Aside from a couple of individual tracks, I hadn’t listened to Empire Burlesque, the Hearts Of Fire soundtrack, Knocked Out Loaded or Down In The Groove since I bought the albums on vinyl, back at the time of their release.
In part, I had accepted the critical consensus that they were, in the body of Dylan’s recorded work, minor and dismissable.
I also remembered disliking the way most of them sounded and wrote them off as trivial, poorly written and, you know, Eighties.
I grew up listening to my parents’ old records – Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, lots of early American ‘blues’ and early Beatles – and always liked the sound of them.
I liked the basic sound of a band or individual in a room, and that was it. For me, a few over-dubs or tweaks were acceptable, but the layering of effects and the idea of intrusive production left me cold, especially for guitar-based stuff.
Then, several things happened that sparked my interest in these ‘lost’ albums.
1) They were all remastered in 2013 – except Infidels, which was remastered in 2003 (the soundtrack album, Hearts Of Fire, which was never an official Dylan album and is not in the Sony/CBS/Dylan catalogue and Shot Of Love, have been left unmolested);
2) A friend of mine sent me mp3 files of all the 80s outtakes and early mixes;
3) Bob Dylan in the 80s Vol 1 was released, with a version of ‘Dark Eyes’ that featured my second favourite artist, Bonnie Prince Billy (aka Will Oldham/Palace Music/Palace Brothers etc) and
4) I now have the time and inclination to write about my one abiding passion – music.
I discovered Bob Dylan as a kid, in 1978, and my entire Dylan LP collection until 1982 consisted of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Self Portrait, John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan At Budokan, Slow Train Coming and Saved.
I had heard nothing of his earth-shattering mid-60s trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, but loved his ‘gospel’ music as much as his ‘acoustic’ records. I also adored Self Portrait.
So, curious to see how these Eighties albums sounded 30 years on, I pulled my Dylan LPs out.
Would they be as unsatisfying as I had remembered?
Back to the starting point.
The real Dylan album backlash, in terms of production, seemed to start with Street Legal.
It was described as “dead air, or close to it” and as “horrendous product…too in love with his own self-generated misery to break through the leaden tempos that oppress his melodies, devoid not just of humor but of lightness.”
Researching this blog, I was surprised and amazed at the vitriol that was directed at this album.
I love everything about it – the cover, the songs, the arrangements. Yes, the production was dull and lacked the vivacity of some of his others, but, really, were these critics mad?
I mean, New Pony, Senor, Changing Of The Guards! They are awesome!
And as for Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)…that’s one of my favourite all-time songs!
It gave me hope for my expedition into the 80s – maybe the critics were wrong about those records, too?
“It took us a week to make Street Legal – we mixed it the following week and put it out the week after. If we hadn’t done it that fast we wouldn’t have made an album at all, because we were ready to go back on the road.”
Bob Dylan 1978.
“That stuff sounded marvelous in the room…It really was sort of like Bob Dylan meets Phil Spector in the best way…the instruments sounded full and well-blended.”
David Mansfield, 1978
Unring the bell
In 1999, Don DeVito (the original ‘Captain In Charge’) over-saw the remix of Street Legal by Michael Brauer and Ryan Hewitt.
“Don Devito, the producer on the record, asked me to remix it because what was released were just board mixes. For whatever reason there was no time spent on doing a proper job of mixing it, they were just quick roughs. He felt ,since the record was being re-released in SACD, the mixes could be improved. In this case, I took remixed the songs as I would have in that time period. Except for the new desk, I used just a couple of plates sounds from that time period. I captured the feel of each song and enhanced it by improving the mix but still maintaining the integrity of the original feel.”
- Michael Brauer, Gearslutz.com, 28th September, 2005
According to my research, there have only been two mixes – the original 1978 mix (mastered by Stan Kalina at CBS Recording Studios, New York) and the 1999 mix by Brauer and Hewitt (mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York).
However, in 2013, Steve Berkowitz went back to the original 1978 master tapes and remastered the original album. So the version in the The Complete Album Collection Vol. One, is the original 1978 mix, but remastered.
So, why am I mentioning Street Legal in an article about Dylan’s 1980s output?
Well, because in my relatively humble opinion, there are several 80s albums that would benefit enormously from a remix, and Street Legal sets a precedent.
I also believe that it was Street Legal, and the reaction to the sound of the album, that sparked a change in Dylan’s attitude towards producers and recording.
Prior to Street Legal, he had used producers to simply record what he did, but after that album, he seemed to seek out people who might bring a certain sound or attitude, contemporary or otherwise, to his music – Jerry Wexler, Bumps Blackwell, Chuck Plotkin, Mark Knopfler, Arthur Baker and, of course, Daniel Lanois.
The Albums and Selected Tracks
“I’m coming out of the folk music tradition and that’s the vernacular and archetypal aesthetic that I’ve experienced. Those are the dynamics of it. I couldn’t have written songs for the Brill Building if I tried. Whatever passes for pop music, I couldn’t do it then and I can’t do it now.”
But you’ve sold over a hundred million records.
“Yeah I know. It’s a mystery to me too.”
Produced by Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler.
“Oh, I had to do those albums. They were very important and necessary for me to do.”
There is little wrong with the production. It sounds correct, given the genre and the tradition of gospel records.
Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett produced it – so how could it be anything but great?
Given the sensational and inspirational performances at the time, though, it is a pale reflection.
That Sony have not released the live gospel tour album is criminal. If I had the time and money, I would sue them for cruelty.
The album was remastered for the Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection of 2013.
Shot Of Love
Produced by Chuck Plotkin and Bob Dylan
Title track produced by Bumps Blackwell
“…what came out was something close to what would have come out if he (Bumps Blackwell) was really there…
…also Clydie King and I sound pretty close to what’s all the best of every traditional style so how could anybody complain about that… and the record had something that, I don’t know, could have been made in the ‘40’s or maybe the ‘50’s…”
I think the sound and production on this album is spot-on and does not need revisiting at all.
Shot Of Love
I can understand why he wanted to work with Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell. His production for Little Richard and Sam Cooke was simply amazing and this album has that early ‘rock n roll’ sound to it – warm, rich, funky, cutting and so alive. You can hear the music as it hits the walls, the bodies and its raw beauty fills the air.
It’s a sonic triumph.
The early, unreleased mix is good, with some interesting piano, but the released mix is much better.
According to Sony, this album wasn’t remastered for the (2013) Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection on CD, but directly compared to the previous version, it sounds far louder and crisper. The opening guitar is a lot louder and seems more present and raucous as a result.
I assume that the process of compressing the files as mp3s has produced this sonic change.
“First of all, Shot of Love was one of the last songs Bumps Blackwell produced and even though he only produced one song I gotta say that of all the producers I ever used, he was the best, the most knowledgeable and he had the best instincts…
…I would have liked him to do the whole thing but things got screwed up and he wasn’t so called ‘contemporary’…
“To those who care where Bob Dylan is at, they should listen to Shot of Love. It’s my most perfect song. It defines where I am spiritually, musically, romantically and whatever else. It shows where my sympathies lie. It’s all there in that one song.”
- Bob Dylan to UK music paper, NME, 1983
A raw slice of inner city, late night blues, with great vocals and scorpion-sting guitar.
On my old LP, there was a weird mixing anomaly, too, where the backing singers suddenly leapt from one side to the other. A cracking track.
Property of Jesus
Positively 4th Street revisited.
Self doubt, sensitivity and insecurity are the shadows that follow every artist. To believe that what you are doing is worth sticking your neck out for, worth the risk of criticism or ridicule, takes courage.
Every creative person I’ve ever met has the same duality – the self-confidence and ego to present their creations to the world, with the sharp sensitivity and self-doubt that can cripple them. It’s a razor’s edge.
“I have very little belief in myself to do anything. I just pull it off, y’know, and it’s amazing to me that I do.”
No matter how vigorously you don’t read the papers, the reviews, bother with online chatter and tweets, you are always going to get stung.
“…my initial reaction was just another example of the old and familiar Bob Dylan syndrome: i.e., because the man’s past achievements have meant so much to so many of us, we tend to give his newest work the benefit of every doubt. No more. For me, it stops right here…
…choked with anger, rife with self-pity and so swollen with self-absorption that the singer often seems to think that he and Jesus are interchangeable on that mythic cross…
…Bob Dylan sounds more like an irate child who’s just been spanked than a grown man…”
- Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, 1981
One of the main reasons I enjoy Dylan’s music so much, is because of the humanity I find in it.
I don’t look to music for perfection, or for messages, guidance or nonsense like that, I look to music to be moved in some way. I have no interest in Bob Dylan’s views on politics, religion or anything else, I just love to hear a human heart beating and singing.
And this song is brutally, brilliantly human.
Songs are captured moments, frozen feelings and they are no more revealing, in a biographical sense, than a quick photo snapshot.
But they are revealing in a human sense – they show the glories, passions, sorrows, joys and thoughts of a fellow human being for a few minutes and let us (sometimes) identify with the singer, with the song. We recognise the feeling.
Music shows us ourselves.
In July 1982, Dylan signed a five-album, five-year contract with CBS, so the fact that Shot Of Love was judged harshly by critics, of course, made no difference to his being able to make a decent living through music.
Produced by Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan
“culturally a spent force…a confused man trying to rekindle old fires.”
[Dylan has] “turned into a hateful crackpot.”
Another “bad [album] that made no sense, didn’t hang together, had no point, and did not need to exist.”
The early take that I’ve heard is lyrically very different from the cut on Infidels, and far more unsettling, musically. It has a brooding, rumbling feel that works, although the band haven’t quite got it together yet.
The guitar on the left channel is great – very deep and sounds unmistakably like a Gibson Les Paul.
Though I’m not a fan of the ‘woah oh oh’ line in the chorus, it’s a great vocal performance. Dylan’s voice sounds nicely elastic and expressive and more suited to the song than the released take.
The final Infidels mix is in keeping with the rest of the album, but it’s not a sound I particularly enjoy. Knopfler’s strat sounds a little lacking in the sting and bite it had on Slow Train Coming, and the drum sound they opted for is not to my taste.
Man Of Peace
The unmixed take is far rougher, more raucous and far more effective, in my opinion.
The released take sounds weaker. Diluted somehow. The driving, staccato guitar is blended with keyboards to make it more radio-friendly, I guess.
It’s still a good performance, playing-wise, but lacks the bite of the original.
