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Bob Dylan--still A-changin'

November 17, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

Maybe it's because he didn't do interviews at all for years, or maybe it's just that he's the most important songwriter of the modern pop era, but I can't imagine passing up the chance to talk to Bob Dylan--even if strings are attached.

The interview invitation from Columbia Records suggested that Dylan only wanted to discuss his latest albums: "Empire Burlesque," the studio collection from last summer, and "Biograph," the ambitious retrospective set that just hit the stores.

Dylan himself, however, quickly cut the strings. He showed little interest in those subjects as he sat on a chair in the backyard of his Malibu home.

"The new releases . . .?" Dylan asked, almost sheepishly.

"I hope you don't make this look like some carny trying to hawk his records. I don't know if you even want to hit on the records. When people think of me, they are not necessarily going to buy the latest record anyway. They may buy a record from years ago. Besides, I don't think interviews sell records."

So why did Dylan agree to a series of interviews, including his first formal network TV interview (for "20/20")?

"I really haven't had that much connection or conversation (over the years) with the people at Columbia," he said, referring to his record label for most of two decades. "Usually, I turn in my records . . . and they release them. But they really liked this record ("Empire Burlesque"), so they asked me to do some more videos and a few interviews to draw attention to it.

"But that doesn't mean I want to sit around and talk about the record. I haven't even listened to ("Empire") since it came out. I'd rather spend my time working on new songs or listen to other people's records. Have you heard that new Hank Williams album . . . the collection of old demo tapes? It's great."

Reviews for "Empire Burlesque" were mostly positive, but sales quickly leveled off. A recent live video of "Emotionally Yours" failed to revive it.

"Biograph," however, is a long-awaited five-record set that includes 21 selections never before available on an album, plus 32 digitally remastered versions of previously released tracks. The project has been rumored for years, but the release was held up to avoid conflicting with other Dylan works. (Dylan student and collector Reid Kopel has reservations about the set, but gives it generally high marks. See Page 62.)

About the project, Dylan said: "Columbia wanted to put out a (retrospective) album on me a few years ago. They had pulled out everything (from earlier albums) that could be classified as love songs and had it on one collection. I didn't care one way or another, but I had a new record coming out, so I asked them not to do it then.

"I guess it's OK for someone who has never heard of me and is looking for a crash course or something. But I've got a lot of stuff that is lying around all over the place in cassette recorders that I'd put out if I was putting the set together."

One thing about "Biograph" that does please Dylan is a 36-page booklet written by Cameron Crowe, who did numerous Rolling Stone magazine profiles and wrote the film, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." The text is a brief, affectionate look at Dylan's life, with generous quotes from the songwriter.

The most interesting part of the liner notes is Dylan's reflections on the songs. Though he has tended to avoid discussing his work, he commented freely this time on both the development and themes of several of the songs in the LP.

About his celebrated "The Times They Are A-Changin'," for instance, he remarked in the liner notes: "This was definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to write and for whom. . . . I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, ya know, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. . . ."

On "Forever Young," perhaps the most recorded of all Dylan's post-'60s songs: "I wrote (it) . . . thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental. The lines came to me, they were done in a minute . . . the song wrote itself."

Dylan, 44, isn't being open just to the press these days. For years, he has tended to be isolated even when doing a guest spot on a benefit concert--avoiding photographers and, often, other artists backstage by arriving just before showtime and leaving quickly after the last number.

At September's Farm Aid concert at the University of Illinois, however, he was almost leisurely--hanging out with Tom Petty, whose band backed him on the show, and chatting with other performers, including Randy Newman, Lou Reed and Emmylou Harris. Normally camera-shy, Dylan didn't even turn away when a TV crew and a few photographers pointed their lenses at him as he sat on steps outside his dressing room trailer.

One reason for the naturalness, a backstage observer joked at Farm Aid, was that Dylan wanted to prove--after his disastrously spacey performance with the Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Wood at Live Aid--that he still had his faculties.

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