Serenading the Masters of War



If you’re Bob Dylan and it’s 1990 and you want to get a lot of attention for your 66th concert of the year, what should you do? How about play the Eisenhower Theatre at West Point?

When Dylan and his band took the stage on October 13 for a show at the most famous military academy in the United States people sort of lost their minds. Just hours upstate from New York City, and not far from his old stomping grounds in Woodstock, the show attracted three audiences: fresh scrubbed cadets with crewcuts, ageing hippies in tie-dye, and New York based reporters with their mouths hanging open.

Rolling Stone wrote about the show. The New York Times wrote about the show. According to Bjorner newspapers in Sweden wrote about the show. Here he was, the voice of anti-war protest singing at the United States Military Academy. It had to be some kind of signal about the end of the world. I highly recommend both of these articles for their descriptions of the show.

Interestingly, because the show was bootlegged, you can check the facts on these live reports. Alan Light of Rolling Stone suggests that Dylan was tentative to open the show, but I don’t hear that at all – it sounds like any other Dylan show from 1990.

I have to say, I grabbed a copy of this show mostly hear to the high irony: the fourth show of the evening was “Masters of War”. Would, I wondered, Bob Dylan really go to the United States Military Academy and sing “I hope that you die / And your death’ll come soon” right to their faces? Apparently, yes. Yes, he did. It’s a rollicking version too. Light suggests that he swallowed the lyrics. No, no he did not – they’re as clear as anything else he sang on that night. He also suggests that the song didn’t go over well with the cadets up front. Possibly, but the cheers are no less loud for this than they are for anything else.

The other odd moment of the show is in the encore, where the crowd – including, presumably, the cadets – sings along to “Blowin’ In the Wind”. These were young men training for the then inevitable first American incursion into Iraq, and here they were singing “Blowin’ in the Wind”. It’s an odd world.

PS. Dylan wrote in Chronicles about his desire to go to West Point:

I asked my father how to get into West Point and he seemed shocked, said that my name didn’t begin with a “De” or a “Von” and that you needed connections and proper credentials to get in there. His advice was that we should concentrate on how to acquire them. My uncle was even less forthcoming. He said to me, “You don’t want to have to work for the government. A soldier is a housewife, a guinea pig. Go to work in the mines.”

I’m glad that he finally made it!

(He’ll also return to the same venue in 1994. No “Masters of War” that time)



The first, and only, single from Bob Dylan’s 1990 album Under the Red Sky, is “Unbelievable”. It’s a pretty decent song, certainly one of the best or even the best on an otherwise weak album. It rocks, it rolls, it could have been a Traveling Wilbury’s song.

The video, seen here in a YouTube clip that looks like it was filmed through gauze, is one of Dylan’s most interesting in years. He himself just sort of floats around in it in a limousine driver’s hat. The narrative is carried by some handsome young man (seriously, I don’t know who that is) and his affair with the sexy version of Molly Ringwald, no longer the John Hughes teen queen.

This is nearing the end of Ringwald’s run with fame. Her huge successes were from 1984 to 1986 with her John Hughes trilogy. By 1990 she was transitioning to “mature” roles and she went off the rails with films like Betsy’s Wedding. She did get to work with Jean-Luc Godard, though. Here she doesn’t work with Dylan, or at least they’re not on screen together. Molly is the femme fatale who steals the handsome hero’s money and car and drives away. I guess that’s supposed to be unbelievable.

The video would be accused of being a very direct inversion and rip-off of Thelma & Louise, where Brad Pitt sleeps with Geena Davis and then takes her money (but not the car), except that film came out a year later. Must have been something in the air for Dylan and Ridley Scott to be working the same side of the street.

This is probably the best Dylan music video to date – partly, I suppose, because he plays such a minor role. He’ll do similar things – handing off the heavy lifting in the videos – for a number of his other singles in the years to come.

Ringwald is now an author and a singer with her own albums. Maybe Dylan will be in one of her videos?



A friend tagged me on Facebook about this, so I am sharing it here. Apparently there is a person named Blake Lively who is an actor and who is married to Ryan Reynolds. She has an extensive list of credits, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of her before because I am old and not cool and I blog about Bob Dylan. Anyway, she just launched a website that sells lifestyle objects. This is one of them:


So you’re thinking, like I was, “Hey, cool lamp!”. But wait! This is the description of the lamp, er, art object:

Bob Dylan pursued his dreams and through hard work and determination, made them a reality. Follow the path of his 1978 USA tour in this inspired illuminative map of America.

Now, if you’re me, you’re gone from thinking “Hey, cool lamp!” to “Whoa! Awesome Bob Dylan lamp! I’m going to buy that!”

