There is Nothing New but Dylan

Dave Alvin, who has toured and recorded with Dylan, likes Dylan so much that it's fair to refer to everyone's favorite greaser from Downey as a Dylan apologist. I sat with The Alvin—winner of a Dylanesque Traditional Folk Grammy in 2000 for his Public Domain CD—to put the "anal" back into "analysis" during a recent session of Dylan-beration. Draw conclusions on the wall, indeed.

OC Weekly: Let's first discuss your supposition that Dylan is the best white blues singer around.

Dave Alvin: Possibly.

He proved that right out of the gate on his first album [which largely comprised country blues covers]. That record is woefully underrated.

I think it's an underrated album. All of Dylan's cover records are odd and people tend not to take them very seriously. On that first album, a lot of it was an act but he was very good at it. He was very good at imitating Woody Guthrie, Big Joe Williams. But even in his imitations, he had his own voice.

He didn't have burnt cork all over his face; he sounded like Dylan.

I wouldn't say that Bob had blackface on that record; he had poorface. He was imitating black country blues singers and white traditional singers. A lot of folksingers previous to that approached it with good intentions as a classical form of music, you know—they sang with perfect diction even though they were singing in dialect. The thing about Dylan was that he was not only a folkie and a blueser, he was also a rock & roller. That was deep inside of him; that rock & roll energy was in the tracks. Everybody sings with varying degrees of authenticity. Bob Dylan eventually became authentic by being Bob Dylan, and he did it fairly quickly.

When do you think he came into his own?

Well, he was Bob Dylan on his first record, but Freewheelin' was pretty Bob Dylan. Then he really hit his stride with Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin'. Those records, in a weird way, seem to get lumped in with his first one, but they're really totally different. He'd progressed as a songwriter to where he was incorporating all his influences. Everything is there except for jazz, and he even took a few pseudo-stabs at that on his last couple records. Everything—from country blues, Chicago blues, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Woody Guthrie to gospel music and old hillbilly music and union protest songs—is there. My take on it is still that he was a blues guy in most respects, though. Even when he wasn't adhering to strict blues form, his vocal phrasing was always blues. Even on the Nashville Skyline country stuff, it was in his phrasing.

You keep speaking about him in the past tense. Is that because his career has been so lengthy or because you feel that the old Dylan isn't with us anymore?

Oh, no. He's as creative as he ever was.

Do you feel that his last couple of records stand up with his best work?

Yeah, I do. I really do.

They sound great. But it seems to me that structurally, his songs have been a lot more tradition-bound than they used to be, as if he's now adhering to the rules he dismantled 40 years ago. This is the same guy who wrote unconventional songs like "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." I get the feeling that he's more eager to please than he used to be, that he's on cruise control.

If he was on cruise control, you'd be getting much different records out of him. He was on cruise control for a long time, is the way I view it. But not anymore. There are songs on these records that I don't think are among his best, but Time Out of Mind is an amazing record and Love & Theft is a really, really good record.

Alvin:"Dylan influenced everybody."
Do you approve of Daniel Lanois' work with Dylan?

Certainly. Even though the sessions were . . . feisty, I guess is the word. He also did a great job on the Oh, Mercy record.

You don't get the feeling that Lanois imposed his own vision on Dylan too much?

No. In my very limited involvement with Dylan, I find that he's looking for something musically that is hard to put your finger on. I had a conversation with him last year about what we play and he said, "I just play folk music, exactly the stuff you play." To him it's all folk music. You can't go back and redo Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61. He already did those and he's not the kind of guy who's gonna go back. He's looking for certain things. I guess his complaint about Time Out of Mind was that it didn't rock enough. When you see him do those songs live, they really rock. But as an overall listening experience, I think the album stands up with anything he's done, and you can tell he's the same guy. He's held to a very high level by critics because of who he is, and that's why I'm glad I'm not him.

There's a young man's energy on his best albums that can never be recaptured.

