Bob Dylan stares idly at the paperback book that someone has brought aboard his custom tour bus, which is speeding through the snowy Wisconsin countryside in the midnight hour. He has just finished a concert in Madison and is on his way to South Bend, Ind., where he'll play again in 20 hours.
The shiny, 278-page book titled "Tangled Up in Tapes Revisited" is an exhaustive chronicle of Dylan's 32-year career and a testimony to the public's continuing obsession with the most influential songwriter of the rock era. The book lists every song Dylan has sung--and in what order--at almost all of the hundreds of concerts he has given.
If the book's contents reveal every detail of his performing career, the color portrait on the cover--an expressionless Robert Allen Zimmerman, circa the late '80s, eyes concealed by dark glasses--is a teasing reminder of everything else Dylan has kept hidden these many years. Like the man himself, the drawing gives away almost nothing.
On the bus this night, the real Dylan, who has placed his own dark glasses on the table in front of him, flips quickly through the book. He's sitting in the dining nook and shows more interest in when the coffee will be ready than in the book.
Other performers might be curious enough to look back on, say, an earlier show they played in Wisconsin. (For example, from Page 164: On Nov. 1, 1978, at the Dane County Memorial Coliseum, Dylan sang 27 songs, opening with "She's Love Crazy" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," closing with "Forever Young" and "Changing of the Guards.") Or maybe a more recent one along the same highway, 11 years later. (Page 209: July 3, 1989, at the Marcus Amphitheaterin Milwaukee; 17 songs, starting with "Early Morning Rain" and ending with "Maggie's Farm.")
Dylan finally just hands the book back to the man who brought it aboard the bus.
Told he is welcome to keep it as a souvenir, Dylan says, "Naw, I've already been all those places and done all those things."
Then he pauses slightly and adds, with a trace of a smile, "Now if you ever find a book out there that's going to tell me where I'm going, I might be interested."
BOB DYLAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN A POP OUTSIDER, AND THERE ARE few signs, as he enters his sixth decade, that he is surrendering his independence. When he first appeared in the folk clubs of New York's Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, there was an element of choirboy innocence--and mischief--in the smoothness of his cheeks and the gentleness of his smile. He not only taught rock 'n' roll to think during that decade but he also showed a stubborn refusal to play by anyone else's rules.
Today, Dylan can still disarm you with a sudden smile, but there is wariness in the eyes. It's the instinctive suspicion of a survivor who knows, after years of public scrutiny, the dangers of letting down his guard.
On May 24, 1991, Dylan turned 50, and the media thought it would be the ideal time to try to put this cultural hero--and puzzle--into perspective. But he refused more than 300 requests for interviews, agreeing only to a brief telephone Q & A that ended up in Spy magazine, another in a journal published by the National Academy of Songwriters and a radio interview syndicated by Westwood One.
Instead, he hit the road, in year four of what Dylan-watchers now call the "Never-Ending Tour"--an ongoing road show that to date has racked up 450 performances and been seen by about 3 million fans in the United States, Europe and South America. By design, the tour has avoided the usual media glare. Dylan has concentrated on smaller venues and turned his back on the sort of superstar hoopla that would put him in a national spotlight. Madison was one of the final stops on a trek last year that took him from Burlington, Vt., to Zurich, Switzerland.
A notable exception to his low-profile stance during his 50th-birthday year was the infamous Grammy Awards appearance in New York City last February. During the '60s, a conservative pop Establishment declined to honor the prolific Dylan with a Grammy. The ice broke a bit in 1979, when Dylan won the Best Male Rock Vocal award for his single, "Gotta Serve Somebody." At the 1991 awards ceremony, a new generation of directors of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences tried to make up for the years of slight with a Lifetime Achievement award. Instead of a mellow Dylan, caught up in the sentimentality of the occasion, taking the stage, he remained the outsider.
Exhausted after a flight from Europe and suffering from the flu, he looked disheveled and distracted. And on a night when most of the country was caught up in the fervor and patriotism of the month-old Persian Gulf War, he and his band launched into a blistering if all but unintelligible version of "Masters of War":
Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.
