On Sam Shepard


sam shepard with bob dylan during the rolling thunder tour

This is one is belated, but let’s do it anyway.

So back on April 19 I wrote this about The Rolling Thunder Revue:

Sam Shepard appears briefly, hired to bring some order to the script, but I’m not even sure if he stuck around. He’s at a party on page 419, but I don’t know if he had left and then come back or he’d been there all along. It’s possible that even [Larry] Sloman didn’t know.”

Then on May 1 I wrote this:

“(I just learned the other day that Shepard published a book about his experience – I’ve ordered it, but it hasn’t arrived yet).”

So, yeah. That book never arrived (curse you, Abebooks seller – now I need to follow up on that). But I was in the library yesterday to get another piece of Shepard’s on Dylan for next week, and happening to notice this book in among all of his plays and whatnot on the shelves, so I snapped it up. Rolling Thunder Logbook, it’s called, and I read it very quickly – it’s short and well-illustrated.

This is a fascinating book, and I will want to get my own copy. Shepard, of course, is an incredible writer and stylist, and he has a bizarre outsider’s take on the Rolling Thunder Revue. His book confirms a lot of what Larry Sloman wrote about – and what Renaldo and Clara depicted – but it is a lot less thorough than Sloman’s book, so it is probably better that I read it second. It’s funny, because Sloman’s book really is the outsider’s perspective (he wasn’t officially a part of the tour, so had limited access, while Shepard was and so had great access), but Shepard just sees things so differently from the rest that it comes across as a very alienated book. On Sloman, Shepard writes: “If Dylan ever wondered how far a fan would go to get tight with him, he’s looking at it in the flesh”.

Shepard has dozens of other great lines like that. One that I wrote down as I was reading:

On Joan Baez: “I never used to think of her as sexy before, but she’s definitely that. No more folksy peace-licking Scottish-folk-ballad stuff. She’s transformed into a short-cropped shit-kicking Mexican disco dancer.”

He’s also very sharp about the man himself:

On the essence of Dylan: “If a mystery is solved, the case is dropped. In this case, in the case of Dylan, the mystery is never solved, so the case keeps on. It keeps coming up again. Over and over the years. Who is the character anyway?”

Again, on the essence of Dylan: “Dylan has invented himself. He’s made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him. Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn’t to figure him out but to take him in. He gets into you anyway, so why not just take him in? He’s not the first one to have invented himself, but he’s the first one to have invented Dylan. No one invented him before him. Or after.”

Shepard is a great prose stylist, but these insights into Dylan seem to be something more than style. For half a year now I’ve been thinking that there will be a moment when I “get” Dylan, possibly because I’ve had similar moments about other subjects of my own writing, where suddenly pieces fall into place. Shepard suggests that that is unlikely to happen, and possibly that I shouldn’t want it to happen. He seems like a sage man, and I may have to go with his advice. “Use it as an adventure”, Shepard writes of the invented thing. Of the invented Dylan.

The book ends with Dylan and Sara and some other members of his entourage going to see the American version of Shepard’s play “The Geography of a Horse Dreamer” in New York. It’s off-Broadway and directed by Jacques Levy, who co-wrote many of the songs on Desire. A circle is being closed. Shepard describes it as a nightmare, a stony crowd of press people and Dylan taking notes, getting drunk, and, finally, lashing out at the stage. I don’t know if this happened or it didn’t happen – I think it is somewhat vague in the book – but it is a harrowing final chapter to a harrowing tour. Shepard has seen something in Dylan and understood something in him, and he has to flee from it.

The most interesting thing is that he also comes back. But that is for later this week.





The sudden, shocking realization that this entire blogging project is an attempt to understand Christmas Day 1985.

Biograph, the five-album Bob Dylan retrospective, was released on November 7, 1985.  I was sixteen years old when I received it on Christmas day that year from my parents. I also received a stereo – one of those all-in-one things that were mostly plastic but which incorporated a turntable, two cassette decks (dubbing!) and a radio tuner, and external speakers. I no longer had to listen to music on the family turntable, which was one of those huge wooden cabinet things from the 1970s in the living room. Freedom!

