It was a Tuesday in September when Dylan and I sat down to discuss his recent art — two weeks to the day after the shocking attacks that destroyed New York's World Trade Center buildings. (The tragedy's date, September 11th, was also the release date for Love and Theft.) As we talked, Dylan and I were near the room's open balcony doors and windows, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The Los Angeles airport is just down the highway, and every few minutes you could see an airplane in its ascent as it embarked on its journey. Once or twice, we just watched without comment, but there was a sense that nobody will ever look at the commonplace sight of a plane moving across the sky in quite the same way again. It would be unfair to Dylan to make the claim that anything in his music anticipated the horrific turn of recent events. And yet clearly he has been writing about dread realities and dangerous likelihoods for four decades now, from the end-times vision of 1963's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" to his current remorseful statement about personal and national spirit in Love and Theft's "Mississippi." Bob Dylan may no longer be the young firebrand who tore through the world with such energy and disdain in the 1960s, but he is still a songwriter, singer and literary artist of continuing power and depth. If there was any principal meaning to Dylan's early music, perhaps it was that it is hardly trouble-free for a smart, conscientious person to live in times that witness the betrayal or inversion of our best values and dreams. To live through such times with scruples and intellect intact, Dylan has declared in his music, one has to hold an honest and fearless mirror up to the face of cultural and moral disorder.
Dylan was convivial and confident as we talked on this day, but in his speech, just as in his songs and vocals, one senses that he carries a dignified knowledge of enduring mysteries that probably unsettle him every bit as much as his awareness of them distinguishes him. And in conversation, just as in his music, Bob Dylan lets go of his insights in constantly surprising and singular turns of phrase and temperament.
In 1998, when you received the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, you said something that surprised me — maybe surprised other people as well. You said, "We didn't know what we had when we did it, but we did it anyway." That was interesting because Time Out of Mind plays as an album made with purpose and vision, with a consistent mood and set of themes. Was it, in fact, an album you approached with forethought, or was its seeming cohesiveness incidental?
What happened was, I'd been writing down couplets and verses and things, and then putting them together at later times. I had a lot of that — it was starting to pile up — so I thought, "Well, I got all this — maybe, I'll try to record it." I'd had good luck with Daniel Lanois [producer of the 1989 album Oh Mercy], so I called him and showed him a lot of the songs. I also familiarized him with the way I wanted the songs to sound. I think I played him some Slim Harpo recordings — early stuff like that. He seemed pretty agreeable to it, and we set aside a certain time and place. But I had a schedule — I only had so much time — and we made that record, Time Out of Mind, that way. It was a little rougher. . . . I wouldn't say rougher. . . . It was . . . I feel we were lucky to get that record.
Well, I didn't go into it with the idea that this was going to be a finished album. It got off the tracks more than a few times, and people got frustrated. I know I did. I know Lanois did. There were myriad musicians down there. At that point in time, I didn't have the same band I have now. I was kind of just auditioning players here and there for a band, but I didn't feel like I could trust them man-to-man in the studio with unrecorded songs. So we started to use some musicians that Lanois would choose and a couple that I had in mind: [keyboardist] Jim Dickinson; [drummer] Jim Keltner; [guitarist] Duke Robillard. I started just assembling people that I knew could play. They had the right soulful kind of attitude for these songs. But we just couldn't . . . I felt extremely frustrated, because I couldn't get any of the up-tempo songs that I wanted.
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