Pyhän Issan, Ihmisen Pojista Parhaimman elämä”. Notovitch oli kertomansa mukaan vakuuttunut, että teksti kertoi Jeesuksesta.

Hän mukaansa teksti oli kopio Tiibetissä, Lhasassa olevasta alkuperäisestä käsikirjoituksesta. Muistiinpanojensa pohjalta Notovitch julkaisi kirjan La vie inconnue de Jisus Chris (Jeesuksen Kristuksen tuntematon elämä) vuonna 1894. Hänellä ei ollut kuitenkaan esittää kyseistä dokumenttia. Kirja herätti ilmestyttyään mielenkiintoa, mutta sai kuitenkin kriittisen vastaanoton. Se käännettiin useille kielille ja siitä otettiin uusi painos myös 1920-luvulla, jolloin se sai vielä runsaammin huomiota.

Käsikirjoitus, jota ei löytynyt
Kuuluisa orientalisti Max Müller (1823–1900) oli kiinnostunut väitteestä, mutta huomioi heti, että Issan elämänkertaa tekstiä ei ollut mainittu merkittävissä tiibetiläisissä kaanoneissa kandjurissa tai tandjurissa. Müller oli myös kirjeenvaihdossa englantilaisen rouvan kanssa vuonna 1894, joka oli käynyt Hemin luostarissa tarkoituksena tutustua käsikirjoitukseen. Nainen kirjoitti Müllerille, että mitään Issasta kertovaa käsikirjoitusta ei löydy, eikä Notovitch ole käynyt kyseisessä luostarissa. Notovitchin kertomus luostarimatkastaan muistuttaa itse asiassa suuresti H.P. Blavatskyn (1831–1891) kertomusta, joka liittyy Celsoksen tekstin löytämiseen Athoksen luostarista.

Vuonna 1895 kyseisessä luostarissa vieraili professori Douglas J. Archibald, jolle luostarin johtaja oli tuohtuneena kertonut, että mitään Notovitchin kuvailemaa käsikirjoitusta ei ole olemassa ja että kysymyksessä on yksinkertaisesti huijaus.  Tunnettu teosofi ja taidemaalari N. Roerich (1874–1947) kertoi nähneensä jonkin käsikirjoituksen vieraillessaan. Roerichin lainaukset oletetusta käsikirjoituksesta paljastavat, että hän oli poiminut lainaukset suoraan Notovitchin teoksesta ja L. Dowlingin vuonna 1908 ilmestyneestä pseudohistoriallisesta teoksesta Aquarian Gospel of Jesus (Jeesuksen Vesimiehen ajan evankeliumi). On ilmeistä, että tätä elämänkertaa ei ole ollut koskaan olemassa. Kyseessä oli Notovitchin luoma fiktiivinen kertomus, joka ilmentää enemmänkin hänen ajatustaan siitä, että Jeesus olisi voinut käydä Aasiassa.

Mitä Issan elämänkerrassa sitten kerrotaan? Issan elämänkerta kuvaa, miten Jeesus 13-vuotiaana matkusti kauppakaravaanin mukana Intiaan, jossa jainalaiset vastaanottivat hänet. Tämän jälkeen hän vietti kuusi vuotta brahmiinien parissa. Brahmiinit uhkasivat kuitenkin surmata Jeesuksen ja hän pakeni buddhalaisten luokse, joiden parissa hän opiskeli palin kieltä ja pyhiä tekstejä. Elämänkerran mukaan Jeesus kävi myös Tiibetissä sekä Persiassa. Persiassa ollessaan hän saarnasi zarahustralaisten parissa. Tekstin mukaan Jeesus vietti 17 vuotta Aasiassa. Elämänkerrassa kerrotut Jeesuksen opetukset ovat tyylillisesti ”kuivia” moraaliopetuksia ja tekstin tyyli on selvästi modernia.  Issan elämänkerrassa kuvaukset Aasian uskonnoista ovat hyvin pintapuolisia ja virheellisiä. Tekstissä puhutaan muun muassa jainalaisten jumalasta (jainalaisuudessa ei ole uskoa jumaliin).

