Sunday, May 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan!

We're celebrating Bob Dylan's 68th Birthday today at the Cafe - so great ready. And yes, Mr. Dylan was born the same year as the now retired Vice President of the United States. Heh.

In the meantime here's flashbacks of birthday celebrations at the Cafe:

The New York Times has a follow-up article to the recent discovery that the handwritten lyrics currently going up for auction at Christie's is actually a modified reports:
A poem initially offered for auction by Christie’s as an early work by Bob Dylan has turned out to be a modified version of a song by Hank Snow. The Associated Press reported that Christie’s planned to sell a poem called “Little Buddy,” handwritten by Mr. Dylan in 1957 for a summer camp newspaper. Lisa Heilicher, a former editor of The Herzl Herald at Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis., told The A.P. that she had kept the poem for years. The poem, which tells the story of a dog that is killed by a drunkard, turned out to be virtually identical to a song by Snow, also called “Little Buddy,” which he wrote and recorded in the 1950s. Reuters reported that Christie’s now acknowledges that the poem is a modified version of that song and will still offer it for sale. In a statement, the auction house said, “This still remains among the earliest known handwritten lyrics of Bob Dylan, and Christie’s is pleased to offer them in our Pop Culture auction on June 23.”
What's interesting is that this actually is right in line with how one can approach Bob Dylan's work. Following in American folk and blues traditions, Dylan "borrows" from other songwriters and traditions. What makes him unique is how he "improves" the original or juxtaposes his interpretations of the original work against other forms of American music. It is one of the reasons he remains so influential (he's still at it and yes, young musicians are still flocking to his concerts to see him in action). He's the one that blended the folk traditions with the blues and early rock and roll and then through in some Kerouac and Ginsburg and tied the whole thing up with scripture (one way or the other).

The idea that Dylan has "borrowed" lyrics is hardly a revelation. He's even referred to himself - perhaps - in his All Along the Watchtower when he refers to characters called "the Joker" and "the Thief," which in fact could both by Dylan (or not, who knows?). Even 2001's Love & Theft make similar allusions. I case could be made he does this on purpose, following folk traditions, so that the songs will not be lost. He isn't "modern" for all the protestations to the contrary. The last thing Dylan is is modern. He was born old.

What's in a name?
Bob Dylan, aka Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka Elston Gunn[1] Blind Boy Grunt, Lucky Wilbury/Boo Wilbury, Elmer Johnson, Sergei Petrov, Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, Jack Frost, Jack Fate, Willow Scarlet or Robert Milkwood Thomas was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation this past year for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."

Portrait of an Artist
One of our regulars here at the cafe, Dabney Oakley, has sent us a painting done by his sister in 1964. The story is that a "'Bob Zimmerman' was visiting a friend at Randolph-Macon Womans College in Lynchburg. Not looking like the usual prepsters from Hampden-Sydney, Washington & Lee, or UVa, he was asked to 'sit' for a 'Studio Portrait Class.' The portrait shown was done by my sister. I'm sure there are others 'out there,' too."

We know from Dylan's autobiography Chronicles that he used to come down to Virginia with Paul Clayton and hang out at Clayton's cabin near Charlottesville in that period. Wonder what other portraits could be out there?

Dylan really working on Part II of Chronicles?

I admit, there's been a part of me that wondered if Dylan was joshing us a bit with calling his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One - not ever expecting there'd be a Volume Two or Volume Three. There were reports, however, last year that Dylan is working on Volume II. That was a year ago. What's up now? What would he write about this time?

The Boots
Here's probably my favorite Dylan music video, A Series of Dreams, of a song that was bootlegged long before it was finally released, having been cut from the Mercy Me album.

The tune sounds very much like the tune we hear in Red River Shore that was released on his latest bootleg series, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 last year.

Another unreleased version of A Series of Dreams also appears on Tell Tale Signs as well:

Dylan is an extraordinary singer: Learning how to listen

From here:

St. Paul, Minn. — A new book from the University of Minnesota Press explores many facets of Dylan's life and legacy. Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World touches on everything from Dylan's youth on Minnesota's Iron Range to his emergence as one of the most influential musicians in the world.