Dylan’s vocal is superb though, fiery and brimming with stone-cold fury and who else could write
He can be fascinating, he can be dull/ He could ride down Niagra Falls in the barrells of your skull.
Although Knopfler and Taylor’s solos are a little lacking in acid and snarl, Dylan’s harp attacks are perfect.
Sweetheart Like You
I’ve always loved this song. I’ve listened to all the available studio takes and I can hear the evolution of the lyrics and vocal attitude.
I have to say that Robbie Shakespeare’s bass playing is immense and saves the song from a pretty trite ballad – along with Dylan’s vocal.
The final mix is good and the song works well, but has some of the raw edge shined off.
The bass lines are still killer, though.
I would imagine that after the vitriolic and unwarranted critical response (and the poor sales) Shot Of Love received, he was hoping a more contemporary sound might help get the songs across.
The problem with opting for a ‘contemporary’ sound, and production values, is that it becomes dated very, very quickly.
Infidels is the first Dylan album that I didn’t like the sound of, where I noticed that the production, and liberal use of effects, actually hindered my enjoyment.
It’s a great collection of songs but I rarely enjoy listening to it.
Produced by Bob Dylan and Arthur Baker
“I’ve heard CDs. I don’t particularly think they sound a whole lot better than a record. Personally, I don’t believe in separation of sound, anyway. I like to hear it all blended together.”
“I’m not too experienced at having records sound good…I don’t know how to go about doing that. With Arthur Baker…I just went out and recorded a bunch of stuff all over the place, and then when it was time to put this record together, I brought it all to him and he made it sound like a record.”
“Working with Bob Dylan and Al Green was great because these are guys I grew up on as a kid, so to get to work with them was really a special thing.”
- Arthur Baker
Arthur Baker, in the mid 1980s, was well-known for his work with Afrika Bambaataa and New Order, and for his very commercial club remixes of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Dancing in the Dark.” .
Something Is Burning, Baby
You know when you see a woman with too much make-up, fake tan and a wax face frozen from Botox, and you feel sure that underneath all the insecurity and armour she would be lovely?
That’s how I feel about this track.
At several points, I’m almost certain I can hear a good performance inside there somewhere.
Please, Sony, for the love of all things good, remix this song!
Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)
I bought a 7” single of this song, back in 1985. I thought it was a great pop song then and I still do.
Had it been released by anyone but Bob Dylan, it would have been a big hit.
Bob Dylan isn’t allowed to make pop music.
Willie Nelson wore a tee shirt with a line from this song printed across it, which, even if it wasn’t a class A song, would make it awesome.
Despite the thin, tinny plastic production, and the apparent inclusion of someone playing the spoons during the intro, I love this song.
I repeat my plea…please remix this record…
Seeing The Real You At Last
The riff is good, the singing brilliant, the dynamics work really well and the lyrics fit. It has drive and intensity, but is rendered flabby and impotent by the mixing.
It’s the layers of synthetic horns, reverbs and noise-gates that destroy most of the life that the performance had.
It should have been retitled ‘Not Seeing The Real You At Last’.
When the night comes falling from the sky
“This is a song I had out a while ago on my last record that I made. My 65th, actually I have about 300 albums out. I don’t really know where they are, but they’re not selling. So this is a song I wrote about people sitting in judgment on other people. I can’t stand this kind of people. I hate people sitting judgment on other people. People you got to impress all the time. I can’t stand that kind of stuff.”
(before When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky, Melbourne, 22nd February, 1986)
I have read that the earlier February 19, 1985 take, released on the first Bootleg Series collection, is better than the released version – well, it isn’t.
That’s not an opinion, it is scientific fact.
I have done countless experiments in my laboratory and no matter which way I studied it – mathematically, musically, chemically – the results were always the same: The album cut is the best.
The way Dylan sings “that icy wind that’s howling in your eyes” is all the evidence you need.
When I first bought the record, I thought this was the best thing on it.
It’s a lovely recording of a delicate song and his voice is everything I like it to be – his.
I enjoy the version on the new ‘Bob Dylan in the 80s’ album, by Dawn Landes & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but it’s a real treat to then revisit Dylan’s own performance, as it highlights how gifted and emotive a singer he is.
“[The engineers would] say, ‘Hey Bob, we don’t need this,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, okay.’ And they’d make a mix to their ears, and he’d just stand outside and let them do it. And I’d be saying, ‘Hey! You can’t let these guys…Look!! They’ve left off the background vocals!’ or ‘What about the drums?!’
But there would be something going on in the back of his head which didn’t allow him to interfere. And yet if he’d have gone into the control room with the dominance that he had while we were cutting the stuff, it could have been mind-bending.”
- Reliable Ron Wood
Knocked Out Loaded
“Knocked Out Loaded is ultimately a depressing affair, because its slipshod, patchwork nature suggests that Dylan released this LP not because he had anything in particular to say, but to cash in on his 1986 tour. Even worse, it suggests Dylan’s utter lack of artistic direction.”
I’m not sure how releasing a product to sell during a tour is a negative thing?
Bob Dylan is a creative artist, yes, but he works in the music industry, which is a business that requires products to sell.
If he doesn’t produce albums that they can sell, they will stop releasing and promoting his work. That’s the deal.
Under Your Spell
Writing with other composers is always an interesting experience and one that has been particularly effective for Bob Dylan. He has worked with quite a few: Jacques Levy, Robert Hunter, Tom Petty, Rick Danko, Sam Shepard, Michael Bolton, Gene Simmons and, here, with Carole Bayer Sager.
The vocal on this track is as good as any I’ve heard. Seriously. Ignore the female choir of ‘ooohs’, the tin-can reverb, Miami Vice synth and whispered ‘baby’ and listen to his voice.
It has a wonderful keening tenderness that is amazing. You have to listen closely, but he hits all those notes.
I can only imagine how good this would sound if it were stripped back and de-nineteen eighty-fied.
It’s not going to win an Ivor Novello or Grammy, but it’s a cool song and the expressive vocal is superb.
Driftin Too Far From Shore
This is a pretty vicious song, lyrically and vocally, with some wild, withering couplets:
Well these times and these tunnels are haunted
The bottom of the barrel is too
I waited years sometimes for what I wanted
Everybody can’t be as lucky as you
I never could guess your weight, baby
Never needed to call you my whore
I always thought you were straight, baby
But you’re driftin’ too far from shore
We weren’t on the wrong side, sweetness
We were the wrong side
The repetitive synth-battered drum-beats, thin, fizzy guitar and ridiculous female voice-choir manage to completely hide a pretty good song.
I’d love to know what Dylan’s vocal performance is like, but unfortunately, I can’t hear it.
Sony! Come on! Think of the money!
You Wanna Ramble
(by Herman Parker Jr)
Delay on the snare, stinging telecaster runs and Dylan’s vocal way back in the mix surrounded by gospel girls – it’s an 80s approximation of that early ‘rock n roll’ sound that Dylan had been chasing.
It’s hard to tell if it’s a good version under all that shimmer and sparkle, but I have got a feeling that it is.
Got My Mind Made Up
(by Bob Dylan & Tom Petty)
A slab of rock with neat descending guitar slides, rockabilly drums and a great Dylan vocal.
His indignant phrasing of
“you don’t have to feed me/I ain’t your dog that’s gone astray”
is worth ignoring the girlie chorus and odd mix.
Firstly, the lyrics are much better than I remember them. My ears picked up at
Maybe someday, you will understand
That something for nothing is everybody’s plan
and made me check the rest out and it’s an interesting song.
Again, the sound is intrusively 80s, but underneath that trickery and fuss, there’s a strong vocal.
(by Bob Dylan & Sam Shepard)
I have a recording of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy performing the song at a benefit concert at Actors Theatre in Louisville on November 11, 2012 and it is awesome.
The Empire Burlesque version is awesome too.
It could have been called Awesome Girl.
There is no greater song about the old ‘wild west’ mythical America. It’s like all the best Wild West/Frontier/Cowboy films rolled into one. This is the America of pioneers, hard work, community, morality and God.
Despite it having being re-written from the original, working title of ‘Danville Girl’, and the bizarre, distant-view-from-the-stadium production, it’s still a stone-cold giant of a song and performance.
It’s a shame that someone in the studio pressed the ‘Eighties Epic’ button, but I live in hope of a sensible remix.
“It has to do with a guy standing on line and waiting to see an old
Gregory Peck movie that he can’t quite remember – only pieces
of it, and then this whole memory thing happens, unfolding be-
fore his very eyes. He starts speaking internally to a woman he’d
been hanging out with, recalling their meetings and reliving the
whole journey they’d gone on – and then it returns to the guy,
who’s still standing on line in the rain.”
- Sam Shepard to Rolling Stone, 1987.
Band Of The Hand
Band Of The Hand (It’s Hell Time Man)
Produced by Tom Petty.
Bob Dylan with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on a slow blues with whomping 80s drums and a female choir that includes Stevie Nicks.
It was written specifically for the film, ‘Band Of The Hand’ and recorded quickly in the middle of a tour.
“The Band of the Hand” is a rare single that I produced for him in Australia. He did it for a movie. [Band of the Hand, 1986.] I got told about it on the plane. We were landing in Sydney, and he came back and said, “I’ve got to do this session tonight, could you produce it?” So I really hit the ground running in Sydney, and had to book a studio and find gear, because our gear was somewhere else. And get The Heartbreakers in. And we did a track, and we worked pretty hard on it. We worked most of the night on the song.”
Tom Petty, 2012
It’s great! The way he sings the lines:
I know your story is too painful to share
One day though you’ll be talking in your sleep
And when you do, I wanna be there
is immense, as is the repeated note guitar solo in the middle.
For years, I have read what an awful song this was, but I love it. His voice is strong from touring and I like the dirty, gritty guitar-led groove and tower-block wall of sound.
Fuck the consensus – this is ace!
The mix in the movie is quite different to the single release – the drums are more prominent and Dylan’s voice gets moved further back, crowded out.
Hearts Of Fire – Soundtrack
Had A Dream About You Baby
Either mix of this song is good but I think the swirling Down In The Groove version wins on penalties.
Given that it was written for the film Hearts Of Fire, I think the simple lyrics are perfect.
It’s the swaggering wailing vocal performance that really makes this song.
(by John Hiatt)
This is a stunning cover and further evidence that Dylan is a master at interpretation.
Hearing the whole session is fascinating. The best take was definitely used and the mixing was skilfully executed. This song is on my ‘Best Of…’ playlist.
