Re-evaluating Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade: the Eighties

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The US True Confessions tour ends in Paso Robles on August 6. By the end of the month, Dylan’s in England
for Hearts Of Fire, a movie so dire it’s barely shown in UK cinemas and goes straight to video in the US, Bob playing a washed-up rock star a bit too close to the bone for many.

The only good thing to come out of the experience is the BBC Omnibus documentary, Getting To Dylan, in which he gives an interview in Ontario in his trailer, during which he draws director Christopher Sykes, sniffs a lot and appears quite lost.

In May 1987, Dylan goes out with the Grateful Dead for a six-date stadium tour that makes him a lot of money (he insists on a 70-30 split of the profits) but is considered otherwise worthless, a view reinforced when the Dylan & The Dead live album is released in February 1989. Whatever turned out to be the incompatibilities that prevented Dylan and the Dead from sounding at any given point like they were actually playing the same songs, Dylan, so jaded by now and adrift of himself and who he has been, digs the way the Dead make music. As strained as the short tour is, he feels by his later admission in Chronicles the beginning of a personal revival.

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In September, he’s back with Petty and the Heartbreakers for the start of the Temples In Flames tour, the first shows of which are in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and not well-received, things picking up somewhat when they reach Europe. On stage at the Piazza Grande in Locarno, Switzerland, on October 5, nine days before I see him at Wembley, Dylan is consumed by rejuvenation and a new sense of mission.

“It’s almost as if I heard it as a voice,” he later recalls. “It wasn’t like it was even me thinking it: ‘I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.’ And all of a sudden everything just exploded every which way. I sort of knew – I’ve got to go out and play these songs. That’s just what I must do.”

Let’s say this about Bob Dylan in the ’80s, those years of turmoil. He stands his ground, even when it’s shifting beneath him. Whatever the ferocity of critical opinion, self-doubt, the vilification of his deepest beliefs, he keeps going. You have to hand him that. And here he is in early 1988, with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in The Traveling Wilburys. The group comes together when Harrison, Orbison, Petty and Lynne fetch up at Dylan’s Point Dume compound to record a B-side for “This Is Love”, a single from Harrison’s Cloud Nine album. When the chums are assembled, they bash out a song called “Handle With Care” and have so much fun apparently they decide to make an album together. Bill Bottrell, who engineers the session and has worked extensively with Lynne, remembers, however, that Dylan, prior to the recording, summons Lynne, who he doesn’t know, over to Malibu for a kind of audition.

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“Jeff called me one day,” he recalls, “and said, ‘We have to go to Bob Dylan’s house…’ At that point, Bob was the only one of those guys Jeff hadn’t worked with. George had made the phone calls to get everybody together, I think, but before anything else happened, Bob wanted to check out Jeff. So Jeff and I went to Bob’s house one day and they sat down with two acoustic guitars and recorded a version of ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’ together.

“It may have been a couple of months, maybe more, that the guys got together at Dylan’s house to record. I drove Jeff down there and we started setting up in the garage. There was all this gear Dylan had bought from Dave Stewart sitting there, not really working. Jeff and I had to quickly plug it all together and make it work as much as possible. It was hilarious.

It was a real garage. You know, like Sheetrock, plasterboard walls, a metal garage door, the kind that rolls up. There may even have been lawnmowers in there. But when you’ve got Roy Orbison singing, the room doesn’t matter. It’s still going to sound like Roy.”

The album’s charming, just about, with Dylan’s affectionate “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” a terrific highlight, and puts Bob back in the charts, which is more than can be said for his own new album, Down In The Groove, which has again been assembled from a sprawl of sessions, Dylan drawing on a lot of cover versions. Melody Maker exclusively announces the album in January 1988. Columbia seem in no hurry to put it out, however, and it’s anyway damned before release when in February, The Observer carries a story about it under the dramatic headline, ‘Dylan’s disaster’, that claims the album – full of “unsavoury boogie” – has been indefinitely postponed, which seems like a euphemistic way of telling us it’s been unceremoniously dumped from their schedules. When I call Columbia in New York for an update, I’m told by someone who sounds like she’s chewing gum and balancing a small balloon on her nose that it will eventually come out, but is currently “unassigned”, which makes it sound like it’s languishing in some shadowy netherworld, unreachable by man.

  1. 1. Introduction
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