It may be Bob Dylan’s greatest achievement to seem impenetrable even when engaged in the utterly ordinary. “Enigmatic like a fox,” the New York Times called him in its review of his September 14th TV special, and that about sums it up.
In the last two and a half years, Dylan has revived his career with the finesse of P.T. Barnum. The soundtrack from Hard Rain is his sixth album (counting the belated issue of The Basement Tapes) in 30 months, a feat which even a notorious overachiever like Elton John can’t match. Dylan is now rock’s most prolific performer, as well as its greatest.
The temptation is great to seek a motive, or at least an excuse, for this unprecedented outpouring and especially this first full-scale Dylan TV show. But the answer is hardly elusive. No one finds the motives for the recent Beach Boys TV special mysterious, nor is it considered strange when Paul Simon hosts Saturday Night, or when the Rolling Stones tape a song or two for Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. They’re simply plugging new records for the biggest audience available, doing what they like to do best in the most lucrative way. Dylan is not so very different—if he is only half as spontaneous as his adulators would like to believe, he is certainly twice as shrewd. Desire, after all, is his all-time best seller, partly because touring gave it so much exposure. So, Dylan appeared on television when it stopped seeming a big deal for Bob Dylan to appear on television. Having made that decision, he turned his considerable commercial genius to making it work.
His sponsor, Craig Corporation, turned in the most remarkably erotic series of commercials ever seen on TV. His record company prepared a soundtrack album of the event. And Dylan, having taken the first step, dove in: he granted an interview, that most elusive of all his favors, to TV Guide, the country’s largest circulation magazine.
TV Guide‘s interview was done by its star staffer, Neil Hickey, who is obviously more comfortable with Roone Arledge and Norman Lear. Indeed, this profile takes the measure of Dylan’s canniness, for Dylan is in complete control, even managing to slip in a hello to his mom like a Let’s Make a Deal contestant. And Dylan, with typical perversity, chose to make his most straightforward comments in years. He skillfully avoids letting the words “Jimmy Carter” cross his lips. He admits reading Rimbaud, Melville, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad; acknowledges quite bluntly his fascination with his own Jewishness; even goes so far as to call John Wesley Harding “the first Biblical rock album”! (Maybe he read the reviews?) He even corrects himself when he uses a double negative, which ought to give grammarians around the country cause to rejoice.
Hickey lets most of this slide by. He wants to know how Dylan imagines God. Dylan, in reply, offers a marvelous non sequitur: “… It must be wonderful to be God.” Indeed.
It would have taken a truly tedious program to mar such an enviable display of self-promotion; and at times it came close. All the action, the production company seemed to think, was in head-and-fingerboard shots, the height of TV-rock monotony; the best visuals, aside from Craig’s “slip it in” commercials, were found on the stage scrim, painted by Dylan and Bobby Neuwirth.
At first, the music seemed the worst of it. Joan Baez, whose red turban suggested Bloomingdale’s more strongly than Big Sur, was an abject failure, playing Jerome to Dylan’s Bo Diddley. Even a rocking “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” seemed more incessant than incandescent.
But “Shelter from the Storm,” with Dylan singing alone, had a spark that ignited the rest of the program. Dylan, fighting his red Fender as of old, suddenly looked as though he and his headdress were auditioning for a role as a crazed Palestinian terrorist on the CBS Entebbe special next door. The sound, driven by Howie Wyeth’s dance-beat drumming, had the electricity of the Band with none of their calculation. And Dylan, singing as though he still finds the most music in the strangest clashes of syllables, took his songs past interpretation without making them meaningless—with “One Too Many Mornings” and “Mozambique,” particularly, the whole message was style. Here was Dylan with fire in his eyes and cold blood in his voice, an air of simultaneous majesty and humility that has not been seen in years. For once, you could watch him and see something other than a master changeling. This was music from the heart, and it opened to reveal nothing less than a rock & roller to the core. If that’s what you came for — and what else? — the rest hardly mattered.