Night After Night
Synthetic Calypso Tex Mex. A pirate VHS copy of The Breakfast Club feels the same. Turn up the cuffs of your pastel pink jacket, run down a corridor ripping Madonna posters off the walls and smile.
Down In The Groove
There is evidence that Down In The Groove was intended to be a double album of covers – like Self Portrait. Got Love If You Want It, Important Words and The Usual were replaced, and there are several unreleased covers from the sessions in circulation which may have been planned for inclusion on a two disc set.
Let’s Stick Together
I love the guitar and harp start and that affection is maintained all the way through. Dylan’s voice keeps rolling down at the end of the lines which is great. Then there’s the typically Dylanesque harmonica, blasting and wheezing through the broken, over-driven-tube-amps.
It’s just ace.
Randy Jackson’s funky, walking bass sounds warm and the drums sound wonderful.
The original, longer mix has a cool guitar filigree ending and someone enthusiastically saying “yeah!”
It is a fantastic version – and was written by a guy called Wilbert. I rest my case.
Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)
The recent New Self Portrait Bootleg package has been a revelation for me. I enjoyed the original album, but to hear some of the new ‘covers’ made me appreciate Dylan’s skill as a singer, and interpreter of other people’s songs, all over again.
Songs are his lexicon and his knowledge and love of early American folk, blues and country music is clear to anyone who has ever spoken to him, asked him decent questions, listened to his radio shows – or who has followed his ‘career’.
So it’s no surprise to hear him perform this Hal Blair and Don Robertson song – a 1963 US Country chart hit for Hank Snow, that peaked at No. 2 – but it is a surprise to realise how good it is.
Anyone who doesn’t think this is a great cover is nuts. It’s fabulous, even though half-drowned by production treacle.
The way he sings “that warning voice” is worth the price of admission on it’s own.
Just remix it Sony, please…I’m begging…
A beautiful reading of the wistful, dusty gospel song by Albert E. Brumley.
Stripped of its production, it would tower over anything on the 90s ‘folk’ albums, Good As I been To You and World Gone Wrong.
This is a prime reason for doing a stripped-down, Let It Be-Naked style remix.
Ugliest Girl In The World
(Lyrics by Robert Hunter and music by Bob Dylan)
I don’t think Dylan and Hunter are likely to be awarded medals for Services To Feminism in the near future. ‘New Men’ they ain’t, but this makes me laugh every time I play it. The female chorus of ‘She’s so ugly’ is hilarious and some of the lines are awful, but great:
The woman that I love she a got a prizefighter nose
Cauliflower ears and a run in her hose
She speaks with a stutter and she walks with a hop
I don’t know why I love her but I just can’t stop
The harp is cutting and the playing great. I know I should hate it but I don’t. Songs like these are everywhere in the blues tradition.
“That song tends to disappear from memory, along with [the Dead's] “Keep Your Day Job” and “What’s Become of the Baby.” Songs the world could’ve done without.” – Robert Hunter, 2013.
Produced by Daniel Lanois.
“With Bob, I wanted to make sure that his voice was captured powerfully, rendered with sincerity, and be viewed as great as it ever was. I knew that I wanted the center to be big. That was the challenge in the back of my mind.”
“The voice on the record was never going to be the voice of the martyred man of sorrow, and I think in the beginning, Danny had to come to terms with that, and when he gave that notion up, that’s when things started to work.”
- Bob Dylan
I think this album marks the beginning of the current marketing of Bob Dylan as Bona Fide Legend.
Like the American Recordings series with Johnny Cash, this is where Sony started to colour Dylan as sepia and frozen inside the Museum.
It was a procedure that was later completed by the same producer and has been copied by Neil Diamond and Glen Campbell.
My feelings towards this record swing like a pale, English pendulum. I think the songs are great, generally, and I like that Dylan’s voice is recorded in a particularly detailed way, how it is presented as the central instrument that everything else hangs on to, but there is also something I really don’t like about it.
The dynamics are all false. The life is by proxy. The elements that should move me, thrill me, attract me, are all in the clever production tricks and not in Dylan’s performance.
I respect Daniel Lanois immensely, as both musician and producer, but I just don’t like Oh Mercy.
Well, sometimes I do.
I don’t know.
I would love to hear these songs without the Lanois-isms, but I hold out more hope for World Peace.
What’s A Sweetheart Like Me Doing In A Dump Like This?
So, what have I learned from my journey into the dark recesses of Dylan’s wilderness?
Well, I was wrong. I had fallen victim to aural prejudice and had tarred every song with the same brush.
Yes, the production is awful and the album artwork often unappealing, but the Eighties were like that.
Look beyond the effects and there is a wealth of great material, some vital and hugely expressive vocals and some covers that are as interesting and idiosyncratic as anything on The Bootleg Series Vol 10.
The gold is there – you just have to find it
If I were Sony, Jeff Rosen or Bob Dylan’s accountant, I would push to have those supposedly ‘lost albums’ looked at anew.
I would suggest that whatever they did with Street Legal, or McCartney did with Let It Be – Naked, it worked.
John Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy – Stripped Down’ was a revelation, too, and sold very well.
If the original tapes exist, and the FX were ladled on after the performances were recorded, then Thunderbirds are GO!
I have been amazed. Again.
If someone qualified could slide those FX faders down, I guarantee those albums would sell in huge, huge quantities.
The songs and performances are great – it’s just hard to actually hear them.
If they can clean up the Sistine Chapel, then Empire Burlesque should be a breeze.
“At first, it was very hard to tell what he was thinking, because he just didn’t say a word to anybody. But I got the impression he was happy to be there. And when something would start happening that he liked, he would get very animated. You could tell he was excited.”
Robben Ford, 1990
“My difficulty in making a record, is that when I record something in a studio, it never sounds anything like it when I get the tapes back. Whatever kind of live sound I’m working for, it always gets lost in the machines.
Years ago, I could go in, do it and it would translate onto tape. It gets so cleaned up today that anything wrong you do doesn’t get onto the tape. And my stuff is based on wrong things.”
“The studio, recording, for him is sort of like a necessary evil – I mean, he enjoys it, but he just hates the time it takes. He’s always talking about when he used to make albums:
“This record, we did, like, four songs in one day.”
And he understands it all, he’s not ignorant of modern technology. He just hates how records sound today.”
Chris Shaw, Engineer, 1990
“See, when I started to record they just turned the microphones on and you recorded. That was the way they did it back in the sixties. Whatever you got on one side of the glass was what came in on the controls on the other side of the glass. It was never any problem. What you did out front was what you got on the tape. And it always happened that way. Whether you played by yourself or played with a band didn’t really matter – there’d be leakage and that stuff, but you were pretty much guaranteed that whatever you did on that side of the glass was going to be perceived in the same kind of way. That was never any problem. So what happened to me was, I kept working that way through the seventies. I didn’t realize things had changed! (Laughs.) I really didn’t. I don’t think I knew you could do an overdub until 1978.
The problem is, you can’t record that way anymore. If you go into a studio now, the technology is so different that you might have a live sound that you want and you’ll put that live sound down, but it won’t sound that way on the other side of the glass. So then you have to contrive the sound to make it sound the way you really want. In other words, if you want to sound a certain way, whatever that way is, it’ll never happen in the studio.
There’s a kind of an outdated thing called “live excitement in the studio.” It doesn’t happen anymore, because people don’t record that way. A lot of people put things down one track at a time. Things are so advanced that you’ll be able to *phone* in your parts pretty soon. Anyway, the problem with it is that no matter what you do, it’s not going to come out that way anyway. People try. Some people use a certain studio because it used to have a certain sound.
I like the old sound, but it’s done. It’s never going to come back. So you just have to deal with what the modern way is.
A lot of my records have been made because it’s – quote – time to make a record. “When’s your new record going to be delivered?” “Oh, next month.” Time for me to go in and make a record. I never used to think about it during the year. I had other things to do. Some of the seventies records were made on just one block of time. “This month I’m going to block all this time out, write the songs, record the songs, mix ‘em, press ‘em, get a cover together, and it’s all out in a month or two.” It took me a long time to get off that particular style. I didn’t really enjoy it that way.
Sometimes I’ve never done the songs before – I’ll just write ‘em and put ‘em somewhere. Then when I’m making a record I’ll need some songs, and I’ll start digging through my pockets and drawers trying to find these songs. Then I’ll bring one out and I’ve never sung it before, sometimes I can’t even remember the melody to it, and I’ll get it in. Sometimes great things happen, sometimes not-so-great things happen. But regardless of what happens, when I do it in the studio it’s the first time I’ve ever done it. I’m pretty much unfamiliar with it.
In the past what’s come out is what I’ve usually stuck with, whether it really knocked me out or not. For no apparent reason. I’ve stuck with it, just from lack of commitment to taking the trouble to really get it right. I didn’t want to record that way anymore. Now I’m recording more than I used to record. About two years ago I decided to get serious about it and just record. Because I do need records out and I do have deadlines and commitments. It’s been a big struggle to come up with them at certain times. So rather than do that, what I do now is just record all the time. Sometimes nothing comes out and other times I get a lot of stuff that I keep. I recorded this album ["Empire Burlesque"] for a long time. I just put down the songs that I felt as I wanted to put them down. Then I’d listen and decide if I liked them. And if I didn’t like them I’d either re-record them or change something about them. I wanted to be the first one to judge it rather than put them out there to the people and have them do it.”
“Out of everybody I’ve worked with, Dylan is the most dedicated and focused writer. He would always be working on his lyrics. He’d have a piece of paper with thousands of words on it, all different ways, you couldn’t read it, it was impossible, because there’d be words going upside-down, sideways, just words all over this page. You couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. And he would look at it, and he’d pull from it. I never saw him eat. He only drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, and he’d sit chipping away at the words, pulling words from other songs, putting them in there. I really appreciated his focus on the song itself, how dedicated, and how hard he worked on it.
The way Bob works is, he kind of writes on a typewriter, so he has no idea where these songs lie, in what key they live in, what tempo – anything of that. Musically, there’s no chords written. So it’s like, he’ll say, “I got this song, and maybe this is how it goes,” and you try a couple of different versions of it in different keys, and he just finds where it sounds best, where it sounds best for his voice, where it’s comfortable. And that’s usually the open you end up going with.
So, on Oh Mercy, I’m not sure if he had an actual sound in his head to begin with. But he had actually recorded this whole record before it came to us. With Ron Wood. There’s a whole version of Oh Mercy that was recorded with Ron Wood already.”
