We explore Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade
As the 1970s draw to a close, BOB DYLAN is embarking on the weirdest and most controversial phase of his storied career. He has embraced Christianity with apocalyptic fervour. His fans, though, are less faithful: “Jesus loves your old songs, too,” notes one infidel. In the first part of a major new survey, Uncut and many of his old collaborators reconsider Dylan’s 1980s, and discover a neglected treasure trove of music. “People felt that Bob disappeared into a kind of black hole. Whereas Bob would say, ‘No: that’s a hole full of light…’”
October 14, 1987. A couple of nights later, a hurricane roars through the south of England, but it’s nothing compared to the inclemency that attaches itself to Bob Dylan’s appearance this evening at London’s Wembley Arena. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers are already lined up onstage, waiting for him, when Bob blows out of the wings like something scary out of Revelation, that book of wrath and apocalypse, a wicked messenger, fire in his eyes and blood coming to the boil. He’s wearing a bandana around his head, Apache-style, a grubby silk shirt tied in a knot at his waist, weather-beaten leather trousers and jacket, biker boots and fingerless motorcycle gloves.
His arachnid scurry brings him quickly to a microphone, already singing the opening lines of “Like A Rolling Stone”. Petty and The Heartbreakers, perhaps not expecting this as the show’s opening number, jump to attention like dozing sentries startled by gunfire. There’s an all-hands-on-deck bustle about them as they manfully respond to what looks like being caught on the hop – and not for the first time, you imagine, on a two-year tour of duty with Dylan that most nights have found them on a knife edge, no predicting where from moment to moment Bob’s legendary whim will take them.
That night at Wembley Arena in October 1987, one of the last dates of the aptly named Temples In Flames tour, storm clouds already massing somewhere and a great wind beginning to stir, Dylan’s 15-song setlist is a generous career-span that includes alongside more recent songs from largely unpopular albums crowd favourites “Maggie’s Farm”, “Forever Young”, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, “I Want You”, “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Chimes Of Freedom”. These aren’t, however, songs that Dylan revisits happily and few of them bear an exact resemblance to what they sounded like when the audience first heard them.
The sound that comes to me now when I think of the show is a garage band howl, abrasive, unruly and loud. It’s at times cacophonous and ragged enough to make large sections of the audience feel witness to a kind of desecration, Dylan vandalising his own past in what seems as the show goes on increasingly like a conscious attempt to reconnect with songs that by his own later admission had lost all meaning for him by first dismantling them. By the time the set ends with a delirious version of “Shot Of Love” that at one point begins to resemble the calamitous rumble of “Gimme Shelter”, and the nightmarish two-chord shriek of “In The Garden”, the audience is for the most part palpably aghast.
There’s a rippling disgruntlement in the seats around me where many venerable Dylan fans are gathered in muttering disapproval of what’s happening, which is as dreadful to them as it is a revelation to me. John Peel about now taps me aggressively on the shoulder and asks if I agree that what we are sitting through is a grim travesty, a reduction of a formerly great artist to abject mediocrity and worse. He’s shocked, I’d say even angry, when I contrarily offer a different opinion. He subsequently writes a scathing newspaper review describing Dylan as an irrelevant has-been, an embarrassment to his loyal and now long-suffering fans.
This is increasingly the prevailing view of Dylan. For many at this point in the ’80s, Dylan is coming to the end of a dismal decade during which he has found God, embraced messianic evangelism and as a born-again Christian fundamentalist cast himself as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, the stage a pulpit from which he delivers hell-fire sermons about the coming end of the world that have made him seem like a demented crackpot. His faith, it’s commonly held, has ruined his music, reduced its former poetry to harsh dogma to a point where it’s mostly rejected, at best held up to ridicule. His albums have stopped selling, their rapidly declining sales alarming his label who are as distraught as his audience by the ‘new direction’ he’s stubbornly been determined to follow whatever the cost to a reputation that by now has also been tarnished by the further embarrassments of the dire Hearts Of Fire movie and an appearance at Live Aid in July 1985 whose apparently crass incompetence leaves even staunch admirers cringing in disbelief. As the decade ends, in other words, Dylan is almost universally reviled as hapless, bereft of anything you could call inspiration, creatively bankrupt, in terminal artistic decline, a deluded clown, a religious fanatic unmoored from reality, or what usually passes for it, pathetic and forlorn.