While most observers acknowledge that Dylan is an immensely-talented lyricist and composer, the thing that turns many listeners off is his voice. But in the new book, two music professors argue that if you listen closely you'll discover that Dylan is actually a very talented and versatile singer.

Sumanth Gopinath, who teaches Music Theory at the University of Minnesota, spoke with Minnesota Public Radio's Jim Bickal about how Dylan uses his voice in his music.

That was then and that was then. Here's Joan Baez singing about the most talented and crazy person she ever worked with:

Now you're telling me
you're not nostalgic
then give me another word for it
you who are so good with words
and at keeping things vague
because I need some of that vagueness now
it's all come back too clearly
yes I loved you dearly
and if you're offering me diamonds and rust
I've already paid.

LATER: Here are few samplings of Dylan's artwork:

These are samples of sketch paintings by Bob Dylan from the Drawn Blank Series. The originals were done 1989-1992 and then published in 1994. In 2007 he had the originals scanned and digitally printed and he overpainted them with gouache or watercolor. These are a few examples of his work. The song is the Suze (The Cough Song) from the early 1960s.

We are adding a new item to the Cafe Menu. Introducing Mrs. Zimmerman's Banana Bread. It is reported that Sandy Thompson of the Duluth News-Tribune interviewed Bob Dylan's mother, Beatty Zimmerman (1915-2000) on June 30, 1999 and Beatty Zimmerman shared this recipe. The recipe was then tested by the Duluth News-Tribune, July 7, 1999. Here it is:

Beatty Zimmerman's Banana Chocolate Chip Loaf Bread

1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, softened
2 eggs 4 tablespoons sour cream
2 ripe bananas, mashed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 (6-ounce) package chocolate chips (or up to 12 ounces, if desired)
2 medium disposable foil loaf pans (about 8-by-3-by-2 inches)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together the sugar and butter. Add the eggs and beat well. Add the sour cream and ripe bananas; mix well. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add the dry mixture to the sour cream mixture, then fold in the chocolate chips. Divide the batter between two greased loaf pans. Bake for about 50 minutes. Turn the loaves out on to cooling rack or aluminum foil as soon as they're done.

Cook's note: Beatty Zimmerman, mother of singer Bob Dylan, says this recipe is no-fail: "It's one minute to make."

Here's more:
Like many good old-fashioned moms from the Iron range, Beatty Zimmerman still cooks and bakes, although not as much as she used to. Beatty is healthy and happy, dividing her time between the Twin Cities and Arizona.

She sees her famous son, now 58, all the time. "He just spent a week here a little while ago," she said in a recent phone conversation, during which she talked about a variety of things: stories in the news, how hard it is for working parents these days, her son the icon, fudge bars.

Beatty admits that her own fudge bar recipe is not that good to use. "It’s too complicated. You have to separate the eggs, it’s a big monkey business. It’s not a good recipe if people don’t know when to take it out of the oven. It dries up the next day."

Beatty did agree to share one family favorite. "This is a wonderful recipe," she said, "and to make it is so easy dear. All of the children like their Grandma’s banana chocolate chip loaf bread. They like it because it’s not too sweet."

What does her son enjoy? "Bob doesn’t really have favorites; he always ate whatever I cooked," Beatty said. "They’re not gourmet eaters; they like all kinds of food."

"One thing Bob does like," she added, "and I know he hates the publicity, but I know you have to write something nice - - and everybody likes a good recipe - - he does like chicken every way."

Beatty and her husband, Abe, lived in Duluth for 14 years, moving to Hibbing when their boys, Robert and David, were 6 and 2, respectively.

"This generation really doesn’t know me," Dylan's mother said. "I really don’t do anything with Bob’s career, except for security purposes, (such as) with the Kennedy award." (Dylan received the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in 1997.)

