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onsdag den 22. september 2021

“He has taken what everybody else has done and made his own thing of it - and that's great”

“The man who showed up at my door one afternoon a few weeks back looked exactly like I had hoped and feared he would: with his mazy brown hair and his taut smile and with smoky sunglasses masking his inscrutable stare, he looked just like Bob Dylan. Almost too much so. Dressed in a sleeveless torn T-shirt, weather-worn black jeans, and motorcycle boots and, at 44, looking more fit than I had seen him in any recent photos or video appearances, he seemed remarkably like the image of the younger Bob Dylan that is burned into our collective memory; the keen, fierce man who often tore apart known views of the world with his acerbic gestures and eloquent yowls.

What brought Dylan to my door was simply that we had an interview to do, and since he had come to Hollywood anyway that day, this was the easiest place for him to do it. While this certainly made the meeting a lot more thrilling for me, it also made it a bit scarier. More than 20 years of image pre-ceded him. This was a man who could be tense, capricious and baffling, and who was capable of wielding his image at a whim's notice in a way that could stupefy and intimidate not only interviewers but sometimes friends as well. What I found instead was a man who didn't seem too concerned with brandishing his image-even for a moment. He offered his hand, flashed a slightly bashful smile, then walked over to my stereo, kneeled down and started to flip through a stack of some unfiled records on the floor—mostly LPs by older jazz, pop and country singers. He commented on most of what he came across: "The Delmore Brothers. God, I really love them. I think they've influenced every harmony I've ever tried to sing... This Hank Williams thing with just him and his guitar- -man, that's something, isn't it? I used to sing these songs way back, a long time ago, even before I played rock & roll as a teenager... Sinatra, Peggy Lee, yeah, I love all these people, but I tell you who I've really been listening to a lot lately—in fact, I'm thinking about recording one of his earlier songs—is Bing Crosby, I don't think you can find better phrasing anywhere."

That's pretty much how Dylan was that afternoon: good-humored and gracious, but also thoughtful and often elaborate in his answers. And sometimes—when he talked about his Minnesota youth, or his early days in the folk scene under the enthrallment of Woody Guthrie—his voice grew softer and more deliberate, as if he were striving to pick just the right words to convey the exact detail of his memory. During these moments he sometimes lapsed into silence, but behind his sunglasses his eyes stayed active with thought, flickering back and forth as if reading a distant memory.

For the most part, though, sipping a Corona beer and smoking cigarettes, he seemed generous and relaxed, sometimes even surprisingly candid, as he ranged through a wide stretch of topics. He talked about his recent work in videos: "Making these things is like pulling teeth. For one thing, because of that movie Renaldo and Clara [Dylan's 1978 film of the Rolling Thunder Revue, widely and misguidedly viewed as a disaster, and preferable to me over Martin Scorsese’s later account], I haven't been in a place where I could ask for my own control over these things-plus, because my records aren't exactly selling like Cyndi Lauper's or Bruce's, I didn't feel I had the credibility to demand that control.

"But the company wanted me to try one more (to help boost Empire Burlesque's sales] and I said I would, as long as I got to name Dave Stewart [of Eurythmics] as director. His stuff had a spontaneous look to it, and somehow I just figured he would understand what I was doing. And he did: He put together a great band for this lip-sync video and set us up with the equipment on this little stage in a church somewhere in West L.A. So, between all the time they took setting up camera shots and lights and all that stuff, we could just play live for this little crowd that had gathered there.

"I can't even express how good that felt-in fact, I was trying to remember the last time I'd felt that kind of direct connection, and finally I realized it must have been back in the '50s, when I was 14 or 15 years old playing with four-piece rock & roll bands back in Minnesota. Back in those days there weren't any sound systems or anything that you had to bother with. You'd set up your amplifiers and turn them up to where you wanted to turn them. That just doesn't happen anymore. Now there are just so many things that get in the way of that kind of feeling, that simple directness. For some reason, making this video just made me realize how far everything has come these last several years—and how far I'd come."