Mystisen Aasian vetovoima
Teoria Jeesuksen Intian vuosista on saanut kannatusta new age -kentällä ja joissakin intialaisperäisissä liikkeissä. Summit Lighthouse -liikkeen opetuksissa ovat esillä Jeesuksen vuodet Intiassa ja Nepalissa. Summit Lighthouse -liikkeen juuret ovat Yhdysvalloissa jo 1930-luvulla vaikuttaneesta I´AM -liikkeessä joka oli saanut vaikutteita muun muassa teosofiasta. Summit Lighthouse -liikkeen perusti vuonna 1958 Mark L. Prophet (1918–1973). Liikkeen toinen keulahahmo Elisabeth Prophet (1939–2009) on kirjoittanut kaksiosaisen kirjan, jossa käsitellään Jeesuksen Aasian vuosia. Liike opettaa, että Jeesus oli yksi ylösnousseista mestareista ja Suuren Valkoisen Veljeskunnan jäsen. Prophetin mukaan Jeesuksen opetuksiin kuuluivat myös karman laki ja jälleensyntymisoppi. Islamin pohjalta syntynyt Ahmadiyya-liikkeen mukaan Jeesus selvisi ristiinnaulitsemisesta ja hän vietti loppuelämänsä Intiassa ja hän kuoli Kashmirissa. Mirza Khulam Ahmad (1835–1908) perusti Ahmadiyya-liikkeen vuonna 1889.

1800-luvulla perinteisten Jeesus-tulkintojen rinnalle alkoi nousta erilaisia vaihtoehtoisia näkemyksiä. Ilmiö liittyy osaltaan 1800-luvulla gnostilaisten tekstien löytöihin ja toisaalta myös esoteeristen oppien uudelleen nousuun.  Riippumatta siitä, ovatko tulkinnat esimerkiksi historiantutkimuksen kannalta todennäköisiä, ne ovat muokanneet ihmisten näkemyksiä kristinuskosta erityisesti vaihtoehtoisen henkisyyden piirissä.  Esimerkiksi Dowlingin edellä mainitusta teoksesta on yli sadan vuoden aikana otettu 52 painosta. Notovitchin teokseen tukeudutaan edelleen, riippumatta että se on kauan aikaa sitten todettu fiktioksi. Myös tunnettu joogi ja guru Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), jonka elämänkerta on suomennettukin, uskoi Jeesuksen opiskelleen Intiassa.

Länsimaissa on syntynyt oma kirjallisuuden lajinsa ja uskonnollis-kulttuurinen virtaus, jossa elävät erilaiset vaihtoehtoiset ja konspiraatiosävytteiset tulkinnat kristinuskon historiasta. Perusajatuksena näissä vaihtoehtoisissa tulkinnoissa on, että perinteisten kirkkojen esillä pitämä kristinusko perustuu väärille tulkinnoille tai suorastaan tietoiselle pimitykselle vuosisatojen ajan. Näissä tulkinnoissa Jeesus nähdään usein nimenomaan viisauden ja sisäisen tiedon opettajana.

Kriittinen historiantutkimuksen piirissä tämä näkemys Jeesuksen matkasta Aasiaan ei ole koskaan saanut tukea.  Moderni myytti ”Jeesuksen Aasian vuosista” elää, vaikka tosiasiallisia todisteita näistä vuosista ei ole. Ajatus tuntuu kiehtovan siksi, että se poikkeaa perinteisistä tulkinnoista, jotka koskevat Jeesuksen elämänvaiheita.

