Uncut talks to the musicians, producers and crew who have worked with Dylan from 1989 to 2006, and catches an unprecedented glimpse of the real Bob…
“No, Bob, no.”
“See? I don’t do that.”
In this week’s very special archive feature (from November 2008, Take 138), Uncut talks to the musicians, producers and crew who have worked with him from 1989 to 2006, where an unprecedented glimpse of the real Dylan emerges – a genius who works at night, makes producers smash guitars in frustration, obsesses over Al Jolson, and never, ever repeats himself.
Then, Allan Jones reviews the lost songs and radical revisions of 2008’s Tell Tale Signs, the astonishing 3CD collection of unreleased Dylan material taken from the past 20 years – a vital part of the Dylan canon…
By the end of the ’80s, as he writes in Chronicles, Dylan wasn’t even sure whether he even wanted to make another record. In that frame of mind, he hooked up with producer Daniel Lanois in New Orleans for what became his most focused work in 10 years…
Malcolm Burn, engineer: “In the weeks before recording, I kept asking Dan [Lanois], ‘Have you heard from Bob? Have you heard any songs?’ Then, a week before we were due to start, we received a cassette from Bob. I thought, ‘Great, we’re going hear some songs.’ There was this little note: ‘This’ll give you a good idea.’ Dan and Mark Howard and I sat down to listen – and this Al Jolson music started. We were like, ‘What the fuck?’ So, we fast-forwarded. It was a whole tape of Al Jolson. We looked back at Bob’s note: ‘Listen to this. You can learn a lot.’ When Bob arrived, though, I’d sort of forgotten this. Then, one evening, something came up about favourite singers, who were influences, especially when it comes to phrasing. Bob said several times that phrasing was everything. And he said, ‘My two favourite singers are Frank Sinatra and Al Jolson.’ And I thought, wow, now I get it. I asked who his favourite songwriters were. ‘Gordon Lightfoot and Kris Kristofferson. Those are the guys.’”
Mark Howard, engineer: “When we started, because Dylan and Lanois didn’t have a working relationship, there was about two weeks of finding the ground. It was slightly uncomfortable. Dylan was being a bit snotty, and Dan has this ability to be over-excited. That’s how Dan likes to work at times: he hypes people on their performances, and that makes them excited, too. Well, that didn’t work with Dylan. Bob was just strumming, sloppily playing, and Dan was politely putting up with it. Dan would try to get things out him. He’d say, ‘We did this mix this afternoon…’ Dylan would cut in, ‘I don’t even wanna hear it. I only wanna hear stuff done at night.’ He had this night rule.”
Daniel Lanois, producer: “Bob had a rule, we only recorded at night. I think he’s right about that: the body is ready to accommodate a certain tempo at nighttime. I think it’s something to do with the pushing and pulling of the moon. At nighttime we’re ready to be more mysterious and dark. Oh Mercy’s about that.”
Howard: “Those first weeks, everything we did, he wouldn’t accept it. But there came this one point when Dan finally had a freakout. He just wanted Dylan to smarten up. It became… Not a yelling match, but uncomfortable. Malcolm and me, we left and let them sort it out. From then on, Dylan was just really pleasant to work with.”
Lanois: “I operate with Bob the same way I always operate. I’m totally committed and I try and look out for the best expression, the best performance. I’m completely honest and clear about what I think is the best. And if anything gets in the way of that, then they’re gonna have to deal with The Lanois.”
Burn: “Bob would show up every night about nine, and we’d work into the early hours. He’d come in with a rolled-up bundle of paper, lyrics he was working on. He’d go over to where we had the coffee machine, start scribbling, fixing up lines, and then he’d say, ‘Okay, let’s go.’”
Mason Ruffner, guitarist: “Bob was doodling a lot with the lyrics. He used a pencil. He didn’t use no ink-pen. Always making changes and additions and subtractions. An elephant could’ve walked in and he wouldn’t have seen it. His concentration is unbelievable.”
Howard: “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 even read it. Words going upside-down, sideways, all over this page. I never saw him eat. He drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, and he’d sit chipping away at the words, pulling in words from other songs.”
Burn: “For him, the song wasn’t ready to be a song until the lyrics were in place. It wasn’t necessarily about the melody or the chords. The only thing that made any difference to Bob was whether what he was saying was in place. Quite often, he’d rewrite even one line. Even by the time we were mixing, he’d suddenly say, ‘Y’know, I’ve just rewritten that line, can I re-sing it?’ One night, we were going to do “Most Of The Time”, and he sat down with his guitar, and he said, ‘We could do it like this…’, and I recorded him on acoustic guitar and harmonica, the archetypal Bob Dylan thing. He actually referred to himself in the third person: ‘That would be a typical Bob Dylan way of doin’ it.’ Then he did it another way, like a blues, really slow. The treatment of the song was secondary. If the lyrics were in place, then it was sort of, ‘Well, what’s appropriate? What kind of song do we need to stick in here? If it needs to be up-tempo, I’ll do it up-tempo.’”
Howard: “I’m not sure if he had an actual sound in his head to begin with. He’d recorded this whole record before. With Ron Wood. There’s a whole version of Oh Mercy with Ron Wood.”
