Bob Dylan’s 1985 interview on the ABC TV show 20/20

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I believe the interviewer’s name is Bob Brown. I include the voice-over (v/o) statements of the show, in order to fairly provide the context of what was a highly edited segment on a magazine program, and also because assertions are sometimes made during the voice-overs that seem to refer to things that Dylan said during the interview, but which we are not shown on camera. I paragraphed parts just for readability’s sake.

Throughout, various footage was inserted by ABC; mainly musical clips. I only refer to them when it seems necessary for continuity’s sake. The entire segment was a little over 15 minutes. I’m confident about this transcription, which I made from a digitized file of the show which is in circulation amongst collectors, but if anyone thinks I mis-heard any words, do let me know.

So here it is:

Opening credits over the promotional video for "“When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”."

ABC: Do your children have an idea of what you meant?

BD: I think so, on some kind of level, but, when I was growing up – say in the fifties – the thirties to me didn’t even exist. I couldn’t even imagine them in any kind of way, so I don’t expect anyone growing up now is gonna even understand what the sixties were all about, anymore than I could the thirties or twenties.

ABC v/o: Dylan’s lyrics summarized the times with enormous influence. For this 1969 appearance at England’s Isle Of Wight music festival, spectators included Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles. (footage rolls)

Voice of Kurt Loder: Well, the cliche is that he speaks for his generation, that he’s the voice of a generation, so (ABC v/o: Kurt Loder is a senior editor of Rolling Stone Magazine).

Kurt Loder continues: Popular music – popular culture – seemed to have no relationship to anything really human. Then you have Bob Dylan come along and he’s singing in this strange voice and this real loud rock’n’ roll and he’s actually talking about things, about how repressed everything is now, and how stifled people are, and you say "yeah, that’s exactly how I felt, why couldn’t I put it like that?" And that breakthrough is something that never be taken away from him and it’s really made a tradition of its own in pop music to communicate with people directly like that.

ABC v/o: Even when they were new, it seemed as if some of Dylan’s songs had been with us forever. Blowing In The Wind became an anthem of the civil rights’ movement. And like all balladeers, he wrote first person accounts of relationships, and the roads that they take. Among the generation that followed him, millions adopted The Times They Are A’ Changin’ as a manifesto to a system they protested. His lyrics were studied and analyzed as poetry. Fans waited for what he would say next – what he would do next. Hardcore supporters were sometimes outraged when he changed his music from folk to rock or rock to country. His rhymes, his reclusive life, his changing appearance, added to the mystery.

In 1979 Dylan took the most dramatic and controversial turn of his career: to born-again Christianity, reflected in songs like Shot Of Love, and performances with an evangelical fervor. He believes in the resurrection, he says, but he also delved intensely into his own religious heritage: Orthodox Judaism. Spiritual messages are still present in some of his music. But he has also returned to the popular mainstream: to Rock’n’Roll. Said one writer: "Any attempt to tie him down, musically or lyrically, is bound to fail."

BD: I used to think it’s better if you just live and die and no one knows who you are.

ABC v/o: From the beginning, Dylan, now 44 years old, has shied away from publicity, granting few print interviews, never agreeing to television network news interview until now. We spoke with him on a hillside, and on his estate in Malibu, California, where the wind blew in from the Pacific, just below his house. Because the mythology surrounding Dylan has been so embroiled in change and controversy, it was interesting to find him low-key, cordial, soft-spoken.

ABC: Depending on how your music has evolved, there have been people who’ve actually got angry, because they felt it had changed. Did that ever bother you?

BD: Well, it’s always disappointing, you know, when people decide for one reason or another that they don’t like your work anymore, but uh, you know, it’s just one of those things. You can’t try to please people in that kinda way, because then you’re just going to be doing – you’ll never live it down, y’know it’ll always be dogging you around – you might be being a fake about the whole thing.

ABC: So it’s sort of a no-win situation, I guess …?

BD: It’s not important what other people call you. If you yourself know you’re a fake, that’s tougher to live with.

ABC: Is "protest song" an accurate description of some of the things you were doing?

BD: Yeah. Um, I guess so, but the real protest songs were written mainly in the thirties and forties – "Which Side Are You On," mining type songs, union kind of songs – that’s where the protest movement developed from. There’s still a strain of that type of thing in what I do – it’s just more broad now. (dog barks in background)

ABC: Do you view the lyrics that you write as poetry?

