Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday was an unexpected victory. In 1998, he also was a surprise winner of his first Album of the Year Grammy for the somber 1997 release, “Time Out of Mind.”
Dylan winning that award had to be counted as a surprise given that he was not even nominated for seminal works like “Blonde on Blonde” or “Blood on the Tracks” in the 1960s and ’70s.
He celebrated the Grammy win with two concerts in an unusual venue: the Cameo club on Washington Avenue in South Beach.
This column was originally published in the Miami Herald on March 29, 1998, three days before the first concert.
On “Highlands,” the closing track of his “Time Out of Mind” CD, Bob Dylan sings: “I feel further away than ever before / You could say I’m on anything but a roll.” Is he kidding? If Dylan were on any more of a roll he’d be a hunk o’ ham.
These are stellar days for an artist many would have written off — and not quite inaccurately — as finished just a couple years ago. Dylan, who once gave the world its definitive protest anthems — “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” — had reduced himself to writing with the likes of Michael Bolton (“Steel Bars”), released a series of indifferent albums in the ‘80s and offered back-to-back dismal acoustic albums featuring parched covers of old folk songs as his entrance into the ’90s. He even went the route of other old rock stars by releasing a CD for the “MTV Unplugged” series.
It all begged the question: Were we to be left with son Jakob Dylan to show us the way, musically speaking? Jakob would seem to be moving to the fore of the Dylan family, with the success of his group The Wallflowers.
But “Time Out of Mind,” considered Dylan’s best work in decades, put a halt to the speculation. Amazing what a CD centered on mortality, loneliness and abandonment will do for a 56-year-old icon’s career.
Back in the spotlight
In the last month, Dylan collected his first solo Grammy Album of the Year award for “Time,” and sold 2,700 tickets in a whiplash 14 minutes to sell out his two Cameo Theatre concerts Monday and Tuesday nights. Granted, this is not akin to Garth Brooks selling about five times as many tickets at roughly the same speed for the Miami Arena two years ago, but you get the point. Dylan is hot again.
“I don’t remember when Dylan was never not hot,” counters Vanessa Michele of West Palm Beach’s Fantasma Productions, the concert firm promoting Dylan’s current club shows. But the Grammy and the man with ‘Soy Bomb’ scrawled on his bared chest who barged in on Dylan’s performance during the Grammy Awards telecast didn’t hurt his profile, Michele believes.
“It got him placed in everything, made every news show.” And, “also because his son has done phenomenally well, that brings him to the forefront. I don’t think people ever stopped liking Dylan.”
Maybe not. But sometimes our relationship grew strained, which, to be fair, is not unheard of in a career as prolific and stylistically sprawling as Dylan’s has been. There have been times when Dylan seemed to dare his audience to care — or even to respect him. What was that short-lived Christian conversion he devoted three albums to in the late-’70s and early-’80s about anyway? And did we really need his scattershot “Under the Red Sky” album in 1990? His concerts could also be notoriously erratic.
But all seems forgiven now.
“Time Out of Mind” sums up the feelings of a whole generation who came of age with Dylan and now faces the same September of its years. As mortality bites down hard — “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there,” he rasps on the new “Not Dark Yet” —Dylan conveys the unease of a soul struggling in a world that is changing all around him. The feelings are universal, the album even more prophetic because it was completed shortly before he was hospitalized last year with life-threatening pericarditis (a viral inflammation of the sac around the heart).
The ghostly music mirrors the downbeat tone and frames Dylan’s increasingly difficult voice as few peers would allow. There is no studio trickery making the voice palatable: It is worn, lived-in and expressive. Dylan’s dare this time around is not to appear indifferent, but to display himself so nakedly.
This week’s Cameo shows promise equal intimacy, happening as they are in a no-frills club environment rather than an impersonal, cavernous hall — glitzy though such settings often are. (Dylan often performs in small clubs to warm up for bigger shows. A couple years ago he played at Fort Lauderdale’s former The Edge and he recently played Los Angeles’ Cameo-sized Elray Theater. In May in Vancouver, Dylan launches a tour with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell.).
For Dylan, polish was never the point. Not in his concerts and certainly not in the music he records.
“When you think that you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more,” he sings on the new “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.” Dylan continues to confront sentiments most folks don’t want to think about, but do anyway. Though nowhere near the melodic grace of his ’60s masterpieces, “Time Out of Mind” adds a new wrinkle to his legacy.
For a performer who once said, “I don’t think I’ll be perceived properly till a hundred years after I’m gone,” Dylan is taking in the accolades earlier than he expected. Perhaps more amazing than the length of time it has taken the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to bestow an honor on Dylan, the man who offers the tormented “Time Out of Mind” is displaying a jovial sense of humor: “Thanks everybody, I’m all right,” Dylan told a sold-out crowd at Jones Beach last year. “Give me a big hand.”