Answers to rock's enigma laureate still blowin' in the wind


February 09, 1992|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,Los Angeles Times

Bob Dylan stares idly at the paperback book that someone has brought aboard his custom tour bus, which is speeding through the snowy Wisconsin countryside in the midnight hour. He has just finished a concert in Madison and is on his way to South Bend, Ind., where he'll play again in 20 hours.

The shiny, 278-page book, titled "Tangled Up in Tapes Revisited," is an exhaustive chronicle of the last half of Mr. Dylan's 32-year career and a testimony to the public's continuing obsession with the most influential songwriter of the rock era. The book lists every song Mr. Dylan has sung -- and in what order -- at most of his concerts from 1974 to 1989.

If the book's contents reveal every detail of his recent performing career, the color portrait on the cover -- an expressionless Robert Allen Zimmerman, circa late '80s, eyes concealed by dark glasses -- is a teasing reminder of everything else Mr. Dylan has kept hidden these many years. Like the man himself, the drawing gives away almost nothing.

On the bus this night, the real Bob Dylan, who has placed his own dark glasses on the table in front of him, shows more interest in when the coffee will be ready than in the book.

Other performers might be curious enough to look back on, say, an earlier show they played in Wisconsin. (For example, from page 164: On Nov. 1, 1978, at the Dane County Memorial Coliseum, Mr. Dylan sang 27 songs, opening with "She's Love Crazy" and "Mr. Tambourine Man," closing with "Forever Young" and "Changing of the Guards.") Or maybe a more recent one along the same highway, 11 years later. (Page 209: July 3, 1989, at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee; 17 songs, starting with "Early Morning Rain" and ending with "Maggie's Farm.")

Mr. Dylan finally just hands the book back to the man who brought it aboard the bus.

Told he is welcome to keep it as a souvenir, Mr. Dylan says, "Naw, I've already been all those places and done all those things."

Then he pauses slightly and adds, with a trace of a smile, "Now if you ever find a book out there that's going to tell me where I'm going, I might be interested."

Bob Dylan has always been a pop outsider, and there are few signs, as he enters his sixth decade, that he is surrendering his independence. When he first appeared in the folk clubs of New York's Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, there was an element of choirboy innocence -- and mischief -- in the smoothness of his cheeks and gentleness of his smile. He not only taught rock 'n' roll to think during that decade, but also showed a stubborn refusal to play by anyone else's rules.

Today, Mr. Dylan can still disarm you with a sudden smile, but there is wariness in the eyes. It's the instinctive suspicion of a survivor who knows, after years of public scrutiny, the dangers of letting down his guard.

On May 24, 1991, Bob Dylan turned 50, and the media thought it would be the ideal time to try to put this cultural hero and puzzle into perspective. But he refused more than 300 requests for interviews, agreeing only to a brief telephone interview that ended up in Spy magazine, another in a journal published by the National Academy of Songwriters and a radio interview syndicated by Westwood One.

Instead, he hit the road, in year four of what Dylan-watchers now call the "Never-Ending Tour," an ongoing road show that to date has racked up 450 performances and been seen by about 3 million fans in the United States, Europe and South America. By design, the tour has avoided the usual media glare. Mr. Dylan has concentrated on smaller venues and turned his back on the sort of superstar hoopla that would put him in a national spotlight. Madison was one of the final stops on a trek last year that took him from Burlington, Vt., to Zurich, Switzerland.

For much of his career, Mr. Dylan's reluctance to explain himself or his actions seemed to be a strategy to heighten interest in his legend. Now, on the bus to South Bend, with a reporter allowed along for the ride, he sounds genuinely uninterested in his notoriety. He wants no part of the confessional talk that fuels most celebrity interviews. Most of all, he has no patience with dissections of his famous past.

"Nostalgia," he says sharply, "is death."

As he gazes across the tour bus table, Mr. Dylan even smiles wickedly as the reporter suggests the hackneyed headlines that editors might have tacked on the birthday retrospectives that never appeared:

"Mr. Tambourine Man Turns 50!"

"Bringing It All Back Home."

Or -- this suggestion draws a full-scale laugh -- "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

There's no hostility in his manner, but he fences instinctively, warding off certain questions. He listens to, then ignores, one after another until one catches his interest. He dismisses old-days inquiries as "ancient history" and counters a query about his personal life with "Do people ask Paul Simon questions like that?" Like many artists, he feels that his work expresses all that people need to know about him.

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