OnthatfirstvisittoMadrid,Dy-lan was also seen inside a down-town bar, the Café Alcázar, sport-ing a Hawaiian shirt. It was 8pm,and he was being interviewed by theBritishjournalistMickBrown.“He ordered coffee and lit a ciga-rette — the first of a stream hewould smoke over the next hour,”Brown recalls in a recent articlefor
Here's the 1984 interview by Mick Brown in the Café Alcázar:
Sunday Times, July 1, 1984
Week In Focus
DYLAN 'Jesus, who's got time to keep up with the times?'
This week Bob Dylan comes to Britain. The folksinger-cum-folk hero of the 1960s has not always had a good reception here. In 1965 purists attacked him for "going electric". In 1981 his new-found evangelism left many of his fans cold. What should they expect this time? Last week Mick Brown had an exclusive interview.
Bob Dylan tugged at a cigarette, stroked the beginnings of an untidy beard and gazed pensively at the stream of traffic passing down the Madrid street. "What you gotta understand," he said at length,"is that I do something because I feel like doing it. If people can relate to it, that's great; if they can't, that's fine too. But I don't think I'm gonna be really understood until maybe 100 years from now. What I've done, what I'm doing, nobody else does or has done."
The messianic tone grew more intense. "When I'm dead and gone maybe people will realise that, and then figure it out. I don't think anything I've done has been evenly mildly hinted at. There's all these interpreters around, but they're not interpreting anything except their own ideas. Nobody's come close."
But a lot of people, it seems, still want to. Bob Dylan may no longer sell records in the consistently enormous quantities he once did - a fact to which he will allow a tinge of regret - but his capacity to hold his audience in thrall seems undiminished.
By the time Bob Dylan arrives in Britain this week for performances at St. James's Park, Newcastle, on Tuesday and Wembley Stadium on Saturday, he will already have performed to almost half a million people throughout Europe - half a million people singing the chorus of Blowing In The Wind, an esperanto that is as much a testament to Dylan's abiding influence and charisma as the insatiable interest of the world's press in his activities.
This interest is equalled only by Dylan's determination to keep his own counsel whenever possible. As Bill Graham, the tour's garrulous American promoter and Dylan's closest adviser, keeps reminding you, Bob "is not your everyday folksinger."
All the German magazine Stern had wanted to do was touch base for five minutes in return for a front cover. Dylan declined. The press conference that he had been persuaded to hold in Verona, attended by 150 excitable European journalists, had been a fiasco: photographers barred, and the first question from the floor - "What are your religious views nowadays?" - met by Dylan irritably brushing the table in front of him, as if to sweep aside that and all other questions to follow.
"I mean, nobody cares what Billy Joel's religious views are, right?" he tells me with a wry smile. "what does it matter to people what Bob Dylan is? But it seems to, right? I'd honestly like to know why it's important to them."
One expects many things of Bob Dylan, but such playful ingenuousness is not one of them.
Dylan protects himself well, not with bodyguards but with a smokescreen of privacy and elusiveness of the sort that encourages speculation and myth. Meeting him involves penetrating a frustrating maze of "perhapses" and "maybes", of cautions and briefings - suggestive of dealing with fine porcelain - culminating in a telephone call summoning you to an anynonymous cafeteria filled with Spanish families who give not a second glance to the figure in a hawaiian shirt and straw hat who at last comes ambling through the door.
He is surprisingly genial, youthful for his 43 years, lean, interested and alert, who treat the business of being Bob Dylan with an engagingly aw-shucks kind of bemusement.
It was in striking contrast to the apparition Dylan had presented the previous night, on stage in front of 25,000 people in a Madrid football stadium, his black smock coat, high boots and hawkish profile suggesting some avenging backwoods preacher.
The emphasis in his performance has shifted from the overtly evangelical songs heard in Dylan's last visit to Britain three years ago. Now it spans every phase of his 21-year career. The themes of social protest, personal love and religious faith have never been more of a piece. Dylan remains what he has always been, an uncompromising moralist. And to hear songs such as "Masters Of War", "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" (about nuclear war), and "Maggie's Farm" (about rebellious labour) invested with fresh nuances of meaning, not to say vitriol, is to realise that, while the sentiments may have become unfashionable in popular music, they are no less pertinent. Nobody else is writing songs like Bob Dylan. Nobody ever did.
"For me, none of the songs I've written has really dated," he says. "They capture something I've never been able to improve on, whatever their statement is. A song like "Maggie's Farm" - I could feel like that just the other day, and I could feel the same tomorrow. People say they're 'nostalgia', but I don't know what that means really. A Tale of Two Cities was written 100 years ago; is that nostalgia? This term 'nostalgia', it's just another way people have of dealing with you and putting you some place they think they understand. It's just another label."
Labels exercise Bob Dylan greatly. People have been trying to put them on him since he started, he says, "and not one of them has ever made any sense."
The furore about his religious beliefs puzzled him most of all, "like I was running for pope or something." When the word first spread that he had eschewed Judaism and embraced Christianity, and he toured America in 1979 singing overtly religious songs, the most hostile reception came not from rock audiences but when he played university campuses, "and the so-called intellectual students showed their true monstrous selves."
"Born-again christians" is just another label, he says. He had attended bible school in California for three months, and the book was never far from his side, but the idea that faith was a matter of passing through one swing door and back out another struck him as ridiculous. "I live by a strict disciplinary code, you know, but I don't know how moral that is or even where it comes from really. These things just become part of your skin after a while; you get to know what line not to step over - usually because you stepped over it before and were lucky to get back."
Was he an ascetic? Dylan lit another cigarette and asked what the word meant. "I don't think so. I still have desires, you know, that lead me around once in a while. I don't do things in excess, but everybody goes through those times. They either kill you, or make you a better person."
By this time in the conversation it did not seem awkward to ask: did he believe in evil?
"Sure I believe in it. I believe that ever since Adam and Eve got thrown out of the garden that the whole nature of the planet has been heading in one direction - towards apocalypse. It's all there in the Book of Revelations, but it's difficult talking about these things to most people because most people don't know what you're talking about, or don't want to listen.
"What it comes down to is that there's a lot of different gods in the world against the god - that's what it's about. There's a lot of different gods that people are subjects of. There's the god of mammon. Corporations are gods. Governments? No, governments don't have much to do with it anymore, I don't think. Politics is a hoax. The politicians don't have any real power. They feed you all this stuff in the newspapers about what's going on, but that's not what's really going on.
"But then again, I don't think that makes me a pessimistic person. I'm a realist. Or maybe a surrealist. But you can't beat your head against the wall forever."
He had never, he said, been a utopian: that was always a foreign term to him, something to do with moving to the country, living communally, and growing rice and beans. "I mean, I wanted to grow my own rice and beans - still do - but I never felt part of that movement."
But he could still look back on the 1960s with something approaching affection. "I mean, the Kennedys were great-looking people, man, they had style," he smiles. "America is not like that anymore. But what happened, happened so fast that people are still trying to figure it out. The tv media wasn't so big then. It's like the only thing people knew was what they knew; then suddenly people were being told what to think, how to behave, there's too much information.
"It just got suffocated. Like woodstock - that wasn't about anything. It was just a whole new market for tie-dyed t-shirts. It was about clothes. All those people are in computers now."
This was beyond him. He had never been good with numbers, and had no desire to stare at a screen. "I don't feel obliged to keep up with the times. I'm not going to be here that long anyway. So I keep up with these times, then I gotta keep up with the 90s. Jesus, who's got time to keep up with the times?"
It is at moments such as this that Dylan - once, misleadingly perhaps, characterised as a radical - reveals himselfas much of a traditionalist; an adherent of biblical truths; a firm believer in the family and the institution of marriage - despite his own divorce from his wife, Sara; a man disenchanted with many of the totems and values of modern life, mass communications, the vulgarity of popular culture, the "sameness" of everything. Personally he had been reading Cicero, Machiavelli and John Stuart Mill. Contemporary literature? "Oh yeah, I read a detective story, but I can't remember what it was called."
"At least in the 1960s it seemed there was room to be different. For me, my particular scene, I came along at just the right time, and I understood the times I was in. If I was starting out right now I don't know where I'd get the inspiration from, because you need to breathe the right air to make the creative process work. I don't worry about it so much for me; I've done it; I can't complain. But the people coming up, the artists and writers, what are they gonna do, because these are the people who change the world."
Nowadays, he admits, he finds writing harder than ever. A song like "Masters of War" he would despatch in 15 minutes, and move onto the next one without a second thought. "If I wrote a song like that now I wouldn't feel I'd have to write another one for two weeks. There's still things I want to write about, but the process is harder. The old records I used to make, by the time they came out I wouldn't even want them released because I was already so far beyond them."
Much of his time nowadays is spent travelling. He was in Jerusalem last autumn for his son Jesse's bar-mitzvah - "his grandmother's idea", he smiles. Israel interests him from " a biblical point of view", but he had never felt that atavistic Jewish sense of homecoming. In fact he lives principally on his farm in Minnesota, not far from the town of Hibbing where he spent his adolescence. Then there is the domed house in Malibu, California, originally built to accomodate his five children - good schools nearby, he says - but which he has seldom used since his divorce, and a 63ft sailing boat with which he cruises the Caribbean "when I can't think of anything else to do."
He had never contemplated retirement: the need to make money was not a factor - he is a wealthy man - but the impulse to continue writing was. "There's never really been any glory in it for me," he says. "Being seen in the places and having everybody put their arms around you, I never cared about any of that. I don't care what people think. For me, the fulfilment was always in just doing it. That's all that really matters."
As the conversation had progressed, more and more people had realised who the man in the straw hat was. A steady stream had made their way to his table, scraps of paper in hand. Dylan had signed them all, with a surprisingly careful deliberation - almost as if he was practising - but his discomfort at being on view was becoming more apparent. As peremptorily as he arrived, Bob Dylan made his excuses and left.