Profile: From oblivion to Bournemouth: Bob Dylan's never-ending tour

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Nick Hasted tracks Mr Tambourine Man through the wilderness years to his UK comeback tour.

When Bob Dylan hovered briefly between life and death last summer, his heart seemingly about to give in, his condition reported in headlines round the world, most people reacted with shock. They'd assumed he was dead already.

Of all the one-time idols of the Sixties, Dylan was perhaps the most potent, the man even The Beatles looked up to with reverence. And of them all, he alone has eluded revival. His songs are rarely played on the radio. Even the Sixties-loving Britpoppers hardly know who he is. For most people he comes from a forgotten past, the adenoidal folkie who wrote "Blowin' in the Wind". When seen unexpectedly in public, at tribute shows or festivals, he's been ridiculed; his voice is shockingly broken, his form lined and hunched. It must have looked as though death would do him a favour.

It's the way Dylan wanted it. His last decade, the time in which he vanished from public view, was the result of deliberate actions. His enigmatic quality has only grown during the seven years that have passed since the last new song from a once-prolific man.

With an album of new songs on release and a tour of Britain underway, the lost decade begs to be unravelled. It's the story of a man who once made pop music shift every time he sang, abandoning all possibility of success in a world he had grown to disdain, playing his old music in obscurity, trying to rediscover in it something he'd lost. And it's the story of what he did find, in the end.

Bob Dylan planned his disappearance, it can now be deduced, as long ago as 1985. He had partially derailed his career once before, in the Sixties when Beatles-scale success loomed. Trusting no one, according to Anthony Scaduto's early biography, the messianic, uncontrolled nature of fame always terrified him.

But, by 1985, his disquiet ran deeper. In a revealing interview with Cameron Crowe that year, he gave a suggestion of where he was heading. He saw rock'n'roll corrupted by the corporate world. Subtly pressured by his own record company to bend with the times, he wondered if he too had been taken over. He began to talk about the people who began American pop music, and of his own beginnings. It was as though he thought that, if he returned there, it might save him.

"It had nothing to do with writing songs, fortune and fame," he remembered. "I could always play a song on a concert-hall stage or from the back of a truck, and that was the important thing. The most inspiring type of entertainer for me has always been Willie Rodgers, somebody who could do it alone and was totally original. It's important to stay away from the celebrity trap. The media is a great meat-grinder, it's never satisfied and it must be fed. But there's power in darkness too, and in keeping things hidden."

Dylan's shadowy response to his times began in earnest in 1988. He embarked upon a tour he still hasn't finished. Dubbed the Never-Ending Tour early on, even to his fans, it was a source of mystery and consternation. Dylan no longer cared about consistency. Instead he searched for sparks, fresh moments of creativity. Set-lists and the entire structure of songs stretching back 30 years were discarded or dismantled. Some songs were murdered, some screamed back to life.

It was too strange, too unsettling, frequently too awful a spectacle for mass consumption. Only a reliable group of cultists, addicted to the turns of Dylan's stuttering, spitting, creative wheels, could bear to watch. Dylan's voice tore itself apart in its nightly exertions, signs of strain ignored till it was too late. He was tearing himself to pieces too, tearing apart everything he'd ever been.

In the midst of this carnage, Dylan's absorption in his enigmatic project seemed unbroken. A revival in critical interest with the acclaimed, considered album Oh Mercy (1989) had been crushed by Under a Red Sky (1990), an album of something close to children's songs.

Some nights on stage he seemed as if he were about to fade out for good. Dylan's most perceptive critic, Greil Marcus (author of the recent Dylan book, Invisible Republic), remembers with a shudder: "Nothing connected," he says. "Everything was flabby - the music, the singing, the people in the audience; nobody brought any energy with them, and they didn't leave with any either."

There seemed no end in sight, and no clue to why Dylan had ever begun. Even his most seasoned fans began quietly to despair that his spirit would ever return to them. It was as if his tour had transformed him into some mad Flying Dutchman, on a quest whose purpose even he could not express.

Prosaic rationales were offered - that Dylan preferred touring to sitting round the house. But he said nothing. He was just sighted, in strange towns, in ridiculous disguises, like Elvis with a pulse.

Dylan looked lost inside his own head, like few pop stars before him. Finally, in 1992, came the first evidence that something was being worked out in that muddled skull; that its emptying had had a point. Good As I Been to You was a suddenly-released album of old folk songs, played by Dylan alone. Having reduced himself to the level of troubadour, it seemed that he was now ready to sing the only songs he still felt to be true; songs he might have sung when he first began, when he was happy.

The next year's World Gone Wrong cut deeper still into his state of mind. Its old songs were of death and despair, redemptive emotions. Its sleeve contained a startling, direct communication from Dylan, a series of angry, allusive interpretations of the songs. It was as he had been purging away every false follower and casual fan, every person who might lead him into compromise, so that he could speak plainly. His own notes gave a clue to what his project had become:

"Learning to go forward by turning back the clock... firing a few random shots at the face of time."

Even on stage, it seemed, Dylan at last knew what he had to do. In 1995 he put aside his shades and guitar, swivelled his hips, touched and talked to his audience. Witnesses from Patti Smith to Elvis Costello declared their awe. All that was missing was a new song. Now his new album, Time Out Of Mind, gives us 11. His fans longed for it to be his real revival, at last. It isn't that.

Time Out Of Mind isn't an end to Dylan's invisible decade, but a product of it. It explains, at last, where he went and what it did to him. It's a description of the world Bob Dylan lives in now when he's not touring. It's a place worse than anyone could have guessed. It's a record made by a man in limbo. By its closing track, the music has become static, not moving at all. In the words, Dylan sings of loves lost when he was young, hurts he thought he had escaped, an America that had vanished before he was born. He's reaching for things he can't touch, but he's rooted to the spot. He contemplates suicide. He sounds ready to die. His pot- shots at time have missed. It's funny, too.

It's not a re-emergence into the world that once hung on his every statement; more a damning of it. It's not the resurrection of his career. Why would it be, when he killed it off himself? It's just the sound of the greatest songwriter of the century, after a decade in the wilderness, returning to say his piece. It's enough.

`Time Out of Mind' is out on Columbia Records. Bob Dylan's national tour continues at Cardiff tonight (10222 224488), Wembley Arena on Sunday (0181-900 1234)