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

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If there is a guiding spirit to Together Through Life — Dylan's 33rd studio album — it's the ghost of Doug Sahm. At age 11, Sahm, a San Antonio native, had already recorded his first song, "A Real American Joe." By the time he was 13, the Grand Ole Opry offered him a regular gig; his mother disapproved. Eventually, Sahm's band — the Sir Douglas Quintet — became the Lone Star answer to the Beatles. The cosmic-cowboy sound was born. An impressed Dylan volunteered to sing harmony and play guitar on Sahm's 1973 Doug Sahm and Band as a sign of outsider solidarity; the album remains a weird, loose-grooving and quirky rock & roll classic. Dylan even wrote the lighthearted song "Wallflower" for it. Bootleg tapes of the Sahm-Dylan sessions now float around the black market. Tejano accordionist Flaco Jiménez anchored that band, Doug Sahm and Friends, back in 1973, just as David Hidalgo is doing with Together Through Life. As late as 1995, Sahm had joined Dylan onstage, in Austin, to play electric guitar on six numbers, including a version of the Grateful Dead's "Alabama Getaway." Sahm told the Texas audience that Dylan was a "beautiful friend" whom he loved dearly.

"Doug was like me, maybe the only figure from that old period of time that I connected with," Dylan explains. "His was a big soul. He had a hit record, 'She's About a Mover,' and I had a hit record ["Like a Rolling Stone"] at the same time. So we became buddies back then, and we played the same kind of music. We never really broke apart. We always hooked up at certain intervals in our lives ... here and there from time to time. Like Bloomfield, Doug was once a child prodigy too. He was playing fiddle, steel guitar and maybe even saxophone before he was in his teens. I'd never met anybody that had played onstage with Hank Williams before, let alone someone my own age. Doug had a heavy frequency, and it was in his nerves. It's like what Charlie Patton says, 'My God, what solid power.' I miss Doug. He got caught in the grind. He should still be here."

In the pecking order of rock & roll survivors, Dylan sees himself as number two, behind only Chuck Berry. Two songs from the new album — "Jolene" and "Shake Shake Mama" — sound like cuts from Berry's After School Session. (Another new Dylan song is "Forgetful Heart," which lyrically touches upon Berry's "Drifting Heart" of that 1958 album.) A friendship has developed between Dylan and Berry over the years. "Chuck said to me, 'By God, I hope you live to be 100, and I hope I live forever,'" Dylan says with a laugh. "He said that to me a couple of years ago. In my universe, Chuck is irreplaceable. ... All that brilliance is still there, and he's still a force of nature. As long as Chuck Berry's around, everything's as it should be. This is a man who has been through it all. The world treated him so nasty. But in the end, it was the world that got beat."

When I ask Dylan if he'd ever thought of collaborating on a project with Berry, he laughs. "Chuck Berry?" he says. "The thought is preposterous. Chuck doesn't need anybody to do anything with or for him. You got to say that at this point in history he's probably the man. His presence is everywhere, but you never know it. I love Little Richard, but I don't think he performs as much as Chuck. And he's certainly not as spontaneous as Chuck. Chuck can perform at the drop of a hat. Well, Little Richard, he can too, actually, but he doesn't."

After a little more talk on Berry, I shift gears to Elvis Presley, who inspired Dylan as a young man. Dylan has quipped that when he first encountered Elvis' voice as a teenager, it was like "busting out of jail." For Dylan, the very fact that Elvis had recorded versions of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" and "Blowin' in the Wind" remains mind-boggling. Dutifully, as if returning a favor, Dylan recorded Elvis' hit "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such As I" during both the Basement Tapes and Self-Portrait sessions.

But that was about as close as they ever got. "I never met Elvis," Dylan says. "I never met Elvis, because I didn't want to meet Elvis. Elvis was in his Sixties movie period, and he was just crankin' 'em out and knockin' 'em off, one after another. And Elvis had kind of fallen out of favor in the Sixties. He didn't really come back until, whatever was it, '68? I know the Beatles went to see him, and he just played with their heads. 'Cause George [Harrison] told me about the scene. And Derek [Taylor], one of the guys who used to work for him. Elvis was truly some sort of American king. His face is even on the Statue of Liberty. And, well, like I said, I wouldn't quite say he was ridiculed, but close. You see, the music scene had gone past him, and nobody bought his records. Nobody young wanted to listen to him or be like him. Nobody went to see his movies, as far as I know. He just wasn't in anybody's mind. Two or three times we were up in Hollywood, and he had sent some of the Memphis Mafia down to where we were to bring us up to see Elvis. But none of us went. Because it seemed like a sorry thing to do. I don't know if I would have wanted to see Elvis like that. I wanted to see the powerful, mystical Elvis that had crash-landed from a burning star onto American soil. The Elvis that was bursting with life. That's the Elvis that inspired us to all the possibilities of life. And that Elvis was gone, had left the building."

Clearly, Dylan wants to make sure he doesn't flame out like Elvis. Not a minute of his Paris or Amsterdam shows were golden-oldie dial-ins. "All these shows I play are in the zone," he says. Touring helps Dylan stay focused and fit as a fiddle. Not only are concerts workouts, but all the hustle and bustle of travel keeps him taut and thin. In movement, Dylan believes, man has a chance. Even on the road, boxing remains his primary training exercise. For years, in fact, he had a "professional opponent," Mouse Strauss, who would ferociously spar with him. "Mouse could walk on his hands across a football field," Dylan says. "He taught me the pugilistic rudiments back a while ago, maybe 20 or 30 years. That's not when I started, though. Boxing was a part of the curriculum when I went to high school. Then it was taken out of the school system, I think maybe in '58. But it was always good for me because it was kind of an individualist thing. You didn't need to be part of a team. And I liked that."

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