This at least is one way of looking at Dylan in the ’80s. What follows is another.
Christ comes to Dylan in a hotel room in Tucson, Arizona, in November 1978. Bob senses “a presence in the room that could only be Jesus”, feels the hand of Christ upon him, his body, in his later account, trembling at the holy touch. “The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up,” he subsequently attests. He is ready to be born again, accept Christ as his messiah, in contradiction of the Jewish faith in which he has grown up – and even now will not fully relinquish, as he tries to reconcile Judaism’s rejection of Christ as the son of God with the evangelical Christianity he now fully embraces, in which Christ will deliver salvation to the true believer even as the agnostic are eternally damned.
In the years that follow, there’s much speculation about the apparent suddenness of Dylan’s conversion, as if religion has not been central previously to so much of what he’s done. You could point to John Wesley Harding, that great album of parable and myth, as perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the Bible’s influence on Dylan’s writing, but by any reasonable assessment it’s no more a singular example than his conversion is the result of unpredictable whim.
In one emerging narrative, Dylan at this time is made vulnerable to conversion by the exhausting mental and physical toll of recent events – a costly and bitter divorce, the nine-month slog of the so-called Alimony Tour during which he would play 114 shows in 10 countries on four different continents. Drugs, a lot of them, and much hard drinking would also play their part in this version of things and make him easily susceptible to the word of the Lord. It should not be forgotten, however, that his band at the time includes several musicians who had already, as they say, ‘received Christ’ – Steven Soles and David Mansfield, who along with fellow Rolling Thunder revue veterans T Bone Burnett and Roger McGuinn have lately converted to Christianity.
Whatever, Dylan soon commits himself to 14 weeks of intense Bible studies with the Vineyard Fellowship, an evangelical group based in Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley, from which he emerges gripped by the idea of a returning messiah and an unshakable faith in the inevitability of a coming apocalypse, as predicted in the Book Of Revelation, that will only be survived by the truly righteous. For good measure, he is also now wholly convinced that man is born in sin and Satan is everywhere a malign presence. He also has a bunch of songs that give voice to his new beliefs that he now wants to record, hiring Jerry Wexler as producer and a band including Mark Knopfler on guitar that convenes in April 1978 at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama to record Slow Train Coming, a full-blown Christian rock album, the first of three records that test to the point of estrangement his relationship with his audience.
When it comes out in November 1979, the album’s religious ‘message’, the strident imperatives of “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Slow Train”, “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” and “When You Gonna Wake Up”, is not an immediate concern. Most people are simply relieved that they have a Dylan album that unlike his last, Street-Legal, they can listen to without wincing at its plodding production and largely leaden playing. They make Slow Train Coming an enormous commercial success that sells more in its first nine months of release than Blood On The Tracks does in nearly a decade. “Gotta Serve Somebody” even wins him a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal of the year. Dylan is not yet cast as a crass Bible-thumper, despite the dark murmurings of some critics disturbed by what seems to them a terrible allegiance with the emerging Christian Right, the so-called Moral Majority mobilised by Ronald Reagan, Republican evangelists with sorry views on abortion, gay and women’s rights, liberal inclinations of most kinds, to which Dylan now seems also to appallingly adhere.