"But all the years that Bob has been out, he kept everybody in the family away from the career, just because of security. He had to keep the normalcy, he had to cut out a lot of the reporters because he was afraid for the children. The children were never bothered in school; they lived a nice, normal life."

When Beatty talks about her son, she could be any mom, chatting over coffee and cake; "He went out and had a wonderful family, five wonderful children. He came to Minnesota for the summers, bought a small piece of property, brought his children."

And the grandchildren? Beatty’s equally proud. "There’s Maria, "she said, "who’s an attorney an is married with four children; Jesse does videos and commercials and has a little boy; Anna is an artist, she’s 30; Sam is 31, is a photographer and writer; and Jakob, he’s in the Wallflowers, he’s an exquisite boy, has two little children and is very busy."

Beatty mentions her son’s current tour: "He gives you a show that is worth every penny. I’ve been to his shows all over the world. Once you’re a showman, it’s hard to get it out of your blood."

But will she attend his concerts in Duluth or Minneapolis this weekend? "I don’t think so, honey - too many people," she confides.

Of his show in October, his first ever in his hometown, his mother said: "He loved playing Duluth, he liked it very much. The reason he never got to Duluth was that the tours never took him that far. He played several times here in the Twin Cities, but the tours never got past Minneapolis. The promotors weren’t really pushing that," she says.

"I never did ask him about coming to Duluth. I don’t have that time to ask; I just want to know how he is and how everybody’s doing. I think he asked his promotor to come here. I know he was glad to be back in Duluth, and Duluth has really showed him by ticket sales, so what more do you need than that?

"You know," she continued, "people are so happy to see Bob. He leaves a wonderful impression, they love his words. His words are so apropos for anybody. Like ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ it’s apropos to the world, and it’s 40 years old.

"He writes how he feels, and now the younger people are into his work. He doesn’t write on drugs, he doesn’t write on liquor, he writes on everyday occurrences."

"He just does not like the publicity. I have stayed out of it for thirty-nine years, and it’s been a hard job. Thirty-nine years is a long time. I’m not critical of people, people who write nice things about him. But I don’t have to be seen, my friends know me and that’s fine."

"My hope in life is that everyone stays well, health-wise. When the phone rings and everybody’s OK, I’m happy, you know?"

Of the extended Zimmerman family, Beatty says, "We live a very, very beautiful, wonderful life. We celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, we get to see them all the time."

And about her elder son: "For a man that is labeled a celebrity, he is not. He’s a wonderful human being, a normal, good person, and that’s what life is all about."

Not even a mouse
Now I know it's nearly the end of May - it's Memorial Day Weekend and probably the last thing on anyone's mind is Christmas. But today all bets are off. Here's Bob Dylan reading Twas The Night Before Christmas on his XM/Sirius Radio Show Theme Time Radio Hour:

And to all a Good Night.

UPDATE: We received this from one of our regulars last night, an interview with Bob Dylan by Robert Hilburn in 2004. It focuses on Dylan as the writer and it's an excellent insight to his creative process. Dylan tells Hilburn on why he is reluctant to "explain" his songs, "Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn't. It's up to the listener to figure out what it means to him."

And how does he write his songs? In this interview he opens the door to his creative writing process:

"Well, you have to understand that I'm not a melodist," he says. "My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.

"What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it's a proven fact that it'll help them relax. I don't meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.

"I'll be playing Bob Nolan's 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds,' for instance, in my head constantly -- while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I'll start writing a song."
Here is more:
By Robert Hilburn April 04, 2004

"No, no, no," Bob Dylan says sharply when asked if aspiring songwriters should learn their craft by studying his albums, which is precisely what thousands have done for decades.

"It's only natural to pattern yourself after someone," he says, opening a door on a subject that has long been off-limits to reporters: his songwriting process. "If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there's Frank Gehry.

"But you can't just copy somebody. If you like someone's work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster."

