The 1984 Tour

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The travel itinerary (and bad wifi at the Hyatt Regency in Denver) played havoc with the Dylan schedule this week, so I’m posting some final thoughts on the 1984 tour on the first morning of 1985 – you’ll have to forgive me.

First and foremost, the 1984 tour is fairly well-captured on Real Live. That’s the easiest way to access this material, even if the album is too short to give a real sense of what the band was doing. But it’s a good start.

The tour was 27 dates across Europe with Carlos Santana, and, for a few dates, Joan Baez. Baez would open with about ten songs, and then Santana would play for about ninety minutes. Dylan’s set was pretty consistent: seven songs with his band (including Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on guitar), a song by bassist Gregg Sutton (most of the bootlegs I’ve listened to include Dylan’s introduction of Sutton then cut the song off. Tough to please those bootleggers!), a couple of acoustic songs, then the band returns for about six songs, Dylan introduces them during “Like a Rolling Stone”, they leave, and then a long encore – often up to eight songs, with Santana playing guitar on about half of them. As I mentioned before, lots of hits, lots of 1960s material. What they do is good, but it is also repetitive, so this is not a tour that benefits from having a large number of bootlegs.

A few shows of note: In Hamburg and Munich Baez sang with Dylan in the encore (“Blowin’ In the Wind” on the first show, that and “I Shall Be Released” on the second). It

At the Paris and London shows Van Morrison joined Dylan on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Here is a copy of that. I think that this is the Paris version – I don’t have that to hand. It’s definitely not Slane, which is the best Van performance (though Bob gets lost in the lyrics late).

Chrissie Hynde played harmonica and sang back-up on a few songs at the London show. Oh, and some guy named Clapton shows up to play guitar. That’s pretty good.

I think that the best show that I heard is the last one of the tour at Slane Castle in Ireland, where Dylan did 27 songs. Van the Man is back for a rollicking “Baby Blue” and also does “Tupelo Honey”. Later in the encore they are joined by “Bono from U2”, as Dylan introduces him, who sings back-up fills on “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat”. The version that they do is sort of suggestive of the collaboration that Dylan will have with U2 during the Rattle and Hum period. U2 were recording The Unforgettable Fire at Slane at the time, so they were just about to break really big. It’s probably one of the last times someone would have needed to add “of U2” to Bono’s introduction. Sadly, that song is not that great – Van Morrison shows him how to jam with Dylan.

Here’s Dylan with Bono doing “Blowin’ In the Wind” at the end of Slane. This is one of the worst versions of this song that you will EVER hear. The Bono verse is just, god, I don’t even know what to say.

Real Live

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Real Live, Bob Dylan’s fourth live album, is really not that great. Recorded in London (Wembley Stadium), Newcastle, and Slane, Ireland, it doesn’t really succeed in capturing much of what was interesting about his 1984 summer tour of Europe, and, in fact, that tour itself wasn’t really that interesting.

The tour (27 dates with Carlos Santana opening, and usually joining Dylan on stage during the encores (he plays on “Tombstone Blues” on this album) was more of a nostalgia tour than a promotion of Infidels. Lots of 1960s material included. Seven of the ten songs on Real Live were from the 1960s, one from the 1970s (“Tangled Up In Blue”) and two from Infidels. The album presents just under half of a typical show from the tour (which tended to run about twenty-two songs on average). It skips some of the worst parts (the dreadful call and response versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind”) but also some of the best parts (come back tomorrow).

From what I’ve listened to, the 1984 shows were pretty consistent in terms of song lists and general quality, even stage patter. I find it hard to differentiate the bootlegs when I’m listening to them, and they’ve gotten repetitive on me. Real Live accurately captures the fragment of the tour that it records, and the Slane show in particular is considered one of the better ones (though this album doesn’t include the guest spots from Van Morrison and Bono, which were the highlights, well, at least Van was a highlight). It also includes some pretty bad harmonica playing on “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, which seems to be included just for the people yelling “No no no”, which they did a lot on this tour. I guess that’s fun to yell.

