Reborn Again

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

In "Time Out of Mind," Bob Dylan's most acclaimed album in 20 years, there are moments that sound like the reflections of a man who is nearing the last rites.

"When you think that you've lost everything, you find out that you could always lose a little more," Dylan sings in one song that summarizes the soul of the album, which, in contrast to the youthful optimism of his landmark '60s works, focuses on love and life at a time when options and expectations have been greatly lowered.

So it's surprising to see the classic songwriter in an upbeat, even playful mood as he sits this evening on a couch in a private room just off the lower lobby of a Santa Monica hotel.

Dylan, 56, has disliked interviews for years because he's always asked to reveal something about his personal life or to interpret his lyrics, whether from one of his socially conscious folk anthems like "Blowin' in the Wind" or a snarling, self-affirming rock anthem such as "Like a Rolling Stone."

Even now, he quickly deflects questions about how much his songs, some of which express bitterness over relationships, are from his own experience.

Yet a smile accompanies his rejoinder, rather than the icy defiance that he once might have shown. "They are songs meant to be sung," he says when pressed on the autobiographical aspect. "I don't know if they are meant to be discussed around the coffee table."

It's easy to see why Dylan is in good spirits. "Time Out of Mind," his first collection of new songs in seven years, was not only hailed by critics, but the album, which entered the pop charts at No. 10 in October, has also already been declared gold (sales of 500,000). It's his first gold studio collection since 1983's "Infidels." The album (his 40th, including retrospectives) brings his total U.S. sales to nearly 31 million.

Dylan, whose songwriting in the '60s revolutionized rock by bringing commentary and literary ambition to a musical form that had chiefly relied simply on attitude and energy, also received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor last Sunday in Washington, D.C. About Dylan, President Clinton said, "He probably had more impact on people of my generation than any other artist."

But it becomes clear during the interview that there is a deeper reason for Dylan's sense of satisfaction--one that grows out of what he describes as the rediscovery in recent years of the self-identity as a performer that he lost during the acclaim and hoopla of his '70s and '80s arena and stadium tours.

"I remember playing shows [with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in the '80s] and looking out [thinking] I didn't have that many fans coming to see me," he says. "They were coming to see Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers."

About that period, he adds, "I was going on my name for a long time, name and reputation, which was about all I had. I had sort of fallen into an amnesia spell. . . . I didn't feel I knew who I was on stage. . . ."

But Dylan says he regained his sense of identity and purpose in the hundreds of concerts he has done in the '90s, an ambitious series of mostly theater dates that has been dubbed by the media the Never Ending Tour. That invigorating experience apparently contributed to the creative outburst in the new album.

On the eve of a sold-out, five-night stand at the El Rey Theatre, Dylan--who says he feels fine after being hospitalized in May for treatment of pericarditis--speaks about the new album, the "missing" years and, gingerly, about the success of his son Jakob's band, the Wallflowers.

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Question: You seem to be in good spirits. Do you think the word "happy" might even apply?

Answer: I think that it's hard to find happiness as a whole in anything. [laughs] The days of tender youth are gone. I think you can be delirious in your youth, but as you get older, things happen. We take our instruction from the media. The media just gloats over tragedy and sin and shame, so why are people supposed to feel any different?

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Q: Some of the words used by critics to describe the songs in the album are . . . brooding, gloomy, misery, wary. Do you see the album that way?

A: I don't know. . . . It's certainly not an album of felicity. . . . I try to live within that line between despondency and hope. I'm suited to walk that line, right between the fire. . . . I see [the album] right straight down the middle of the line, really.

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Q: Why were your two albums before this one simply acoustic songs by other writers? Did it take this long to write these songs?

A: I had written these songs, but . . . I forgot about recording for a while. I didn't feel like I wanted to put forth the effort to record anything. The acoustic albums were easy enough. I was pretty content to let it be that.

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Q: What was different about this album?

A: Part of the--I don't know what you want to call it--maybe the effectiveness of these songs is the fact that they weren't just written and taken into the studio the way so many of my songs have been, where you are stuck with the arrangement, stuck with who's playing on them, stuck with the lyrics. So many of my records were made that way. So many that people elevate on such a high level were in some sense only first drafts of songs, . . . and they have changed over the years. I had lived with these songs long enough to know what I wanted.

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Q: The 16-minute "Highlands" is the highlight of the album. How did that song come about?

A: I had the guitar run off an old Charley Patton record [in his head] for years and always wanted to do something with that. I was sitting around, maybe in the dark Delta or maybe in some unthinkable trench somewhere, with that sound in my mind and the dichotomy of the highlands with that seemed to be a path worth pursuing.

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Q: What about writing the song? Is it something you do in one sitting or is it something you piece together over time?

A: It starts off as a stream of consciousness thing and you add things to it. I take things from all parts of life and then I see if there is a connection, and if there's a connection I connect them. The riff was just going repeatedly, hypnotically in my head, then the words eventually come along. Probably every song on the album came that way.

