Following the momentous news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature, here’s the second installment of two part feature exploring Dylan’s weirdest and most controversial decade: the Eighties. This originally appeared in Uncut Take 207 from August 2014.
You can read Part One by clicking here.
What Good Am I?
The years of turmoil. In the second part of our Dylan In The ’80s epic, we re-evaluate Bob Dylan’s most confounding decade. From the travesty of Live Aid, via hook-ups with the Grateful Dead, the Heartbreakers and the Traveling Wilburys, to the start of the Never Ending Tour, we enlist some of Dylan’s key collaborators to uncover the riches hidden in an oft-vilified body of work. “I literally had to sort the human from the myth,” says one associate – and so, perhaps, did Dylan.
‘‘Some artists’ work speaks for itself. Some artists’ work speaks for a generation. It’s my deep personal pleasure to present for you one of America’s great voices of freedom. It can only be one man. The transcendent Bob Dylan…”
June 13, 1985. Live Aid is in its umpteenth conscience-stricken hour when Jack Nicholson excitedly introduces Dylan as the closing act at Philadelphia’s RFK Stadium, where he appears with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, looking flabby and distressed. In the opinion of the millions who witness it, he delivers a performance of shocking ineptitude, made worse when he dares mention the fact that people are starving in America as well as Ethiopia and maybe some of the money being raised by Live Aid could, you know, be used to pay off the debt of American farmers to US banks. This apparently gormless insensitivity confirms him in the eyes of most of the watching world as a raddled old twerp whose grasp of reality has fatally loosened. But some people are listening to what he has to say. Within two months, Farm Aid is underway at the University Of Illinois, organised by Willie Nelson with the support of Neil Young. Dylan appears with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as his band, and if they’d been playing under a roof, they would have blown it off.
It’s the start of a two-year touring alliance with the Heartbreakers, the True Confessions tour opening in Australasia in February 1986. There are US dates scheduled for June and July, and Columbia prompt Dylan for a new album to coincide with them. Dylan duly obliges with his sixth studio album in seven years. Knocked Out Loaded is assembled – haphazardly, even desperately, in subsequent opinion – from sessions going back as far as November 1984 at Cherokee Studios in LA, where many of the basic tracks that Arthur Baker turns into Empire Burlesque are recorded.
“Empire Burlesque and Knocked Out Loaded are essentially one album,” says guitarist Ira Ingber, younger brother of Elliot Ingber, who was in the original Mothers Of Invention but is perhaps better known as Winged Eel Fingerling in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Ira, a veteran of the LA music scene who’s played with JD Souther, Jennifer Warnes and Van Dyke Parks, gets a call in late 1984 from an old schoolfriend, Gary Shafner, who’s now working for Dylan. According to Shafner, Dylan’s putting a band together for an unspecified project, perhaps a new album. Would Ira be interested in being part of whatever might happen next?
“They had just done Infidels,” Ingber tells Uncut, “and Bob was back pretty much living at his place in Malibu. There was some new-found interest to go in another direction, but it wasn’t clear what it was.” Ingber is duly summoned to Dylan’s Point Dume compound in Malibu.
“Bob was an idol, just huge. The first thing I had to do was get over my schoolgirl crush. We talked for a minute or two, then he pulled out three or four pages of typewritten song lists, and he said, ‘D’you know any of these?’ I said, ‘…yeah.’ So we started playing. He’s playing acoustic, I’m playing acoustic, and one voice in my head is saying, ‘I’m playing “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” with Bob Dylan. Right now.’ And the other part of my head is saying, ‘You’re playing with Bob Dylan but don’t think about it.’ I had to sort the human from the myth. But it worked out fine. We got on, and then we started talking about a band.”
Ingber calls some friends: Vince Melamed, a keyboard player he’s worked with in JD Souther’s band, bass player Carl Sealove and drummer Charlie Quintana, who is eventually replaced by Don Heffington from Lone Justice. “This core group came together in late 1984,” Ingber goes on. “The three of us went up to Bob’s house, on a daily basis for some weeks. There were a number of houses on the property and this one was empty, except for a bunch of equipment he had in there. We would play some of his old stuff, or he’d bring a tape, or he’d start playing a song and we wouldn’t know what it was – sometimes an old classic, sometimes even a demo that someone had sent him. Not all of it was his material, which I thought was interesting. He came to me one day and he told me he wanted to learn to play Ray Charles’ ‘Come Rain Or Come Shine’ on guitar. Because it’s arranged for an orchestra, not a guitar, there are some very complex chords. ‘I said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we just did it and you could sing it and not bother playing?” He was insistent – so I did an arrangement and I don’t even know if we got as far as trying to play it, because the chords involved were a little beyond his comfort level on the guitar, so the whole thing kind of went away. But the scope of this work we were doing up in Malibu was very far ranging, that’s the best way I can describe it.
“Dylan taped everything on this boom box he had. It was funny, there was a PA set up in this house we were rehearsing in. But he’d never sing into the PA. He would sing either into one of our ears – like, stand next to me, and sing straight into my ear – or he’d sing into the boom box. I kept saying, ‘You know, if you sang into the mic, it might sound…’ And he’d be, ‘No. No. I donwanna do that.’”
After several weeks of rehearsals, the band is assembled at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood, where among the tracks recorded is “New Danville Girl”, which Dylan re-writes and re-records subsequently as “Brownsville Girl”. Sessions continue at Cherokee through November, before Dylan completes what has become Empire Burlesque in New York, with Arthur Baker producing. When the album comes out, Ingber is not impressed by what he hears.
“I was disappointed based on what I had heard at the original recordings,” he says. “Charitably, I think Empire Burlesque and to a lesser degree Knocked Out Loaded were victims of what I call ‘’80s-itis’. Both those albums had some really wonderful performances, but the production obscured a lot of it, because back then the overuse of things like digital reverb was really prevalent. The records suffered because of it – I suspect that if somebody went back into the master tapes and had another look, I bet that these would be amazing recordings.”