BOB DYLAN--STILL A-CHANGIN’
Maybe it’s because he didn’t do interviews at all for years, or maybe it’s just that he’s the most important songwriter of the modern pop era, but I can’t imagine passing up the chance to talk to Bob Dylan--even if strings are attached.
The interview invitation from Columbia Records suggested that Dylan only wanted to discuss his latest albums: “Empire Burlesque,” the studio collection from last summer, and “Biograph,” the ambitious retrospective set that just hit the stores.
Dylan himself, however, quickly cut the strings. He showed little interest in those subjects as he sat on a chair in the backyard of his Malibu home.
“The new releases . . .?” Dylan asked, almost sheepishly.
“I hope you don’t make this look like some carny trying to hawk his records. I don’t know if you even want to hit on the records. When people think of me, they are not necessarily going to buy the latest record anyway. They may buy a record from years ago. Besides, I don’t think interviews sell records.”
So why did Dylan agree to a series of interviews, including his first formal network TV interview (for “20/20")?
“I really haven’t had that much connection or conversation (over the years) with the people at Columbia,” he said, referring to his record label for most of two decades. “Usually, I turn in my records . . . and they release them. But they really liked this record (“Empire Burlesque”), so they asked me to do some more videos and a few interviews to draw attention to it.
“But that doesn’t mean I want to sit around and talk about the record. I haven’t even listened to (“Empire”) since it came out. I’d rather spend my time working on new songs or listen to other people’s records. Have you heard that new Hank Williams album . . . the collection of old demo tapes? It’s great.”
Reviews for “Empire Burlesque” were mostly positive, but sales quickly leveled off. A recent live video of “Emotionally Yours” failed to revive it.
“Biograph,” however, is a long-awaited five-record set that includes 21 selections never before available on an album, plus 32 digitally remastered versions of previously released tracks. The project has been rumored for years, but the release was held up to avoid conflicting with other Dylan works. (Dylan student and collector Reid Kopel has reservations about the set, but gives it generally high marks. See Page 62.)
About the project, Dylan said: “Columbia wanted to put out a (retrospective) album on me a few years ago. They had pulled out everything (from earlier albums) that could be classified as love songs and had it on one collection. I didn’t care one way or another, but I had a new record coming out, so I asked them not to do it then.
“I guess it’s OK for someone who has never heard of me and is looking for a crash course or something. But I’ve got a lot of stuff that is lying around all over the place in cassette recorders that I’d put out if I was putting the set together.”
One thing about “Biograph” that does please Dylan is a 36-page booklet written by Cameron Crowe, who did numerous Rolling Stone magazine profiles and wrote the film, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The text is a brief, affectionate look at Dylan’s life, with generous quotes from the songwriter.
The most interesting part of the liner notes is Dylan’s reflections on the songs. Though he has tended to avoid discussing his work, he commented freely this time on both the development and themes of several of the songs in the LP.
About his celebrated “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” for instance, he remarked in the liner notes: “This was definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to write and for whom. . . . I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, ya know, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. . . .”
On “Forever Young,” perhaps the most recorded of all Dylan’s post-'60s songs: “I wrote (it) . . . thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental. The lines came to me, they were done in a minute . . . the song wrote itself.”
Dylan, 44, isn’t being open just to the press these days. For years, he has tended to be isolated even when doing a guest spot on a benefit concert--avoiding photographers and, often, other artists backstage by arriving just before showtime and leaving quickly after the last number.
At September’s Farm Aid concert at the University of Illinois, however, he was almost leisurely--hanging out with Tom Petty, whose band backed him on the show, and chatting with other performers, including Randy Newman, Lou Reed and Emmylou Harris. Normally camera-shy, Dylan didn’t even turn away when a TV crew and a few photographers pointed their lenses at him as he sat on steps outside his dressing room trailer.
One reason for the naturalness, a backstage observer joked at Farm Aid, was that Dylan wanted to prove--after his disastrously spacey performance with the Stones’ Keith Richards and Ron Wood at Live Aid--that he still had his faculties.
“Yeah,” Dylan grumped about last summer’s Live Aid concert in Philadelphia. “They screwed around with us. We didn’t even have any (sound) monitors out there. When they threw in the grand finale at the last moment, they took all the settings off and set the stage up for the 30 people who were standing behind the curtain. We couldn’t even hear own voices (out front) and when you can’t hear, you can’t play . . . you don’t have any timing. It’s like proceeding on radar.”
