A living legend ponders the meaning of relevance in the era of MTV
I've made all the difference I'm going to," Bob Dylan declares. "My place is secure, whatever it is. I'm not worried about having to do the next thing or keeping in step with the times. I've sold millions of records. I've done all the big shows. I've had all the acclaim at one time or another. I'm not driven anymore to prove that I'm the top dog."
Dylan makes this startling announcement, the closest he's ever come to a formal retirement speech, with minimal flourish – a slow drag on his Kool, a quick swig of Heineken. It is strange talk from a man in the midst of a rare interview blitz, ostensibly to aid his latest album, Empire Burlesque. But while Dylan is cordial, even frank, in his answers ("I'm always accused of not being helpful," he says, chuckling), there is a hint of weary indignation in his voice, as if he's grown tired of his own weighty legend. At forty-four, Dylan no longer worries about making hits – or history.
"I don't feel I've got anything to prove," he insists, sitting poolside at a Los Angeles hotel, a black leather jacket draped over his scarecrow shoulders against the early evening chill. "I've got every legitimate right to do what I want to. Whether it sells records or not, I don't know."
Dylan's new statement of purpose comes after years of apparent insecurity, of coping with radical shifts in mainstream rock and young audiences with new expectations and heroes. Since easing away from the combative fundamentalism of his Christian albums, he has zigzagged from the rootsy sizzle and modest AOR polish of 1983's Infidels to Arthur Baker's animated, high-tech mixing job on Empire Burlesque. Nervy experiments in the tradition of his electric and later country transformations in the Sixties, both LPs suggest an uncertainty about his relevance in the MTV decade.
Yet his continued influence is unquestionable, evident in the new acoustic pop of Suzanne Vega and the hardcore protest-punk of Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. When Dylan traveled to Moscow earlier this year to appear at a poetry festival (he was permitted to sing his "poetry"), he was amazed to see young Russian fans thrusting dog-eared copies of his earliest albums at him for autographs.
"The young people who normally would have come out to see me didn't know I was there," he says almost apologetically. "But one day I went to this banquet, and the streets were packed with people who somehow found out. There wasn't any manic atmosphere; it was very controlled. They didn't ask anything. They just wanted me to sign their records. I don't know where they got them."
Dylan has also been unusually visible at home this year. He made three videos to promote Empire Burlesque, including two with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. He closed the July 13th Live Aid concert in Philadelphia and plugged in with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for a vibrant electric set at Farm Aid. A suggestion he made from the Live Aid stage about using some of the incoming millions to pay off a few U.S. farm mortgages inspired Willie Nelson and Neil Young to set Farm Aid in motion – proof positive that when Bob Dylan mutters, the world still listens.
"I didn't think anybody heard me, because I couldn't even hear myself say it," Dylan says with a wry smile. He blames the ragged quality of his Live Aid contribution on sound problems. The mix onstage was so muddy, he complains, that he didn't think anyone in John F. Kennedy Stadium or in the global TV and radio audience noticed his remark.
"But it occurred to me at that moment that a lot of money was being raised for people to be self-sufficient. And it came to me that people in this country need to be self-sufficient. I thought it was relevant."
However, he questions the comparisons drawn between recent charity-rock events like Live Aid and USA for Africa (he also sang on "We Are the World") and the student activism of yesteryear. "The big difference between now and the Sixties is that then it was much more dangerous to do that sort of thing. There were people trying to stop the show in any kind of way they could. There was a lot more violence. Then, you didn't know which end the trouble was coming from. And it could come at any time.
"Now people seem to be a lot more passive about the whole thing. 'If you can do something, great.' Nobody's going to take any offense to it."
The same limp sentiment also dominates the record charts, he grumbles. "The kids are getting a raw deal. Nobody's telling them anything through music anymore." He casts a disdainful look over his shoulder at the hotel PA system, which is piping Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" into the crisp evening air. "They're just getting a lot of consumer products that aren't doing them any good. Sooner or later, they're going to rebel against it all."
It is unlikely that the young upstarts will be claiming Empire Burlesque for their anthem as they battle Tears for Fears to the death. Dylan acknowledges, without bitterness, that he's not a part of the daily soundtrack for a lot of Eighties teens. "They don't need to follow me," he concedes. "They have their own people to follow." Indeed, Dylan's recent albums have sold modestly compared to the platinum achievements of spiritual heirs like Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler. When asked if he heard any of himself in Springsteen's Nebraska, he barks, "Yeah, but so what? I'm too old to start over and too young to blow my horn about all the people that ripped me off."
Yet Empire Burlesque – highlighted by the "Hurricane"-like disco gallop of "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" – represents a significant gamble on Dylan's part. Unwilling to bow to the pressures of mainstream success, he is nevertheless keen to use the new pop science to his own ends.
