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Dylan Now : What Becomes a Legend Most? A Never-Ending Tour, A New Audience and Keeping The Mystery Alive.

February 09, 1992|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, the pop music critic for The Times, has interviewed Bob Dylan half a dozen times during the past 20 years.

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 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 Dylan has sung--and in what order--at almost all of the hundreds of concerts he has given.

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

On the bus this night, the real Dylan, who has placed his own dark glasses on the table in front of him, flips quickly through the book. He's sitting in the dining nook and 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, 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 Amphitheaterin Milwaukee; 17 songs, starting with "Early Morning Rain" and ending with "Maggie's Farm.")

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, 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 the gentleness of his smile. He not only taught rock 'n' roll to think during that decade but he also showed a stubborn refusal to play by anyone else's rules.

Today, 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, 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 Q & A 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. 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.

A notable exception to his low-profile stance during his 50th-birthday year was the infamous Grammy Awards appearance in New York City last February. During the '60s, a conservative pop Establishment declined to honor the prolific Dylan with a Grammy. The ice broke a bit in 1979, when Dylan won the Best Male Rock Vocal award for his single, "Gotta Serve Somebody." At the 1991 awards ceremony, a new generation of directors of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences tried to make up for the years of slight with a Lifetime Achievement award. Instead of a mellow Dylan, caught up in the sentimentality of the occasion, taking the stage, he remained the outsider.

Exhausted after a flight from Europe and suffering from the flu, he looked disheveled and distracted. And on a night when most of the country was caught up in the fervor and patriotism of the month-old Persian Gulf War, he and his band launched into a blistering if all but unintelligible version of "Masters of War":

\o7 Come you masters of war

You that build all the guns

You that build the death planes

You that build the big bombs

You that hide behind walls

You that hide behind desks

I just want you to know

I can see through your masks.

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