NOSTALGIA IS DEATH Answers to rock's enigma laureate still blowin' in the wind

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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 the last half of Mr. 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 Mr. Dylan has sung -- and in what order -- at most of his concerts from 1974 to 1989.

If the book's contents reveal every detail of his recent performing career, the color portrait on the cover -- an expressionless Robert Allen Zimmerman, circa late '80s, eyes concealed by dark glasses -- is a teasing reminder of everything else Mr. Dylan has kept hidden these many years. Like the man himself, the drawing gives away almost nothing.

On the bus this night, the real Bob Dylan, who has placed his own dark glasses on the table in front of him, 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, Mr. 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 Amphitheater in Milwaukee; 17 songs, starting with "Early Morning Rain" and ending with "Maggie's Farm.")

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 gentleness of his smile. He not only taught rock 'n' roll to think during that decade, but also showed a stubborn refusal to play by anyone else's rules.

Today, Mr. 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, Bob 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 interview 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. Mr. 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.

For much of his career, Mr. 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 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, Mr. 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 -- 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, then 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 many 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, Mr. Dylan does a lot of sleeping on one of two tour buses as they eat up the miles between concert cities. But today, Mr. 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 Mr. 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." His hotel at that time was on alert -- security had been warned about Dylan-seekers -- for 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. Mr. 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.

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, Mr. 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.

The band walks out on stage first, a three-man group made up of guitarist John Jackson, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer Ian Wallace. They are 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, Mr. 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.

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. Mr. 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 Mr. Dylan with a frisky, rockabilly-and-blues-accented sound.

At first, the audience simply watches politely. It takes Mr. 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.

Later, after an hour at a blues club, Mr. Dylan, his bodyguard and a tour aide end up in a nondescript diner a few blocks from the hotel. Sipping a bowl of soup, Mr. 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 at 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. Mr. 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."

*

The next night, Bob Dylan paces impatiently backstage at the Dane County Memorial Coliseum in Madison. A snowstorm had snarled traffic, and it has taken Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Dylan's performance emphasizes its poignancy.

Despite a standing ovation at the end of the concert, Mr. 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.

"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 awhile, that's when you lose touch. If you are going to be a performer, you've got to give it your all."

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, Mr. Dylan says he wants a cup of fresh coffee. One would assume that somebody would go and get it for him. Instead, Mr. 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 Bob Dylan as part of it suggests, at least momentarily, a clear image of faded glory.

*

In the last analysis, the reasons for Mr. 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," he 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."

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