Dylan Revisited

Bob Dylan has reinvented himself all his life. Now he's back--from a near-fatal illness and a near-terminal career slump--with his best record in years. How does it feel? We asked him. He told us.

AS YOU SIT ACROSS FROM HIM, HIS FACE KEEPS CHANGING. Sometimes it's that I-see-right-through-you look from the cover of"Highway 61 Revisited"--you barely notice the white hairs among the curls, the two days' worth of stubble and the 30 years' worth of lines. Now he turns his head: there's the proufie from "Blood on the Tracks." Now he thrusts his chin up, and he's the funny, defiant kid who used to wear that Bob Dylan cap. Well, he is Bob Dylan. The man who did to popular music what Einstein did to physics. The incarnation of the counterculture. The songwriter of the century. Sitting right there. So what's on his mind?

It turns out that he loves to talk about Merle Haggard and early Elvis. Or Brian Wilson: "That ear-- I mean, Jesus, he's got to will that to the Smithsonian." Or Sinatra: "The tone of his voice. It's like a cello. Me and Don Was wanted to record him doing Hank Williams songs. I don't know, for some reason or other it never got off the ground." And when it comes to musical arcana, he knows the secret handshakes. Somehow you get talking about the old country duo Johnnie and Jack, and how Jack died in a car crash. "Car crash goin' to Patsy Cline's funeral," he chimes in. Bingo.

But you're really here, in an oceanfront hotel in L.A., to talk about the record he's releasing this week, "Time Out of Mind," completed before his widely reported death scare last spring; it's got that album-of-the-year buzz publicists can help along some but not create. But there's stuff he's put off-limits-where he lives, his children-and stuff you just know not to ask. What did those black and white loafers set him back? Is he still in touch with his ex-wife? In fact, he seems near the edge of his comfort zone talking about why he's not talking about one of his most illegible back pages: that conservative, born-again-Christian phase that blindsided his liberal, secular fan base some 15 years ago. "It's not tangible to me," he says. "I don't think I'm tangible to myself. I mean, I think one thing today and I think another thing tomorrow. I change during the course of a day. I wake and I'm one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I'm somebody else. I don't know who I am most of the time. It doesn't even matter to me." This cracks him up.

Then he says, "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like 'Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or 'I Saw the Light'-that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs."

BOB DYLAN IS 56. LAST MAY, WHEN he almost died--of a viral infection in the sac around the heart--Columbia Records got 500 calls in a single day. Earlier this year Greil Marcus's much-discussed ""Invisible Republic,'' a study of Dylan's 1967 ""Basement Tapes,'' rightly ranked his music with ""the most intense outbreaks of twentieth-century modernism''; the death scare reminded us that Dylan is a major cultural figure--and that we won't always have him with us. But for Dylan himself, deep thoughts about mortality had to take a back seat. ""Mostly I was in a lot of pain. Pain that was intolerable. That's the only way I can put it.'' By August, though, he was back on tour again, lightheaded from his medication but sounding none the worse for wear.

Last weekend Dylan performed before the pope, reportedly at John Paul's own request, at a eucharistic conference in Bologna. John Paul listened, eyes closed, to ""Knockin' on Heaven's Door'' and the apocalyptic ""A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall''; then Dylan doffed his white Stetson, shook the pope's hand and sang ""Forever Young.'' In December he'll receive a Kennedy Center Honors award, with President Clinton in attendance. Will he have to speak? ""No, they say I don't have to do a thing, which is''--he laughs--""perfect for me.''

Dylan's been fitfully rebuilding his career for the past decade, after starring in the stillborn 1987 film ""Hearts of Fire,'' a knockoff of ""A Star Is Born,'' and releasing such disappointing (though underrated) albums as 1988's ""Down in the Groove.'' He's had triumphant media moments: his 1988 collaboration with Tom Petty, George Harrison and Roy Orbison as the Traveling Wilburys, his all-star 30th Anniversary Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992, winning over critics in 1993 shows at Manhattan's Supper Club, holding his own with Metallica and Nine Inch Nails at Woodstock '94, his tight, audience-friendly 1994 set for ""MTV Unplugged.'' But more important are the 100 or so ordinary concerts he plays, year in, year out, on his Never-Ending Tour (which he says ended in 1991) and its successors, to which he's given such names as the Why Do You Look at Me So Strangely Tour.

