Santa Monica, Calif. – For 16 years, Bob Dylan has been in the public’s mind, and for most of that time, he hasn’t paid much attention to what the public thinks of him.
ldquo;He had a sublime indifference to what people thought,” said John Hammond, who signed Dylan to Columbia Records in 1960. “I found him an irreverent son-of-a-bitch who was going to change the face of the music business. He had a marvelously cynical view of what was happening in America.”
Dylan, who grew up in Hibbing before finding fame in New York’s Greenwich Village, never has done anything conventionally.
He became a folk singer to play electric music. Then he recorded a country album in Nashville. Then he recorded an album of other writers’ songs.
Next Dylan wrote an off-beat poetry book. He acted in a Sam Peckinpah movie. And he toured the world with a group he had played with 10 years earlier.
Then, on his next album, the protest singer sang about crumbling relationships. He led a minstrel-like troupe of pop stars and unknown musicians, and last year he made a ragged, prime-time television special of that tour.
Although Dylan’s work has always been in the public eye, he has always been reclusive. His records have never arrived at periodic or even predictable intervals, and his touring schedule has been erratic. He would surface for a benefit for starving people in Bangladesh or controversial convict Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, then disappear for months.
It seemed that no matter what he did, Bob Dylan always fueled the mystique that has made him a near-mythical figure.
Dylan, though, has never worried about his public image or even his record sales. He has never been concerned about being a commercial artist or a famous person.
Now, the 36-year-old singer-songwriter is concerned because he has undertaken perhaps his most daring and ambitious project. He has produced, directed, starred in and paid for a four-hour, feature film called “Renaldo & Clara.” And Dylan is concerned about recovering the reported $1.25 million he has invested in the highly personal and indulgent film.
Furthermore, he has shunned the conventional film industry distributing networks – which could have given Dylan considerable money – in favor of a distributing outfit set up by his younger brother, David Zimmerman, and other music business promoters in Minneapolis.
To cut advertising costs, Dylan, who has granted only one formal interview (to TV Guide before his television special last year) in the last nine years, has conducted a press conference and several interviews to promote “Renaldo & Clara,” which opened to inauspicious reviews last week in New York and Los Angeles.
The movie was shot during Dylan’s minstrel-like Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975-76. Although “Renaldo & Clara” contains 47 songs and a great deal of concert footage, it is essentially an autobiography in which Dylan deals with the myths and realities of his life.
He stars as Renaldo and his former wife, Sara Dylan, plays Clara. Other featured performers are Joan Baez, Ronee Blakely, Allen Ginsburg, David Blue and other members of the Rolling Thunder Revue.
The movie will open here Feb. 17 at the Varsity Theater.
Dylan is a man of few words. He says he is not “articulate in being able to explain things” but that his work speaks for itself.
Untalkative subjects are disconcerting enough to interview. But that was compounded even further because Dylan’s oral expressions tend to be on more of a philosophical than a literal level.
Although he sometimes didn’t directly answer questions, he seemed sharp and perceptive. After we were introduced, he immediately recognized that I had been backstage at a Minneapolis concert four months earlier, at which he and I weren’t even introduced.
In his Santa Monica rehearsal hall, there were no sunglasses to hide his steel blue eyes. At times, especially when I asked a question or he was just finishing his answer, he would stare deeply into my eyes as if he were looking into my mind. His presence was undeniably powerful.
Often he would pause in mid-sentence and gaze off into space. He would seem to be contemplating something. But then he would stop speaking and wait for a reaction or another question.
At times, he would speak very slowly with long, contemplative pauses between words. At other times, he would complete his sentences seemingly without contemplation.
There was intensity to his style, just as there has always been to his singing. His conversation was as transfixing as his performance onstage.
At times, Dylan’s manner and some of his answers made him seem distant. But, he made small talk about things back in Minnesota and, in the end, a certain warmth and unreluctant friendliness surfaced. Above all, the Marlboro-smoking, curly-haired guy in the white coveralls came across as a thinker, an observer, a man with a special vision.
Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
Q The film was supposed to open this week in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, but the Minneapolis theater operators would not book the film until they saw how it did in New York and L.A. Did their attitude surprise you? Did you expect reluctance from movie operators?
A No. No. I had no expectations.
Q Some people thought you might want to open the film in Minneapolis because haven’t performed there since 1965.
A No. That’s out of my hands – where I play.
Q Do you feel bad or guilty about not having played in Minneapolis in so long?
A No. No, you can’t play everywhere. We might get there this year.
Q You lived the first half of your life in Minnesota. What does Minnesota mean to you?
A That’s where I feel rooted, you know. I feel more familiar with the landscape, the people and the … earth, I think… I feel more at home there.
Q Do you get back very often?
A Yeah. Yeah, about every year I’ll make it. I make it necessary to do that.
strong>Q I’ve always felt that the energy and rhythm of a performer’s work often reflects the energy and rhythm of that person’s environment. You’ve live in Minnesota, New York and now L.A. Do you think that applies to your work?
A I feel Minnesota more than I feel New York or L.A…. My work reflects the thoughts I had as a little kid that have become superdeveloped.
strong>Q Do you understand them better now?
