THE ONE SURE THING ABOUT BOB Dylan is that there is no sure thing. In a musical career stretching over more than three decades, he has proven time and again that he owns the most bottomless bag of tricks in the business. With changeling grace, he has embraced folk music, rock and roll, country, and gospel; on his last two albums, pop music's most singular singer-songwriter covered folk songs written and sung before he was born. It's the same with his public pronouncements. In interviews over the years, he has been baleful, apocalyptic, charming, abrasive, squirrelly and profound, depending on his mood. When he sar down two weeks ago for an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK to talk about his latest project, a book of his drawings, he wore the guise of plain old Bob, earnest, articulate, self-deprecating and darn near kitten-cuddly.
"My favorite artists are people like Donatello or Caravaggio or Titioan, all those overwhelming guys," he says. "I wouldn't even know where to begin to approach that kind of mastery." Of his own work, he is content to say, "The purpose of my drawings is very undefined. They're very personal drawings, I guess like someone would knit a sweater, y'know?" It takes a while to get used to this kind of talk from the man whose music elevated scorn to an art form. But then, this sin't Dylan the musician, this i sDylan the artist promoting Drawn Blank (Random House. $30), a collection of pencil, charcoal, and pen-and ink drawings. Every Dylan fan has known for years that he dabbled in art. He did the cover paintings for the Band's debut album "Music From Big Pink," and his own "Self Portrait," and in the '80s, his sketches /adorned the album jacket art of "Infidels" and "Empire Burlesque." But with this book he's laid his artistic bid on the line.
Asked where the idea came from, Dylan says it came from his publisher. David Rosenthal, Dylan's editor at Random House, says the idea came from Dylan's people. Dylan denies he had much to do with putting the book together; he submitted drawings and they did the rest. But Rosenthal says Dylan was "deeply, deeply involved." The only thing that's clear is that the man who sang "It's always been my nature to take chances" is walking on untried ground and doing damage control with every step.
He needn't worry so hard. There's nothing in this book to rival Rembrandt, and the selection might have been more rigorously culled (captions would be nice too). But the best of the work displays a becoming spareness of line and a loopy but engaging sense of composition. Hotel rooms, street scenes, big diesel trucks—Dylan doesn't do pretty. He's content to take the world as he finds it, and whatever is, is interesting.
"I don't concoct drawings out of my head. It's all out there somewhere and that's the only way I can work or get any satisfaction out of doing it," he says, sitting in an empty Manhattan recording studio where, well into a Saturday night, he's been rehearsing his band for a European tour. With his black-and-gray checked shirt hanging out over black slacks, black boots and his every-day-is-a-bad-hair-day hair framing a motel tan, the 53-year-old Dylan looks every inch the rock-and-roll eminence gone a tad long in the tooth. Setting fire to a filtered Camel, he continues, "These drawings, they kind of go with my primitive style of music." Both are based in reality, and in both music making l and drawing he aims to lose himself. "It's almost like meditating. I feel like I'm renewed after I make a drawing."
A lot of Dylan's art, his portraits particularly, resemble the drawings high-school kids do for fun on the covers of their notebooks. The difference is that while most people grow up and shy away from art, Dylan persists. Like his music, where professional polish has never been the point, his drawings epitomize the amateur's creed, that homemade, hand-hewn stuff is always the best.
Dylan's fascination with reality does not extend to the virtual variety. Though his life and work recently provided the subject matter for a CD-ROM package entitled "Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Interactive," he has not yet seen it. "I'm just rooted back there in the '50s, and what's got me this far keeps me going," he says with a grin. "I know people who've got that online thing and games and things, but I find it too inhibiting to sit in front of a screen. On any level—I don't even like to sit and watch TV too much. I feel I'm being manipulated."
'Greed': Dylan called his latest, Grammywinning album "World Gone Wrong," and meant every word of it. Two songs are by the late Georgia bluesman Willie McTell, a musician whose passing he mourned in one of his greatest songs, "Blind Willie McTell" ("Power and greed and corruptible seed / Seem to be all that there is") and whose work, for Dylan, symbolizes a level of craft fast vanishing. " I f you're looking for depth," he says, "you gotta go back." McTell's songs, most written in the '20s, '30s and '40s, are touchstones to reality for Dylan. "To be around a long time, a musician has got to learn what he can trust. These songs are based on reality, like these drawings. These were real things that happened."
Dylan's increasing fascination with the legacy of the past extends to his own early work. "I've been working on some songs for 20 years, always moving toward some kind of perfection," even though "I know it's never going to happen." (The latest incarnation of those songs will appear next month in an album of Dylan's much-lauded MTV "Unplugged" concert.) But art forhim has always been about subversive change. As a result, he can't abide those fans who want him to continue performing his old songs exactly the way he recorded them. "I'd rather live in the moment than some kind of nostalgia trip, which I feel is a drug, a real drug that people are mainlining. It's outrageous. People are mainlining nostalgia like it was morphine. I don't want to be a drug dealer." Chuckling at his own joke, the man who has made a career out of reinventing himself stands up to go find more cigarettes and coffee and get back to work.