Published Feb. 3, 2013
Bob Dylan perches on the corner of a brown piano bench like a little kid on a too-big couch. His left leg dangles off to the side, right foot extending under the black baby grand.
The guitarist who went electric at the Newport Folk Festival and harnessed a harmonica rack around his neck has now become a piano man.
He doesn't play with the pounding bravado of Billy Joel, the flowing finesse of Elton John or the genre-blending beauty of Ray Charles.
With posture that would upset a piano teacher, his fingers flat on the keys, Dylan vamps on chords before 8,000 fans at Chicago's United Center during a recent concert swing through the Midwest. He finds a groove only in the blues or when he gets transported to boogie-woogie land.
It is the latest incarnation of this god of American popular music, a shy Minnesota Iron Ranger of few words whose music speaks to millions.
After half a century, the drawing power of his lyrics defiantly transcends age and time. He is 71 years old. Yet front rows at his concerts are packed with young millennials, some with parents in tow reminiscing about first hearing the raspy troubadour express their deepest thoughts on love, war and politics back in the 1960s.
Erin Quigley, 19, remained thoroughly hooked six weeks after a concert in Madison. "Now I listen to Bob Dylan daily," said the University of Wisconsin social work major. His lyrics "really speak to me. His message to people my age really sticks out."
Dylan's generation-spanning cultural impact moved President Obama to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in May, the nation's highest civilian honor. "There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music," Obama said that day.
Though he has written many a memorable melody and potent guitar lick, it is Dylan's evocative lyrics that led to a Pulitzer Prize in 2008. His mastery over words is why London bookies make odds on him right before the Nobel Prize in Literature is announced each year and why his 2012 "Tempest" album was greeted with wide acclaim.
But the words are mostly confined to his songs. Dylan seldom speaks in public, projecting a studied image of inscrutability. Part sour-faced curmudgeon, part misunderstood recluse.
The public Dylan
I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes
There are secrets in them I can’t disguise
— “Long and Wasted Years,” 2012
He has been the subject of more than 1,800 books and countless college courses. Yet, to all but his family and closest friends, Bob Dylan remains something of an enigma.
The wordsmith rarely grants interviews, and requests to speak to him for this story were refused. When he does consent, the responses are often vague, mystical or testy.
To promote "Tempest," the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer gave Rolling Stone magazine an interview in September. He was evasive and prickly, like a prizefighter never letting his opponent get a clean shot. Even his own 2004 memoir, "Chronicles -- Volume 1," was rather cryptic, leaving one fan to conclude: "That book reveals everything and it reveals nothing."
The elusive Dylan doesn't attend openings of his own art shows, such as the 30 paintings titled "Revisionist Art" mounted at New York's Gagosian Gallery in November. He doesn't always show up to collect awards.
As for music-making, Dylan "prefers to do it rather than to talk about it," said guitarist Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
Van Zandt experienced the uncommunicative superstar in the studio when he played guitar on the 1985 track "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky." They remained friendly and, at a concert in Europe years later, Dylan invited him onstage for the encore. That's where Van Zandt glimpsed the other side of Dylan.
"I come onstage and the audience stands up, very excited," Van Zandt remembered. "And he starts having a conversation with me. He says: 'Man, I've seen your new TV show. It's weird. You're wearing a wig.' He starts going on about 'The Sopranos.' I'm like: 'Bob, can we talk about this later? Twenty thousand people are screaming right now. I need to plug [the guitar] in and do something.' He said: 'Well, I don't see you that often.' He's so comfortable onstage from being on the road so much, it's like being in his living room."
But what the public usually sees is a more stoic Dylan, even on that day last May in the East Room of the White House when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dylan wore sunglasses, a bow tie and a stone face.
Obama admitted to being a big Dylan fan, lavishing praise on the person who invented the job of singer-songwriter. As the president draped the medal around Dylan's neck, the singer raised his eyebrows Groucho Marx style, shook Obama's hand and walked off without a word.
It was Dylan déjà vu for the president. Two years earlier, the rock poet had been equally laconic with his No. 1 fan at a White House civil rights program. Obama relived the encounter for Rolling Stone. Dylan had just performed a new arrangement of "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
"Finishes the song," Obama said, "steps off the stage -- I'm sitting right in the front row -- comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin and then leaves. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That's how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don't want him to be all cheesin' and grinnin' with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise."
It's the same onstage, where he offers not so much as a "thank you" to fans at the end of a show. He breaks his silence only to introduce the band.
But out of the spotlight, with friends and family, a different man sometimes emerges from behind his shades.
They insist he is transformed: Funny, sharp and kind.
The private Dylan
People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act.
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.
Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at.
I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that
— “Idiot Wind,” 1974
A vintage Cadillac glides up to a modest white house on a quiet St. Louis Park street.