Ruffner: “It was different. We were recording in an old house, just sitting around the living room. Bob had his little stand with his lyrics, and we’d cut off into something. Seems we were cutting these songs all kinds of ways. Rock groove, slow, funk or folk groove, trying different grooves and tempos. Bob would put his head down and start playing, and we’d tag along. It was all a big experiment, try the song 20 different ways. We were doodling with half the songs that wound up on his next record, Under The Red Sky.”
Burn: “One song that didn’t end up on Oh Mercy that Dan and I pushed for was ‘Series Of Dreams’. I remember standing in the courtyard, Bob saying, ‘Y’know what: I only put 10 songs on my records.’ I said, ‘But, Bob, that song is so great.’ He goes, ‘Nah, nah. I’m only puttin’ 10 songs on there.’”
Howard: “We were doing the record in this Victorian mansion in the garden district of New Orleans. I had a bunch of Harleys in the courtyard, and Dylan asked, ‘Think ya could get me one of those?’ I got him this 1966 first year Shovelhead Harley Davidson. Dylan would go out for a ride every day. But one day, I heard him stall just around the corner. So I ran around the corner to see, and he’s sitting there, on the bike, staring straight ahead. And there are already three people gathered around the front of the motorcycle, saying, ‘Bob, can we have your autograph?’ And he just sat there like they weren’t even there. I ran up and said, ‘Hey, c’mon guys, leave the guy alone.’ And he just continued to sit there and stare straight ahead. So we got the bike fired up and – bang – he took off. He was living in California in those days and there was no helmet law in California, but there we were in New Orleans. He’d come back from rides and he’d say, ‘The police are really friendly around here, they’re all waving at me.’ I’m like, ‘They’re waving at you because you don’t have a helmet on, and they’re telling you to stop!’ I think the bike helped him. He’d go for a ride, think about what was going on, and I think he could see where Dan was trying to go.”
Lanois: “The concept was fully emphasising the centre of the picture: the song, Bob’s voice, and Bob’s guitar or piano playing. Then we built the frame around the centre, with what we had available to us in the neighbourhood musically.”
Burn: “Bob never really spoke to the other musicians. He’d speak to people he knew, but he wasn’t interested in making buddies. And he always wore this hoodie, y’know. The first few days, we had the Neville Brothers’ rhythm section there, and the drummer, Willie Green, came up to me after the second night. I was sitting at the mixing board, and Bob was like, four feet away. Willie says, ‘Man, I’ve been here two or three days. When the fuck’s Bob Dylan showing up?’ I said, ‘Willie, he’s sitting right next to you.’ ‘Oh. Is that Bob Dylan right there?’ And then, seriously, the bass player, Tony [Hall], he comes in, and he says, ‘Man, that Bob Dylan is some weird motherfucker.’ Bob just sort of looked up and raised his eyebrow. Then went back to working on his lyrics.”
Ruffner: “For me, Bob was easy to work for. But I think he was a pain in the ass for some people. Sometimes he’d argue with Lanois, looked like just for the sake of arguing. After reading Chronicles, though, it seems that was a crucial time. It was shit or get off the pot. I think he was a little apprehensive, didn’t really know who Daniel was and if he could make him a record. But, after he realised they were going to make a good record there, I think Dylan softened up. By the end, he was a lot different. I remember he did a drawing of Daniel.”
Howard: “I always like to have a drawing pad with me. One day, Bob saw it, and he said, ‘Hey, mind if I use your pad? Daniel, you mind if I draw a picture of you?’ So Bob scratches out this drawing of Dan, like this wild Indian, hair all over. It was pretty cool. But he didn’t want to sign it, and he didn’t sign it. So, this picture was left in my art book. About two weeks after we’d finished the record, I’m sitting in one day, and suddenly there’s somebody at the door. I go out, and it’s New Orleans, pouring with rain – and there’s Bob in his hoodie. I say, ‘Hey, Bob.’ He says, ‘I’ve decided to sign the drawing.’ And he came in, he signed the drawing, and he left.
“A lot of people get the impression he has a star complex, but he really doesn’t. He’s just saving his energy for what he’s doing…”
Moving away from Lanois’ atmospherics, Dylan seeks a more immediate sound with producer Don Was, who sends out for players ranging from Slash to Elton John as part of his concept of “a different band every day”.
Don Was, producer: “Since 1966, my highest aspiration was to record with Bob Dylan, so there was no trepidation about accepting [his offer to produce]. That said, I wasn’t totally able to toss iconography to the wind. Bob wasn’t the problem – he made a real effort to put us at ease. He was humble and very funny, which I’ve always appreciated.”
David Lindley, guitarist: “Dylan was the ultimate authority, always. Don deferred to Dylan in that respect. But sometimes Don would insist he was right, in a very nice way. On those occasions, Dylan would listen, then say, ‘No, no, I like my way.’ But, y’know, they’re his tunes.”
Robben Ford, guitarist: “Don just revered Dylan. Don was the producer, but Dylan was in control. I remember Don just sitting on the floor asking Bob: ‘So, Bob, did you ever wonder, y’know: Why me?’ Dylan didn’t say anything. Don’s very influential in things like picking the studio, picking the band, creating the environment. But then he likes to hang back, let the artist do his thing. On Under The Red Sky, the concept was, each day, the record would have a different band. Interesting concept.”
