The Genius and Modern Times of Bob Dylan

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Hearing the word "Napster" come from Bob Dylan's mouth, I venture a question about bootleg recordings. In my own wishful thinking, The Bootleg Series, a sequence of superb archival retrospectives, sanctioned by Dylan and released by Columbia, represents a kind of unspoken consent to the tradition of pirate scholarship – an acknowledgment that Dylan's outtakes, alternate takes, rejected album tracks and live performances are themselves a towering body of work that faithful listeners deserve to hear. As Michael Gray says in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, the first three-disc release of outtakes "could, of itself, establish Dylan's place as the pre-eminent songwriter and performer of the age and as one of the great artists of the twentieth century." On Love and Theft's "Sugar Baby," the line "Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff" was taken by some as a shout-out to this viewpoint. Today, at least, that line seems to have had only moonshine whiskey as its subject. "I still don't like bootleg records. There was a period of time when people were just bootlegging anything on me, because there was nobody ever in charge of the recording sessions. All my stuff was being bootlegged high and low, far and wide. They were never intended to be released, but everybody was buying them. So my record company said, 'Well, everybody else is buying these records, we might as well put them out.'" But Dylan can't possibly be sorry that the world has had the benefit of hearing, for instance, "Blind Willie McTell" – an outtake from 1983's Infidels that has subsequently risen as high in most people's Dylan pantheon as a song can rise, and that he himself has played live since. Can he? "I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn't have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It's like taking a painting by Manet or Picasso – goin' to his house and lookin' at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are 'Picasso fans.' The only fans I know I have are the people who I'm looking at when I play, night after night."

Dylan and his favorite-band-ever are just a few days from undertaking another tour, one that will be well under way by the time Modern Times is released in late August. I've always wanted to ask: When a song suddenly appears on a given evening's set list, retrieved from among the hundreds in his back catalog, is it because Dylan's been listening to his old records? "I don't listen to any of my records. When you're inside of it, all you're listening to is a replica. I don't know why somebody would look at the movies they make – you don't read your books, do you?" Point taken. He expands on the explanation he offered for "Blind Willie McTell": "Strangely enough, sometimes we'll hear a cover of a song and figure we can do it just as well. If somebody else thought so highly of it, why don't I? Some of these arrangements I just take. The Dead did a lot of my songs, and we'd just take the whole arrangement, because they did it better than me. Jerry Garcia could hear the song in all my bad recordings, the song that was buried there. So if I want to sing something different, I just bring out one of them Dead records and see which one I wanna do. I never do that with my records." Speaking of which: "I've heard it said, you've probably heard it said, that all the arrangements change night after night. Well, that's a bunch of bullshit, they don't know what they're talkin' about. The arrangements don't change night after night. The rhythmic structures are different, that's all. You can't change the arrangement night after night – it's impossible."

Previously Unseen Bob Dylan Lyrics From 1965

Dylan points out that whether a song comes across for a given listener on a given night depends on where exactly they're sitting. "I can't stand to play arenas, but I do play 'em. But I know that's not where music's supposed to be. It's not meant to be heard in football stadiums, it's not 'Hey, how are you doin' tonight, Cleveland?' Nobody gives a shit how you're doin' tonight in Cleveland." He grins and rolls his eyes, to let me know he knows he's teasing at Spinal Tap heresy. Then he plunges deeper. "They say, 'Dylan never talks'. What the hell is there to say! That's not the reason an artist is in front of people." The words seem brash, but his tone is nearly pleading. "An artist has come for a different purpose. Maybe a self-help group – maybe a Dr. Phil – would say, 'How you doin'?' I don't want to get harsh and say I don't care. You do care, you care in a big way, otherwise you wouldn't be there. But it's a different kind of connection. It's not a light thing." He considers further. "It's alive every night, or it feels alive every night." Pause. "It becomes risky. I mean, you risk your life to play music, if you're doing it in the right way." I ask about the minor-league baseball* stadiums he's playing in the new tour's first swing: Do they provide the sound he's looking for? "Not really, not in the open air. The best sound you can get is an intimate club room, where you've got four walls and the sound just bounces. That's the way this music is meant to be heard." Then Dylan turns comedian again, the guy newly familiar to listeners of his XM satellite radio show, whose casual verbal riffs culminate in vaudeville one-liners. "I wouldn't want to play a really small room, like ten people. Unless it was, you know, $50,000 a ticket or something."