It was classic Dylan--enigmatic and provocative. Fans and reporters asked themselves what happened. There were whispers about drugs or drinking. But Dylan remained outside of the controversy: no apologies made, no answers offered.
For much of his career, Dylan's reluctance to explain himself or his actions seemed to be a strategy to heighten interest in his legend. Now, on the bus to South Bend, with a reporter allowed along for the ride, he sounds genuinely uninterested in his own notoriety. He wants no part of the confessional talk that fuels most celebrity interviews. Most of all, he has no patience with dissections of his famous past.
"Nostalgia," he says sharply, "is death."
As he gazes across the tour bus table, Dylan even smiles wickedly as the reporter suggests the hackneyed headlines that editors might have tacked on the birthday retrospectives that never appeared:
"Mr. Tambourine Man Turns 50!"
"Bringing It All Back Home."
Or--and this suggestion draws a full-scale laugh--"Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
There's no hostility in his manner, but he fences instinctively, warding off certain questions. He listens to--and ignores--one after another until one catches his interest. He dismisses old-days inquiries as "ancient history" and counters a query about his personal life with, "Do people ask Paul Simon questions like that?" Like a lot of artists, he feels that his work expresses all that people need to know about him.
"It wasn't me who called myself a legend," he says sternly and suddenly in response to a question about his revered place in rock. "It was thrown at me by editors in the media who wanted to play around with me or have something new to tell their readers. But it stuck.
"It was important for me to come to the bottom of this legend thing, which has no reality at all. What's important isn't the legend, but the art, the work. A person has to do whatever they are called on to do. If you try to act a legend, it's nothing but hype."
But isn't it flattering that critics and artists have pointed to him as rock's most important songwriter? He just shakes his head.
"Not really," he continues, more softly. "Genius? There's a real fine line between genius and insanity. Anybody will tell you that."
CHICAGO'S AMBASSADOR EAST, ON THE HISTORIC AND TONY GOLD Coast, is one of the city's grand old hotels, the home of the Pump Room restaurant, where everyone from gangsters ( Al Capone) to Presidents (Nixon and Reagan) have dined. The hotel also has its share of show-biz ties. Alfred Hitchcock shot scenes with Cary Grant here in the late '50s for "North by Northwest," and Led Zeppelin caused a stir in 1977 by throwing a couch out of an 11th-floor window.
On the Never-Ending Tour, Dylan does a lot of sleeping on one of two tour buses as they eat up the miles between concert cities. But today, Dylan has unobtrusively checked into the Ambassador, which is a short drive from the Evanston campus of Northwestern University, where he is scheduled to perform at 9 p.m.
It was in Chicago in 1974 that Dylan, with the Band in tow, returned to live performing after an eight-year hiatus prompted by a reported motorcycle accident in 1966 and his subsequent desire to spend more time with his family. The atmosphere then, however, was dramatically different.
About 6 million mail orders were received for tickets to the tour's 40 shows. The city was abuzz with reporters from around the world, all seeking an exclusive interview, and with scores of fans hoping for private audiences with the man frequently referred to as the "spokesman for his generation." Dylan's hotel at that time was on alert--security had been warned about Dylan-seekers--fans with a "glazed look" in their eyes.
Today, the midafternoon atmosphere at the Ambassador East is relaxed--just the usual flow of guests, most of them in town on business. Dylan is upstairs in his room, relaxing until the bus picks him up around 7 p.m. for the ride to Northwestern's McGaw Hall, a basketball gym-cum-auditorium. Tonight he'll play for about 3,500 fans, a crowd a little more than a fifth the size of the one that gathered at Chicago Stadium in 1974. But these small halls are his choice; he prefers the intimacy and audience rapport they provide.
By the time he has driven over freezing streets to the concert site, a heavily bundled crowd is filing into the hall. As they unwrap their mufflers and take off their hats, another contrast between then and now is made clear. Until the mid-'80s, Dylan played chiefly to fans from his own generation. Now he performs to mostly college-age audiences, young people who weren't even alive when "Blowin' in the Wind," recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, hit No. 2 in 1963, fans who see him less as a superstar or personal savior than as a gifted artist, an American icon.