A No. No, I understand them less than I ever did understand. Environment doesn’t seem to affect what I do very much.
strong>Q What moved you to make “Renaldo & Clara”? Has it been with you a while?
A Yeah. The concept of the dream filtering into daily life, you know. It was the movie I hoped to make before I made any other movie.
Q Earlier you said your TV special last year, “Hard Rain,” was made just for your audience. Do you feel that the film is just for your audience?
A Yeah. At this point in time, I don’t know how large or small that audience is. I haven’t been on the road for a while. I feel it’s for people who are lined up with my particular kind of music and my particular kind of feeling. That’s who it’s for. A lot of people don’t like Picasso or a lot of people don’t like Ernest Hemingway or Proust. It’s not for everybody as my thing isn’t for everybody. There’s no reason why it should be.
Q The movie doesn’t really answer the question “who is Bob Dylan?” It just further fuels the mystique.
A There is no answer to who Bob Dylan is. It’s a misleading question…Well, Socrates said, ‘Know thyself.’ We spend a lifetime finding that out. But the names don’t necessarily mean something. We are underneath the name what we really are. Back there where the soul is, is who we really are…And like Woody Guthrie said, ‘We’re all one soul, anyhow.’ So, it doesn’t matter.
Q Does your work give that answer?
A Yeah. The whole stream of my work probably adds up to who Bob Dylan is.
Q When you create or write, do you do it for yourself or others? Is it basically self-expression or is it meant to be shared?
A I write for myself first…It’s meant to be projected. Shared…That’s something only God would know.
Q You said earlier that it doesn’t matter to you how your audience interprets your work. Do you think some people have blown your work out of proportion?
A Yeah. Yeah, but not in any abominable way.
Q At various points in the movie, you come to grips with the portrayal of Bob Dylan as God, Bob Dylan the prophet of his generation.
A We’re dealing with that subject like every man has to deal with that subject. Every man carries that around with him. It’s not necessarily God. It’s the concept of the all-purpose savior. The extension of God. What we’re dealing with in the film is not God so much, bu the evidence of God.
Q Would it bother you if people didn’t accept your work?
A Well…I’m out there pretty far…because of an audience and crowd that seems to accept it. Now, I’m there performing as a servant. The work comes through me. I perform it. It never actually occurred to me that it’s actually me that’s doing it. I’m a vehicle to express it.
Q When did you discover that there was this higher force?
A I learned that from Woody Guthrie… well…when you take a look at the things he’s done, it occurs that only he himself couldn’t be responsible for it. It’s the life force that’s coming from somewhere. This indescribable place.
Q Is there any underlying philosophy to what you are trying to do with your life and work?
A Yeah. Search for beauty.
Q Do you feel people are getting that message? Do you need that feedback to know?
A You can usually look into people’s eyes.
Q You can’t do that when an album comes out.
A An album for me isn’t anything more than a collection of songs that I’ve written at a particular time. Songs I’ve written at a particular time. Songs I’ve written to be sung from the stage…not to go into a studio and make an album that has any type of message to send to people. It’s just a collection of songs. It’s always been that way for me. I don’t take those things too seriously. I just put out one album after another…Songs aren’t any good really unless they can be sung on stage. They’re meant to be sung to people, not to microphones in a recording studio. You don’t really get the full impact of it in the recording studio.
Q Is that why you have been so spontaneous in the studio?
A No…because I’m so impatient. I don’t like hanging around studios. I’m not a technical wizard. I’m not interested in that aspect of the current recording, which the Beatles started with that Sgt. Pepper thing.
Q Do you keep up with pop music?
A Not really. All I really listen to is the music I’ve always listened to…country white blues or country black blues.
Q Many of your songs over the years have dealt with obligations to loved ones. How do you think your recent divorce will affect your work and life?
A Just because you’re divorced doesn’t mean you don’t love…the person you’re divorced from. It really doesn’t affect that. Divorce is just a game of the material world. It doesn’t really affect the reality of love one way or the other to me.
Q Do the songs still come easily?
A Some do, some don’t.
Q You said earlier that you’re concerned with maintaining the fire while recording a song in the studio. When you’re onstage performance an old song, like say, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the spark has to be different than the one that ws there when you created the song. Can you get a hold on how that has evolved?
A Yeah…easily. I can’t explain. I’ve heard people say I don’t write any stuff like I used to. Well, I don’t know exactly what that means…because I’ve written so much different kind of stuff. Well, I don’t write anything like I used to. Well, so what. I wrote those songs and they’re still good. They are not like cars which you change the model every year. They are one of a kind and one of a kind only.
Q What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses?
A Well, my weaknesses are impatience…and over-anxiety. My strengths are determination and a sense of responsibility…integrity.
Q Are you happy?
A Now that we’ve finished the movie? Yeah. I was really happy we finished the movie.
Q No, in general?
A I don’t look at life if I’m happy or not. I don’t deal with it on those terms.
Q How do you deal with it?
A I deal with the moment.
Q How do you think you want to be remembered?
A I don’t even know if I want to be remembered. If I do want to be remembered, it’s a question of who. The people who have been inspired.
Q Have people done that to you?
A Yeah. People have done it to me. I’d like to do it. It’s the only reward in this line of work…if someone carries it farther.