Empire Burlesque



My interest in Bob Dylan happened to perfectly coincide with the peak period of Dylan’s lameness. Empire Burlesque was the first new Dylan album that I bought (technically, the first new Dylan cassette – I did not, at the time, have my own turntable). I was fifteen years old.

Here’s one true thing that you could say about Empire Burlesque: no one was ever impressed that you owned a copy of it. For some reason I have a very detailed memory of bringing it to a classmate’s house one day when we were working on a group project. Somehow it got put on. Everyone asked for it to be taken off.

The videos were lame. The songs were lame. The synth overlays were particularly lame. Dylan was someone who had been cool when my parents got married, but in 1985 there was nothing left there. Hang it up, old man.

Perhaps because I had paid for it, I did listen to that album an awful lot. Even though I hadn’t listened to it before this week in at least a quarter century I could still sing along to every song. I know every word, every phrasing. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

Trying to listen to it afresh, and not nostalgically, I have to say in all honesty it is not a good album. It has a ton of great moments – or moments that could be great – but almost every little bit is destroyed by the production.

Let’s start at the end, which is the best part. The best song on the album is “Dark Eyes”, the final track. This is just Dylan singing, playing guitar and a nice little bit of harmonica at the opening. It’s a formula that had worked for two decades at this point, and it works here all over again. Simple. This song has some truly beautiful lyrics: “They tell me revenge is sweet / From where they stand I’m sure it is / But I feel nothing for that game / Where beauty goes unrecognized / All I feel is heat and flame / And all I see are dark eyes”. Excellent. It’s beautifully written and well-sung. Years from now Dylan and Patti Smith will perform this as a duet in concert and it will be incredible. Why couldn’t the whole album be this way?

Neither of the two singles, “Tight Connection to My Heart” and “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky” are worth much of anything. Both are good songs lost in the production. That same thing can be said about most of the tracks here as well. “Seeing The Real You At Last” is a bitter Dylan blow-off with horns and sax slathered all over it. Lyrically, there are gems, including the opening line: “I though that the rain would cool things down, but it looks like it won’t”. That line always makes me think: “This is going to be good”, but it never is.

“Never Gonna Be the Same Again” suffers from both synthesizer and back-up singers. Could’ve been a good love song, but I can barely listen to this one – it is way too far over the top. “Trust Yourself”, one of three songs on the album featuring the return of Sly and Robbie as the rhythm section, is also too much. “Emotionally Yours” is pretty much just a bad song – it’s the type of thing Rod Stewart was doing around this time. The worst song on the album is ‘Something’s Burning, Baby”, with its marching band drums and synthesizer. That one probably can’t be redeemed at all (it is the only song from the album to have never been performed live, so maybe I’m not the only one who thinks this….)

There are also two curious songs on the album. The first is “Clean Cut Kid”, maybe the first pop song about Vietnam War PTSD. This is another where I hate the production, which is clanging and jarring, but the lyrics are actually quite funny. Dylan doesn’t often engage with straight up satire, but this song has a lot of it. Every time I hear this I think I hate it, but by about the midway point (“He was on the baseball team, he was in the marching band / When he was ten years old he had a watermelon stand”) I think I should give it another chance. Then the “whoop whoops” start up from the back-up singers and I have to wonder if Dylan has lost his mind. This is one that I wish were better than it is.

The other interesting song is “I’ll Remember You”. Along with “Dark Eyes”, this is the lone song that isn’t overproduced on the album – just Dylan on piano, plus an understated guitar, bass, drums backing band and a single backing singer (Madelyn Quebec). What surprises me about this song is that it didn’t get released as a single, since it seems like precisely the type of song that gets regularly picked up for big emotional moments. It’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings” but far less cloying. It’s a more contemporary “Forever Young”. It’s the song that you hope gets played at your funeral and everyone starts crying. It really seems like it should be played over the end credits of everyone’s college years:

There’s some people that
You don’t forget
Even though you’ve only seen ’m one time or two
When the roses fade
And I’m in the shade
I’ll remember you

It’s good for what it is, and I’m surprised that it never got picked up in that context and covered.

So, that’s Empire Burlesque. It’s a pretty forgettable album, with a lot of songs that could have been much better than they are here.

I can’t say, however, that it never did anything for me in high school. In point of fact, one of my great high school triumphs is owed to this album: As I may have mentioned at least once this year, all of the English teachers at my high school were Dylan fans. The biggest fan amongst them taught me grade eleven English. He would talk about Dylan frequently. At least once a week. It was a running joke. One day, for reasons that I can not ascertain, he went off on the class. The pretext was an article in that day’s paper about “my generation” and the fact that they didn’t have heroes. He asked us for some examples of heroes and no one offered much up (to be fair, it was a terrible, terrible group of students, they never gave him much to work with – the class had a lot of students who weren’t bound for college). He called us self-interested. So I raised my hand and offered a quote. He told me to go ahead, and turning to the back of my Bob Dylan Collected Lyrics (which, honestly, I had with me…), I said “To quote the great Bob Dylan:

Trust yourself
Trust yourself to do the things that only you know best
Trust yourself
Trust yourself to do what’s right and not be second-guessed
Don’t trust me to show you beauty
When beauty may only turn to rust
If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself

Mic drop. I think that the class actually whooped. For the rest of the week I was stopped in the hall by people I didn’t even know to ask if it was true that I’d shut down Mr. X with a Dylan quote. Indeed it was. It was probably the smuggest I’ve ever felt in my entire life.