Kevin Martell is 20 years old and seeing Dylan for the first time. He and two friends sit quietly in the hall waiting for the show to begin, displaying none of the raucous exuberance usually found at rock shows. When he talks about why he wanted to see the show, he sounds a bit like he's signed up to hear an honored novelist or historian deliver a lecture.
"There are a few bands today, like U2, that talk about real issues," he says. "But I think the '60s artists were the ones who were really into it, and Dylan is one of the few you can still see. I think songs like 'Masters of War' are as important today as when he wrote it. He's like a legend."
A few rows away, Robert Blackmon, 19, a chemical engineering student, can reel off a long list of his favorite new bands--including Jane's Addiction, Nirvana and Primus--that he feels speak directly to the frustrations and aspirations of his generation. But, like Martell, he sees Dylan from a broader perspective: "He has a timeless, universal quality," Blackmon says.
The band walks out on stage first, a three-man group made up of guitarist John Jackson, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer Ian Wallace--veterans whose collective resumes range from Asleep at the Wheel, the lighthearted Western swing band, to King Crimson, the arty veteran British rock group. They've been on the road with him now for more than a year.
There is a charge of electricity as the houselights dim. Without a word of greeting, Dylan, in a black shirt and striped black pants, steps to the microphone. With a quick glance back at the band, he starts to play. The lighting is so dim that it's hard to make out his features, but his familiar raspy voice is unmistakable.
Dylan seemed at times in the '70s and early '80s to be fighting his way through concerts--stiff and largely motionless as he faced challenging audiences that often complained about anything in his song selection or arrangements that didn't conform to their expectations. But now, in his introverted way, he enjoys the interaction with the audience. He's comfortable enough on stage to move a bit, and there's an occasional trace of playfulness in his eyes. And there's no rush to get it all over with--the instrumental interludes between verses get more of an airing-out than in the past.
Over the next 90 minutes, he runs through songs from the '60s, '70s and '80s--love songs and social commentaries, mostly his own songs and some by other writers. Dylan surprises the older fans early in the set by gliding into a tender, shields-down rendition of Nat King Cole's pop ballad "Answer Me, My Love." He stands stock-still, his head slightly tilted as if to recall the emotion that the song triggered the first time he heard it. Later, looking like a young rock upstart in a Memphis roadhouse, he bobs and weaves to kick off a spirited version of Johnny Cash's old "Folsom Prison Blues." The band supports Dylan with a frisky, rockabilly-and-blues-accented sound.
At first, the audience simply watches politely. It takes Dylan's old "All Along the Watchtower," a song that the younger listeners may best recognize from a recent recording by U2, to get them moving. By the end of the set, hundreds have raced to the edge of the stage, moving in time with the music.
Dylan looks down at them briefly, seems pleased and just keeps playing. As usual, he has said little during the entire concert beyond an occasional "thank you." No introductions, no eye contact, no chitchat. The show ends and there's a tremendous burst of applause when Dylan returns for a quick two-song encore. Then he bows slightly toward the audience, turns abruptly and heads offstage, directly into the chill of the night and onto the bus--no post-show handshaking or small talk. His only question to his aides: "How was the sound out there?"
When the bus arrives around midnight at the entrance of the Ambassador East, the band members file off, heading for their rooms. But Dylan stands on State Street, shifting his weight back and forth in the cold and staring into the distance. He wants to stop in at a blues club in the neighborhood for a while and then get some dinner.
After an hour of blues, Dylan, his bodyguard and a tour aide end up in a nondescript diner a few blocks from the hotel. Sipping at a bowl of soup, Dylan says he likes the mandolin riff in R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," which is playing on the radio. He listens to a run-through of comments from the new generation that filled the seats the Northwestern show.
"Older people--people my age--don't come out anymore," he says. "A lot of the shows over the years was people coming out of curiosity and their curiosity wasn't fulfilled. They weren't transported back to the '60s. Lightning didn't strike.