Dylan’s Malibu house, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, is quite secluded, and a guard shack at the only entrance to the property keeps the curious away. The atmosphere is rural: A dirt driveway runs through the property, and lots of small animals, including chickens and a couple of large dogs, roam around.
On this cool afternoon, Dylan was wearing the same outfit that he’s always seemed to be wearing in recent years: jeans that looked as if they were ready for the hamper, a wrinkled T-shirt and motorcycle boots. Except for Europe last year, he hasn’t toured much in the ‘80s. Still, he is on the road so much--Minnesota, New York, London or some more isolated, exotic places--that he doesn’t really call any place home.
“I’m just not the kind of person who seems to be able to settle down,” he said as two dogs edged against his chair. “If I’m in L.A. for, say, two months, I’ll be in the studio for maybe a month out of that time, putting down ideas for songs.
“On the other days, I’m usually recuperating from being in the studio. I usually stay in a long time . . . all night, part of the day. Then, I’ll go off to New York or London and do the same thing. I’m going to London soon to work on some stuff with Dave Stewart.”
Stewart, the co-leader of Eurythmics, joined Dylan on guitar on the “Emotionally Yours” video.
Dylan expects to concentrate on performance videos because he has not been pleased with the concept clips based upon his songs--either the arty “Jokerman” video or more conventional narrative of “Tight Connection.”
He’d probably just as soon not do a video at all, but realizes their importance in the marketplace.
“It used to be that people would buy a record if they liked what they heard on the radio, but video has changed a lot of that,” he said. “If someone comes along now with a new song, people talk about, ‘Well, what does it look like?’ It is like, ‘I saw this new song.’ ”
He also suggested wryly that the controversial new system of putting stickers on records to warn parents about explicit material may also end up as a factor that teen-agers will consider in buying records.
“They (the stickers) will just mean more people are going to buy the records,” he said. “The thing that would bother me is if theylabel (a record) subversive or un-American. Those things do matter. As a parent, I was more concerned with what (kids) saw on television than what they heard on a record. There’s almost nothing you can see on TV that means a thing. It’s for morons. It’s just putting your brain to sleep. I may have been part of the last generation to grow up without any television. It was only on three hours a day where I lived when I was growing up.”
Dylan, whose influence on Bruce Springsteen has been widely cited by critics, declined to discuss Springsteen at length, except to say he related to much of the “Nebraska” album, and seemed amused by Springsteen’s image.
“It’s funny how people refer to Bruce as the Boss,” Dylan noted. “Ten years ago, the boss was a dreaded figure--the guy you punch your time clock for or that you inhale oil into your lungs for . . . someone you can never get out from under his thumb. So, all of a sudden Bruce is the Boss and it’s a lovable figure. It’s strange.”
One continuing question involving Dylan is his much-publicized “born-again” Christian phase. He has said he doesn’t like the term born again , and his music has moved away from the aggressive dogma of the “Slow Train Coming” album. But Dylan still refuses to define his exact religious stance.
Asked about the issue, his only reply was: “I feel like pretty soon I am going to write about that. I feel like I’ve got something to say . . . but more than you can say in a few paragraphs in a newspaper.”
But he did smile at the mention of the hostile reactions generated during his “born-again” Christian tours of 1979 and 1980. “If you make people jump on any level, I think it is worthwhile because people are so asleep.”
Beyond music, Dylan’s special interest these days is art. He maintains an artist’s studio behind the main house and showed off his character sketches with the nervous excitement of a proud parent. He hopes to put them in a book and write something to go with each drawing. Dylan’s also thinking about a book of short stories. “That may sound presumptuous,” he said, “but there is a lot of things I’d like to say that I can’t say in songs.”
Regarding his continued energy, he said: “It’s kinda funny. . . . When I see my name anywhere, it’s (often) ‘the ‘60s this or the ‘60s that.’ I can’t figure out sometimes if people think I’m dead or alive.
“But I’m not through. . . .”
This man, who has been hounded, dissected, idolized and ridiculed over the years, stepped outside the studio. The sun had set and the dogs raced over to him. He paused--as if searching for a summary statement.
“I’ve had some personal ups and downs, but usually things have been pretty good for me,” he finally said. “I don’t feel old, but I remember in my 20s (when) I’d think about people in their 30s as old. The thing I really notice now is time .
“Things used to go a lot slower. . . . The days (now) go by so very fast. But I’ve never felt numb (about life). There is something about the chords, the sound of them that makes you feel alive. As long as you can play music, I believe, you’ll feel alive.”