That’s a true story, by the way.

“Sun City”



“Sun City” is a vastly superior song to the treacly “We Are the World”, the more famous megastar single from 1985. Put together by Steven Van Zandt, who had left Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band the year prior, “Sun City” was the first all-star song with the goal of raising political awareness rather than money for charity.

Bob Dylan was one of the earliest stars to sign up for the project – he had been working with Van Zandt on tracks for Empire Burlesque (tracks that would, sadly, be cut from the album), so the connection is pretty direct and easy to understand. Unlike on “We Are the World”, Dylan doesn’t have a big signature part on this song, and it’s a lot more difficult to pick out his contribution. In the video he’s even more obscured, he basically show up around 4:16 and points his finger at Jackson Browne. They both sing the line “Relocation to phony homelands” at about 4:29 – listening to the song without watching the video he’s tough to pick out, Peter Garrett sort of overwhelms Dylan’s line with his own following one. That’s it. So I’m not really sure what there is to say here from a Dylan perspective.

I like the song a lot, still to this day. Probably to the same degree that I dislike “We Are the World”. The song was only a limited hit. Some radio stations refused to play it because of the line sung by Joey Ramone: “Constructive Engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan”. No criticisms of Reagan on 80s pop radio, thanks very much. 

Van Zandt has written very interestingly about all of this, and about his engagement with the issue. Warning: Reading this article may cause you to become extremely irritated with Paul Simon!

Live Aid



I didn’t see Live Aid. It took place on July 13, 1985 from London and Philadelphia, and I was at my cottage where we had no television, so I missed the whole thing. I remember reading about it in the newspaper, and then hearing about it later, but I’d never seen any of it.

These are the things that I knew about it for the past thirty years:

  1. Joan Baez called it the Woodstock of my generation
  2. Mick Jagger ripped off Tina Turner’s skirt
  3. Bob Dylan ruined the whole thing

Fortunately, YouTube exists.

I don’t think that I knew until today, for instance, that Bob Dylan was actually the final act. It obviously makes sense, but I didn’t actually know it. Introduced by Jack Nicholson, Dylan took the stage with Ron Wood and Keith Richards, and the three of them played a trio of early Dylan songs on acoustic guitars. That performance is not as good as that sounds.

I have read today that their monitors were out and that they really couldn’t hear themselves playing. Could well be. Dylan does ask the crowd how it sounds before “Blowing in the Wind”, which seems to indicate that he wasn’t sure himself. He also tosses Wood a knowing glance when Richards does his solo, which I read as saying that he doesn’t think that the set is going very well. Bob Geldof, in his autobiography, notes that a curtain might have fallen on their monitors and that Quincy Jones was not paying attention to the set as he was getting the encore in order backstage. Also, it is clear that, at the very least, the Stones were inebriated.

It is an inexplicable set in many ways. Dylan does two songs from his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’, neither of which would have been expected. He opens with “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”, the doom-laden song of a starving farmer in South Dakota who murders his family and himself. The song is a major downer, and would have been foreign to almost everyone in the multiple audiences watching. There is a bootleg of the trio rehearsing the night before the show (and also the day of) and on that Dylan notes that “no one” will know this song. Richards says that some will, and Dylan corrects him by noting that the few who would are not the type of people who would rush to stand in line to get tickets for an event like this. Given how very few performers attempted to tie their material into the event (It’s not like Madonna and Duran Duran and were playing songs that spoke to the gravity of the situation. Madonna did “Holiday”, for God’s sake), Dylan’s song selection is notable, though it doesn’t come off well on stage (on the rehearsals it sounds good).

His second song, “When the Ship Comes In”, is more celebratory and uplifting, but just as obscure. Dylan seems to be telling a tale with his song selection, but that goes unnoticed. This was only the third ever time that Dylan had performed this song live, so he was clearly making a point by playing it. A large problem is that the song is a bit mysterious, and in this context it was even more so.

Finally, the trio concludes with a rather unconvincing rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, before ceding the stage to the whole cast of performers for “We Are the World”. It is muddied and dour. A massive disappointment right at the conclusion of the show.

The most famous part of the whole set, actually, is Dylan’s comments at the end of “Hollis Brown”, where he suggests that some of the money raised, “a million or two”, might be saved for American farmers struggling to pay their mortgages. Geldof, in his autobiography, is furious about this remark (“it was a crass, stupid, nationalistic thing to say”). I think that the first rule of charitable concerts is that you don’t suggest that there may be better places to give the money. This comment did inspire Neil Young to start Farm Aid, about which more later this week. Geldof, by the way, should never listen to the bootleg of the rehearsals where Richards questions why they’re even playing this show, since none of the money is actually likely to go to Ethiopia anyway!

Given his placement in the concert, given his wide range of songs to choose from, given the enormity of the stage, this could have been the great Dylan comeback moment. All he really had to do was go out there with a band and blow people away with a rollicking “Like a Rolling Stone” with Wood and Richards and everyone would have been thrilled. Instead, Dylan followed his own muse, as he always does, and left people unhappy. As he so often does.


I guess I didn’t miss much…