Bob Dylan, Recovering Christian

He was the voice of youth in the Sixties and the voice of aging youth in the Seventies. But what did he become in the Eighties?

June 21, 1984
Bob Dylan on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Bob Dylan on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Ken Regan/ Camera 5

On a typically soggy March mess of a day in Manhattan, Bob Dylan, wearing black jeans, biker boots and a white sport coat over a white T-shirt, sat slouched on a stool at the far end of a small downtown studio. The crowd of cameramen, lighting technicians, makeup people and producers had withdrawn for a bit to consult their equipment, leaving Dylan to strum and hum on his own. As his long nails raked the strings of his Martin guitar, he began huffing softly into the harmonica racked around his neck, and soon a familiar melody filled the air. Could it be? I moved closer to cock an ear as Dylan cranked up the chorus. Yes, no doubt about it — Bob Dylan was running down the first-ever folkie arrangement of "Karma Chameleon," the Culture Club hit.

Soon, however, he was surrounded by tech people again. The audio crew punched up the tape of "Jokerman," a song off Dylan's latest album, Infidels, and as the video cameras rolled, the star obediently lip-synced along. Dylan had been doing take after take of the number all morning and most of the afternoon without complaint. "Jokerman" would be the second video for Infidels, and he knew it had to be good. The first, for the lovely ballad "Sweetheart Like You," had been a flat and lifeless embarrassment. So two of Dylan's most trusted friends — Larry "Ratso" Sloman, author of a book about Bob's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and George Lois, a brilliant New York adman who met Dylan during the ill-fated legal-defense concerts for fighter Rubin "Hurricane" Carter a decade ago — were called in to assist.

Bob Dylan Quiz 20 Overlooked Dylan Classics 10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs Full Bob Dylan Coverage Bod Dylan 70th Birthday It was Lois who came up with an agreeable video format for the stiff, camera-shy Dylan. Bob's face would only be seen onscreen during the song's choruses; the verses would be illustrated by classic art prints from Lois' own library: paintings by Michelangelo, Dürer, Munch — and, in a wry touch, a Hieronymus Bosch painting titled The Musicians' Hell. Lois' most innovative concept, however, was to superimpose the song's apocalyptic lyrics over the images throughout the video — a technique Lois laughingly dubbed "poetry right in your fuckin' face." The result, as it later turned out, makes most run-of-the-mill rock videos look like the glorified cola commercials they generally are.

dylan-promo Bob Dylan Quiz 20 Overlooked Dylan Classics 10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs Full Bob Dylan Coverage Bod Dylan 70th Birthday

But can a single thought-provoking video make Bob Dylan once again relevant to youthful record buyers? The man has been many things over the years: the voice of youth in the Sixties, the voice of aging youth in the Seventies and, now, in the Eighties — what?

Certainly, he remains a completely unpredictable character, as I discovered when we met a few hours later at a Greek café on Third Avenue. Smoking steadily from a pack of Benson & Hedges ("Nothing can affect my voice, it's so bad") and downing cup after cup of coffee with cream, he proved both guarded and gracious, sweet and sometimes acerbic. Not at all the arrogant young superstar who verbally demolished a Time magazine reporter in the 1966 documentary Don't Look Back but still no dummy either.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

More Song Stories entries »