His reaction to pop's new social activism, and such efforts as Live Aid, U.S.A. for Africa and Farm Aid, is somewhat mixed. "While it's great that people are supporting U.S.A. for Africa and Farm Aid, what are they really doing to alleviate poverty? It's almost like guilt money. Some guy halfway round the world is starving so O.K., put 10 bucks in the barrel, then you can feel you don't have to have a guilty conscience about it. Obviously, on some level it does help, but as far as any sweeping movement to destroy hunger and poverty, I don't see that happening.

"Still, Live Aid and Farm Aid are fantastic things, but then musicians have always done things like that. When people want a benefit, you don't see then calling dancers or architects or lawyers or even politicians the power of music is that it has always drawn people together.

"But at the same time, while they're asking musicians to raise money, they're also trying to blacklist our records, trying to take somebody like Prince and Madonna off the radio—the same people that they ask to help raise funds. And it isn't just them: when they're talking about blacklisting records and giving them ratings, they're talking about everybody."

Dylan is pleased by Bruce Springsteen's growing popularity, but he has a warning too. "Bruce knows where he comes from: “He has taken what everybody else has done and made his own thing of it—and that's great. But somebody'll come along after Bruce, say ten or twenty years from now, and maybe they'll be looking to Bruce as their primary model and somehow miss the fact [that his music comes from Elvis Presley and Woody Guthrie]. In other words, all they're going to get is Bruce, they're not gonna get what Bruce got.

"If you copy somebody—and there's nothing wrong with that—the top rule should be to go back and copy the guy that was there first. It's like all the people who copied me over the years, too many of them just got me, they didn't get what I got."

Dylan was a bit less expansive when it came to discussing his own historical presence in rock 'n' roll. He seemed more moved or involved when discussing the inspiration he felt during his early immersion in rock & roll and the folk, beat and poetry scenes than in deliberating over any questions about his own triumphs—such as the seismic impact he had on international pop culture once he fused folk tradition, rock revolt, political insight and poetic ability into a personalized, myth-making style.

"There are certain things you can say you've done along the way that count," he said, "but in the end it's not really how many records you sell [Dylan had sold more than 35 million at the time of this article] or how big a show you play or even how many people end up imitating you. I know I've done a lot of things, but if I'm proud of anything, it's maybe that I helped bring somebody like Woody Guthrie—who was not a household name—to a little more attention, the same way that the Rolling Stones helped to bring Howling Wolf more recognition. It's because of Woody Guthrie and people like him that I originally set out to do what I've done. Stumbling onto Woody Guthrie just blew my mind.

"Then again, I never really dwell on myself too much in terms of what I've done. For one thing, so much of it went by in such a flash, it's hard for me to focus on. I was once offered a great deal of money for an autobiography, and I thought about it for a minute, then I decided I wasn't ready. I have to be sat down and have this stuff drawn out of me, because on my own I wouldn't think about these things. You just go ahead and you live your life and you move onto the next thing, and when it's all said and done, the historians figure it out. That's the way I look at it."

Despite his reluctance, Dylan did look back recently at some length at the behest of Columbia Records, which has been trying for three years to elicit his cooperation and enthusiasm over Biograph, a five-LP retrospective of his career from 1962 to 1981. The package (which is due for release in early November) features 53 tracks, including 18 previously unreleased recordings and three scarce singles. Just as importantly, the set also includes a 36-page booklet by journalist-author-screenwriter Cameron Crowe (Rolling Stone, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) that features extensive commentary and reflections by Dylan. His own critiques of his political anthems, love songs, religious declarations, narrative epics, poetic fancies, rock inventions and long-buried gems are fascinating,.

