Talkin' Mtv Generation Blues

OF ALL THE STARS IN THE classic-rock sky, Bob Dylan may be the toughest for kids to love. Neil Young? He understands kids--he toured with Pearl Jam, he wears flannel shirts and his minimalist, distorted guitar sound is the bedrock for alternative bands from Sonic Youth to Wilco to Nirvana. The Rolling Stones? They may be goofy oldsters, but they've just started yet another tour so grandiose and spectacular it's almost kitschy-cool. The Beatles? Any young band would be proud to copy them--just look at Oasis. David Bowie pals around with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor.

Dylan, on the other hand, just won't bond. When Jakob Dylan's band the Wallflowers performed at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, Jakob didn't ask his dad to jam. Instead he got Bruce Springsteen (himself dubbed the New Dylan in the early '70s). We know that Jakob and Bob want to keep a respectful distance from each other's careers, but the incident made us wonder. Isn't Dylan an icon at least a son could love?

When it comes to today's MTV generation, Dylan has an image problem. No one questions that he's an incredible songwriter, or doubts his stature as one of the most important countercultural figures of the '60s. But more than almost any of his peers, Dylan has had trouble connecting to the '90s. ""He's got an awful voice and stage fright and he's trying to balance a guitar and a harmonica,'' says Roger DuBois, 22, a music graduate student at Columbia University. ""I just don't relate to that kind of music very much.'' Even young singer-songwriters with a clear acoustic lineage don't necessarily pledge allegiance. ""Of course I have great admiration and respect for him, but in a vicarious sort of way,'' says punk-folkie Ani DiFranco. ""When things become so huge, they're like furniture. They're just there. You never saw them coming, you never felt the change.''

Part of the problem is that the world today is a lot more pop than it was 30 years ago. Dylan, in his famously cranky, isolationist way, has refused to adapt. He doesn't cater to the video market or commercial radio; with sales of more than 3 million, the Wallflowers' album ""Bringing Down the Horse'' has sold more in two years than Bob's best-selling album, ""Blood on the Tracks,'' has sold since 1975. Even when Dylan's audience gets thrown in with a young crowd, they don't necessarily mingle. DiFranco spent a month this summer on the road as Dylan's opening act. ""I didn't realize going into the tour how the audience would be structured, geographically speaking,'' she says. ""Most of my crowd, being half the age of Bob's crowd and not of the income, were way out on the back lawn. There would be a bunch of really excited kids very far away. Then there would be this dubious sea of people who came to hear Bob and were looking at me sideways, like, hmmm, we don't know.''

Dylan's new album, ""Time Out of Mind,'' just might make him hip again. It's bluesy and dark, as disjointed from now as Dylan himself. Like most of his albums it's a self-portrait, and not necessarily a flattering one. ""Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb/I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from,'' he sings in the shambling ballad ""Not Dark Yet.'' Every under-30 skeptic should give it a listen, for one simple reason: few musicians of any age or generation have the courage and ability to put themselves so forcefully on the line. ""Time Out of Mind'' is rewarding precisely because it's so outside the present. In an era defined by novelty hits and slick video edits, it's a reminder that music can mean something more: it can be personal, uncompromised and deeply felt.

""Time Out of Mind'' has, in abundance, a quality that's been at the root of Dylan's music and appeal since the beginning: integrity. And that's what young musicians and followers are getting back in touch with. ""We were listening to his new songs and saying, "Boy, what if he were trying to get a record deal today?' '' says singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. ""I remember my songs being critiqued by one of these record-label moguls. He said, "It doesn't have a bridge. It has too many verses. It's too long.' It's because of artists like Dylan that I was able to blow them off, and stick to my guns. Dylan's always helped me know I can make my own rules.''

As today's young generations get farther away from the baby boomers, more and more kids are rediscovering Dylan on their own terms. On his album ""Odelay,'' Beck adapts Dylan's apocalyptic ramblings to a post-boombox, media-frenzied, dizzily technological age. Underneath a buzz of samples and beats, Beck's just an old-fashioned folk singer. When he sings, ""Temperature's dropping at the rotten oasis/Stealing kisses from the lepers' faces,'' he's beaming straight over Highway 61. Steve Malkmus, lead singer of Pavement, has similarly picked up Dylan's slippery wordplay, as well as his dedication to unpolished improvisation. "" "The Basement Tapes' is one of the first lo-fi albums ever,'' says Malkmus. ""It's really playful, and he's making up a lot of the lyrics on the spot.'' Dylan's even affected a strong influence on hip-hop--at least to artists who skip back over gangsta rap to the activist ethics of the '60s and '70s. ""I heard Dylan through a brother of mine who was going to college,'' says Wyclef Jean of the Fugees. ""I was a total hoodlum, and he was a lawyer. He brought this song "Jokerman' to the house. I was like, yo, what is this? I started listening to the lyrics, and I was like, yo, what is this? So I wrote the lyrics down, and it was the most incredible piece of literature I ever read.''

There's even evidence that Dylan is connecting with the younger generation. When neo-folkie Jewel opened a string of Dylan tour dates in 1996, she found herself unexpectedly invited onstage for a duet of ""I Shall Be Released.'' ""Singing with him, I couldn't believe,'' she says. ""I went to the other microphone, 'cause I would never assume to share his. He waved me over to his mike. He was so sweet. The audience clapped at the end, and I was dying of embarrassment. He grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me in front of the audience to take my applause. He said--'' She imitates Dylan's nasal iambs. "" "Dang, she sings better than Joan Baez.' And he gave me a little nougie on my head.'' She giggles. ""I got all embarrassed telling you that.'' She shouldn't be. Kindred spirit to Dylan is a rare, treasurable designation.