They listen to Slow Train Coming and hear only the harsh word of Dylan’s unforgiving sermonising. The album for them was pitiless, cold and austere. Nick Cave, whose favourite album it apparently is, would describe Slow Train Coming as “full of mean-spirited spirituality. It’s a genuinely nasty record.” How could anyone who’d been besotted with the libertarian hipster that Dylan had been relate to the grim prophet of doom now before them? The goodwill that has elsewhere been extended to Dylan and Slow Train Coming on its release doesn’t go much further. It in fact almost entirely evaporates when Dylan announces that on his upcoming tour he won’t be playing any of his old songs, the pre-conversion favourites his audience will be disappointed not to hear, some of them now turning against Dylan.
In November 1979, the Slow Train Coming tour opens with 14 shows at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco with a terrific band featuring Jim Keltner on drums, Muscle Shoals veteran Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Tim Drummond, who’s served time with both James Brown and Neil Young, on bass and lead guitarist Fred Tackett, who’s been touring with Lowell George until Lowell’s sudden death in June. There’s a host of backing singers, too, most of them at one time or another romantically involved with Dylan. The shows in many respects are fantastic, as tapes of the dates serially attest. But there are howls of critical disapproval and elements of the audience are made restless and uncomfortable by Bob’s relentless Bible-bashing, song after self-righteous song, and what come to be known as Dylan’s ‘Jesus raps’, fevered sermons about persecution, betrayal and, up ahead, the end of the world.
“Bob was on a mission and we were all doing everything we could to promote it,” recalls Fred Tackett. “And there was a combination of different responses. It was like a circus, sometimes. We had Madalyn O’Hair, the famous American atheist, picketing in the streets outside some of the places we played back East. And at the same time, there was a guy dressed up like Jesus carrying a cross up the street. So, out in the street, outside the shows, there was a complete circus going on. The best thing I saw was when we were playing at the Warfield in San Francisco: there was a guy sitting in the front row, and he’d made this big sign: JESUS LOVES YOUR OLD SONGS TOO. I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Yeah, well, good point.’”
Dylan’s sets across the 14-night stand at the Warfield mainly put a spotlight on Slow Train Coming,
but he also debuts new songs, including “Saved”, “Saving Grace”, “Covenant Woman”, “In The Garden”, “What Can I Do For You” and “Hanging On To A Solid Rock Made Before The Foundation Of The World”. There are enough of them in fact for a whole new album, which he starts recording in Muscle Shoals on February 11, 1980, with Jerry Wexler again producing with Barry Beckett.
Pathologically opposed to modern recording techniques, unswervingly attached to the idea that his songs are best-served by spontaneity, suffer when they are over-rehearsed and inevitably ruined by overdubs, multiple takes and constant revision, Dylan sets aside a mere four days during a break from touring to make the record.
“Saved was done real old-style,” says Fred Tackett. “Jerry Wexler was talking to us about it and he said it was just like when he worked with the Ray Charles band. We were on the road, doing the tour, and we basically just pulled the bus into Muscle Shoals, Alabama, went into the studio for four days, then got back on the bus and drove away. And, you know, Bob’s basically saying as we leave, ‘Send me a copy when it’s done.’ He didn’t participate in the mix: we recorded the songs, basically live, and then got back on the bus to get to the next show. And, yeah, Jerry Wexler pointed out, that’s the way Ray Charles and all those other people would do it, too. There wasn’t like some big, months-long preparation, and then months spent in the studio. It was, ‘Well, today, we’re dropping by the studio, and we’re going to record.’ That’s the way that one worked. It was a real lot of fun, it was great. It felt kind of historic.”
Dylan’s first album of the decade, Saved is released in May, 1980. Critics and fans agree it’s entirely superfluous. They’ve indulged Dylan one religious album, much as they had allowed the country eccentricities of Nashville Skyline. They are not now inclined, however, to accommodate more of the same from an artist not previously known to repeat himself. Reviews are scathing, sales poor. This is a nadir for Dylan many high-handedly decide on everyone’s behalf – even the few who find it demonstrably a more exciting album than either Slow Train Coming or the lumpy Street-Legal. Such is the contempt in which Saved continues to be held that even now such an admission is sure to bring down the wrath of know-it-all Dylan scholars upon the lonely contrarian.
