Tonight on the bus, just out of Madison, Dylan is much less at ease. He looks like a street person--as drained as he appeared on last year's Grammy telecast, as he waits for someone to bring him whiskey and coffee, trying to separate himself from the frustrations of the night.
The music, however, is not off-limits. He is intrigued by a comparison between the message of "I Believe in You" and the speech he had delivered at the Grammy Awards. "It's possible to be so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you," he had said that night. "And if this happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your own ways."
When the reporter tells him that the song and speech both seemed to be about the need to be true to one's own beliefs, Dylan responds easily. "That song is just about overcoming hardship," he volunteers. "Songs are mostly personal--something happens in your life or flashes through and then it's gone, and sometimes it's a song and sometimes it's just lost. Sometimes things works, sometimes they don't."
These days, he says, they don't more often than they do. At one point in the conversation, he pulls a notebook from his jacket and starts scribbling. "It's a song I'm workin' on," he offers, and then adds: "Part of the secret of being a songwriter is to have an audacious attitude. There was a time when the songs would come three or four at the same time, but those days are long gone."
It's a delicate topic, but Dylan continues.
"Once in a while, the odd song will come to me like a bulldog at the garden gate and demand to be written. But most of them are rejected out of my mind right away. You get caught up in wondering if anyone really needs to hear it. Maybe a person gets to the point where they have written enough songs. Let someone else write them." Still, he writes enough for a new album every couple of years, and some--including 1989's "Oh Mercy"--are widely acclaimed.
He shrugs at the mention of all the "new Dylans" who have been touted over the years--displaying a rare flash of pride.
"That's never been a worry," he says. "There wasn't anybody doing my thing--though I'm not saying it was all that great. It was just mine and no one was going to cover that territory. No one frames language with that same sense of rhyme. It's my thing, just like no one writes a sad song like Hank Williams or no one writes a bitter song like Willie Nelson. My thing is the forming of the lines."
Dylan is loose now. He's not letting the questions go unanswered. He could easily say he was tired and call an end to the discussion. But he is leaning back on the seat, involved in the conversation rather than fencing. Like most songwriters, he doesn't like to dissect his material, but he agrees to give his opinion about some of the reporter's favorite Dylan songs.
He nods when "Every Grain of Sand" is mentioned.
"That's an excellent song, very painless song to write," he says without hesitation. "It took like 12 seconds--or that's how it felt."
He doesn't seem as enthusiastic at the mention of "Tangled Up in Blue," one of his most-performed post-'60s songs. "I always thought it was written too fast, too rushed. Sometimes that happens in a song--just too many lines, as if I were racing to get from here to there."
Dylan nods again at the mention of "Just Like a Woman."
"That's a hard song to pin down," he says. "It's another one of those that you can sing a thousand times and still ask what is it about, but you know there's a real feeling there."
Dylan pauses, as if suddenly self-conscious.
"I'm not trying to say any of these are great songs--that they'd be high up on a list of all the songs ever written."
His answers become increasingly short at the mention of other, older songs, but he does comment on the large number of love songs on the critic's list as opposed to the political songs that earned him his greatest fame in the '60s.
"They call a lot of my songs political songs, but they never really were about politicians," Dylan says, lighting a cigarette. "The politicians don't make a difference. It's the businessmen behind them."