Except for Crowe's booklet, Dylan hasn't much use for the Biograph project. "I’ve never really known what this thing is supposed to be," he said, “There’s more stuff that hasn't been heard before, but most of my stuff has already been bootlegged, so to anybody in the know, there's nothing on it they haven't heard before. I probably would've put different things on it that haven't been heard before, but I didn't pick the material. I didn't put it together and I haven't been very excited about this thing. All it is, really, is repackaging, and it’ll just cost a lot of money. About the only thing that makes it special is Cameron's book."

Perhaps Dylan's objections to Biograph derive from an aversion to being consigned to any kind of definitive history when so much of his history remains to be written. Perhaps they also stem from an understanding that a single collection could ever bind or explain a career as wide-ranging and restive as his, nor could it ever satisfy the critics, detractors, defenders and partisans who have scrutinized, acclaimed, assailed and debated his work with more fervor and attention than any other American post-war musician or author has received. Beginning with his ninth album, John Wesley Harding (1968), virtually every subsequent release has been greeted as either a comeback, a stinging disappointment or an out-and-out betrayal of his early promise and beliefs.

While this later work hasn't affected pop culture as much as his early songs did (but then, what could?), it's also true that much of it amounts to a resourceful body of music often beautiful and daring, sometimes perturbing or confused, but always informed by an aspiring and uncompromising conscience.

Still, while Empire Burlesque sold respectably (around the half-million mark), it didn't attain the commercial prominence that was expected. Does that bother or disappoint Dylan?

"Yeah," he said without hesitation. “In fact, it concerns me to a point where I was thinking about regrouping my whole thought on making records. If the records I make are only going to sell a certain amount, then why do I have to spend a lot of time putting them together? You see, I haven't always been into recording all that much. It used to be that I would go in and try to get some kind of track which was magical, with a vocal on it, and just wait for those moments. I mean, talk about [Bruce Springsteen's] Nebraska. People say to me, 'When you gonna make a Nebraska album?’ Well, I love that record, but I think I've made five or six Nebraska albums, you know."

Dylan stopped, shrugged and poured a little more beer into his glass. "You know," he said, "I can't release all the stuff I want to release. I've got a lot of just melodic instrumentals laying around. I was thinking the other day that maybe I should put them out, but I can't. I've also got a record of just me and Clydie King singing together and it's great, but it doesn't fall into any category that the record company knows how to deal with. It's like...well, something like the Delmore Brothers: It's very simple and the harmonies are great. If it was up to me I'd put that kind of stuff out, or I would've put some of it on Biograph but it's not up to me. Anyway, who’s to know what people would make of it?"

I'd heard similar stories from various sources over the last few years—about whole projects that had been discouraged, if not altogether nixed by CBS. I'd even heard tapes of some of the unreleased works, and many of them are stunning. Such still-unreleased tracks as "Blind Willie McTell," "Death Is Not the End" and “Lord Protect My Child" are among the most stirring work he has done, providing sharp commentaries on physical and spiritual despair and hard-earned moral hope. Hearing these, as well as the better material on Infidels and Empire Burlesque, one realizes that Dylan still has a great deal to say, and that he is once again at a creative crossroads. At the same time, one fears that he may withhold such uncompromising work out of deference to the expectations of the marketplace.

That was a matter I didn't get to explore because as quickly as Dylan can enter a room, he can also leave one. "It's late. I should go," he said, standing up, offering his hand and heading for the door. Looking out and realizing that night had fallen, he finally took off his sunglasses. It was nice to look, even if just for a moment, into those clear blue eyes.

In a way, I was glad that the question had gone unasked. How was I going to put it: Are you going to redeem every promise we've ever inferred from your work and legend? It was fitting to remember something Sam Shepard once said of Dylan: "The repercussions of his art don't have to be answered by him at all. They fall on us as questions and that's where they belong.” That his art still inspires such questions tells me everything I need to know about Bob Dylan’s remaining promise.”

 - af Mikal Gilmore. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, 13. oktober, 1985.

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