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The Songwriters | BOB DYLAN

Rock's Enigmatic Poet Opens a Long-Private Door

He learned from the Kingston Trio and Edgar Allan Poe, he confides. And he wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' in 10 minutes.

April 04, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Somehow, however, all those shows reignited the songwriting spark -- as demonstrated in his Grammy-winning "Time Out of Mind" album in 1997; the bittersweet song from the movie "Wonder Boys," "Things Have Changed," that won an Oscar in 2001 for best original song; and his heralded 2001 album, "Love and Theft." He spent much of last year working on a series of autobiographical chronicles. The first installment is due this fall from Simon & Schuster.

But nowhere, perhaps, is Dylan's regained passion more evident than in his live show, where he has switched primarily from guitar to electric keyboard and now leads his four-piece band with the intensity of a young punk auteur.

Dylan -- who has lived in Southern California since he and ex-wife Sara Lowndes moved to Malibu in the mid-'70s with their five children -- was in Amsterdam to headline two sold-out concerts at a 6,000-seat hall. He does more than 100 shows a year.

The audience on the chilly winter night after our first conversation is divided among people Dylan's age who have been following his career since the '60s and young people drawn to him by his classic body of work, and they call out for new songs, not just the classics.

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Refiguring the Melodies

Back at the hotel afterward, Dylan looks about as satisfied as a man with his restless creative spirit can be.

It's nearly 2 a.m. by now and another pot of coffee cools. He rubs his hand through his curly hair. After all these hours, I realize I haven't asked the most obvious question: Which comes first, the words or the music?

Dylan leans over and picks up the acoustic guitar.

"Well, you have to understand that I'm not a melodist," he says. "My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form.

"What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it's a proven fact that it'll help them relax. I don't meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.

"I'll be playing Bob Nolan's 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds,' for instance, in my head constantly -- while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I'll start writing a song."

He's slowly strumming the guitar, but it's hard to pick out the tune.

"I wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That's the folk music tradition. You use what's been handed down. 'The Times They Are A-Changin' is probably from an old Scottish folk song."

As he keeps playing, the song starts sounding vaguely familiar.

I want to know about "Subterranean Homesick Blues," one of his most radical songs. The 1965 number fused folk and blues in a way that made everyone who heard it listen to it over and over. John Lennon once said the song was so captivating on every level that it made him wonder how he could ever compete with it.

The lyrics, again, were about a society in revolution, a tale of drugs and misuse of authority and trying to figure out everything when little seemed to make sense:

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Johnny's in the basement

Mixing up the medicine

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government

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The music too reflected the paranoia of the time -- roaring out of the speakers at the time with a cannonball force.

Where did that come from?

Without pause, Dylan says, almost with a wink, that the inspiration dates to his teens. "It's from Chuck Berry, a bit of 'Too Much Monkey Business' and some of the scat songs of the '40s."

As the music from the guitar gets louder, you realize Dylan is playing one of the most famous songs of the 20th century, Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."

You look into his eyes for a sign.

Is he writing a new song as we speak?

"No," he says with a smile. "I'm just showing you what I do."

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Five songs for the ages

You could make a dozen lists of your five favorite Dylan songs and still be satisfied with the tunes on the 12th list. But here are the songs, in order, that I'd put on my first list of five.

1. "Like a Rolling Stone" 1965. Dylan says he never meant to be a spokesman, but he sure seems to have captured the restless feel of an age in this anthem. The unforgettable chorus: "How does it feel? / To be on your own / With no direction home / Like a complete unknown / Like a rolling stone?"

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