I think there’s a part of him that’s reluctant to reveal himself in his songs.
One time, I did this interview with him, maybe ten years ago, where I went up to near where he lives in Northern California. We met at this restaurant—like a roadside tavern—and he brought in three or four books with him. He brought in a phone book; he brought in a book on how to cook potatoes; and something else. And he started reading though that. It’s just his way of being an interesting character so you can’t get through to him. I said, “Look, Tom, you can just keep doing that or you can really try to honestly answer questions. Because think of people who love your music and who are influenced by your music; they really care about you and want to know a little bit about you. Wouldn’t you like to know about people you care about? Hoagy Carmichael or some[one]?” And he got really resentful, like I was really trying to push down his wall and he didn’t like that. He kind of eased up a little bit and started talking more personally, but it’s still very difficult for him to do that. I don’t know if he just doesn’t want anybody to know about it or he likes the idea of the disguise.
In your book, you really underscored how creatively insecure a lot of the major artists are—Bono, Dylan, Cobain, Springsteen. Even in their strongest artistic statements, they’ve had insecurities.
Bruce [Springsteen] puts it really well: If you want to keep being a songwriter, you’ve got to keep digging layers off yourself, so you get deeper and deeper into yourself. That’s why John Lennon, with that album, Plastic Ono Band, he couldn’t get any deeper than that. And when you do that—when you lay yourself naked—you’re vulnerable. And [so] if somebody says, “Oh that’s a terrible album,” or, “That’s a stupid thing you’re thinking,” that’s just not talking about your work; it’s talking about your own essence in a way. A lot of times, it’s a void in somebody that pushes them to be an artist. It gives them sensitivity. It makes them want to articulate their fears and desires. It’s a way of compensating for things they lack.
How do you answer the age-old criticism that you get—usually when you give a negative review—that because you don’t know how to write or perform music, you’re not capable of assessing what a musician does?