That night in Switzerland,” says Bob Dylan, “it all just came to me. All of a sudden I could sing anything. There might’ve been a time when I was going to quit or retire, but the next day it was like, ‘I can’t really retire now because I really haven’t done anything yet,’ you know? I want to see where this will lead me, because now I can control it all. Before, I wasn’t controlling it. I was just being swept by the wind, this way or that way.”
As Dylan speaks, we are seated at a small table in a comfortable hotel suite, located on the beach at Santa Monica. Dylan is dressed in the sort of country-gentleman finery he has tended to favor in recent years — a nicely stitched white Western shirt and sharp-looking black slacks with arrows embroidered at the edges of the pocket seams. Dylan has been talking about a crucial turning point in his life and art, during the time since Rolling Stone last published a lengthy interview with him in 1992. In several of those years, Dylan produced erratic and mixed-up work — and he is the first to admit it. But increasingly, those years also featured some of the most resourceful and remarkable creativity in Dylan’s forty-year recording and performing career — and that progress, it is only fair to say, was sometimes less noted than it should have been. All that changed in 1997. In that year, Dylan fell sick with a rare fungal infection that caused severe swelling around his heart. It was a painful condition that temporarily debilitated him, and it could have proved fatal. Around the same time as his illness, Dylan finished and soon released his first album of original material in seven years, Time Out of Mind. It was a work unlike any other that Dylan had created – a trek through the unmapped frontier that lies beyond loss and disillusion — and it was heralded as a startling work of renewal. Time Out of Mind went on to win the Grammy for Best Album of the Year — Dylan’s first such honor in that category.
In September, Dylan released another collection of new songs, Love and Theft — his forty-third album. Love and Theft sounds at moments like Dylan is unearthing new revelations with an acerbic wit and impulsive language — in much the same way he did on his early hallmark, Highway 61 Revisited — though Love and Theft also seems to derive from ancient well-springs of American vision and concealment, much like John Wesley Harding or his legendary 1967 Basement Tapes sessions with the Band. Dylan, however, bristles at such comparisons. Love and Theft, as he puts it, plays by its own rules.
The 1980s saw Dylan lose his focus. He mounted widely publicized and well-attended tours with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Grateful Dead — but these were tours in which Dylan seemed to be casting about for a sense of connection and intent. To many observers, Dylan gave the impression that he was adrift. In recent years, he has told the story of an event — a moment of awareness — that came to him onstage in Locarno, Switzerland. He said that a phrase struck him — “I’m determined to stand whether God will deliver me or not” — and in that moment, he realized that it was his vocation to rededicate himself to his music and its performance. Dylan didn’t make any public pronouncements about this realization and how it had changed his purpose as a singer, musician and songwriter. In a low-key yet determined way, Dylan invested himself in his music’s sustaining power perhaps more than ever before. As good as Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft may be, the live shows that Dylan has been playing for years with an evolving, carefully selected band (which presently consists of bassist Tony Garnier, drummer David Kemper, and guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton), make the case that his essential art can be found onstage even more than on record. Indeed, Dylan — who turned sixty this past May — seems to have adopted a viewpoint similar to the one favored by jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis for most of his career: namely, that the truest vital experience of music resides in the moment of its performance, in the living act of its formation and the spontaneous yet hard-earned discoveries that those acts of creation yield. The next time the musicians play the same song, it is not really the same song. It is a new moment and creation, a new possibility, a newfound place on the map, soon to be left behind for the next place. These live shows are the quintessence of Bob Dylan and how he has moved into the new century, bringing with him what he values most from the music of the last century, even as night after night he takes us to unfamiliar and transfixing understandings of what we once thought we knew so well.