We explore Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade
April, 1981. Chuck Plotkin who’s recently mixed The River for Bruce Springsteen after earlier working on Darkness On The Edge Of Town gets a telephone message at Clover, the funky little recording studio he owns in Hollywood. It’s someone who says he’s Bob Dylan, which makes Chuck think it’s a hoax. He doesn’t bother to call back. Three further calls later, though, a startled Plotkin is on the phone to Bob.
“He said, ‘I’m getting ready to start a record. Are you familiar with my work?’” Plotkin remembers. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Well, jeez, can you come by and take a listen to what I’m up to here?’ I said, ‘Sure, when?’ He said, ‘How about now?’ He gave me an address, and I drove to this place, where he had some of his band assembled. He was sort of interviewing possible producers. There was a list of people, people were coming by, and they’d hear a bit of a rehearsal, have a bit of conversation, and somehow over a period of time, Bob figured out what’d work best for him.”
As Plotkin now discovers, Dylan’s been working since the previous September at studios all over LA on the follow-up to Saved. He’s amassed a formidable batch of new songs that hint at a return to his song-writing of poetic evocation, ambiguity, doubt, a way of saying things in a language that is exact but not explicit, among them “Caribbean Wind”, the apocalyptic “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Every Grain Of Sand”. Most recently he’s been in the studio with producer Jimmy Iovine, who walks out of one particularly chaotic session and doesn’t come back. On the day Plotkin arrives at Dylan’s Rundown Studio and rehearsal space in Santa Monica, Dylan’s just recorded a version of “Shot Of Love” produced by Little Richard’s legendary producer Bumps Blackwell that will become the title track of the album he’s struggling to finish. Plotkin’s first instinct is to get Dylan into his Clover studio as soon as possible, to get these tracks down before Dylan, notoriously restless, loses interest in the songs.
“I had picked up that he was doing a lot of writing, and I was afraid he’d burn out by the material that I’d been hearing. This guy is a powerhouse as a writer, and when he’s in writing mode, he can write and write and write. I was thinking, there’s just too much good stuff here, and if we don’t get in before his focus shifts, this material that I’m hearing now might be lost. I was afraid if we delayed much longer, we were going to lose the songs – which sounded amazing to me. I could hear something in this material, a tone of his pre-Christian mode, if you know what I mean, that was mixed in with the Christian vision in a way that was enormously appealing. The religious stuff was still there, which was great, it was Bob’s thing, but there was this hint of the earlier Bob. So I said, ‘Look. Let’s just go in, and not worry about what it is, let’s just record while it’s fresh.’ And he said, ‘Great,’ and that’s what we did.”
The album Dylan’s laboured on for nearly a year is now finished in five sessions at Clover between April 27 and May 1. Plotkin delivers a sequenced mix of the record to Dylan on May 12 that Dylan rejects, the next day going back into the studio to re-do six of the tracks he’s recorded. Plotkin spends another month re-mixing the album, Dylan rarely happy with what he hears.
“If Shot Of Love sounds at all raggedy-assed,” says Plotkin, “it’s because the mixes that got released are all just the monitor mixes that we’d get at the end of each night. We’d do a tune, get a track we liked, and we’d just run off a rough monitor mix. And those are the mixes you hear. Now, I tried to mix the record, to squeeze some little level of aural finesse in there. You know: we recorded this stuff, let’s mix it properly. I’m trying to represent the United Record Producers of the World here: if you had the chance to record Bob Dylan, wouldn’t you want to try and get everything just right, and try to bring all the tools at your disposal to the job? But every time we did a finished mix and took it to Bob, he went: ‘Naw, no. The other mix. The ones I’ve been listening to – that’s the record.’ The rough mixes had some weird quality to them. He had the sense to realise it.”
Shot Of Love is released on August 10, 1981, to even worse reviews than Saved. The sacred rapture of “Every Grain Of Sand”, which by now has undergone at least four major re-writes, is widely recognised as a major addition to the Dylan canon, but scant attention is paid to the riotous title track, the endearing Tex-Mex shuffle of “Heart Of Mine”, the vintage sarcasm of “Property Of Jesus” (the “Positively Fourth Street” of the ‘religious era’, in one critic’s sharp opinion), the hammering blues of “Trouble”, the seething “Dead Man, Dead Man” or the dappled warmth of “In The Summertime”, a nostalgic reverie that would not have been out of place on Planet Waves. As Plotkin sees it, Shot Of Love is given a rough ride as part of a general backlash against the whole Born Again period.
“Saved was his most reviled record – a lot of his regular fans felt almost betrayed that he was venturing into some zone that had already been defined by other people, if you know what I mean. Where did Bob go? They felt that Bob disappeared into a kind of black hole. Whereas, Bob would say, ‘No: that’s a hole full of light.’ Anyway, his audience was pissed at him, there’s no question about it, and it did affect the reception of Shot Of Love. But also, the record has this strange, wild, raggedy-ass quality to it that some people couldn’t hear through. But, yeah, I feel like it has been a neglected record.”
In Plotkin’s further opinion, the LP also suffers when Dylan removes three key tracks from it. The raging “Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” is dropped from the vinyl version but reinstated for the CD edition. However, there’s no sign of either the vast romantic turmoil of “Caribbean Wind” or the noble, piano and organ-led epic, “Angelina”, until they are belatedly included on Biograph and The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, respectively.
“Sometimes you can fight,” admits Plotkin. “But you have to pick your fights. Part of the problem is, you know that your job depends on having the artist feel completely supported in what he’s doing. But, at the same time, he’s hired you to, from time to time, say, ‘No, I think this could be better,’ or, ‘No, I think we should use this.’ I’ve worked with Springsteen for 25 years, and there were times when I used to say to myself, ‘Well, another brave soldier bites the dust.’ It just happens. Songs go. But part of your job, while representing the artist, is also to represent the audience, and be able to make the case for a song. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. If you’re too pushy about it, the trust breaks down. Since I got to work with Bruce over and over again, we’ve had some amazing battles over songs, I can tell you.”