Bob Dylan is flipping through his own back pages. He has finally started writing an autobiography. It began as liner notes for rereleases of his back-catalog albums; he has finished about 200 pages, or perhaps 150--he's not exactly certain. "My retrievable memory, it goes blank on incidents and things that have happened," says Dylan. He has trouble, sometimes, remembering events from decades past, when he was conjuring up albums like Highway 61 Revisited and unleashing songs like Maggie's Farm. So he is collecting anecdotes about himself that other people have told and weaving them into his narrative. Here's the touch that's pure Dylan: even if he knows a tale isn't factual, if it sounds good, he'll use it anyway. "I'll take some of the stuff that people think is true," he says, "and I'll build a story around that."
Here's one story that is true: Dylan is back. Not sort of back, making music that starstruck critics feel compelled to applaud just because Dylan's the guy who plugged in at Newport, or because he's the visionary who wrote Like a Rolling Stone, or even because he's the man who first declared that The Times They Are A-Changin'. He's all the way back--so far back he's up front--once again making music that's worth talking about, not because of what he did 10,000 yesterdays ago but because of what he's doing today. His new album, Love and Theft (Columbia), his 43rd release, is charged with rollickingly good music and enlivened with some of the best lyrics Dylan has spun out in decades.
The story goes like this: a '60s icon, a touring firebrand in the '70s, slows to a grind in the late '80s and, amid reports of his drinking too much and caring too little, loses all touch with his muse in the early '90s. Then comes the acclaimed album Time Out of Mind in 1997, a Grammy in 1998 (his first for best album), an Oscar for best song (another first) in 2001 and worldwide celebration and plaudits on the occasion of his 60th birthday, which took place on May 24 of this year. "Well, you know, I stopped counting after 40," says Dylan. "I'm sure you would too." He says he has got past the heart ailment he had in 1997, and is feeling fit. He adds, smiling, "A day above the ground is a good day."
But that's just part of the story. The tale could have ended like this: it was 1987 and Dylan was about to embark on a tour with the Grateful Dead when he decided to quit the music business. At that point, he had been mailing in his performances for years; he had even hired backup singers to distract audiences from the tired ruin of his voice. He couldn't even remember the lyrics to his best, most challenging songs, like Desolation Row and Queen Jane Approximately; what's more, he didn't want to remember them. "I'd become a different person since I'd written them," Dylan recalls, "and, frankly, they mystified me." The members of the Grateful Dead, however, loved the old songs and wanted to play some of them with Dylan. The realization that he had grown so estranged from his art drove Dylan to despair. "At that point, I was just going to get out of it and everything that entails," he says.