However, one caveat before you act. Bob Dylan’s 1978 tour was 114 shows long and started in Tokyo and also went all over Europe. “But Bart,” you say, “It’s just the USA part of the tour – it says so right there!” Okay, okay. Yes. But that part of the tour had sixty-five shows. Sixty-five! This map only has fifteen bulbs (possibly one or more might be obscured by the flag). So how is it a map of his tour? It’s not, that’s what.

Still, nice lamp. All of my readers should take up a collection and buy it for me, but only if it comes with the copy of Rolling Stone.




There are things that I’ve done in writing this blog that I’m not proud of. Things that only a truly desperate man would do. For example, last night I watched the 1990 film Catchfire just to see a one-minute cameo by Bob Dylan. It left me feeling ashamed of myself.

Catchfire, according to the fine folks at Wikipedia, was a 1990 film, produced by Dick Clark, that was disowned by its director and star, Dennis Hopper. Wikipedia indicates that Hopper insisted that his name be removed, and that the film is credited to Alan Smithee. The copy I watched (online here, but, really, don’t watch it) did include him as director, so I don’t know about that. Apparently there is a longer cut that is known as Backtrack also. The running times on Wikipedia indicate that I watched the shorter version. I could not have survived the long version.

Let me lay out the plot for you (I lost some notes due to a poorly executed email migration at my workplace, but it shouldn’t matter). Jodie Foster plays Anne Benton, a feminist conceptual artist in LA. Benton’s art is provided by Jenny Holzer, in what was surely the worst mistake of Holzer’s career. It’s not a case of them hiring Holzer to make faux-Holzer pieces, they just use well-known (now) Holzer pieces. Anyway, Anne is about to have her big gallery opening when she accidentally witnesses mobster Joe Pesci killing someone. She is then tracked by dim-bulb mobsters played by John Turturro and Tony Sirico (Paulie from The Sopranos with the same hair, minus the silver) who try to kill her at her apartment, but who only kill her boyfriend, played by Charlie Sheen. When federal agent Fred Ward is unable to protect her (in a sign of how awful this movie is he offers to put her in the “Federal Protection Witness Program” and they don’t bother to fix that), she goes on the lam. The mob hires a sax-playing hit man (YES! REALLY!) played by Hopper to find her. Several months later he does so – recognizing her work in ad and going to the ad firm. For some reason the Feds also are able to do this and they show up simultaneously. She flees to Taos, NM and Hopper finds her again (as do the Feds – again, I’m not sure how). Here’s where it becomes really bad. Rather than killing her, Hopper kidnaps her as he has become obsessed with photos of her in lingerie. He thens forces her into a relationship and she learns to love him and they flee the mob, and there is a helicopter chase (really!) and then they blow up the bad guys and the end.

It is easy to see why Hopper wanted his name off of this. Despite the cast (in addition to the above, add Catherine Keener, Vincent Price, Dean Stockwell….) this is a total piece of crap: no tension, no drama, no nothing. Worse, it is generally pro-rape. When Hopper’s character finally rapes Anne, it is played super-sexy, and, of course, it is what the feminist conceptualist has always secretly longed for. This film is truly an abomination.

Okay, fine, but what about Bob? Well, you can see his entire performance here:

Dylan plays an artist who works with a chainsaw (the art is supplied by Charles Arnoldi, hat tip on that to my friend Robert Boyd who also, sadly, watched this film so he could blog about the art; somewhere there is a Dennis Hopper blogger suffering through this as well). He isn’t able to help Hopper, and Hopper gets mad at him. The end. Dylan’s performance here may be his worst yet. Think about this: he is worse than he is in Renaldo and Clara, and at least during the filming of that he was mostly drunk.


So, the film is worse than Hearts of Fire, Dylan is worse in it, and he doesn’t even sing. It’s ninety minutes that I’ll never get back.

Note to Robert: Anne’s character has two Ed Ruscha’s on the walls of her apartment, but they didn’t get mentioned in your blog! By the way, I saw the Hopper photography exhibition at the Royal Academy last week in London, and he had a great photo of a mid-1960s Ruscha, who was more handsome than I thought he was. No photos of Dylan, though they did play The Band’s “The Weight” throughout the space on an endless loop, presumably to drive people insane.

Also, I have NO idea what the title of this film is supposed to refer to. I mean, none.


Bob Dylan

Oh Mercy



I completely missed out on Oh Mercy when it was released in September 1989. Having been burned by the previous several Dylan albums, and burned badly by the atrocious Dylan and the Dead, I wasn’t having any of it. Since I hadn’t particularly liked his concert at the end of July, when I was back at university I had other things to do and to listen to.