We celebrated Christmas in Montreal that year, with my father’s parents. I remember the genuine joy of receiving that stereo (completely unexpected) and Biograph (somewhat expected, I’m sure I would have asked for it – I wanted it but it was expensive-ish for a teenager with no job). I remember assembling the stereo after lunch (well, plugging in the two speakers – not much assembling) and unwrapping and listening to Biograph for three and a half hours while reading the two booklets, one a well-illustrated biography of Dylan and the other a series of reminiscences on the songs via interviews with Dylan conducted by Cameron Crowe (who was still a few years from becoming the filmmaker of Say Anything…). This was a feast for someone like me, who was only somewhat aware of the hits.

I am certain that Christmas Day 1985 was the first time I heard “Lay Lady Lay”, “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”, “If Not For You” and dozens and dozens of other songs. Indeed, so unaware was I of Dylan’s career that the distinction between released and unreleased songs (18 of the 53 tracks on Biograph were previously unreleased) made no sense to me. I wasn’t hearing familiar songs with some new material – it was almost all new to me. Since I listened to this album hundreds of times in the next couple of years there are still unreleased songs from Biograph that I am shocked to not find on his early albums (“Percy’s Song”, for example, is not on Freewheelin’? That doesn’t make sense to me in 2014. Isn’t it one of the best songs on that album?). There are dozens (well, a dozen and a half) examples just like that. Live versions of things like “Isis” that are far more familiar to me than the album versions ever will be.

Listening through Biograph today for the first time in a long while, what strikes me most of all is how much this project is drawn from the same impulse to write down the “truth” about Bob Dylan and to work out which are the great tracks (released, unreleased, live versions). What is annoying me right now is how much better Biograph is than this little blog project.

Let me say this straight: Biograph is the best Bob Dylan album. Yes, that’s unfair. It’s five albums. It’s heavily curated. It uses dozens of short-cuts and cheats. But if you are going to have one Bob Dylan album, it should be Biograph. It doesn’t have all of his best material, but it is so very close that nothing else is even close.

What is most remarkable, having spent almost half a year listening to nothing but Dylan, is how incredibly well this thing is put together. Not just the selection of live tracks – which is superlative – but the organization of the material. The jumping around in time might not work were it not done so incredibly well. Songs are put in dialogue with each other (to use an annoying art world term) in ways that allow you to hear them afresh. This is basically ten sides of Dylan, some of them repeating. Because that’s who Dylan is.

(Note: Biograph works better on vinyl than on CD/MP3 collection) because it is so self-consciously organized as ten five-song sets, which is how the liner notes are arranged)

Side One: Dylan love songs jumps from the late-1960s back to the beginnings, going from “Lay Lady Lay” to “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” (the lone song from his first album). The highlight is the unreleased version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, which is a remarkable piano performance of a beautiful song.

Side Two: Dylan as protest singer. Four of the songs are from two albums (Times and Freewheelin’), indicating just how short the protest period was (basically not more than two years). Four anthems: “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “Hattie Carroll” and then the unreleased “Percy’s Song”, one of the staples of his early concerts. The greatest of the greatest hits collection.

Side Three: Going rock. Two songs from Highway 61 Revisited (“Rolling Stone”, obviously, and “Tombstone Blues”), plus a live version of a song from Blonde on Blonde (“Most Likely You Go Your Way” from Before the Flood). Three pieces of genius in here though: the addition of “Mixed-Up Confusion” Dylan’s first single (quickly pulled by his label), which demonstrates that his rock inclinations were there in 1962 and not a later addition. Historicize! Second, “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”, the B-side non-album song from Shot of Love, which sounds completely at home after “Tombstone Blues” – Dylan doesn’t change that much in fifteen years. Finally, “Jet Pilot”, a tiny little goof of a song that I used to fill the remaining space on mix-tapes for years and years.

Side Four: Continues the mid-1960s by bringing in the rock tour. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is the anchor here, leading into two live songs from his fateful 1966 tour of the UK (“I Don’t Believe You” from Belfast; “Visions of Johanna” from London – very little he has ever done is better than this version of this song), and then an incredible segue into “Every Grain of Sand”, which sounds so, so, so right after “Visions of Johanna”. Dylan’s text on the latter, by the way, is very telling – he certainly was not post-Christian when he did that interview with Crowe!

Side Five: Surreal Dylan. “Tambourine Man”, “Million Dollar Bash”, “Quinn the Eskimo”. For a long time this was my least favourite side of Dylan, and probably my least favourite side of Biograph. This is the one I’ve listened to the least, in all honesty.