If you want one thing from Real Live it’s the new version of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Download that for 99 cents. Dylan returns it to the third person, and once again radically changes a lot of the lyrics. Indeed, it changes more and more as it goes along. What is fascinating to me is the way that he can make these major changes in each verse without actually changing the meaning of the verse. So, on the album version when the couple breaks up “We’ll meet again one day on the Avenue” and here “That’s alright I love you too”. He shades things, without completely altering them. This is a really great version, and it seems consistent with the versions he played throughout the tour.

Not an essential album by any means.

Late Night with David Letterman

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Bob Dylan’s greatest television appearance (so far) has to be May 22, 1984 on Late Night with David Letterman. Dylan, promoting Infidels, refused to be interviewed, so he performed three songs. What makes this so remarkable is that he performed with the Latino new wave band, The Plugz. For one brief moment we got to see what would have happened had Dylan gone new wave. It would have been awesome.

As I mentioned last week, Dylan spent part of his off year 1982 hanging out with his son, who had more adventurous taste in music than did the old man. Dylan showed up at new wave, punk, and post-punk shows and began to become plugged in to that scene. Somewhat unexpectedly, he began jamming regularly with members of The Plugz in Los Angeles. The Plugz were, with The Zeros, among the earliest Latino punk bands (founded in 1977). They may be best remembered by non-Angelenos now for their version of “Secret Agent Man” on the soundtrack for Repo Man.

At the end of their run together (they would break up in 1984), they had their biggest break – performing with Dylan on Letterman. They did three songs. Here they are:

“Don’t Start Me Talkin’”. This is a Sonny Boy Williamson song that, apparently, they had not rehearsed. Dylan enjoyed testing his band by announcing new songs on the fly, and here he did it on live-to-tape national television. Letterman introduces Dylan, waves a copy of Infidels in front of the camera, and he launches into a song that has nothing to do with that album. Okay. He’s looking good (compare to his SNL performance from five years earlier, where he introduced the world to normcore stylings). This first song is mostly carried by guitarist J.J. Holiday. This has to be Dylan’ idea of a joke – refusing an interview but playing “Don’t Start Me Talkin’” by way of explanation.

“License to Kill”. This is just so vastly superior to the Infidels version of this song, especially the harmonica outro. Dylan changes the phrasing considerably, and Holiday’s jangling guitar works a million times better than the album version. Dylan may never have done a more interesting version of this song.

“Jokerman”. This is almost the greatest thing ever. So very very close. As I’ve said, I like “Jokerman” as a song. This is the best version of this song. It should have been sung this way, and it should have been played this way. Dylan all of a sudden sounded at home in the early-1980s. Relevant. In touch. The grand old man of post-punk! Look at those pants! That thin tie! He fit right in! He throws his arms in the air! He’s engaged! But, of course, it sort of falls apart when he tries to find his harmonica. He seems to cycle through about eight of them. From 3:11 to 3:57 the band has to just jam while Bob wanders around, frustrated. The wheels come off and it never quite gels again. I’ve watched this at least a dozen times this week – I just love it.

That was it though. His band for the 1984 summer tour of Europe had guitarist Mick Jones, and it kind of sucked. I’m not sure The Plugz was the type of band to play huge venues with Dylan and Carlos Santana all summer, but I’d have rather heard them try.

I did not see this when it aired. I think I would have remembered it. I was fifteen at the time, and Late Night was too late night for me and we didn’t have a VCR. I think that this would have confirmed my early Dylan love, had I seen it.

In the end, this is a bizarre Dylan oddity. Versions of these songs unlike any he’d do again. A brief glimpse of a Dylan that might have been.

“Sweetheart Like You”

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And, quickly now, we’re on to the second Bob Dylan music video. Also from Infidels, “Sweetheart Like You” is the closest thing that Dylan has had to a top forty hit in thirty years! This one peaked at #55 on the American pop charts, and he has not had even a top 100 chart hit since then. Remarkable, really.

This is a disputed song. Some see it as an allegory (apparently for the church: “They say in your father’s house, there’s many mansions / Each one of them got a fireproof floor”), others see it as misogynist (“You know, a woman like you should be at home / That’s where you belong”). If it’s an allegory, it’s not a particularly sharp one; if it’s sexist, well, he’s sung a lot worse than this one. The song does a few good lines: “In order to deal in this game, got to make the queen disappear / It’s done with a flick of the wrist”, but that’s about it. It’s a fine song, but not one of the great ones.

