Jonathan Lethem – “The Genius of Bob Dylan” (2006)

September 5, 2009 at 9:07 am (Bob Dylan, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Interesting article from the Sept. 7, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone (#1008), around the time of the release of Modern Times.
The ever mercurial, ever fascinating Bob Dylan…


The legend comes to grips with his iconic status; an intimate conversation prior to the release of the new Modern Times.


“I don’t really have a herd of astrologers telling me what’s going to happen. I just make one move after the other, this leads to that.” Is the voice familiar? I’m sitting in a Santa Monica seaside hotel suite, ignoring a tray of sliced pineapple and sugar-dusty cookies, while Bob Dylan sits across from my tape recorder, giving his best to my questions. The man before me is fitful in his chair, not impatient, but keenly alive to the moment, and ready on a dime to make me laugh and to laugh himself. The expressions on Dylan’s face, in person, seem to compress and encompass versions of his persona across time, a sixty-five-year-old with a nineteen-year-old cavorting somewhere inside. Above all, though, it is the tones of his speaking voice that seem to kaleidoscope through time: here the yelp of the folk pup or the sarcastic rimshot timing of the hounded hipster-idol, there the beguilement of the Seventies sex symbol, then again – and always – the gravel of the elder statesman, that antediluvian bluesman’s voice the young aspirant so legendarily invoked at the very outset of his work and then ever so gradually aged into.

It’s that voice, the voice of a rogue ageless in decrepitude, that grounds the paradox of the achievement of Modern Times, his thirty-first studio album. Are these our “modern times,” or some ancient, silent-movie dream, a fugue in black-and-white? Modern Times, like Love and Theft and Time Out of Mind before it, seems to survey a broken world through the prism of a heart that’s worn and worldly, yet decidedly unbroken itself. “I been sitting down studying the art of love/I think it will fit me like a glove,” he states in “Thunder on the Mountain,” the opening song, a rollicking blues you’ve heard a million times before and yet which magically seems to announce yet another “new” Dylan. “I feel like my soul is beginning to expand,” the song declares. “Look into my heart and you will sort of understand.”

What we do understand, if we’re listening, is that we’re three albums into a Dylan renaissance that’s sounding more and more like a period to put beside any in his work. If, beginning with Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan garbed his amphetamine visions in the gloriously grungy clothes of the electric blues and early rock & roll, the musical glories of these three records are grounded in a knowledge of the blues built from the inside out – a knowledge that includes the fact that the early blues and its players were stranger than any purist would have you know, hardly restricting themselves to twelve-bar laments but featuring narrative recitations, spirituals, X-rated ditties, popular ballads and more. Dylan offers us nourishment from the root cellar of American cultural life. For an amnesiac society, that’s arguably as mind-expanding an offering as anything in his Sixties work. And with each succeeding record, Dylan’s convergence with his muses grows more effortlessly natural.

How does he summon such an eternal authority? “I’d make this record no matter what was going on in the world,” Dylan tells me. “I wrote these songs in not a meditative state at all, but more like in a trancelike, hypnotic state. This is how I feel? Why do I feel like that? And who’s the me that feels this way? I couldn’t tell you that, either. But I know that those songs are just in my genes and I couldn’t stop them comin’ out.” This isn’t to say Modern Times, or Dylan, seems oblivious to the present moment. The record is littered – or should I say baited? – with glinting references to world events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, though anyone seeking a moral, to paraphrase Mark Twain, should be shot. And, as if to startle the contemporary listener out of any delusion that Dylan’s musical drift into pre-rock forms – blues, ragtime, rockabilly – is the mark of a nostalgist, “Thunder on the Mountain” also name-checks a certain contemporary singer: “I was thinking ’bout Alicia Keys, I couldn’t keep from crying/While she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was livin’ down the line.” When I ask Dylan what Keys did “to get into your pantheon,” he only chuckles at my precious question. “I remember seeing her on the Grammys. I think I was on the show with her, I didn’t meet her or anything. But I said to myself, ‘There’s nothing about that girl I don’t like.'”


Rather than analyzing lyrics, Dylan prefers to linger over the songs as artifacts of music and describes the process of their making. As in other instances, stretching back to 1974’s Planet Waves, 1978’s Street Legal and 2001’s Love and Theft, the singer and performer known for his love-hate affair with the recording studio – “I don’t like to make records,” he tells me simply. “I do it reluctantly” – has cut his new album with his touring band. And Dylan himself is the record’s producer, credited under the nom-de-studio Jack Frost. “I didn’t feel like I wanted to be overproduced any more,” he tells me. “I felt like I’ve always produced my own records anyway, except I just had someone there in the way. I feel like nobody’s gonna know how I should sound except me anyway, nobody knows what they want out of players except me, nobody can tell a player what he’s doing wrong, nobody can find a player who can play but he’s not playing, like I can. I can do that in my sleep.”

As ever, Dylan is circling, defining what he is first by what he isn’t, by what he doesn’t want, doesn’t like, doesn’t need, locating meaning by a process of elimination. This rhetorical strategy goes back at least as far as “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “All I Really Want to Do” (“I ain’t looking to compete with you,” etc.), and it still has plenty of real juice in it. When Dylan arrives at a positive assertion out of the wilderness of so much doubt, it takes on the force of a jubilant boast. “This is the best band I’ve ever been in, I’ve ever had, man for man. When you play with guys a hundred times a year, you know what you can and can’t do, what they’re good at, whether you want ’em there. It takes a long time to find a band of individual players. Most bands are gangs. Whether it’s a metal group or pop rock, whatever, you get that gang mentality. But for those of us who went back further, gangs were the mob. The gang was not what anybody aspired to. On this record I didn’t have anybody to teach. I got guys now in my band, they can whip up anything, they surprise even me.” Dylan’s cadences take on the quality of an impromptu recitation, replete with internal rhyme schemes, such that when I later transcribe this tape I’ll find myself tempted to set the words on the page in the form of a lyric. “I knew this time it wouldn’t be futile writing something I really love and thought dearly of, and then gettin’ in the studio and having it be beaten up and whacked around and come out with some kind of incoherent thing which didn’t have any resonance. With that, I was awake. I felt freed up to do just about anything I pleased.”

But getting the band of his dreams into the studio was only half the battle. “The records I used to listen to and still love, you can’t make a record that sounds that way,” he explains. It is as if having taken his new material down to the crossroads of the recording studio Dylan isn’t wholly sure the deal struck with the devil there was worth it. “Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today. We all like records that are played on record players, but let’s face it, those days are gon-n-n-e. You do the best you can, you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like – static. Even these songs probably sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded ’em. CDs are small. There’s no stature to it. I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, ‘Everybody’s gettin’ music for free.’ I was like, ‘Well, why not? It ain’t worth nothing anyway.'”…


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.”

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?”


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 yet 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.”

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 Al 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.

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 lo 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 top. 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 liked 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.”  

Jonathan Lethem


1 Comment

  1. Francesca said,

    Wow. Really inspiring and well written article. Thankyou. Dylan inspires me to have confidence in my own voice. His songs make me feel more alive and hopeful than anything else in the world.

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