The opening version of the venerable “Satisfied Mind” is genuinely weird, Dylan and his four backing singers murmuring and wailing, a mingling of testifying voices over snatches of scratchy guitar, speculative bar-room piano and military snare drum rolls. It sounds like something made up on the spot and lasts barely two minutes. “Saved” itself is as sensationally rowdy as “Covenant Woman” is dreamily lovely. “Solid Rock”, meanwhile, blasts off like something hard-riffing by the Allman Brothers while “What Can I Do For You” has a warmth and humility entirely absent from Slow Train Coming, although the subservience to which Dylan attests is disturbing for a lot of people who have invested so much in Dylan’s supremacy and are uncomfortable with this subordinate version. “Pressing On”, in John Doe’s version one of the highlights of the I’m Not There soundtrack, is wonderfully stirring and is even to the unbeliever genuinely uplifting. “In The Garden”, meanwhile, vividly dramatises the arrest of Christ in Gethsemane, from which he was taken for trial and crucifixion, more measured in its telling here than the firestorm it would be in concert.
The album may, however, be best remembered by many – typically, with an unpleasant shiver – for its sleeve, a lurid illustration by Tony Wright based on a dream Dylan had of the bloodied finger of Christ pointing down to the upraised hands of the suffering world. It looked like something you might see tattooed on the back of a serial killer, Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Scorsese’s fevered remake of Cape Fear coming quickly to mind.
There’s slightly better news for Dylan fans who have not been thrilled by the turn of events that has delivered Dylan to God when he goes back on tour and surprises them by relenting on his earlier dedication to playing only post-conversion songs and reassuringly including in his sets a raft of old classics. Was this a tactical retreat on Dylan’s part, an attempt to appease disgruntled followers, or early evidence that he too was beginning to find the religious songs confining?
“There was nothing said about it,” Fred Tackett recalls. “We just started rehearsing them again at this place he owned in Santa Monica. One day we started playing ‘Girl From The North Country’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and stuff like that. It was just that we’d be doing that instead of ‘Saved’ or something. But we were still doing those tunes as well, and we were also doing songs from what would be the next record, Shot Of Love, which had some more secular songs on it. But I’ll tell you, the tour we did then, we played two or three weeks at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco – we did that twice at the Warfield, first in ’79 and then again at the end of 1980 – and the first night of the second time was the first time we came out and we did ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. I think we’d done a couple of the religious-style songs first, but when we started to play the intro to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and the crowd started to realise what was going down, people were going, ‘Oh, my God…’ You could hear the joy from people, just hearing this song – it honestly sent a chill down my spine. That was really, definitely, a big moment in my musical life, being on that stage when he started doing that again. People were just hollering out, you know.”
April, 1981. Chuck Plotkin who’s recently mixed The River for Bruce Springsteen after earlier working on Darkness On The Edge Of Town gets a telephone message at Clover, the funky little recording studio he owns in Hollywood. It’s someone who says he’s Bob Dylan, which makes Chuck think it’s a hoax. He doesn’t bother to call back. Three further calls later, though, a startled Plotkin is on the phone to Bob.
“He said, ‘I’m getting ready to start a record. Are you familiar with my work?’” Plotkin remembers. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Well, jeez, can you come by and take a listen to what I’m up to here?’ I said, ‘Sure, when?’ He said, ‘How about now?’ He gave me an address, and I drove to this place, where he had some of his band assembled. He was sort of interviewing possible producers. There was a list of people, people were coming by, and they’d hear a bit of a rehearsal, have a bit of conversation, and somehow over a period of time, Bob figured out what’d work best for him.”
