So I’m sitting in a hotel room in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, surfing Bob Dylan interviews on YouTube going back fifty years, and here comes 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley in 2005 asking the singer the same benighted questions they asked him in 1966. He goes on and on, he won’t shut up. “Why didn’t you see your songs as the voice of your generation like everyone else did? Your view of them is diametrically opposed to everyone else’s.”
Dylan, dismayed, mumbles, “Isn’t that something…”
A top-tier media sharpie, clueless before our greatest pop artist. Even after adoring Dylan for 40 years and reading his book, Bradley can’t grasp that Dylan will not accept labels and more, that his sensitivity to tragedy and injustice didn’t make him a political operative. Hell yes, he was the voice of his generation, and more than that, but that’s not for him to judge. That crown bore only false responsibility for Dylan. What was he supposed to do in the days of his youth – lead a march on Washington every week until the masters of war surrendered? Could he have prevented the destruction of the New Left by its own bourgeois roots or healed the addiction to worldly pleasures that gave us the Eagles, the Me Generation and Madonna’s hippie kill-shot, “Material Girl?” Could he have somehow busted into the recording studio and stopped Olivia Newton-John from recording “Have You Never Been Mellow?”
The week before, I’d seen Bonnie Raitt and the magnificent Delores Huerta talking about the old days – the farm workers strike, the anti-war movement, remembering the fervor, the militancy, the struggles, the defeats and victories. Today the unions have been deep-sixed along with the entire American economy. Now young Afghan boys collecting wood for the winter die on a hillside as American air force video-gamers decide they are Taliban and in cowardly high-tech fashion shoot them to pieces from the air. Just another atrocity. In the Raitt/Huerta documentary, they flashed a shot of a virginal Bob Dylan on the protest trail, leaning in to harmonize with Joan Baez. It did make me wonder– what if the boy came back? What if he shed his embroidered black cowboy suit and shaved off the stiletto moustache and showed up in front of the Capitol Building on Monday morning in a work shirt?
But no, he was not born to rescue us from ourselves. His failures are ours, his successes his own. We thought him a revolutionary, but he’s a quintessential American, a born individualist not given to sacrificing his passions for some collective good. Or, in his own words,
I did all I could, I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed, no need to confess again
In the Bradley interview, I was struck by Dylan’s inability – it seemed more than an unwillingness – to help Bradley get it. He could have said, “Look, if I accepted the social activist role I could never have written Like a Rolling Stone. A songwriter touched by that magic had to move on, like a surfer riding a gargantuan wave he never imagined possible.” He could say, “look, the artistic experience doesn’t really belong to this world, certainly not to your world.”
Or maybe he is capable of analyzing and explaining, but is always so irritated by interviewer density that he just blows it off. Maybe he feels like that scientific genius who was asked, “Do you ever wonder why you were born so brilliant?” The fellow answered, in all innocence, “No, I wondered why everyone else was so stupid.”
Bradley never asks him about the newest albums, the incomparable voice and the terrific, soulful musicians he surrounds himself with. His new players are kick-ass, flaming blues/rock gunslingers, and his sandpaper voice on albums like “Modern Times,” and “Love and Theft,” is at once delicious, abrasive, dissolute and deadly. The rhythm section is so tight it puts the hurdy-gurdy, out-of-tune guitars in “Bringing It All Back Home” to shame. His “Summer Nights Are Gone” is so filled with joy and rocks so hard you want to hug the old man.
The old man? Yes, for people as old as forty, he is just this old guy, what Woody Guthrie was in the 60s, a grizzled relic from a legendary time. But if you showed up on Earth before 1955, the aging of this man seems unreal, something painted on. He’s not really old, you think. He’s got some wrinkles around his eyes, that’s all. To fans like me, relics ourselves, Dylan’s geezery voice seems, like all his others, something he’s conjured up, just another new instrument he devised and is now admiring in an aural mirror. There are a few singers with this capacity. David Bowie had several voices. Paul McCartney would baffle you – was that really him, we asked, in “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” Prince picks voices from his larynx like Elton John pulls outfits from his closet.
