It was a windowless recording studio, six floors above a deserted Manhattan side street. The artists were sealed off, as if under a siege that would not end until the tape was finally right. Meal breaks were out—instead, carrots, crunchy cauliflower, curry sauce, Camembert, French bread, beer, wine and tequila were brought in. The mood otherwise, though, was of a warm, conspiratorial intimacy. The harsh overhead lights were replaced by soothing red and green spots. A homey floor lamp illuminated the music stand of the lead singer. The producer was supportive: "Just hold that tempo, Bobby," he encouraged from the control room. "That last take was star-tin' to smoke." The star leaned into his mike and responded: "We're gonna get it, man, I know we are. Let's get this thing in the can and out on the streets." Bobby was Dylan and, after his latest 18-month retreat, he was returning to the streets again.
The recording is Hurricane, a protest song with the gritty urgency and outrage that had once enflamed a whole American generation. It pleads against the controversial eight-year incarceration for murder of ex-boxer Rubin ("Hurricane") Carter. Simultaneously, Dylan was readying his first road show since his tumultuous comeback tour of '74. The itinerary would detour the megabuck impresarios, the multiseat superdomes, the computerized ticket networks and re-create the modest small-club mini-tours that characterized the years when he first left Hibbing, Minn. But his entourage includes friends like his ex-lady Joan Baez, plus Ronee Blakley, the discovery of the movie Nashville. Undeniably, Dylan creates in a genre in which minimal art is almost impossible, and so his latest comeback may live up to its ironic title—the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Dylan is himself, after all, the most influential figure in American pop music (and thus pop culture) since 1960. His garbage was analyzed years before Henry Kissinger's. Every syllable or solecism of his life is subject to fearful scrutiny. Dylan, now 34 and as scruffy, wiry and taut as ever, looks back and sees it all as only a colossal accident. "It was never my intention to become a big star. It happened, and there was nothing I could do about it. I tried to get rid of that burden for a long time. I eat and sleep and, you know, have the same problems anybody else does, and yet people look at me funny."
If Dylan had his way, he would not be looked at—at all. He has granted very few major interviews in eight years, and this was his first in some 18 months. "I was playing music in the '50s," he begins, "and man, it was all I did. It saved my life. Doesn't everybody have something that keeps them together? I don't think of my life as a reclusive life. I'm not a hermit. Exclusive, maybe, but not reclusive."
"I didn't consciously pursue the Bob Dylan myth," he continues. "It was given to me—by God. Inspiration is what we're looking for. You just have to be receptive to it." While reports of Dylan's ardent Zionism are almost certainly exaggerated, he has unquestionably returned to his Jewish roots, or at least to a generalized spiritualism.
"I was locked into a certain generation," he says. "I still am. A certain area, a certain place in the universe at a certain time." The middle '60s, a period of drug-boosted frenzy, were reflected in Dylan's electric, clamorous rock'n'roll and in his manic jet-stream imagery—and they culminated on the edge of death on a shattered motorcycle in the summer of 1966. Then followed a two-year withdrawal which only intensified the myth. "I just wanted to be alone," he now says. He surfaced in 1968-69 with the subdued self-examination of John Wesley Harding and, later, his watershed country LP, Nashville Skyline. Asked if he had it to do all over again, Dylan summons his samurai-quick sardonicism: "Maybe I would have chosen not to have been born at all—bypass the whole thing."
Dylan regards himself as an artist rather than a musician ("Put my guitar playing next to Segovia's and I'm sure you could tell who was the musician"), whose role is to create, not preach. "I can move, and fake. I know some of the tricks and it all applies artistically, not politically or philosophically."
He has a way of leaving reviewers as well as disciples in the dust. "I don't care what people expect of me," Dylan says defiantly. "Doesn't concern me. I'm doin' God's work. That's all I know." His classics like Blowin'in the Wind and The Times, They Area Changin' became anthems of the opposition, and the terrorist Weathermen took their name from his lyrics. But, pressed about his influence, Dylan says only, "You'll have to ask them, those people who are involved in that state of panic where my works seem to take them. It's not for me. I wouldn't have time for anything else if I thought about that. I'm not an activist. I am not politically inclined. I'm for people, people who are suffering. I don't have any pull in the government."
The accusation that he copped out from the antiwar and other protest movements which his music catalyzed leaves him livid—especially criticism of his refusal to participate in Woodstock. "I didn't want to be part of that thing," he says. "I liked the town. I felt they exploited the shit out of that, goin' up there and gettin' 15 million people all in the same spot. That don't excite me. The flower generation—is that what it was? I wasn't into that at all. I just thought it was a lot of kids out and around wearing flowers in their hair takin' a lot of acid. I mean what can you think about that?
"Today the youth are living in a certain amount of fantasy," he adds. "But in a lot of ways they become more disillusioned with life a lot earlier. It's a result of the overload, the mass overload which we are all gonna have to face. Don't forget when I started sing-in', marijuana was known only in certain circles—actors, musicians, dancers, poets, architects, people who were aware of what it could do for you. You never went down to make a phone call at a phone booth and had some cop hand you a joint. But now it's almost legal. The consciousness of the whole country has changed in a very short time."
He is impatient with fans who expected his own expression to stay the same. "Those people were stupid," he snaps. "They want to see you in the same suit. Upheaval distorts their lives. They refuse to be loose and make themselves flexible to situations. They forget they might have a different girlfriend every night, that their lives change too." Certainly there were formative changes in Dylan's life: marriage in 1965 to fashion model Sarah Lowndes; the accident; the growth of his own family to five (including one child from Sarah's previous marriage).
Yet, professionally, Dylan points out, "A songwriter tries to grasp a certain moment, write it down, sing it for that moment and then keep that experience within himself, so he can be able to sing the song years later. He'll change, and he won't want to do that song. He'll go on." But Dylan is not speaking of himself. Of his own massive anthology of poems, he says, "I can communicate all of my songs. I might not remember all the lyrics," he laughs, "but there aren't any in there I can't identify with on some level.
"I write fast," he continues. "The inspiration doesn't last. Writing a song, it can drive you crazy. My head is so crammed full of things I tend to lose a lot of what I think are my best songs, and I don't carry around a tape recorder.
"Music," Dylan says, "is an outgrowth of family—and my family comes first." He moved them to the beach at Malibu from Woodstock several years ago, and has been intermittently rumored to be splitting from Sarah. He concedes, "I haven't been able to spend as much time with my wife as I would like to," but pinning Dylan down on personal matters is like collecting quicksilver. A sample colloquy: Are you living with your wife?
When I have to, when I need to. I'm living with my wife in the same world. Do you...
Do I know where she is most of the time? She doesn't have to answer to me.
So you don't live...
She has to answer to herself.
Do you live under one roof?
Right now things are changing in all our lives. We will always be together. Where are you living now?
I live in more than one place. Can you be more specific?
No. I don't want to give out my address.
I live where I have to live, where my priorities are.
Right now, is that in New York City?
Right now it is, and off and on since last spring.
"Traveling is in my blood," said Dylan, as he rehearsed for his latest tour. "There is a lot of gypsy in me. What I'm trying to do is set my standards, get that organized now. There is a voice inside us all that talks only to us. We have to be able to hear that voice. I'm through listening to other people tell me how to live my life." Did Bob Dylan, of all Americans, feel himself mortgaged to others? "I'm just doing now what I feel is right for me," he concludes. "For my own self."