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Bob Dylan's Late-Era, Old-Style American Individualism

It's a land of Walt Whitman and Chuck Berry, of border towns and murder ballads — and America's greatest songwriter may be the last man living there

May 14, 2009 12:00 AM ET
Bob Dylan's Late-Era, Old-Style American Individualism
Photograph by Sam Jones for RollingStone.com

On April 7th, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, stroll into the Palais des Congrès in Paris. Nobody in the sold-out auditorium, however, pays the First Couple much attention. Bob Dylan, who in 1990 was named a Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Art et des Lettres, the highest cultural award France can bestow, is about to take the stage for an evening of nostalgie (as the tickets read). After an old-style-vaudevillian introduction, out walks Dylan with his five-member band, all sharply dressed in Pretty Boy Floyd suits and fedoras. As Dylan launches into a hard-rock version of "Cat's in the Well," from his Under the Red Sky album, the cheering crowd holds up cellphones, trying to film the enigmatic legend, who immediately ensconces himself behind an electric piano. Dylan plays guitar on only a single song — as is usually the case — but throughout the night his harmonica riffs soar through the cavernous hall. Everyone feels energized by his charismatic presence. After about two and a half hours, he ends the performance with a defiant version of the crowd-pleasing "Blowin' in the Wind."

After the show, the Sarkozys wander backstage, anxious to meet Dylan. The French president is attired in a black turtleneck and jeans. In a single swooping motion, Sarkozy seizes Dylan's hand, welcoming him to France. "It was like looking at my mirror image," Dylan tells me later, about the encounter. "I can see why he's the head of France. He's genuine and warm and extremely likable. I asked Sarkozy, 'Do you think the whole global thing is over?' I knew they just had a big G-20 meeting and they maybe were discussing that. I didn't think he'd tell me, but I asked him anyway."

This article appeared in the May 14, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

While Dylan — who will be playing around 30 concerts in minor- league baseball stadiums this summer along with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp — is celebrated in America, he is lionized in Europe. The French periodicals were all abuzz that Dylan had just collaborated with the popular 41-year-old film director Olivier Dahan on a new movie soundtrack. The following evening, at Dylan's second sold-out Paris show, I chatted with the genial Dahan, a scruffy-looking guy straight from the pages of Oliver Twist. In 2007, Dahan directed La Vie en Rose, the celebrated biopic of Edith Piaf that won two Academy Awards. Last year, he brazenly solicited a handful of songs from Dylan, via a letter, for his new road movie, My Own Love Song. Starring Forest Whitaker and Renée Zellweger, My Own Love Song is the tale of an infirm female singer who journeys across America, from Kansas to Louisiana. "I wanted the songs to feel Southern," Dahan says. "Real songs of the American spirit. What that meant for me, like millions of others worldwide, is Bob Dylan's songs."

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"At first this was unthinkable," Dylan recounts. "I mean, I didn't know what [Dahan] was actually saying. [In faux French accent] 'Could you write uh, 10, 12 songs?' Ya know? I said, 'Yeah, really? Is this guy serious?' But he was so audacious! Usually you get asked to do, like, one song, and it's at the end of the movie. But 10 songs?" Dylan continues, "Dahan wanted to put these songs throughout the movie and find different reasons for them. I just kind of gave the guy the benefit of the doubt that he knew what he was doing. I always liked those movies, ya know, those black-and-white movies where, like, Veronica Lake all of a sudden out of nowhere is singing in a nightclub. Or Diahann Carroll is singing in a cafe. All those movies where the action stops and the heroes are represented as walking past a barn dance where the Sons of the Pioneers are playing on a truck. It's so musical. They don't put that kind of thing in movies anymore. Now it's come down to just an end-title song — which has nothing to do with the movie, and basically people are walking out."

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