- Mark Howard, Engineer.
“You can never, ever know or predict exactly what it is that Bob wants.
He wanted to face the corner of the room and sing into it, kind of like that Robert Johnson album cover. The word came down that he wanted to try and do something like that, so we spent a whole day, before he got there, creating this elaborate set-up in the studio for him to do that.
And so, Bob walks in the room while we’re running through a song, and he starts doing the whole singing into the corner thing – and within about, like, two minutes, he abandoned the whole idea and just wandered over to the piano and sat down at it…and never got off it for the rest of the session
His songs kind of continuously evolve. They’re not static. For him, it’s all about getting the track to fit the words, and not the other way around.
He’s always trying to find the arrangement that works best with the sentiment he’s trying to express.
He might say, “Well, I’m kinda hearing this like this old Billie Holiday song.” And so we’ll start with that, the band will actually start playing that song, try to get that sound, and then he’ll go, “Okay, and this is how my song goes.”
It’s a weird process, and it’s unique to him out of any of the bands I’ve worked with over the past 20 years. It’s always interesting, always unbelievably exciting, and it’s a lot of hard work – and I mean that in a very good way. His sessions are always challenging, but, at the end of the day, you always feel like you’ve got something done, and you’ve done the best to get the song to work.
For Bob, especially when he’s producing on his own, if he can’t get a song completely recorded in a day, he thinks there’s (A) Something wrong with the band, (B) Something wrong with the song or (C) Something wrong with me or the studio.
It’s very nerve wracking when you’re working with Bob, especially as a mixer, and especially if he’s there, because you don’t get much time to mix the record. He really hates being in the studio, I think, on that part of the process. So you have to be on your toes.
For me, personally, I have really fond memories of recording that song on “Love And Theft”, “Moonlight.” It’s really gorgeous, and I think the take that’s on the record is the second take, the whole thing is completely live, vocals and all, not a single overdub, no editing, it all just flowed together at once, and it was a really beautiful moment. During that session, at the end of every night, I would do a quick rough mix of the songs that we had been working on so he could hear them. And the rough mix of “Moonlight” ended up being the final master. I took two more stabs at mixing it, and everytime, we would wind up going back to that rough mix, there’s just something about it.
Bob really, REALLY hates to repeat himself. He just hates it. For him, it’s like the whole thing is like a big chunk of marble, and he’s just got to chisel away at it to find exactly what it is he’s looking for. He’s not 100 per cent sure to begin with – he knows he wants it to be a statue of some sort, but he’s not sure if it’s going to be a statue of a man or a woman or a child or a horse or whatever.
I’ve worked with a lot of great artists, musicians and songwriters, but, man, when you walk in the studio with that guy, he’s operating on a completely different level.”
- Chris Shaw, Engineer
‘Hey, now don’t tell me who’s an organ player and who’s not. Just turn the organ up.’
He was president of the Young Republican Club and graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1954. He founded the jazz label Transition [in 1955], and began producing jazz radio programs in 1958. He was jazz A&R director for Savoy Records and executive assistant to the director of the New York State Commission for Human Rights at the same time. He became a producer for Columbia and MGM in the ’60s, where he worked with Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Animals. He discovered, signed and produced the Mothers of Invention, Blues Project, Hugh Masekela, and the Velvet Underground.
“… I didn’t even particularly like folk music. I’d been recording Sun Ra and Coltrane, and I thought folk music was for the dumb guys.
This guy played like the dumb guys. But then these words came out.
I was flabbergasted. I said to Albert Grossman, who was there in the studio, I said, ‘if you put some background to this you might have a white Ray Charles with a message.’
In December 1964, Wilson overdubbed ‘electric band’ backing on several of Dylan’s earlier records, including ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. (which was released on Dylan’s Highway 61 Interactive CD-ROM, and was initially falsely claimed to be an early-sixties recording.)
But it wasn’t until a year later that everyone agreed that we should put a band behind him. I had to find a band…”
“It came from me,” he states decisively.
- The Man Who Put Electricity Into Dylan by Michael Watts, Melody Maker, January 31, 1976
“There’s been some articles on Wilson and he says that he’s the one that gave you the rock and roll sound. Is that true?”
Dylan: “Did he say that? Well if he said it… [laughs] more power to him.[laughs] He did to a certain extent. That is true. He did. He had a sound in mind”
The falling out – according to Mr Wilson
“He said ‘maybe we should try Phil Spector’.That was the end of the relationship.”
People Dylan asked to produce his records.
Lou Reed, Phil Spector, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and Elvis Costello
- Cameron Crowe, Biograph Liner Notes, 1985.
- George Negus Interview, 1986
- Tom Petty to Paul Zollo January 24th, 2012, American Songwriter.
- Mix Magazine, 2003
- Bo Ramsey, 2014 to Nathan Emerson, Live Gig Shots
- Rolling Stone, #47, November 29, 1969
- Don Was, Uncut 1991
- Daniel Lanois, 2011, Music Radar.
- Robben Ford, 1990, Guitar World
- Damien Love, Uncut Magazine
- ABC Interview 1985
- Graham Lock ofNew Musical Express
Thanks to Dag Braathen. Again.
All the images were created on an Apple iPad 4 using an app called ArtRage and then printed onto canvas.
“I was maybe a little out of my league, experience-wise, when I did Under The Red Sky. I was really just getting started as a producer. There were mistakes that I made…”
- Don Was, musician and producer of Under The Red Sky.
Bob Dylan wasn’t taking it easy in 1990.
As well as playing The Fastbreak Tour, a Spring Tour of North America, the summer festivals in Europe, then late summer and Fall tours of the US, he recorded with Brian Wilson, played at Roy Orbison’s tribute concert, guested at a Tom Petty show, shot the promo video for Most Of The Time, played a chainsaw artist in ‘Catchfire’, recorded for the Traveling Wilburys (Volume 3), was awarded the French award ‘Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres’, and played an amazing and lengthy set at ‘Toad’s Place’.
The Recording Sessions
This seems to be the way it went down:
The first session was on 6th January 1990 at Oceanway Studios, Los Angeles. Usable (and released) takes of Handy Dandy, 10,000 Men, Cat’s In The Well and God Knows were all recorded at this session.
Everything else was recorded in March and April at Record Plant Studio, The Complex Studio and The Sorcerer Studio – all in Los Angeles, California.
There were also many overdubbing sessions – on April 30th and then May 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 14th & 25th.
The list of contributing musicians is long:
Kenny Aronoff – drums
Sweet Pea Atkinson – backing vocals
Rayse Biggs – trumpet
Sir Harry Bowens – backing vocals
David Crosby – backing vocals
Paulinho Da Costa – percussion
Robben Ford – guitar
George Harrison – slide guitar
Bruce Hornsby – piano
Randy Jackson – bass guitar
Elton John – piano
Al Kooper – organ, keyboards
David Lindley – bouzouki, guitar, slide guitar
David McMurray – saxophone
Donald Ray Mitchell – backing vocals
Jamie Muhoberac – organ
Slash – guitar
Jimmie Vaughan – guitar
Stevie Ray Vaughan – guitar
Waddy Wachtel – guitar
David Was – backing vocals, production
Don Was – bass guitar, production
Most of the musicians were in the studio at the same time as Dylan, but others, like Elton John, over-dubbed their parts later.
The Songs – A Personal View
I don’t know why the critics were surprised by this song or took such issue with it. Lightweight, funny, talking or rocky blues songs have been on most of his albums since 1962:
‘Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance’, ‘I Shall Be Free’, ‘Outlaw Blues’, ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’, ‘On The Road Again’, ‘Obviously 5 Believers/Temporary Like Achilles/Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’, ‘Down Along The Cove’, ‘Country Pie’, ‘Winterlude’, ‘You Angel You’, ‘Buckets Of Rain’, ‘Mozambique’, ‘Please Mrs Henry’, ‘Man Gave Names To All The Animals’, ‘Dirt Road Blues’, ‘Summer Days’, ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’, ‘Soon After Midnight’…it’s pretty much a trademark.
Along with Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits, I think Bob Dylan is one of the funniest writers in ‘popular’ music and ‘Wiggle, Wiggle’ is a legal move.
It’s a simple song but I would rather hear this than, say, the sanctimonious ‘Disease Of Conceit’. The production, although pretty harsh to my ears, isn’t too interruptive and the drums are simply ace.
Kenny Aronoff, in particular, has done a great job on these recordings – his drums are groovy and driving and solid as a rock.
In fact, the playing on all the songs is excellent and the musicians were clearly aided by some brilliant engineers, as the original and released mixes testify to the capture of some very nice sounds.
‘There’s a hole where Slash has disappeared’
Slash contributed a solo to the track which never made it onto the final mix.
Slash talking before the album’s release:
“I walked in at about 2 p.m. and… I noticed this little guy wearing leather gloves and a hooded surfer’s sweater, which struck me as odd because it was warm out. Finally, I realized it was Dylan.
I thought, “What’s going on here?”
Anyway, Dylan and I spoke — he was pretty quiet. George was laying down some slide, and we started just getting drunk and stuff. Then they asked me to play a song with a pretty silly title, “Wiggle, Wiggle.”
I just learned it on the spot. It was such a simple, yet superb I, IV, V progression that there is really nothing much to say about it.”
“When I went to play the lead, Bob came up and asked me to play like Django Reinhardt! l couldn’t figure out where he was coming from. I didn’t hear that at all! So basically, I just laid down the part I thought should be there. Everybody seemed to be happy with it. It was just a funny day, but the song got done and hopefully it will make it on the album.”
Slash talking after the album’s release:
“Dylan? I hated it. He was impossible to work with. He was impossible to talk to. He was absolutely no fun to be around. He had no idea what was going on, as far as I could tell. I did a really good solo for him and he took it off at the very last minute.
He said, ‘It sounded too much like Guns N’ Roses.’
Well, why did you call me?”
Under The Red Sky
“Before George (Harrison) had even gotten a sound on his guitar or heard the song, Bob sat down behind the board in the engineer’s seat, hit the record button and said, “Play!”
Apparently, it was not the first time Bob had done this to George.
All things considered, it was a respectable solo but the guitar was way out of tune and, well, George didn’t even know what key the song was in!
Bob indicated that the solo was perfect and that we were done.
George rolled his eyes, turned to me and asked, “What do YOU think, Don?”
Suddenly, all the oxygen was sucked out of the room. The Concert For Bangladesh was sitting two feet away from me awaiting some words of wisdom! How am I gonna tell George Harrison that his solo wasn’t up to snuff? What if Bob really DID think it was a good solo? Was I missing something?
