He takes off his mask before bringing his show home
Bob Dylan strides through the long lobby of the Claremont Resort hotel wearing his game face. His customary sunglasses are missing. Yet, even without that mask, it's hard to predict which Dylan will surface an hour later in concert at the Greek Theater. Poet laureate? Political rebel? Folkie? Rocker? Visionary prophet? Blasphemer? Christian? Jew?
It turns out to be a free-wheeling Bob Dylan: animated, talkative, jocular, intense, passionate. The many sides of Dylan are evident as he proves to be a genuine soul singer - not in the R&B sense, but in terms of singing with his heart and soul - and an unabashed music fan. Backed by the simpatico Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers plus four gospel-trained singers, Dylan interprets numbers by Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell and Ricky Nelson, recasts his own classics including "Positively Fourth Street" and "Like a Rolling Stone" and sprinkles in a handful of tunes from his most recent albums.
Neil Young is backstage after the concert. So is Annie Sampson, a former singer with the Bay Area R&B band Stoneground; she wants to give her old friend Dylan a tape of her current work. A former Dylan employee and her husband also stop by to chat with the singer in his dressing room.
"This is what happens when I stick around after," Dylan says to a visiting journalist after the well-wishers have left. "So what's happening in Minneapolis?"
"People are getting excited about your show at the Metrodome with the (Grateful) Dead," the visitor says. "It'll be the first actual concert at the Dome - you've been to Twins games there. There have been concerts in association with sporting events but no full-scale concerts. And this will also be your first concert in Minnesota in nine years."
"No. Didn't I come there on the last tour (in '83)?"
"No. And not on the `religious' tour ('80). You got as close as Omaha."
"They're all religious tours," Dylan says with a sly smile. "This one's called the True Confessions Tour."
The superstar's game face is gone. He's joking and jiving. There are none of the usual fronts or masks he puts on for journalists. So the visitor tells the Hibbing-bred singer that he was recently named to the all-Hibbing basketball team by pro basketball star Kevin McHale, who also grew up in Hibbing.
"I can't play," says Dylan with a cup of Jim Beam bourbon and water in his hand. "Who's my substitute?"
(The next day, McHale says, "There is no substitute for Bob Dylan.")
Tom Petty would be the first to acknowledge that Dylan had a major influence on his singing and writing style. In fact, when Petty performs with his Heartbreakers, it sometimes sounds like Dylan fronting the Byrds.
Now Petty and the Heartbreakers are Dylan's backup band on the True Confessions Tour. The show is subtitled "Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Alone and Together," meaning that Dylan takes a solo turn and Petty and the Heartbreakers offer two short sets of their own hits (including "Breakdown" and "The Waiting") during a nearly three-hour performance.
Pianist Benmont Tench was the first Heartbreaker to play with Dylan, on his "Shot of Love" album in '81. Tench and Heartbreakers' guitarist Mike Campbell and bassist Howie Epstein worked on Dylan's 1985 album, "Empire Burlesque." Then Dylan, Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded the movie theme song "Band of the Hand" this spring.
Petty declined requests for an interview. "He doesn't want to talk until his new album comes out later this year," said tour publicist Parvene Michaels. But bassist Epstein was willing to talk.
"I wasn't awed or intimidated by him (Dylan)," says Epstein, who is at least 10 years younger than the 45-year-old Dylan, "but I don't know about the other guys."
Dylan and the Heartbreakers have worked up more than 70 songs for the tour. After a week's rehearsal, their first performance was a 20-minute cameo last September at the Farm Aid benefit concert in Champaign, Ill.; then they toured Australia, New Zealand and Japan together for five weeks last winter. (An HBO special of that tour is being broadcast during the next three weeks.)
"When we rehearsed for this (U.S.) tour, we did all new songs. We didn't go over the old ones," Epstein says. "He (Dylan) says, `Here's the song, here's the chords, let's do it.' There are no arrangements, we just play. I think we gelled in the rehearsals for the Australian tour."
Dealing with the Heartbreakers, Dylan has said, is like dealing with only one person. That's probably because the players have been together for so long: Epstein joined about five years ago, but the others have been playing together for about 15 years.
With Dylan, the Heartbreakers never know what song they're going to play next. They've rehearsed everything from Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra tunes to a Motown number and "Louie, Louie." The musicians simply have to pay attention and take their cue from the bandleader, who's even thrown them a song or two they've never rehearsed.
During their association of less than a year, Dylan's style has rubbed off on Petty's band. "He (Dylan) is easier to record with," says Epstein. "We're used to laboring more in the studio, but it's going faster now with us."
Rumor: Robert Allen Zimmerman adopted the stage name Bob Dylan as a tribute to poet Dylan Thomas.
Fact: "I just made up the name one night before I was going on at the Scholar (a coffeehouse near the University of Minnesota)," says Dylan, who legally changed his name in the early '60s in New York City. "Ask Dave Lee (who ran the Scholar)."
Rumor: Dylan - who last performed in Minnesota in 1978 at the St. Paul Civic Center, and before that, in 1965 at the Minneapolis Auditorium - harbors ill feelings toward Hibbing and the Twin Cities because he and his music were not accepted there when he was starting out.
Fact: "No," he says. "I've always been accepted." He laughs.
Dylan climbs into a plain van - not even tinted windows - with his teen-age son Sam (one of his six children), his acupuncturist and a few other assistants to head for his second concert at the Greek Theater. Someone hands a cassette tape to the visiting journalist. "It's my new album," says Dylan. "Don't tell anyone where you got it. Just give it back to Gary (Dylan's valet) tonight."
