Dylan wasn’t all terrible in the 80s

My podcast ducks are all in a row. Having identified Nothing is Real as an acceptable Beatles podcast, and Backlisted as an acceptable books podcast, I have now found a Dylan podcast, Is It Rolling Bob, which I only resent slightly for stealing the title of what would have been my own podcast.

[Which wouldn’t necessarily have been a Dylan podcast, by the way. Like this blog, I’d find it impossible to focus on one topic, so it would be an eclectic mix of me talking shit with a close friend, preferably a woman (you know who you are) because the world has enough podcasts featuring two blokes talking shit.]

I’ve only listened to a few episodes of Is it Rolling Bob but it seems clear so far that people are generally of the opinion that Dylan was terrible in the 80s. Lost his way, got writer’s block, had production problems, as documented in Chronicles, his “memoir” (and didn’t he tease us with that Volume One?).

Each guest starts the episode by quoting a line or a verse of a particular Dylan song, and most of the ones I’ve heard so far have chosen songs recorded in the 1960s. So if I was a guest on the podcast, I’d do two things. The first would be to quote from an 80s song, “Brownsville Girl”:

“How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh.

“We’re going all the way—’til the wheels fall off and burn

“’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies.”

Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”

So that’s one thing. And the other thing I’d do is defend the 1980s. Of course it’s mostly terrible, but you can pull together a compilation album of corkers from that period, and it would stretch longer than two sides of a vinyl record. In fact, let’s cap it at an hour, and do it now:

  1. Heart of Mine. From his 1981 gospel album, Shot of Love, Heart of Mine is both a fine Dylan love song and a clear signal that the gospel era is at an end. “Jesus himself only preached for three years,” as Bob said in an interview at the time. Personnel on this track include Jim Keltner on drums, Clydie King on BVs, Ronnie Wood on guitar, and it’s only bloody Ringo on Tom Tom. The track starts out like a rehearsal, a noodle, and then goes into a passionate and beautiful and funky performance. Bob’s voice is strong, and you can hear the musicians feeling their way: keeping it live, Bob?
  2. Jokerman. This is from 1983’s Infidels, and has both Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on guitar, Sly and Robbie on the rhythms. The gospel era may be over, but the mystical, religious imagery continues: “Standing on the waters casting your bread / While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing”. And isn’t this beautiful: “Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy / The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers / In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed /Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features.” It needed a better chorus, but it is superb, and who is it about? It’s about him, isn’t it, “manipulator of crowds, dream twister”. Fucking awesome. We’ve got 10 minutes already and we’re barely getting started.
  3. Tight Connection to My Heart. Controversial, I know, but I really like some of Empire Burlesque, which does indeed have possibly the worst album cover of all time. I think one critic described it as “good like Elton John is good” but not good enough for Dylan. Listen, all you need to know about this record is that a lot of the lyrics quote Humphrey Bogart movies. This tickles me. You can picture Dylan bingeing on Bogart and writing songs around the lines that stood out for him. Personnel: Mick Taylor again, Sly and Robbie again, and Carol Dennis et al on BVs. This is pure Bogart: “Well, I had to move fast / And I couldn’t with you around my neck / I said I’d send for you and I did / What did you expect?” And this is pure Dylan: “You’re the one I’ve been looking for / You’re the one that’s got the key / But I can’t figure out whether I’m too good for you / Or you’re too good for me.” And his final farewell to his evangelical years: “Never could learn to drink that blood / And call it wine.” The arrangement of the backing vocals is beautiful, by the way.
  4. Everything is Broken. Forward to the end of the 80s now, and this track from his well-regarded Oh Mercy. Personally, while I enjoyed it, I could feel the slightness of the songs on this record. The effect depends heavily on Daniel Lanois’ production. Still, there are several good tracks, and this is the first. Swampy sounds, lots of vibrato on the guitar, and some dry drums, and a clever lyric that tells us about all the things that are broken: “Broken cutters, broken saws / Broken buckles, broken laws / Broken bodies, broken bones / Broken voices on broken phones”.
  5. Sweetheart Like You. Another track from Infidels. I can leave the rest, but this is lovely. “I once knew a woman who looked like you…” And: “In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear / It’s done with a flick of the wrist / What’s a sweetheart like you doin’ in a dump like this?” There are some religious allusions here, and it feels like it might be addressed to the one who converted him to Christianity. And some of Dylan’s best political lines: “They say that patriotism is the last refuge / To which a scoundrel clings / Steal a little and they throw you in jail / Steal a lot and they make you king.” Some great guitar on this, from the Knopfler and Taylor team. End of Side One?
  6. Most of the Time. The best song on Oh Mercy, and one of the most heartbreaking songs he ever recorded. That this came out as I was coming out of a long-term relationship has nothing to do with it, I tell you. “Most of the time / I’m halfway content / Most of the time / I know exactly where it went / I don’t cheat on myself, I don’t run and hide / Hide from the feelings that are buried inside / I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend / I don’t even care if I ever see her again / Most of the time.” Superb bass line from Tony Hall.
  7. Ring Them Bells. Sticking with Oh Mercy, I don’t think you can listen to this one and then argue that Dylan wasn’t any good in the 80s. This makes me cry and I don’t know why, just that it’s so beautiful and moving. “Oh it’s rush hour now / On the wheel and the plow / And the sun is going down / Upon the sacred cow”
  8. Emotionally Yours. Another Empire Burlesque number. I’ve got a version of the O’Jays doing this, and it’s fantastic. So the lyrics are simplistic, but the performance is great. Mike Campbell on guitar, Benmont on organ, Howie Epstein on bass. That’s quite a lot of Heartbreakers right there. Honestly, I could pick two or three others from this record, but we’ll stick with two.
  9. Brownsville Girl. Written with Sam Shepard, this is a song with a cinematic quality, but also tremendous wit and warmth and good humour. I think it’s immense. I hate the 80s production, the drum sounds, the wasp-fart saxophone, but it is still glorious. And who is it about? Gregory Peck? No, it’s about Dylan himself. Shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself. “I’ll see him in anything, so I’ll stand in line.” And: “I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert / In your busted down Ford and your platform heels / I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet / Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel.” You could write a thesis on the backing vocals alone. “I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone (Oh, YEAH?)”. What even is this album cover?
  10. Every Grain of Sand. Back to Shot of Love, and one of his all-time greats, one of his gospel songs, this is Dylan as William Blake. “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake / Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break / In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” Arpeggiated guitar, and a careful vocal ending on a sigh, and Benmont on the keys, and a lovely harmonica break (some of his best harmonica playing is on the gospel records). Also, what even is this album cover?
  11. Series of Dreams. Finally, the bonus track. Recorded in the 80s and not released until the 90s. this was left off Oh Mercy, but of course it was. Why was it rejected? Something about not being entirely happy with the verses, preferring the bridge, but not wanting to mess with it too much. Probably titivated it too much and went off it. But it’s great. “In one, numbers were burning / In another, I witnessed a crime / In one, I was running, and in another / All I seemed to be doing was climb.”

59 minutes. Dylan in the 80s. Quite good.