Scene of the Crime
Like most, I was bored, then lost touch with the 1970s and 1980s Dylan, who'd dulled his edge and his vehement sense of humor, it seemed; a dedicated family man engaged in legal battles with Grossman, whom he accused of ripping him off, embracing religions, evading stalkers, he slid into irrelevance as his records grew thin, boring, annoying. There were musical spots of light: New Morning demonstrated continuing growth, with the tender waltz "Winterlude," the soul recitative with scat backing "If Dogs Run Free." But most of the albums over twenty years, with the exception of 1975's highly regarded Blood on the Tracks, lacked durable material, as Dylan drifted through drug abuse, exploding relationships, financial crashes, religious fevers, public self-destruction at the Live Aid concert and a host of problems that culminated in the late 1980s, when he floated a desperate offer to join the Grateful Dead. Dylan worshipers, the band gently sidestepped the issue, but one upshot was 1988's Dylan & The Dead, a reasonable album that marked the onset of his turnaround. Always improvisational onstage and in the studio, he started to choose his bandmates and shape his sets with more care, maintaining the loose, sloppy jam feel (which grew whenever he played lead guitar); his bands got polished to a roadhouse sheen. He'd become the touring troubadour he'd imagined himself as a kid.
By 1995's MTV Unplugged, Dylan was resurrected, though hardly the same. He stopped tossing his old tunes off almost contemptuously; they were persistently rearranged, reinterpreted, in jazz's (and 1960s rock's) restless fashion, far from the freeze-dried recording reproductions that dominate pop concerts. (At the time his classic material was being reissued almost nonstop, via the industry's rapid recycling of inventory onto the new CD format.) This remains his concert mode.
His near-death experience in 1997 from a heart infection grabbed him headlines and refocused and energized him. Time Out of Mind, from that same year, was rightly hailed as his best effort since Blood on the Tracks. Produced by Daniel Lanois, Time's rootsy sounds drew from Delta and Chicago blues, rockabilly and ballads; its lyrics had bite and power, re-established his wit and humor about loss and hope and entropy and pain and faith and, of course, death in a hostile and indifferent world--topics for grown-up rockers. Songs with titles like "Not Dark Yet" and "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" were delivered in a weary, scuffed-leather croak whose phrasing danced with rhythmic subtleties he'd learned from jazz and blues. One jazz musician told me, "I love to watch people try to sing along with him. He never does what they expect with the melody. The closest thing to what he does with his voice is Sonny Rollins's sax."
The album's epic tune, "Highlands," epitomizes the subtle smarts of Dylan Reborn. He never repeats his delivery; neither does the band, which mingles Pops Staples with Delta blues, mutating its licks almost subliminally for every single verse of the fifteen-minute track. Meantime, Lanois's patented mix, deep with tremolo, gently rotates the instruments through a roughly spherical soundstage, creating an unconscious complicity with the lyrics--which ultimately, after some very funny verses (including a vintage-Dylan shaggy dog story about a waitress who wants him to sketch her), are about going into that good night.
Then again, Dylan was always the grown-up at the party in the 1960s, disdaining airy talk of love and change. He was the closest thing to a real bluesman born of that time. I remember what Al Kooper, who played organ on Highway 61 Revisited and at Newport in 1965, once told me. Producer Tom Wilson, the only black staff producer at Columbia, owned an indie jazz label before producing records by the Animals, Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and the Velvet Underground. Wilson said of Dylan, "Put him with an electric band, and you'll have a white Ray Charles who's a poet."
That neatly describes both Time Out of Mind and 2001's Love and Theft. On the latter, Dylan overtly embraces jazz, especially of the between-the-wars swing era, when blues and jazz and early r&b all blended in the likes of Armstrong and Nat King Cole: "Bye and Bye" finds his croak skipping blithely, limberly, through sardonically high-stepping swing, recalling nothing more than Armstrong's vocals without the heft, somewhere near Billie Holiday's late singing--and then hits lines like, "If you ever try to interfere with me or cross my path again/You do so at the peril of your own life," where "life" gracefully, hilariously trails down an octave. "Moonlight" is a suave torch song--Dylan as Astaire--tinged with threat. And there's heavy-duty Chicago blues, rockabilly and rockers to fill the album out.
So maybe it shouldn't surprise anyone that in early September, Dylan headlines the Aspen Jazz Festival, with Willie Nelson.