Was: “We never discussed anything about ideas. Bob never played us any of the songs in advance, we never told him who the musicians were gonna be. Bob’s a musician and it seemed surrounding him with new and different cats might inspire him. ‘God Knows’ was our audition. You should’ve seen the room that day. Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan on electric guitars, David Lindley on slide, Kenny Aronoff on drums, young Jamie Muhoberac on B3, Bob played piano and sang. I played bass. Nobody knew the song. Bob played it for us once then we cut it. The modus operandi was immediately established: listen to Bob and respond sympathetically. We cut ‘Handy Dandy’, ‘Cat’s In The Well’ and ‘Ten Thousand Men’ that same afternoon. Before ‘Handy Dandy’, Bob remarked how, years earlier, he’d been to a Miles Davis session. The band improvised for an hour and then the producer cut it into a coherent five-minute piece. We decided to try something similar. ‘Handy Dandy’ was originally 34 minutes long. Columbia could release a Bootleg Series box of just the unexpurgated ‘Handy Dandy’ and ‘Cat’s In The Well’.”
Lindley: “I’d known Dylan from way back. Dylan listens to everything. He was a big fan of [Lindley’s band] El Rayo-X and I remember him coming to one of the gigs. 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 he has to deal with them.”
Was: “There was no masterplan governing any aspect of this album. It just kinda unfolded. We wanted to overdub some funky Wurlitzer. I’d just produced Elton John, he’s a superb R’n’B piano player, one of the most overlooked. It was a no-brainer to call him. I’d been hanging out with David Crosby. He said, ‘If you’re doing background vocals with Bob, you’d better call me!’ George Harrison was making a Wilburys album with Bob. There was a deep and long-standing friendship between George and Bob, and the mood was quite jocular. Before George had even heard the song, Bob sat in the engineer’s seat, hit ‘record’, and said, ‘Play!’ Apparently, it was not the first time he’d done this to George. It was a respectable solo, but way out of tune – 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 awaiting words of wisdom! How am I gonna tell George Harrison his solo wasn’t up to snuff? What if Bob really did think it was a good solo? I decided I wasn’t hired to be their adoring fan. ‘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.”
Ford: “Dylan, basically, would start some kind of vamp on the guitar, and we’d all fall in behind, jamming. As soon as he liked what was happening, he’d start picking up lyrics, fishing through pages.”
Lindley: “Dylan would organise stuff as we were going along, as he heard certain things. He’d shuffle verses around a lot. It was amazing to watch. Shooting from the hip.”
Ford: “The day I was there, we’d been recording maybe four hours, and Dylan said, ‘How many takes did we make today, Don?’ I thought that was hilarious. But Don said, ‘I dunno… Five?’ Dylan said, ‘Okay, I guess that’s about it.’ I recall not wanting that day to end. There was something about being there with the guy that just had its own power.”
Was: “While we were recording the song ‘Under The Red Sky’ itself, I thought some of the lyrics were addressed to me personally! It sounds ridiculous now, but I thought it related to some big cosmic stuff I was going through. I never did discuss my interpretation with him. I decided to broach the subject matter by asking about the last verse, about the river running dry. ‘Is this song about ecology?’ He answered without missing a beat: ‘No, but it won’t pollute the environment.’”
WORLD GONE WRONG (1993)
30 years on from his debut, Dylan surprised the world again by “going acoustic”, retreating alone to the studio with guitar and harmonica for two magpie collections of beautifully ragged folk and blues standards.
Micajah Ryan, engineer: “Debbie Gold [long-standing Dylan friend, credited as producer on Good As I Been To You] had convinced Dylan to record with just acoustic guitar and vocals. She was my manager, and while I was on vacation she called me to record just a couple of songs for a day or two. I wanted to be professional, got everything prepared. Then in comes Bob Dylan and all bets are off. There just isn’t anyway to prepare for a moment like that. Dylan was on a roll, and I didn’t get back to my family until a couple of months later, when we finished what became Good As I Been…
“It seemed Bob had a very strong idea of what songs needed to be on the record. My job was to record everything he did. I was very nervous at first. But Debbie had a great working relationship with Bob, so that took some of the edge off for me – and for Dylan as well. He consulted Debbie on every take. He trusted her and she was never afraid to tell him the truth, and, boy, was she persistent, often convincing him to stay with a song long after he seemed to lose interest.
“He’d come in each day with at least a couple of songs to work on. He’d do several takes in every key and tempo until he felt he got it. He was rarely conversational with me. But I remember him being concerned with the difference between analogue and digital, how digital recording was ruining modern music. He told me of different techniques he’d heard of – like not letting the digital recording ever go completely to “black”, in an effort to simulate the analogue medium that always has some sound on it, even if it’s hiss. Only Debbie and I were in the control room when Bob played. No-one else ever came to the studio the entire time we recorded Good As I’ve Been To You and World Gone Wrong. I believe that intimacy had a lot to do with the warmth in the sound of his performances.”