As Plotkin now discovers, Dylan’s been working since the previous September at studios all over LA on the follow-up to Saved. He’s amassed a formidable batch of new songs that hint at a return to his song-writing of poetic evocation, ambiguity, doubt, a way of saying things in a language that is exact but not explicit, among them “Caribbean Wind”, the apocalyptic “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Every Grain Of Sand”. Most recently he’s been in the studio with producer Jimmy Iovine, who walks out of one particularly chaotic session and doesn’t come back. On the day Plotkin arrives at Dylan’s Rundown Studio and rehearsal space in Santa Monica, Dylan’s just recorded a version of “Shot Of Love” produced by Little Richard’s legendary producer Bumps Blackwell that will become the title track of the album he’s struggling to finish. Plotkin’s first instinct is to get Dylan into his Clover studio as soon as possible, to get these tracks down before Dylan, notoriously restless, loses interest in the songs.
“I had picked up that he was doing a lot of writing, and I was afraid he’d burn out by the material that I’d been hearing. This guy is a powerhouse as a writer, and when he’s in writing mode, he can write and write and write. I was thinking, there’s just too much good stuff here, and if we don’t get in before his focus shifts, this material that I’m hearing now might be lost. I was afraid if we delayed much longer, we were going to lose the songs – which sounded amazing to me. I could hear something in this material, a tone of his pre-Christian mode, if you know what I mean, that was mixed in with the Christian vision in a way that was enormously appealing. The religious stuff was still there, which was great, it was Bob’s thing, but there was this hint of the earlier Bob. So I said, ‘Look. Let’s just go in, and not worry about what it is, let’s just record while it’s fresh.’ And he said, ‘Great,’ and that’s what we did.”
The album Dylan’s laboured on for nearly a year is now finished in five sessions at Clover between April 27 and May 1. Plotkin delivers a sequenced mix of the record to Dylan on May 12 that Dylan rejects, the next day going back into the studio to re-do six of the tracks he’s recorded. Plotkin spends another month re-mixing the album, Dylan rarely happy with what he hears.
“If Shot Of Love sounds at all raggedy-assed,” says Plotkin, “it’s because the mixes that got released are all just the monitor mixes that we’d get at the end of each night. We’d do a tune, get a track we liked, and we’d just run off a rough monitor mix. And those are the mixes you hear. Now, I tried to mix the record, to squeeze some little level of aural finesse in there. You know: we recorded this stuff, let’s mix it properly. I’m trying to represent the United Record Producers of the World here: if you had the chance to record Bob Dylan, wouldn’t you want to try and get everything just right, and try to bring all the tools at your disposal to the job? But every time we did a finished mix and took it to Bob, he went: ‘Naw, no. The other mix. The ones I’ve been listening to – that’s the record.’ The rough mixes had some weird quality to them. He had the sense to realise it.”
Shot Of Love is released on August 10, 1981, to even worse reviews than Saved. The sacred rapture of “Every Grain Of Sand”, which by now has undergone at least four major re-writes, is widely recognised as a major addition to the Dylan canon, but scant attention is paid to the riotous title track, the endearing Tex-Mex shuffle of “Heart Of Mine”, the vintage sarcasm of “Property Of Jesus” (the “Positively Fourth Street” of the ‘religious era’, in one critic’s sharp opinion), the hammering blues of “Trouble”, the seething “Dead Man, Dead Man” or the dappled warmth of “In The Summertime”, a nostalgic reverie that would not have been out of place on Planet Waves. As Plotkin sees it, Shot Of Love is given a rough ride as part of a general backlash against the whole Born Again period.
“Saved was his most reviled record – a lot of his regular fans felt almost betrayed that he was venturing into some zone that had already been defined by other people, if you know what I mean. Where did Bob go? They felt that Bob disappeared into a kind of black hole. Whereas, Bob would say, ‘No: that’s a hole full of light.’ Anyway, his audience was pissed at him, there’s no question about it, and it did affect the reception of Shot Of Love. But also, the record has this strange, wild, raggedy-ass quality to it that some people couldn’t hear through. But, yeah, I feel like it has been a neglected record.”