Side Six: Heartbreak Dylan. This may be the one I’ve listened to the most. Anchored by “Tangled Up in Blue”, this side has three unreleased tracks: “You’re a Big Girl Now”, “Abandoned Love” and an incredible “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Manchester 1966 – the third song from the space of about ten days on that magical 1966 tour). The three mid-1970s tracks really shape the earlier songs (including “To Ramona”) that open and close the side. Best side on the album.

Side Seven: Rarities. Another incredible side. Two non-album singles (“Can You Please Crawl Out You Window?” and “Positively 4th Street”) followed by a live version of “Isis” from the Montreal Rolling Thunder show in 1975 (an incredible version) and outtakes from Shot of Love and Blood on the Tracks. This album just keeps picking up steam!

Side Eight: Dylan wants you, baby! Six songs of lust and desire going right back to an unreleased 1962 version of “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You” and a 1965 version of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. “I Want You”, “Heart of Mine” (better than the album version) and “Just Like a Woman”. You get the picture. Seductive Dylan.

Side Nine: Exotic Dylan meets Religious Dylan. A live version of “Romance in Durango” from the Rolling Thunder Revue (also the Montreal show) and “Señor”, followed by “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “I Believe in You”, both from Slow Train Coming, before a flashback to New Morning for “Time Passes Slowly”. This is a bit of a misstep right at the end. The religious material probably should have been paired with some of the earlier spiritual material from, say, John Wesley Harding.

Side Ten: The rousing finale. All five songs here have been regularly performed by Dylan in his encores. Crowd pleasers! Jam songs! Bring out the guest stars and do a duet on “I Shall be Released”, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, “All Along the Watchtower”, “Solid Rock” and “Forever Young”. If that doesn’t leave them wanting more I don’t know what will!

Listening to this album again today has been a bit bizarre. I haven’t been moving backward this year at all. Once I pass a week it is gone from the rotation. This means that there are songs that I’ve heard dozens (hundreds) of times, but they’re generally new versions. I hadn’t heard the album version of “Like A Rolling Stone” since January, but I’ve heard it on bootlegs almost every week that’s he’s had a tour. So much of the 1960s material sounds so strange now. Dylan’s early-1960s voice is gone – I’m used to the mid-1980s version. It’s like being in a pot on the stove – you don’t notice the gradual change in temperature until you step right out.

I love Biograph. I’ve owned three copies of this album. The one that I got for Christmas in 1985 disappeared somewhere along the way. I obviously loaned it to someone (I even suspect that I know who, but it is a high school friend that I haven’t seen in a quarter century – he’s not on Facebook, so how can I ask for it back?). It’s long gone. Sometime in the 1990s while I was in grad school I bought it again on CD at a used record store and I can remember listening to it a few times when I lived in Montreal. We sold all of our CDs a few years ago, however, after burning the ones we wanted to keep. So I have MP3s of that version. A few weeks ago I bought a third copy at a used record store here in Calgary after searching unsuccessfully for the text of the two booklets online. I wanted to be able to read the incredible liner notes, which is how I’ve spent this morning – listening again to the album that made me a short-lived Dylan fan while reading the liner notes just as I did on Christmas Day twenty-nine years ago.

(By the way, this is the 200th post on this blog. You have no idea how difficult it was to arrange that, but I hope you’ll appreciate it!)

Outside the Empire



I got the slightest little bit of pushback about my comments about Empire Burlesque on Facebook (ok, it was one comment). In some ways that makes sense, as a lot of my friends are around my age so they too would have experienced that album as among their first Dylan purchases. I want to help those people out.

Throw away Empire Burlesque. Get rid of it. Burn it! Delete it! Ignore it! Shun it! Now, replace it with Outside the Empire*, or one of the many collections of outtakes from the lengthy recording sessions for the album. Empire Burlesque was recorded over a very long period in a number of locations with a number of performers and a number of sounds. It is a sort of cobbled together album that was then overlaid with 1980s synth elements and over-dubs. Go back to the source.

Outside the Empire includes sixteen tracks, six more than Empire Burlesque. It includes a version of every single song on Empire Burlesque except for “Dark Eyes”, which, as I have noted, is the one truly great song on the album (and the only one that isn’t ruined by an awful production job). So when you delete your digital files, keep “Dark Eyes”.