For four decades, Dylan has been a grand American paradox: an artist who revolutionized popular songwriting with his nakedly personal yet challenging work but who keeps us at such distance from his private life -- and his creative technique -- that he didn't have to look far for the title of his recent movie: "Masked and Anonymous."

Although fans and biographers might read his hundreds of songs as a chronicle of one man's love and loss, celebration and outrage, he doesn't revisit the stories behind the songs, per se, when he talks about his art this evening. What's more comfortable, and perhaps more interesting to him, is the way craft lets him turn life, ideas, observations and strings of poetic images into songs.

As he sits in the quiet of a grand hotel overlooking one of the city's picturesque canals, he paints a very different picture of his evolution as a songwriter than you might expect of an artist who seemed to arrive on the pop scene in the '60s with his vision and skills fully intact. Dylan's lyrics to "Blowin' in the Wind" were printed in Broadside, the folk music magazine, in May 1962, the month he turned 21.

The story he tells is one of trial and error, false starts and hard work -- a young man in a remote stretch of Minnesota finding such freedom in the music of folk songwriter Woody Guthrie that he felt he could spend his life just singing Guthrie songs -- until he discovered his true calling through a simple twist of fate.

Dylan has often said that he never set out to change pop songwriting or society, but it's clear he was filled with the high purpose of living up to the ideals he saw in Guthrie's work. Unlike rock stars before him, his chief goal wasn't just making the charts.

"I always admired true artists who were dedicated, so I learned from them," Dylan says, rocking slowly in the hotel room chair. "Popular culture usually comes to an end very quickly. It gets thrown into the grave. I wanted to do something that stood alongside Rembrandt's paintings."

Even after all these years, his eyes still light up at the mention of Guthrie, the "Dust Bowl" poet, whose best songs, such as "This Land Is Your Land," spoke so eloquently about the gulf Guthrie saw between America's ideals and its practices.

"To me, Woody Guthrie was the be-all and end-all," says Dylan, 62, his curly hair still framing his head majestically as it did on album covers four decades ago. "Woody's songs were about everything at the same time. They were about rich and poor, black and white, the highs and lows of life, the contradictions between what they were teaching in school and what was really happening. He was saying everything in his songs that I felt but didn't know how to.

"It wasn't only the songs, though. It was his voice -- it was like a stiletto -- and his diction. I had never heard anybody sing like that. His guitar strumming was more intricate than it sounded. All I knew was I wanted to learn his songs."

Dylan played so much Guthrie during his early club and coffeehouse days that he was dubbed a Woody Guthrie "jukebox." So imagine the shock when someone told him another singer -- Ramblin' Jack Elliott -- was doing that too. "It's like being a doctor who has spent all these years discovering penicillin and suddenly [finding out] someone else had already done it," he recalls.

A less ambitious young man might have figured no big deal -- there's plenty of room for two singers who admire Guthrie. But Dylan was too independent. "I knew I had something that Jack didn't have," he says, "though it took a while before I figured out what it was."

Songwriting, he finally realized, was what could set him apart. Dylan had toyed with the idea earlier, but he felt he didn't have enough vocabulary or life experience.

Scrambling to distinguish himself on the New York club scene in 1961, though, he tried again. The first song of his own that drew attention to him was "Song to Woody," which included the lines, "Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie Within two years, he had written and recorded songs, including "Girl of the North Country" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," that helped lift the heart of pop music from sheer entertainment to art.

'Songs Are the Star'

Dylan, whose work and personal life have been dissected in enough books to fill a library wall, seems to welcome the chance to talk about his craft, not his persona or history. It's as if he wants to demystify himself.

"To me, the performer is here and gone," he once said. "The songs are the star of the show, not me."

He also hates focusing on the past. "I'm always trying to stay right square in the moment. I don't want to get nostalgic or narcissistic as a writer or a person. I think successful people don't dwell in the past. I think only losers do."

Yet his sense of tradition is strong. He likes to think of himself as part of a brotherhood of writers whose roots are in the raw country, blues and folk strains of Guthrie, the Carter Family, Robert Johnson and scores of Scottish and English balladeers.