Finally, I decided that I wasn’t hired to be their adoring fan. I had to step up to the plate as their producer – “It was really good but let’s see if you can do an even better one,” I said.
“THANK YOU,” answered George.
Bob laughed, rewound the tape and let Ed Cherney, the engineer, have his chair back. It was a life-changing lesson in record producing: gentle, respectful truth shall set you free.
George nailed the solo on the next pass.”
It is clearly written in the form of a children’s fairy tale, even starting with the classic lines from ‘Mother Goose’: “There was a little boy and there was a little girl…”, and the lines are repeated, nursery-style.
Immediately, I am taken back to childhood imaginings – by the words at least -and it’s a nice trick.
Michael Gray, in particular, has written at length about the use of Biblical and fable imagery on this album and his arguments are pretty persuasive.
I can’t imagine Bob Dylan writing most of these songs – 10,000 Men, Wiggle, Wiggle, Under The Red Sky, Unbelievable, Handy Dandy, 2 X 2 or Cat’s In The Well and filling them with fairy tale or fable imagery and rhyme by accident.
On the original take, his delivery sounds very…fatherly. It sounds as though he’s telling a story, tenderly, to a child.
The final version has some over-dubbed vocals with elongated vowels at the end of most of the lines, which changes the feel considerably.
The album is dedicated to his (then) four year old daughter, Gabby Goo Goo. Four years old is a prime ‘fairy story’ age and though I don’t believe the album was written or recorded specifically ‘for’ his daughter, I can imagine that he had her on his mind and was, when he was able, reading a lot of nursery rhymes and children’s stories.
It definitely has an innocent mood and I think Don Was hit the nail on the head when he said:
“One of Bob’s great virtues as a songwriter is that he creates these impressionistic pieces that provide a rich tapestry of images while leaving plenty of space for you to drape your own meaning. In many ways, you could attribute Bob’s enduring popularity to his ability to allow each listener to become kind of a co-writer. Maybe that’s why he bristles at that whole “spokesman for a generation” thing. In truth, he’s created a body of work that enables everyone to be their own spokesman. He can do this with a complex song like “Visions Of Johanna” or incredibly simple ones like “Under The Red Sky”
On the unmixed take the piano at the start is great, setting the groove and leading the band. Dylan’s harp sounds more organic on the earlier mix, but overall I think the final, released mix is better, with the guitar riff underlined and I really like the repeated rockabilly guitar phrase that Waddy Wachtel plays.
Don Was described the session:
“Day three was “all Jews day”: sounds like summer camp, doesn’t it?
Al Kooper, Kenny, Waddy Wachtel, Bob and myself with David and Ed Cherney in the control room. We didn’t order any gefilte fish from canter’s deli but we did have fun.
It was a prolific day that yielded Under The Red Sky and Unbelievable.”
Born In Time
(originally scheduled for inclusion on Oh Mercy!)
“...the foggy web of destiny”
The original take was much more bluesy and piano-led and sounds far less sentimental, to my ears. It has a sombre and intimate feel that draws me in. The released version is sparkled up and reverbed and it loses its power. I prefer a more basic and less effected sound – always have.
“Day 4 was Robben Ford, Bruce Hornsby, Kenny and Randy Jackson on bass. We cut ‘Born In Time’, ‘TV Talking Song’ and a very cool Grateful Dead-style extended instrumental that featured Bob on harp.
At the time, I didn’t even know that Born In Time was left over from Oh Mercy! I’d never even heard that version ‘til someone played me a bootleg copy a few years ago.
At the session, he [Dylan] just sat down at the piano and played it for everyone. Once the groove was established, Bob yielded the piano bench to [Bruce] Hornsby and picked up an acoustic guitar for the take. There was so much going on at that moment that I didn’t really focus properly on the lyrics as they were going by. It took years for me to realize how deep that song is. I mean, really fucking deep.
For a while, I felt that we didn’t do it justice in the studio. I’ve listened to it recently though and it’s right on the money. There is a world-weariness in Bob’s vocal that is integral to the song, you know…”You can have what’s left of me”.
Getting that point across is more important than any little ‘production’ gimmicks that may have been overlooked. It’s a mood that foreshadows the sensibility of Time Out Of Mind. It’s certainly the crown jewel of Under The Red Sky.”
“…finally Bob arrived, and he had on like a sweatshirt with a hood, a baseball cap, these kind of jogging pants. And motorcycle boots. Kind of an odd combination.
When we started recording, Dylan, basically, would just start some kind of a vamp going on the guitar. The whole band was out in the room, in contact with each other, there wasn’t a lot of separation. And Bob has a table in front of him, with pages and pages and pages of lyrics, and he would just start some kind of a thing going on the guitar, and we’d all fall in behind him, and just start jamming. And as soon as he kinda liked what was happening, he’d start picking up lyrics, going through the pages, and just start trying to sing it over whatever we were doing. If he didn’t care for that one after a while, he’d put it down, pick up another page, and start trying something with that. So, literally, we just jammed.
At first, it was very hard to tell what he was thinking, because he just didn’t say a word to anybody. But I got the impression he was happy to be there. And when something would start happening that he liked, he would get very animated. You could tell he was excited. He’d pick up the harmonica and start blowing, and start trying to sing his lyrics, that he’s reading off the pages. And there were literally, pages and pages, loose pages, they weren’t bound or anything. There must have been 40 or 50 pages on the table, and he’d just start fishing through them and start singing them.
He had a suggestion for the guitar solo on that, and he kind of sang it to me, and I thought it might work if we used a delay – he had these back and forth notes going on, and I thought we might use a delay for the second and fourth notes – and he said, “Okay. We’ll try that.”
Although I do like this song, I don’t think it fits with the rest.
TV Talkin’ Song
“T.V. Talkin’ Song” had a far more sinister ending in its original version, with the speaker being hanged from a lamp-post. I didn’t think he was improving on it after a certain point. I think it lost something.” – Don Was.
That Tell Tale Signs didn’t have the original version of TV Talkin’ Song on it, borders on criminal negligence, especially when there is a cheesy, jangly, Lanois-soaked outtake of Born In Time that serves only to illustrate why it was rejected in the first place.
The vocal delivery, originally, is really well timed and in a lower register and sounds better.
On the album, it sounds like he is reading off his sheet and singing over a backing track, rather than being part of it. The timing is off and, to me, it sounds awful. I can’t bear to listen to it.
The released version is drum-led, rather than piano and guitar led, and lacks any atmosphere. The simmering, rich and expressive groove is replaced by click-track banality.
The ending of “…later that evening, I watched it on TV” was funny on Black Diamond Bay, it isn’t on this one.
A blues shuffle with David Lindley on slide and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan on rhythm guitars. It builds nicely and, again, has children’s book lyrics. I think Dylan’s voice is a little thin, but otherwise, it sounds good.
It’s frustrating because it could be great. The words and the musical treatment just seem at odds.
“He was real personable. A lot of people get the impression he has a star complex, but he really doesn’t. He’s not like that at all. He’s just saving his energy for what he’s doing, because it’s like kung-fu, y’know. People come at him from all angles and directions and he has to deal with them. We’d talk about all sorts of things, mainly music and guitars: which ones sound good when you play them a certain way, which strings you use.
Dylan would organise stuff in the studio as we were going along, as he heard certain things. He’d shuffle verses around a lot. It was amazing to watch him do it, quite a process. He was always working on stuff, organising verses and finishing things, changing words if he felt they worked better. And it was all done within the structure of what was going on. He was pretty impressive, shooting from the hip.
There was always the freedom to bring your own ideas to the table. Dylan was very approachable in that respect. We’d talk in the studio. He’d say simple things like “I like that” and “Yeah, do that”.
It was Dylan who was the ultimate authority, always. Don deferred to Dylan in that respect. But sometimes he would insist he was right, in a very nice way. On those occasions, Dylan would listen to it and then say “No, no, I like my way of doing it.”
2 X 2
“How many paths have they tried and failed? How many other brothers and sisters linger in jail?
How many tomorrows have they given away? How many compared to yesterday?”
I think the released mix is better than the original. The re-done vocal sounds more assured and the mix has tightened up the sound. I like Elton John’s piano solo, which was added at an over-dub session.
(Originally scheduled for inclusion on Oh Mercy!)
“God knows the secrets of your heart, He’ll tell them to you when you’re asleep“
“We never discussed anything about ideas or themes. There was just an unspoken understanding between us. Bob never played us any of the songs in advance and David and I never told him who the musicians were gonna be. God Knows was our audition. You should’ve seen the room that day. Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan on electric guitars, David Lindley on a Weissenborn slide, Kenny Aronoff …Bob played acoustic piano and sang. I played bass. Nobody knew the song. Bob played it on the piano for us once through and then we cut it.
The modus operandi for all subsequent sessions was immediately established: listen to Bob and respond sympathetically. I suspect that’s how he’s made most of his records.
The first take was a mess – too many musicians.
For take two, we began with just Bob and Stevie Ray and built up the arrangement very, very slowly. His singing was great. It was a keeper take. The rough mix from that moment is the mix that appears on the album. David and I were jazzed.
I can’t speak for Bob but he had the option of splitting after that. Instead of going home, he went on to cut Handy Dandy, Cat’s In the Well and Ten Thousand Men with us that same afternoon. So I guess he dug what was happening.”
“He’s got that fortress on the mountain,
With no doors, no windows, no thieves can break in”
“I remember, just before we recorded Handy Dandy, Bob remarked about how, years earlier, he’d been to a Miles Davis session. The band improvised for an hour and then Teo Macero, the producer, took a razorblade to the tape and cut it into a coherent five-minute piece. It allowed the musicians to stretch out without worrying about whether they were adhering to a set arrangement.
We decided to try something similar with Handy Dandy. It was originally 34 minutes long and had some amazing solos by Jimmy and Stevie. We picked the most appropriate four minutes and cut that together.”
I would love to hear the 34 minute version! This is not just my favourite song on the album, but one of my favourite Dylan performances ever. I love the phrasing, the smile in his voice, the lyrics and the playing. It’s a hoot.
The piano and organ mirror Like A Rolling Stone, which is slightly odd but really enjoyable. As Like A Rolling Stone’s riff was originally heavily influenced by La Bamba – or many early Rock N Roll cuts – it has a ‘throwback’ feel, which I doubt is accidental. The whole album seems to be looking backwards to some degree.
