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…
Dylan goes digital! But he does it his own way on the LP that extends “Love And Theft”’s methodology, and, at the age of 65, sees him hit No 1 on the Billboard charts for this first time since 1976’s Desire.
Chris Shaw, engineer: “On both “Love And Theft” and Modern Times, Bob would sometimes come in with reference tracks, old songs, saying, ‘I want the track to be like this.’ So on Modern Times, there’s the Muddy Waters track [‘Trouble No More’] that became ‘Someday Baby’. It was a case of him trying to get the band to play songs the way he heard them. Sometimes that meant going down all these detours. Like on the new Bootleg Series record, there’s the slow, kind of gospel version of ‘Someday Baby’. That was when he was getting frustrated with the ‘Muddy Waters’ version not coming together. After dinner, he walked back into the room and George Receli, his drummer, was tapping out that groove. Bob sat down at the piano, and all of a sudden they came up with that version. We raced to record that. It was only done for one or two takes. And I think the reason he abandoned that was he was still stuck on the Muddy Waters version. And, also, because he may have thought it sounded a little too much like Time Out Of Mind.
“There was a lot of editing done on “Love And Theft”. ‘High Water’, for example, the verse order was changed quite a few times, literally hacking the tape up. He was like, ‘Nah, maybe the third verse should come first. Maybe we should put that there.’ But the big breakthrough on Modern Times was that we didn’t do it on tape at all. It was the first album he’d ever done using [digital production system] Pro Tools. That whole record was done digitally.
“Actually, it wasn’t difficult to get him to go for using that. Between “Love And Theft” and Modern Times, we did a couple of film soundtrack things. When we did ‘’Cross The Green Mountain’, for [2003 film] Gods And Generals, I said, ‘Y’know, since this is just a one-off, it’s not for an album, I wouldn’t mind trying Pro Tools, just so I can show you the benefits.’ He said, ‘Okay, whatever.’ We did a take, and he was like, ‘Okay, I want to edit out the second verse and put the fourth verse in there.’ By the time he walked into the control room from the studio, I had it done. His eyes opened wide. ‘You can edit that fast?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘And you can keep everything?’ You could just see the gears in his head suddenly spinning. Thing is, now he’s gotten so used to the speed of that, when we were doing Modern Times, he was actually getting impatient with the machine.
“But, working with Bob, everything is always live. He might edit the structure, switch verses around because it tells the story better, but we never go in and do these micro-edits or tuning or other tweaking people do. To him, the computer is just one big tape machine. So, yeah, it was recorded using new technology, but we used an old desk, old mics, old pre-amps. The downside is, a couple of times, the computer crashed, in the middle of a take. I’ll tell you right now, there is no worse feeling in the world than having to walk out into a live room while the band is playing and have to stand in front of Bob Dylan and make him stop because a computer has crashed.
“The studio, recording, for him is sort of a necessary evil. He enjoys it, but he hates the time it takes. He’s always talking about when he used to make albums: ‘This record, we did, like, four songs in one day.’ Bob was always playing these old Carter Family albums, old Bob Wills records in the studio. He’s really enamoured with the technology back then – a Carter Family record, that’s them just standing around one microphone. He’d talk about how immediate, how raw and vital it sounds. So we’re trying to get that sound with modern techniques. And he understands it all, he’s not ignorant of modern technology. He just hates how records sound today. He has said, ‘I wanna do a record with just one mic.’ So, who knows, we might be doing that on the next record. It might start that way…
“For him, a recording is a document of the song at that moment in time. My favourite Bob Dylan song is probably ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’. He has this wicked way of playing it live now, and I saw him backstage once after a show, and I said, ‘Hey, I love the new version of “It’s Alright Ma” – but do you ever play it like the original recording?’ And he looked at me, and he said: ‘Well, y’know, a record is just a recording of what you were doing that day. You don’t wanna live the same day over and over again, now. Do ya?’
Interviews: Allan Jones, Damien Love, Alastair McKay, Rob Hughes
…in the School Of Bob, 1989-2006
The Joshua Tree producer was recommended to Dylan by Bono for 1989’s Oh Mercy, and he returned almost a decade later for Time Out Of Mind. The pursuit of Lanois’ signature sonic ambience resulted in two of Dylan’s most significant albums – and one of his most combative musical relationships.
Multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer on Oh Mercy, Burn has produced a variety of albums, including Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl and Iggy Pop’s American Caesar.
An engineer and producer for everyone from Tom Waits to Harold Budd. The other engineer on Oh Mercy, he returned with Lanois for Time Out Of Mind.
Texas-born “guitar slinger” drafted in for Oh Mercy by Lanois. “Bags of explosive licks with funky edges, rockabilly, tremolo-influenced,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “Mason had some fine songs.”
Along with fellow Was (Not Was) mainstay, David, the man born Don Fagenson was invited by Dylan to produce 1990’s routinely underrated Under The Red Sky. “The precursor to Modern Times,” he says today.
A guitarist sought out by Warren Zevon, Graham Nash, Ry Cooder and Curtis Mayfield, and one of the ever-revolving cast assembled for Under The Red Sky.
Another of the guitarists parachuted in for Under The Red Sky. Worked with Miles Davis and toured in the bands of Joni Mitchell and George Harrison.
Ryan’s engineering career has taken him from John Prine through Guns N’ Roses, all the way to Megadeth. One of the few witnesses to the creation of Dylan’s bare-boned acoustic albums, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong.
First met Dylan in 1964 as part of Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet. “Bob always liked us. We were one of his bands.” Dylan called for his “magic Vox” organ for Time Out Of Mind and “Love And Theft”.
Out of Memphis, the great rock’n’roll pianist and producer played on the Stones’ “Wild Horses” and was another of the Wild Bunch of veterans Dylan recruited for Time Out Of Mind.
One of Time Out Of Mind’s three drummers, Keltner first recorded with Dylan in ’71 and has worked with him often since, including the session that produced “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – “I actually cried while we were recording it.”
In the Jerry Garcia Band for over a decade, Kemper signed on as drummer in Dylan’s road band in 1996 and stayed until 2001. “And I’m sorry not to be in it today. I miss Bob and I miss that band.”
Dylan’s engineer of choice since the turn of the millennium. Previously worked with Booker T And The MGs and Jeff Buckley, but he got the gig with Dylan “when he heard I got my start doing Public Enemy records”.
Tell Tale Signs – Allan Jones’ take
May, 2008. The door of the hotel room opens and I’m introduced to someone who looks not unlike Billy Bob Thornton: tall, elegant, sharply turned out in a black suit. This is Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, here to play Sony BMG’s London chiefs tracks from the latest in the Bootleg Series he initiated in 1991.
Rosen first of all plays me a revelatory early version of “Most Of The Time”, stripped of the swampy atmospherics producer Daniel Lanois surrounded it with on Oh Mercy, and performed as it might have been for Blood On The Tracks, just Bob on guitar and harmonica. I’m flabbergasted, listen to about nine more tracks in wonder, and can’t wait for the thing to be released.
Six months later, here, finally, it is: Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Volume 8 – 39 rare and previously unreleased Dylan tracks, available as a 27-track double-CD with a 60-page booklet, and a Limited Edition Deluxe Collectors’ Edition, with the content from the 2CD set complemented by a further 12 tracks, a 150-page hardcover book of vintage single sleeves and a seven-inch single. There’s also a four-LP vinyl set.
The material in all formats is drawn from the past 20 years of Dylan’s career, the bulk of it from the sessions that produced Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind, with outtakes elsewhere from World Gone Wrong, and two startling alternative versions of two key tracks from Modern Times. Additionally, there are eight live tracks, including a thunderously exciting “Cold Irons Bound”, first hearings for two tracks from the unreleased 1992 sessions with guitarist David Bromberg (covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss The Mississippi” and the traditional “Duncan And Brady”, a former concert opener), as well as a smattering of songs written for movie soundtracks, including the hitherto unreleased “Can’t Escape From You” and the great Civil War epic, “’Cross The Green Mountain”. Finally, there’s “The Lonesome Mountain”, a duet with bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, from the latter’s Clinch Mountain Country album.
