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 The crowd of cameramen, lighting technicians, makeup people and producers had withdrawn for a bit to consult their equipment, leaving Dylan to strum and hum on his own.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.
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.
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.
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