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Q: There are a dozen lines in that song alone that it'd be interesting to have you talk about, but how about the one with Neil Young? "I'm listening to Neil Young / I gotta turn up the sound / Someone's always yelling, / 'Turn it down.' " Is that a tip of the hat or . . . ?

A: It's anything you want it to be. [smiles] I don't give too much thought to individual lines. If I thought about them in any kind of deep way, maybe I wouldn't use them because I'd always be second-guessing myself. I learned a long time ago to trust my intuition.

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Q: How do you feel when one album is praised much more than another one? Do you understand why people respond differently to albums or do you think a lot of it seems arbitrary?

A: I never listen to my albums, once they are completed. I don't want to be reminded. To me, I've done them. I find it like looking into a lifeless mirror. I do, however, listen to this album quite a bit.

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Q: If you were so pleased with these songs, why didn't you do them in concert before you recorded them if you had them for so long?

A: That's the funny thing. People don't think they can respond to a song that they haven't heard on a record. It didn't used to be that way, but I think we are living in an age where we are so bombarded--everything from satellite news to biological weapons--and people want to be familiar with something before they are ready to accept it.

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Q: Even your fans? Aren't they a pretty adventurous bunch?

A: I don't know. I don't think I have the same fans I had earlier. In fact, I know they aren't the same people. Those fans left me years ago. If I was a fan of me back then, I wouldn't [still] be either.

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Q: What do you mean?

A: I wasn't giving anybody anything that they felt comfortable with, and I understood that, but I understood it much later than it was happening. I don't have any one kind of fan or follower of this kind of music, like say, U2, or Bruce [Springsteen] or any of these young groups today who consistently keep their followers because what they are doing is variations of the same things. My situation is peculiar. I didn't come out of the same environment. My tradition is older than all that. I came out of the environment of folk music.

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Q: Is there any way to describe your goals when you were starting out?

A: I knew growing up that I wanted to do something different than anybody else. I wanted to do something that no one else did or could do, and I wanted to do it better than anyone else had. I didn't know where that was going to lead me, but where it did lead me was to folk music at a time when it was totally off the radar screen. Maybe there were 12 people in all of America who even heard of Woody Guthrie, Roscoe Holcomb, the Carter Family, Leadbelly--at least 12 people my age. They were free spirits who took chances, and I never wished to annul any of that spirit.

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Q: You've never seemed comfortable with your success and acclaim. Is that true?

A: I'm still not. I still don't consider myself in the same realm as someone like James Taylor or Randy Newman, someone who, in my book, is a "songwriter for the times." I feel my stuff is very hard-edged and not everybody's cup of tea.

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Q: You've been touring for more than 30 years now. Do you see a time when you might stop? Or do you think you'll be doing it until your final breath?

A: I could stop any time. . . . I can see an end to everything really.

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Q: You did once stop playing for eight years, during the late '60s. Why were you off the road for so long?

A: I didn't want to go on the road. I didn't feel it was as important to me as personal matters. I had a family. It wouldn't work for me if I was on the road. So I stayed off. Then we came to California . . . and I forgot what I did [on stage] . . . totally. . . . When I got back [on tour in 1974], I was looked upon as a songwriter of a generation or mouthpiece of a generation. That was the slogan put on me at the time. I had to meet that head on.

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Q: Was that uncomfortable?

A: Sure, because when I went back [to touring], nothing was working right for me. . . . I had lost my raison d'e^tre. . . . I didn't know what I was doing out there, people throwing flowers and whatever. I didn't know who they expected me to be. It was a crazy time.

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Q: So, what turned it around for you?

A: At a certain point [on the Petty tour], I had a revelation about a bunch of things, which is hard to explain [briefly]. . . . I realized that it was necessary to go out and turn things around.

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Q: How did you do that?

A: On some night when lightning strikes, this gift was given back to me and I knew it. . . . The essence was back.

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Q: So you learned to enjoy yourself again on stage in recent years?

A: Yes, it took a long time to develop back into what it would have been if I hadn't taken the time off. It's a strange story, I'll admit it.

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Q: Speaking of joy, what about Jakob's success with the Wallflowers?

A: It's sensational what has happened to the Wallflowers. It's like one in a million or something.

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Q: When you heard he was going to start a band, did you worry about him? Did you advise him at all?

A: It was inconsequential what I thought.

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Q: As a father, though, were you worried about all he would have to go through, like the pain of being dropped by his label after the first album?

A: I was concerned after the label dropped him and they still were involved in trying to get another record deal, but he made it on his own. If anything, his name would have held him back. I think that held him back on his first record, to tell you the truth. I think that first record would have been accepted if he wasn't who he was.

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Q: What about honors, such as the Kennedy honors? Do you appreciate them?

A: It's always nice to be appreciated, especially while you are still alive.

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Bob Dylan plays Tuesday through Saturday at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., 8 p.m. Sold out. (213) 936-4790.

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Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. He can be reached by e-mail at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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