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Inscrutable Bob Dylan letting his guard down

As much as any time since perhaps the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan is operating openly in the public arena.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At a 1964 Halloween concert in Liverpool, Bob Dylan turned to the audience and said, "I have my Bob Dylan mask on."

Dylan has for decades been aware of his "mask," often chafing at his public image and responding with countermeasures of cryptic unpredictability and media distrust. In the past few years, though, his public persona has seemed less combative, and increasingly open.

He wrote an acclaimed and personal memoir (2004's "Chronicles, Vol. 1"), hosts a fascinating weekly satellite radio show on XM ("Theme Time Radio Hour with your Host Bob Dylan"), has been interviewed by a handful of publications, appeared on camera for Martin Scorsese's documentary "No Direction Home," and — most curiously — starred in two commercials: one for Victoria's Secret, the other a new iTunes ad.

As much as any time since perhaps the mid-1960s, Dylan is operating openly in the public arena. His new, lauded album, "Modern Times," debuted this week at No. 1 on the Billboard charts with nearly 192,000 copies sold — marking Dylan's first album charttopper in 30 years (his last album was 2001's Grammy-winning "Love and Theft").

In addition, a new musical based on his songs, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," debuts on Broadway this fall.

Princeton history professor and Dylan scholar Sean Wilentz thinks the trend is part of a "sustained creative period" beginning with the 1997 album "Time Out of Mind."

"What amazes me is how normal he seems, especially as he comes (across) on ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’ — a wise music lover with a great gift for words and a sense of humor," Wilentz says. "For a long time, I think Dylan's fans — and for that matter, his detractors — imagined he lived on a different planet. He doesn't."

Dylan, 65, has for decades struggled with out-of-this-world expectations; since the ’60s, he's been viewed by many as a prophet. In "Chronicles," he wrote:

"The actor Tony Curtis once told me that fame is an occupation in itself, that it is a separate thing. And Tony couldn't be more right. ... Eventually different anachronisms were thrust upon me ... Legend, Icon, Enigma (Buddha in European Clothes was my favorite) _ stuff like that, but that was all right. These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare, easy to get around with them. Prophet, Messiah, Savior _ those are tough ones."

The recently released book "Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews" assembles evidence of how Dylan can be both combative and heartfelt with the press. Though he revels in discussing the craft of songwriting, when asked about meaning in lyrics, he remains elusive.

Don't expect too much from songs
"Songs are songs," he says in one interview. "I don't believe in expecting too much out of any one thing."

In a recent Rolling Stone cover article, he echoes the sentiment: "They say, ‘Dylan never talks.' Well, what the hell is there to say?"

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Instead, Dylan has long maintained he has nothing to express other than what's in his music. Speaking to USA Today about the new album, he said, "I couldn't say what these songs add up to, any more than what the rest of my songs add up to. They mean what they say they mean."

To some, "Modern Times" also feels more at ease — clearer in sound and more direct in purpose. On the opener, "Thunder on the Mountain," he sings: "I feel like my soul is beginning to expand/ Look into my heart and you will sort of understand."

Joey Levy, executive editor of Rolling Stone, said Dylan's (relative) openness nowadays reflects "a greater desire to take control of his own image and myth than he's had since he was in his twenties. Certainly, that's the last time he spent this much time and energy in public telling us about himself."

(And even then, he often playfully lied about his past to the press.)

Some might suspect Dylan is now taking steps to control his legacy, but there seems little evidence of that. He told Rolling Stone he feels as though he's in his "middle years," not encroaching retirement. He's also toured relentlessly — both in minor league ballparks and arenas.

"It has more to do with an artistic renaissance that goes back 10 years or more," says Levy. "He didn't care ten years ago in the way that he cares now."

Jonathan Cott, who edited the "Essential Interviews" collection, thinks Dylan "seems happy within himself." The novelist Jonathan Lethem, who interviewed Dylan for Rolling Stone, was likewise struck by the singer's healthy attitude.

"Puncturing myths, boycotting analysis and ignoring chronology are likely part of a long and lately quite successful campaign not to be incarcerated within his own legend," wrote Lethem.

And to think it's not an intentional "campaign" probably doesn't do justice to the trickster in Dylan. In "Chronicles" he speaks of how the idea that he represented a generation "needed to be pulled up by the roots" — and how he then went about doing so.

Perhaps this time, the trick is simply candor.