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

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If any American personifies life on what Whitman called the "open road," it's Bob Dylan. Traveling allows Dylan's aloofness to ferment into clarity. Woody Guthrie, Blind Willie McTell and Jack Kerouac treasured this rootless way too. "On the Road speeds by like a freight train," Dylan tells me. "It's all movement and words and lusty instincts that come alive like you're riding on a train. Kerouac moves so fast with his words. No ambiguity. It was very emblematic of the time. You grabbed a hold of the train, hopped on and went along with him, hanging on for dear life. I think that's what affected me more than whatever he was writing about. It was his style of writing that affected us in such a virile way. I tried reading some of his books later, but I never felt that movement again."

Sometimes on the road Dylan stops by the homes or graves of musicians he admires. He once went to Tupelo, Mississippi, to soak in the essence of Elvis. He's made pilgrimages in Texas to search out Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison. I ask Dylan if he minds people visiting Hibbing or Duluth or Minneapolis searching for the root of his talent. "Not at all," he surprisingly says. "That town where I grew up hasn't really changed that much, so whatever was in the air before is probably still there. I go through once in a while coming down from Canada. I'll stop there and wander around." As for Duluth, where his grandparents lived, he thinks it's one of the country's forgotten gems. "You'll never see another town like Duluth," he says. "It's not a tourist destination, but it probably should be. Depends what season you're in there, though. There are only two seasons: damp and cold. I like the way the hills tumble to the waterfront and the way the wind blows around the grain elevators. The train yards go on forever too. It's old-age industrial, that's what it is. You'll see it from the top of the hill for miles and miles before you get there. You won't believe your eyes. I'll give you a medal if you get out alive."

Dylan then recounts a recent side excursion he made from Minnesota to Manitoba. "I went to see Neil Young's house in Winnipeg," he says. "I just felt compelled. I wanted to see his bedroom. Where he looked out of the windows. Where he dreamed. Where he walked out of the door every day. Wanted to see what's around his neighborhood in Winnipeg. And I did just that."

"How did you do that?"

"I don't know," he answers. "Somebody found out for me where he used to live. I mean, there's no marker or anything. And some people were living in his house. He lived in an upstairs duplex with his mother. I wanted to walk the steps that Neil walked every day."

"Does he know you did that?" I ask.

"I don't think so," Dylan says with a grin. "I was meaning to send him a card afterward and tell him that. That I'd been there. Where he used to hang out and where he started out. Neil, I respect him so much."

Long a master of disguise, Dylan can slip into truck stops or taprooms with relative ease. He's learned the art of blending in. If necessary, there is always a sweatshirt hood. Irregular in his daily routine, mainly a night owl, Dylan sometimes draws sketches for his paintings. For years, Dylan's artwork was mostly monochromatic, but recently, in his Drawn Blank series, he has added bursts of color to his drawings. He likes dazzling purples, pinks and sunflower yellow. For all of his bouts of lyrical darkness, Dylan, like Van Gogh, relishes color, and he lets it show; even when the subject matter is a dismal rail yard or a ramshackle house.

When I question Dylan about his genius for disconnecting from the rat race, he quotes Scipio. "Scipio, the great conqueror of Hannibal, who says, 'I'm never in such good company as when I'm alone.'" To Dylan, this is ancient folk wisdom to live by. Wisdom that Hank Williams understood. Later in our conversation, he quotes Scipio again. " 'I'm never so busy,'" he says, " 'as when I've got nothing to do.'" (I get the weird feeling that this maxim will soon show up in a new Dylan lyric.) "A person's solitude is important," Dylan tells me in teacher mode. "You have to learn about yourself and figure things out, and that's a good way to do it. Obviously, though, too much of it is no good. You can abuse anything."

Dylan has become habituated to eminence. Wherever he goes, people treat him like a king. A cross eye from Dylan can have a devastating effect on a roadie or band member's psyche. Deeply idiosyncratic, mood changing by the minute, Dylan has an unerring ability to make anyone in the room feel they're not equal to the talent present. But he also plays shaman and sprinkles your life with magic dust. When a musician friend turns ill, Dylan plays one of that musician's songs in concert as a personal tribute. Months before Mike Bloomfield died of a drug overdose, Dylan, learning he was struggling, reunited with him in San Francisco to play "Like a Rolling Stone" one last triumphant time. Playing the role of passing angel, Dylan has sung the songs of Jerry Garcia, Warren Zevon, Frank Sinatra, George Harrison and Waylon Jennings, to name just a few, soon after they died, as a spontaneous tribute to their artistry.

Dylan spends most of the afternoon of April 9th at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I am not allowed to come along. But later he recaps to me what crossed his mind, like who his favorite artists are. "Well, of course, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are good as far as Americans go, and I guess George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are OK," he says. "But this guy here, from this town, Rembrandt, is one of my two favorite painters. I like his work because it's rough, crude and beautiful. Caravaggio's the other one. I'd probably go a hundred miles for a chance to see a Caravaggio painting or a Bernini sculpture. You know who I like a lot is [J.M.W.] Turner, the English painter. Art is artillery. And those guys, especially Caravaggio and Rembrandt, used it in its most effective manner. After seeing their work, I'm not even so sure how I feel about Picasso, to tell you the truth."

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