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Fall Preview | Pop Music

How Does It Feel? Don't Ask

A creatively rejuvenated Bob Dylan won't discuss his life or his lyrics. The state of pop music is another matter.

September 16, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

"Five stars!"

Those are Bob Dylan's first words as I step into his Santa Monica hotel suite to talk about his new album, "Love and Theft."

"That's what Rolling Stone gave the new album. How many artists have you interviewed in the last 15 years that have gotten a five-star review?"

Thinking he's putting me on, I reply, "Well, you're not getting five stars in The Times."

Silence.

I quickly explain that we have a four-star rating system.

Could the most acclaimed songwriter of the modern pop era really care about a single review? I can't even imagine him being excited about winning a Grammy, or an Oscar, as he did earlier this year for "Things Have Changed" from "Wonder Boys."

"Wouldn't you be excited if you won a Pulitzer Prize?" he replies.

It's a quintessential Dylan moment. Every time you think you have him figured out, he taunts you with his elusiveness.

For 40 years, he has been a man of constant change who weaves conviction and contradictions into his work with artful sleight-of-hand.

On "Love and Theft," which received a four-star review last Sunday in The Times and was released Tuesday, there are still moments of struggle and confusion. But those sentiments are accompanied--often in the same song--by moments of disarming wit (including a goofy knock-knock joke) and jubilant optimism, when the gods seem lined up on his side.

The message of "Love and Theft," however, is as much in the arrangements as the lyrics. Dylan's musical compass has always been tied to the country, blues and folk sounds that thrilled him as a youngster in Minnesota, and he and his dazzling road band play with the defiance of true believers who feel pop music has been taken over by charlatans.

In the alternating gentle and wailing instrumentation, Dylan pulls us back to the start of rock 'n' roll, reminds us of the innocence and energy of the times and, in the process, challenges those who feel that rock is exhausted as an art form.

You won't get Dylan to admit that in an interview, but he hints at it. As always, he resists questions about his personal life and the meaning of particular lines or songs, but he speaks passionately about his legacy and his musical roots. Ever the extremist, Dylan is guilty of underestimating some of today's rock and hip-hop acts, but his views are as provocative as his lyrics in "Love and Theft."

Dylan, 60, is working on his autobiography, but you wonder if he'll really step from behind the veil even there. He's already hinting the events in the book may be a bit fuzzy. "My retrievable memory isn't as good as it should be," he says with only the barest trace of a smile.

Question: The music on the new album seems transported from a different era. Do you find much inspiration in today's music scene?

Answer: I know there are groups at the top of the charts that are hailed as the saviors of rock 'n' roll and all that, but they are amateurs. They don't know where the music comes from.... I was lucky. I came up in a different era. There were these great blues and country and folk artists around, and the impulse to play [those sounds] came to me at a very early age.

I wouldn't even think about playing music if I was born in these times. I wouldn't even listen to the radio. I'm an extreme person. I'm not a party boy. I don't care about rave dances and a lot of the stuff going on.

Q: What do you think would have interested you today if music weren't an option?

A: I'd probably turn to something like mathematics. That would interest me. Architecture would interest me. Something like that.

Q: Are you surprised by the return of so much placid pop--which was one of the original targets of rock 'n' roll?

A: I don't think what we call pop music today is any worse than it was. We never liked pop music. It never occurred to me [in the '50s] that Bing Crosby was on the cutting edge 20 years before I was listening to him. I never heard that Bing Crosby. The Louis Armstrong I heard was the guy who sang "Hello, Dolly!" I never heard him do "West End Blues."

Q: "Time Out of Mind" seemed to spark a creative resurgence for you. Did you know right away it was something special?

A: It was a little sketchy to me. I knew after that record that when and if I ever committed myself to making another record, I didn't want to get caught short without up-tempo songs. A lot of my songs are slow ballads. I can gut-wrench a lot out of them. But if you put a lot of them on a record, they'll fade into one another, and there was some of that in "Time Out of Mind." I sort of blueprinted it this time to make sure I didn't get caught without up-tempo songs.

If you hear any difference on this record--why it might flow better--it's because as soon as an up-tempo song comes over, then it's slowed down, then back up again. There's more pacing.

Q: What about the creative process for you? Do you write constantly?

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