In Plotkin’s further opinion, the LP also suffers when Dylan removes three key tracks from it. The raging “Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” is dropped from the vinyl version but reinstated for the CD edition. However, there’s no sign of either the vast romantic turmoil of “Caribbean Wind” or the noble, piano and organ-led epic, “Angelina”, until they are belatedly included on Biograph and The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, respectively.
“Sometimes you can fight,” admits Plotkin. “But you have to pick your fights. Part of the problem is, you know that your job depends on having the artist feel completely supported in what he’s doing. But, at the same time, he’s hired you to, from time to time, say, ‘No, I think this could be better,’ or, ‘No, I think we should use this.’ I’ve worked with Springsteen for 25 years, and there were times when I used to say to myself, ‘Well, another brave soldier bites the dust.’ It just happens. Songs go. But part of your job, while representing the artist, is also to represent the audience, and be able to make the case for a song. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. If you’re too pushy about it, the trust breaks down. Since I got to work with Bruce over and over again, we’ve had some amazing battles over songs, I can tell you.”
Someone’s asked you to make a list of people who might make a good job of producing Bob Dylan’s new album, so who do you pick? Frank Zappa? David Bowie? Elvis Costello? Dylan gives some thought to each of them, before hiring Mark Knopler to produce Infidels. Since playing on Slow Train Coming, Knopfler has enjoyed huge success with smooth radio-friendly Dire Straits and mistakenly thinks their eerily clean and vacuum-sealed sound will work for Dylan. When album sessions commence at New York’s Power Plant he brings with him Straits keyboardist Alan Clark and the band’s producer, Neil Dorfman. Bob’s already there with legendary Jamaican rhythm section Sly & Robbie and former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. There is tension from the start between Knopfler and Dylan.
“I had done Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold with Mark, which was a very worked-on and worked-over record,” Dorfman tells Uncut. “That was Mark’s process at the time, really taking a lot of time, a lot of overdubbing and attention to detail and sound. And, you know – that is not Bob Dylan, at all. So, I think, once we got into it, Bob was a little shocked at the way Mark and I worked. My impression is that Bob always has, and always will want a very immediate approach. He gets very easily bored. So, in that respect, I think Infidels was not the most comfortable situation for either Bob or Mark.
“I learned very quickly that this wasn’t going to be a normal session. I don’t want to use the wrong word, here, but Bob was also a little bit of an agent provocateur, or he even had a little saboteur in him. If things were going maybe too well, in somebody else’s definition, he would consciously make an effort to make that stop. Whether it was walking away from the piano and vocal mic while he’s doing a take, or, I remember him taking the tinfoil from a sandwich, and standing opening and closing it like an accordion into a vocal mic during a take. And, of course, everybody stops playing, thinking there was something wrong technically, but it was just his way of saying, ‘I’m bored with this, I don’t want to do this particular song anymore.’ Then he announced that he wanted to start a Christmas record that night. And, yeah, we all laughed, thinking, he’s just messing with us. But, of course, years later, he subsequently came out with a Christmas record. It was kind of intimidating, challenging, but also hilarious in its own crazy way.
“I don’t know how much I should talk out of school about this particular situation. But I know that it really, really bothered Mark, that song choices were dictated a little bit, and were turning out to be different from the song choices he thought we were going in to do. I think it just really frustrated him. I imagine that he felt a similar responsibility to the one that I felt: this is Bob Dylan; we’re going to make an amazing record, we have an incredible band, an incredible bunch of songs, and it’s up to us, we really, really have to make this happen. And I could feel the air just sort of going out of Mark a little bit, when he realised that the traditional role of the producer was not going to be in play on this record. He was going to be looked to as an advisor, or maybe a mirror in some ways. But as far as driving the bus – that was not going to happen. Bob was going to drive this bus, no matter what. I’m sure it was very frustrating to Mark.”
When it’s released on October 27, 1983, Infidels is welcomed as a return by Dylan to secular music, although suggestions he has abandoned religion, discarding Christ as he might a suddenly out of favour bass player or backing singer, are wholly misguided. After Shot Of Love, Dylan simply steps down from the pulpit. But his obsession with an approaching Armageddon remains fiercely central to his writing, up to and including 2012’s Tempest and its many songs of wrath and retribution.
