The private Bob Dylan -- We investigate the public and private sides of the legendary folk singer as ''The Bootleg Sessions'' is released

Mike Campbell, lead guitarist for Tom Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers, knows the chaotic side of Bob Dylan very well. Back in the ’80s, Campbell played with the singer-songwriter on several tours. On any given night, Campbell wouldn’t know where in the world Dylan might take the music. ”He’d work out elaborate endings and want it just like that and then you’d get up there and he’d sabotage you,” Campbell said in 1989. ”There was one night when he just left me hanging and I knew he’d done it on purpose. And I left the stage: ‘I’m going home, I don’t care who this guy is.’ But I realized… his thing is anarchy. He hates it when it’s pat show biz. I learned a lot about spontaneity and loosening up. I love the guy, I’d work with him in a second.”

To this day, Bob Dylan still refuses to make it easy for any of us. He demands that we accept him on his terms, even if we don’t quite understand what those terms are at the moment. On the Grammy Awards show in February, when he received a Lifetime Achievement award, Dylan turned down requests from the producer to sing his familiar 1963 civil-rights anthem ”Blowin’ in the Wind,” and instead greeted his gulf war-conscious audience with a virtually unrecognizable version of ”Masters of War,” a furious 1963 protest against the old men who send young men off to fight. He mumbled the lyrics like a muddled Popeye while his band played an ear-splitting rock arrangement. Dressed in wrinkled black jeans and a big white fedora with the brim turned up, unshaven and puffy-faced, Dylan resembled Chico Marx. He acted like a madman who had stumbled into a fancy restaurant, hollering a barrage of threatening gibberish.

After accepting his trophy from Jack Nicholson (who called him ”Uncle Bobby”), Dylan ambled to the microphone, adjusting his hat. ”My daddy, he didn’t leave me too much. You know, he was a very simple man. But what he told me was this… he did say, ‘Son…”’ After pausing for 10 seconds, Dylan mumbled, ”He said so many things, you know?” Then, after another pause, he got to the point: ”It’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if that happens God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways.”

Cryptic and preachy at the same time, Dylan had confounded us yet again. Considering that he’d just received an award for making a career out of being confounding, the mystery seemed appropriate. Or, as one Dylan-inspired singer-songwriter, Elvis Costello, said to another, T-Bone Burnett, later that evening: ”You can’t get any hipper than that!”

Bruce Springsteen, yet another Dylanite, once summed up his hero’s contribution to rock music by saying, ”Elvis freed your body. Dylan freed your mind.” Grand thoughts like these come naturally in the wake of the Grammy honor, and on the eve of Dylan’s 50th birthday (May 24th). And, just in time to add more grist to the Dylan mill, there is the release of The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased), a 58-song history made up of unheard songs and alternate versions of classic tunes from the entire span of his career.

But Dylan himself wants nothing to do with sweeping analyses of his life and music, or with much else concerning his legend. Since the mid-’70s, he has dismantled his celebrity with the detached destructiveness of a scientist splitting atoms. If that seems like contrary behavior for a popular entertainer, it’s important to understand that Dylan never set out to be one. Born Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minn., in 1941, he emigrated to New York in 1960 to become a bohemian performer. He was a folksinger with a surly, James Dean stance at a time when folksingers got popular by being clean-cut and singing sweet versions of traditional songs like ”Tom Dooley.” He began writing his own, and, through such albums as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964), found himself the unwilling leader of an antiestablishment movement.

Dylan shocked his audience for the first, but not last, time in 1965, by performing at the Newport Folk Festival with a rock & roll band. The very same fans who had glorified him for breaking the old rules were horrified when he broke his own. The manner of his revolt was also unsettling. Dylan’s early rock was spontaneous, conversational — one felt that these songs were being delivered before they could be prettied up, before they could be tamed. With Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde Dylan brought his cult into the rock age. And then, after reports of a motorcycle accident, he walked away from performing altogether. With Sara Lowndes, a former model he had married in 1965, he settled down in upstate New York to raise a family that would eventually number five kids. Although he continued to release albums until 1970, surprising his fans with a new country-saturated style of music, he didn’t tour again until 1974.

While the mid-’70s brought one masterful album, Blood on the Tracks, and a legendary guerrilla tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan began to experience personal problems and artistic inconsistency. His marriage began to disintegrate, and Renaldo and Clara, a film that he directed and starred in, received scathing reviews. But nothing alienated Dylan’s core audience as much as his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. During a 1979 tour, he sang only religious songs and preached from the stage:

”I knew Jimi Hendrix!” Dylan announced during a Rhode Island concert.