Bob reconvened with Daniel Lanois for album – or should that be round – two. Their collaboration and conflict finds Dylan seeing out the 20th Century with one of his greatest, deepest albums.
Daniel Lanois, producer: “We got together in New York. He just had a stack of lyrics he read me and said: ‘What do you think, Daniel, do we have a record?’ I could hear a record even though I hadn’t heard a note. A lot of philosophical exchanges took place then, about what kind of sound Bob loved.”
Mark Howard, engineer: “Daniel and I shared a workshop in Oxnard, California. Dylan was living in Point Dume. He’d drive up every day, and he’d tune into this radio station he could only get at one point between Point Dume and Oxnard, all these old blues recordings, Little Walter, guys like that. He’d ask, ‘Why do those records sound so great? Can I have that?’ At the same time, Dylan was very interested in Beck. ‘These Beck records are sounding pretty cool.’ So we’d talk about them being loop-based, and playing on top of them. We brought in Tony Mangurian, who’s a hip-hop drummer, his whole thing is computer-based, he loops stuff and builds on top of it. The original idea was we’d do all this cut-and-paste.”
Lanois: “I listened to a lot of old records Bob recommended – Charley Patton, dusty old rock’n’roll, blues. Tony and I played along to those, then I built loops of what we did, and then abandoned these sources; a hip-hop technique. I brought those loops to Bob, and we built demos around them.”
Howard: “We’re all ready to do computer-based stuff, and one day Bob comes in, sits at the piano, and plays this song, ‘Can’t Wait’. And this is a gospel version. Tony starts playing this real sexy groove with him, and Bob is hammering out this gospel piano and really singing. The hair on my arms went up. It was stunning. Luckily, I was recording. We were thinking, if this is going to be anything like this, this record is going to be unbelievable. That’s how it started to drift away from the computer-based thing. Then, just as we’re all set to make the record in Oxnard, Bob says, ‘I can’t work this close to home. I wanna do it in Miami.’ The furthest point away, right? So I threw most of the gear in the truck and I drove from LA to Miami to set up at the Criteria studio.”
David Kemper, drummer: “When we started recording, I remember Bob wouldn’t sing at first, which was strange. And Dan was saying, ‘Don’t play anything you’ve ever played before.’ We cut a version of ‘Mississippi’ and Bob sang, and it sounded good. Then I got a call from Dan, saying, ‘You can’t play pedestrian, we gotta play strange.’ But we got one song, ‘Cold Irons Bound’. The next day I had to leave, and they brought in a whole other crew. That was the end of my involvement. I remember Daniel wasn’t happy [with ‘Cold Irons Bound’]. It was one of his guitar-breaking incidents. He said to Tony [Garnier, bassist] and I: ‘The world doesn’t want another two-note melody from Bob.’ And he smashed a guitar.”
Howard: “There would come a point where there were like 15 people playing in that room at Criteria at the same time. Three drummers, five guitar players, pedal steel, organ, piano… Dan had put together a band, but then Dylan had put out the call for these people like Jim Keltner, Jim Dickinson, Augie Meyers, Duke Robillard, Cindy Cashdollar. Dylan brought in all these Nashville people. I think that made Dan a little mental, all these Nashville strummers.”
Lanois: “I wanted people to respond to the vocal and not play across the vocal, so when the singer sings, you keep quiet. And if you want to respond to the singing, then you should have a signature or a melody and not ramblings. The rambling thing belongs to an old Nashville sound, where people pick a lot. It becomes like a mosquito in the room, like, ‘Would you just stop playing for a minute?’ I want to hear the singer.”
Jim Dickinson, pianist: “Bob had – for want of a better word – an orchestral concept: this thing of too many instruments in the room. There was chordal tension. It’s hard to describe. Dylan was standing singing four feet from the microphone, with no earphones on. He was listening to the sound in the room. Which is the sound that did not go on the record. I truly never saw anything like it. He was in unspoken control of 23 people. And this may seem a small thing, but I was impressed that he had hand-written lyric sheets. He said he’d been working on some of the songs five or six years. He’d lean over this steamer chest and work on his lyrics. With a pencil – because he was erasing stuff. That really touched me to see that.”
Jim Keltner, drummer: “Bob had me and a lot of other guys called specifically. He was thinking about the sound. I think that’s probably the best way to do it: you can either let somebody else get the musicians for you, and then try to figure out how to tell them to do it; or you get the musicians yourself you think can pull off your ideas.”
Augie Meyers, organist: “Bob’s a genius in the studio. He’s a great piano player; a lot of people don’t know that. It amazed me the way he could instantly change keys, hit all the chord changes. No matter what key he went into, he didn’t have to search for the chord.”
Howard: “The way Bob works is, because he hasn’t figured out the song, each take is in a different key. And for the musicians, suddenly you have to change the whole map of the chords. A lot of people can’t just do that straight off. But Dylan kind of expects you to. We’d listen in the control room, though, and it was all over the place – people hitting the wrong note. Dan is saying, ‘Man, this is so chunky.’ Jim Keltner goes: ‘West Coast chunky, or East Coast chunky?’ Things were sort of crazy.”
