Re-evaluating Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade: the Eighties
When it’s finally released in June, Dylan again is largely criticised for not being the Dylan people want him to be (which is to say, the last Dylan he would himself want to be). It’s another album mostly of covers of R’n’B, folk, country and rock’n’roll standards. The most notable of the Dylan originals is the hilariously bleak “Death Is Not The End”, originally written for Infidels. The album’s another resounding flop, although we wouldn’t end up arguing if you told me you were a fan of its rowdy clatter and enjoyed it as a passing insight into the kind of music Dylan grew up listening to, like a harder rocking Self Portrait, Paul Simonon of The Clash and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones helping things along on a booting version of “Sally Sue Brown”, which by presumable coincidence had just worked its way into sets by Elvis Costello, then touring with The Confederates. Elsewhere, The Stanley Brothers’ “Rank Strangers To Me” is eerily covered, the traditional “Shenandoah” is a shimmering hallucination and “Ninety Miles An Hour Down A Dead End Street” gloriously sombre.
A tour’s announced for June to coincide with the album’s release, something Bob calls Interstate 88. No-one’s in a rush to buy tickets to see what they imagine will be a dead horse being flogged on another tour to promote an album they’re not going to buy. Interstate 88, however, is the start of something else. Dylan’s been rehearsing with guitarist GE Smith, bassist Kenny Aaronson and drummer Chris Parker who – with Neil Young in tow – make their debut at the Concord Pavilion in California. Their first number is “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. It’s never been played live before, an indication that something’s afoot. The show is in many respects chaotic, with Neil and GE Smith screaming chord changes at each other behind an oblivious Dylan. Not many people there realise they are witness to a historic moment. It’s the first night, of course, of what becomes known as the Never Ending Tour, which comes sensationally to London in June 1989, Dylan looking trim in a gambler’s black frock coat where two years earlier he’d looked like a bedraggled derelict.
There are terrific takes on hallowed songs from his back catalogue, played with a ferocious intensity, scalding versions of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” still livid in the memory. There’s a marvellous acoustic interlude, too, featuring just Dylan and GE Smith on lovely versions of “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” and an exquisite “Boots Of Spanish Leather”.
Dylan that unforgettable night at Wembley Arena is rejuvenated, born-again if you like. He’s been writing, too, although by 1988, according to his own version of things, he no longer even thinks of himself as a songwriter. In Chronicles, Dylan alludes to a hand injury that leaves him in a cast. During his recovery from this vague injury and unable to play guitar, paint or draw, he writes, adding little more about this apparently miraculous creative recovery. The songs aren’t coming quite as fast or easily as they once did. But there are enough of them eventually – more than 20, he reckons later – for a new album he’s soon making in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois. The Canadian producer’s worked successfully with Robbie Robertson and Peter Gabriel and more recently with U2 bringing the kind of atmospheric textures to The Joshua Tree that Bono tells Bob over dinner will be perfect for the new songs Dylan has played him.
Back in September 1988, the Interstate 88 tour hits New Orleans and Dylan turns up at Lanois’ studio on St Charles Street, where Lanois is working with The Neville Brothers on their Yellow Moon album. Lanois’ recording methods appeal immediately to Dylan. For all his studio expertise, Lanois favours the feel and atmosphere of spontaneous performance over technical perfection. The Interstate 88 tour climaxes in October with a barnstorming four-night run at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. In March 1989, he’s back in New Orleans to start working with Lanois on what becomes Oh Mercy. Perhaps mindful of the disarray Dylan has recently brought to recording sessions by inviting all and sundry to call in and play on whatever he’s doing, Lanois insists that Oh Mercy will feature only his own hand-picked crew of engineers and musicians, people who can work quickly and intuitively to accommodate Dylan’s whims. The hot little band he assembles includes Lanois himself on guitar, dobro and Omnichord, engineer Malcolm Burn on guitar and keyboards, supplemented by guitarist Mason Ruffner, percussionist Cyril Neville and The Neville Brothers’ rhythm section of drummer Willie Green, bassist Tony Hall and guitarist Brian Stoltz.
“We had a party one night here in New Orleans,” Stoltz tells Uncut. “The Grateful Dead were coming to town. I was playing with The Neville Brothers at the time and they threw a party for the Dead. They rented a fishing camp out on Lake Pontchartrain and just had a big crab-boil. During the party Dan asked me, ‘Brian, if you had the opportunity to produce either Stevie Ray Vaughan or Bob Dylan – which one would you do?’ I busted out laughing. ‘Man, do you even have to ask? You already know the answer to that. You gotta do Bob.’ Dan started laughing, that was his way of asking if I’d play on the album. There was no further discussion until I got the call and went to the studio.
“The Neville Brothers had worked in a big room on St Charles Street but by then Dan had moved everything over to Soniat Street, uptown. It was a big, old Victorian house. The whole place was set up for Bob – Dan really likes to set things up geared toward the artist. Bob had already been over to the house on St Charles Street, to listen to some songs and he really liked the set-up. He liked the idea that it was in a house, he liked that it wasn’t some sterile, generic studio.”
The first song Stoltz works on is “Political World”, one of the first Dylan writes for the new album. Dylan’s already had one stab at recording it, but is unable to find the right arrangement. Lanois now thinks he can make the song work with a new one he’s come up with.
“Dan had an idea for a little groove,” Stoltz recalls, “kind of a funkier groove. I remember we ran through it a few times before Bob got there. Bob came walking in the room when we were playing. He said, ‘What’s that?’ Dan said, ‘It’s a little something we’re working up for “Political World”.’ And Bob said, ‘“Political World”? It don’t go like that! It goes like this.’ He picked up a guitar and started playing it and we all jumped in – and my memory is that’s the track you hear on the record. If you listen to ‘Political World’, you can hear how Willie [Green] doesn’t even come in with the beat because he was jumping in after Bob.
“There wasn’t a lot of time getting to know each other. It was immediately getting to work: here are the songs. Bob would show us something and if it didn’t work, we’d try it again. If it still didn’t work, we’d move on. When we were tracking, there wasn’t a whole lot of time spent trying to rework tracks. It was either happening or it wasn’t.
“For the most part, it seemed like he had a lot of lyrics and he had melodies for some of them, but for many he didn’t and it seemed like he was just working them out. He’d sit down and show us what he had and we took it from there. I think he had a really good idea what the songs were, he knew where they were going lyrically – obviously, because he would come in with, jeez, just unbelievable amounts of lyrics, verses and verses. ‘Political World’ must have had, like, 25 verses. I remember he would come in every night and head straight to the kitchen, pour a coffee and start working on his lyrics, editing, rewriting. When we were working on ‘Political World’, he had a sheet in front of him that he was singing off, but then there were all these other sheets lying on the floor. I’ve never seen anybody who could fit so many verses on one page – and it was just amazing to watch how he’d rework them and then get it down to how it ended up. In most instances he knew what the song was, the spirit of the song, the essence of it. The way they got interpreted was another thing.”