Bob Dylan, another kind of Artist, backs Obama
Odense, Denmark, and the not-quite-grand hotel that for the next two nights will be a home away from home for Bob Dylan. He arrived here from Reykjavik, four days after his 67th birthday and in the first stages of a lengthy itinerary that will take him through Scandinavia, the Baltic states, Austria, Italy, France, Andorra, Spain and Portugal between now and mid-July. To his irritation, others long ago gave this ongoing schedule the title of The Never-Ending Tour (habitually, he plays upwards of 100 concerts each year, often considerably more). As he prefers to see it: “I'm just making my living by plying a trade.”
Achieving my promised audience with the legendary singer-songwriter and now exhibited painter proves to be a two-step process. First, his road manager takes me from the lobby to a darkened, sparsely furnished meeting room in which an orange-haired woman is sitting straight-backed and reading a novel. “If you could just wait here,” he begins, then disappears, his mobile clamped to his ear. Left alone, I introduce myself to the woman but she merely smiles enigmatically and continues with her book. Who is or was she? I still have no idea.
Minutes later I am collected, taken up a flight of stairs and ushered towards a door that is ajar. As I approach it is opened by Dylan, who welcomes me inside with a soft handshake and a volley of courtesies: “How have you been?” [I have interviewed him twice before, in 1997 and 2001], “What's been going on in your life?” and “Are you OK with the dark [here in what appears to be his bedroom, all the curtains have been drawn]?”
My eyes adjusting to this premature twilight, I take in the fact that he is wearing boots, jeans and a loose sweatshirt, its sleeves pushed up above the elbows. That famous face is heavily lined and pale, but always warm and quick to smile. As we take seats at right angles to each other, he presses his fingertips into his grey-flecked curls and vigorously rubs his scalp, as if to do so will focus his mind.
I place on the low table between us the book that I have brought with me. “Heh, heh, heh!” Dylan chuckles, reaching out for it. “This is pretty handsome stuff.” He is looking at a straight-from-the-presses copy of The Drawn Blank Series, produced by the Halcyon Gallery to coincide with the exhibition of that name in Bruton Street, Mayfair. Will he visit the show itself? “I don't know,” he says, seemingly transfixed by the book's cover, his voice the familiar rasp that has inspired a million amateur impressionists. “I have all these dates to play. It might not be possible. I'd like to. We'll have to see.”
The haphazard process leading to the London show began nearly 20 years ago when he was approached by an editor at the American publishing company Random House. “They'd seen some of my sketches somewhere and asked if I'd like to do a whole book. Why not, you know? There was no predetermined brief. ‘Just deal with the material to hand, whatever that is. And do it however you want. You can be fussy, you can be slam-bang, it doesn't matter.' Then they gave me a drawing book, I took it away with me and turned it back in again, full three years later.”
Published in 1994 under the abbreviated title Drawn Blank, the resultant images had been executed both on the hoof while he was touring and in a more structured way in studios, using models (“Just anyone who'd be open to doing it”) and lights. What was going on in his life during that three-year period to inform or provide a back story to the work? “Just the usual,” Dylan shrugs, fixed in the hunkered-forward, hands-clasped position he will maintain for most of our time together. “I try to live as simply as is possible and was just drawing whatever I felt like drawing, whenever I felt like doing it. The idea was always to do it without affectation or self-reference, to provide some kind of panoramic view of the world as I was seeing it.”
Built up of work that is often contemplative, sometimes exuberant but consistently technically accomplished and engaging, that view is of train halts, diners and dockyards, barflies, dandies and uniformed drivers glimpsed in New Orleans or New York, Stockholm or South Dakota. And of women. We're left in no doubt that Dylan likes women. “They weren't actually there at the same time,” he notes quickly, pointing, when his page-turning reveals the painting Two Sisters, its subjects lounging, one clothed, the other naked but for her bra. “They posed separately and I put them together afterwards.”
There was little precedent within his own family for this talented eye, it seems. “Instead of playing cards, my maternal grandmother would do these little still lives, but I can't really say that had any influence on what I've done.” Art formed no part of his formal education and he recalls there being no public galleries in the Minnesotan communities (first Duluth, then Hibbing) of his youth. “I was in my teens before I started to see books of paintings in the school library - frescoes or the work of Michelangelo, that kind of thing. And I didn't really see the stuff that properly had an impact on me - Matisse, Derain, Monet, Gauguin - 'til later on, when I was in my twenties.”
By then, Dylan the university dropout and fledgeling folk performer had gravitated to New York, where he quickly discovered the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It was overwhelming for me at the time, the immensity and sheer variety of stuff on display. The first exhibition I saw there was of Gauguin paintings and I found I could stand in front of any one of them for as long as I'd sit at the movies, yet not get tired on my feet. I'd lose all sense of time. It was an intriguing thing.” It was as his music career gathered pace that he found himself first trying his own hand at drawing. “Mostly when I was on a train or in a café, just to make sense of what was in my immediate world. I found it relaxed me. Some of the stuff I kept, some I didn't.”