Now, the video. On the plus side, it’s better than that for “Jokerman”, but, of course, few things aren’t. It also seems pretty typical for the period, with the band playing in an empty club, watched only by a stoic old woman with a mop. The first minute or so of the video dwells on her impassive expression in the face of this kind of mediocre Dylan performance – she’s not exactly selling this as the work of an icon.

The video holds off on showing us Dylan in close-up for almost a minute and half, and then, BAM!, my word: those bangs! Dylan’s beard here is a bit of a mess, but his hair – what has he done to his hair!? The 80s really were a horrible moment in the history of coiffure!

The band, of course, is mostly not the band from Infidels. I don’t know who the blonde woman playing the guitar solo is but it is definitely not Mick Taylor. A bunch of attractive people straight out of central casting.

So, there’s not much to this – a lot of chiaroscuro lighting and a non-plussed woman staring at Dylan’s bangs. At least things are improving, ever so slightly, on the video production front!

“Jokerman”

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Welcome to MTV, Bob Dylan! With your Miami Vice jacket and t-shirt combination you should fit right in!

Music videos had had a long history before MTV was launched in August 1981, but Bob Dylan avoided them until 1984. With the release of “Jokerman” as a single from Infidels, Dylan produced his first (or second – depending on what was up with that weird footage of “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart”). It is, by today’s standards, a very strange relic.

I will admit, at first I had trouble finding this video. I kept seeing it on YouTube and elsewhere and I actually assumed that this was a fan-made video, or what on YouTube tend to get called “lyrics videos”, in which a fan uses iMovie to type the lyrics of a song onto a bunch of photos culled from Google Images. That is precisely what this video looks like at the start, and then, at the chorus, we get Dylan badly lip-syncing. Even a couple of minutes into it I wasn’t certain that this was the actual video (I did recall the Miami Vice jacket, but not the rest). Rebecca assured me that this was exactly how bad this video was thirty years ago.

For the most part, it is a collection of still images of classical statues and modernist paintings, with some low-grade animation thrown in. That animation, straight out of Monty Python, looks less sophisticated than the stuff my eight year old can do on an iPhone app now, but that’s a product of the times. The Ken Burns effect on the still images is annoying too.

The most interesting thing about the video is the selection of images, including a series of photos of Dylan aging from his twenties to his forties as he sings “Shedding off one more layer of skin”. The video sort of self-consciously plays him as a grand old man who’s no longer totally with it by reminding us of “better” versions of Bob from the past. Otherwise it has some odd moments, probably the strangest of which is the inclusion of a photo of Hitler (“you’re a dream twister”, that’s a little on the nose) and one of Ronald Reagan with his fingers in his ears (from the White House News Photographers Dinner in May 1983). The subtle indictment of Reagan here may play havoc with my charge that he’s a Reagan Democrat, though I suppose it’s simple enough to share someone’s politics while discounting the man himself.

All in all, this is a pretty terrible video. That it can be so easily confused for a fan made video probably says a lot about the evolution of this art form over time.

I will say, this video made my entry into Dylan fandom highly problematic. This was probably right around the time that I began listening to Dylan – his first new album that I bought was Empire Burlesque in 1985, and I think I was probably listening to some of the older material at this point. I remember watching this video on the music video shows on CITY-TV (J.D. Roberts!) after school and thinking “this is so unbelievably lame”. Worse, when I did start telling people about Dylan they would immediately start singing “whoa oh oh oh oh oh oh, Jooookerman!” and then laughing uncontrollably. It’s hard to defend someone as a rock icon when something like this is in rotation. Not that it was every much of a hit.

As for the song itself, I’ve come to quite like it. Not necessarily the album version, but even that isn’t too bad. Interestingly, it has become the favourite Dylan song of my son, who proclaimed it thus this week. He loves the chorus, and it is one of the few Dylan songs that he asks after. The phrase “Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune / Bird fly high by the light of the moon” is, in his opinion, Dylan’s best couplet. I agree, that is quite good. The “oh ohs”, though, sound a lot better one on of the unused outtakes. Oh well.