Dylan doesn't know when the LP will be released; that's the record company's decision, he says.
One quick listen to the not-yet-titled record suggests that Dylan is still mining the smoldering blues-rock vein of his last two albums,"Empire Burlesque" and "Infidels." The new LP features a trio of lost-love songs, including "Under Your Spell," which evokes Randy Newman. There's a bit of country-gospel and an 11-minute talking blues number, "Brownsville Girl," that's more cinematic than Dylan's earlier, long-winded story-songs. The centerpiece is "They Killed Him," a tribute to three holy men who dared - Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus; it's a stirring piece featuring a children's choir on the chorus.
Meanwhile, Dylan's van winds its way through the University of California campus. Students in front of fraternity houses wave the van to pull into a parking spot. A couple of young men approach the person in the front passenger seat to see if he wants to buy a ticket; two or three longhairs on the street hold signs that beg, "I Need a Ticket." No one seems to notice the passenger in the back seat with the familiar sunglasses and cloud of curls.
The van pulls into the Greek Theater. Unlike most places where rock concerts are held, this amphitheater offers no backstage entrance, so the van must crawl through a crowd to reach the backstage area. Dylan suggests everybody get out and walk.
The van doors open and the riders hop out. The pool of people parts like the Red Sea did for Moses.
"Hi, Bob," shouts one fan.
"Great show last night," yells another.
A young woman runs up and embraces Dylan, who cooperates reluctantly, then continues walking - down the stairs to the dressing room.
The sunglasses, blue jeans and motorcycle boots come off. Dylan slips into his leather pants, white socks and Beatle boots. His wardrobe assistant shows him how to tie the decorative laces on the seams of the pants around his boots.
"I need a scarf," he tells her. "It's going to be windy tonight, right? My head gets wet. How 'bout that red one?"
She fetches a red plaid scarf from a wardrobe trunk, and he ties it around his head and looks into a mirror. The assistant suggests a hat. They compromise by tying the scarf around the singer's neck.
But first, he needs a shirt. She proffers a white basketball undershirt. He holds it up, pronounces it "OK" and then asks for something else to wear over it. They settle on a black leather vest.
Dylan pours himself a Jim Beam and water and asks, "What time it is?"
Bob Dylan spent his first 19 years in Minnesota. He was born in Duluth, moved to Hibbing when he was 5 or 6 and later attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for a year. He maintains homes in New York and California, and he gets back to Minnesota two or three times a year, he says; his mother lives in St. Paul and his brother in a Minneapolis exurb.
What does Minnesota mean to this famous native son?<>
"The trees and the lakes and the clouds," he says. "And when I was growing up, the trains."
When Dylan started recording for Columbia Records in 1962 he never figured he would have the impact and influence he has had on the intellectual and artistic fabric of his times. He says he doesn't spend much time acknowledging that significance, but ponders the subject "just in passing moments."
His 28 albums have sold more than 35 million copies and his songs have been recorded by thousands of singers, but Dylan hasn't had a hit song or a best-selling record in the 1980s. It doesn't bother him that he's no longer in the forefront of popular music.
"There is a myth in the music business that you need to be platinum and double platinum (with sales of 1 million and 2 million albums)," he says. "Neil Diamond doesn't sell (records), but how many nights did he play in the (St. Paul) Civic Center? Two? Three? (Diamond played two concerts there last December.)
"Music is a live thing," Dylan says. "On records, it's something else. For me, it's always of the moment. It always adapts to your character of the moment. That's why I can't get away from it."
On his 1980 tour Dylan shocked his fans by performing a concert of entirely new, gospel-flavored material and eschewing two decades' worth of songs that had made him famous. He says he has no problem singing songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" that he wrote more than 20 years ago.
"They're not old songs if you're still singing them," he says. "`The Star Spangled Banner' - now that's an old song. So is, uh, `Auld Lang Syne."'
Dylan's legions and social commentators have long made much ado about his religious views. Is he a born-again Christian or is he reasserting his Judaism, the religion in which he was raised? It seems he has had a strong interest in spirituality and then pursued studies from the perspectives of different religious groups.
When did his interest in spirituality start?
"Before I was born," he says. He was introduced to the Bible in grade school and he has been reading it regularly ever since.
On this occasion he is shying away, for the most part, from the long, philosophical and often cryptic answers with which he has been known to confound interviewers. He might cite a line from a Neil Young song or a quote from a James Taylor interview to illustrate his point, but mostly he is direct and straightforward.
After all these years, what motivates him?
He contemplates the question. "Not greed, I hope." He ponders for a moment. "Righteous instincts."
Dylan cuts a striking rock 'n' roll figure standing in the wings of the Greek Theater stage in black leather frock and black leather jeans. A long silver earring hangs from his left ear and fingerless black gloves cover his hands.
It's precisely 8 o'clock. A half-hour earlier the singer had announced to his entourage that tonight's show would start on time.
Petty and the Heartbreakers have assembled in the wings with Dylan. The four female backup singers (Dylan likes to introduce them as "my own Heartbreakers") are ready in the wings on the opposite side of the stage. Dylan turns to the visiting journalist and asks: "What do you think of the album?"
"I really like `They Killed Him.' I think the times are right, and people are ready for that kind of song from you."
"It's a Kris Kristofferson song I heard years ago," he says.
It's now 8:01. Dylan takes a quick sip of bourbon and water from his cup. He puts on his game face. Then he strides out to center stage to a thunderous ovation.