And he's newly famous as the father of the Wallflowers' Jakob Dylan. ""I know they've sold a ton of records,'' says Dylan, who's ""superstitious'' about discussing family members. ""I keep hearing that they're playing arenas or whatever with the Counting the Crows group.'' Did he try to interest Jakob in old blues and hillbilly music? ""Yeah, he's heard the records. He has different likes because he was born at a different time--but sure, if he wants to hear good old-timey records, they're easily available to him.'' Do we take it he'd rather not comment on the Wallflowers' music? He laughs, either at your discomfiture or his, and--honest to Pete--the phone rings. (He can't help it if he's lucky.) OK, so has he heard Counting Crows, whose ""Mr. Jones'' alludes to his ""Ballad of a Thin Man'' and has the line ""I want to be Bob Dylan''? ""I have heard them,'' he says, ""but I get them mixed up with somebody else.'' The few things he catches on the radio anymore sound ""weak and hopeless''--and disposable. ""The top stars of today, you won't even know their names two years from now. Four, five years from now, they'll be obliterated. It's all flaky to me.''

This is the marketplace to whose vagaries he's committing ""Time Out of Mind.'' It's the first collection of his own new songs in six years--some Dylan-watchers feared there might never be another one--and maybe the best since 1975's ""Blood on the Tracks.'' His last two records, ""Good as I Been to You'' (1992) and the Grammy-winning ""World Gone Wrong'' (1993), were solo acoustic versions of blues and folk songs; ""Time Out of Mind'' should appeal to a wider audience. It's far more accessible than such thorny later masterworks as ""Infidels'' (1983)--though it may also be his darkest record ever.

Producer Daniel Lanois, who also worked on Dylan's 1989 ""Oh Mercy,'' says he ""asked Bob to step into the future'' with such technological conveniences as tape-looped rhythm tracks. Dylan hoped to push back the clock. He structured one song around a guitar line in the Memphis Jug Band's 1929 ""K.C. Moan,'' and he wanted his vocals to pack the punch of old recordings. ""Bob would say to me, "Little Richard's voice really cuts'.'' (In his 1959 Hibbing, Minn., high-school yearbook, Robert Zimmerman said his ambition was ""to join the band of Little Richard.'') Both the forward-looking Lanois and the backward-looking Dylan got their way.

""Time Out of Mind'' is a spare, spooky-sounding album, its lyrics brutally plain-spoken instead of ""Dylanesque'': ""My sense of humanity has gone down the drain,'' he sings in ""Not Dark Yet.'' It's about hopelessly lost love, about endless wandering--its first three songs begin with the singer walking--about an aging man's increasing distance from his world. ""I got new eyes/Everything looks far away.'' The landscape is hot and arid, and though there's no one around, he's ""beginning to hear voices'' and ""listening to every mind-polluting word.'' Dylan's own voice sounds appropriately murky, ravaged, distorted. ""We treated the voice almost like a harmonica,'' says Lanois, ""when you overdrive it through a small guitar amplifier.''

Hard-core Dylan freaks can be contrary; they may join the crowd and proclaim ""Time Out of Mind'' the long-awaited best-since-""Blood,'' or they may find it too accessible. But the last song, the 16 1/2-minute ""Highlands,'' should poleax everybody: it's a Thurber daydream with a Beckett narrator (""talking to myself in a monologue''), a Robert Burns refrain and a hypnotic guitar hook from Charlie Patton. In this funny, grim, crepuscular saga, the yearning for human connection gives way, with regret, to a yearning for transcendence. ""Nobody knew what to make of it,'' says Dylan. Lanois, for better or worse, talked him out of a 21-minute version.

""It is a spooky record,'' says Dylan, ""because I feel spooky. I don't feel in tune with anything.'' Yet he's proud of having registered his ambivalence and alienation so nakedly. ""I don't think it eclipses anything from my earlier period. But I think it might be shocking in its bluntness. There isn't any waste. There's no line that has to be there to get to another line. There's no pointless playing with somebody's brain. I think it's going to reach the people it needs to reach, and the ones it doesn't, maybe they'll come along another day.''