Outfidels Intakes

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Infidels is a pretty good Bob Dylan album, but even a brief review of the supporting material is enough to show that it could have been one of his best ever. While it might never have been the 1980s version of Blood on the Tracks or Blonde on Blonde, this might have been a top five Dylan album had the right choices been made. But they weren’t.

The strength of the Infidels sessions is probably best demonstrated by Bootleg Series Volume 3, on which can be found five – count ‘em – five! outtakes from this album. Each one of those may be better than everything that is actually on the album. If you combined the four good songs (“Jokerman”, “Sweetheart Like You”, “Man of Peace”, “I and I”) on Infidels with the five songs on BSv3 and released it it would have been not just the Bob Dylan album of the 1980s, but one of the best albums of that decade, full stop. Of course, it was not to be.

I’ve written a couple of times about how Dylan doesn’t seem to always be the best judge of what is the best Dylan material, but it is really apparent here. The stories say that the musicians and technicians on Infidels were shocked by his track selection, and, indeed, he seems to have dramatically overhauled it after Mark Knopfler left to tour with Dire Straits. This has led to a lot of “what might have been” scenarios in the bootleg circles.

One of the better bootlegs out there is Outfidels Intakes. First of all, to the bootlegger: Well-played on the name. That is awesome. Second: this is a two disc set that attempts to a) recreate the Knopfler version of the album, and b) collect some of the better outtakes (including a collection of “Sweetheart Like You” attempts strung together into one track). This double-CD is significantly better than Infidels. Unbelievably, you can download almost the entire thing here (whomever has posted this has opted not to upload the songs that were used elsewhere on commercial releases).

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Let’s move through Outfidels and Bootleg Series 3, then.

First: “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart”. This song was cut from Infidels, but then Dylan had a change of heart and re-wrote parts of it and included it on his next studio album, Empire Burlesque, as “Tight Connection to My Heart”. It’s one of the best songs on that album, and would have been a good one here. I actually think “Tight Connection” is better lyrically, though not as good musically (Empire Burlesque is horribly produced). About half the lyrics in the two songs are the same, with the chorus changed from the refrain “Someone’s got a hold of my heart” to “Has anybody seen my love?”. The version that is on the Bootleg Series is superior to the one on Outfidels – it is less produced, more raw, features a nice harmonica section and the acoustic guitars add a lot of warmth. This is a good to great song, and it has always included some of my favourite Dylan lyrics, including “What looks large from a distance / Close up ain’t never that big” and the closing refrain:

Never could learn to drink that blood

And call it wine

Never could learn to hold you, love

And call you mine

Putting this on Infidels would have improved the album, but it also would have made Empire Burlesque that much worse. Sort of a toss-up from that standpoint.

Second: “Tell Me” is a Tex-Mex love song. It’s a better love song than “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”, although the over-emphasis on the slide guitar would make is seem a bit out of place on the album. Good song, but not essential.

Third: “Lord Protect My Child”. This is one that I love, and it is one of the big discoveries of the week for me. I don’t think that I ever really noticed this on Bootleg Series before, or maybe I only listened to that album before I myself had a child so I didn’t pay attention. The version on Outfidels is longer, and opens with the engineer intoning “Take four” and the song being counted off, but that is not there on Bootleg Series. This is a great Dylan country song, and the slide guitar isn’t so oppressive here as it is on “Tell Me”. Lyrically it’s quite lovely:

As his youth now unfolds

He is centuries old

Just to see him at play makes me smile

No matter what happens to me

No matter what my destiny

Lord, protect my child

Additionally, there are strong remnants of Dylan’s ongoing Christianity in the final verse:

There’ll be a time I hear tell

When all will be well

When God and man will be reconciled

But until men lose their chains

And righteousness reigns

Lord, protect my child

I really think that this is a great song, and it is one that I would like to learn on the banjo.