* * *

Let me take a moment and reintroduce myself, your interviewer and guide here. I'm a forty-two-year-old moonlighting novelist, and a lifelong Dylan fan, but one who, it must be emphasized, doesn't remember the Sixties. I'm no longer a young man, but I am young for the job I'm doing here. My parents were Dylan fans, and my first taste of his music came through their LPs – I settled on Nashville Skyline, because it looked friendly. The first Dylan record I was able to respond to as new – to witness its arrival in stores and reception in magazines, and therefore to make my own – was 1979's Slow Train Coming. As a fan in my early twenties, I digested Dylan's catalog to that point and concluded that its panoply of styles and stances was itself the truest measure of his genius – call us the Biograph generation, if you like. In other words, the struggle to capture Dylan and his art like smoke in one particular bottle or another seemed laughable to me, a mistaken skirmish fought before it had become clear that mercurial responsiveness – anchored only by the existential commitment to the act of connection in the present moment – was the gift of freedom his songs had promised all along. To deny it to the man himself would be absurd. By the time I required anything of Bob Dylan, it was the mid-Eighties, and I merely required him to be good. Which, in the mid-Eighties, Dylan kind of wasn't. I recall taking home Empire Burlesque and struggling to discern songwriting greatness under the glittery murk of Arthur Baker's production, a struggle I lost. The first time I saw Dylan in concert, it was, yes, in a football stadium in Oakland, with the Grateful Dead. By the time of 1988's Down in the Groove, the album's worst song might have seemed to describe my plight as fan; I was in love with the ugliest girl in the world.

Nevertheless, Eighties Dylan was my Dylan, and I bore down hard on what was there. Contrary to what you may have heard (in Chronicles, Volume One, among other detractors), there was water in that desert. From scattered tracks like "Rank Strangers to Me," "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" and "Brownsville Girl," to cassette-tape miracles like "Lord Protect My Child" and "Foot of Pride" (both later to surface on The Bootleg Series), to a version of "San Francisco Bay Blues" I was lucky enough to catch live in Berkeley, to a blistering take on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Don't Start Me to Talkin'" on Late Night With David Letterman, the irony is not only that "bad" Dylan was often astonishingly good. It is that his then-seemingly-rudderless exploration of roots-music sources can now be seen to point unerringly to the triumphs to come – I mean the triumphs of now. Not that Dylan himself would care to retrace those steps. When I gushed about the Sonny Boy Williamson moment on Letterman, he gaped, plainly amazed, and said, "I played that?"

Photos: Bob Dylan Hanging With Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg and More

So, the drama of my projected relationship to my hero, thin as it may seem to those steeped in the Sixties or Seventies listeners' sense of multiple betrayals – he's gone Electric! Country-Domestic-Unavailable! Christian! – was the one Dylan described to David Gates of Newsweek in 1997, and in the "Oh Mercy" chapter of his memoir, Chronicles – the relocation and repossession of his voice and of his will to compose and perform, as enacted gradually through the Nineties. Early in that decade it might have seemed he'd quit, or at least taken refuge or solace in the solo acoustic folk records he'd begun making in his garage: Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. Live shows in what had become "The Never Ending Tour" were stronger and stronger in those years, but new songs were scarce. Then came Time Out of Mind, an album as cohesive – and ample – as any he'd ever recorded. When that was followed by Love and Theft, and then Chronicles, a reasonable Dylan fan might conclude he was living in the best of all possible worlds. In fact, with the satellite radio show beaming into our homes – Dylan's promised to do fifty of the things! – Dylan can be said to have delivered more of his voice and his heart to his audience in the past decade than ever before, and more than anyone might have reasonably dared to hope. "Well, isn't that funny," Dylan snorts when I mention "the myth of inaccessibility." "I've just seen that Wenner Books published a book of interviews with me that's that big." He stretches out his hands to show me. "What happened to this inaccessibility? Isn't there a dichotomy there?" Yet it's awfully easy, taking the role of Dylan's interviewer, to feel oneself playing surrogate for an audience that has never quit holding its hero to an impossible standard: The more he offers, the more we want. The greatest artist of my lifetime has given me anything I could ever have thought to ask, and vet here I sit, somehow brokering between him and the expectations neither of us can pretend don't exist. "If I've got any kind of attitude about me – or about what I do, what I perform, what I sing, on any level, my attitude is, compare it to somebody else! Don't compare it to me. Are you going to compare Neil Young to Neil Young? Compare it to somebody else, compare it to Beck – which I like – or whoever else is on his level. This record should be compared to the artists who are working on the same ground. I'll take it any way it comes, but compare it to that. That's what everybody's record should be, if they're really serious about what they're doing. Let's face it, you're either serious about what you're doing or you're not serious about what you're doing. And you can't mix the two. And life is short."

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Matthew Rolston
Bob Dylan on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
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