Cat’s In The Well
Stevie Ray Vaughan sounds fantastic on this song, his playing fluid, funky and perfectly timed. When I hear this song, I always wonder if they would have recorded together again. I think SRV’s style, tone and timing were perfect for Dylan’s tunes.
Bob Dylan: ‘He was a sweet guy. Something else was coming through him besides his guitar playing…’
Amen to that.
“I remember really not wanting the day to end. There was something about being there with the guy that just had its own power. As I said, he didn’t talk to people. He never really spoke to anyone except for Don, the producer. But, still, there was an aura to the environment around him, you felt like you were part of something really special. I’ve been around a lot of famous people and played for them – Joni, George Harrison, Miles Davis – but Dylan really was unique”.
Too Much Of Nothing
I’ve found it hard to work out how I feel about this album. I’ve listened to the early mixes, the Tell Tale Signs versions, the released LP on vinyl and the 2013 mp3 remasters and I have come to the conclusion that the album doesn’t work, for me anyway.
In 1985, Dylan said that he would like to do an album of children’s songs, but that his label wouldn’t be able to market it. Well, now he’s a bona fide rock ‘legend’ and seemingly in line to get every award known to man, he could.
And I’d buy it. I bought the Christmas one.
I think he tried to do it with this album but ended up getting a mixed up confusion.
I find it hard to believe that Bob Dylan went into the studio with a bunch of new ideas – songs based (thematically and stylistically) in dark children’s tales – and heard them in his head as big production rockers. I think he just had a good time with some great players and went with it. Maybe he was just too Wilburied out.
If he recorded the songs (without the Oh Mercy rejects) now, with his current band, who are so adaptable and musically sensitive to him and his songs, it would be a triumph. His voice would suit it, too – Rumplestiltskin in a wolf suit.
As it is, it’s a bit of a puzzle that I rarely feel the urge to hear. It’s a shame because the writing is stylised, simple and really interesting; the music and playing really great but…not when put together.
It Just. Don’t. Fit.
Cat’s In The Well
The cat’s in the well, the wolf is looking down
The cat’s in the well, the wolf is looking down
He got his big bushy tail dragging all over the ground
The cat’s in the well, the gentle lady is asleep
Cat’s in the well, the gentle lady is asleep
She ain’t hearing a thing, the silence is a-stickin’ her deep
The cat’s in the well and grief is showing its face
The world’s being slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace
The cat’s in the well, the horse is going bumpety bump
The cat’s in the well, and the horse is going bumpety bump
Back alley Sally is doing the American jump
The cat’s in the well, and Papa is reading the news
His hair’s falling out and all of his daughters need shoes
The cat’s in the well and the barn is full of bull
The cat’s in the well and the barn is full of bull
The night is so long and the table is oh, so full
The cat’s in the well and the servant is at the door
The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war
The cat’s in the well, the leaves are starting to fall
The cat’s in the well, leaves are starting to fall
Goodnight, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all
Copyright © 1990 by Special Rider Music
Bob Dylan – before playing Wiggle, Wiggle in concert:
This is a big hit for me back in the States. Sold about 9 million! It’s all about fishing.
This is my ecology song for tonight. It’s my one and only ecology song right here off of my last record. Thanks for making that record such a big hit!! Now I’ve done my duty!
Thank you everybody! This song is off my new latest smash record!! It’s up to about 10 million now. It’s gonna sell a whole lot more before it’s through. Well, it would be nice if it did anyway.
Thank you! Thank you everybody! That was one of my anti-religion songs. Here’s one of my fishing songs.
Copyright information and other trivial factoids
The album ‘under the red sky’ was not included in the Sony-BMG merger.
The album as a unit was copyrighted on 15th October 1990.
The album photographs were copyrighted to Bob Dylan. The front cover, originally thought to be Israel, is generally believed to be the Mojave Desert.
The location of the rear photograph is unknown to anyone who doesn’t know it.
The album is dedicated to Gabby Goo Goo, who is almost certainly Bob Dylan and Carolyn Dennis’ daughter, Desiree Gabrielle Dennis-Dylan. She was born on January 31, 1986.
Dylan played accordion on all the tracks that have accordion.
He only played 10,00 Men once in concert – at Keaney Auditorium, University Of Rhode Island on 12th November, 2000.
He only played Handy Dandy in concert once – in Vigo, Spain at the Recinto Ferial (Fairground) on 27th June, 2008.
Don Was: “We also cut a song called “Heartland” that didn’t make the album but turned up as a duet on Willie Nelson’s Across The Borderline record.”
About this article, Dag Braathen wrote:
“The piece is OK but the ending needs some work. The album is clearly awesome.”
Recording session info from 2 sources:
Michael Krogsgaard: Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions (Part 9). The Bridge #14, Spring 2003, pp. 6-33.
Guitar World, October 1990, Rob Hughes, Uncut Magazine and a Guns N Roses Fansite.
Thanks to Dag Braathen & Kathleen.
Ant Savage – The Ruby Sun EP
I’m a big fan of unusual voices.
All my favourites have them.
I think I may have found another in Ant Savage.
I read in The Guardian that he is a self-taught guitar player, which appeals to me, because it often makes the playing unique – and this is the case with Ant Savage.
His playing is sparse, mostly, but rich and melodic and his guitar sounds great. I hear a lot of recordings where the acoustic guitar sounds awful, but this is lovely.
It was recorded in his front room in Bedford, then mastered by Ru Cook at Lost Boys Studio.
Ruby Sun starts with a strum and I thought I was in for just another bloke with misery and a handful of folk chords.
The song is a masterclass in the effectiveness of simple arrangements. There is a female voice (Hannah Birch) weaving in the background, piano rolls, cello and his breathy, broken voice sailing through it.
It’s quite brilliant and the atmosphere he builds is amazing, given the simplicity of the instruments.
Lessons Of Theft starts like an Eno ‘ambient’ album, with double bass (played by Marek Orzel), piano spikes and filigrees and guitar hammer-ons. His voice comes in, part Morrissey, part Nick Drake, woeful and playful, and it’s just…great.
I keep playing it.
I have no idea what the words are about and I don’t care. I just like the sound of it all.
You know the feeling when you’ve been away for a long time and are on the final part of the journey home, the excitement rising, senses on red-alert because you’re nearly there?
That’s how Home makes me feel.
The Starlings is gorgeous. Like the slow swell of the sea, his voice lifts and falls and carries you away. Sorrow has never sounded so sweet.
I hear a musical bloodline to The Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, Nick Drake and This Mortal Coil. He would be at home on 4AD.
This is so much more than a guy with a guitar.
There is intelligence, wit and idiosyncrasy.
And that odd, tidal vocal style, ancient and fresh.
As a debut, this is perfect. It has more than enough to keep you listening but hints strongly at the possible wonders to come.
Keep an eye on this guy.
The Ruby Sun EP is released on April 14th.
I first heard Neil Young in 1978.
Myself and my best friend, Simon, sneaked out of his bedroom window, late one night, to attend our first ‘proper’ party.
We were 15 and innocent as strawberries.
There was beer, dope, girls and loud, loud music. It was awe-inspiring.
Simon and I got separated. He went in search of dope and I stayed near the beer, alone on the stairs, watching events like a hawk.
Teenage dream girls danced in bikinis and actually spoke to me. It was momentous.
These were the cool, beautiful Demi-gods of the brutal school hierarchy. They were the chosen ones and I was among them. At least hovering around them, anyway.
The music they were playing was great, too, for a hot summer night on the West Coast of Australia.
The Eagles, Seals & Crofts, Rickie Lee Jones, Fleetwood Mac, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jefferson Airplane, JJ Cale and The Byrds. There was some disco, too, that I wasn’t familiar with but, after an hour of watching a room full of semi- undressed Bardots dance to it, I was a solid, aching fan.
I also heard someone else. Someone I didn’t know. He sounded a little bit like my hero, Bob Dylan, but more…guitary.
I moved into a dark room to be close to the stereo speakers. It was great! The songs sounded so real. It was as though these people were in the room. The singer’s voice was odd, which I liked. It had a country warmth but sorrowful and bluesy, too.
Before my brain could engage a casual tone or a social filter, I turned to the human form beside me on the old couch and blurted, “who is this? This is amazing! This is the best band I’ve ever heard!”
As my eyes adjusted to the smokey dark, I realised the form I had addressed was female. And pretty. And older.
Rather than dismiss or ignore me, she smiled and my heart floated away.
She leaned in close and said “it’s Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Good, isn’t it?”
Her warm breath on my neck rendered me catatonic for several seconds, but I managed to nod.
And, like a dream, we sat and shouted into each other’s hair for hours. About music and poets. Angela told me all about Neil Young.
She played an LP called ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and said it was her favourite. It was his second album and had three of his best songs – “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”. She said that those songs were written when Young had a fever.
The songs were long, loose-limbed and sounded so, so good. Angela knelt beside the stereo and flicked through the row of LPs, picked one out and put it on the turntable. It was an album by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young called ‘Deja Vu’.
She told me who played on it, asking if I knew who Jerry Garcia was, or The Grateful Dead? I shook my head and she explained them. As the third song faded, she took my hand in hers and whispered, “Listen to this!”
That strange violin-like intro and loping, loose and lilting drum beat with acoustic strums, piano rolls and descending bass slope – it was majestic, intensified by this lovely girl who was squeezing my fingers and smiling, her eyes shooting yellow sparks into me.
The song made me feel like I was watching the singer as he looked at an old photograph. His perfect, peaceful memories were pouring out through his sorrow-edged voice. I could see his face reflected onto the photograph – a home or a remembered face. I was young, but I knew that one day I would look back and the view would be both lovely and sad. Like the song.
“I know! It’s so good.”
The voices on the chorus were earthy and celestial at the same time. I made her play it three times, until someone shouted at us to change it. I wanted it to go on for so much longer.
Angela hadn’t let go of my hand.
I was in paradise.
Not only had I discovered Neil Young, but I had found that my shyness and inhibitions dissolved in this stuff called alcohol.
I soared above myself, immortal. I was brave and deeply attractive. I had consumed liquid angels and they were showing me how amazing life could be. I was connected to the world by a harmonious golden thread. An invisible ribbon of love tied me to all humanity.
After two beers.
Later on, Angela took me upstairs and, well, she introduced me to more than music. In the blue moonlight, many mysteries unravelled as I experienced the female form. My naive passion was treated with exquisite tenderness and I finally realised what all the fuss was about.