But Dylan’s wolfish character is far more personal, an aural self-portrait carefully integrated into the sunset images of his songs, an ancient, drunken Odysseus tied to his mast. The sarcastic clarion voice is gone, replaced by something like a sputtering old Buick engine. He used to shout into studio microphones or into the vastness of a dark auditorium. In Chronicles, he wrote of the disaster of losing his sense of voice in the Eighties. Indeed, we’ve all heard him thus on YouTube, cacophonous, nearly unlistenable in concerts, as if he were taunting us. But by the 90s, a new synthesis had emerged. The shouting and wailing is gone. Now he growls into your ear like a tiger passing your door. He sighs, chortles, his voice cracks and breaks like dry toast. In “When The Deal Goes Down,” he nearly cries. This is a voice and a persona at least as astonishing as any he forged in the past. Dylan feels physically closer now. These gravelly albums are his late Beethoven quartets.
If what he writes is less incandescent than the poetry of “Highway 61,” it is not chicken liver. At first, some of it seems pasted-together:
Thunder on the mountain, and there’s fires on the moon
A ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go
This opening and other lyrics in “Modern Times” seem an anarchic hodgepodge of random phrases. But sit down and read the lyrics and somehow they rise to another level. His sardonic voice has, not for the first time, distracted us from the quality of his poetry. In the end he sells it to us with his charm and depth of emotion. Only Dylan could shout out to Alicia Keys and get away with it. It’s as if he knows we love him. He has always known he was loved, in the early days for his visions, his poetry and his fragile physical beauty, even if his voice was a harder sell. Today it is his legacy and longevity we admire. The voice is, as ever, an acquired taste.
In Dylan’s fine “Chronicles, Part I,” you revel in his verbal poetics as he recounts the early development of his intellect and discoveries of literature. The literary beat goes on. Leafing through “The Great Gatsby,” I stumbled on the hero’s assertion that he could revive his old love affair with Daisy: “What do you mean, you can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby says. “Of course you can.” Where had I just heard that?
“She says, ‘you can’t repeat the past.’ I say, ‘you can’t?
What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.’”
Voila! A great line in “Summer Nights.” (Does this mean Dylan, like Mr. Jones, has read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books? That might be a hip question to ask him.)
But Bradley is not through. He inquires, “Can’t you write some songs up to the level of the old days.” Dylan sighs charitably and reminisces:
Darkness at the break of noon,
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
“That was magic,” he says, “where did that come from? Some kind of magic that was.”
In “Chronicles,” Dylan gives a vivid picture of where he came from, an American boy out in the Midwest, listening to and playing the music of the Fifties from Bobby Vee to Chuck Berry. He gigged with Bobby Vee as a teenager. As he talks about later albums and concerts, you grasp that he’s as much musician as musical personality, a musician looking for good sessions with great players that can get him off.
And it’s worth remembering how little dirt attaches to the man. Dylan’s musician-son has praised him as a good and loving father, this legend who carries the laurels of the wild and wooly Sixties on his brow. No Jaggerian or Morrisonian excesses have been uncovered, no hedonistic rampages. He was not Rimbaud, not Hemingway, not a drugged, hostile Miles Davis. His personal issues remain private. That they do speaks to his integrity.
And for that reason, one wonders about plaintive references like “memories that can strangle a man.” He grieves, “Some of these memories you can learn to live with and some of them you can’t,” and we think, that’s true for me, I’ve fucked-up endlessly, but Bob Dylan? Where does the agony come from? Was his divorce twenty years ago that ugly? He says he’s haunted by “things he never meant to say.” Well, “Idiot Wind” might have been over the top, but nobody’s perfect. Somehow, informed by a life-long immersion in American folk and blues music, the cutting insights of his youth have evolved into an exquisite, gutsy sense of human tragedy.
Like Einstein, Dylan produced an incomparable opus in his youth, but the scintillating work Dylan is doing as he hits seventy probably outpaces Albert’s at the same age. It may be a reach to put a singer’s name in the same sentence with a man who transformed the entire cosmos, but what the hell, I just did.
In his latest album, “Together Through Life,” we hear less slam-bam rock, more drifting along dark blues-shaded mountain trails. There’s less of the ribald gaiety of “Summer Days” or “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” and it gives one pause. We envision Bob Dylan – as we envision ourselves – rolling on through the years, but in truth that weather-beaten voice is truly that of an old man, and one must prepare for any album to be his last. The fact is that Bob Dylan (and as far as that goes, we) could leave anytime. And on that day will a great howl go up, like that day in 1980 when John Lennon died and his Tolkien-like age of the earth passed away.
This time it will be less about Beatles and Hobbits, and more about us.