SOME 30 YEARS AGO, DYLAN'S work mattered more intensely to more people than anyone's does today. ""He not busy being born is busy dying,'' he sang, and young people yearning for a role model and an imaginary friend hung on every word as he took on and shucked off persona after persona: the new Woody Guthrie, the voice of the Movement, the rock-and-roll Fellini, the poet of the bad trip and the doomed love affair, the minimalist mystic, the back-to-basics country boy. Fans flattered themselves that they were going through the same changes. ""I never figured my mu-sic to blend into the culture in any kind of way,'' Dylan says now. But back then it was hard to tell whether he was mirroring '60s youth culture or actually creating it. He offered ready-to-wear attitudes and ready-to-cherish slogans. ""Even the President of the United States sometime must have to stand naked.'' ""Leave your stepping-stones behind.'' And--paradoxically--""Don't follow leaders.''

Dylan's early political songs--""The Times They Are a-Changin','' ""Masters of War''--belong to their era, but the electric music he invented in the mid-'60s is still in our faces. He set modern poetry--confessional, gnomic, comic, denunciatory, prophetic, visionary--to ecstatically danceable rock and roll. John Lennon said Dylan's music transformed the Beatles; today, everyone from R.E.M. to Beck to sedulously unlistenable art-metal bands shrieking out Tourettean lyrics over chainsaw guitar is doing what he made thinkable.

Dylan insists he's not a poet--""Wordsworth's a poet, Shelley's a poet, Allen Ginsberg's a poet''--and doesn't play rock and roll. Even back when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were recycling blues and R&B as pop music, he had his doubts about the whole enterprise. ""Part of me fell for it, but part of me didn't. The best part of me didn't fall for it at all.'' These days, he only listens to the old-timers, and he treasures the personal encounters he had. Big Joe Turner ""on his last legs,'' walking with a cane, singing in one more club. Lonnie Johnson--""when he walked into the room, there was an eeriness about him''--showing him guitar fingerings. ""I remember all those old guys I saw. They live in my head. I can't get rid of them.''

If he's adamant these days about seeing himself as their descendant and not a modernist genius for whom they were samples in the mix, who can blame him? Fans imagine the man who wrote ""It Ain't Me, Babe'' and ""Desolation Row'' and ""Gotta Serve Somebody'' as a demigod--or a Martian. ""But I'm not the songs,'' he says. ""It's like somebody expecting Shakespeare to be Hamlet, or Goethe to be Faust. If you're not prepared for fame, there's really no way you can imagine what a crippling thing it can be.'' The will that got him here in the first place has kept him practicing his art--which he insists is simply a ""craft'' or a ""trade''--but he's often about this close from giving it up. ""Some days I get up and it just makes me sick that I'm doing what I'm doing. Because basically--I mean, you're one cut above a pimp. That's what everybody who's a performer is. I have this voice in my head saying, "Just be done with it'.''

But what else would he do? ""Oh, man!'' he cries, and twists around in his chair to look out the window. There's a beach out there. Blue sky. ""What wouldn't I do?''

TEN YEARS AGO, DYLAN SAYS, ""I'D kind of reached the end of the line. Whatever I'd started out to do, it wasn't that. I was going to pack it in.'' Onstage, he couldn't do his old songs. ""You know, like how do I sing this? It just sounds funny.'' He goes into an all-too-convincing imitation of panic: ""I-- I can't remember what it means, does it mean--is it just a bunch of words? Maybe it's like what all these people say, just a bunch of surrealistic nonsense.'' When the Grateful Dead took him on tour in 1987, Jerry Garcia urged him to try again. ""He'd say, "Come on, man, you know, this is the way it goes, let's play it, it goes like this.' And I'd say, "Man, he's right, you know? How's he gettin' there and I can't get there?' And I had to go through a lot of red tape in my mind to get back there.''