It was sketches completed in this manner and spirit that, years later, came to the attention of Random House and led to that commission. However, little accord was given to the book on its eventual publication. “The critics didn't want to review it. The publisher told me they couldn't get past the idea of another singer who dabbled. You know, like, ‘David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney...Everyone's doing it these days.' No one from the singing profession was going to be taken seriously by the art world, I was told, but that was OK. I wasn't expecting anything phenomenal to happen. It's not like the drawings were revolutionary. They weren't going to change anyone's way of thinking.”
But years later there came an approach from the Chemnitz City Art Gallery in Germany. Ingrid Mossinger, its director and a fan of the 1965 album Bringing it all Back Home, had felt it likely that someone as adept as Dylan in the use of metaphoric and abstract language might also draw or paint. Her research led her to the book Drawn Blank, in the preface of which Dylan wrote of hoping to “eventually complete” its collection of sketches. She encouraged him to do just that.
The method used to turn them into the paintings about to go on exhibition in London involved making digital scans of the original drawings and enlarging and then transferring them on to heavy paper ready for reworking. Dylan then experimented with treating individual images with a variety of colours. “And doing so subverted the light. Every picture spoke a different language to me as the various colours were applied.”
Attempts have been made to pin down and name his influences. When I mention this, Dylan wrongly takes it as a suggestion that the work is pastiche or somehow derivative. “I haven't trained in any academy where you learn how to do something in the style of Degas or Van Gogh, or how to copy Da Vinci,” he retorts. “I don't have that facility to copy note for note. Influenced by? If I had the ability to paint like any of those guys I might see the similarity, but I don't. If there is anything it's just by accident and instinctive.” Which is all that any critic was suggesting, after all. But, it seems, he is as uncomfortable at having his paintings deconstructed as he is his songs.
Of the latter process, he said on our last meeting: “These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan music? I don't feel they know a thing or have an inkling of who I am and what I'm about. That such people have spent so much time thinking about who? Me? Get a life, please.”
Today he expresses similar impatience with the critics who have read into his art a variety of underlying feelings - anonymity, transience, rootlessness, even loneliness. Reaching again for the Halcyon book. “Let's have a look, shall we [the pages fall open at Woman in Red Lion Pub, her dress executed in a vivid yellow]? Do you see loneliness in that? Or that [Six Women]? I don't. And this one's just a pastoral scene [Sunday Afternoon]. What's rootless, transient and lonely about that? It's a mystery why anybody would say or think such a thing.”
And the idea that, in framing various images with windows and doors, he is revealing himself as a perennial outsider, forced by his name and status to observe the world rather than connect directly with it? Dylan rolls his eyes. “I just find it to be less satisfying to have the ends [by which he means the edges of the image] being endless, so I'll put a window there or block it in some way. It just looks better to me that way.” So he would prefer a purely emotional, instinctive response to the work rather than any searching for themes and insights? “If it pleases the eye of the beholder...There's no more to it than that, to my mind. Or even if it repels the eye. Either one is fine.”
On both our previous meetings, Dylan voiced his disdain for those completists who wish to see every scrap of paper he has written on or hear every studio out-take that he has rejected. With that in mind, I ask if it was a big deal for him to sign his name on each of the Drawn Blank paintings. “Yes!” he exclaims, laughing. “I finally grew into it, but yes, it was.” And did he perhaps practise his signature in advance? “I did, because it's tricky getting it just right. Finally you think, ‘Oh, to hell...' and just go for it, like you're writing a cheque or something.” He has, he says, no particular favourite among the images. “It's the same as with the early songs...In the Sixties, by the time they came out we were way past the recorded versions and were saying, ‘No, don't release that. We are playing it this way now.' So it is with the art. I find myself thinking, ‘I could have done this or that to make it better'. In the end, though, you've just got to let the work go and hope you'll know to do better next time.”
When I ask if he finds the art establishment preferable to the one he is more used to, Dylan grins and pulls a face of mock disgust. “The music world's a made-up bunch of hypocritical rubbish. I know from publishing a memoir [2004's Chronicles Volume One] that the book people are a whole lot saner. And the art world? From the small steps I've taken in it, I'd say, yeah, the people are honest, upfront and deliver what they say. Basically, they are who they say they are. They don't pretend. And having been in the music world most of my life [he laughs again], I can tell you it's not that way. Let's just say it's less...dignified.”
