The Legend of Bob Dylan

[Originally published in TIME magazine Monday, Sept. 17, 2001]

By Christopher John Farley

Bob Dylan is flipping through his own back pages. He has finally started writing an autobiography. It began as liner notes for rereleases of his back-catalog albums; he has finished about 200 pages, or perhaps 150–he’s not exactly certain. “My retrievable memory, it goes blank on incidents and things that have happened,” says Dylan. He has trouble, sometimes, remembering events from decades past, when he was conjuring up albums like Highway 61 Revisited and unleashing songs like Maggie’s Farm. So he is collecting anecdotes about himself that other people have told and weaving them into his narrative. Here’s the touch that’s pure Dylan: even if he knows a tale isn’t factual, if it sounds good, he’ll use it anyway. “I’ll take some of the stuff that people think is true,” he says, “and I’ll build a story around that.”

Here’s one story that is true: Dylan is back. Not sort of back, making music that starstruck critics feel compelled to applaud just because Dylan’s the guy who plugged in at Newport, or because he’s the visionary who wrote Like a Rolling Stone, or even because he’s the man who first declared that The Times They Are A-Changin’. He’s all the way back–so far back he’s up front–once again making music that’s worth talking about, not because of what he did 10,000 yesterdays ago but because of what he’s doing today. His new album, Love and Theft (Columbia), his 43rd release, is charged with rollickingly good music and enlivened with some of the best lyrics Dylan has spun out in decades.

The story goes like this: a ’60s icon, a touring firebrand in the ’70s, slows to a grind in the late ’80s and, amid reports of his drinking too much and caring too little, loses all touch with his muse in the early ’90s. Then comes the acclaimed album Time Out of Mind in 1997, a Grammy in 1998 (his first for best album), an Oscar for best song (another first) in 2001 and worldwide celebration and plaudits on the occasion of his 60th birthday, which took place on May 24 of this year. “Well, you know, I stopped counting after 40,” says Dylan. “I’m sure you would too.” He says he has got past the heart ailment he had in 1997, and is feeling fit. He adds, smiling, “A day above the ground is a good day.”

But that’s just part of the story. The tale could have ended like this: it was 1987 and Dylan was about to embark on a tour with the Grateful Dead when he decided to quit the music business. At that point, he had been mailing in his performances for years; he had even hired backup singers to distract audiences from the tired ruin of his voice. He couldn’t even remember the lyrics to his best, most challenging songs, like Desolation Row and Queen Jane Approximately; what’s more, he didn’t want to remember them. “I’d become a different person since I’d written them,” Dylan recalls, “and, frankly, they mystified me.” The members of the Grateful Dead, however, loved the old songs and wanted to play some of them with Dylan. The realization that he had grown so estranged from his art drove Dylan to despair. “At that point, I was just going to get out of it and everything that entails,” he says.

Then came an epiphany. He was in California with the Dead, practicing for the tour, when he saw a group of younger performers in a club. They were playing middle-of-the-road jazz standards, but they had a youthful energy. Says Dylan: “I suddenly realized, you know, years ago when I was young, whenever it was that I started out, I knew these kind of guys.” He resolved to reconnect to his music. A few not-so-great albums followed, such as World Gone Wrong, but eventually Dylan found his path and released Time Out of Mind, and now Love and Theft. The end.

If this sounds a little apocryphal, that’s part of the story too since Dylan–born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn.–has revised and reinvented his past from the very start of his career. On Summer Days, a track from Love and Theft, he sings, “She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past.’ I say, ‘You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can!'” Dylan talks like he sings, in that ancient lilting rasp, stressing unexpected syllables, mesmerizing with folky cadences, loping along somewhere between conversation and caterwauling. All the compositions on Love and Theft are autobiographical, he says. “Yeah, all of ‘em. Every single one, every line. It’s completely autobiographical, as most of my stuff usually is on one level or another.”

Indeed, Love and Theft is an album of memories, of old genres and antique grooves. The songs have a sense of history and a sense of discovery; hearing them is like finding a stack of vintage records in an old uncle’s attic. The opening track, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, churns to a boogie-woogie-ish beat; the radiant Moonlight evokes Tin Pan Alley crooning and Western swing; and on the song High Water, Dylan pays tribute to blues pioneer Charley Patton. “All my songs, the styles I work in, were all developed before I was born,” says Dylan. “When I came into the world, that spirit of things was still very strong. Billie Holiday was still alive. Duke Ellington. All those old blues singers were still alive. And I met and played with many of them. I learned a whole bunch of stuff from them. And that was the music that was dear to me. I was never really interested in pop music.”

While the lyrics on Time Out of Mind are stark and dreary (the first line on the album is “I’m walking through streets that are dead”), the lyrics on Love and Theft are vibrant and visionary, loose-limbed and jokey. On Cry a While, Dylan actually uses the phrase “booty call”; on Po’ Boy, he tells a knock-knock joke. On Mississippi, he summons up his old outsider spirit, singing, “I was raised in the country, I been workin’ in the town/I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.” But on Summer Days, he acknowledges that things have changed for the old rebel icon: “Well I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car/the girls all say, ‘You’re a worn-out star.'” Says Dylan: “I heard somebody say that to me.”

Dylan’s relationships with women have often been the subject of scrutiny, both in his lyrics and in the media. “There ain’t no limit to the amount of trouble women bring,” he sings on Sugar Baby, the last track on Love and Theft. In 1977 he went through a messy divorce from his first wife, Sara Lowndes. (One of their five children, Jakob, has gone on to become a rock star with his band the Wallflowers.) A book that came out this year, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes, revealed that in 1986, Dylan had a child with one of his backup singers, Carolyn Dennis, and later married her. Although they are divorced, Dylan says he never tried to conceal the relationship. “It’s not private to me,” he says. “I’ve never tried to hide anything. I mean, not that I know of. I don’t have any skeletons that I don’t want anybody to see.” Speaking about Dennis publicly for the first time, he says she is “a fantastic singer. She’s a gospel singer mainly. One of her uncles was Blind Willie Johnson. What more do you need to know about somebody?” Dylan’s daughter with Dennis is in her teens and apparently doesn’t share her father’s musical tastes. Says Dylan: “I get in fights with her if I talk about music.”

Dylan, in fact, hates most modern music. “The radio makes hideous sounds,” he says. He thinks Beck, the folk/rock/hip-hop singer-songwriter who is often compared with him, should focus: “You just can’t be that good at everything you touch.” He hasn’t really listened to Eminem’s work–when it comes to rap, he prefers the Roots–but he says, “I almost feel like if anything is controversial, the guy’s gotta be doing something right.” Among the few contemporary acts that excite him is jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. “She is one of my favorite singers today,” says Dylan. “I heard her version of Death Letter Blues–gave me the chills. I love everything she does.” He says he would like to see her cover some of his songs.

Meanwhile, the old man is doing just fine performing his own work. He plays about 120 dates a year, and in recent years his shows have become stronger than they have been in decades. His set lists change as constantly as the weather, and his live song interpretations often differ radically from their recorded versions. Dylan is wandering around his history, making changes as he sees fit. The veteran folk-rocker says his inspiration comes directly from God. “I’ve had a God-given sense of destiny,” says Dylan. “This is what I was put on earth to do. Just like Shakespeare was gonna write his plays, the Wright brothers were gonna invent an airplane, like Edison was gonna invent a telephone, I was put here to do this. I knew I was gonna do it better than anybody ever did it.” Well, actually, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But who says you can’t remake the past?

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