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

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"Why's that?" I ask.

"Lots of reasons," he says. "He was a renegade painter. He just painted what he wanted. He didn't have anybody over him. I don't think he was ever pushed to the degree that those other guys were. I don't feel Picasso's paintings like I feel the other work I just mentioned. I like Jacques-Louis David a lot, too, although he was a propagandist painter. David's the artist who did the emblematic painting of 'Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass' and 'The Death of Marat.'" As for Andy Warhol, Dylan glares at me for bringing his name into the heavyweight mix. "Only as a cultural figure," he says. "Not as an artist."

After that evening's show at the Heineken Music Hall — at around 11:30 p.m. — I interview Dylan again. Because it is Easter weekend, I decide to push him on the importance of Christian Scripture in his life. "Well, sure," he says, "that and those other first books I read were really biblical stuff. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur. Those were the books that I remembered reading and finding religion in. Later on, I started reading over and over again Plutarch and his Roman Lives. And the writers Cicero, Tacitus and Marcus Aurelius ... I like the morality thing. People talk about it all the time. Some say you can't legislate morality. Well, maybe not. But morality has gotten kind of a bad rap. In Roman thought, morality is broken down into basically four things. Wisdom, Justice, Moderation and Courage. All of these are the elements that would make up the depth of a person's morality. And then that would dictate the types of behavior patterns you'd use to respond in any given situation. I don't look at morality as a religious thing."

But to Dylan, morality is often about holding firm to personal principles. We talk about his refusal to capitulate to CBS censors back in 1963 when he was to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. The network had wanted Dylan to play a Clancy Brothers song, even though he had rehearsed "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues." The censors refused to allow a so-called "commie" protest song into America's Cold War living rooms. Dylan wouldn't give in. He now views the walk-off as a seminal event in his early career. "Ed [Sullivan] was behind me, but the censors came down, and they didn't want me to play that particular song," he says. "I just had it in my mind to do that particular song. I'd rehearsed it, and it went down well. And I knew everybody back home would be watching me on The Ed Sullivan Show. But then I walked off The Ed Sullivan Show, and they couldn't have a chance to see me. So I don't know what that says about me as a person. That was the biggest TV show ever at that time, and it was broadcast on Sunday night. Millions of people watched from coast to coast. It was a dream come true just to be on that stage. Everybody knew that."

Bolting from The Ed Sullivan Show was the true turning point in Dylan's life script, even more significant than going electric at Newport. From that moment onward, Dylan would only play by his rules. His spine stiffened. When a recording artist blew off Ed Sullivan ... well, the James Dean outsider avenue was the only option left. But how did Dylan's mother and father back in Minnesota feel about little Bobby stiffing Mr. Sullivan? "Well, we grew up without TV, really," Dylan explains. "TV came in when I was maybe 16. We didn't get the network shows up north. We only got TV from about 3:00 till 7:00 when it began to come in. We had no consciousness of TV. None. It was all live entertainment that would come through town. Those days are long gone. Even the memories have been obliterated. I think maybe I was in the last generation that grew up like that. We didn't see Dick Clark. I think Ed Sullivan came in the last year I was at home. Didn't see Elvis on Ed Sullivan because we didn't get that. It was a more innocent way of life. Imagination is what you had and maybe all you had."

More than any recent American artist, with the possible exception of the late collage painter Robert Rauschenberg, Dylan has repeatedly challenged his own intellect and faith. Nothing is ever fully settled. His mind is always crowded with future projects: a series of Brazil-inspired paintings, the next installment of Chronicles, a TV special, an orchestra playing new arrangements of his timeless standards, and the composition of more song-poems for the ages sometimes casually written on hotel letterhead. He is going out in life as a gnarled bluesman able to hold his head high, a tried-and-true folkloric figure who's outfoxed even B'rer Rabbit.

When President Sarkozy, looking to make small talk, asked Dylan, "Where do you live?" the quick response was a few simple words: "Right here. ... No. I'm just joking. I'm from the Lone Star State." (Dylan ended by giving Sarkozy a Texas-style belt buckle as a gift.)

Technically, Dylan's answer wasn't true. Dylan belongs to no city or state. There is Dylan the family man who spends time in California with his children and grandchildren in Malibu, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Sometimes Dylan lingers in the Bay Area for weeks at a time, sketching fishmongers and longshoremen. As a New York Yankee fan, he can be found sitting behind first base in the Bronx on random autumnal nights, wishing Mickey Mantle were still batting cleanup. But it's Minnesota's north country, which seems to always lie just over the frozen brow of a long-remembered field, where the road still reaches into the void on below-zero blue winter days, that remains Dylan's touchstone place. That's the American landscape, which has influenced him most. The Great Lakes region is where he learned Mexican conjunto music by way of Polish polka bands. You can't find the real Dylan spirit in Greenwich Village or an L.A. studio, a Yazoo River juke joint or a Laredo cafe. For underneath all the mercurial antics and standing ovations, Dylan is so down-home that he considers the boondocks of Hibbing-Duluth to be far grander than Paris.

"The air is so pure there," he says. "And the brooks and rivers are still running. The forests are thick, and the landscape is brutal. And the sky is still blue up there. It is still pretty untarnished. It's still off the beaten path. But I hardly ever go back."

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Song Stories

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