He tells me that he continued to draw for his pleasure after the Random House commission was fulfilled. “Not as intensely but yes, I have sketchbooks from the years since then. Of course, what I release to the public and what I keep for myself are two different things.”
He has had proposals for two future series of paintings, the first of which would involve having celebrities sit for him. “I could pick the names but don't want to. I'd rather be given a list and have someone else contact the people to find out if they're up for it. So I'm waiting to see who they might be thinking of. I assume it's movers and shakers. You know, inventors, mathematicians, scientists, business people, actors...We'll see.
“But what interests me more is the idea of a collection based on historically romantic figures. Napoleon and Josephine, Dante and Beatrice, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, Brad and Angelina [here he laughs]... I could use my own imagination for that. It wouldn't have to be the actual people, obviously.” But the latter two might be delighted to sit for him, no? Dylan chuckles at the possibility. “Maybe. Who knows? All I'll say is that I'm intrigued by the basic idea. Whether or not it comes to fruition, time will tell. This [The Drawn Blank Series] was easy to do because it didn't clash with any other commitments. If something does, then I simply cannot do it.”
By commitments, one presumes Dylan means not just his touring schedule but also his personal and familial relationships. Only the bald facts are known in this regard. He has four grown-up children (Jesse, Anna Lea, Samuel and rock singer Jakob) from a ten-year marriage to former model Sara Lowndes that ended in divorce in 1977. And in 2001 it was revealed by a biographer that he was married from 1986 to 1992 to one of his former backing singers, Carol Dennis, and has another daughter, Desiree, also now an adult, from the union.
But inquiries about his non-work life causes him to shut down. Not even a fact as basic as that of where he lives (his main home is believed to be a mansion on the coast beyond Los Angeles) receives ready validation, and when I ask if he has a studio in which he worked on the paintings, he will offer only, “Well, there are spaces in some of the properties where I can do just about any old thing”, before looking off into the middle distance, awaiting the next question.
Such reticence has earned him a reputation as rock's grumpy old man, a curmudgeon who refuses to appear grateful that he is revered and adored. But whether or not he intends it to do so, such determined self-protection merely enhances the myth and mystery. Today and after spending much of the 1980s through to the mid-1990s out in the critical cold, Dylan's star is higher than at any time since the 1960s, the decade with which he is most closely associated (erroneously in his view). Honours, awards and citations all but rain down upon him these days: it is as if we have all awoken to the fact that we will not see his like again. Not that anyone doubts that he has a long life still to live. “Well, thank you for that!” he notes with a laugh.
For any further insights into his private world we must wait to see if any crumbs are thrown in the next instalment of the intended three-book Chronicles (“I could do more. It wouldn't be a problem in terms of material”), at which he is already at work. Yes, he allows, he was gratified by the critical and commercial success of Volume One. “Especially given the effort that went into it. Writing any kind of book is a lonely thing. You cut yourself off from friends and family to find that necessarily quiet place in your mind. You have to disassociate and detach yourself from just about everything and everybody. I didn't like that part of it at all.
“It took me maybe two years in total. I was touring so much in the beginning, on days off or on a bus, I'd write my thoughts out in longhand or on a typewriter. It was the transcribing of the stuff, the rereading and retelling of it, that was time-consuming and I came to figure that there had to be a better way. I know what that is now. You need a full-time secretary so that you can get the ideas down immediately, then deal with them later.”
Meanwhile, there is the continuing delight that is his own radio show (he smiles at the mention of it), Theme Time Radio Hour with your Host Bob Dylan, the brainchild of America's XM Satellite Radio and now broadcast weekly here on Radio 2. And later this year he will release a further volume within the ongoing Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, featuring previously unreleased or rare material alongside alternative versions of existing tracks recorded between 1989 and 2006.
Coming on top of the recent award to him of a special Pulitzer prize recognising “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power” (“I hope they don't ask for it back!”), all of this would suggest that he has arrived at a very creative but also contented period within his life.
“I've always felt that,” he says. “It's just sometimes I've got more going on than at other times.” But life is good? “To me, it's never been otherwise.”
My time with Dylan is up and we stand in preparation for my leaving the room. As a last aside, I ask for his take on the US political situation in the run-up to November's presidential election.
“Well, you know right now America is in a state of upheaval,” he says. “Poverty is demoralising. You can't expect people to have the virtue of purity when they are poor. But we've got this guy out there now who is redefining the nature of politics from the ground up...Barack Obama. He's redefining what a politician is, so we'll have to see how things play out. Am I hopeful? Yes, I'm hopeful that things might change. Some things are going to have to.” He offers a parting handshake. “You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future,” he notes as the door closes between us.
The Drawn Blank Series exhibition opens on June 14 at The Halcyon Gallery, Bruton Street W1.
This interview originally appeared in The TimesOnline, London.