One thing that I’ve learned by studiously following the constraint of this blog – I listen to one year of Bob Dylan’s output each week, and only listen to that year that week – is that some years are a lot more interesting than others. There have been a few years where Dylan essentially retired from public life, and those have left me listening to a few dribs and drabs over and over. And there are years where Dylan was so ridiculously prolific that I’ve been scrambling to cover everything. 1988 has been one of those years.
In 1988 Dylan released Down in the Groove, his twenty-fifth studio album, and also Traveling Wilburys volume 1, his biggest ever hit album. He also performed seventy-one live shows, two of which I attended. This was an ill-timed week for me to have houseguests and be on the road. If I could have a do over, I would take one for 1988 so that I could listen to the Wilburys outtakes (never got to that) and to the New York concerts that are so heavily praised. No time left. Dont Look Back, to borrow a title.
So, here’s Down in the Groove just before midnight on the final night of my week. This is one of the albums that I have listened to the least, and it is probably the one that I listened to the fewest times (so far) this year. In doing this project I was stunned – and I mean stunned – to learn that I owned this on vinyl. I have absolutely no recollection of purchasing it or ever listening to it in the 1980s. Did someone give it to me? Possibly. I mean, I have no memory of acquiring it.
Down in the Groove is one of Dylan’s least admired albums. It’s short (32 minutes), it has only four new Dylan songs (two co-written with Robert Hunter) and it seems just sort of pointless. I don’t believe that it was a contractual obligation album, but it kind of comes off as one. The album was recorded over a long period of time with guest stars ranging from The Grateful Dead to Eric Clapton, and it seems clear that he was at a bit of a loss. As in the days of Self-Portrait, he retreats into cover songs when his mojo runs out, which seems to have happened here. Rolling Stone called this his worst album, and he has a few legitimate contenders for that title.
I don’t think it’s his worst album. For one thing, it’s not actively bad – it’s just sort of unnecessary. On CD the album breaks into three parts – it opens with three covers, goes into the Dylan originals, then finishes with three more covers. Only the middle section sucks, but, of course, that’s the section that most people were buying it for.
The first section is highlighted by the cover of “Let’s Stick Together”, which has been done by everyone from Bryan Ferry to Canned Heat. I actually love this version of this song, particularly Dylan’s phrasing. To my mind it’s the highlight of the whole album. “When Did You Leave Heaven?”, which was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1930s when it was used in the movie Sing, Baby Sing is sort of awful. “Sally Sue Brown” is a pretty standard Dylan country cover that doesn’t add much to the song.
While “Silvio” is the best known Dylan song from the album (and the only one to be used on future anthologies), my belief is that “Death Is Not the End” is the best original song on the album (produced by the returning Mark Knopfler). But it’s not that good – probably not even a top 50 Dylan song. He’s never done it live. “Had a Dream About You Baby” is pretty much a nothing. The two songs with The Grateful Dead don’t thrill me at all.
“Ninety Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Street”, the Hank Snow song, is one of the better things here, but, again, inessential. “Shenandoah” is pretty good – nice little harmonica piece at the beginning and I like the way that he sings here, and he uses the back-up singers nicely. Finally, “Rank Strangers to Me” is one that I like, but that may be because I really like the Stanley Brothers version of this Albert Brumley song. This is a good vocal performance by Dylan, and a nicely minimalist production.
So that’s four songs that I would keep, but, sadly, none written by Dylan. That said, if you threw this album away I’m not sure that I would entirely miss it. Again, there is nothing truly awful here, but nothing essential. (Of course, as soon as I type that “Let’s Stick Together” comes back around at the top and now I’m starting to think that I love this version of this song!)
Perhaps the saddest thing about this album is something I just learned the other day. The original album cover for this was drawn by the underground cartoonist Rick Griffin (below). That would have been the greatest Bob Dylan cover of all time and THEY DIDN’T USE IT! Instead the album covers with the most boring photo of Bob Dylan ever (above). What. The. Hell?! Griffin, of course, was better known as a rock poster artist than as a contributor to Zap Comix, and Dylan probably was put onto him by the Grateful Dead (for whom he did a ton of work), although he too was a born again Christian, so perhaps there was another connection. Griffin died in a motorcycle accident in 1991, and this cover would have been one of his last major works. What a waste
Since I can’t find any Dylan songs from this album on the internet, let’s go with a Nick Cave cover. Always a good option!