How Does It Feel? Don't Ask

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

"Five stars!"

Those are Bob Dylan's first words as I step into his Santa Monica hotel suite to talk about his new album, "Love and Theft."

"That's what Rolling Stone gave the new album. How many artists have you interviewed in the last 15 years that have gotten a five-star review?"

Thinking he's putting me on, I reply, "Well, you're not getting five stars in The Times."

Silence.

I quickly explain that we have a four-star rating system.

Could the most acclaimed songwriter of the modern pop era really care about a single review? I can't even imagine him being excited about winning a Grammy, or an Oscar, as he did earlier this year for "Things Have Changed" from "Wonder Boys."

"Wouldn't you be excited if you won a Pulitzer Prize?" he replies.

It's a quintessential Dylan moment. Every time you think you have him figured out, he taunts you with his elusiveness.

For 40 years, he has been a man of constant change who weaves conviction and contradictions into his work with artful sleight-of-hand.

On "Love and Theft," which received a four-star review last Sunday in The Times and was released Tuesday, there are still moments of struggle and confusion. But those sentiments are accompanied--often in the same song--by moments of disarming wit (including a goofy knock-knock joke) and jubilant optimism, when the gods seem lined up on his side.

The message of "Love and Theft," however, is as much in the arrangements as the lyrics. Dylan's musical compass has always been tied to the country, blues and folk sounds that thrilled him as a youngster in Minnesota, and he and his dazzling road band play with the defiance of true believers who feel pop music has been taken over by charlatans.

In the alternating gentle and wailing instrumentation, Dylan pulls us back to the start of rock 'n' roll, reminds us of the innocence and energy of the times and, in the process, challenges those who feel that rock is exhausted as an art form.

You won't get Dylan to admit that in an interview, but he hints at it. As always, he resists questions about his personal life and the meaning of particular lines or songs, but he speaks passionately about his legacy and his musical roots. Ever the extremist, Dylan is guilty of underestimating some of today's rock and hip-hop acts, but his views are as provocative as his lyrics in "Love and Theft."

Dylan, 60, is working on his autobiography, but you wonder if he'll really step from behind the veil even there. He's already hinting the events in the book may be a bit fuzzy. "My retrievable memory isn't as good as it should be," he says with only the barest trace of a smile.

Question: The music on the new album seems transported from a different era. Do you find much inspiration in today's music scene?

Answer: I know there are groups at the top of the charts that are hailed as the saviors of rock 'n' roll and all that, but they are amateurs. They don't know where the music comes from.... I was lucky. I came up in a different era. There were these great blues and country and folk artists around, and the impulse to play [those sounds] came to me at a very early age.

I wouldn't even think about playing music if I was born in these times. I wouldn't even listen to the radio. I'm an extreme person. I'm not a party boy. I don't care about rave dances and a lot of the stuff going on.

Q: What do you think would have interested you today if music weren't an option?

A: I'd probably turn to something like mathematics. That would interest me. Architecture would interest me. Something like that.

Q: Are you surprised by the return of so much placid pop--which was one of the original targets of rock 'n' roll?

A: I don't think what we call pop music today is any worse than it was. We never liked pop music. It never occurred to me [in the '50s] that Bing Crosby was on the cutting edge 20 years before I was listening to him. I never heard that Bing Crosby. The Louis Armstrong I heard was the guy who sang "Hello, Dolly!" I never heard him do "West End Blues."

Q: "Time Out of Mind" seemed to spark a creative resurgence for you. Did you know right away it was something special?

A: It was a little sketchy to me. I knew after that record that when and if I ever committed myself to making another record, I didn't want to get caught short without up-tempo songs. A lot of my songs are slow ballads. I can gut-wrench a lot out of them. But if you put a lot of them on a record, they'll fade into one another, and there was some of that in "Time Out of Mind." I sort of blueprinted it this time to make sure I didn't get caught without up-tempo songs.

If you hear any difference on this record--why it might flow better--it's because as soon as an up-tempo song comes over, then it's slowed down, then back up again. There's more pacing.

Q: What about the creative process for you? Do you write constantly?

A: I overwrite. If I know I am going in to record a song, I write more than I need. In the past that's been a problem because I failed to use discretion at times. I have to guard against that. On this album, "Lonesome Day Blues" was twice as long at one point. "Highlands" [a 17-minute song on "Time Out of Mind"] was twice as long originally.

Q: Why is there so much humor on the album this time? Does it have to do with your state of mind these days?

A: I try to make the songs as three-dimensional as possible. A one-or two-dimensional song doesn't last very long. It's important to have humor where you can. Even the most severe rapper uses some humor.