As more beers went in, though, I began to feel very odd. I walked down the stairs like a man going up a hill. I couldn’t tell the difference between anything. I leant against shadows and was followed by walls. I banged into people that weren’t there. For the first time, I was hopelessly drunk.
I woke up in the front garden, alone, with no shoes and a blanket over me. It was still dark but thinner, nearing dawn.
The house was quiet. Those left were asleep.
Angela was gone.
I found a phone and called my Dad, asking if he’d pick me up.
He didn’t know I was at a party.
I was meant to be at Simon’s, revising for something.
My old man went nuts. Absolutely mental. I was grounded for life. I would never be trusted again. I was never going to another party.
I said little, nodding when appropriate, apologising in the silences between the fury and generally looking meek and sorrowful.
When we got home I was sent to my room and told not to come out.
I lay on my bed and smiled at the best night of my life.
Thank you, Neil Young.
“Mama, tow my boat out to the sea, pull it down from shore to shore. Two brown eyes look at me, I feel i’m knockin’ on heaven’s door…”
– Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – June 1981
“I started it in St. Vincent when I woke up from a strange dream in the hot sun….I was thinking about living with somebody for all the wrong reasons”
- Bob Dylan – Notes for ‘Carribean Wind’, Biograph, Cameron Crowe, 1985
“Me and another guy have a boat down there. “Jokerman,” kinda came to me in the islands. It’s very mystical. The shapes there, and shadows, seem to be so ancient. The song was sorta inspired by these spirits they call jumbis.”
- Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan christened his sailboat Water Pearl. She was a traditional Bequia boat, having been built on the beach of the small island in the northern Grenadines in the late ’70s or so.
- Latitude 38, Letters, January 2007
“In the late 70’s, Californian Chris Bowman and I were co-contractors for a 68-ft. traditional wooden schooner, built for Bob Dylan near the present Dive Bequia, just off The Belmont Walkway.
We hired some of the best shipwrights in Bequia—Albert Crosby, Lincoln Ollivierre, Lanceford Hazell, Herbert Ollivierre, Gilbert Hazell.
She was handmade with pride. Her ribs were Bequia white cedar curved to the right shape by the N.E. Trades. Her planking was Guyanese hardwood. Her bulwarks were dark as ebony and finished with gleaming brass fittings. It took three years to build her.
We launched her on December 9, 1980, with an all day celebration.”
- Nolly Simmons, 30th November 2012
Bankie Banx, Reggae artist, has lived on the small island of Anguilla most of his life.
In the early 1980s, Bob Dylan sailed into Anguilla on his 70-foot schooner:
“The Water Pearl was made in (the tiny island of) Bequia. He had a Caribbean crew. He sailed to Anguilla. He picked up my cassette with some conch shells at a gift shop. He sent his captain, Christopher Bowman, to look me up. I guess they played the tape on the boat.
Bowman asked me to come aboard and bring a few guitars. I went aboard and met Dylan. We started playing and he was very much interested in ‘Prince of Darkness.’ He wanted me to write out the lyrics and chord progression.
We went for a swim, we went snorkeling, had lunch. In the evening I invited him to my home studio. I had a Tascam (recorder) n my basement. I was always ready to go. He stepped in and started to play my organ.
He said, ‘Bankie, I like the sound of ‘Prince of Darkness’, can you record that?’
I said, ‘Bob, I’ve already done that.’
Then he asked for a reggae bass line. Then a reggae rhythm guitar. Then he wanted some girls to sing backup vocals. I went and got two girls. He never put his voice on the tape. He just played keyboards and gave us the harmonies.”
- Interview by David Hoekstra on May 12, 2007
Dylan paid the women for the impromptu session and loaned Banx his boat and crew for six weeks.
“I overheard the talk at the next table. Water Pearl was in the harbor, and everyone was talking about whether or not the owner was on board. [Dylan] heard I was in town as well and asked if I wanted to come out and see the boat and have lunch.
We didn’t talk music. We talked boats over lunch. He gave me a tour of Water Pearl, and I can still smell that unique combination of pitch, canvas, and wood that is the essence of a traditional sailing rig”.
- Jimmy Buffet
“I started sailing the Caribbean in ’76 with the first Utopia, a Morgan Out-Island 36. So I have put in my time down there. This brings me to Bob Dylan’s traditional Bequia schooner Water Pearl. I first met her captain in the late ’70s, right after she was built, I believe as a mail boat and/or light freighter.
In ’84, I was a co-captain of the Antigua-based Ocean 60 Ocean Mistral. We’d anchored next to Water Pearl at Deshaies, Guadeloupe. We had a tough time getting our CQR to hold, but finally felt we were in for the night.
We all went to bed except for one young lady who wasn’t tired. She stayed up, often looking over at Water Pearl. Around 2 a.m. I sensed there was a strange boat motion. I got up, looked out, and sure enough, Water Pearl was right next to us. But something was strange, as I looked around and noticed that I couldn’t see any land! I realized that both our boats had dragged out to sea.
When I asked the young lady why she didn’t call me, she said, “Water Pearl was always in the same place, so I never noticed that we were going anywhere.”
Utopia, Jeanneau 45, Hermosa Beach
“For 40 years, Lawson Sergeant and his brother Tim have run a model boat-building shop on Bequia. There are now three others, catering for all the yachties looking for souvenirs to take home, or even of their own boats, because they will do a model of your yacht to order.
Lawson has done one for Bob Dylan of his yacht Water Pearl, which has now sunk – the boat, not the model.”
- Hunter Davies, The Mail On Sunday
27 November 2006
SINKING LIKE A SHIP
“My sixty-three foot sailboat had hit a reef in Panama…In the ten years I had her my family and I had sailed the entire Caribbean and spent time on every island from Martinique to Barbados.”
- Bob Dylan, ‘Chronicles’
Chris Bowman was on his way to the Pacific for a long cruise “financed by Bob Dylan” when disaster struck – near the Panama Canal, at about 4a.m.
Instead of heaving to and waiting for dawn, he tried to enter the harbour, missed the entrance and piled up on the beach.
It seems that he could not organize a salvage tug in time and the Water Pearl slowly broke up over six days.
- May 2011 issue of “Classic Boat”.
“Only the crew of Water Pearl knows what really happened, but those of us around the boathouse figured that Water Pearl had old charts, which caused them to confuse the light on Toro Point with the white light on the east point of the entrance through the breakwater.
That also assumes that Water Pearl’s radar either wasn’t on or wasn’t working. There were strong northerly winds the night Water Pearl was lost, so once the crew realized the situation they were in, it was too late to save the boat. Once again, this explanation is not from the crew, but rather speculation by some of us on shore.
Attempts were made to pull Water Pearl off the reef, but the tugs couldn’t get very close to her because of the reef. In addition, the tow lines kept getting snagged on the coral.
After the wreck was abandoned, she was stripped of almost everything. A local even cut a hole in the hull and salvaged the engine — piece by piece! He transported the pieces in a rowboat. I ended up with the anchor windlass and the grating from the shower. I made the latter into an end table”.
- Letter from Bob Gray, LATITUDE MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2011
“When [Water Pearl] went down, the whole of Bequia wept.”
- Nolly Simmons, 30th November 2012
I have heard hundreds of Dylan covers over the years, and have liked very few.
I’ve certainly never preferred one to a Dylan original.
Until I heard Bettye LaVette sing ‘Most Of The Time’ on ‘Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International‘.
For vague vocal context, imagine Mavis Staples, Millie Jackson and Billie Holliday being spirited into one gorgeous woman.
Well, that beautiful lady would sound like Bettye LaVette.
She has beauty. She has soul. She has the larynx of love, life and liquor. And she has been singing since the early 1960s.
So, how come I am 50 years old and have never heard her?
It’s some kind of crime.
Okay, I’m a pale-skinned Englishman, but it’s not like I haven’t been interested in music.
I have spent my whole life either playing, writing or listening to it.
Music is my Religion, and finding this new voice is like finding a new Dead Sea Scroll or an eleventh Commandment. It’s fantastic.
‘Most Of The Time’
“At my age I’m not trying to make any kind of impression on anyone”
The way she finds the blood and bruises in this song is transfixing. I can imagine Dylan nodding when he heard it, knowing that this lady nailed it.
Anger, regret, sorrow and wit. They bleed through it.
The musicians are superb, too, creating a dark and reverbed chamber for this soul baring to take place. It is bar-room perfect.
The altered line, “I don’t even notice that the mother******’s gone…most of the time” makes me smile every time. It’s the way she delivers it.
If there’s an iPod in Heaven, and I make it up that far, then I know I’ll be hearing Ms LaVette on every angel’s playlist.
‘Before the Money Came (Battle Of Bettye LaVette)’
“I know everybody in Detroit over 50. No matter how rich or poor they may be, I’ve seen ‘em drunk or broke or nekkid; sometimes all three.”
This self-composed track is startling and inspiring because it is so honest.
It is a beacon of hope for every artist’s bleakest canyon of self-doubt and despair.
It is life-affirming.
I won’t spoil the fun of listening to the story, but I would estimate that there are currently a million performers who will nod with recognition when they hear it.
I hope she writes some more songs herself because she clearly has a talent for it.
‘Talking Old Soldiers’
“I’m far more selective about what songs I’ll sing. If I can’t re-sculpt them and, in many instances actually reinvent them to be part of my story, I can’t make them come to life.”
Let me say upfront that I’m not a fan of Elton John’s work. I like a few of the old hits but that’s because they remind me of certain fondly-remembered times. I have never taken to his quasi-american vocal style and that kind of ‘showmanship’. I do respect the guy though – I respect anyone who can survive in the music industry and compose hit after hit after hit. I just don’t like his stuff much.
The reason I mention Elton John is because I just Googled the song title and was surprised to see that he and Bernie Taupin wrote it.
The reason I Googled it, is because it is the title of Bettye LaVette’s best vocal performance – that I have heard.
She lives the song. She has sat at the bar. She knows the names on the headstones.
It’s not a cover, it’s an invasion.
It resonates with me, too, because people I love are starting to die, and it can be a hard world as a result.
This is the most haunting and moving song about getting older that I have ever heard. If you thought Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’ was moving – check this baby out.
It’s something else.
Thankfully, there are plenty of Bettye LaVatte songs and albums to explore, from Souvenirs (Original previously unreleased Atco LP from 1973, finally released by Art & Soul in 2000), through I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti- 2005), The Scene of the Crime (Anti- 2007) up to Thankful N’ Thoughtful (ANTI- 2012).
