ARTS : For a few Bob more

His lawyers are on permanent litigation alert, he's played for politicians and into the hands of advertisers. This is Dylan we're talking about. What we're not talking about is a single new song on the last nine CDs. By Andy Gill
"Forever Dylan Greatest Hits," claimed the sticker on the recent release of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume 3, somewhat bafflingly, before going on to list some of the tracks included. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", certainly; "Tangled Up in Blue", understandably; "Hurricane", historically; plus, the sticker continued, a brand new Dylan classic: "Dignity". Well, maybe.

Or may be not. "Dignity" is a relatively minor entry in the singer's canon of scolding prophesy. It is neither classic nor new, the track being a remixed version of a song first recorded for his 1989 album Oh Mercy, and widely available as a bootleg out-take. The song's presence on this compilation highlights the concern of long-haul Dylan-watchers as they prepare for his next series of concerts at oddly down-market venues like Brixton Academy: the widespread perception of this greatest of rock 'n' roll bards as suffering from writer's block for more than half a decade.

Fans are used to Dylan's reinterpretations of his work in concert, which he explains in a recent Newsweek interview as an ongoing pursuit of perfection. "I've been working on some songs for 20 years, always moving toward some kind of perfection," he says. Fine though this strategy may be for live performance, it's more worrying when it extends to his recorded output.

Since Oh Mercy, there has been just one album of new Dylan material. That was 1990's Under the Red Sky, an album which found the songwriter reverting to repetitious kindergarten poesy and nonsense like "Wiggle Wiggle". Subsequently, Columbia has released a 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration double-CD, consisting mostly of other artists' versions of well-known Dylan songs; the excellent triple-CD box-set of unreleased songs and out-takes from the past three decades, The Bootleg Series, Vols 1-3; and two volumes of solo acoustic performances of traditional folk and blues songs, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, which drew the proverbial mixed reception from critics. While some were impressed by Dylan's fingerpicking prowess, others found the recourse to chestnuts like "Froggy Went a-Courtin' " small recompense for the heavyweight ponderings on which their interest was reared.

So there had already been a good seven albums' worth of stopgap releases by the time Dylan fans were offered the one "brand new Dylan classic" on Greatest Hits Volume 3, and that had no sooner hit the racks than word came of yet another stop-gap release, the CD version of his MTV Unplugged show, which - surprise! - consisted of yet more rehashed old material, this time done in a cosy country-rock style presumably intended to capitalise on the current popularity of New Country stars like Garth Brooks. This brings to nine the number of CDs since a new Dylan song and, according to his record company, nothing is on the horizon until 1996. What, some fans wonder, is going on?

"It's probably been his most fallow period ever," agrees John Bauldie, publisher of the authoritative Dylan fanzine the Telegraph and a Bob-watcher of international renown. "The only story I heard was that he was still writing songs, but not finishing them." Like many, Bauldie points to the detrimental effects of Dylan's endless touring schedule, which in recent years has whittled his repertoire down to a core of greatest hits, performed mostly at outdoor festival venues in versions necessarily devoid of subtlety, whose effect can be glimpsed in the underwhelming Unplugged performance.

"I thought the MTV show was a total compromise, both in terms of the material he sang, and how it was presented," says the Bauldie. "It was completely unexciting, unadventurous, mid-paced, middle-of-the-road, unemotional schlock. Nothing like what he's capable of doing." The forthcoming tour, it's to be hoped, will offer more substantial fare. Bauldie, who saw the opening show in Prague last weekend, says the new performance is unusual in that the singer hardly touches a guitar. "He mainly just stood there with this hand-held microphone, like a cross between Leonard Cohen and Elvis, throwing shapes - shadow-boxing, kung-fuing and the like." The mind boggles.

There were more rumblings of discontent last year when, after decades of refusing to have anything to do with politicians or advertising men, the singer broke both habits, performing at Bill Clinton's Inaugural Ball and allowing the use of "The Times They Are A-Changin' " in a TV advert for the accountants Coopers & Lybrand.

"Here's someone who has consistently condemned politicians - even boasting about it in his gospel shows - suddenly aligning himself with Clinton," says an aggrieved Bauldie. "But then, these things may be deliberately contrived to cause unease in his long-term fans." If this is the case - and the decision to undertake an all-standing tour of small rock venues may suggest an attempt to garner a more youthful audience - he's some way to go before the strategy bears fruit, says NME's editor, Steve Sutherland, who admits his readership may have lost interest in Dylan.

"Neil Young is far more important to NME readers than Bob Dylan, because Neil Young: (a) sells records; (b) sounds like records that younger people make; and (c) seems to inhabit the same world as us. And I think if we asked some of the younger bands who're more aware of the past, they'd be listening to Highway 61 Revisited and all the records that we hold dear. You'd have to go a very long way to find someone who thought that `Wiggle Wiggle' was important in any way at all. Bob Dylan only exists, for many people, in the past."

The growing business hard-headedness suggested by the Coopers & Lybrand deal and the release of a Dylan CD-rom package led, last year, to the ludicrous spectacle of Dylan getting engaged in litigation with the computer firm Apple over their use of the acronym DYLAN for their new Dynamic Language programming software. It's not the first time Apple has had run-ins with musicians: the Beatles settled out of court for $20m-$40m in a dispute over the trademark "Apple" itself. Dylan's suit seems all the cheekier given that he took his stage-name from the poet Dylan Thomas, who, being dead, was in no fit position to sue him.

"I just think he's got a team of lawyers whose remit it is to sue people," says John Bauldie. "The most absurd one was suing the San Francisco Transit Authority for putting out a revised timetable with the billing `The Times They Are A-Changing'!"

What most saddens Dylan fans is the perception that he's fallen among lawyers bent on capitalising upon him as a brand-name. If there were one artist you might have expected would resist the creeping corporatisation of rock 'n' roll iconography, it's Dylan. Yet while Tom Waits sues his old publisher for allowing his songs to be used to sell jeans and potato chips, the pre-eminent social commentator of his generation is apparently selling out on as many fronts as possible.

"It may well be the classic case of someone whose canon of work means so much more to us than it does to him," Steve Sutherland says. "His live performances are the way most of us lead our lives: weeks of miserable non-events when he just can't be arsed; then there'll be that one spectacular day when he'll get a result and something good will come of it. It's like he lives his life on stage. Maybe he's constantly on the road because, when he stops, he effectively ceases to exist - he doesn't know who he is. The word `enigmatic' could have been coined for him."