Jussi Sohlberg


Jussi Sohlberg
Kirkon tutkimuskeskus











maanantai, 24. huhtikuu 2017

Michael Nesmith Riffs on

Michael Nesmith Riffs on Monkees, Hendrix, Lennon, Jack Nicholson

Andrew Vaughan

Most reviews of Nesmith’s Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff naturally focus on three or four fascinating facts. Nesmith was a Monkee, Nesmith was friends with Jimi Hendrix and Jack Nicholson, Nesmith played a key role in the development of music videos and MTV, and his mother invented Liquid Paper.


Nesmith, always an eloquent deep thinker, covers these topics with a mix of retrospective wisdom, wit and sharp perception, but this book is very different to most typically narcissism fueled music autobiographies.

Less an analysis of who he is and more a discovery of where he fits in the world of the arts, music, science and humanity, this is a fascinating series of loosely chronological stories and memories, from his childhood in Dallas, though folk music, TV stardom, pioneering country rock and music videos, making movies and ending proudly with a long sought patent for embedding real time video in a virtual world.

Nesmith wrote every word himself. This is no ghosted autobiography and its authenticity beautifully reflects the moment that Nesmith, described here with great insight, laid everything on the line at LA folk club The Troubadour in 1965. Broke and resigned to maybe giving up on his musical muse, he simply spoke and sang from the heart and in doing so won over a musically literate crowd with four of his own compositions.

The artistic path would bring loneliness and frustration he notes, but it also landed him in London during the heyday of that city’s creative high in 1967, staying with John Lennon no less.

Nesmith pens a fascinating anecdote heavy analysis of the Monkees years, of the fame game in general, and he defines a condition that many in the pop biz can relate to, something he calls celebrity psychosis.

Nesmith honestly recounts some of his own pompous, entitled and cringe worthy moments as a an ego fueled pop star, but with hindsight positions his whole pop journey in a social context that also brought him into contact with pure souls like Jimi Hendrix and Jack Nicholson.

Being a TV pop star made Nesmith feel something of a pariah in his own land despite producing music of the highest caliber, beautifully blending copuntyry and rock and roll.

Nesmith is brutally honest when it comes to his own failings, especially his inability to remain faithful to his first wife Phyllis and the havoc that wreaked on all involved. Nesmith devotes plenty of space to his growth as a human being through eastern philosophy and most consistently the Christian Science religion he was raised in by his mother.

The melancholy that his personal struggles induced fortunately found expression in two classic albums from 1972 and 1973, And The Hits Just Keep On Comin is a sublime folk country piece featuring just Nesmith and pedal settle guitar guru Red Rhodes, and the following year’s, PrettyMuch Your Standard Ranch Stash, is a full band master class in country meets rock. A re-married Nesmith then moved into multi-media, first via a book with a soundtrack, The Prison, and then the groundbreaking music video for international hit “Rio” that spawned a full blown long form video, Elephant Parts, winning Nesmith the first ever Video Grammy Award. If that wasn’t enough other chapters deal his Hollywood movie producer years that resulted notably in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, innovation with the then fledgling home video business in the ‘80s, and then taking on and beating PBS in court.

Then there’s his poignant telling of his May to December ‘80s courtship and subsequent third marriage that ended abruptly and surprisingly just a few years ago, a development that temporarily put the brakes on his online virtual world experiments via Videoranch3D.

Nesmith explains how he finally found peace, realizing that the despair brought on by illness and his marriage break up allowed him to see his place in the world, indeed in the infinite.

Since this isn’t a formal memoir, more a series of reminiscences and anecdotes placed in context, the are many riffs Nesmith could still tackle. How about the mid ‘70s London adventures that saw a phenomenal live show with Red Rhodes at the Roundhouse, music making with folk guitar great Bert Jansch, or even the disturbing tale of the Australian Nesmith imposter back in the late ‘70s.

So, as iconic pop art pioneer Ed Ruscha says on the book’s back cover, “I am already looking for volume two and, please, let there be one.” Or two.

perjantai, 24. maaliskuu 2017

Bob Dylan

Q&A with Bill Flaannag

MAR 22, 2017
Exclusive to
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, 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.