Fourth: “Foot of Pride”. Ok, this one is totally inexplicable. Apparently it was to be the final song on the album, but it got dropped when Dylan went back to the studio to record “Union Sundown”. Dropping “Foot of Pride” for “Union Sundown” is just baffling. Lyrically this one is prime Dylan, mixing his taste for surrealism with his religious message from the previous three albums:

Yeah, from the stage they’ll be tryin’ to get water outa rocks

A whore will pass the hat, collect a hundred grand and say thanks

They like to take all this money from sin, build big universities to study in

Sing “Amazing Grace” all the way to the Swiss banks

It’s scathing, blistering stuff. This would have easily been the best track on the album, and one of the two or three best songs that Dylan would produce in the decade, but he left it off the album. I really, really don’t get that choice. This one is essential.

Fifth: “Blind Willie McTell”. For a lot of listeners, this is the one that is the key omission from Infidels, and it is one of the most beloved of the outtakes. I think Dylan must know that he made a mistake – he’s played this one in concert 219 times, which may be a record for a non-album song, or at least in contention for that title. This is a pretty straight forward homage to the great blues singer who died in 1959, just before Dylan’s own career got started. The standard reading is that the song expresses Dylan’s own reservations about his reliance on blues traditions and his place in music. The final lines sum this attitude up nicely:

I’m gazing out the window

Of the St. James Hotel

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

This is another great song, that should never have been bumped off of Infidels.

Outfidels Intakes includes a number of additional outtakes that aren’t included on Bootleg Series 3. One of them I quite like: “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”. In some ways you can see why it was abandoned – it seems a bit like a love song that almost anyone could have written, and lacks the Dylanesque touches, but I still think that it is far superior to something like “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, which also sounds like anyone could have written it.

The worst track on Outfidels, maybe one of the worst things Dylan ever recorded, is “Julius and Ethel”, a “tribute” to the Rosenbergs. Look, I’m on the side that says that the Rosenbergs probably weren’t guilty, and I definitely do not believe that they should have been executed as spies. That said, the least appropriate tribute possible seems to be a rocking out tune in which Dylan yells “Julius and Ethel” repeatedly as the chorus. Also, some horrible rhymes in this one. Just awful.

So, to sum up: take half of Infidels, add four songs from Bootleg Series 3 (leave off “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart” for Empire Burlesque), and you’ve got an unbelievably awesome album. Definitely a top five contender. Instead, he released an album that’s about a B+. Bummer.

Here’s a YouTube version of “Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart”:

Infidels Outtakes

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There are lots of Bob Dylan bootlegs. Indeed, I think that there are literally more than 3,000 of them. You could probably do a project like this one ten times and not exhaust everything that is out there (if you could get your hands on all of it). There are good bootlegs, bad bootlegs, and in-between bootlegs. There are show tapes, compilations of shows, and tour greatest hits. There are bootlegs for only the acoustic material played on tour. And only the electric material. There are studio outtakes, drafts, revisions, and different versions and mixes. There are bootlegs with mono mixes, stereo mixes, and rough cuts. There are bootlegs of vocals only and guitar only. Oh, there are bootlegs.

One of the oddest – well, no, definitely the oddest – bootleg that I have listened to so far this year is the second disc of Surviving in the Ruthless World, which is a four disc collection of Infidels outtakes (not to be confused with Surviving in a Ruthless World, which is two discs – “a” versus “the”). This has a sizeable collection of the Infidels material, but it seems that there are at least three additional discs worth. See here for a complete (?) listing of what is available.

So, this disc. It has forty-one tracks, and thirty-eight of them are attempts to record “Sweetheart Like You”. The shortest is 20 seconds long. The longest is 4:32. Seven of them run longer than 3:00 minutes. There are fast versions, slow versions, versions where Dylan forgets the words, and versions where there are no words at all. The album version is 4:34, just for the record.

Listening to this disc is sort of surreal. I can’t say that this is my favourite song on the album, but the outtakes are something that I’ve played a lot this week while working. It is very peaceful and serene, often just the same guitar part over and over and over again. I don’t get a strong sense from it of how Dylan works to build a song, just a lot of different attempts at the same thing. I would be a terrible record producer, because I find it hard to isolate the individual tracks and analyze their strengths and weaknesses. I just sort of like to immerse myself in the whole thing. It’s not like listening to the album cut on repeat at all, but it is slightly hypnotic.

