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.
Bob Dylan and Paul Simon
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."
The one exception to his mediocre 1970s output was 1975's Blood on the Tracks -- which, longtime Dylan enthusiasts maintain, is the "most mature and assured record" of his career, as Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice. One Dylan Web site suggests that Dylan considered himself in retirement during the 1970s and wrote only the 10 songs that appeared on Blood on the Tracks, including "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Idiot Wind," during the entirety of the decade. "Either that," said the Byrds' Roger McGuinn in 1977, "or Bob got lazy and real lucky." The record recalls Dylan's pre-electric music, hinting at the country ambience that marked John Wesley Harding in 1967 and 1969's Nashville Skyline.
It would be eight more years after the release of Blood on the Tracks before Dylan received any more kind words from critics. But 1983's Infidels, his first secular album in years, ranks among his lowest-selling albums, no doubt because critics and fans didn't quite know what to make of it. The same thing happened in 1985 with the release of Empire Burlesque, which was a cross between a rock record and a dance album. One writer referred to it as "Disco Dylan."
At the press conference, Rolling Stone's David Fricke asked Dylan about his stormy, love-hate relationship with the music press.
"Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again," Dylan said. "And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin, and there's no tellin' who that it's namin'. For the loser now will be later to win."
Indeed, in 1985 Dylan released what's considered to be the first boxed set, Biograph, a three-CD career retrospective. It would be followed six years later by yet another triple-disc collection, The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3, which contained many wonderful songs allegedly left off some of his inferior records.
One Sony Music source told the Associated Press last week that the songs that appeared on The Bootleg Series were actually written and recorded from January through March 1990 -- "as a sort of practical joke," said the label representative. Allegedly, she said, half of the songs on the third disc were written by Bruce Springsteen and performed by Tom Petty.
"Was that some kind of joke?" Dylan shot back at one reporter, who asked him if this were true. "All these people that you mention, yes, I know them. They're quite lame. I had to rearrange their faces, and give them all another name." It was the only moment during the press conference that Dylan appeared the slightest bit unhappy, and it soon passed. For the rest of the afternoon, he wore what appeared to be a smile in the face of mankind.
Dylan spent the first half of this decade returning to his roots, releasing two traditional, folk-blues albums: 1992's Good As I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong, the latter of which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. But the windfall for Dylan would come in 1997 with the release of Time Out of Mind, an introspective meditation on growing old. The disc won three Grammys: Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best Male Rock Vocal.
Dylan did not seem too impressed with the accolades, however, telling the assembled media that what he most wanted in life was a Golden Globe award. Neil Strauss of The New York Times asked him why he wanted a Golden Globe, of all things.
"Lenny Bruce is dead, but his ghost lives on and on, never did get any Golden Globe award, never made it to Synanon," he explained.
Mottola said that Dylan will still release the fifth volume of The Bootleg Series, this one an odds-and-ends collection consisting of commercial jingles Dylan recorded in 1959 and 1960, when he was a struggling folkie in Minnesota and Denver. (One Dylan historian insists his previously unheard jingle for Hamm's beer became the basis for "Tangled Up in Blue," since it, too, contains the lines: "She was workin' in a topless place, and I stopped in for a beer, I just kept lookin' at the side of her face in the spotlight so clear.") Sony is also going to remaster and reissue most of Dylan's back catalog between February 2000 and June 2012, Mottola said.
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"Except, of course, Planet Waves and Self-Portrait," he repeated, smiling broadly.
With that, Dylan stood and offered a final farewell.
"I'm a-leavin' tomorrow," he said, without mentioning any specific destination. "But I could leave today, somewhere down the road someday. The very last thing that I want to do is to say I've been hittin' some hard travelin' too."
Dylan, however, is expected to sit in on some dates on the forthcoming Art Garfunkel-Arlo Guthrie arena tour, scheduled to hit the road next spring. After the press conference, Dylan's publicist at Sony also announced the first leg of his 1,945-date post-retirement concert tour, which begins in January at the Trempealeau County State Fair in Wisconsin.