Providence's Alternative Source!

Portrait of the artist as a geezer
Bob Dylan's Love and Theft

[Bob Dylan] Bob Dylan, at last 60, continues to fulfill his destiny as a grumpy old man, which is fine by me. There are those who dismiss the classic documentary Don't Look Back (about Dylan's 1965 tour of England) because in it Bob is just so plain mean. And in his New York Review of Books survey of the current crop of Dylanology, John Leonard questions Bob's character, his famous dismissal of folk music as "a bunch of fat people," and his subsequent disavowal, at the height of the civil-rights and anti-war movements, of "protest music" as just so much blather. For a while there, during his born-again Christian phase (when I wasn't paying particular attention), I suppose Bob did sort of lose his sense of humor.

But he's always had a judgmental Biblical streak, even at his best, and my reaction to the "mean" Bob is: so what? didn't you ever want to be like that? On the whole, he seems a lot nicer than Eminem, and there are times, watching him on stage or listening to his records, when I actually like him. As a person.

And besides, those songs just keep pouring out of him, with nice Bob and mean Bob living side by side. These days there's even some of his old humor. "I'm sick of love," he sang on the Grammy Album of the Year winner Time out of Mind (1997), and now he's back to tell us, on the new Love and Theft (all his records are on Columbia), "There ain't no limit to the amount of trouble women bring." And just in case you missed the point: "Every moment of existence seems like a dirty trick/Happiness comes and leaves just as quick."

Well, what seems and what is have never been easy to pin down, with Dylan or anything else. Thing is, Dylan's certainty and suppositions shift song by song, line by line, just like the nice Bob and the mean Bob. One minute he's happy as a loon, standing on a table proposing a toast to the king; the next he's spooked and ready to cash in his chips. Or as he sings on Love and Theft's "Mississippi," "My ship's been split to splinters and I'm sinking fast/But my heart is not weary/It's light and it's free."

Dylan's a tease, though. When the going gets tough, just about any big pop star will get going, telling you all about the fictional "persona" that said all those bad things. Eminem likes gay people just fine, and way back when, Ice-T didn't really want you to kill cops. But we never want to separate the person singing the songs from the "character" in them, and that's especially difficult with Bob, who these days seems permanently stuck in first-person narrative mode (as opposed to "easy" third-person songs like "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "John Wesley Harding," and "Hurricane") and for whom the personal and autobiographical might just really be about the social and historical. Take, for instance, the easy sway of the aforementioned "Mississippi," with the refrain "I was raised in the country/Been working in the town/I've been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down." It goes on like that. But in the new Rolling Stone, Dylan tells David Fricke that one reason he held "Mississippi" from Time out of Mind and re-recorded it for Love and Theft was that on the old track producer Daniel Lanois was trying to give it too much of his "sexy" (Lanois's word) reverb and African percussion. "I tried to explain," says Bob, "that the song had more to do with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights than witch doctors."

Well, witch doctors, okay. But the Bill of Rights?

Lanois isn't along this time. Dylan produced himself (under the pseudonym Jack Frost). So the emotional feel is similar (with all those grumpy misterioso lyrics), but that voodoo intimacy has been stripped in favor of rootsy accessibility. This album's more extroverted, with guitars and drums all up front, and more fast tempos. On the ballads, Dylan at times seems to be trying to write an old-style classic -- the croon of songs like "Bye and Bye," "Floater (Too Much To Ask)," and "Moonlight" hark back to the "country" sides of Elvis's Sun sessions: "Tomorrow Night," (which Dylan has covered) "Blue Moon," and Leadbelly's "Good Night, Irene." Dylan's longstanding band sound crisp, especially the guitars of Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, with Augie Meyers again chipping in some Vox organ. Dylan's voice moves halfway again toward unlistenable, a wreck, unprotected by Lanois, who favored a mix he could almost whisper to. Here he's out front and croaking mightily.

And yet, every one of these songs is a keeper. "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" is a "Highway 61" catalogue of avarice, the names of the title characters driving along the fast shuffle rhythm, the obsessive repetitive guitar licks mimicking their relentless exploits (the song opens with the two idly throwing knives into a tree, "two big bags of deadman's bones" at their feet) and their comic evil ("Said Tweedle Dum to Tweedle Dee, `Your presence has become obnoxious to me' ").

On the upbeat, uptempo rockabillly "Summer Days," Bob sings, "Summer days and summer nights are gone." But that doesn't matter, because the old geezer's got a house on the hill and "two hogs out in the mud," and he knows a place where "there's still something goin' on." When he's driving along with a couple of girls in his Cadillac car, they try to tell him he's "a worn-out star," but "My pockets are loaded/I'm spending every dime." When one of the girls tells him he can't repeat the past, he scoffs, "You can't? What do you mean `You can't,' of course you can!"

Dylan rocks from one extreme to another at every turn, his pockets loaded one minute, his back against the wall the next, his ship sinking, his heart floating free. Mortality's sniffing in every corner as well, sometimes just in his imagination. "I keep listening for footsteps, but I ain't hearin' any," he sings in "Floater (Too Much To Ask)." And in "Lonesome Day Blues": "Last night the wind was whispering/I was trying to make out what it was/I tell myself something's coming/But it never does."

There were times on "Highlands," the 16-minute epic from Time out of Mind, where the hangdog couplets rolled out of Dylan's mouth so easily you might have sworn he was making it up as he went along. It was funny and weird and irresistible, and the digressions proved to be the point (like, the journey is the destination, dude). On some of the new songs, Dylan seems happy to string together commonplaces, silly love songs, moon-in-June doggerel. "I'm singing love's praises with sugar-coated rhymes," he sings in the easy-rolling "Bye and Bye." "I'm going slow/Going where the wild roses grow." But before long it's "The future for me is already a thing of the past/You were my first love and you'll be my last." By this time you're wondering whether maybe the song is addressed not to a woman but to the audience. And then, in the same easy, lulling tempo, and out of nowhere, Bob sings, "Well, I'm gonna baptize you in fire/So you can sin no more/I'm gonna establish my rule through civil war/I'll make you see just how loyal and true a man can be."

Even with Dylan's wrecked voice up front, these songs all sound well. There's that shuffle chug on "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," the lovely violin refrain on "Floater (Too Much To Ask)," the fat on-the-beat electric-guitar riff of "Lonesome Day Blues," the bluegrass banjo and mandolin of "High Water" (dedicated to Charley Patton), Meyers's touches of Vox, B-3, and accordion, and Dylan's classic verse-chorus-bridge turns of melody on ballads like "Bye and Bye." And in every song, Dylan's trying on a different Bob, a different face to meet the faces that he meets. "Stick with me, baby/Stick with me anyhow," he sings. "Things should get interesting right about now." Well, okay.

Issue Date: September 14 - 20, 2001