Q: When do you tend to do the most writing? When you're on tour or when you're home for a few weeks?

A: I don't know. Some things just come to me in dreams. But I can write a bunch of stuff down after you leave ... about, say, the way you are dressed. I look at people as ideas. I don't look at them as people. I'm talking about general observation. Whoever I see, I look at them as an idea ... what this person represents. That's the way I see life. I see life as a utilitarian thing. Then you strip things away until you get to the core of what's important.

Q: Did you have much interest in the 2000 Bush-Gore campaign?

A: Did I follow the election? Yeah, I followed to see who would win. But in the larger scheme of things, the government is irrelevant. Everybody, everything can be bought and sold.

Q: Isn't that pretty pessimistic for someone who everyone thought was so optimistic and inspiring in the '60s?

A: I'm not sure people understood a lot of what I was writing about. I don't even know if I would understand them if I believed everything that has been written about them by imbeciles who wouldn't know the first thing about writing songs. I've always said the organized media propagated me as something I never pretended to be ... all this spokesman of conscience thing. A lot of my songs were definitely misinterpreted by people who didn't know any better, and it goes on today.

Q: Give me an example of a song that has been widely misinterpreted.

A: Take "Masters of War." Every time I sing it, someone writes that it's an antiwar song. But there's no antiwar sentiment in that song. I'm not a pacifist. I don't think I've ever been one. If you look closely at the song, it's about what Eisenhower was saying about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in this country. I believe strongly in everyone's right to defend themselves by every means necessary.

Q: But there surely was a lot of idealism in the country and in your songs in the '60s.

A: Well, you are affected as a writer and a person by the culture and spirit of the times. I was tuned into it then, I'm tuned into it now. None of us are immune to the spirit of the age. It affects us whether we know it or whether we like it or not. There's some of today's cultural spirit on this record.

I think something changed in the country around 1966 or so. You'll have to look at the history books to really sort it out, but there are people who manipulated the Vietnam War. They were traitors to America, whoever they were. It was the beginning of the corporate takeover of America.

Q: How would you describe the spirit of the '50s and the '60s?

A: I knew it was an unsettled, rebellious spirit.

Q: How about today?

A: I don't really know. I am not a forecaster of the times. But if we're not careful, we'll wake up in a multinational, multiethnic police state--not that America can't reverse itself. Whoever invented America were the greatest minds we've ever seen, and [people] who understand what the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are all about will come to the forefront sooner or later.

Q: What was it like to be adored at times and booed at others--like on the "Slow Train Coming" tour in the '70s?

A: I was booed at Newport before that, remember. You can't worry about things like that. Miles Davis has been booed. Hank Williams was booed. Stravinsky was booed. You're nobody if you don't get booed sometime.

Q: Does that affect you as an artist? Does it make you either ease up or dig in?

A: It depends on what kind of artist you are. There are superficial artists, natural artists and supernatural artists.

Q: How do you define them?

A: A natural artist is someone who just takes what talent they have and displays it night after night on stage, doing the best they can within [accepted] limits. A superficial artist is someone who shouldn't be up there in the first place because they've really got nothing to tell you.

Q: And the supernatural?

A: That's someone who goes deep, and the deeper they go, the more buried gods they'll find.

Q: How would you describe yourself?

A: [Laughs.] I really should apply this to other people rather than myself. I'm not sure where I fit. You can call me any one of those. But I always felt that if I'm going to do anything in life, I want to go as deep as I can.

Q: Have you always lived up to that goal? Have you ever felt you were just a superficial artist?

A: Sure, I think the tour I did with the Band in 1974 was superficial. I had forgotten how to sing and play. I had been devoting my time to raising a family, and it took me a long time to recapture my purpose as a performer. You'd find it at times, then it would disappear again for a while.

Q: You're on a creative roll now. Where do you see the beginning of it?

A: In the early '90s when I escaped the organized media. They let me be. They considered me irrelevant, which was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was waiting for that. No artist can develop for any length of time in the light of the media, no matter who it is. If the media was commenting on every article you wrote, imagine what it would do to you.

Q: Do you worry that the latest rash of awards and acclaim will make the media start focusing on you again?

A: No, that time has passed. Once they move away and lose track of you, they'll never catch up with you again. They're off searching for someone new to put a label on.

Q: Do you see yourself touring indefinitely?

A: I don't see myself doing anything indefinitely. I see myself fulfilling the commitments at the moment. Anything beyond that, time will have to tell.

Q: So, how do you feel personally? There's a lot of spirit in the new album. Do you feel pretty good about things?

A: Any day above the ground is a good day.

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