A casually dressed man, his hoodie failing to conceal his famous brown curls, saunters up to the door. Did Dylan call in advance or just show up unannounced again to see former girlfriend Marilyn Percansky? He has known her since college, visiting on and off for decades. She lives in the house with her son, Marc Percansky, 46, a concert promoter with a head of Dylan-evoking curls, who described those visits.
"He's a fun, interesting guy," Percansky said. "He's interested in the ways the world sees him. He's very eccentric, a little moody sometimes. He's got a lot of weight on his shoulders, people asking him for this or that. He handles it well. He's a survivor."
Percansky has shown Dylan online videos fans made about him. Dylan isn't big on computers, but sometimes posts notes on his website, such as remembrances upon the deaths of Johnny Cash, George Harrison and the Band's Levon Helm.
He's adept at backgammon and chess, Percansky said. Though a "restless type, always on the go," he still takes time to dispense wise advice like a cherished, out-of-town uncle. "One thing he always said: 'Stick with what you do best,'" said Percansky, a former magician. "When I was doing magic, he said: 'Play the county fairs, play anywhere you can play.' He does the same thing himself."
To meet Dylan is to encounter a scrawny, 5-foot-7 man with long fingernails on his guitar-strumming right hand. He gives a dead-fish handshake -- at least to guys. If he is shaking a woman's hand, it's a warmer, two-handed grasp.
Those close to him say three qualities stand out: His memory, loyalty and sense of humor.
Minneapolis teacher's aide Bob Pratt worked as a gofer for Dylan in the late 1970s when the superstar and his brother owned the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. Dylan sometimes stopped by to see a Broadway musical or a concert. He went backstage in 1978 to visit Tom Waits, who was signing autographs for fans. Waits introduced them to "my friend Bob Dylan."
"They didn't believe it was Bob," Pratt said. "So Bob turned to me and said: 'Eric Clapton was right -- nobody knows you when you're down and out.' "
Childhood friend Dick Cohn, now a St. Paul businessman, reconnected with Dylan in the 1980s, occasionally traveling on tour until 2001. There were rules when keeping company with the bard. No photos of him or even his bus. No talking to him unless he talks to you. It could be a week, Cohn said, before Dylan talked with him right as he was leaving.
"He doesn't do what you ever expect him to do," Cohn said. He might walk around a neighborhood or box with a punching bag. He may detour the bus to visit Neil Young's childhood home in Winnipeg or James Dean's grave in Fairmount, Ind.
Cohn and Dylan met at a summer camp for Jewish kids in Webster, Wis. Another Herzl Camp pal, Larry Kegan, joined them on tour. Kegan was a quadriplegic from a high school diving mishap, so he and Cohn traveled in a special van. Dylan was generous with his buddies -- Celebritynetworth.com puts his worth at $80 million.
"We'd go to a hotel, and Larry would get Bob's room -- the best room, the suite -- and Bob would take a little dinky room like I would get," said Cohn. "He paid thousands of dollars for me and Larry to stay with him."
Cohn recalled Dylan gently pushing Kegan's wheelchair. "Larry was really his only true friend that I could see. And there were some very close moments with him."
With six children from two marriages, there is no shortage of close relationships in Dylan's life. Like him, his relatives share little family lore.
When Dylan shows up at family functions, he tries not to upstage events. The day his daughter Maria -- the oldest of his five children with his first wife, Sara Dylan -- graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul in 1983, he stood off in the shadows, under a tree, during the ceremony.
His second marriage -- to backup singer Carolyn Dennis from 1986 to 1992 -- and the existence of their daughter weren't revealed until a 2001 biography by Howard Sounes.
Dylan has maintained a home in the exurban Twin Cities since 1974, a 100-acre farm where his brother, David Zimmerman, also lives. It's a good 40 minutes from downtown Minneapolis on the Crow River, far from crowds but near an airport where a private jet can land. He's seldom there since his mother, who had remarried and lived in St. Paul, died in 2000.
While his ties to Minnesota have grown thinner over the years, his roots still run deep, a rich tide of memories that flow through his songs.
’Cross that Minnesota border, keep ’em scrambling
Through the clear country lakes and the lumberjack lands
— “Dusty Old Fairgrounds,” 1973
Abe Zimmerman passed out cigars to the men he supervised at the Standard Oil stockroom in Duluth after his wife, Beatty, gave birth to their first child on May 24, 1941. They named him Robert Allen Zimmerman.
Six years and another baby boy later, Abe was diagnosed with polio. They moved to Beatty's hometown of Hibbing on the Iron Range, where Abe ran an appliance store with his brothers, and Beatty worked at Feldman's department store.