Some people will never relate to a new song they way they relate to an older one because they heard that older song when they were 17 and getting laid for the first time, they got their first apartment or their girlfriend broke up with them or they got drunk for the first time. They put on that older record and it got 'em through. They want to hear that and go back to that place. It's difficult for anybody who's had a long career to generate that kind of nostalgic passion on a newer record.

Quick responses: Dylan's best album?

Probably Highway 61.

Agreed. His worst album?

Probably the one called Dylan that Columbia cobbled together when he left for Asylum and they threw that out there.

Agreed. His most underrated record? World Gone Wrong. I'd sayBefore the Flood. How about the most overrated?

Maybe in a weird way Nashville Skyline, because it was a big seller, but I don't even know if that's overrated. I can't . . . I can't think of an overrated Dylan record. I can't . . . .

Stop being a groupie and be a critic!

I'll tell you why. Everything he did, even albums like that Dylan thing and Self-Portrait, which was a very weird record, is still interesting. Look, I'm not a Dylan bootleg collector; I don't care what color socks he's wearing and whether he's a Christian or gone back to Judaism, or whether he's politically a leftist or a conservative. But when you put on his records, even the bad ones, you can learn something from him, because he's soaked up so much. He's a sponge and he shoots it back at you in weird ways.

Who was the best New Dylan?

Oh, Springsteen, probably.

Who was the worst New Dylan?

That's a good question. There's been a lot of them [laughs]. Probably . . . who was that guy that did "Eve of Destruction?"

Barry McGuire.

Yeah, probably Barry McGuire. He might be a great guy. I shouldn't say that because he didn't even try to sound like Dylan. I dunno.

I'm going with Tom Petty.

I don't see him as a Dylan imitator.

Oh, man! [Imitates Tom Petty imitating Dylan.]

That was later on.

Everybody imitated Dylan. Even John Prine, who is great in his own right.

Yeah! The thing about Bob Dylan is that he influenced everybody. I had an argument with a musician friend of mine who hates Bob Dylan. I told him that no matter what we do, Dylan's already done it, in the same way that if you pick up a guitar, somebody's already sketched out what you're gonna do with it. It's a matter of trying to find variations on what they did. Same thing with Dylan. Hey, you're gonna write songs and sing 'em? Guess what—Bob Dylan already beat you to it. You're gonna write a blues and sing it? You're gonna write a protest song? You're gonna write a country song? You're gonna write a 20-minute long, heroin-induced epic? You're gonna be a self-absorbed, sensitive singer/songwriter? Guess who beat you to it. A guy like Ray Charles might have blended all these forms of music before Dylan, but Dylan threw in Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, all these different movements in American artistic, musical, cultural and literary history, and turned it into Bob Dylan. That's an amazing feat.

That was in the past. He's done things more recently that have made me feel embarrassed for him. What was up with that deal last year where he performed in a bad wig and fake beard? Were we supposed to take this as some heavy profundity, [that] the great god of American music was frowning upon us all? That's downright fuckin' pretentious.

I'm not gonna try to explain that; I don't know why the hell he did it. He has a pretty wicked sense of humor. Sometimes we get the joke and sometimes we don't.

To me, he seems like an elitist asshole whose sense of humor largely revolves around mocking his peers and even his own fans. All you have to do is watchDon't Look Back to see that. I hear these horrible stories from other people I know who've worked with him. Every indication is the man is an unrepentant prick.

Well he's always been sort of nice to me.

Sort of nice?!

Do I think he runs over people in the street? No. Is he under incredible pressure? Yes. Everywhere he goes he's hounded by cameras flashing and people barking questions in his face. Ever since "Like a Rolling Stone," that's been his life. That he's sane at all is a fucking miracle. In some ways I think the fact that he's created anything under those conditions in the last 40 years of his career is amazing. The fact that he can even get up out of bed and put his fucking pants on in the morning with all these cameras in his face is amazing. It's a testament to his sheer will to create.

Are you the New Bob Dylan?

Me?! No.

Bob Dylan performs at Pacific Amphitheater, 100 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-1870. Sun., 8 p.m. $56-$69.50.


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