Some reviewers are uncomfortable with the right-wing Zionist rhetoric of “Neighbourhood Bully” and strident patriotism of “Union Sundown”. But there’s enough here that reminds them of the Dylan they have been desperate to hear again and Infidels is generally well-received. A highlight for everyone who hears it, the six-minute opener, “Jokerman”, is immediately hailed as one of Dylan’s greatest songs, although its meaning even by Bob’s most abstract standards is at best vague. No matter. It at least sounds like vintage Dylan – densely allusive, bristling with esoteric reference, coded, the song playing out in the somewhat detached atmosphere of a dream someone else is having, perhaps due to its soporific momentum, Sly and Robbie’s ticking groove and the glossy guitars against which Dylan’s washed-out voice is dreamily pitched.
On the whole, Infidels is better regarded than anything Dylan’s done since Desire. Mark Knopfler may be forgiven for freaking out when he hears it, however, because in its released version it’s not the album he left Dylan with when he re-joined Dire Straits for a tour of Germany in June, at which point he now discovers Dylan has ‘re-thought’ the album, as he later puts it. In June, Bob is back at the Record Plant, re-recording some tracks and remixing what’s left. As far as Knopfler’s concerned this is bad enough to make Infidels sound more like an unpolished demo than the gleaming, streamlined thing he had envisaged. What appals him even more are Dylan’s baffling revisions to the nine-song tracklisting they had earlier agreed. Dylan deletes two songs – a venomous rocker called “Foot Of Pride”, later magnificently covered by Lou Reed, that Dylan under Knopfler’s stern instruction has laboured through 47 increasingly agonised takes.
Also missing from the released album is one of Dylan’s very greatest songs, “Blind Willie McTell”, which in two versions, only one of which has been officially released (on The Bootleg Sessions Volumes 1-3), evokes a terrible history of slavery in America and the suffering that found a hallowed voice in the blues that Dylan so cherishes. It’s a song in other words about how pain and anguish can be turned into art, and art in that transaction becomes redemptive, a hymn of survival, transcendence and eventual triumph over the world’s every ill whose omission from the album, in either version, is a cause of great woe to Knopfler. “Mark was committed to the recording of Infidels for, I think, three weeks,” Dorfman recalls. “And we thought that was enough to get everything done, except the actual mixing. So Mark then had to go off with Dire Straits to tour. I left with Mark. But I had the sense the record was at least recorded, if not quite finished. But there was a certain amount of rethinking by Bob – but Bob made that clear, that he was starting to rethink, in the last week of recording. We’d done a bunch of overdubs, which Bob could not have been less interested in. He hates overdubbing, man. I think he finds the whole thing phony: ‘Why are you overdubbing?’ I remember, we had a percussion player come in, and I think it was an actual torture for Bob, to have to sit there and listen to shakers and tambourines being put on stuff. His view was that could have been done live, if he’d wanted them.
So, I think he wanted to go in and either erase these overdubs, or listen to them and decide that… no, he really did not like them. So, basically, he did a bunch of re-examining once Mark left. There was nothing anybody could do, and, really, nothing anybody should have done about it – after all, it’s Bob’s record.”
Here’s another producer who gets an unexpected call from Dylan about working on his next album, and of all people it’s New York hip-hop and dance producer, Arthur Baker, best known for his work with Afrika Bambaataa, Rocker’s Revenge and New Order and recent remixes of tracks from Springsteen’s Born In The USA. He meets Dylan in a hotel on Central Park. “I was rung in, and went up,” he recalls. “And, basically, when I went into the room, I walked in the door, and there was no-one there. So I was walking around the suite going, ‘Hello? Hello?’ There were food carts, loads of them, like no-one had cleaned the room for a few days, and a whole bunch of boom-boxes. Then, he appeared and introduced himself to me, and we sat down and started listening to tunes, tapes. He played me a ton of tunes, he just kept playing more and more – and, you know, it’s Bob Dylan sitting there playing you a lot of tunes, and you trying to come up with some good ideas for each of them. A few days later I got a call that he wanted me to work on the record.”