Over the course of the evening, he offers glimpses into how his ear and eye put pieces of songs together using everything from Beat poetry and the daily news to lessons picked up from contemporaries.

He is so committed to talking about his craft that he has a guitar at his side in case he wants to demonstrate a point. When his road manager knocks on the door after 90 minutes to see if everything is OK, Dylan waves him off. After three hours, he volunteers to get together again after the next night's concert.

"There are so many ways you can go at something in a song," he says. "One thing is to give life to inanimate objects. Johnny Cash is good at that. He's got the line that goes, 'A freighter said, "She's been here, but she's gone, boy, she's gone." ' That's great. 'A freighter says ' "She's been here." ' That's high art. If you do that once in a song, you usually turn it on its head right then and there."

The process he describes is more workaday than capturing lightning in a bottle. In working on "Like a Rolling Stone," he says, "I'm not thinking about what I want to say, I'm just thinking 'Is this OK for the meter?' "

But there's an undeniable element of mystery too. "It's like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don't know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song."

Some listeners over the years have complained that Dylan's songs are too ambiguous -- that they seem to be simply an exercise in narcissistic wordplay. But most critics say Dylan's sometimes competing images are his greatest strength.

Few in American pop have consistently written lines as hauntingly beautiful and richly challenging as his "Just Like a Woman," a song from the mid-'60s:

Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside
the rain
Ev'rybody knows

That Baby's got new clothes
But lately I see her ribbons and her bows

Have fallen from her curls.
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does

She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does

And she aches just like a woman

But she breaks just like
a little girl.

Dylan stares impassively at a lyric sheet for "Just Like a Woman" when it is handed to him. As is true of so many of his works, the song seems to be about many things at once.

"I'm not good at defining things," he says. "Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn't. It's up to the listener to figure out what it means to him."

As he stares at the page in the quiet of the room, however, he budges a little. "This is a very broad song. A line like, 'Breaks just like a little girl' is a metaphor. It's like a lot of blues-based songs. Someone may be talking about a woman, but they're not really talking about a woman at all. You can say a lot if you use metaphors."

After another pause, he adds: "It's a city song. It's like looking at something extremely powerful, say the shadow of a church or something like that. I don't think in literal terms as a writer. That's a fault of a lot of the old Broadway writers

Discovering Folk Music

Dylan's pop sensibilities were shaped long before he made his journey east in the winter of 1960-61.

Growing up in the icy isolation of Hibbing, Minn., Dylan, who was still Robert Allen Zimmerman then, found comfort in the country, blues and early rock 'n' roll that he heard at night on a Louisiana radio station whose signal came in strong and clear. It was worlds away from the local Hibbing station, which leaned toward mainstream pop like Perry Como, Frankie Laine and Doris Day.

Dylan has respect for many of the pre-rock songwriters, citing Cole Porter, whom he describes as a "fearless" rhymer, and Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" as a favorite. But he didn't feel most of the pre-rock writers were speaking to him.

Dylan pursued his muse in New York with an appetite for anything he felt would help him improve his craft, whether it was learning old blues and folk songs or soaking up literature.

"I had read a lot of poetry by the time I wrote a lot of those early songs," he volunteers. "I was into the hard-core poets. I read them the way some people read Stephen King. I had also seen a lot of it growing up. Poe's stuff knocked me out in more ways than I could name. Byron and Keats and all those guys. John Donne.

"Byron's stuff goes on and on and on and you don't know half the things he's talking about or half the people he's addressing. But you could appreciate the language."

He found himself side by side with the Beat poets. "The idea that poetry was spoken in the streets and spoken publicly, you couldn't help but be excited by that," he says. "There would always be a poet in the clubs and you'd hear the rhymes, and [Allen] Ginsberg and [Gregory] Corso -- those guys were highly influential."