(apparent cut, then:) BD: I always felt the need for that type of rhyme to say any type of thing that you wanted to say, but then again, I don’t know if I call myself a poet or not. I would like to, but I’m not really qualified, I think, to make that decision, because I come in on such a back door, that I don’t know what a, y’know, a Robert Frost or a Keats or a T.S. Eliot would really think of my stuff. (another apparent cut, then:) It’s more of a visual type of thing for me. I can picture the color of the song, or the shape of it, or who it is that I’m trying to appeal to, in the song, and what I’m trying to, almost, reinforce my feelings for. And um, I know that sounds sort of vague and abstract, but I’ve got a handle on it when I’m doing it.

ABC v/o: He first began to attact notice in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961 when he performed at a place called "Gerde’s Folk City." In those early years, he was developing a style of phrasing his lyrics that would become a Dylan trademark.

Listen for the emphasis he places on the syllables in his lines – then for the way he strings out the sounds in a phrase, almost reciting them (followed by a clip of Dylan singing "To Ramona" in the early 1960s).

BD: The phrasing I stumbled into. Some of the old folk singers used to phrase things in an interesting way, and then, I got my style from seeing a lot of outdoor-type poets, who would recite their poetry. When you don’t have a guitar, you recite things differently, and there used to be quite a few poets in the jazz clubs, who would recite with a different type of attitude.

ABC v/o: Among those poets: Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, two of Dylan’s friends. Listen to this recording of Ferlinghetti, and you can hear a strong resemblance to the style Dylan developed (followed by clip of Ferlinghetti reciting his poetry, which is turn followed by a clip of Dylan singing "Hard Rain" from the 1970s’ Rolling Thunder tour).

ABC v/o continues:

This vision of a nuclear apocalypse, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, began as folk ballad Dylan wrote during the Cuban missile crisis.

Although Dylan has made powerful protest statements, and people have expected him to speak out for change, he has personal doubts about how politically effective those statements can be.

BD (joined in mid-statement): No, people can change things and make a difference. Uh, there’s a lot of false prophets around though, and that’s the trouble. People say they think they know what’s right and other people get people to follow them because they have a certain type of charisma, and there’s always people willing to take over, y’know, people want a leader. And y’know, there will be more and more of them.

ABC: There have been times when born-again Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, both those were important to you?

BD: Yeah.

ABC: Or is it a broader thing for you?

BD: No. I want to figure out what’s happening, you know? And ah, so I did look into it all.

ABC: Did it make life easier?

BD: Not necessarily.

ABC: Did it make it clearer?

BD: Definitely made it clearer. (apparent cut, then:) This is a place where you have to work certain things out.

ABC: What is it you do have to work out?

BD: Well, you have to work out where your place is. And who you are. But we’re all spirit. That’s all we are, we’re just walking dressed up in a suit of skin, and we’re going to leave that behind.

ABC v/o: Dylan says he believes there will be a new beginning, a Messianic Kingdom eventually. In these times through his music, he continues to add his voice to the causes that artists in the ’80s are taking up with their songs. Most recently, Dylan sang on an anti-apartheid record called, "Sun City."

It features a collection of artists protesting policies in South Africa, dubbed together this month in a New York recording studio. Dylan was also one of the unmistakable voices on the "We Are The World" recording for African famine relief. Producer Quincy Jones wanted a sample of Dylan’s unique phrasing, and when there was some question as to exactly what Jones was after, Dylan fan Stevie Wonder sat at a piano to coach Dylan’s reading.

Stevie Wonder in interview clip: So I was basically saying to him, hey, I have a love and respect for you, and more so to just loosen the situation up. Which it did, ‘cos he did an incredible job.

ABC: How did you phrase the line for him?

Stevie Wonder: It’s almost like kind of the minister poet. It’s very unique.

(Followed by clip of Wonder singing at his keyboard and apparently imitating Dylan, in turn followed by clip of Dylan singing his phrase from the USA For Africa record.)

ABC v/o: Dylan supported the cause for African famine relief, but not without a kind of spiritual fatalism about it.

BD: People buying a song and the money going to starving people in Africa is, you know, a worthwhile idea, but I wasn’t so convinced about the message of the song, to tell you the truth. I don’t think people can save themselves, y’know.

ABC: Save themselves, in any sorta …?

BD: Yeah, I just don’t, I don’t agree with that type of thing.*

ABC v/o: But there’s still a sense of immediacy in Dylan’s approach to problems. He provided the inspiration for this artists’ benefit, Farm Aid, when he suggested at the Live Aid famine relief concert that some of the money raised should go to farmers (clip of Farm Aid is playing).

