12 things we learned from unpublished 1971 Bob Dylan interview

Jon Bream
Star Tribune (minneapolis)

Bob Dylan changed his surname from Zimmerman because he feared possible anti-Semitism. He didn’t mind being booed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And he wrote “Lay Lady Lay” for Barbra Streisand.

Those are among the revelations in a previously unpublished 1971 interview he did with his pal Tony Glover, the influential Minneapolis musician, writer and collector. Although Dylan was known for being cagey with the media, he was very straightforward with Glover, whom he knew from their Twin Cities coffeehouse days circa 1959.

Rolling Stone has done a deep dive into the three-and-a-half-hour interview, which will be auctioned Nov. 12-19 by RRauction.com of Boston as part of Glover’s extensive archives. He died in 2019. Among the 2,400 items for sale are albums, books, posters, instruments, taped interviews and signed correspondence with Joan Baez, Jim Morrison and Dylan.

American folk pop singer Bob Dylan at a press conference in London.

Glover had hoped to sell the interview to Esquire magazine. Dylan himself marked revisions on all but one of the 37 pages of typed transcript.

Here are a dozen things we learned from the interview:

1. Dylan left Minnesota because he saw no job future there. “I mean, I had to leave. The only other choice was to sell shirts, or work in the mines, or maybe to learn to fly an airplane. … I don’t think I wanted to be James Dean.” Since he was obsessed with Woody Guthrie’s songs, he decided to visit the ailing folk singer in a New York hospital.

2. As he battled Huntington’s disease, Guthrie wanted to hear his own songs. So Dylan would sing them for hours. He figures he knew at least 75 Guthrie tunes at the time and never exhausted the repertoire.

3. Fearing anti-Semitism, Bob Zimmerman created a character named Bob Dylan. “It wouldn’t have worked if I’d changed the name to Bob Levy or Bob Johnston or Bob Doughnut. I mean, it wouldn’t have worked. There had to be something about it to carry it to that extra dimension.”

4. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (written in 1962) had nothing to do with the Cuban missile crisis. It was all about a new breakthrough in song form. “That song really existed because of the new form – new to me at the time. That ‘da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da,’ on and on – that was like hypnotizing me. I could just hypnotize myself singing the thing. It just sort of freed me from having to sing all that rhyming stuff where I’d have to remember the rhymes, I had to remember the story, plus the intricate detail.”

5. “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) was neither a shout at the establishment nor a particular woman. “It’s just … you know, who are you mad at when you go into a store and ask for a screwdriver and you don’t get waited on for an hour, man,” he said, laughing. “Then you go to get something to eat and you look in your pudding and you see a puddle of (crap). You go to a movie house, man, you walk down to your seat and step in some slime, then you sit in some slime. You walk outta that and go for a ride in your car, and it breaks down – who are you mad at? It’s not any kind of one person.”

6. “Sign on the Window,” a song on the 1970 album “New Morning,” was about Green Giant in LeSueur, Minnesota, where migrant workers came to pick vegetables.

7. “Lay Lady Lay” wasn’t written for the 1969 Dustin Hoffman movie “Midnight Cowboy,” as was widely reported, but rather for Barbra Streisand. She apparently never recorded it.

8. Dylan wasn’t afraid to criticize – or praise – his own work. He didn’t think his 1971 novel “Tarantula” was well written “but it’s got a hell of a lot of energy.” As for his 1966 double album “Blonde on Blonde,” he said, “That’s a great album. I hear that album every once in a while, and I know it just can’t be topped.”

9. Pete Seeger was upset at the crowd booing Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival but Dylan wasn’t. “Pete Seeger was crying” backstage after ascendant folk star Dylan was poorly received for his first effort with an electric rock band. So, he decided to return to the stage and give the people what they wanted to hear – solo acoustic performances of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

Said Dylan: “I’ve never really been what you’d call a professional entertainer. For someone like Steve Lawrence or Robert Goulet, to go up in front of a large audience at Newport and get booed – that would be a considerable jolt to their career. But to me, it was just one of those things. My life was like that – booing didn’t matter, you know: up and down.”

10. He once confiscated a Dylan bootleg from a street vendor outside Carnegie Hall. After a David Crosby-Graham Nash concert in October 1971, Dylan and his then-wife Sara saw a hawker selling a bootleg titled “Zimmerman.” “We said, ‘Gimme that record.’ She grabbed the record from him and said, ‘Punk!’ – and we just took it, man, and split, just walked away with it.”

11. His 1966 motorcycle accident saved Dylan’s life, well, his sanity. “I had done stuff for so long, I was moving for so long, moving so fast for so long – that it took years to get out of my system. It wasn’t like, ‘Man, I had been on a binge since ‘62 or ‘63.’ Before that even, before that. I had been on a binge my whole life, you could say. My whole life had been one big, long binge.”

12. Dylan was proud of his impact and accomplishments 10 years into his professional career. “We listen to radio nowadays – and there’s so much music that was influenced by me,” he said. “I’m not bragging when I say this, or nothing like that. But for a cat to actually say, ‘Well, I changed popular music’ (laughs), man, what a hell of a statement is that? I can actually say that, man, and it blows my mind. … All these people are just doing, in one kind of phase, what Bob Dylan was doing back in those days, you know?”

Asked if he felt a sense of pride for changing music history, Dylan was his usual inscrutable self: “Yeah, really do, really do feel a sense of pride … on one level. On another level, no, it’s nothing at all – of course not.”