Music is one of the rare occasions when finding a woman with a lot of baggage is a good thing.
I have just purchased three of her LPs, because if her music sounds this good as compressed-to-hell mp3 files, then I can’t wait to hear it on vinyl.
My life is a brighter place thanks to discoveries like this and Bettye LaVette is a keeper.
I’m glad the money’s coming in and I hope she keeps recording and performing for many years yet.
Bettye LaVatte is beautiful.
Whatever you do, do not listen to ‘Talking Old Soldiers’ on the tube. Unless you want your tears to be witnessed and ignored by a hundred blank-faced strangers.
This event took place at Madison Square Garden on October 16th, 1992.
I watched it on TV at the time. I remember being excited because Dylan wasn’t on TV much in the 90s. I also remember being bitterly disappointed by the whole thing, especially Dylan’s performance.
The remastered sound and digitally enhanced visuals do nothing to change that original feeling.
It’s nice, in a bittersweet way, to see June and Johnny Cash; Richie Havens is dignified and tender, Neil Young is always a treat, Lou Reed makes a decent effort but, truly, I find it a dreary and uncomfortable watch.
No wonder Dylan sat on his bus outside the venue, watching it on a TV until it was his turn to go on.
The organisers were not certain he would join in or drive off.
He should have driven off.
The only thing I found interesting from the new release was Sinead O’Connor singing I Believe In You, at rehearsal, which is beautiful.
She was booed and heckled on the night and didn’t perform it.
Insipid and ploddy gropes at some of Dylan’s songs by the ploddy and insipid Clapton, Petty, McGuinn and…
…oh, it’s just a blandfest.
A huge 4/4 dead beat graveyard.
A kiss-ass bullshit excuse for the dull to wear suits…
I suppose it will sell because half the line-up are dead.
Dylan seems to be in physical pain and his voice is awful.
He looks like he’d rather be a million miles away, playing a real gig.
It’s a bit like his appearance on MTV’s ‘Unplugged’, where his discomfort is tangible amid the sycophantic worship from Sony executives, applauding his mere presence, like Gucci automatons.
I’ve seen Dylan in concert many times now.
He has always been truly, extraordinarily great and absolutely NOTHING like he is on this dvd/blu-ray/cd/mp3 set.
Save your hard-earned.
Bob Dylan has released some radically brilliant and unique music – buy some of that instead.
‘Writing songs is like capturing birds without killing them.’ – Tom Waits.
My daughter was 5 when she first heard Tom Waits. I played Come On Up To The House while she was in the bath. I hung a speaker on the bathroom wall and would play her random songs while she sloshed about in the water.
Halfway through the song, I heard her calling, “Dad?”
“Is that The Grinch singing?“
“No, it’s a guy called Tom.”
“Oh. Can we go to his house?”
“Well, we could ask him but he doesn’t know us. Why do you want to go?”
“It sounds nice there.”
In my estimation, Tom Waits is up there with Dylan, Cohen and Joni Mitchell on the writer’s podium. In the song-writing Olympics – he gets gold. His songs, his stories, are cinematic in scope, with the zoom of acute detail, populated with flawed and beautiful characters.
I didn’t take to his stuff immediately, though. Like anchovies, Tom Waits’ voice took me a while to appreciate.
When I first heard him, at 18 or 19, I was a rampant and narrow-minded Dylan obsessive and pretty dismissive of anything else. Fortunately, my mate, James, persevered and played me Swordfishtrombones, Small Change, Foreign Affairs, the hilarious Nighthawks At The Diner and Blue Valentine.
It was the latter that finally broke my resistance. It was so brilliantly written.
Thirty five years later, Blue Valentineis in my top ten all-time classic list. It is a stunning collection of songs – a drunken homage to Romeo & Juliet – and the title track has one of my favourite guitar solos. A lesson in economy.
I grew up with a strong Irish side and find old Irish folk songs as natural and comforting as nursery rhymes – and I hear them in Tom Waits’ music. They have great melodies and a very human sentimentality that is deeply appealing to me. Waits’ characters are portrayed and parodied with absolute precision and empathy. He appears to understand the people he sings about.
He may even be some of them.
I have never met Tom Waits, but if I did, I would shake his hand and thank him. I think one of his songs saved my life.
I was having a hard time of life, and I listened to his album, Mule Variations, a lot. I particularly liked ‘What’s He Building In There?’ and ‘House Where Nobody Lives’ but I always skipped Come On Up To The House. I simply couldn’t bear it.
The song is an absolute diamond classic, but at the time, my addiction to alcohol and opiates was at its deepest and darkest and it physically hurt me to hear it. It was like opening the drapes on a vampire. The light would make me flinch, cover my ears and run off to hide in the darkness.
In the summer of 2003, I had lost another job, my first wife had (wisely and bravely) left me and I was being evicted from my house because I spent all the money I earned on booze and drugs.
I also had a great deal of bitterness because I hadn’t ‘made it’ as a musician. I hadn’t become the superstar I thought I deserved to be and it was everyone else’s fault.
On the morning of August 9th 2003, I was drunk by 8.30, which, sadly, was nothing new. I spent the afternoon punching all the framed photographs of my wife and me. My hands were cut from the glass and bleeding profusely. I used my blood to write obscenities about my wife on most of the walls and was passed out by early evening.
When I awoke, I bought more alcohol, locked the doors, closed the blinds and lay on the floor, forcing the drink down, smoking and retching. After two beers, I felt able to stand up and phoned my wife, demanding she come back, incredulous that she could leave me, but she said she “couldn’t take it anymore” and hung up.
I had no idea what she meant. I knew I drank a bit too much but, hell, I knew people who were much worse. I hadn’t beat her up and I was nice to her mother. I assumed she left me for someone with more money.
Enraged, I hurled all her treasured pot plants against the wall, screaming abuse as each one smashed and covered the white couch in soil, stones and broken pottery.
Apparently, I called my wife 57 times and left 8 threatening and abusive messages, though I have no recollection of this.
I woke up in the early hours of the morning to the horrific realisation that I only had one can of beer to get me through the night. And all the shops were closed. I took 4 codeine based painkillers and searched the house for anything that might have alcohol content. All I found was a bottle of cough medicine which I poured into the beer. I drank the mixture as fast as I could, crying and bewildered. I didn’t understand why I was in this situation.
I vomited and fell down, shivering and sweating under a blanket, terrified.
I put my headphones on and pressed play on the CD player. It was Tom Waits singing ‘Come On Up To The House‘.
For the first time, I listened to the words.
Well the moon is broken
And the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see
Is all that you lack
Come on up to the house
All your cryin don’t do no good
Come on up to the house
Come down off the cross
We can use the wood
Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I’m just a passin thru
Come on up to the house
There’s no light in the tunnel
No irons in the fire
Come on up to the house
And your singin lead soprano
In a junkman’s choir
You gotta come on up to the house
Does life seem nasty, brutish and short
Come on up to the house
The seas are stormy
And you can’t find no port
Come on up to the house
By the time Charlie Musselwhite came in with the best harp solo I had ever heard, I felt broken, sober and hopeful. I can’t say exactly what happened, but I think I had a moment of clarity, a vision perhaps, and knew everything was going to be okay. This song that I had refused to listen to, suddenly acted as a beacon of hope:
There’s nothin in the world
That you can do
You gotta come on up to the house
And you been whipped by the forces
That are inside you
Come on up to the house
Well you’re high on top
Of your mountain of woe
Come on up to the house
Well you know you should surrender
But you can’t let go
You gotta come on up to the house
Instinctively, it made sense to me, even though I had no conscious idea what he was on about. Alcohol had, 25 years before, been my God, my best friend and now it was killing me. The song gave me courage.
I lay awake all night and listened to it many times. I hung onto it like a drowning man to a lifeboat.
In the morning, compelled by blind desperation, I called Alcoholics Anonymous. That night, I went to a meeting, sober.
I have not had a drink since that day, almost 11 years ago.
I have subsequently read about Tom Waits’ own trouble with alcohol and his sobriety:
‘Oh, you know, it was tough. I went to AA. I’m in the programme. I’m clean and sober. But, it was a struggle.’
I often wonder if he wrote the song sober, with ‘drunks’ in mind. It doesn’t matter – it had an effect on me, and I am very glad he wrote it and that I heard it when I did.
I don’t listen to it very often. Not because I am afraid of it, but because it is quite a special song for me and I find it very moving.
Now, I really have no idea about God. I have a vague but strong sense of a power much greater than me. When I manage to tap into that power, I think it is God, but that’s as much as I can fathom. Fortunately, I have learned that I don’t need to know, I just need to believe.
I have driven myself crazy, looking for some knowable, definite version of God – in churches, Bibles, ideologies – but have never found it there.
When I play or hear music, though, I quite often feel I am in the presence of something more than the sounds. That doesn’t mean that I think musicians are gods – far from it – but I am certain that God is in music.
It’s hardly a new idea, I know, but it was a vital discovery for me.
In Medieval times, for example, students started in higher education by learning grammar, logic and rhetoric. They proceeded then to mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music.
Music theory itself was considered a Christian study, appealing to other Christian truths as analogies or premises, and in turn was considered one of only seven foundational studies prerequisite to doctoral training in theology, medicine, philosophy, or law.
I can’t read a note of music, but I can play, compose and consider myself minorly musical, and I listen to it every single day.
I perceive no difference between Bach, Bonnie Prince Billy and Blind Willie McTell. To me, God is working through the lot of them.
One listen to Red House by Hendrix or Albert King’s I Believe To My Soul from Blues At Midnight…and I know something more than music is occurring.
Watch Bob Dylan performing What Can I Do For You? from 1980 at Massey Hall, or listen to Andres Segovia or Stevie Ray Vaughan. I have seen Spanish woodcutters raging the shit out of ancient flamenco or Lee Tyler Post create blessed magic in a hot New Jersey night…I could go on for hours.
I think that sometimes a divine spirit is harnessed through the human soul and body and flows through music. It is sacred. I don’t mean a stifled, restricted, denominational or religious sacred – I mean a joyous, sexy and soul-uplifting kind of sacred.
I believe music saved my life.
Tom Waits singing Come On Up To The House is on my 8 year old daughter’s favourite playlist, between One Direction and Miley Cyrus. She loves it.
I pray every day to my vague idea of a musical God and I pray with gratitude. For my life, my sobriety and music.
And for my little girl, who has never had to see me drunk.