The rock fans cheered.

”I knew Brian Jones!”

They cheered again.

”I knew all those people who died! If they knew then what I know now, they’d be alive today.”

They stopped cheering.

When the ’80s began, Dylan had pretty much succeeded in chasing his superstardom away. On a short 1981 tour, he mixed a few of his old hits back in with the Christian numbers. He began to be interested in Jewish writings and traditions, visited Israel, and had his son bar mitzvahed there. Most of all, though, he settled down — not by going into seclusion as he had in the past, but by throwing himself into the life of a working musician. He toured almost constantly and put out an album almost every year. If he was inspired when a record was due, he came up with something fine, like Infidels in 1983 and Oh Mercy in 1989. Otherwise, he’d just release whatever he had lying around, like 1989’s sorry live album Dylan and the Dead. One associate points out that if Dylan did what other artists of his stature do — releasing albums only every three years, preserving the high points and skipping the filler — his records might still be hailed as the great events they once were. But he simply honors the letter of his record contract, delivering albums as they’re due, collecting a large payment from Columbia Records each time.

By 1989, Dylan appeared bored and restless onstage. He rearranged the melodies of familiar songs and, just as he did on the Grammy show, mumbled his words. One night, during a series of shows in New York, he picked up the wrong harmonica and began to blow painfully off-key. He realized his mistake at once, stopped — and then resumed blowing off-key until even his die-hard loyalists were horrified. Another night he walked toward the side of the stage while the band was still playing, went down some steps into the audience, opened a fire door, stepped into the street, hailed a cab, and went home.

All of which raises the big question: Is Dylan unhappy? Certainly, he seems discontent, but no one close to him is willing to speculate. His friends guard his privacy fiercely; one man who works for him asked that his ”No comment” be off the record. Even people who know Dylan well say they don’t know what he does when he wakes up in the morning. Observes one Dylan employee: ”Look. You want to know what Bob does? He tours all the time. And he makes records.” If Dylan’s behavior seems bizarre, that’s because he’s in the strange position of being Frank Sinatra to one group of fans and Nelson Mandela to another.

When Dylan isn’t on the road he lives in Malibu in an onion-domed house with high fences around it. His Minnesota farm, where he likes to spend the holidays, is not far from the town in which he grew up. Although he has not remarried since his 1977 divorce from Lowndes, he’s kept steady company with several mature women (one a gospel singer, another a record-company talent scout), not at all the glamorous young models typically favored by rock stars. His five children are grown. One of his daughters is married to the rock singer Peter Himmelman. His eldest son, Jesse, is a filmmaker who has directed videos for Tom Petty, the Replacements — and for ”Everything Is Broken,” a track from his dad’s 1989 album Oh Mercy.

Sometimes, in odd moments, the pressure of being ”Bob Dylan” eases enough for him to relax around his fans. Not long ago Dylan went into a Los Angeles music store, where a clerk praised him for having composed ”Puff the Magic Dragon,” a song actually cowritten by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary. ”Gee, I don’t remember writing that one,” Dylan said. ”Are you sure?” Yes, insisted the clerk, and started singing the tune to jog Dylan’s memory. Dylan kept saying it didn’t ring a bell but never burst the clerk’s bubble. Backstage after a New Jersey concert three years ago, Dylan played along with a friend’s middle-aged mother, who mistakenly assumed that his scathing ”Subterranean Homesick Blues” was meant to be funny. ”Oh, yes!” Dylan willingly laughed. ”That is a funny one!”

The public Dylan, however, will probably always remain an enigma — just the way he likes it. Since 1979, Dylan has tested the patience of his old followers with wildly unpredictable concerts, albums, and pronouncements. Those who have stuck with him have found rewards. Some of his concerts, some of his pronouncements, some of his insights are brilliant. But he makes you swim through a lot of muddy water to get to the treasure. After 30 years, there is still no easy way for Dylan to be Dylan. Says Eddie Gorodetsky, who produced the first album to be released on Dylan’s new Strikin’ It Rich record label: ”He operates with as much grace as is possible in the difficult situation of being Bob Dylan. That’s a big shadow to have to come out of every day. He’s just a guy who writes songs — and for 30 years people have been trying to find out what he eats for breakfast.”