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

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)

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sustainability Manager

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

    Graduate Sustainability Professional

    Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

    Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

    £850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

    Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

    £100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn