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

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The third track, "My Wife's Home Town," a gloss on the old blues standard "I Just Want to Make Love to You," echoes the haunting Tom Waits vibe of Mule Variations. Dylan sounds like a phlegmatic Cab Calloway scatting and coughing before the coffin closes. Everything feels condemned. The fiendish specter of suicide is omnipresent: "State gone broke/The county's dry/Don't be looking at me with that evil eye." Dylan even menacingly cackles "a-hah-heh-heh" on the track. "The song is a tribute, not a death chant," he says. "Deep down, I think that everybody thinks like me sooner or later. They just might not be able to express it."

The sense of dislocation continues in the more upbeat "If You Ever Go to Houston." The long-shot chance of redemption (or at least a good night of fun) is palatable. Dylan and Hunter are tapping into the rootlessness of Houston, which is about to supplant Chicago as the third-largest city in the United States. There is a feeling of operating on the undetected margins of the sprawl. The Dylan-Hunter lyric noticeably references the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848 as a remembrance of survival against adversity.

I ask Dylan about the wave of recent violence reaching up from Mexico into the Southwest borderlands, an area that the Grateful Dead had once happily celebrated in "Mexicali Blues" and other songs. "That's always been dangerous ground," he says. "It has a different kind of population than Austin or Dallas or other big cities. Texas is so big. It's a republic; it's its own country. The Texas borderlands are like a buffer zone for Mexico and the rest of the States. You get that leftover vibe from northern Mexico, central Mexico, where you have that legacy of Aztec brutality. That's where they used to slash the hearts out of people, captives and thousands of slaves offered up on bloody altars. On the other hand, you have Cortés and all those conquistadors who were coming out of the Spanish Inquisition-type scene. So I can imagine it got pretty brutal. And I think it's got a lot of spillover from that time, in our times. I see the violence as some kind of epidemic that has lasted until this day maybe."

Not that Dylan isn't having fun in Together Through Life. In "I Feel a Change Comin' On," the wayward stranger gets a little oomph in his stride. Surveying the crazy world, Dylan is hopeful that a new love will fall into his arms. Dreams come and go, Dylan sings, but love is eternal. Every good Dylan album has a first-person line, one that his fans gravitate toward with wild enthusiasm. The winner in Together Through Life is the quip "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver/And I'm reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me/I've got the blood of the land in my voice." Dylanologists will probably have a field day analyzing why he chose to call out Shaver (a hand-maimed Texas guitar-picker who wrote many of Waylon Jennings' best songs). And why James Joyce? "Waylon played me [Shaver's] 'Ain't No God in Mexico,' and I don't know, it was quite good," Dylan says. "Shaver and David Allen Coe became my favorite guys in that [outlaw] genre. The verse came out of nowhere. No ... you know something? Subliminally, I can't say that this is actually true. But I think it was more of a Celtic thing. Tying Billy Joe with James Joyce. I think subliminally or astrologically those two names just wanted to be combined. Those two personalities." (Maybe it's just that "Joyce" rhymes with "voice"?)

Something about the Old West mythologies of gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, political maverick Sam Houston and short-story writer O. Henry appeals to Dylan's imagination. Like a Western hero, he has given up the sedentary life and chosen the difficult path of his own ideals, made real by noble isolation. "I think you really have to be a Texan to appreciate the vastness of it and the emptiness of it," Dylan says. "But I'm an honorary Texan."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"Well," he says, "George Bush, when he was governor, gave me a proclamation that says I'm an honorary Texan [holds hand up in pledge, laughs]. As if anybody needed proof. It's no small thing. I take it as a high honor."

While Dylan has praised Obama and rhapsodized about Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father, he's been uncritical of the Bush administration. Almost every American artist has taken a piñata swipe at Bush's legacy, but Dylan refuses. He instead looks at the Bush years as just another unsurprising incident of dawn-of-man folly. "I read history books just like you do," Dylan says. "None of those guys are immune to the laws of history. They're going to go up or down, and they're going to take their people with them. None of us really knew what was happening in the economy. It changed so quickly into a true nightmare of horror. In another day and age, heads would roll. That's what would happen. The rot would be cut out. As far as blaming everything on the last president, think of it this way: The same folks who had held him in such high regard came to despise him. Isn't it funny that they're the very same people who once loved him? People are fickle. Their loyalty can turn at the drop of a hat."

At heart Dylan is an old-fashioned moralist like Shane, who believes in the basic lessons taught by McGuffey's Readers and the power of a six-shooter. A cowboy-movie aficionado, Dylan considers director John Ford a great American artist. "I like his old films," Dylan says. "He was a man's man, and he thought that way. He never had his guard down. Put courage and bravery, redemption and a peculiar mix of agony and ecstasy on the screen in a brilliant dramatic manner. His movies were easy to understand. I like that period of time in American films. I think America has produced the greatest films ever. No other country has ever come close. The great movies that came out of America in the studio system, which a lot of people say is the slavery system, were heroic and visionary, and inspired people in a way that no other country has ever done. If film is the ultimate art form, then you'll need to look no further than those films. Art has the ability to transform people's lives, and they did just that."

The word "caustic" takes on a whole new meaning in Together Through Life's final cut, the sure-to-be-canonical "It's All Good." Dylan belittles all those arrogant narcissists who constantly say it's all good, even when the world crumbles around them. Drums and guitar rumble in a mad-attic rush of grunge blues while Dylan spits out sarcasm with such lines as "Big politicians telling lies/Restaurant kitchen all full of flies/Don't make a bit of difference/ Don't see why it should ... it's all good." It's a raucous affair. I ask Dylan if he has ever uttered the slang expression "It's all good," even once, himself. "I might have, who knows?" he says with a sidelong, savvy smile. "Maybe if I was joking or something, just like in the song."

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