I don’t think that the same effect, or even a similar one, would come from most of the other songs on the album. It’s the slow tempo and lovely guitar playing that works here. A more repetitive song – like “Neighborhood Bully” – would drive me to distraction.

I played this at first just to say that I’d listened to it. Strangely, it became my favourite part of the whole week.

Infidels

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Infidels is considered by many to be the lone bright spot in the Dylan catalogue of the 1980s (Oh Mercy sneaks in just under the wire at the end of 1989, lending a hand to a decade that many are willing to write off entirely). It’s the first album after the born again trilogy, and it benefits, in the eyes of many, from the absence of testimonial and religious songs, the improved production, and a pretty decent band. Since I’ve come to like all three of the born again albums (to varying degrees), I haven’t found Infidels to be such a substantial upgrade. I think it is quite akin to the those albums, and pretty consistent in particular with Shot of Love. There’s a lot to like here, and a lot not to.

I’m going to skip the first two songs, “Jokerman” and “Sweetheart Like You”, since they were singles in 1984 and I want to deal with them as singles. On preview: “Jokerman” is pretty great now, but I hated it when it came out, and there are better versions of it than the one that made the album. “Sweetheart Like You” still baffles me a bit, but probably is a good song when all is said and done. As for “Union Sundown”, I already wrote about that one.

That leaves only five additional songs.

I noted that “License to Kill” has a strange aversion to the space program, which I now know is common to the evangelical Christian movement of this period. This, and “Jokerman”, are among the early indications that Dylan hasn’t left Christianity behind him, he has simply stopped being so overt about it. This one is filled with Christian overtones and references. Musically, I think it’s one of the more interesting pieces on the album.

“Neighborhood Bully” is the most overtly political song on the album, and it helps further located Dylan’s mood and politics at the time. This is a strong defense of the state of Israel (the bully of the title), from its enemies. For a man whose only performance the previous year was at a peace concert, this is an odd song to be singing – it is blunt in its praise for Israeli militarism and it calls for a greater level of American military intervention into the Middle East. Again, Reagan Democrat. Musically, though, it is the rocking-est song on the whole album. I like the band here, but I can’t get behind it lyrically. It’s funny, in the 1970s Dylan was accused in the music press of funding Israel with his tours and it was a huge issue. By 1983 it didn’t seem to matter that much to his remaining fans.

Probably the most directly religious song on the album is “Man of Peace”. I was listening to this in the car this afternoon with my son as we drove to the mall. He told me “You know, there is also a “Man of War”. I said, “Oh yeah, who’s that?”. Without missing a beat he said, “I’m not sure, but I think it’s a horse”. How do eight year olds learn that? Anyway, this one I straight up enjoy. Dylanesque weirdness abounds (“Well, he can be fascinating, he can be dull / He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull”). Religious Dylan is still good Dylan.

“I and I” is, in many ways, the centrepiece of the whole album. This is a cryptic one – I’ve taken to not only listening to it repeatedly, but to reading along while I do. I’ll admit that it confounds me a bit – I don’t see quite what he’s trying to communicate here, other than something about the dualism of the public/private self. Reading Dylanologists, I was struck by one of the quotes where Dylan claims that no one is even close to understanding what he’s saying with his lyrics, and I’m not even close to getting this one.

Finally, the album concludes with “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, the obligatory (by now) closing love song. I sort of hate this one. It’s whiny, and annoying, and sounds like an ersatz Dylan song. It seems to me that he got that partial phrase and tried to build it into a song and it just didn’t work.

Overall, I’d say that this is maybe half a good album, maybe even five good songs out of eight. But that’s mostly as songs. I do have to say that the production still leaves a lot to be desired here. From what I’ve read, Dylan spent the previous summer reconnecting with is son, Jesse, who was sixteen and who was into the new wave and post-punk bands of the period. This exposed Dylan to a lot of new material (Clash, Squeeze, X…). He sought out producers who might take him in a new direction – David Bowie, Elvis Costello, and Frank Zappa (who he met with at the end of December 1982 – wouldn’t that have been something?) In the end he went with Mark Knopfler of The Dire Straits, who he had played with on Slow Train Coming. It’s not exactly the height of cool. Knopfler left for a tour before the final mix was completed, and the album was recut without him. Some of it still sounds a bit rough.

