I'm trying to explain something that can't be explained," says Bob Dylan. "Help me out." It's a midsummer day, an hour or so before evening, and we are seated at a table on a shaded patio, at the rear of a Santa Monica restaurant. Dylan is dressed warmer than the Southern California weather invited, in a buttoned black leather jacket over a thick white T-shirt. He also wears a ski cap – black around its lower half, white at its dome – pulled down over his ears and low on his forehead. A fringe of moptop-style reddish-blond hair, clearly a wig, curls slightly out from the front of the cap, above his eyebrows. He has a glass of cold water in front of him. In the 15 years since his 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, Dylan – who is now 71 – has enjoyed the most sustained period of creativity of his lifetime. His new album, Tempest, tells tales of mortal ends, moral faithlessness and hard-earned (if arbitrary) grace, culminating in a swirling, 14-minute epic about the Titanic, which mixes fact and fantasy, followed by a loving, mystical song about his late friend and peer John Lennon. It's unlikely, though, that Dylan will ever eclipse the renown of his explosion of music and style in the 1960s, which transformed him into a definitive mythic force of those times. But Dylan wasn't always comfortable with the effects of that reputation. In 1966, following a series of mind-blazing and controversial electric performances, the young hero removed himself from his own moment after he was laid low by a motorcycle accident, in Woodstock. The music that he returned with, in the late 1960s – John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline – sounded as if Dylan had become a different man. In truth, he now says, that's what he was – or rather, what he was becoming. What Bob Dylan believes really happened to him after he survived his radical pinnacle is much more transformational than he has fully revealed before. This was an incident he'd alluded to briefly in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, but in this interview the matter took on deeper implications.
At moments, I pushed in on some questions, and Dylan pushed back. We continued the conversation over the next many days, on the phone and by way of some written responses. Dylan didn't hedge or attempt to guard himself as we went along. Just the opposite: He opened up unflinchingly, with no apologies. This is Bob Dylan as you've never known him before.
Do you see Tempest as an eventful album, like Time Out of Mind or Love and Theft?
Tempest was like all the rest of them: The songs just fall together. It's not the album I wanted to make, though. I had another one in mind. I wanted to make something more religious. That takes a lot more concentration – to pull that off 10 times with the same thread – than it does with a record like I ended up with, where anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense.
Nonetheless, this seems among your bigger works, like Time Out of Mind, though more outward, less inward.
Well . . . the Time Out of Mind record, that was the beginning of me making records for an audience that I was playing to night after night. They were different people from different walks of life, different environments and ages. There was no reason for these new people to hear songs I'd written 30 years earlier for different purposes. If I was going to continue on, what I needed were new songs, and I had to write them, not necessarily to make records, but to play for the public.
The songs on Time Out of Mind weren't meant for somebody to listen to at home. Most of the songs work, whereas before, there might have been better records, but the songs don't work. So I'll stick with what I was doing after Time Out of Mind, rather than what I was doing in the Seventies and Eighties, where the songs just don't work.
That album was plainly received as a turning point. It began a sustained winning streak. Everything since then is a body of work that can stand on its own.
I hope it can. It should connect with people. The thing about it is that there is the old and the new, and you have to connect with them both. The old goes out and the new comes in, but there is no sharp borderline. The old is still happening while the new enters the scene, sometimes unnoticed. The new is overlapping at the same time the old is weakening its hold. It goes on and on like that. Forever through the centuries. Sooner or later, before you know it, everything is new, and what happened to the old? It's like a magician trick, but you have to keep connecting with it.
It's just like when talking about the Sixties. If you were here around that time, you would know that the early Sixties, up to maybe '64, '65, was really the Fifties, the late Fifties. They were still the Fifties, still the same culture, in America anyway. And it was still going strong but fading away. By '66, the new Sixties probably started coming in somewhere along that time and had taken over by the end of the decade. Then, by the time of Woodstock, there was no more Fifties. I really wasn't so much a part of what they call "the Sixties."
Even though you're so identified with it?
Evidently I was, and maybe even still am. I was there during that time, but I really couldn't identify with what was happening. It didn't mean that much to me. I had my own family by then. You know, for instance, [Timothy] Leary and others like him, they wouldn't have lasted a second in earlier days. Of course, the Vietnam War didn't help any.
Do you ever worry that people interpreted your work in misguided ways? For example, some people still see "Rainy Day Women" as coded about getting high.
It doesn't surprise me that some people would see it that way. But these are people that aren't familiar with the Book of Acts.
Sometimes you seem to have a distaste for the 1960s.
The Fifties were a simpler time, at least for me and the situation I was in. I didn't really experience what a lot of the other people my age experienced, from the more mainstream towns and cities. Where I grew up was as far from the cultural center as you could get. It was way out of the beaten path. You had the whole town to roam around in, though, and there didn't seem to be any sadness or fear or insecurity. It was just woods and sky and rivers and streams, winter and summer, spring, autumn. The changing of the seasons. The culture was mainly circuses and carnivals, preachers and barnstorming pilots, hillbilly shows and comedians, big bands and whatnot. Powerful radio shows and powerful radio music. This was before supermarkets and malls and multiplexes and Home Depot and all the rest. You know, it was a lot simpler. And when you grow up that way, it stays in you. Then I left, which was, I guess, toward the end of the Fifties, but I saw and felt a lot of things in the Fifties, which generates me to this day. It's sort of who I am.
I guess the Fifties would have ended in about '65. I don't really have a warm feeling for that period of time. Why would I? Those days were cruel.
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