Dickinson: “Sometimes, when it was all going on, it would be chaotic, for an hour or more. But then there would be this period of clarity, just five or eight minutes of absolute clarity, where everybody knew we were getting it. It was unlike any session I’ve ever been on. Because everybody could feel the potential. In the case of these outtakes that are about to come out, ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Girl From The Red River Shore’ [tracklisted simply as ‘Red River Shore’ on Tell Tale Signs] represented the most conflict in the studio between Dylan and Lanois.”
Keltner: “I have a memory of ‘Red River Shore’ as being just beautiful. I could feel everybody in the room feeling that song. I was disappointed it wasn’t on the album.”
Dickinson: “‘Girl From The Red River Shore’ I personally felt was the best thing we recorded. But as we walked in to hear the playback, Dylan was in front of me, and he said, ‘Well, we’ve done everything on that one except call the symphony orchestra.’ Which indicated to me they’d tried to cut it before. If it had been my session, I would have got on the phone at that point and called the fucking symphony orchestra. But the cut was amazing. You couldn’t even identify what instruments were playing what parts. It sounded like ghost instruments. Then there was a cut of ‘Mississippi’ that was very swampy, a real kind of early ’70s feeling that Lanois really liked. It just wasn’t the direction Dylan wanted to go. The two of them really got into it over that one.”
Meyers: “Bob asked me a couple of questions one time. ‘How would you do this song if you and Doug Sahm did it?’ So I told him. Daniel said, ‘Why are you answering the questions? I’m the producer.’ I just said, ‘Hey, Bob asked me a question, so I’m gonna answer it.’”
Howard: “There was a situation where Bob wouldn’t talk to Dan for a while. Dan would walk in and say, ‘Wow, this is sounding great!’ And Bob would turn to me and say, ‘Did you hear something?’ And I’m sitting there, like ‘Oh, no…’ He was kind of playing, but it was intense.”
Keltner: “There was this dynamic between Bob and Daniel. This may have appeared to some people to be Bob abusing Daniel, but I’d say it was more that he was using Daniel to bounce off. Daniel allowed Bob to know what it was he wanted – and what he didn’t want. I think the reason the recording ended up really beautiful was exactly because of this dynamic. Bob got what he wanted, but he got it through a very intense process.”
Dickinson: “There is for sure something about the recording process that makes Dylan uncomfortable. I think it might have something to do with his history. I think, maybe, some of his stuff he’s been dissatisfied with, and has felt manipulated. I mean, it’s curious to even say the words: that someone could manipulate Bob Dylan. But I saw them try during those sessions. I mean, management would talk to him about the radio. Can you imagine talking to Bob Dylan about getting on the fucking radio? When we finished ‘Highlands’, one of the managers came out, and he said, ‘Well, Bob, have you got a short version of that song?’ Dylan said: ‘That was the short version.’”
Howard: “In terms of the conflict people have mentioned, what those guys were witnessing was – earlier we were talking about that first version of ‘Can’t Wait’ that was so haunting. Dan wanted to get back to that. We’d recorded three other versions. But Dylan wouldn’t go back to the piano, and Dan would say, ‘Y’know, those are good takes, but I just gotta get that version.’ But Dylan wasn’t interested. Dan, for a few days, had this technique where, before Dylan would come in, he’d work up the song himself. Dan would sing it, ‘I can’t wait…’ doing the Dylan voice. And Dylan would walk in to this, and he’d be like, ‘What’s going on here?’ And then Dylan would just shut down. ‘Nah, I’m not recording nothing till you figure this out.’”
Lanois: “Let’s put it this way. When people reach a certain stature, there’s a lot of confidence built around that person, and consequently there’s a lot of people around that think that that person must be right all the time. Unfortunately, it’s not my job to be one of those people.”
Howard: “One of the arguments was this thing about Bob never doing a song the same way twice. Bob pulled Tony Garnier, his regular bass player, into the room with Dan. He says, ‘Tony, have I ever played any song twice exactly the same?’ Tony says, ‘No, Bob, no.’ Bob says, ‘See? I don’t do that.’ And Dan’s like, ‘Yeah, but that song “Can’t Wait”…’ Bob’s like, ‘I did it that way, and I’m never doing it that way again.’ As the end of the session rolled around, though, after recording, we ended up finishing the record back in Oxnard, and by that point, Dan and Dylan were talking again. That’s where all Bob’s storytelling was done, during mixing. He’d talk for two hours at a stretch.”
Electing to become his own producer as the pseudonymous “Jack Frost”, Dylan moves into the 21st Century with one of his richest, strangest records. A work of theft, reference, collage and invention that bends old sources until they meet the mood of weird new times, it’s released on September 11, 2001
Chris Shaw, engineer: “I’ve heard stories from other engineers and producers about, y’know, how Bob can be difficult to work with. I’ve found it to be exactly the opposite. The thing about Bob is: he knows exactly what he wants. I think the people who have said Bob is difficult were trying to put what they wanted on the record. For Bob, 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. There’s 12 songs on “Love And Theft”, and we did 12 songs in 12 days, completed. Then we spent another 10 days mixing it – and we mixed four songs in one day. He hates being in the studio on that part of the process. 85 per cent of the sound of that record is the band spilling into Bob’s mic, because he’d sing live in the room with the band. Without headphones. That’s why the record has this big, thick, almost swampy sound. He loves that sound.”
