In an exclusive excerpt from a recent interview, Bob Dylan talks with author Bill Flanagan about Barack Obama, the ghosts of the Civil War and presidential autobiographies.
Bill Flanagan: You liked Barack Obama early on. Why was that?
Bob Dylan: I'd read his book and it intrigued me.
"Audacity of Hope"?
No, it was called "Dreams [From] My Father."
What struck you about him?
Well, a number of things. He's got an interesting background. He's like a fictional character, but he's real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas, though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot-type heritage--cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean, it's just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that, though. And then you're into his story. Like an odyssey, except in reverse.
In what way?
First of all, Barack is born in Hawaii. Most of us think of Hawaii as paradise, so I guess you could say that he was born in paradise.
And he was thrown out of the garden.
Not exactly. His mom married some other guy named Lolo and then took Barack to Indonesia to live. Barack went to both a Muslim school and a Catholic school. His mom used to get up at 4 in the morning and teach him book lessons three hours before he even went to school. And then she would go to work. That tells you the type of woman she was. That's just in the beginning of the story.
What else did you find compelling about him?
Well, mainly his take on things. His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time, and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He's looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people, and he's wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.
What in his book would make you think he'd be a good politician?
Well, nothing really. In some sense, you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second, selling German bonds. But he probably could've done anything. If you read his book, you'll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.
Do you think he'll make a good president?
I have no idea. He'll be the best president he can be. Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men. Johnson would be a good example of that … Nixon, Clinton in a way, Truman, all the rest of them going back. You know, it's like they all fly too close to the sun and get burned.
Did you ever read any other presidential autobiographies?
Yeah, I read Grant's.
What was he like? Any similarities?
The times were different, obviously. And Grant wrote his book after he'd left office.
What did you find interesting about him?
It's not like he's a great writer. He's analytical and cold, but he does have a sense of humor. Grant, besides being a military strategist, was a working man. Worked horses. Tended the horses, plowed and furrowed. Brought in all the crops--the corn and potatoes. Sawed wood and drove wagons since the time he was about 11. Got a crystal-clear memory of all the battles he’d been in.
Do you remember any particular battle that Grant fought?
There were a lot of battles, but the Shilo one is most interesting. He could've lost that. But he was determined to win it at any price, using all kinds of strategies, even faking retreat. You could read it for yourself.
When you think back to the Civil War, one thing you forget is that no battles except Gettysburg were fought in the North.
Yeah. That's what probably makes the Southern part of the country so different.
There is a certain sensibility, but I'm not sure how that connects.
It must be the Southern air. It's filled with rambling ghosts and disturbed spirits. They're all screaming and forlorning. It's like they are caught in some weird web--some purgatory between heaven and hell and they can't rest. They can't live, and they can't die. It's like they were cut off in their prime, wanting to tell somebody something. It's all over the place. There are war fields everywhere … a lot of times even in people's backyards.
Have you felt them?
Oh, sure. You'd be surprised. I was in Elvis's hometown, Tupelo. And I was trying to feel what Elvis would have felt back when he was growing up.
Did you feel all the music Elvis must have heard?
No, but I'll tell you what I did feel. I felt the ghosts from the bloody battle that Sherman fought against Forrest and drove him out. There's an eeriness to the town. A sadness that lingers. Elvis must have felt it too.
Are you a mystical person?
Any thoughts about why?
I think it's the land. The streams, the forests, the vast emptiness. The land created me. I'm wild and lonesome. Even as I travel the cities, I'm more at home in the vacant lots. But I have a love for humankind, a love of truth, and a love of justice. I think I have a dualistic nature. I'm more of an adventurous type than a relationship type.
But the new album is all about love--love found, love lost, love remembered, love denied.
Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.