The Genius and Modern Times of Bob Dylan

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I can't help but wonder if he's lately been reconditioned by the success of the Martin Scorsese No Direction Home documentary, to feel again the vivid discomfort of his unwanted savior's role. "You know, everybody makes a big deal about the Sixties. The Sixties, it's like the Civil War days. But, I mean, you're talking to a person who owns the Sixties. Did I ever want to acquire the Sixties? No. But I own the Sixties – who's going to argue with me?" He charms me with another joke: "I'll give 'em to you if you want 'em. You can have 'em." For Dylan, as ever, what matters is the work, not in some archival sense, but in its present life. "My old songs, they've got something – I agree, they've got something! I think my songs have been covered – maybe not as much as 'White Christmas' or 'Stardust,' but there's a list of over 5,000 recordings. That's a lot of people covering your songs, they must have something. If I was me, I'd cover my songs too. A lot of these songs I wrote in 1961 and '62 and '64, and 1973, and 1985, I can still play a lot of those songs – well, how many other artists made songs during that time? How many do you hear today? I love Marvin Gaye, I love all that stuff. But how often are you gonna hear 'What's Going On'? I mean, who sings it? Who sings 'Tracks of My Tears'? Where is that being sung tonight?" He's still working to plumb the fullest truth in the matter of his adventures in the recording studio. "I've had a rough time recording. I've managed to come up with songs, but I've had a rough time recording. But maybe it should be that way. Because other stuff which sounds incredible, that can move you to tears – for all those who were knocked off our feet by listening to music from yesteryear, how many of those songs are really good? Or was it just the record that was great? Well, the record was great. The record was an art form. And you know, when all's said and done, maybe I was never part of that art form, because my records really weren't artistic at all. They were just documentation. Maybe bad players playing bad changes, but still something coming through. And the something that's coming through, for me today, was to make it just as real. To show you how it's real." Dylan muses on the fate of art in posterity. "How many people can look at the Mona Lisa? You ever been there? I mean, maybe, like, three people can see it at once. And yet, how long has that painting been around? More people have seen that painting than have ever listened to, let's name somebody – I don't want to say Alicia Keys – say, Michael Jackson. More people have ever seen the Mona Lisa than ever listened to Michael Jackson. And only three people can see it at once. Talk about impact."

Conversation about painting leads to conversation about other forms. "That's what I like about books, there's no noise in it. Whatever you put on the page, it's like making a painting. Nobody can change it. Writing a book is the same way, it's written in stone – it might as well be! It's never gonna change. One's not gonna be different in tone than another, you're not gonna have to turn this one up louder to read it." Dylan savored the reception of Chronicles. "Most people who write about music, they have no idea what it feels like to play it. But with the book I wrote, I thought, 'The people who are writing reviews of this book, man, they know what the hell they're talking about.' It spoils you. They know how to write a book, they know more about it than me. The reviews of this book, some of 'em almost made me cry – in a good way. I'd never felt that from a music critic, ever."

While my private guess would have been that Dylan had satisfied the scribbling impulse (or as he says on Modern Times, "I've already confessed/No need to confess again"), in fact he seems to be deep into planning for a Chronicles, Volume Two. "I think I can go back to the Blonde on Blonde album – that's probably about as far back as I can go on the next book. Then I'll probably go forward. I thought of an interesting time. I made this record, Under the Red Sky, with Don Was, but at the same time I was also doing the Wilburys record. I don't know how it happened that I got into both albums at the same time. I worked with George [Harrison] and Jeff [Lynne] during the day – everything had to be done in one day, the track and the song had to be written in one day, and then I'd go down and see Don Was, and I felt like I was walking into a wall. He'd have a different band for me to play with every day, a lot of all-Stars, for no particular purpose. Back then I wasn't bringing anything at all into the studio, I was completely disillusioned. I'd let someone else take control of it all and just come up with lyrics to the melody of the song. He'd say, 'What do you want to cut?' – well, I wouldn't have anything to cut, but I'd be so beat down from being up with the Wilburys that I'd just come up with some track, and everybody would fall in behind that track, oh, my God." He laughs. "It was sort of contrary to the Wilburys scene, which was being done in a mansion up in the hills. Then I'd go down to these other sessions, and they were in this cavelike studio down in Hollywood, where I'd spend the rest of the night, and then try to get some sleep. Both projects suffered some. Too many people in the room, too many musicians, too many egos, ego-driven musicians that just wanted to play their thing, and it definitely wasn't my cup of tea, but that's the record I'm going to feature."

Now, this may be the place for me to mention that I find Side Two of Under the Red Sky one of the hidden treasures of Dylan's catalog. The album's closer, a garrulous but mysterious jump-blues called "Cat's in the Well," in particular, wouldn't be at all out of place on Love and Theft or Modern Times. But as he's told me, Dylan doesn't listen to the records. And unlike me, he claims no familiarity with The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. ("Those are not the circles I really move around in," he chuckles when I ask. "That's not something that would overlap with my life.") But just as when he praises his current band as his absolute best – an evaluation supporters of Mike Bloomfield and A1 Kooper, not to mention Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, et al., might take issue with – I've come to feel that Dylan's sweeping simplifications of his own journey's story are outstandingly healthy ones. Puncturing myths, boycotting analysis and ignoring chronology are likely part of a long and lately quite successful campaign not to be incarcerated within his own legend. Dylan's greatest accomplishment since his Sixties apotheosis may simply be that he has claimed his story as his own. (Think of him howling the first line of "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" upon his return to the stage during the 1974 tour: "You say you love me and you're thinkin' of me/But you know you could be wroooonngg!"). I take our conversation today the way I took Chronicles, and the long journal-song "Highlands": as vivid and generous reports on the state of Bob Dylan and his feelings in the present moment.

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