"The shows didn't make sense for them, and they didn't make sense for me. That had to stop, and it took a long time to stop it. A lot of people were coming out to see The Legend, and I was trying to just get on stage and play music."
He shifts restlessly in the chair. The brightly lit room is almost empty, and no one recognizes him at first. After a few minutes, however, the diner manager and a customer at the other end of the room start huddling and looking his way. Dylan doesn't notice. He's still thinking about the comments of the students and their interest in the '60s.
"A lot of people say the '60s generation didn't turn out well--that they didn't live up to their dreams or follow through or whatever--and they may be right. But there still was a lot that no one else has been able to do," he says firmly.
"People today are still living off the table scraps of the '60s. They are still being passed around--the music, the ideas.
"Look at what's going on today: There used to be a time when the idea of heroes was important. People grew up sharing those myths and legends and ideals. Now they grow up sharing McDonald's and Disneyland."
When Dylan and his party leave the diner half an hour later, the manager approaches the singer at the cash register and asks for a photo or an autograph. "Maybe tomorrow or something, OK," he says, not very convincingly. But he doesn't want to be rude. Just before he walks out, he shakes the manager's hand.
Back at the hotel, Dylan pauses at the entrance to the Pump Room and stares at some of the hundreds of celebrity photos on the wall. He moves slowly down the hallway as his aide and his bodyguard point to faces they recognize-- Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, even David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Dylan's picture is not on the wall.
He stares briefly at a photo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but then loses interest. It's 2:30 by now, and the outsider heads toward the elevator.
THE NEXT NIGHT, DYLAN PACES IMPATIENTLY BACKSTAGE AT THE Dane County Memorial Coliseum in Madison. A snowstorm had snarled traffic, and it has taken Dylan's bus four hours instead of two to get here from Chicago. He seems anxious to get the whole evening over with. Finally, he goes back to the bus to wait out the opening act.
On stage, instead of the relaxed mood he brought to the concert at Northwestern, he struggles for inspiration. The audience cheers as much as the fans at Northwestern, but Dylan's vocals--on the very same songs--lack the emotional edge of the previous show. The exception is the ballad "I Believe in You":
They ask me how I feel
and if my love is real
And how I know I'll make it through
They look at me and frown
They'd like to drive me from this town
They don't want me around
'Cause I believe in you.
It's a nakedly personal song, a reflection on the isolation of an outsider's life, and the tension in Dylan's performance emphasizes its poignancy.
Despite a standing ovation at the end of the concert, Dylan can't seem to wait until he is on his way to the next town. He again walks directly from the stage to the bus. The heater is on but he sits bundled up in a rumpled sweat shirt and jacket at a small table in the front compartment. Across the aisle, in the TV-lounge area, the band members are laughing as they listen to a bootleg tape of Buddy Rich. On the tape, the great jazz drummer is delivering a tongue-lashing to his band. Dylan, who plans to produce a movie of the late drummer's life, has heard the tape before and his mind is elsewhere.
"That was a useless gig," he says flatly.
When someone mentions that the audience seemed to enjoy it, he waves his hand. "Naw, it just wasn't there. Nothin' wrong with the audience. Sometimes the energy level just doesn't happen the way it should. We didn't invite this weather to follow us around."
He lapses into silence.
The night before, after the Northwestern show, he had been more talkative, and more philosophical about the ups and downs of touring. "You hear sometimes about the glamour of the road," he said then, "but you get over that real fast. There are a lot of times that it's no different from going to work in the morning. Still, you're either a player or you're not a player. It didn't really occur to me until we did those shows with the Grateful Dead (in 1987). If you just go out every three years or so, like I was doing for a while, that's when you lose touch. If you are going to be a performer, you've got to give it your all."
At the blues club in Chicago, he had let his guard down--briefly--when an old friend, who had heard that Dylan was in town, tracked him down. The tour bodyguard braced as a middle-aged man in a business suit walked up to Dylan and put an arm around him. But the smile on Dylan's face said that it was OK. The man's name was Arnie, and he had gone to high school with Dylan in Hibbing, Minn.