Virtually everything else is improved, at least to some degree.

“Tight Connection to My Heart” is almost the same version of the song as on the album, but the horrendous synth fills haven’t been added yet. I admit, I have Dylan synth PTSD so I keep expecting to hear them in there – I actually flinch while waiting for them. I still don’t think it’s a very good song, but it’s improved. “Seeing the Real You at Last” is very similar – the vocals may even be the exact same – but the sound is cleaned up and simplified.

“I’ll Remember You” is basically just a different, very slightly shorter, take. It’s still the same basic set-up. Not really an improvement. I still like this. “Clean Cut Kid” is fairly significantly different. Dylan clears his throat in the first bar, which always makes me laugh. Still has the back-up singers and whatnot, but the lyrics are slightly different. Still, it’s mostly just piano, guitar and drums here, without all the excess crap. There’s an additional verse:

He went to church on Sunday, he was a boy scout

For his friends he would turn his pockets inside out

That second line doesn’t really scan, so it was probably better left out. Still, this is a major upgrade.

“Never Gonna Be the Same Again” is just a more spare version of the song from the album. “Trust Yourself” falls along similar lines, as is “Emotionally Yours”. The disappointment is that the version of “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” is not the one from Bootleg Series 3 but is just a bit more stripped down version of what’s on the album. Finally, “Something’s Burning” has the same drum bits and so suffers from a lot of the same problems.

Basically, the album isn’t that much different from the official release, but it has been stripped of almost all of its gunk. It sounds more like a Bob Dylan album than like a Bob Dylan trying to understand the 1980s album, which is how Empire Burlesque sounds to me. Basically it removes everything that I don’t like from the album. I honestly don’t think I will ever re-listen to Empire Burlesque, but Outside the Empire will go into regular rotation, because, as I said the other day, I do think that a lot of these songs, as songs, are vastly under-rated. These versions are much, much stronger.

As for the outtakes, unlike Outfidels which had literally half a dozen tracks that would have made Infidels one of the great albums of all time, this is not the case here. Two songs from his next studio album, Knocked Out Loaded, appear: “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” and “New Danville Girl” (which will become “Brownsville Girl”, about which much much more next week). Most of the rest of pretty weak. “Waiting to Get Beat” is sort of awful and should have remained buried forever, while others are just sort of half-baked duds like “Go Away Little Boy” (rasped out here). The one song that I really enjoy is “Straight A’s in Love”, which if I had a garage band of academics I would totally cover and people would think it was great, but as a mid-career Dylan song is kind of embarrassing. I could sing this ironically as the hipster that I am….

So, pick up a bootleg of the Empire Burlesque material. So much better than the album itself.

*Visions of Johanna, a very good Bob Dylan blog, notes that there are multiple versions of the Empire Burlesque outtakes: Clean Cuts was the first, but is mastered at the wrong speed (seriously – do not get this CD). Better are Outside the Empire, Tempest Storm, Tempest Storm (a second bootleg with the same name!), Real Cuts At Last, Empire Burlesque Originals and Outtakes, Empire Burlesque Sessions, and The Naked Empire. Whew. VoJ prefers The Naked Empire – I don’t have that, so I can’t comment on its relative quality.

Farm Aid



I didn’t see Farm Aid either. Not sure why. It was in September, so I probably wasn’t away. It aired on The Nashville Network, which we may not have received in Canada at that time, and so it is possible that it wasn’t even possible for me to see it. I really have no memory of it at all.

Farm Aid, which has now become an annual event, was initially organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young after Bob Dylan made an off-hand remark about struggling family farmers at Live Aid in July. The whole thing was brought together quickly in Champaign, IL, and it featured a remarkable list of musicians, most of whom had been left off an event like Live Aid.

1985-09-22 Farm Aid Champaign

Obviously, country acts dominated (Alabama, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels Band, John Denver, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, Tanya Tucker, to name but a few), but there were also blues stars (B.B. King!), rock stars (Eddie Van Halen! Sammy Hagar!), pop stars (Billy Joel! Daryl Hall!), and people who you would think had never seen a farm in their entire lives (Lou Reed!). Perhaps most bizarrely, there was LA-based punk band X. There is obviously a connection there that I am unaware of, since they also played Farm Aid II the next year.