"I don't know how to do the thing with the studio where you use it as another instrument," he admits helplessly. "A lot of kids can. But it's too late for me."
Instead, he recruited Arthur Baker, best known for remixing other people's records beyond recognition, not to commercialize Empire Burlesque but to retain the "live" integrity of the original sessions. Dylan cut the album in isolated spurts of creativity over some eighteen months, mostly in Los Angeles with an eclectic supporting cast that included Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, some of Petty's Heartbreakers and ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. "Clean Cut Kid" dates back to the album's earliest sessions. "Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)" is a reworked version of a song originally cut for Infidels.
"My difficulty in making a record," Dylan continues, "is that when I record something in a studio, it never sounds anything like it when I get the tapes back. Whatever kind of live sound I'm working for, it always gets lost in the machines. Years ago, I could go in, do it and it would translate onto tape. It gets so cleaned up today that anything wrong you do doesn't get onto the tape. And my stuff is based on wrong things."
He expects Dave Stewart to make the most of his wrongs when the two go into the studio by year's end to cut some tracks for a possible spring release. (Dylan apparently does not plan to issue any of the material he recently cut with Keith Richards and Ron Wood in several impromptu hotel-room sessions.) Stewart has already done wonders for Dylan's ailing video image with his sympathetic executive production of the clips for "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky" and "Emotionally Yours." For the former, a lively black-and-white mock-concert sequence, Stewart assembled a punk who's who (including former Blondie drummer Clem Burke and Feargal Sharkey of the disbanded Undertones) to mime vigorously behind Dylan. "Emotionally Yours," which segues into romantic flashbacks after the gig, was done at his record company's request, Dylan mentions coolly.
"If you want to sell records, I'm told you gotta make videos," he says with a chuckle. "I know they're thought of as an art form, but I don't think they are. They're on and they're over too fast" – this coming, of course, from the director of the four-hour surrealist treatment of the '75 Rolling Thunder tour, Renaldo and Clara. Dylan's main complaint with his past videos, though, is that he rarely got his money's worth. Surprisingly, he cites George Lois' unique concept for Infidels' "Jokerman," a daring illustration of Dylan's lyrics with paintings by Michelangelo and Hieronymus Bosch spliced with deadpan close-ups of Dylan. He admits the paintings were spectacular, but he hated those close-ups.
"I never know what anybody's doing with me. They filmed me from thirty yards away. What are they looking at? When I saw the videos, all I saw was a shot of me from my mouth to my forehead on the screen. I figure, 'Isn't that somethin'? I'm paying for that?"
Dylan's Farm Aid rock-out with the Heartbreakers reaffirmed his stage powers. He's looking forward to a major concert tour next year, his first full-scale U.S. trek since the half-sacred, half-secular Shot of Love shows in 1981. If the Heartbreakers aren't available for a lengthy jaunt across the States in '86, Dylan's not worried about forming another road unit.
"Actually, anybody can play with me and I can play with anybody," he jokes. "I'm sure I could go to a hall sometime and pick people out of the audience to play with me. I'm not looking for anything special in a band. I'm looking for guys who are enthusiastic and know the kind of music I know, who can play strongly on the structure of the song and have a knowledge of folk music and rock & roll."
Dylan's roots in the former and cataclysmic impact on the latter over two decades are neatly summarized in the new Columbia Records five-album-retrospective set, Biograph, an exhaustive accounting of Dylan's best work from 1962 to 1981 that includes eighteen previously unreleased recordings. "It's not a record that people are going to make a big fuss over," Dylan ho-hums, noting that a few of the rarities are actually alternate takes ("Heart of Mine" and "Forever Young" among them) and that most have been bootlegged extensively over the years.
But Biograph is significant both as a collection of essential Dylan recordings, fifty-three in all, and for its roundup of elusive gems like "Percy's Song," a live "Visions of Johanna" and a seething electric "I Don't Believe You" from his 1966 Belfast concert with the future members of the Band. Dylan also cared enough to write his own liner notes in which he explains for the first time, track by track, the people, places and motives behind his best-known songs.
"I'm not reluctant to talk about my songwriting, but no one has ever really asked me the right things," Dylan says, grinning. "I just tried to be brief, remember kind of how things happened. I'm not really a nostalgia freak. Every time you see my name, it's 'the Sixties this, the Sixties that.' It's just another way of categorizing me." In the Biograph booklet, he says, "I had the chance to clarify a lot of wrong things said about me. It was a chance to set a few things straight."
The one songwriting secret Dylan does not divulge is how he does it. "It's still hard for me to talk about playing, about songwriting. It's like a guy digging a ditch. It's hard to talk about how the dirt feels on the shovel."
This story is from the December 5th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.