In little over a year, he's won a Grammy, survived a dangerous illness, hobnobbed with religious royalty and toured endlessly. He's Bob Dylan, forever young prince of rock and roll.
by Murray Engleheart
Bob Dylan, who for much of his fabled career has been the hippest, has now spent more than a year being the hottest as well. He's the man on everyon'es A-list, from Eddie Vedder, an avowed fan, to Pope John Paul II, for whom Dylan performed three songs in Bologna, Italy. Dylan even impressed online retailer amazon.com, which recently voted *Bob Dylan Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall Concert* the best album of 1998. As remarkable as it seems, one of the most vital post-grunge artists in rock is 58 year old Bob Dylan. After a rather lean decade, the Sixties folk-rock icon has, against all odds, revitalized his career by polishing off the Nineties with two albums that rank among his very best.
Along with the highly acclaimed "Albert Hall" reissue, Dylan's 1995 Grammy-winning release, *Time Out of Mind*, produced by Daniel Lanois, has put the singer back in rock's vanguard.
Perhaps even more remarkable than Dylan's albums have been his brilliant live shows, showcasing his feisty lead guitar playing and a crack band. After bouncing back from a life- threatening heart infection in mid-'97, Dylan has played well over 200 shows, performing fierce, jam-oriented reinterpretations of his best songs, at times recalling the tightly wound three guitar army of Lynrd Skynrd's "Free Bird." It's all been a far cry from the disappointingly ramshackle shows that became his stock-in-trade in the Eighties and early Nineties.
When Bob Dylan talks -- which is rarely -- people listen. Especially these days. We recently had the opportunity for a brief chat with the enigmatic legend, who finally took a break from his "Never Ending Tour." Dylan seemed relaxed, and was kind enough to reflect on the turbulent events of his recent career, and to speculate on his future.
Guitar World: Bruce Springsteen once said that without you there'd be no Beatles' *Sgt. Pepper's*, no Beach Boys *Pet Sounds*, no Sex- Pistols' "God Save the Queen."
Bob Dylan: Well...you know, you can influence all kinds of people, but sometimes it gets in the way -- especially if somebody is accusing you of influencing somebody that you had no interest in influencing in the first place. I've never given it any mind at all, really. I don't really care to influence anybody at this time, and if I have influenced anybody, what can I say?
GW: Certain albums of yours -- *Blood on the Tracks*, *Infidels*, *Highway 61 Revisited* -- have inspired great critical plaudits in their day, and have stood the test of time. In your view, do those records live up to their reputation?
BD: Well, those records were made a long time ago, and you know, truthfully, records that were made in that day and age all were good. They all had some magic to them because the technology didn't go beyond what the artist was doing. It was a lot easier to get excellence back in those days on a record than it is now. I made records back then just like a lot of other people who were my age, and we all made good records. Those records seem to cast a long shadow. But how much of it is the technology and how much of it is the talent and influence, I really don't know. I know you can't make records that sound that way any more. The high priority is technology now. It's not the artist or the art. It's the technology that is coming through. That's what makes *Time Out of Mind* ... it doesn't take itself seriously, but then again, the sound is very significant to that record. If that record was made more haphazardly, it wouldn't have sounded that way. It wouldn't have had the impact that it did. The guys that helped me make it went out of their way to make a record that sounds like a record played on a record player. There wasn't any wasted effort on *Time Out of Mind*, and I don't think there will be on any more of my records.
GW: A writer once noted that Delta bluesman Skip James' records always sound best at night. The same could be said about *Time Out of Mind*.
BD: You think it sounds like Skip James?
GW: In a sense. *Time Out of Mind* sounds best late at night.
BD: That would be a tremendous compliment to me, to hear that it was even in any kind of ... that it would be in the same realm as Skip James.
GW: In terms of mood and ambience, it's almost like there's ghosts running through it. Are those ghosts of, or for, anybody in particular?
BD: Er, no. I'm not versed in the psychological part of it. I don't know. The ghosts you're probably talking about are just probably where the instruments are all placed in the mix. Some are more in the background as opposed to being in the foreground. Or maybe you're just hearing different echoes that emanate from the complete sound of the record.
GW: Jim Dickinson, who played keyboards on *Time Out of Mind*, said something years ago that I thought was fascinating. He said that a lot of people don't realize that the recording process is about freeze-framing the soul.
BD: Yeah. The recording process is very difficult for me. I lose my inspiration in the studio real easy, and it's very difficult for me to think that I'm going to eclipse anything I've ever done before. I get bored easily, and my mission, which starts out wide, becomes very dim after a few failed takes and this and that.
GW: There are elements of country blues and Sun Records production quality on the album.
BD: Well, it's always been there. But in the past, when my records were made, the producer, or whoever was in charge of my sessions, felt it was just enough to have me sing an original song. There was never enough work put into developing the orchestration, and that always made me feel very disillusioned about recording. *Time Out of Mind* is more illuminated, rather than just a song and the singing of that song. The arrangements or structures are really an integral part of the whole.
GW: *Time Out of Mind* was recorded just before you fell ill.
BD: That's right.
GW: Would you have regarded it as a satisfactory final chapter for you?
BD: No, I don't think so. I think we are just starting to get my sound on disc, and I think there's plenty more to do. We just opened up that door at that particular time, and in the passage of time we'll go back in and extend that. But I didn't feel like it was an ending to anything. I thought it was more the beginning.
GW: You've mentioned Buddy Holly in connection with the album. What did his spirit bring to the record?
BD: Buddy Holly. You know, I don't really recall exactly what I said about Buddy Holly, but while we were recording, every place I turned there was Buddy Holly. You know what I mean? It was one of those things. Every place you turned. You walked down a hallway and you heard Buddy Holly records like "That'll Be the Day." Then you'd get in the car to go over to the studio and "Rave On" would be playing. Then you'd walk into this studio and someone's playing a cassette of "It's So Easy." And this would happen day after day after day. Phrases of Buddy Holly songs would just come out of nowhere. It was spooky. [laughs] But after we recorded and left, you know, it stayed in our minds. Well, Buddy Holly's spirit must have been someplace, hastening this record.
GW: There seems to be a renewed interest in your music, particularly among young people. Have you noticed a shift in your audience?
BD: Ah, no, I haven't found any shift, but I've found a different audience. I'm not good at reading how old people are, but my audience seems to be livelier than they were 10 years ago. They react immediately to what I do, and they don't come with a lot of preconceived ideas about who they would like me to be, or who they think I am. Wereas a few years ago they couldn't react quickly. They had to get through too much ...er...
BD: Mental, yeah, mental, psychic stuff, so [sighs] I was still kind of bogged down with a certain crowd of people. It has taken a long time to bust through that crowd. Even the last time I toured with Tom Petty, we were kind of facing that same old crowd. But that's changed. We seem to be attracting a new audience. Not just those who know me as some kind of figurehead from another age or a symbol for a generational thing. I don't really have to deal with that any more, if I ever did.
GW: Do you find that choosing songs for your live performances gets harder or easier as the years go on?
BD: I have so many songs that finding them is the least of my problems. I've got songs that I've never even sung live. I've got 500, 600, 700 songs. I don't have a problem with the backlog of songs. Some fade away and diminish in time, but others take their place.
GW: While there seems there is plenty of room to improvise, your current live sound appears to be more tightly arranged than in previous years.
BD: If you're going to ask me what's the difference between now and when I used to play in the Seventies, Eighties and even back in the Sixties, the songs weren't arranged. The arrangement is the architecture of the song. And that's why our performances are so effective these days, because measure for measure we don't stray from the actual structure of the song. And once the architecture is in place, a song can be done in an endless amount ofways. That's what keeps my current live shows unadulterated. Because they're not diluted, or they're not jumbled up. They're not scrambled, they're not just a bunch of screaming... a conglomerated sound mix. It's like Skip James, who you mentioned earlier, once said: "I don't want to entertain. What I want to do is impress with skill and deaden the minds of my listeners." If you listen to his records -- his old records -- you know he can do that. But if you listen to the records he made in the Sixties, when they rediscovered him, you find that there's something missing. And what's missing is that interconnecting thread of the structure of the songs.
GW: What was the nature of your heart infection? BD It was something called histoplasmosis that came from just accidentally inhaling a bunch of stuff that was out on one of the rivers by where I live. Maybe one month, or two to three days out of the year, the banks around the river get all mucky, and then the wind blows and a bunch of swirling mess is in the air. I happened to inhale a bunch of that. That's what made me sick. It went into my heart area, but it wasn't anything really attacking my heart.
GW: You were pretty seriously ill though?
BD: Oh, I was real seriously ill, yeah.
GW: Did that make you pause and rethink things?
BD: I really didn't, you know, because it wasn't something that I brought on myself. It's not like I even needed the time to slow down and re-examine my life. If was just one of those things. I was down for about six weeks, but I don't remember particularly having any kind of great illuminations at that time.
GW: The performance for the Pope at the World Eucharistic Congress in Bologna must have been tremendously moving for you.
BD: Well, it's all surreal, you know? But yeah, it was moving. I mean, he's the Pope. [laughs] You know what I mean? There's only one Pope, right?
GW: Did the irony of playing "Knocking on Heaven's Door" in that situation strike you at the time?
BD: No, because that's the song they wanted to hear. It seemed to be a good correspondence to the situation.