I believe that this show marked the first time that Dylan performed live with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with whom he would tour in 1986 and, more impressively, 1987. While I don’t want to get ahead of myself, many argue that those tours were the return of “good Bob”, with him working with a well-established unit for the first time since The Band a decade earlier. We shall see.

The Farm Aid set wasn’t flawless, but it was miles better than Live Aid. It was really the complete opposite of the Live Aid set – a big band sound rather than the acoustic trio; mostly new songs rather than obscure old ones. Dylan performed six songs, and three of them were from Empire Burlesque (“Clean Cut Kid”, “I’ll Remember You”, and “Trust Yourself”). Of those only “Trust Yourself” sounds like a significant upgrade on the album version. He also performed “Shake”, a song that his website claims is his own, but for which no lyrics are provided – I’m not sure where this fits into things. It was possibly a new composition that didn’t get used for anything. “That Lucky Old Sun” is a standard by Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie that had been covered by the like of Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Willie Nelson. I’m not sure where Dylan is borrowing it from, but it could be any of them. I like this version, although like most of the set it is a bit overdone (the combination of Heartbreakers and back-up singers can become overwhelming).

Finally, he ended his set with “Maggie’s Farm”, providing the kind of crowd-pleasing thematically-appropriate hit that he couldn’t bring himself to deliver at Live Aid. This is a nice version – not as powerful as many from the 1970s – but solid and pleasing. The tempo is great.


Dylan Personal Life Invasion Trivia: The woman Dylan sings “I’ll Remember You” and “Trust Yourself” with in the video above is Madelyn Quebec (formerly a Raelette), who is the mother of one of his back-up singers (Carolyn Dennis). At this show Dennis would have been pregnant with Dylan’s sixth child, and she and Dylan will marry in 1986. So that is Dylan singing with his future mother-in-law.

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…

“When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”



Here’s a great example of a Dylan misstep. “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”, the second single from Empire Burlesque, is pretty dreadful. As with “Tight Connection to My Heart”, the primary offender is the synthesizer. This is as close as Dylan would ever come to releasing a straight up dance song. “Disco Bob”, as it were.

What makes it such a shame is that it didn’t have to be this way. Lyrically the song is fine – it sort of a minor cryptic/apocalyptic love song. There are good lines everywhere (“For the love of a lousy buck I watched them die”), although they don’t really add up to much. It’s all a bit of mess with its horns and swirling synths and congas and who knows what else.

But listen to the version on Bootleg Series v3 (which, I’m sorry, I can’t find an embeddable version online). Recorded in New York on February 19, 1985, this version features two members of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, Steven Van Zandt and Roy Bittan. It is about a thousand times better than the version that made it onto the album.

The Bootleg Series version is all guitars and power chords, but it completely works. Dylan’s vocal is nice in the opening, but it really picks up when the entire band comes in on the second verse, and, in particular, the keyboards pick it up. Dylan seems lifted by the band and he gives one of his strongest vocal performances in years here. Had this been on the album, not only would it have been the best song on Empire Burlesque, but it would be regarded as one of the best things he did all decade.

It’s hard to imagine why he didn’t use it. It does sound a lot like a typical Springsteen song (the piano playing, in particular) and I wonder if he considered it as such. Nonetheless, it’s the highlight of the whole year, and he buried it.


As for the video, well, it’s probably the best Dylan music video to date. It opens with Dave Stewart of Eurhythmics getting on a bus with Dylan where they will go to a warehouse to play the song in black and white. That’s about it. One of the advantages is that the video omits two verses, so the whole thing is shorter than the album track. That has to be a good thing.

Also, as a bizarre footnote, in googling “Dave Stewart” in connection to this song I found myself reading Stephanie Wilder-Taylor’s book I’m Kind of a Big Deal: And Other Delusions of Adequacy. Apparently she was one of the crowd members during the video. Sadly, it was not insightful at all. I don’t know who Wilder-Taylor is but she has a strong sense of her own importance.

“Tight Connection to My Heart”



With “Tight Connection to My Heart”, Bob Dylan’s first single from his 1985 album Empire Burlesque, we catch up with my initial interest. Empire Burlesque was the first new Dylan that I bought. Sadly. What’s even sadder, I bought it on cassette. Also, I no longer have that cassette. I’ll talk more about that cassette when I write about the whole album later this week. Let’s start smaller.