Then, in October 1987, playing Locarno, Switzerland, with Tom Petty's band and the female singers he now says he used to hide behind, Dylan had his breakthrough. It was an outdoor show--he remembers the fog and the wind--and as he stepped to the mike, a line came into his head. ""It's almost like I heard it as a voice. It wasn't like it was even me thinking it. I'm determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not. And all of a sudden everything just exploded. It exploded every which way. And I noticed that all the people out there--I was used to them looking at the girl singers, they were good-looking girls, you know? And like I say, I had them up there so I wouldn't feel so bad. But when that happened, nobody was looking at the girls anymore. They were looking at the main mike. After that is when I sort of knew: I've got to go out and play these songs. That's just what I must do.'' He's been at it ever since.

On the beastly hot Labor Day weekend of 1997, he ends his post-hospital tour with an outdoor show in Kansas City, Mo. It's the usual crowd: '60s geezers, and kids with backwards caps, halter tops or granny dresses, nose studs, faux tattoos, T shirts advertising a range of loyalties from Beck to Phish. What he sees from up here onstage is a floodlit ocean of faces and bare, swaying arms; he can smell the incense sticks someone in his crew sets burning in buckets of sand. He starts with ""Absolutely Sweet Marie'' and moves on to a slinky ""It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,'' to the Stanley Brothers' ""Stone Walls and Steel Bars,'' to a stately ""Like a Rolling Stone,'' in which his electric guitar tangles up with countermelodies from guitarist Larry Campbell and pedal-steel player Bucky Baxter in a sweetly chiming, wildly raving choir. When he comes off after the last encore, you congratulate him and touch his shoulder. His jacket's soaked.

He knows what they say about his concerts. "" "Oh, he's massacring the songs, there's no way of knowing what you're going to get when you go see a Dylan show, blah blah blah.' It's true, to a certain extent. But OK, so that show wasn't any good. Doesn't matter. There's tomorrow.'' In fact, he's been reworking his songs in concert since he began touring with the Band in 1966; he calls the familiar recorded versions merely ""blueprints.'' He'll distill a verse of ""Mr. Tambourine Man'' to just two or three notes, followed up by a couple of choruses on guitar, repeating a single three-note pattern over each of the changing chords. When he's on, there's no place you'd rather be.

True, he's muffed his share of big moments, like his 1985 appearance at Live Aid with Keith Richards, Ron Wood and at least one horribly out-of-tune guitar. He's too self-contained, too inward, to come across on TV or video. But now that every twerp with a stylist wants to be an icon, it's enormously appealing that Dylan doesn't have an act together. Fans affectionately post his curious onstage obiter dicta on the Internet: ""On bass guitar tonight, Tony Garnier. I'm not gonna say nothin' about Tony except that he once tried to milk a cow with a monkey wrench. '' If there's a hint of condescension here--jeez, what a character--it surely beats being Poet of His Generation. ""I don't like to think of myself in the highfalutin area,'' says Dylan. ""I'm in the burlesque area.''

Huh? Burlesque? Oh. Old-timey lowlife entertainment. Standing naked in front of strangers. He's not a poet? Fine. But that's a hell of a word.

The old songsters Dylan reveres are gone now, but their music lives. He can never again be the sweet-faced young man on the cover of ""The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan'' (1963), walking on a snowy Manhattan street with a sweet-faced girl clinging to his arm. But he's still the man who said, in the notes to that album, ""I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday.'' Not long ago, he saw a dance performance, to songs he'd cut in the early '60s, and didn't recognize his own voice. ""I said, "What's this? This is incredible.' I thought it was some obscure person. But it wasn't; it was me. I'll have somebody get a copy and send it to you. You'll be amazed.'' Not at how terrific he was; that's not what he means.He means, That kid was on to something. He means, A lot of water's gone over the dam.

""We try and we try and we try to be who we were,'' he says. ""That's why everybody who went down went down.'' Is he talking about the dead-rock-star pantheon he's refused to join? ""People we all know,'' he answers. ""Who just--went down. Into the ground. Or scattered in the air, wherever they are. Sooner or later you come to the realization that we're not who we were. So then what do we do?'' His whole career has been a series of temporary answers. The latest answer's on his new record: you keep putting one foot in front of the other. ""I'm walking,'' the first song begins, ""through streets that are dead.'' It's one of the great Bob Dylan opening lines. How many roads must a man walk down? It's the darkest one yet. But the point is, he's walking.

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