Editor’s Note: The end of the article seems a bit abrupt. I put it up to sloppy editing.
Profile: Dylan again strikes responsive chords
By Mikal Gilmore
The Deseret News — Wednesday, July 16, 1986
Twenty years ago, Bob Dylan permanently and sweepingly altered the possibilities of both folk music and the pop-song form. In that epoch, the reach of his influence seemed so pervasive, his stance so powerful and mysterious, that he was virtually changing the language and aspirations of popular culture with his every work and gesture. But Dylan barely got started in rock ‘n’ roll before he got slopped. In the spring of 1966, he was recording “Blonde on Blonde” and playing fiery, controversial electric concerts with his backing band, the Hawks (later renamed the Band); a few months later, he was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident and withdrew from recording and performing for nearly a year and a half.
For many, his music never seemed quite the same after that, and although much of it proved bold and lovely, for about 20 years now Bob Dylan hasn’t produced much music that transfigures either pop style or youth culture. To some former fans, that lapse has seen almost unforgivable. Consequently, Dylan has found himself in a dilemma shared by no other rock figure of his era: He has been sidestepped by the pop world he helped transform, at a time when contemporaries like the Rolling Stones attract a more enthusiastic audience than ever before. This must hurt an artist as scrupulous as Dylan, who, for whatevers lapses, has remained pretty true to both his moral and musical ideals.
In the last couple of years, though, there have been signs that some kind of reclamation might be in the offing. For one thing, there’s been his participation in the pop world’s recent spate of social and politicial activism, including his involvement in the USA for Africa and Artists United Against Apartheid projects and his appearance at the Live Aid and Farm Aid programs (the latter an event inspired by an off-the-cuff remark Dylan had made at Live Aid). More important, there were intriguing indications in 1983’s “Infidels” and 1985’s “Empire Burlesque” that the singer seems interested in working his way back into the concerns of the real-life modern world — in fact, that he may even be interested in fashioning music that once more engages a pop-wise audience. And, as demonstrated by the strong response to his recent tour of Australia and Japan, as well as his summer tour of America, there is still an audience willing to be engaged.
Of course, Dylan has his own views about all this talk of decline and renewal. We are discussing a column that appeared in the April issue of “Artforum,” by critic Greil Marcus. Marcus has covered Dylan frequently over the years (he penned the liner notes for the 1975 release of “The Basement Tapes”), but he has been less than compelled by the artist’s recent outpit. Commenting on Dylan’s career, and about the recent five-LP retrospective of Dylan’s music, “Biograph,” Marcus wrote: “Dylan actually did something between 1963 and 1968, and…what he did then created a standard against which everything he has putatively done since can be measured…The fact that the 1964 ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ can be placed on an album next to the 1974 ‘You Angel You’ is a denial of everyone’s best hopes.”
Dylan seems intrigued by Marcus’ comments, but also amused. “Well, he’s right and he’s wrong,” he says. “I did that accidentally. That was all accidental, as every age is. You’re doing something, you don’t know what it is, you’re just doing it. And later on you’ll look it and …” His words trail off, then he begins again. “To me, I don’t have a career… A career ir something you can look back on, and I’m not ready to look back. Time doesn’t really exist for me in those kinds of terms. I don’t really remember in any monumental way ‘what I have done.’ This isn’t my career, this is my life, and it’s still vital to me.”
“Everyone’s always saying to me, ‘What’s Bob Dylan like?’ says Tom Petty a few nights later, seated in the tiny lounge area of a Van Nuys recording studio. Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, have gathered here to work out material for a forthcoming album and also to help supervise the sound mix for “Bob Dylan in Concert,” the HBO special documenting their recent tour of Australia with Dylan. “It’s funny,” Petty continues, “but people still attach a lot of mystery to Bob … I think they figure that, since we’ve spent time around him, we can explain him, as if he’s somebody who needs to be explained.”
Petty shakes his head. “I mean, Dylan’s just a guy like anybody else — except he’s a guy who has something to say. And he has a personality that makes it his own. There’s not many people that can walk into a room of 20,000, stare at them and get their attention. That’s not an easy trick.”
Petty may be a little too modest to admit it, but Dylan also has something else going for him these days. A good part of the excitement over Dylan’s current U.S. tour owes to the singer’s alliance with a band as rousing as the Heartbreakers — a band more given to propulsive rock ‘n’ roll than any group Dylan has worked with in over a decade. Judging from the HBO special, the Heartbreakers can render the “Highway 61” sound – that unmistakable mix of fiery keyboards and stray-cat guitars — with a convincing flair. Yet rather than simply replicate the sound, the group reinvigorates it and applies it evenly to a broad range of Dylan’s music, helping bring a new coherence to his sprawling body of styles. As a result, much of Dylan’s more recent songs — such as “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky” and “Lenny Bruce” — come across in concert with an uncommon force and conviction, perhaps even a bit more force than some of the older songs.
