By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Hibbing, Minnesota -- Maybe this is what he meant by bringing it all back home. On Wednesday, Bob Dylan returned to the town where he spent his childhood, to the place where it all began for a young Robert Allen Zimmerman, to announce his retirement from popular music.
"Oh, all the money that in my whole life I did spend, be it mine right or wrongfully, I let it slip gladly past the hands of my friends to tie up the time most forcefully," Dylan began, choking back a single tear. "But the bottles are done, we've killed each one, and the table's full and overflowed. Say it's closing time, so I'll bid farewell and be down the road."
At the packed press conference, Dylan wore a simple cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes and some pancake makeup on his face, with only a hint of lipstick. He smiled only once: when Rolling Stone founder and owner Jann Wenner stepped to the reporters' microphone and yelled, simply, "Judas!" The crowd of assembled journalists laughed.
Sitting beside Dylan at the podium were Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola, wearing a black silk suit and a large gold chain, and on-again-off-again Dylan producer Don Was. Mottola announced that Columbia Records, for whom Dylan began recording in 1962, would be retiring Planet Waves and Self-Portrait out of respect for Dylan's contributions to popular music. Was announced that he would be seeking work with either George Harrison or Jakob Dylan, who, in 1997, trademarked the phrase "The New Dylan®." Also among those in attendance: Joan Baez, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Jewel, and somebody from the Grateful Dead.
Dylan -- who said his current tour with Paul Simon would run to its conclusion, meaning the two will still perform at Starplex Amphitheatre this weekend -- was shockingly intelligible throughout most of the four-hour-long press conference, which included three encores and a rambling 23-minute version of what was either "Masters of War" or "Mr. Tambourine Man." Dylan's goodbye was marked by several thoughtful, if puzzling, moments. It seemed only appropriate from the man who birthed the folk-rock movement in the 1960s and outraged fans in 1965, when he plugged in his guitar and began performing electrified versions of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" at the Newport Folk Festival.
The day before the press conference, a Sony publicist hinted that Dylan was retiring now because, "like John Elway," he's at the top of his game.
"He didn't want to go out like Van Morrison and Paul McCartney," said the source, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Bob wanted to leave music before he became completely unintelligible," said the Sony source. "Time Out of Mind [released in 1997] was a good record -- it won three Grammys, for God's sake -- and Bob felt he had nothing more to say. It's either this, or keep touring and playing 'All Along the Watchtower,' and that's the last thing a man of his stature wants or needs to do."
Dylan, however, refused to elaborate on his reasons for retiring now.
"I've just reached a place where the willow don't bend," he explained, speaking barely above a whisper. "There's not much more to be said. It's the top of the end. I'm going, I'm going, I'm gone."
Dylan's retirement marks the end of a 37-year-long recording career that began in 1962 with the release of Bob Dylan, an album consisting largely of the young folkie's interpretations of songs by the likes of Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Lemon Jefferson. From 1963 to 1969, Dylan released the most notable albums of his career, beginning with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (which contained such immortal Dylan compositions as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"), Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and ending with Nashville Skyline. With those albums, Dylan influenced several generations of singer-songwriters, most notably Roger McGuinn, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, and Billy Bragg.
After 1970's New Morning, Dylan began a career slide that included such albums as Self-Portrait, Dylan, Planet Waves, Desire, and Street Legal among others. For years, it had been rumored that those albums were not, in fact, recorded by Dylan at all, but by a so-called "supergroup" featuring, among others, Kris Kristofferson, Al Kooper, Kinky Friedman, Ringo Starr, Arlo Guthrie, and Laura Nyro -- all of whom to this day insist they had no involvement in any of those records.
Only Kinky Friedman, a Dylan compadre during the Rolling Thunder Revue days, has ever hinted at his participation on the so-called born-again records. In a 1986 interview with The Jewish Times, Friedman told reporter Moyshe Horowitz that "I wrote and recorded every song on [1979's] Slow Train Coming, except 'Man Gave Names to All the Animals.' What kind of shit is that for a grown man? Jesus Christ."
When asked about this during the press conference, Dylan only grinned and mumbled something about how "who knows those most secret things of me that are hidden from the world?" He mumbled something else, then began again. "Someone's got it in for me; they're planting stories in the press. Whoever it is, I wish they'd cut it out, but when they will I can only guess."