(What was it you wanted? #20)

Maybe it's because he did not give interviews at all for years, or maybe it is just that he is the most important songwriter of the modern pop era, but I cannot imagine passing up the chance to talk to Bob Dylan - even if strings are attached.

The interview invitation from Columbia Records suggested that Dylan only wanted to discuss his latest album: "Empire Burlesque", the studio collection from last summer and "Biograph", the ambitious retrospective set that just hit the stores.

Dylan himself quickly cut the strings. He showed little interest in those subjects as he sat on a chair in the backyard of his Malibu home.

"The new releases?", Dylan asked almost sheepishly, "I hope you don't make this look like some carny trying to hawk his own records. I don't know if you even want to hit on the records. When people think of me, they are not necessarily going to buy the latest record, anyway. They may buy a record from years ago. Besides I don't think interviews sell records".

So why did Dylan agree to a series of interviews, including his first formal network TV interview (for "20/20")?

"I really haven't had that much connection or conversation (over the years) with the people at Columbia" he said, referring to his record label for most of two decades. "Usually I turn in my records, and they release them. But they really like this record ("Empire Burlesque"), so they asked me to do some videos and a few interviews to draw attention to it".

"But that doesn't mean I want to sit around and talk about the record. I haven't even listened to it since it came out. I'd rather spend my time working on new songs or listen to other people's records. Have you heard the new Hank Williams album, the collection of old demo tapes? it's great".

About the project, Dylan said: "Columbia wanted to put out (a retro- spective) album on me a few years ago. They had pulled out everything (from earlier albums) that could be classified as love songs and had it on one collection. I didn't care one way or another, but I had a new record coming out, so I asked them not to it then".

"I guess it's OK for someone who has never heard of me and is looking for a crash course or something. But I've got a lot of stuff that is lying around all over the place in cassette recorders that I'd put out if I was putting the set together".

One thing about "Biograph" that does please Dylan is a 36-page booklet written by Cameron Crowe, who wrote numerous Rolling Stone magazine profiles and the book and then the screenplay "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". The "Biograph" text is a brief, affectionate look at Dylan's life with generous quotes from the songwriter.

Dylan, 44, is not being open just to the press these days. For years he has tended to be isolated even when doing a benefit concert - avoiding photographers and, often, other artists backstage by arriving just before showtime and leaving quickly after the last number.

At September's Farm Aid benefit at the University of Illinois however, he was almost leisurely hanging out with Tom Petty, whose band backed him on the show, and chatting with other performers including Randy Newman. Lou Reed and Emmylou Harris. Normally camera-shy, Dylan did not even turn away when a TV crew and a few photographers pointed their lenses at him as he sat on steps outside his dressing room trailer.

One reason for the naturalness, a backstage observer joked at Farm Aid, was that Dylan wanted to prove - after his disastrously spacey performance with the Stones' Keith Richard and Ron Wood at Live Aid - that he still had his faculties.

"Yeah", Dylan grumped about July's Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, "They screwed around with us. We didn't even have any (sound) monitors out there. When they threw in the grand finale at the last moment, they took all the settings off and set the stage up for the 30 people who were standing behind the curtain. We couldn't even hear our own voices (out front), and when you can't hear, you can't play; you don't have any timing. It's like proceeding on radar".

Dylan's Malibu home, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, is quite secluded and a guard shack at the only entrance to the property keeps the curious away. The atmosphere is rural. A dirt driveway runs through the property, and lots of small animals, including chickens and a few large dogs roam around.

On this cool afternoon, Dylan was wearing the same outfit that he has always seemed to be wearing in recent years. jeans looking as if they were ready for the hamper, a wrinkled T-shirt and motorcycle boots. Except for Europe last year, he has not toured much in the 80's. Still he is on the road so much - Minnesota, New York, London or some more isolated exotic places - that he does not really call any place home.

"I'm just not the kind of person who seems to be able to settle down", he said as two dogs edged against his chair. "If I'm in L.A. for say, two months, I'll be in the studio for maybe a month out of that time, putting down ideas for songs".

"On The other days I'm usually recuperating from being in the studio. I usually stay in a long time, all night, part of the day. Then I'll go off to New York or London and do the same thing. I'm going to London soon to work on some stuff with Dave Stewart".

Stewart, one half of the Eurythmics, joined Dylan on guitar on the Emotionally Yours video.

Dylan expects to concentrate on performance videos because he has not been pleased with concert clips based upon his songs - either the arty 'Jokerman' video or more conventional narrative of 'Tight Connection'.

He would probably just as soon not do videos at all, but realizes their importance in the market place.

"It used to be that people would buy a record if they liked what they heard on the radio, but video has changed a lot of that", he said. "If someone comes along now with a new song, people talk about 'Well, what does it look like?' It is like 'I saw this new song'".

One continuing question for Dylan is his much-publicized 'born-again' Christian phase. He has said he does not like the term 'born-again', and his music has moved away from the aggressive dogma of the 'Slow Train Coming' album. But Dylan still refuses to define his exact religion.

"I fell like pretty soon I am going to write about that", he said. "I feel like I got something to say but more than you can say in a few paragraphs in a newspaper".

He did smile at the mention of the hostile reactions generated during his 'born-again' Christian tours of 1979 and 1980. "If you make people jump on any level, I think it is worth while, because people are so asleep".

Beyond music, Dylan's special interest these days is art. He maintains an artist's studio behind his Malibu house and showed off his character sketches, with the nervous excitement of a proud parent. He hopes to put them in a book and write something to go with each drawing. Dylan is also thinking about a book of short stories. "That may sound presumptuous", he said, "but there are a lot of things, I'd like to say that I can't say in songs".

On his continued energy he said: "It's kinda funny. When I see my name anywhere, it's (often) the '60's this or the '60's that. I can't figure out sometimes if people think I'm dead or alive".

This man who has been hounded, dissected, idolized and ridiculed over the years, stepped outside the studio. The sun had set and the dogs raced over to him. He paused - as if searching for a summary statement.

"I've had some personal ups and downs, but usually things have been pretty good for me", he finally said. "I don't feel old", but I remember in my 20's (when) I'd think about people in their 30's as old. The thing I really notice now is time".

"Things used to go a lot slower. The days now go by so very fast. But I've never felt numb (about life). There is something about the chords, the sound of them that makes you feel alive. As long as you can play music, I believe you'll feel alive".

Published in L.A. Times November 17, 1985.
My source: "Talkin' Bob Dylan 1984 & 1985 (Some Educated Rap)" by Stewart P. Bicker.