Although people still search for meanings in his songs, the message in one of his newest is simply, "Trust Yourself."

And almost as if to deflate the myths made out of him, Dylan’s lyrics also read, "Don’t trust me to show you the truth."

BD: I like the fans, but I don’t feel an obligation that I have to be an example to them, like say maybe a baseball player would, or a football player or maybe some other type of musicians. I don’t feel I have to really set an example that somebody else has to live up to.

ABC: What kind of beliefs do you have in yourself to write the kinds of songs you write?

BD: Ahh, not really a belief. I have very little belief in myself to do anything. I just pull it off, y’know, and it’s amazing to me that I do.

ABC v/o: At the end of the summer, before the Farm Aid concert, Dylan was on an empty motion picture soundstage, for a rehearsal that at times turned into a kind of jam session with a popular rock band called Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. When the other musicians took a break, we asked Dylan if he’d do one of his older songs – whatever song he chose. He thought for a moment, and then, this artist who has both angered and inspired his followers, whose doubts may go hand-in-hand with his convictions, chose a song from 1974 that was a kind of prayer when he first recorded it. He was joined unrehearsed by the keyboardist and vocal group. The song is "Forever Young." (followed by Dylan playing electric guitar and singing a part of that song with his backing singers, which is the end of the piece).



*Note: The line Dylan sang in that Jackson/Richie composition was: "There’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives /It’s true we make a better day, just you and me." More on that subject here.

Some thoughts on the interview:

I think this interview is significant for a few reasons. It was Dylan’s first ever proper television interview, and the only one he has done to date other than December 2004’s interview with Ed Bradley for CBS’s “60 Minutes.” Indeed, that show was promoted as Dylan’s “first TV interview in 20 years.” This is the previous interview to which they were referring.

Like the “60 Minutes” segment, it’s disappointing in its brevity (15 minutes, much of which is old footage being played) and the relative lack of knowledge of the interviewer. Nevertheless, it probably is more substantive than Ed Bradley’s piece, in that Dylan appears less wary of and/or hostile to the interviewer, and some fairly significant topics are touched upon.

Especially interesting to me are some things mentioned in the voice-over, where the ABC newsman seems to be referring to things which Dylan said during their discussion, but which are not actually seen during the part of the interview which is aired. E.g.:

“He believes in the resurrection, he says, but he also delved intensely into his own religious heritage: Orthodox Judaism.”


“Dylan says he believes there will be a new beginning, a Messianic Kingdom eventually.”

Bear in mind that this was in 1985, and some argued (and some inexplicably still argue) that Dylan had shed his belief in Jesus Christ after 1981’s Shot of Love album like some kind of worn-out fad. It’s clear enough to people who have ears to hear that this wasn’t the case, but anyhow, here apparently was an example of Dylan going on-the-record both about Christ, and about his simultaneous acceptance of his own Jewishness—but ABC just choosing not to make that part of the on-air interview.

What else to say? There’s the bit about the “We Are The World” record and Live-Aid concert, which I already wrote about here. There is the direct question about whether Dylan considers his own work to be “poetry,” and his rather straightforward and quite humble response. This, by the way, is a part of the interview that appears to be significantly edited. What a shame—and one wonders what else was left on the cutting-room floor, and even now may be in a can somewhere at ABC.*

Y’know, it’s funny – on these two occasions that Dylan did a TV interview, much was made of the idea that he’s some kind of hermit or recluse (far from true, considering all of the print interviews he’s done) and what a big occasion this was as a result. Yet, in both instances, they ended up taking a few brief clips from apparently longer interviews and filling up the rest of a mere quarter-hour segment with old footage and editorializing.

Kinda sums it up, doesn’t it? That is, it sums up the mainstream media’s attitude to Dylan through the years. “We want you Bob! Tell us what you think, talk to us.” Then when he does, it’s, “Well, OK, that’s not we expected. We’ll use a little bit of that but mainly we’ll just continue telling people what we think you’re about.”

What was it you wanted
You can tell me, I’m back,
We can start it all over
Get it back on the track,
You got my attention,
Go ahead, speak.
What was it you wanted
When you were kissing my cheek?

* 07/06/2005 09:36:40 am: Someone who is much better informed than I tells me that there are outtakes from this interview in circulation. So, down the road we may revisit this …

July 2007 update: And click here to see my notes on the fascinating outtakes from this interview.