There have already been rumblings about the apparent eking out of what is clearly an abundance of previously unavailable material and the consequent duplication of songs – there are three versions, for instance, of “Love And Theft”’s “Mississippi”, the earliest dating from the Time Out Of Mind sessions, and there are two versions each of seven other tracks. Where, the plea goes up, are the rest of the Bromberg tracks? And why hasn’t there been a live album, culled from the shows Dylan played at New York’s Supper Club in 1993, which on the evidence here of “Ring Them Bells” would be mindblowing?
These may be legitimate quibbles, but you’d have to say in reply that whatever way you look at it, there are treasures here galore for the avid Bobcat and an opportunity to consider the many ways Dylan sees a song – an opportunity, that is, to appreciate his relentlessly myriadic vision. And who would put a price on that?
There are alternative takes here of familiar songs that differ not just in mood and tempo from the versions we know, but boast partially or completely different lyrics – as with the solo piano demo of “Dignity” and the jaunty rockabilly incarnation of “Everything Is Broken”. The two songs from Modern Times, meanwhile, are a radically altered “Someday Baby”, set to a slow martial beat, and a mesmerising early go at “Ain’t Talkin’”, with a swathe of new words.
I remember after seeing Dylan’s Temples In Flames tour in 1987 trying to explain to sceptical colleagues how astonishing it had been to hear Dylan tearing up classics from his vast repertoire, in some instances reinventing them brutally. Their reaction was much the same as many of the people who’d been sitting around me at the gig: why didn’t Bob just play the songs like he recorded them?
For these people, Dylan’s evisceration of his back catalogue was typically capricious, perverse, wilful vandalism, nothing less, and ruined their evening. The hits were played, perhaps, but you sometimes had to sit through half a song before you realised what it was. Clearly, for Dylan there was nothing to be gained by the faithful reading, replicated nightly with numbing repetition. For him to continue to make sense of his songs, they would have to be approached anew whenever they were played, as his moods dictated, and everybody would have to get used to that.
It’s become such an embedded part of the Dylan myth that he never repeats himself that we perhaps take it for granted. On the following pages, however, as our Tell Tale Signs special continues, there’s ample testimony from some of the people who have worked with Dylan over the past two decades about his quixotic urgency, the impatient imperatives that drive him, his almost phobic insistence on not doing something twice the same way.
In these days of boxset anthologies with innumerable extras, we’re used to hearing how songs develop from rough-sketch demos to the finished thing, which then becomes the unalterable text, omnipotent and inviolate, embellished occasionally in concert but usually recognisably the song you know from the record. With Dylan it’s different, as it usually is.
Tell Tale Signs is awash with evidence of his staggering mercuriality, his evident determination even in the studio to repeat himself as little as possible, re-takes not merely the occasion for refinement, the honing of a song into static finality, but serial re-imaginings. Witness the three versions of “Mississippi” – all of them as different from each other as they are from the one on “Love And Theft”. You can hear on them the working of nuance, a successive revealing of things. Similarly fascinating are the two versions of “Can’t Wait”, both more desperately intimate than the Time Out Of Mind recording. The first, piano-led, is fleetingly reminiscent of Planet Waves’ “Dirge”, dark and unsettling. The second, with glowering organ and a vocal drenched in reverb, is a doom-laden trip, eerily reminiscent of “Under Your Spell”, an unlikely collaboration with Carole Bayer Sager from Knocked Out Loaded, with a lyric that went on to become part of “Love And Theft’”s “Sugar Baby”.
Previously, the Bootleg Series has given us unreleased gems like 1965’s pivotal “Farewell Angelina”, “Up To Me”, dropped from the final version of Blood On The Tracks, which itself exists in two different forms, and “Blind Willie McTell”, unfathomably not included on Infidels.
Their equivalents here would be a majestic “Born In Time” on Disc One that’s in every way superior to its Under The Red Sky incarnation, and three tracks from the Time Out Of Mind sessions that didn’t make the album. This is extraordinary in the case of the eight-minute cantina reverie of “Red River Shore”, which is high-tier late Dylan, fatalistic and windswept. And only slightly less so in the cases of the gospel-based “Marchin’ To the City” – which turned later into “Till I Fell In Love With You” – and “Dreamin’ Of You”, Dylan wounded and haunted, much as he haunts us all.