Dylan sat bemused while Arnie regaled the reporter with tales. "Back in English class," Arnie confided, "Bob wrote me a note: 'Arnie, I'm going to make it big. I know it for sure, and when I do, you bring this piece of paper and for two months, you can stay with me, no matter where I am at.' I still have it at home."
Dylan laughed easily.
"You know, I took off and joined the Navy and Bob went down to the University of Minnesota and the next thing I know, he's got this record out," Arnie continued. "I've got some of his albums at home and some picture books of his life story. The song I like the best is 'Slow Train'--that and 'Lay, Lady, Lay.' "
Dylan stepped in only when the reporter asked Arnie his last name. "Naw," he said protectively, "don't drag him into all this."
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.
When the band members retire to their bunks in the back of the bus, Dylan begins to loosen up a bit. Still, with no Arnie to make the revelations, Dylan keeps the veil tightly drawn around his personal life. Any talk about his former, 13-year marriage to Sara Lowndes, or their four now-grown children is strictly off-limits. So is his longstanding relationship with Carole Childs, an Elektra Records artists and repertoire executive.
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."
Dylan smiles, then adds: " 'All Along the Watchtower' may be my (only) political song," apparently referring to the line in the song: "Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth/ None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."
It's well past 1 o'clock when the driver announces that the bus is approaching Chicago, about a third of the way to South Bend, and the conversation has switched to Hollywood's fascination with rock 'n' roll. Given his role in the culture of the '60s, it seems probable that some filmmaker would want to use his story to explain America in the '60s.
Would he welcome such a film?
"Absolutely not," he says, almost contemptuously. "No one knows too much about (my life), so it's going to have to all be speculation. Who was it that said it: Fame is a curse. There's a lot of truth in that."
Looking through the side window at the lights on the outskirts of Chicago, he adds: "Look at Elvis--he's bigger now than when he was living. He lives on in people's mind. But you wonder if people are remembering the right things about his music, rather than all the stuff that people wrote about him."
WHEN THE TOUR BUS stops to let the reporter off at a motel near O'Hare International Airport, Dylan says he wants a cup of fresh coffee. One would assume that somebody would go and get it for him. Instead, Dylan walks into an all-night diner and sits at the counter with a tour aide. He's unnoticed amid a handful of truckers and motorists taking a break from the icy highway. It's a bleak scene, worthy of an Edward Hopper painting, and seeing Dylan as part of it suggests, at least momentarily, a clear image of faded glory.
Not everyone at 50 would want to spend all these months on the road, especially in the numbing cold of winter.
If Dylan maintains the pace of the Never-Ending Tour, he'll do about 120 shows this year. "That may not sound like a lot," he says. "Willie (Nelson) and B. B. King do a lot more, but it's a comfortable number for me." He also says that he reserves the right to halt the tour at any time. "Whenever it does start feeling like work, that's when I want to stop," he says. "Get away from it for a while. You don't want to be a prisoner of this (touring) any more than you want to be a prisoner of anything in life if you can avoid it."
But for now, the road is his choice and he seems grateful for the chance, after all these years, to be able to move about the world at his own pace, freed somewhat from the prison of his '60s mantle.
In the last analysis, the reasons for Dylan's cultural impact are as much a puzzle to the enigmatic performer as they are to others.
"There's no one to my knowledge that isn't surprised by their longevity, including myself," Dylan said wearily, wiping the sleep from his eyes as the bus made its way from concert to concert. "But it's very dangerous to plan (far ahead), because you are just dealing with your vanity. Tomorrow is hard enough. It's God who gives you the freedom, and the days you should be most concerned with are today and tomorrow.
"It's one thing to say, 'There's a new record out and people are responding to the new songs,' which is encouraging. But that's not the case. There's no new album, and it's hard for me to know just what that means, why people come out and what they are looking for or listening for. . . . Maybe the same things I was looking for when I wrote them."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun