PRINT January 1998


Bob Dylan

I HEARD A TRACK from Bob Dylan's new Time Out of Mind (Columbia) on the radio a few weeks before the album’s release. I didn’t recognize the voice right away, but I was moved by its unique and powerful sound, like a venerable, shamanic Delta blues man backed by some weird, Tom Waits–like band. It was profound blues, ancient and future music.

Before the song was over it hit me that it was Dylan with another new voice: deep, dark, aged in wood, like maybe the same wood Dante Alghieri wrote about rambling in. Dylan is a spiritual itinerant and his Time Out of Mind has ramblin’ music for all forms of transience, including hoboing and soul revue transmigration.

Dylan has always come up with new voices, like he’s changing channels, and you get used to them quickly. Now I don’t know how I could have not recognized him right off—older, wiser, more radioactive. Cooler than ever but ready to implode anyway. Yet another side of Bob Dylan.

Before I got a copy of Time Out of Mind I read Ron Rosenbaum, practicing old-time interpretive Dylanology in The New York Observer; saying this is a brilliant record by a Bob Dylan in love with death, especially on “Highlands.” I would have rather figured that out myself. Or not. Dylan, like a Rorschach or a strip show, is best enjoyed unmediated. I’ll just say that I didn’t find it to be a love fest of the funereal. Well, it is that, but it has more levels than a Carpenter’s Union Local, and when Bob is singing that his heart is in the Highlands, I have to take that on about nine levels simultaneously, including Scotland, Scotch, the golf course, drugs, death, other planes, other worlds, ancient days, the astral plane, the airplane, the sixth-plus senses, and more.

I can’t blame the scholarly and laudable Rosenbaum for analyzing, because Dylan is always extra-there for those with the ears to hear, a font of the mythopoetic, the urbane arcane and heterodox prophesy. Bob Dylan is a full-fledged member of the metaphysical musicians union. He says he’s not a poet, he’s an entertainer in the burlesque tradition, but that doesn’t mean a lot, or that his words don’t reveal the deal.

I keep replaying this Dylan like I used to replay those glorious albums of my youth, letting them wash over my head. I guess that’s because like those old ’60s records, here’s one that addresses the conditions and concerns of me and my generation. It’s as bitter as I am and funny too. It’s slyly bleak. Weary and ambitious. Sweet and sour. And it's capable of washing over my head and behind the ears.

“All the young men with the young women lookin’ so good, well, I’d trade places with any of ’em in a minute if I could.”

The down-to-earth epic “Highlands” is not only longer than “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and cooler, it’s also the first Dylan song to mention Neil Young and Erica Jong. It’s studded with throwaway jewelry. Like: “You could say I was on anything but a roll.”

Dylan’s two previous releases, soulful interpretations of R&B arcana, showed that he’s an eminent historian. These new songs are all Dylan, but ancient, forgotten Grandmaster guitar players echo through them. Deep scholarship is behind this music—and many old-time lowdown ritual riffs are at work here, timelessly rendered by Dylan and a subtle band.

These are beautiful songs, scary songs, witty songs, sublime songs. Sometimes they're sad, sometimes funny, sometimes all at the same time. Dylan is about taking the good with bad, the bitter with the sweet, the comedy with the tragedy. He’s got a black belt in Borscht Belt. He might be a great prophet, but like Shakespeare, he doesn’t let it get in the way of show business.

Glenn O'Brien is the author of Soapbox: Essays, diatribes, homilies, and screeds, 1980–1997 (Imschoot, uitgevers, 1997) and the editor of Sex (Warner Books, 1992).