"I'm trying to explain something that can't be explained," says Bob Dylan. "Help me out." It's a midsummer day, an hour or so before evening, and we are seated at a table on a shaded patio, at the rear of a Santa Monica restaurant. Dylan is dressed warmer than the Southern California weather invited, in a buttoned black leather jacket over a thick white T-shirt. He also wears a ski cap – black around its lower half, white at its dome – pulled down over his ears and low on his forehead. A fringe of moptop-style reddish-blond hair, clearly a wig, curls slightly out from the front of the cap, above his eyebrows. He has a glass of cold water in front of him. In the 15 years since his 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, Dylan – who is now 71 – has enjoyed the most sustained period of creativity of his lifetime. His new album, Tempest, tells tales of mortal ends, moral faithlessness and hard-earned (if arbitrary) grace, culminating in a swirling, 14-minute epic about the Titanic, which mixes fact and fantasy, followed by a loving, mystical song about his late friend and peer John Lennon. It's unlikely, though, that Dylan will ever eclipse the renown of his explosion of music and style in the 1960s, which transformed him into a definitive mythic force of those times. But Dylan wasn't always comfortable with the effects of that reputation.
In 1966, following a series of mind-blazing and controversial electric performances, the young hero removed himself from his own moment after he was laid low by a motorcycle accident in Woodstock. The music that he returned with, in the late 1960s – John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline – sounded as if Dylan had become a different man. In truth, he now says, that's what he was – or rather, what he was becoming. What Bob Dylan believes really happened to him after he survived his radical pinnacle is much more transformational than he has fully revealed before. This was an incident he'd alluded to briefly in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, but in this interview the matter took on deeper implications.
At moments, I pushed in on some questions, and Dylan pushed back. We continued the conversation over the next many days, on the phone and by way of some written responses. Dylan didn't hedge or attempt to guard himself as we went along. Just the opposite: he opened up unflinchingly, with no apologies. This is Bob Dylan as you've never known him before.
For the full interview, pick up the new issue of Rolling Stone South Africa.