“Tight Connection to My Heart” is a rewritten version of “Someone’s Got A Hold of My Heart”, which was left off of Infidels (but which you can hear on Bootleg Series v3). This version strips out the religious overtones. It’s the first song on the album. Click through to take a look at the lyrics.

These are good lyrics. Some of the lyrics are actually excellent. This is just a great verse:

Well, they’re not showing any lights tonight

And there’s no moon

There’s just a hot-blooded singer

Singing “Memphis in June”

While they’re beatin’ the devil out of a guy

Who’s wearing a powder-blue wig

Later he’ll be shot

For resisting arrest

I can still hear his voice crying

In the wilderness

What looks large from a distance

Close up ain’t never that big

Now watch the video.

See what he’s done there. That is just awful. The back-up singers detract a great deal. The musicianship is mediocre. The singing is, actually, not wholly terrible, but it is fairly uninspired. What absolutely kills this thing, though, and I mean actually murders it dead in its crib, is the keyboards (honestly, it might even be a keytar….). Listen to the first verse. Listen to the high-pitched whimper that ekes out after the word “yet”. It re-occurs at the midpoint of each and every verse. It sounds like a toy. Once you notice it, by the way, you can never unhear it. Every single verse I wince in anticipation of it. I’ve actually gotten to the point this week that I can’t listen to this song because of it, and it’s only Monday.

The problem with this song is that as a song it actually could be quite good. Read the lyrics and you could imagine a really great version of this. The problem is that Dylan hasn’t taken the road suggested by his Letterman performance with The Plugz, instead he is channeling all of the very worst aspects of mid-1980s pop. It’s pretty unbearable. Important note: this is the first album that Dylan produced himself. Bad choice.

Now, a word about this video, which was directed by Paul Schrader. It really only exacerbates the problems. This is one of those “story videos” that were popular in the 1980s for tacking a plot seemingly completely divorced from the actual lyrics of the song onto the whole project. Here there’s something about a threesome in Japan with some gangsters and cops and karaoke singers and a jail with red-white-and-blue bunting on the cell walls. It makes no sense at all. Given how visual the song is (“They’re beating the devil out of a guy wearing a powder-blue wig” – if that doesn’t evoke things for you, I don’t know what will) I just don’t comprehend how you make this as the video, other than to throw up your hands, roll your eyes and sigh. It was the 80s…

Not sure which is the worse look: the Dylan Miami vice jacket or the leather jacket, trucker hat and no shirt.

“We Are the World”



“There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives / It’s true we make a brighter day, just you and me”. That’s Bob Dylan’s part on “We Are the World”, the charity mega-hit from 1985. Here’s the video (Bob starts at 3:49):

I had to read all about this song this morning, as I’d pretty much forgotten all about it. I mean, I never forgot it – it got so much radio play when I was about 16 it is probably eternally etched in my head – but I hadn’t heard it in almost thirty years. It is really quite the archive of a certain time and place.

One thing that is striking is just how many of these singers are still incredibly familiar. Yes, some of them went on to have very limited careers (James Ingram and Steve Perry may now be the least famous of the soloists), but for the most part these are 80s icons. It was easier to be an icon in those days. Musical tastes were so much more limited by commercial radio and MTV – it was nearly impossible to escape from a Michael Jackson or Huey Lewis even if you were a punk rock listening kid. They were completely ubiquitous, and “We Are the World” is a cloying celebration of that ubiquity.

Everyone knows that Quincy Martin famously wrote “Check Your Egos at the Door” for this session, but some of the egos needed to be more front and centre. In retrospect it is remarkable that Harry Belafonte, Bette Midler, and Smokey Robinson are all reduced to the chorus, while Kenny Loggins and Daryl Hall get solos. It was a messed up time, the eighties…

The best thing that I found today is this video of Dylan recording his three lines. It runs about nine minutes and you get to hear a somewhat confused Dylan trying it several different ways, and also get to see Jones and Stevie Wonder sort of massaging him through it. It is a really fascinating document about working with big egos in a setting like this. I may not like this song at all, but I do admire the ability of Jones to simply get the thing done with all of those type A personalities in one room.

1985 will be the year of Dylan and the benefit – he will close Live Aid, help launch Farm Aid, and tell the world that he “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City”. But this is the one that kicks it all off.