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

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The audiences at the Palais des Congrès were cross-generational: The gray-hairs and the body-pierced youths sat side by side. At this juncture Dylan's audience is ... well, everybody. The French troubadour Charles Aznavour attended that second Paris show with one of his sons. Dylan, in homage to Aznavour, played the Frenchman's melancholic composition "The Times We Have Known" with sublime grace. After the show, the 84-year-old Aznavour joined Dylan backstage for a bit of banter. Wearing a suede coat with a sky-blue scarf around his neck, the deeply tanned Aznavour epitomized to Dylan how a popular musician can comport himself with dignity in the fourth quarter of life. "I finally caught up with you," Dylan tells him. "I saw you in 1963 at Carnegie Hall. It was filled with French people and me. I was the only American there, really."

After a round of Obama fist bumps, Dylan heads down a flight of stairs and onto his touring bus for the five-hour drive to Amsterdam, where he will be playing three more shows. For Dylan, it seems, life is always the next gig. Changing pace and location are essential to his survival as an artist. Contrary to reputation, however, he is no recluse. People populate his waking hours (although they're primarily of the worker-bee kind). "You're always aware of what town you're in," Dylan says of the millions of miles logged. "But in another sense, touring is like being on a freighter out on the open sea. You're really out there for days and months."

Critics have claimed that since 1988 Dylan has been on a Never Ending Tour, playing more than 100 concerts a year. The aggrieved Dylan bristles at the term. "Critics should know that there's no such thing as forever," he says. "So that speaks more about them who would use that phrase as if there's some important meaning in it. You never heard about Oral Roberts and Billy Graham being on some Never Ending Preacher Tour. Does anybody ever call Henry Ford a Never Ending Car Builder? Is Rupert Murdoch a Never Ending Media Tycoon? What about Donald Trump? Does anybody say he has a Never Ending Quest to build buildings? Picasso painted well into his 90s. And Paul Newman raced cars in his 70s. Anybody ever say that Duke Ellington was on a Never Ending Bandstand Tour? But critics apply a different standard to me for some reason. But we're living in an age of breaking everything down into simplistic terms, aren't we? These days, people are lucky to have a job. Any job. So critics might be uncomfortable with me [working so much]. Maybe they can't figure it out. But nobody in my particular audience feels that way about what I do. Anybody with a trade can work as long as they want. A welder, a carpenter, an electrician. They don't necessarily need to retire. People who have jobs on an assembly line, or are doing some kind of drudgery work, they might be thinking of retiring every day. Every man should learn a trade. It's different than a job. My music wasn't made to take me from one place to another so I can retire early."

Dylan has spent a lifetime dodging people's attempts to define him. He scorns "newsy people" who constantly try to pin him down about his personal life. Random strangers sometimes come up to him asking for a critique of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home documentary about his life. "I've never seen it," he tells me. "Well, a lot of that footage was gathered up from the Sixties. So I'd seen that, and I thought that was like looking at a different character. But it certainly was powerful. And I don't, or can't, do that anymore."

Dylan's principal frustration, however, is that he feels misunderstood as an artist: "Popular music has no, whatever you call them, critics, that understand popular music in all of its dynamic fundamentalism. The consensus on me is that I'm a songwriter. And that I was influenced by Woody Guthrie and sang protest songs. Then rock & roll songs. Then religious songs for a period of time. But it's a stereotype. A media creation. Which is impossible to avoid if you're any type of public figure at all." Where critics think he's deconstructing old songs, he instead sees himself as an old-time musical arranger. "My band plays a different type of music than anybody else plays," Dylan says. "We play distinctive rhythms that no other band can play. There are so many of my songs that have been rearranged at this point that I've lost track of them myself. We do keep the structures intact to some degree. But the dynamics of the song itself might change from one given night to another because the mathematical process we use allows that. As far as I know, no one else out there plays like this. Today, yesterday and probably tomorrow. I don't think you'll hear what I do ever again. It took a while to find this thing. But then again, I believe that things are handed to you when you're ready to make use of them. You wouldn't recognize them unless you'd come through certain experiences. I'm a strong believer that each man has a destiny."

These days, Dylan has largely decommissioned the electric guitar in favor of an electric keyboard. Does he have arthritis? Or was he sick of jamming on "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" for the thousandth time? The answer is neither. "I was looking for a keyboard player to play triplet forms for a long period of time," he explains. "I tried different musicians for it, and we couldn't find anybody who understood the style of what we were doing and to stay within the boundaries. And, finally, you've just got to do it on your own. As far as guitar, I was looking for a guitar player who could play exactly like me, only better. I can't find that person either. The same thing applies to keyboards. I'm looking for a piano player who can play just like me, only better. If I could find him or her, I would hire that person. So far it hasn't happened. I wish it would. We could do more if I was freed up there."

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