Dylan’s been working on the album Baker will subsequently mix since the end of a grim six-week stadium tour of Europe in the summer of 1984, which includes a show at Wembley Stadium where Eric Clapton and Van Morrison turn up in support and some of the performances later make their way on to the largely drab Real Live LP. Dylan’s since sacked his touring band and because he’s now decided to produce himself, he doesn’t block book recording time, flitting promiscuously from studio to studio in a process that will be even more laborious than the long months it took to assemble Shot Of Love.
There’s an initial session on July 24, at Intergalactic in New York with Al Green’s band, quickly abandoned. A couple of days later, he’s at Delta Sound Studios with Ronnie Wood and drummer Anton Fig and records a funky thing called “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” and “Clean Cut Kid”, a song about a Vietnam veteran that Dylan has originally demoed for Infidels. By November, Dylan’s back in LA, where nothing comes of initial sessions at Ocean Way. Moving to Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, however, Dylan cuts a version of a new song he’s co-written with playwright and actor Sam Shepard, an 11-minute epic called “New Danville Girl” that astonishes everyone who hears it, although Dylan will discard it from the finished album. With Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, he also successfully captures the ominous “Something’s Burning, Baby”, set to a slow marching beat and embellished with menacing synthesiser.
He’s still in LA for the all-star recording of “We Are The World”, America’s response to Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. On February 23, he’s at the Power Plant in New York where with Miami Steve Van Zandt and Roy Bittan from the E Street Band he records a sensational version of another powerful new song, the apocalyptic “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky”. Arthur Baker is in attendance. “It was the very first session I was at,” he recalls. “We listened back to the version they’d cut, and it sounded great – I think Sly & Robbie were playing on it, also. But, Bob said, ‘Ah, you know. It sounds like Springsteen.’ And I said, ‘Well, hey, yeah – you get Van Zandt and Roy Bittan to play on it: it’s gonna sound like Springsteen.’ So he decided to cut another version of it, which is the one that ended up on the record.”
Sessions for what’s eventually titled Empire Burlesque and released on June 10 wraps with the recording of the album’s highlight, a disturbing, forlorn song, written overnight, called “Dark Eyes”, which features only Dylan’s voice and guitar, its simplicity a relief after the musical busy-ness elsewhere on the album on tracks like the irresistibly sizzling “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?)”, a re-write of the more obviously personal “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart”. For an album subsequently so denigrated the original reviews of Empire Burlesque are mostly positive although sales are again poor and there is a general regret that Baker has layered the record with electronics, processed drums and lashings of synthesisers. Did Dylan tell him what he wanted the album to sound like?
“No,” Baker says. “In mixing, he just wanted it to be done quick! When we were in the studio mixing at Right Track, we were working on a song, and Bob came in, and he was sitting there, and sort of just expecting it to be done. And I said, ‘Well, it’ll take a while… why don’t you go out, like go to the movies or something?’ So, he went out, he went to the movies, and he came back like, you know, three hours later, and we were still working on the same track. And he’d be saying to us how Blonde On Blonde had been mixed in like two days. And I said, ‘Well, yeah, but we’re working on 48 tracks on some of these now, and that would have been four-track, so you gotta account for that…’ But, you know, I would say maybe Bob wasn’t so patient with that whole side of the process… the time it took bothered him.”
The November 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on The Specials, plus Bon Iver, Bob Weir, Shirley Collins, Conor Oberst, Peter Hook, Bad Company, Leonard Cohen, Muscle Shoals, Will Oldham, Oasis, Lou Reed, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Frank Ocean, Michael Kiwanuka and more plus 140 reviews and our free 15-track CD
Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.