At night, Bobby was glued to the radio, listening to blues, R&B, country and later rock 'n' roll from faraway stations in Little Rock, Ark., and Shreveport, La.
In junior high, he stocked shelves with aspirin and toothpaste at Lenz Drugstore and swept the floors. "He didn't seem like a normal kid," recalled Minneapolis antiques dealer Dorthea Calabrese, who was a cosmetics clerk there. "He was nice enough, but he was very quiet and eccentric .... You never knew what was going through his mind. Even the pharmacist commented how strange he was. He seemed to have a lot going on in his head."
At Herzl Camp, "he was friendly, very popular," Cohn said. "He played guitar and piano. It was a big deal. Bob was like the head camp-song guy."
He was in rock bands at Hibbing High School, gigging at the armory and social clubs. When his group tried to play rock 'n' roll at a school talent show -- with Bob doing a raucous Jerry Lee Lewis impression and breaking a piano pedal -- teachers covered their ears and the principal closed the curtain and pulled the plug. That didn't deter Bob. Under his senior yearbook photo in 1959 were the words "Robert Zimmerman: to join Little Richard."
He headed to the University of Minnesota and lived in Dinkytown, first at a Jewish frat house, later above Gray's Campus Drug (now the site of Loring Pasta Bar). But he was more interested in the blues and folk music scene than academics. He fell in with John Koerner, Dave Ray and Tony Glover, performing songs by Cisco Houston and Lead Belly in beatnik coffeehouses like the 10 O'Clock Scholar under the name Bob Dylan.
"You're born, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself," he told "60 Minutes" in 2004. "This is the land of the free."
Smitten with Woody Guthrie's music, Dylan set off for New York in January 1961 to meet Guthrie, who was institutionalized with Huntington's disease. Weeks later, the skinny kid from Minnesota was singing in Greenwich Village folk clubs.
That September, Robert Shelton wrote a review of Dylan in the New York Times: "But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up."
The next month, he signed with Columbia Records. For his biography on his debut album in 1962, Dylan fabricated that he was an orphan from New Mexico who never knew his parents and hopped a boxcar to New York City.
The Bob Dylan mystique was in full motion.
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
— “Tangled Up in Blue,” 1974
Fifty-two years after Dylan left Minneapolis to be discovered by the rest of the world, he stands among the most revered figures in popular music.
The pace of the Never Ending Tour, a 2,500-concert Dylan juggernaut that started in 1988, is unrivaled by any other Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Last November, Dylan's bus rolled through St. Paul, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago during a 36-city national tour. In 2012, he performed 86 concerts on three continents.
In Chicago, he played crowd favorites like "Tangled Up in Blue" and "All Along the Watchtower" but barely spoke to the audience. He didn't talk much to his musicians either. They were left to follow him via subtle nonverbal clues.
Pedal steel guitarist Donnie Herron's eyes were glued on Dylan's fingers. Seated to the right of the piano, he was the only musician who could see the leader's hands to get a clue about notes, keys or tempo. He watched Dylan's mitts more than he glanced at his own fingers flitting along the neck of his guitar.
The other four musicians also kept their eyes locked on Dylan. All they could see was a sliver of face between a broad-brimmed beige Zorro hat and the open piano lid. Dylan led with a nod or the blink of an eye. At most, there was a quick whisper to Herron as he swanned by to grab a harmonica and move to center stage.
His main concession to showbiz is to don a natty outfit each night, a hybrid of a hip marching-band uniform and a rhinestone cowboy's sequined shirt. If he's in a good mood, he might break into a little soft-shoe onstage, equal parts parody and tribute to the song-and-dance men of vaudeville.
Dylan doesn't carry on like a rock star. There are none of the video cameras most big names use for close-ups. Mr. Bashful never gets closer than 10 feet from the lip of the stage. The lighting is as dim as candles in a living room.
Only with binoculars is it possible to see his Vincent Price mustache and pencil-thin goatee. At the end of a key line like "How does it feel?" in "Like a Rolling Stone," his mouth cracks a smile that looks more like pain than pleasure. His baby blues are squinty and get even squintier when he sucks and blows on a harmonica.
His voice has grown croakier with age -- like a cross between a bullfroggy early Tom Waits and a gravelly middle-period Dylan -- more guttural than nasal, in desperate need of a cup of tea and honey.
But with Dylan, it's not really about his voice. It's simply about the words and songs, words that are speaking to a whole new generation of fans.
Fresh faces in the crowd
A million faces at my feet
But all I see are dark eyes.
— “Dark Eyes,” 1985
The Kansas couple in the front row at Madison's Alliant Energy Center have been following Dylan for 27 years. They have sat in Row 1 more than 50 times.