Augie Meyers, organist: “We did “Love And Theft” in New York, at night. I was surprised we didn’t have a producer, but Bob knew what he wanted. He said it was a lot more comfortable. I think he enjoys making records, but gets tired of all the hoopla, everyone trying to put their two cents in.”
Shaw: “Bob wanted to get the live sound of the band he had at that time. Just get the whole band in the room playing. You can never, ever predict what Bob wants. We went in thinking he was going to be playing guitar, and he had this whole concept about ‘singing into the corner’. He wanted to face the corner, like that Robert Johnson album cover. So, we spent a whole day creating this setup. Bob walks in, and he starts doing the singing into the corner thing – and within, like, two minutes, he abandoned the whole idea, wandered over to the piano, and never got off it for the rest of the session, except for two songs, ‘High Water’ and ‘Po’ Boy’.”
Kemper: “We had the advantage of years on the road together. That band remained the same for four and a half years. Soundchecks every day. Sometimes trying to figure out a song we were having trouble with, but more just to play music. We’d play Dean Martin songs. ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime’. Then we’d put all of that music away, never play it again. I didn’t realise we were actually headed somewhere. I wasn’t smart enough to realise: You are in the School of Bob. When we went in to record “Love And Theft”, I realised then, because the influences were so old on that record, from the turn of the century and the 1920s. Bob would bring in amazing examples of early Americana, songs or artists I’d never heard of. So it was like: Oh my God, he’s been teaching us this music – not literally these songs, but these styles. That’s why we could cut a song a day for 12 days and the album was done.”
Shaw: “His songs continuously evolve. For him, it’s all about getting the track to fit the words, not the other way around. That’s why there are so many bootlegs, six versions of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, four ‘Visions Of Johanna’. Bob is constantly changing it: ‘What key are we in?’ ‘G.’ ‘What tempo?’ ‘85 bpm, Bob.’ ‘Okay, well let’s do it in C-minor, and let’s crank up the tempo to 104, and, Charlie, I want you on electric instead of acoustic, Tony, I want you to play upright bass instead of electric, oh, and I want you playing lap-steel.’ And we’re like, ‘Ooookay…’ He’s always trying to find the arrangement that works best with the sentiment he’s trying to express. He might say, ‘I’m kinda hearing 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, unique to him out of any bands I’ve worked with over 22 years.”
Meyers: “I did some recording with Tom Waits, and I’d say they were something the same. They had a certain sound they heard, and, somehow, they got it out of you. They’re both on the same level. Both genius. Bob said, ‘Play what you feel.’ One time, though, I did a little run on my keyboard, and he gave me a look while we were recording. When we got through, he said, ‘I’ve heard that sound, on “Like A Rolling Stone”.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. That’s where I came from.’ He said, ‘Well, we gotta do something different.’”
Shaw: “Bob really, really hates to repeat himself. A lot of times he’d do a version of a song and he’d say, “Aw, I’ve done that already. We gotta figure out some other way.” That’s what it’s all about with him.”
Dylan goes digital! But he does it his own way on the LP that extends “Love And Theft”’s methodology, and, at the age of 65, sees him hit No 1 on the Billboard charts for this first time since 1976’s Desire.
Chris Shaw, engineer: “On both “Love And Theft” and Modern Times, Bob would sometimes come in with reference tracks, old songs, saying, ‘I want the track to be like this.’ So on Modern Times, there’s the Muddy Waters track [‘Trouble No More’] that became ‘Someday Baby’. It was a case of him trying to get the band to play songs the way he heard them. Sometimes that meant going down all these detours. Like on the new Bootleg Series record, there’s the slow, kind of gospel version of ‘Someday Baby’. That was when he was getting frustrated with the ‘Muddy Waters’ version not coming together. After dinner, he walked back into the room and George Receli, his drummer, was tapping out that groove. Bob sat down at the piano, and all of a sudden they came up with that version. We raced to record that. It was only done for one or two takes. And I think the reason he abandoned that was he was still stuck on the Muddy Waters version. And, also, because he may have thought it sounded a little too much like Time Out Of Mind.
“There was a lot of editing done on “Love And Theft”. ‘High Water’, for example, the verse order was changed quite a few times, literally hacking the tape up. He was like, ‘Nah, maybe the third verse should come first. Maybe we should put that there.’ But the big breakthrough on Modern Times was that we didn’t do it on tape at all. It was the first album he’d ever done using [digital production system] Pro Tools. That whole record was done digitally.
“Actually, it wasn’t difficult to get him to go for using that. Between “Love And Theft” and Modern Times, we did a couple of film soundtrack things. When we did ‘’Cross The Green Mountain’, for [2003 film] Gods And Generals, I said, ‘Y’know, since this is just a one-off, it’s not for an album, I wouldn’t mind trying Pro Tools, just so I can show you the benefits.’ He said, ‘Okay, whatever.’ We did a take, and he was like, ‘Okay, I want to edit out the second verse and put the fourth verse in there.’ By the time he walked into the control room from the studio, I had it done. His eyes opened wide. ‘You can edit that fast?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘And you can keep everything?’ You could just see the gears in his head suddenly spinning. Thing is, now he’s gotten so used to the speed of that, when we were doing Modern Times, he was actually getting impatient with the machine.
