Re-evaluating Dylan's weirdest and most controversial decade: the Eighties
The True Confessions tour of Australia and Japan with Petty and the Heartbreakers finishes on March 10, at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall. In mid-April, Dylan’s in Skyline Studios in Topanga Canyon. He’s tried to accommodate modern recording methods with Mark Knopfler and Arthur Baker on Infidels and Empire Burlesque and been frustrated and dismayed by the process. He now wants to return to the way he made records in the ’60s – live in the studio, quickly and intuitively. He thinks he can record a new album in a week to meet the deadline for the upcoming US dates with the Heartbreakers. A large cast of musicians are invited to Skyline for sessions that seem to have no coherent direction, including Los Lobos, T Bone Burnett, Al Kooper, Steve Douglas, the saxophonist with the Wrecking Crew, Stevie Wonder’s drummer Raymond Pounds, bassist James Jamerson Jr and Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin. Ira Ingber is also present and like Kooper is dismayed by Dylan’s startling lack of confidence in what he’s doing.
“His inclination to add more and more musicians, certainly in the latter set of recordings I did with him – as opposed to that small core group we started out with in 1984 – I think that indicates that he did lose confidence in the songs themselves, and his place in the songs,” Inbger says. “I think he thought it could be made up by just obscuring it, with more instruments, background singers, whatever. It happened a lot even during his vocal recordings. I think he’s one of the world’s greatest singers, period. I believe everything he says when he sings. There’s a complete credibility. But a lot of times back then, the vocal take wouldn’t show that.
“There was a moment early on in working with him at Cherokee Studios, when I found myself in the recording booth, and, again, there was no producer. It was just me and an engineer, George Tutko. Bob was singing and he blew a line. He said from out in the recording room, ‘How was that?’ I said George, ‘Do I tell him or do you tell him?’ George said, ‘I’m not gonna tell him.’ I’m thinking, if I tell him that this isn’t working and he gets pissed off, then that’s the end of that. But if I don’t tell him, then I haven’t done my job. So I push the talkback and I say, ‘It sounded good, Bob, but I think you’ve probably got a better end part to that than the one you got there…’ There was this looooong pause. I’m thinking, oh, here we go. But finally, he said, ‘OK. Let’s do it again.’ This wave of relief came over me, because at that moment he started trusting me. Somebody had to drive the bus, there was no producer, and for someone like Bob out there singing and playing, it’s very difficult to know when you’re on target. That’s one of the jobs of a producer to, hopefully, gently, guide without interfering.
“So that’s what I started doing in that early set of recordings. Then in the second set, a lot of that was gone. Bob was hearing from a lot of other people, sometimes too many people. That lack of confidence was surprising to me. It would vary from day to day, song to song, and it didn’t feel to me as though there was a singular focus, of ‘This is what I’m doing. This is the record I’m making. This is my point of view.’ It seemed very scattershot.”
Reviews of the album are unilaterally hostile, as derisive as anything written about Saved or Shot Of Love. In another opinion, the opening version of Junior Parker’s “You Wanna Ramble” is a gas. Take away the backing vocals, toughen up the guitars, thicken up the sound and it could be something you might hear on Modern Times or Together Through Life. “Maybe Someday” and “Got My Mind Made Up” are good-humoured loose-limbed lopes. The version of the country gospel standard “Precious Memories”, meanwhile, has an appealing end-of-the-trail feel to it and an affecting vocal. The steel drums are an eccentric if lovely touch that make the thing sound somewhat like the Carter Family via the Caribbean. Carole Bayer Sager gets a co-writing credit on the creepy “Under Your Spell”, which has echoes of Planet Waves’ “Wedding Song” and the fevered desperation of “Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat)” from Street-Legal.
Best of all is “Brownsville Girl”. It’s a song, one of the finest in his pantheon, about memory, identity, legend, loyalty, death and love across 11 action-packed minutes, Dylan throwing everything at this version, where the original was spare, acoustic and drifting. The KOL take is almost frantic, with Dylan often delivering its many great lines in a kind of delirium, the song revolving around half-remembered scenes from a Gregory Peck Western about an ageing gunfighter shot in the back by a craven young gunslinger. With Dylan’s Queens Of Rhythm, hollering like a cross between the Ikettes and the chorus in a classical Greek drama, the song follows two young lovers on a roadtrip across Texas and Mexico, and back to New Orleans, Dylan singing his ass off in one of his most audacious vocal performances ever. The album doesn’t even make it into the US Top 50.