Bettye’s Bob: A conversation with Bettye LaVette about Dylan, interpretation and how Things Have Changed
Releasing a new album during God’s holiest of holidays was a smart thing for Bettye LaVette. The raw-voiced interpretative R&B singer and current New Jersey resident makes the music of others a deeply religious and innovative experience as she uncovers (no, crafts lovingly and with incendiary force) never-before-witnessed nuances to songwriters such as Roger Waters, Lucinda Williams, Joan Armatrading, Peter Townshend, Willie Nelson, Eddie Hinton and others in her immediate past.
Her new Things Have Changed, however dissects and reassembles the stuff of Bob Dylan in a manner that resembles a mad scientist at play – cutting and changing and re-stitching the 20th Century Bard’s lyrics and music into something newly marvelous and provocative. LaVette shows up at World Café Live on April 5 and chatted with me on Good Friday, the album’s release day, about the good that God brings…even if she’s not so sure of divine providence.
The Key: So you are releasing your album today on Good Friday.
Bettye LaVette: My husband called me this morning and yelled out, “Happy Release Day,” which makes this my very first truly Good Friday.
TK: What, if any, religious persuasion are you connected or involved with?
BL: I am a recovering Catholic.
TK: And have you recovered fully?
BL: No. It’s one of those things that you never really get around. My husband, poor thing, is also a recovering Catholic and a recovering heroin addict as well – 35 years recovering. It’s as on-going process as being a recovering Catholic. See, anything where they’re telling you the same thing over and over is brainwashing, and depending on how long it’s coming to you, and how old you were when it started, recovering can last forever.
TK: You mentioned your husband. You guys live in NJ and he is an antiques dealer – glass and music. What’s that about?
BL: Yes, he is a Depression glass dealer. He is also a record historian and an old record dealer. He knew my career and what I had gone through. He said he would be in Detroit for a dealers’ show around the same time I was there for a show and he invited me out for dinner. When I opened the door, the first thing he said was “you’re so little for having such a big mouth on you,” because on stage I wear high heels when I’m performing.
TK: Music historian that he is, does your husband have anything to do with your song choices – any dialogue between you – say, the Dylan album where the song choices are not obvious or usual?
BL: We have constant arguments about things. He’s Irish. I’m black. You should have heard us fight – oh my goodness – on the tentative plans for this album. It could have caused a divorce. Look, I am not a music enthusiast. I just don’t do that – listen to albums for hours on end, even though I have devoted my entire life to music. I am not a fan. I am a music maker; a performer and not a listener. Plus I can’t play anything – not harmonica and guitar as my husband can – and that makes me mad.
TK: Well you sing them like a songbird. So the Dylan songs you’ve chosen. As you’re poring through the lot, and I know what you cut and radically changed….
BL: Is that because you know Dylan so well?
BL: Do you know me so well?
BL: Bring it on.
TK: Were you only interested in songs you could turn on their head?
BL: I’ll do you one better and cut to the chase. I was only interested in me. Bob Dylan has 200 million dollars. I am trying to get someone to help me with my make-up and hair. Yet, he and I have been doing this since around the same time, since we were young. I adored him as a songwriter, just as I have Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. I don’t want to be ambiguous. I want to sing songs by someone who is good.
TK: My father is a tenor horn man who came from deep musical stock with family members who played with Jolson and Crosby. He always said to me that he might love the music of a Sinatra or an Ellington but that he wouldn’t walk out his way to see or meet them; that he wasn’t a fan of the celebrity but rather the music. That sounds like you.
BL: I’d like to meet your father because I love that honesty. There really is no reason to run and lick the heels of some celebrity. Everybody should stay in their fucking place.
TK: We can look at any songwriter you have chosen to essay: what is your criterion for doing their songs?
BL: First, I’m attracted to the melody. I say melody because you can have an amazing song and stupid lyrics. “Let’s go skipping to the park. Let’s go skipping to the park. Let’s go skipping to the park.” So I have to do something about that. Change those words. Because I’m in so deep with the melody.
TK: So if you find the words excessive or wrong for the song – or your song – or not serving you, they’re gone.
BL: First I have to be able to hum it in the shower. John Coltrane is brilliant at what he is but so much of what he’s done is not hummable. With Bob Dylan’s songs – the words and the melodies are there – always. And I do think he is the most brilliant songwriter in the world. He didn’t get a Nobel Peace prize for being a great singer, right? His songs are brilliant and insightful. They’re American and political.
TK: All that is true, but what is immensely and immediately fascinating about Things Have Changed’s process is how you treat that brilliance. Most treat his lyrics with reverence; as sacred screed. But you have changed lyrics on “Seeing the Real You At Last.” You cut handfuls of verses on “Ain’t Talking.”
BL: Do you know how many stanzas there are to that song? People call him a poet. I see him as more of a prose writer. I wanted to do this song but I wanted to cut to the chase. There should be nothing terrifying about him …
TK: Which brings me back to my dad’s theory.
BL: Dylan’s not frightened of me. Why should I be daunted at the thought of him? His are just words on a page. If Mahalia Jackson sang them, they’d be gospel. If Roy Rogers sung them – they would be country.
TK: Why did you change Annie Oakley to Bruno Mars? I love that switcheroo.
BL: Thank you for not finding that sacrilegious. I’m in the 20% of older people still alive who know who Annie is and didn’t believe there were enough of us. I needed to sing for them, not to them. Right now everybody gets who Bruno Mars is. You have to write from beyond the grave.
TK: Have you had any interaction with Dylan and what was it about?
BL: I was in Italy doing a festival and he was coming on right after me. They love me a lot in Italy. So I’m in dressing room, ready to leave it. I don’t know if you even seen my show….
TK: Many times….
BL: So I’m wearing very high heels and very tight clothes. I’m a little winded after a show and am cooling off and ready to leave when someone says I can’t leave the room. And why not? Well because Dylan is walking to the stage. Suddenly I’m all “get out of my way,” ha ha ha, and heading toward the stage. Security is trying to stop me while Dylan is coming into sight. I yell out “Robert Dylan” – he spins – comes over to me after his bassist tells him who I am. Then he approaches me and takes my face in both of his hands and kisses me full on the mouth and walked on the stage. He gave me the kiss. All I need is the words.
Bettye LaVette plays World Cafe Live on Thursday, April 5th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.