To my mind, the band really under performs on most of the songs. It’s an all-star cast here – Knopfler on guitar, Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones on guitar and Sly and Robbie as the rhythm section. You would think that it would be great, but, really, I think it is one of Dylan’s least interesting albums musically. In fact, if there’s one thing that drives me nuts on the whole album it is the steady rap of Sly Dunbar’s snare drum on almost every song. There’s a sameness to the production that doesn’t really work for me.

That said, more of the songs are stuck in my head this week than they have been in a while. Even now “License to Kill” is slowly meandering through the back of my skull while I’m typing. It’s a good album, but it should have been a great one. What went wrong? Come back tomorrow and find out.

A Dylan Oddity

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This is one that I haven’t been able to figure out. It is, it appears, a music video for “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”, the last (and possibly worst) song on Infidels. I’m not sure really what it is though, since the song was never released as a single, and, at least in 1983, videos didn’t much get made for songs that weren’t released as singles.

I have always understood it that Dylan produced his first video in 1984 for “Jokerman” and then for “Sweetheart Like You”, the two American-released singles from Infidels. This seems to predate that because you can see Mark Knopfler and Sly Dunbar and Mick Taylor here, which was the recording band for the album. Given that this wasn’t Dylan’s touring band, it had to have been recorded around the time the album was put together. So why wasn’t it released? What is it doing here on YouTube (which doesn’t even have the “Jokerman” video)? Was there a plan to release this as a video (I hope not, it’s terrible, even by the standards of a period when MTV was only two years old). I can’t tell if it is out of sync because this is a bad copy of a copy or because it was just shoddily made.

I haven’t found any references to this even existing, but here it is. Your leads are gratefully accepted.

“Union Sundown”

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Bob Dylan’s twenty-second studio album, Infidels, was released near the end of October, 1983. It produced three singles, but two of them will be dealt with next week, in 1984, when they were released. The first, “Union Sundown”, seems to have been put out exclusively in Europe. It charted at #90 in the Netherlands and nowhere else at all. It’s a strange song.

For a lot of commentators, this one seems to be a return to the Dylan protest song of the 1960s. That’s a form of wish fulfilment, I think. I previously noted how Dylan’s politics on the three born again albums began to drift into Reagan Democrat territory, with a focus on certain forms of xenophobia, nativism, and American exceptionalism. This song has a lot of the same hallmarks. This is not a union song in the model of Pete Seeger, rather it has an ambivalent “what are you going to do?” tone. The politics here are pretty simple. As the man sings,

Well, it’s sundown on the union

And what’s made in the U.S.A.

Sure was a good idea

’Til greed got in the way

Most of the song is a litany about the off-shoring of American jobs, which is at least an interesting idea for a song.There’s not much solidarity here, but there is some fairly typical Dylanesque finger-pointing:

Well, you know, lots of people complainin’ that there is no work

I say, “Why you say that for

When nothin’ you got is U.S.–made?”

Further, despite the title, it’s not really that much of a pro-union song. For Dylan (and here’s the Reagan Democrat part coming out again), the unions are a big part of the problem:

The unions are big business, friend

And they’re goin’ out like a dinosaur

Finally, the song continues a trend of Dylan being sort of obsessed with human space travel. In “License to Kill”, also on this album, he writes:

Oh, man has invented his doom

First step was touching the moon

While on “Union Sundown” he sings:

They used to grow food in Kansas

Now they want to grow it on the moon and eat it raw

I know I wasn’t that old and sophisticated in 1983, but I have no recollection at all of anyone advocating harvesting crops in outer space. Weird.

Anyway, this is one of the songs on Infidels that I least like. Indeed, there is an outtake version with no lyrics except the chorus, and I greatly prefer that one to the one that can heard on the official release. Indeed, somewhat bizarrely, I find that I prefer the religiously themed songs on Infidels much more than the politically themed ones (this and “Neighborhood Bully”), which is something I never would have guessed at the beginning of this year.