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

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I ask whether, as bandleader, Dylan had ever played a set with the perfect guitarist. Dylan jumps at the opportunity to answer rather reminiscently. "The guy that I always miss, and I think he'd still be around if he stayed with me, actually, was Mike Bloomfield," Dylan says of his collaborator on Highway 61 Revisited (who also famously played electric guitar with him at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965). "He could just flat-out play. He had so much soul. And he knew all the styles, and he could play them so incredibly well. He was an expert player and a real prodigy, too. Started playing early. But then again a lot of good guitarists have played with me. Freddy Tackett, Steve Ripley — Mick Taylor played with me for a minute."

Full of memory lane, Dylan goes on to tell a story about first meeting Bloomfield in Chicago at a headhunt on the South Side. A social misfit, Bloomfield was the rare white guitarist who had recorded with the likes of Sleepy John Estes and Big Joe Williams. "He could play like Willie Brown or Charlie Patton," Dylan says. "He could play like Robert Johnson way back then in the Sixties. The only other guy who could do that in those days was Brian Jones, who played in the Rolling Stones. He could also do the same thing. Fingerpicking rhythms that hardly anyone could do. Those are the only two guys I've ever met who could ... from back then ... the only two guys who could play the pure style of country blues authentically."

Dylan, who is about to turn 68, continues to be a force of nature, a veritable one-man Johnstown Flood. It's impossible to categorize or comprehend his confounding output of new songs. His youthful rebelliousness has now matured into an old-style American individualism. As a composer, Dylan now fits comfortably alongside George Gershwin or Irving Berlin, though he grumpily refuses to wear any man's collar. Casually dressed in jeans and a sweater vest, Dylan offers me coffee for our interview in a second-floor suite at Amsterdam's Intercontinental Hotel along the Amstel River. Dylan's curly hair is still tousled, his deeply creased face full of mischief. He has a razor-sharp memory. For two evenings, he proves to be a lucid, if circumspect, conversationalist.

Like the dour-faced farmer in Grant Wood's "American Gothic," Dylan seems to have the American Songbook in one hand and a raised pitchfork in the other, aimed at rock critics, politicians, Wall Street financiers, back-alley thieves, the World Wide Web — anything that cheapens the spirit of the individual. His nostalgia is more for the Chess Records Fifties than the psychedelic Sixties. He believes that Europe should lose the euro and go back to its old currencies ("I miss the pictures on the old money," he says). If Dylan had his way, there'd be Sousa bands on Main Street and vinyl albums instead of CDs. Teenagers would go on nature hikes instead of watching YouTube. "It's peculiar and unnerving in a way to see so many young people walking around with cellphones and iPods in their ears and so wrapped up in media and video games," he says. "It robs them of their self-identity. It's a shame to see them so tuned out to real life. Of course they are free to do that, as if that's got anything to do with freedom. The cost of liberty is high, and young people should understand that before they start spending their life with all those gadgets."

Ever since 2001's Love and Theft, Dylan has been producing his own albums under the pseudonym Jack Frost. "It's better that I produce," he says. "It saves a lot of time. A lot of rigmarole. A lot of communication, ya know? It's just easier for me to make records. Translating my own ideas directly rather than having them go through somebody else. I know my form of music better than anyone else would."

Right now, Dylan is focused on Together Through Life, the new studio album he recorded last fall. The album's genesis was the song "Life Is Hard," his first gift to Dahan. With a pocket full of lyrics and melodies, Dylan booked a studio to lay down nine other new tracks. To help capture the Texas-Mexico-escapism aura, Dylan hired Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter to work with him. The 68-year-old Hunter had previously written two songs with Dylan, for Down in the Groove in 1988: "Silvio" and "Ugliest Girl in the World." It's rare, but not unprecedented, for Dylan to collaborate on songs. Over the years, he's shared songwriting credits with the likes of Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, the late Rick Danko of the Band — even Michael Bolton. (When he was in the Traveling Wilburys, Dylan wrote numerous songs with George Harrison. He hopes one day to sit down and work with Paul McCartney: "That'd be exciting to do something with Paul! But, ya know, your paths have to cross for something like that to make sense.")

Dylan and Hunter view the world through a similar lens. "Hunter is an old buddy," Dylan says. "We could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there. He's got a way with words, and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting. I think we'll be writing a couple of other songs too, for some off-Broadway play." For guitar, Dylan brought in Mike Campbell (on loan from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). "Mike and I played before lots of times when I was on tour with Tom," Dylan says. "There was always some part of the show where Mike and myself and [organist] Benmont Tench would play two or three ballads. On my new record I didn't think he'd have any problem."

On Together Through Life, Dylan's mystic-drifter persona of his recent records has moved from the Mississippi Delta to Houston and the U.S.-Mexico borderland. Brownsville. McAllen. Laredo. El Paso. "You feel things, and you're not quite sure what you feel," Dylan says about the region. "But it follows your every move, and you don't know why. You can't get out of it. It's the pressure that's imposed on us." The album bottles the feeling of King Ranch country along Highway 77 — down toward San Benito, where the water tower reads "Hometown of Freddy Fender." "Spirited guys from down there," Dylan believes. "Independent-thinking guys. Texas might have more independent-thinking people than any other state in the country. And it shows in the music. Realistically speaking, that is the same type of music that I heard growing up most nights in Minnesota. The languages were just different. It was sung in Spanish there. But where I came from, it was sung in Polish."

The first track of Together Through Life — "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" — is pure Tex-Mex torque. Already getting a lot of radio play, the song conjures up shiny automobiles rumbling across "boulevards of broken cars" through the vast Rio Grande Valley night. No grapefruit trees or warm salt breezes or beef-jerky stands here. You imagine forlorn bank buildings and tiny grain elevators and faded billboard advertisements. The last-chance gas is behind you a good 20 miles. By the second track, "Life Is Hard," Dylan is wandering past the old schoolyard, looking for strength to fight back the grim tide of old age. A red-brick afterglow lingers in the ballad like in an Edward Hopper painting. A Broadway singer has already recorded a demo of the song; it would be perfect for Diane Reeves or Norah Jones.

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