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The Genius and Modern Times of Bob Dylan

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In other words, never mind that I think Under the Red Sky is pretty good. After that early-Nineties disillusionment, how did he decide to record Time Out of Mind? "They gave me another contract, which I didn't really want. I didn't want to record anymore, I didn't see any point to it, but to and behold they made me an offer and it was hard to refuse. I'd worked with [Daniel] Lanois before, and I thought he might be able to bring that magic to this record. I thought, 'Well, I'll give it a try.' There must have been twelve, fifteen musicians in that room – four drummers notwithstanding. I really don't know how we got anything out of that." He pauses to consider the record's reception. Released just after a much-publicized health scare, the album's doomy lyrics were widely taken as a musical wrestling match with the angel of death. "I mean, it was perceived as me being some chronic invalid, or crawling on bleeding knees. But that was never the case." I mention that some are already describing the new album as the third in a trilogy, beginning with Time Out of Mind. Dylan demurs: "Time Out of Mind was me getting back in and fighting my way out of the corner. But by the time I made Love and Theft, I was out of the corner. On this record, I ain't nowhere, you can't find me anywhere, because I'm way gone from the corner." He still toys with the notion I've put before him. "I would think more of Love and Theft as the beginning of a trilogy, if there's going to be a trilogy." Then swiftly gives himself an out: "If I decide I want to go back into the studio."

In a day of circular talk we've circled back to the new record, and I venture to ask him again about certain motifs. Modern Times shades Love and Theft's jocular, affectionate vibe into more ominous territory, the language of murder ballads and Edgar Allan Poe: foes and slaughter, haunted gardens and ghosts. Old blues and ballads are quoted liberally, like second nature. "I didn't feel limited this time, or I felt limited in the way that you want to narrow your scope down, you don't want to muddle things up, you want every line to be clear and every line to be purposeful. This is the way I feel someplace in me, in my genealogy – a lot of us don't have the murderous instinct, but we wouldn't mind having the license to kill. I just let the lyrics go, and when I was singing them, they seemed to have an ancient presence." Dylan seems to feel he dwells in a body haunted like a house by his bardlike musical precursors. "Those songs are just in my genes, and I couldn't stop them comin' out. In a reincarnative kind of way, maybe. The songs have got some kind of a pedigree to them. But that pedigree stuff, that only works so far. You can go back to the ten-hundreds, and people only had one name. Nobody's gonna tell you they're going to go back further than when people had one name." This reply puts an effective end to my connect-the-dots queries about his musical influences. I tell him that despite the talk of enemies, I found in the new record a generosity of spirit, even a sense of acceptance. He consents, barely. "Yeah. You got to accept it yourself before you can expect anybody else to accept it. And in the long run, it's merely a record. Lyrics go by quick."

When all is said and done, Bob Dylan is keen that I understand where he's coming from, and for me to understand that, I have to grasp what he saw in the artists who went before him. "If you think about all the artists that recorded in the Forties and the Thirties, and in the Fifties, you had big bands, sure, but they were the vision of one man – I mean, the Duke Ellington band was the vision of one man, the Louis Armstrong band, it was the individual voice of Louis Armstrong. And going into all the rhythm & blues stuff, and the rockabilly stuff, the stuff that trained me to do what I do, that was all individually based. That was what you heard – the individual crying in the wilderness. So that's kind of lost too. I mean, who's the last individual performer that you can think of – Elton John, maybe? I'm talking about artists with the willpower not to conform to anybody's reality but their own. Patsy Cline and Billy Lee Riley. Plato and Socrates, Whitman and Emerson. Slim Harpo and Donald Trump. It's a lost art form. I don't know who else does it beside myself, to tell you the truth." Is he satisfied? "I always wanted to stop when I was on tap. I didn't want to fade away. I didn't want to be a has-been, I wanted to be somebody who'd never be forgotten. I feel that, one way or another, it's OK now, I've done what I wanted for myself." These remarks, it should be noted, are yet another occasion for laughter. "I see that I could stop touring at any time, but then, I don't really feel like it right now." Short of promising the third part of the trilogy-in-progress, this is good enough-news for me. May the Never Ending Tour never end. "I think I'm in my middle years now," Bob Dylan tells me. "I've got no retirement plans."

* FOOTNOTE: So what's Bob Dylan's favorite baseball team, anyway? "The problem with baseball teams is all the players get traded, and what your favorite team used to be – a couple of guys you really lifted on the team, they're not on the team now – and you can't possibly make that team your favorite team. It's like your favorite uniform. I mean . . . yeah . . . I like Detroit. Though I like Ozzie [Guillen] as a manager. And I don't know how anybody can't like Derek [Jeter]. I'd rather have him on my team than anybody."

This story is from the September 7th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.


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