“But, working with Bob, everything is always live. He might edit the structure, switch verses around because it tells the story better, but we never go in and do these micro-edits or tuning or other tweaking people do. To him, the computer is just one big tape machine. So, yeah, it was recorded using new technology, but we used an old desk, old mics, old pre-amps. The downside is, a couple of times, the computer crashed, in the middle of a take. I’ll tell you right now, there is no worse feeling in the world than having to walk out into a live room while the band is playing and have to stand in front of Bob Dylan and make him stop because a computer has crashed.
“The studio, recording, for him is sort of a necessary evil. He enjoys it, but he 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.’ Bob was always playing these old Carter Family albums, old Bob Wills records in the studio. He’s really enamoured with the technology back then – a Carter Family record, that’s them just standing around one microphone. He’d talk about how immediate, how raw and vital it sounds. So we’re trying to get that sound with modern techniques. And he understands it all, he’s not ignorant of modern technology. He just hates how records sound today. He has said, ‘I wanna do a record with just one mic.’ So, who knows, we might be doing that on the next record. It might start that way…
“For him, a recording is a document of the song at that moment in time. My favourite Bob Dylan song is probably ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’. He has this wicked way of playing it live now, and I saw him backstage once after a show, and I said, ‘Hey, I love the new version of “It’s Alright Ma” – but do you ever play it like the original recording?’ And he looked at me, and he said: ‘Well, y’know, a record is just a recording of what you were doing that day. You don’t wanna live the same day over and over again, now. Do ya?’
Interviews: Allan Jones, Damien Love, Alastair McKay, Rob Hughes
…in the School Of Bob, 1989-2006
The Joshua Tree producer was recommended to Dylan by Bono for 1989’s Oh Mercy, and he returned almost a decade later for Time Out Of Mind. The pursuit of Lanois’ signature sonic ambience resulted in two of Dylan’s most significant albums – and one of his most combative musical relationships.
Multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer on Oh Mercy, Burn has produced a variety of albums, including Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl and Iggy Pop’s American Caesar.
An engineer and producer for everyone from Tom Waits to Harold Budd. The other engineer on Oh Mercy, he returned with Lanois for Time Out Of Mind.
Texas-born “guitar slinger” drafted in for Oh Mercy by Lanois. “Bags of explosive licks with funky edges, rockabilly, tremolo-influenced,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “Mason had some fine songs.”
Along with fellow Was (Not Was) mainstay, David, the man born Don Fagenson was invited by Dylan to produce 1990’s routinely underrated Under The Red Sky. “The precursor to Modern Times,” he says today.
A guitarist sought out by Warren Zevon, Graham Nash, Ry Cooder and Curtis Mayfield, and one of the ever-revolving cast assembled for Under The Red Sky.
Another of the guitarists parachuted in for Under The Red Sky. Worked with Miles Davis and toured in the bands of Joni Mitchell and George Harrison.
Ryan’s engineering career has taken him from John Prine through Guns N’ Roses, all the way to Megadeth. One of the few witnesses to the creation of Dylan’s bare-boned acoustic albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong.
First met Dylan in 1964 as part of Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet. “Bob always liked us. We were one of his bands.” Dylan called for his “magic Vox” organ for Time Out Of Mind and “Love And Theft”.
Out of Memphis, the great rock’n’roll pianist and producer played on the Stones’ “Wild Horses” and was another of the Wild Bunch of veterans Dylan recruited for Time Out Of Mind.
One of Time Out Of Mind’s three drummers, Keltner first recorded with Dylan in ’71 and has worked with him often since, including the session that produced “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – “I actually cried while we were recording it.”
In the Jerry Garcia Band for over a decade, Kemper signed on as drummer in Dylan’s road band in 1996 and stayed until 2001. “And I’m sorry not to be in it today. I miss Bob and I miss that band.”
Dylan’s engineer of choice since the turn of the millennium. Previously worked with Booker T And The MGs and Jeff Buckley, but he got the gig with Dylan “when he heard I got my start doing Public Enemy records”.
Tell Tale Signs – Allan Jones’ take
May, 2008. The door of the hotel room opens and I’m introduced to someone who looks not unlike Billy Bob Thornton: tall, elegant, sharply turned out in a black suit. This is Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, here to play Sony BMG’s London chiefs tracks from the latest in the Bootleg Series he initiated in 1991.
Rosen first of all plays me a revelatory early version of “Most Of The Time”, stripped of the swampy atmospherics producer Daniel Lanois surrounded it with on Oh Mercy, and performed as it might have been for Blood On The Tracks, just Bob on guitar and harmonica. I’m flabbergasted, listen to about nine more tracks in wonder, and can’t wait for the thing to be released.
Six months later, here, finally, it is: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume 8 – 39 rare and previously unreleased Dylan tracks, available as a 27-track double-CD with a 60-page booklet, and a Limited Edition Deluxe Collectors’ Edition, with the content from the 2CD set complemented by a further 12 tracks, a 150-page hardcover book of vintage single sleeves and a seven-inch single. There’s also a four-LP vinyl set.