But Dylan isn’t the only one whose music has benefited from this association. Ever since the end of the Australasian tour Petty and the Heartbreakers seem to be on an inspired streak, cranking out blues-tempered rock and pop songs in the same impromptu fashion that Dylan so often employs. It isn’t so much that the group’s new music resembles Dylan’s (actually, it suggests nothing so much as the reckless blues of “Exile on Main Street”), but rather that it seems born of the same freewheeling intensity and instinctive ferocity that has marked Dylan’s more ambitious efforts.
But there is something more to it — something that belongs only to Petty and the Heartbreakers. I have seen this band on numerous occasions, both in the studio and onstage, and though they’ve always seemed adept and exciting, they’ve never struck me as particularly inspired improvisers in the way, say, that the Rolling Stones or the E Street Band can seem. Now, here they are, jamming with unqualified verve, playing not only head to head but also heart to heart and, in the process, creating what is probably their most inspiring music to date.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” says Petty, fishing a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “It’s not like we’re even thinking we’re making a record … yet here we are with enough for a double album.”
Petty plants a cigarette between his lips, lights it and settles back into the sofa. “Tonight was a good night,” he continues. “In fact, this has been a good time for us in general. I think we feel pretty glad to be together.”
Though nobody likes to admit it, following the 1982 release of “Long After Dark,” the Heartbreakers more or less dissolved.
Then, in 1984, inspired by some conversations with Robbie Robertson, Petty came up with an idea that couldn’t be realized without the band’s contribution. He wanted to make an album about the South — the common home that most of the group’s members had emerged from but had never quite forgotten. “I’d seen these people I’d grown up around struggling with that experience,” Petty had said in an earlier conversation, “with all the things about that legacy they couldn’t shake free of, and I think that was tearing at me.” The result was “Southern Accents” — a work that examined the conflict between old and new ideals and that also aimed to broaden and update the band’s musical scope. Though some band members now feel that the record was a bit overworked, they all credit it as a reconciliatory experience. “They’ve been real supportive of me through this record,” Petty says. “I think in th last album we were in a lot of different camps … Now they laugh about ‘Southern Accents’ and its sitars. They had to let me get this out my system.”
Then along came Bob Dylan. “He called me,” says Petty, “and I said, ‘Yeah, come over,’ and we had a great time. We rehearsed about a week, playing maybe a million different songs. That was one of the best times I ever had. We were blazing. So we went off to Farm Aid and had a great night: the Heartbreakers had a good set, and Bob had a good set. But it was over too quick.”
Well, not quite. Dylan had been considering offers for a possible Australian tour but was reluctant to assemble a makeshift band. Plus, the Heartbreakers had just finished their own tour and were firming uo their schedules for February, “The next thing I knew,: says Petty, “we were doing the Australian tour, and we wanted to do it.”
According to some reviews, the tour got off to a shaky start in New Zealand, where the opening-night audiences responded more fervently to Petty’s set than Dylan’s. But within a few shows, Dylan was storming into such songs as “Clean Cut Kid,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Rainy Day Women” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Bob Dylan sits on a dog-eared sofa in the Van Nuys studio where Petty is working, sipping at a plastic cup full of whiskey and water. He blows a curt puff of smoke and broods over it. His weay air reminds me of something he’d said earlier: “Man, sometimes it seems I’ve spent half my life in a recording studio. It’s like living in a coal mine.”
Dylan and Petty have been holed up in this room the better part of the night, working on a track called “Got My Mind Made Up,” which they have co-written for Dylan’s album. By all appearances, it’s been a productive session: the tune is a walloping, Bo Diddley-like raveup with Delta blues-style slide guitar, and Dylan has been hurling himself into the vocal with a genuinely staggering force. Yet there’s also a note of tension about the evening.
The pressure of completing the album has reportedly been wearing on Dylan, and his mood is said to have been rather dour and unpredictable these last several days. In fact, somewhere along the line he has decided to put aside most of the rock ‘n’ roll tracke he had been working on in Topanga, and is apparently now assemblin the album from various sessions that have accrued over the last year. “It’s all sorts of stuff,” he says. “It don’t really have a or a purpose.”
After a bit, I ask him if he can tell me something about the lyrical tenor of the songs. “Got My Mind Made Up,” for example, includes a reference to Libya.