A 50-something Illinois woman dripping in turquoise jewelry boasts she smoked pot with Dylan backstage in 1991.
Minneapolis IT specialist Deb Skolos, 42, arranges vacations around his schedule, jetting off to Chicago, New York and even Paris to get a Bob fix. Last fall in San Francisco, after some reconnaissance, she waited by his bus after a show. As he walked by, she waved her hands like a silly fangirl and proclaimed, "Hi, Bob. I'm from Minnesota, too!" "He looked at me and smiled at me," she beamed. "That was enough for me."
These are Bobcats, as Dylan's disciples are known. They are in an obsessive league of their own.
"Dylan fans will analyze things more than any other fan," says Pete Reed, 51, of Greensboro, N.C., a lapsed Grateful Deadhead who has seen more than 400 Dylan shows.
Increasingly, the faces looking back from the audience aren't just baby boomers, but a new generation hooked on Dylan.
A sandy-haired young man in a crisp blue dress shirt and dark slacks stands out like an accountant (which he is) at a heavy-metal concert. Dan Klute, 29, has seen 72 Dylan concerts since 2005. Madison is the first of six the Chicagoan will see in the next week and a half.
"Once isn't enough," Klute said. "There's variety, so much history. You don't know what he'll play and how he'll play it. He pulled out 'Delia' the other night in Las Vegas for the first time since 2000. He did a Gordon Lightfoot cover in Canada last month. Last night during 'Things Have Changed' he sang 'The next 60 seconds could be like an eternity,' and then said to the side, 'That's a mighty long time.'"
Every once in a while, the spokesman of his generation -- a sobriquet he's never liked -- does speak. In Madison, on the eve of the presidential election, he stopped in the midst of a "Blowin' in the Wind" encore and uttered seven sentences.
"Thank you, everybody. We tried to play good tonight, after the president was here today. You know, we just had to do something after that. It's hard to follow that. I think he's still the president, I think he's still gonna be the president. Yeah, we know. You know the media's not fooling anybody, it's probably gonna be a landslide."
Moments later, longtime fan Tom Krill, 66, could hardly contain himself. "That's the most political show I've ever seen from Dylan," he barked into his cellphone. The retired systems analyst from Wauwatosa, Wis., has witnessed 26 Dylan shows since 1974. "He's not a spokesman for our generation but for all generations," said Krill, who attended with his adult son. "He knows what to say, when to say it and how to say it. And it's timeless."
Not every fan remains unrelentingly gaga. Canadian journalist Stephen Pate, 64, has been observing Dylan since 1963 and has posted 500 items on his Dylan blog since 2005. He sees the effects of age on the singer, who seldom plays guitar anymore in concert. Some say that's because of arthritis.
"I still have a great deal of respect for him," Pate said. "I listen to Dylan every day. He's my life's study." But he bluntly blogged in October: "Enough is enough. He has lost his voice and apparently now his sense of pitch and musical timing."
At age 39, David Yaffe is one of the younger Dylan scholars. The Syracuse University English professor wrote the 2011 book "Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown" and reviewed "Tempest" admiringly for the Daily Beast website.
"People will look back on 'Tempest' as being important because he just had so much to say," Yaffe said.
He thinks people both hold Dylan to a higher standard and cut him some slack because of his age and tortured voice. "It's pretty rough," Yaffe admitted. "You've got to be very devoted to Dylan -- and people are -- to make it past that. For somebody who's not really into Dylan, I think it's a hard sell."
But fans still go to great lengths to see this musical icon. Ronald Lindblom, 46, a Northeast Iowa Community College biology professor, drove 3 1/2 hours to the Madison concert with his two teenage daughters. They grew up on Dylan's music -- though they've seen Justin Bieber in concert, too.
Dylan, their dad said, helped him become a more expressive teacher, more descriptive and attentive to his delivery:
"He taught me how to investigate life -- from spiritual to political to the everyday situations we find ourselves in. My work in biology asks the same question: 'What the heck is going on here?' Dylan just does it from another angle."
When you’re standing at the crossroads
That you cannot comprehend
Just remember that death is not the end.
— “Death Is Not the End,” 1988
The fans are on their feet cheering at Milwaukee's BMO Harris Bradley Center. Flanked by his musicians at center stage, Dylan just stares at the crowd. There are no bows -- he just nods and walks off stage. The concertgoers get louder, hoping for another encore.
The object of their affection has a black leather jacket draped over his shoulders. He's already outside, walking with his band toward the buses. Guitarist Charlie Sexton is patting Dylan on his back, yakking into his ear. Dylan suddenly turns to the right and hops on his tour bus. Sexton and the others keep walking and climb onto their own bus.
The crowd is still clapping, even as the buses pull out.
Dylan is rolling on.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719; Twitter: @jonbream