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POP MUSIC

Reborn Again

After admittedly losing his way in the '80s, Bob Dylan returns as an artist with something to say--and an album he actually enjoys.

December 14, 1997|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

In "Time Out of Mind," Bob Dylan's most acclaimed album in 20 years, there are moments that sound like the reflections of a man who is nearing the last rites.

"When you think that you've lost everything, you find out that you could always lose a little more," Dylan sings in one song that summarizes the soul of the album, which, in contrast to the youthful optimism of his landmark '60s works, focuses on love and life at a time when options and expectations have been greatly lowered.

So it's surprising to see the classic songwriter in an upbeat, even playful mood as he sits this evening on a couch in a private room just off the lower lobby of a Santa Monica hotel.

Dylan, 56, has disliked interviews for years because he's always asked to reveal something about his personal life or to interpret his lyrics, whether from one of his socially conscious folk anthems like "Blowin' in the Wind" or a snarling, self-affirming rock anthem such as "Like a Rolling Stone."

Even now, he quickly deflects questions about how much his songs, some of which express bitterness over relationships, are from his own experience.

Yet a smile accompanies his rejoinder, rather than the icy defiance that he once might have shown. "They are songs meant to be sung," he says when pressed on the autobiographical aspect. "I don't know if they are meant to be discussed around the coffee table."

It's easy to see why Dylan is in good spirits. "Time Out of Mind," his first collection of new songs in seven years, was not only hailed by critics, but the album, which entered the pop charts at No. 10 in October, has also already been declared gold (sales of 500,000). It's his first gold studio collection since 1983's "Infidels." The album (his 40th, including retrospectives) brings his total U.S. sales to nearly 31 million.

Dylan, whose songwriting in the '60s revolutionized rock by bringing commentary and literary ambition to a musical form that had chiefly relied simply on attitude and energy, also received the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor last Sunday in Washington, D.C. About Dylan, President Clinton said, "He probably had more impact on people of my generation than any other artist."

But it becomes clear during the interview that there is a deeper reason for Dylan's sense of satisfaction--one that grows out of what he describes as the rediscovery in recent years of the self-identity as a performer that he lost during the acclaim and hoopla of his '70s and '80s arena and stadium tours.

"I remember playing shows [with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in the '80s] and looking out [thinking] I didn't have that many fans coming to see me," he says. "They were coming to see Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers."

About that period, he adds, "I was going on my name for a long time, name and reputation, which was about all I had. I had sort of fallen into an amnesia spell. . . . I didn't feel I knew who I was on stage. . . ."

But Dylan says he regained his sense of identity and purpose in the hundreds of concerts he has done in the '90s, an ambitious series of mostly theater dates that has been dubbed by the media the Never Ending Tour. That invigorating experience apparently contributed to the creative outburst in the new album.

On the eve of a sold-out, five-night stand at the El Rey Theatre, Dylan--who says he feels fine after being hospitalized in May for treatment of pericarditis--speaks about the new album, the "missing" years and, gingerly, about the success of his son Jakob's band, the Wallflowers.

*

Question: You seem to be in good spirits. Do you think the word "happy" might even apply?

Answer: I think that it's hard to find happiness as a whole in anything. [laughs] The days of tender youth are gone. I think you can be delirious in your youth, but as you get older, things happen. We take our instruction from the media. The media just gloats over tragedy and sin and shame, so why are people supposed to feel any different?

*

Q: Some of the words used by critics to describe the songs in the album are . . . brooding, gloomy, misery, wary. Do you see the album that way?

A: I don't know. . . . It's certainly not an album of felicity. . . . I try to live within that line between despondency and hope. I'm suited to walk that line, right between the fire. . . . I see [the album] right straight down the middle of the line, really.

*

Q: Why were your two albums before this one simply acoustic songs by other writers? Did it take this long to write these songs?

A: I had written these songs, but . . . I forgot about recording for a while. I didn't feel like I wanted to put forth the effort to record anything. The acoustic albums were easy enough. I was pretty content to let it be that.

*

Q: What was different about this album?

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