The material in all formats is drawn from the past 20 years of Dylan’s career, the bulk of it from the sessions that produced Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind, with outtakes elsewhere from World Gone Wrong, and two startling alternative versions of two key tracks from Modern Times. Additionally, there are eight live tracks, including a thunderously exciting “Cold Irons Bound”, first hearings for two tracks from the unreleased 1992 sessions with guitarist David Bromberg (covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss The Mississippi” and the traditional “Duncan And Brady”, a former concert opener), as well as a smattering of songs written for movie soundtracks, including the hitherto unreleased “Can’t Escape From You” and the great Civil War epic, “’Cross The Green Mountain”. Finally, there’s “The Lonesome Mountain”, a duet with bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, from the latter’s Clinch Mountain Country album.
There have already been rumblings about the apparent eking out of what is clearly an abundance of previously unavailable material and the consequent duplication of songs – there are three versions, for instance, of “Love And Theft”’s “Mississippi”, the earliest dating from the Time Out Of Mind sessions, and there are two versions each of seven other tracks. Where, the plea goes up, are the rest of the Bromberg tracks? And why hasn’t there been a live album, culled from the shows Dylan played at New York’s Supper Club in 1993, which on the evidence here of “Ring Them Bells” would be mindblowing?
These may be legitimate quibbles, but you’d have to say in reply that whatever way you look at it, there are treasures here galore for the avid Bobcat and an opportunity to consider the many ways Dylan sees a song – an opportunity, that is, to appreciate his relentlessly myriadic vision. And who would put a price on that?
There are alternative takes here of familiar songs that differ not just in mood and tempo from the versions we know, but boast partially or completely different lyrics – as with the solo piano demo of “Dignity” and the jaunty rockabilly incarnation of “Everything Is Broken”. The two songs from Modern Times, meanwhile, are a radically altered “Someday Baby”, set to a slow martial beat, and a mesmerising early go at “Ain’t Talkin’”, with a swathe of new words.
I remember after seeing Dylan’s Temples In Flames tour in 1987 trying to explain to sceptical colleagues how astonishing it had been to hear Dylan tearing up classics from his vast repertoire, in some instances reinventing them brutally. Their reaction was much the same as many of the people who’d been sitting around me at the gig: why didn’t Bob just play the songs like he recorded them?
For these people, Dylan’s evisceration of his back catalogue was typically capricious, perverse, wilful vandalism, nothing less, and ruined their evening. The hits were played, perhaps, but you sometimes had to sit through half a song before you realised what it was. Clearly, for Dylan there was nothing to be gained by the faithful reading, replicated nightly with numbing repetition. For him to continue to make sense of his songs, they would have to be approached anew whenever they were played, as his moods dictated, and everybody would have to get used to that.
It’s become such an embedded part of the Dylan myth that he never repeats himself that we perhaps take it for granted. On the following pages, however, as our Tell Tale Signs special continues, there’s ample testimony from some of the people who have worked with Dylan over the past two decades about his quixotic urgency, the impatient imperatives that drive him, his almost phobic insistence on not doing something twice the same way.
In these days of boxset anthologies with innumerable extras, we’re used to hearing how songs develop from rough-sketch demos to the finished thing, which then becomes the unalterable text, omnipotent and inviolate, embellished occasionally in concert but usually recognisably the song you know from the record. With Dylan it’s different, as it usually is.
Tell Tale Signs is awash with evidence of his staggering mercuriality, his evident determination even in the studio to repeat himself as little as possible, re-takes not merely the occasion for refinement, the honing of a song into static finality, but serial re-imaginings. Witness the three versions of “Mississippi” – all of them as different from each other as they are from the one on “Love And Theft”. You can hear on them the working of nuance, a successive revealing of things. Similarly fascinating are the two versions of “Can’t Wait”, both more desperately intimate than the Time Out Of Mind recording. The first, piano-led, is fleetingly reminiscent of Planet Waves’ “Dirge”, dark and unsettling. The second, with glowering organ and a vocal drenched in reverb, is a doom-laden trip, eerily reminiscent of “Under Your Spell”, an unlikely collaboration with Carole Bayer Sager from Knocked Out Loaded, with a lyric that went on to become part of “Love And Theft’”s “Sugar Baby”.
Previously, the Bootleg Series has given us unreleased gems like 1965’s pivotal “Farewell Angelina”, “Up To Me”, dropped from the final version of Blood On The Tracks, which itself exists in two different forms, and “Blind Willie McTell”, unfathomably not included on Infidels.
Their equivalents here would be a majestic “Born In Time” on Disc One that’s in every way superior to its Under The Red Sky incarnation, and three tracks from the Time Out Of Mind sessions that didn’t make the album. This is extraordinary in the case of the eight-minute cantina reverie of “Red River Shore”, which is high-tier late Dylan, fatalistic and windswept. And only slightly less so in the cases of the gospel-based “Marchin’ To the City” – which turned later into “Till I Fell In Love With You” – and “Dreamin’ Of You”, Dylan wounded and haunted, much as he haunts us all.