Dylan once said he wrote songs so fast in the '60s that he didn't want to go to sleep at night because he was afraid he might miss one. Similarly, he soaked up influences so rapidly that it was hard to turn off the light at night. Why not read more?

"Someone gave me a book of Francois Villon poems and he was writing about hard-core street stuff and making it rhyme," Dylan says, still conveying the excitement of tapping into inspiration from 15th century France. "It was pretty staggering, and it made you wonder why you couldn't do the same thing in a song.

"I'd see Villon talking about visiting a prostitute and I would turn it around. I won't visit a prostitute, I'll talk about rescuing a prostitute. Again, it's turning stuff on its head, like 'vice is salvation and virtue will lead to ruin.' "

When you hear Dylan still marveling at lines such as the one above from Machiavelli or Shakespeare's "fair is foul and foul is fair," you can see why he would pepper his own songs with phrases that forever ask us to question our assumptions -- classic lines such as "There's no success like failure and failure's no success at all," from 1965's "Love Minus Zero/No Limit."

As always, he's quick to give credit to the tradition.

"I didn't invent this, you know," he stresses. "Robert Johnson would sing some song and out of nowhere there would be some kind of Confucius saying that would make you go, 'Wow, where did that come from?' It's important to always turn things around in some fashion."

Exploring His Themes

Some writers sit down every day for two or three hours, at least, to write, whether they are in the mood or not. Others wait for inspiration. Dylan scoffs at the discipline of daily writing.

"Oh, I'm not that serious a songwriter," he says, a smile on his lips. "Songs don't just come to me. They'll usually brew for a while, and you'll learn that it's important to keep the pieces until they are completely formed and glued together."

He sometimes writes on a typewriter but usually picks up a pen because he says he can write faster than he can type. "I don't spend a lot of time going over songs," Dylan says. "I'll sometimes make changes, but the early songs, for instance, were mostly all first drafts."

He doesn't insist that his rhymes be perfect. "What I do that a lot of other writers don't do is take a concept and line I really want to get into a song and if I can't figure out for the life of me how to simplify it, I'll just take it all -- lock, stock and barrel -- and figure out how to sing it so it fits the rhyming scheme. I would prefer to do that rather than bust it down or lose it because I can't rhyme it."

Themes, he says, have never been a problem. When he started out, the Korean War had just ended. "That was a heavy cloud over everyone's head," he says. "The communist thing was still big, and the civil rights movement was coming on. So there was lots to write about.

"But I never set out to write politics. I didn't want to be a political moralist. There were people who just did that. Phil Ochs focused on political things, but there are many sides to us, and I wanted to follow them all. We can feel very generous one day and very selfish the next hour."

Dylan found subject matter in newspapers. He points to 1964's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," the story of a wealthy Baltimore man who was given only a six-month sentence for killing a maid with a cane. "I just let the story tell itself in that song," he says. "Who wouldn't be offended by some guy beating an old woman to death and just getting a slap on the wrist?"

Other times, he was reacting to his own anxieties.

"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" helped define his place in pop with an apocalyptic tale of a society being torn apart on many levels.

I heard the sound of a thunder,
it roared out a warnin'

Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.

Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin'

Heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'

And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

The song has captured the imagination of listeners for generations, and like most of Dylan's songs, it has lyrics rich and poetic enough to defy age. Dylan scholars have often said the song was inspired by the Cuban missile crisis.

"All I remember about the missile crisis is there were bulletins coming across on the radio, people listening in bars and cafes, and the scariest thing was that cities, like Houston and Atlanta, would have to be evacuated. That was pretty heavy.

"Someone pointed out it was written before the missile crisis, but it doesn't really matter where a song comes from. It just matters where it takes you."

His Constant Changes

Dylan's career path hasn't been smooth. During an unprecedented creative spree that resulted in three landmark albums ("Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde") being released in 15 months, Dylan reconnected with the rock 'n' roll of his youth. Impressed by the energy he felt in the Beatles and desiring to speak in the musical language of his generation, he declared his independence from folk by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

His music soon became a new standard of rock achievement, influencing not only his contemporaries, including the Beatles, but almost everyone to follow.

