It is midnight in Hollywood, and Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are clustered in a cavernous room at the old Zoetrope Studios, working out a harmonica part to "License to Kill," when Dylan suddenly begins playing a different, oddly haunting piece of music. Gradually, the random tones he is blowing begin to take a familiar shape, and it becomes evident that he's playing a plaintive, bluesy variation of "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine." Benmont Tench is the first to recognize the melody, and quickly embellishes it with a graceful piano part; Petty catches the drift and underscores Dylan's harmonica with some strong, sharp chord strokes. Soon, the entire band, which tonight includes guitarist Al Kooper, is seizing Dylan's urge and transforming the song into a full and passionate performance. Dylan never sings the lyrics himself but instead signals a backup singer to take the lead, and immediately "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" becomes a full-fledged, driving spiritual.
Five minutes later, the moment has passed. According to Petty and Tench, Dylan's rehearsals are often like this: inventive versions of wondrous songs come and go and are never heard again, except in those rare times when they may be conjured onstage. In a way, an instance like this leaves one wishing that every show in the current True Confessions Tour were simply another rehearsal: Dylan's impulses are so sure-handed and imaginative, they're practically matchless.
Trying to get Dylan to talk about where such moments come from – or trying to persuade him to take them to the stage – is, as one might expect, not that easy. "I'm not sure if people really want to hear that sort of thing from me," he says, smiling ingenuously. Then the perches himself on an equipment case and puts his hands into his pockets, looking momentarily uncomfortable. Quickly, his face brightens. "Hey," he says, pulling a tape from his pocket, "wanna hear the best album of the year?" He holds a cassette of AKA Grafitti Man, an album by poet John Trudell and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. "Only people like Lou Reed and John Doe can dream about doing work like this. Most don't have enough talent."
Dylan has his sound engineer cue the tape to a song about Elvis Presley. It is a long, stirring track about the threat that so many originally perceived in Presley's manner and the promise so many others discovered in his music. "We heard Elvis's song for the first time/Then we made up our own mind," recited Trudell at one point, followed by a lovely, blue guitar solo from Davis that quotes "Love Me Tender." Dylan grins at the line, then shakes his head with delight. "Man," he says, "that's about all anybody ever needs to say about Elvis Presley."
I wonder if Dylan realizes that the line could also have been written about him – that millions of us heard his songs, and that those songs not only inspired our own but, in some deep-felt place, almost seemed to be our own. But before there is even time to raise the question, Dylan has put on his coat and is on his way across the room.
"I'm thinking about calling this album Knocked Out Loaded," Bob Dylan says. He repeats the phrase once, then chuckles over it. "Is that any good, you think, Knocked Out Loaded?"
Dylan and a recording engineer are seated at a mixing board at the Topanga recording studio, poring over a list of song titles and talking about possible sequences. Dylan seems downright affable, more relaxed than earlier in the week. Apparently, the album has fallen into place with sudden ease. In the last few days, he has narrowed the record's selections down to a possible nine or ten songs, and tonight he is polishing two of those tracks and attempting a final mix on a couple of others.
So far, it all sounds pretty good – not exactly the back-snapping rock & roll I'd heard a few weeks earlier but, in a way, something no less bold. Then Dylan plays one more track, "Brownsville Girl," a piece he wrote last year with playwright Sam Shepard. A long, storylike song, it begins with a half-drawled, half-sung remembrance about a fateful scene from a western the singer had once seen, then opens up from there into two or three intersecting, dreamlike tales about pursued love and forsaken love, about fading heroes and forfeited ideals – about hope and death. It's hard to tell where Dylan ends and Shepard begins in the lyrics, but it is quite easy to hear whom the song really belongs to. In fact, I've only known of one man who could put across a performance as exhilarating as this one, and he is sitting there right in front of me, concentrating hard on the tale, as if he too were hearing its wondrous involutions for the first time. If this is the way Bob Dylan is going to age as a songwriter, I decide, I'm happy to age with him.
Twelve minutes later, the song closes with a glorious, explosive chorus. I don't know exactly what to say, so Dylan picks up the slack. He lights a cigarette, moves over to the sofa, takes off his glasses and smiles a shy smile. "You know," he says, "sometimes I think about people like T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters – these people who played into their sixties. If I'm here at eighty, I'll be doing the same thing. This is all I want to do – it's all I can do. I mean, you don't have to be a nineteen- or twenty-year-old to play this stuff. That's the vanity of that youth-culture ideal. To me that's never been the thing. I've never really aimed myself at any so-called youth culture. I directed it at people who I imagined, maybe falsely so, had the same experiences that I've had, who have kind of been through what I'd been through. But I guess a lot of people just haven't."
He falls silent for a moment, taking a drag off his cigarette. "See," he says, "I've always been just about being an individual, with an individual point of view. If I've been about anything, it's probably that, and to let some people know that it's possible to do the impossible."
Dylan leans forward and snuffs out his cigarette. "And that's really all. If I've ever had anything to tell anybody, it's that: You can do the impossible. Anything is possible. And that's it. No more."
This story is from the July 17th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.
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