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…

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UNDER THE RED SKY (1990)
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.’”

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Page 2
  3. 3. Page 3
  4. 4. Page 4
  5. 5. Page 5
  6. 6. Page 6
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  • somebodystolemynamefatboy

    Reminding me of Jackson Pollock; the drunker he splashed, the louder the huzzahs.

  • somebodystolemynamefatboy

    Dylan (IMO) was an inspired songwriter in the early days, but seemed to run out of steam, never to recover (IMO).
    This is not uncommon with songwriters, performers, mathematicians, and others.
    Sometimes it is the better part of grace to retire to one’s garden.

  • JGat

    I can appreciate that you’re tired of 1-4-5. It’s certainly not new. Nor are the 8 notes of a scale, or songs about love, sadness, jealousy or pain. But they can all do miraculous things, depending.on the voice, the time & place, the emotions hidden or revealed. If you feel restricted by the imagined constraints of a particular progression or structure, that’s a cage of your own construction. Have you lost your will to explore, or become so linear in you thinking that you accept or assume everything that can be done there has already been done? It’s really in the hands of the player, isn’t it? Bob absolutely drops.some uninspired frrck along the way. I prefer to allow him some benefit of the doubt after the hundreds of gems he’sproduced. I think one day the kid might get the hang of this songwriting thing.

  • somebodystolemynamefatboy

    Oh boy! A pen pal!
    Sure, 1-4-5 as a structure is nothing for a musician (or a fan) to brag about.
    It’s tired.

  • JGat

    Yes. And the sky is blue. Is there a cogent point here?

  • somebodystolemynamefatboy

    1-4-5 is 1-4-5-.

  • JGat

    Chords aren’t “inspired” or “uninspired” on their own. Any more than hammers and nails. That’s in the hands of the craftsman. Complex or fancy doesn’t mean “inspired”. Sometimes it just means “busy.”

  • Minneapolis Musician

    I am struck by how seriously they all took these recording sessions, like they were doing art for the ages every time the tape rolled. Even if what they were doing in that particular session was actually pretty much poorly played and uninspired. So many unknown musicians today work so hard so long and get no chance, and these guys, so self-important while doing lazy stuff that any decent musician could do.

    Dylan is amazing, and HAS done great stuff. But it’s uneven. He’s also done pedestrian stuff where the emperor has no clothes, and no one has the social courage to admit it. I think Dylan knows that.

  • Rubinstein

    Follow the money

  • somebodystolemynamefatboy

    I can’t speak about the lyrics, but I know uninspired chords when I hear them.
    1-4-5. Wow.