The pressure on him was soon so intense that he went underground for a while in 1966, not fully resuming his career until the mid-'70s when he did a celebrated tour with the Band and then recorded one of his most hailed albums, "Blood on the Tracks." By the end of the decade, he confused some old fans by turning to brimstone gospel music.

There were gems throughout the '70s and '80s, but Dylan seemed for much of the '90s to be tired of songwriting, or, maybe, just tired of always being measured against the standards he set in the '60s.

In the early '90s he seemed to find comfort only in the rhythm of the road, losing himself in the troubadour tradition, not even wanting to talk about songwriting or his future. "Maybe I've written enough songs," he said then. "Maybe it's someone else's turn."

Somehow, however, all those shows reignited the songwriting spark -- as demonstrated in his Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind" album in 1997; the bittersweet song from the movie "Wonder Boys," "Things Have Changed," that won an Oscar in 2001 for best original song; and his heralded 2001 album, "Love and Theft." He spent much of last year working on a series of autobiographical chronicles. The first installment is due this fall from Simon & Schuster

But nowhere, perhaps, is Dylan's regained passion more evident than in his live show, where he has switched primarily from guitar to electric keyboard and now leads his four-piece band with the intensity of a young punk auteur.

Dylan -- who has lived in Southern California since he and ex-wife Sara Lowndes moved to Malibu in the mid-'70s with their five children -- was in Amsterdam to headline two sold-out concerts at a 6,000-seat hall. He does more than 100 shows a year.

The audience on the chilly winter night after our first conversation is divided among people Dylan's age who have been following his career since the '60s and young people drawn to him by his classic body of work, and they call out for new songs, not just the classics.

Refiguring the Melodies

Back at the hotel afterward, Dylan looks about as satisfied as a man with his restless creative spirit can be.

It's nearly 2 a.m. by now and another pot of coffee cools. He rubs his hand through his curly hair. After all these hours, I realize I haven't asked the most obvious question: Which comes first, the words or the music?

Dylan leans over and picks up the acoustic guitar.

"Well, you have to understand that I'm not a melodist," he says. "My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.

"What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it's a proven fact that it'll help them relax. I don't meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.

"I'll be playing Bob Nolan's 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds,' for instance, in my head constantly -- while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I'll start writing a song."

He's slowly strumming the guitar, but it's hard to pick out the tune.

"I wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That's the folk music tradition. You use what's been handed down. 'The Times They Are A-Changin' is probably from an old Scottish folk song."

As he keeps playing, the song starts sounding vaguely familiar.

I want to know about "Subterranean Homesick Blues," one of his most radical songs. The 1965 number fused folk and blues in a way that made everyone who heard it listen to it over and over. John Lennon once said the song was so captivating on every level that it made him wonder how he could ever compete with it.

The lyrics, again, were about a society in revolution, a tale of drugs and misuse of authority and trying to figure out everything when little seemed to make sense:

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government

The music too reflected the paranoia of the time -- roaring out of the speakers at the time with a cannonball force.

Where did that come from?

Without pause, Dylan says, almost with a wink, that the inspiration dates to his teens. "It's from Chuck Berry, a bit of 'Too Much Monkey Business' and some of the scat songs of the '40s."

As the music from the guitar gets louder, you realize Dylan is playing one of the most famous songs of the 20th century, Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."

You look into his eyes for a sign.

Is he writing a new song as we speak?

"No," he says with a smile. "I'm just showing you what I do."

AND FINALLY -- We have a clip from the annual "Bob Dylan Birthday Bash" at a place called Coffee Talk in Norristown, PA. This clip is from last night (May 24) during the Bash:

The Rolling Stone cover story is now up in full at the London Times here.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a beautiful moment.
I didn't know this existed . . .
Thank you!

Bob's voice is so high and resonanant--perfect match for Johnny

Their smiles--oh my god--
Long live the energy that passed
through both their bodies that day!