I’m not sure when I actually first listened to the album. I knew that it got good reviews, but I believe that I probably went years – maybe even a decade? – before I ever listened to it. The thing is, I’m not sure that I would have liked it that much at twenty even if I had listened to it.

Dylan, approaching fifty, finally redeemed his 1980s by releasing his fourth come-back album (his come-back albums are, it seems to me, in order: New Morning, Blood on the Tracks, Infidels, and Oh Mercy; and he’s not done coming back yet!). Reversing a trend in which he just didn’t seem to care at all, Dylan finds his songwriting groove, and finally gets a producer who seems to know what he’s doing.

Dylan’s relationship with producer Daniel Lanois was the result of a dinner with Bono, who pushed the Canadian on him. Lanois worked extensively with U2 and the Neville Brothers, and after meeting him Dylan moved his family down to New Orleans to cut this album. The relationship is extensively detailed in Chronicles, and it sounds, on Dylan’s part, a little vexed and somewhat frustrating. In Chronicles he writes that working with Lanois was, at times, “was like being cast into sudden hell”. Dylan was someone who was used to being in charge, and Lanois sounds like he took some of that away from him. This was one of Dylan’s first negotiations in a long, long time: “He’s got ideas about overdubbing and tape manipulation theories that he’s developed with the English producer Brian Eno on how to make a record, and he’s got strong convictions. But I’m pretty independent, too, and I don’t like to be told to do something if I don’t understand it. This was the problem we were going to have to work through”.

Oh Mercy is a mature album. It is not the album of a young man, but of a man approaching middle age who is struggling to define himself. It is Dylan rediscovering his talents after a period of drought and disinterest (in Chronicles he writes that he considered hanging it all up and becoming a business investor, but he couldn’t find any businesses that interested him!). The album is thematically coherent in a way that he hadn’t been since Saved.

I don’t think of Oh Mercy as the masterpiece that many others have found it. In fairness, I think that virtually every one of the songs on the album is at least good, and a couple of them are really great (“Most of the Time”, “Shooting Star”). Dylan’s vocals are very present, and the production is clearly superior to anything else Dylan had done. I think it is probably his second best album of the decade (after Infidels), as some of the techniques that Lanois used haven’t dated very well. It was, of course, massively better than everything between it and Infidels. I greatly prefer the second side to the first, partly because I think “Political World” and “Everything is Broken”, the two most up-tempo songs, are the least interesting.

That said, I wish that I had had more time to listen to this album and to its outtakes (which I never got to at all). I feel like I’m under-appreciating this one, but it is time to move on.

Live Dylan (1989)



“I definitely needed a new audience because my audience at that time had more or less grown up on my records and was past the point of accepting me as a new artist and this was understandable. In many ways, this audience was past its prime and its reflexes were shot.”

That’s one of the most interesting things that Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles v1. He’s talking about his transformation as a live performer in 1987 on the second leg of his tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dylan is especially hard on the concerts from this period: “It had become monotonous. My performances were an act, and the rituals were boring me. Even at the Petty shows I’d see the people in the crowd and they’d look like cutouts from a shooting gallery, there was no connection to them — just subjects at random. I was sick of it — sick of living in a mirage. It was time to break it off. The thought of retirement didn’t bother me at all. I’d shaken hands with the idea and had gotten comfortable with it. The only thing that had changed from then ’til now was that performing now wasn’t taking anything out of me. I was sailing along.”

He then writes about a sudden transformation in Locarno, Switzerland (October 5, 1987). I’ll let him tell it:

“For an instant I fell into a black hole. The stage was outdoors and the wind was blowing gales, the kind of night that can blow everything away. I opened my mouth to sing and the air tightened up — vocal presence was extinguished and nothing came out. The techniques weren’t working. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I had it down so well, yet it was just another trick. There’s no pleasure in getting caught in a situation like this. You can get a panic attack. You’re in front of thirty thousand people and they’re staring at you and nothing is coming out. Things can really get stupid. Figuring I had nothing to lose and not needing to take any precautions, I conjured up some different type of mechanism to jump-start the other techniques that weren’t working. I just did it automatically out of thin air, cast my own spell to drive out the devil. Instantly, it was like a thoroughbred had charged through the gates. Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension. Even I was surprised. It left me kind of shaky. Immediately, I was flying high. This new thing had taken place right in front of everybody’s eyes. A difference in energy might have been perceived, but that was about all. Nobody would have noticed that a metamorphosis had taken place.”

He’s not kidding that nobody would have noticed. I’ve now listened to that show a few times, and I sure can’t hear him losing his way nor can I hear the change that he is so certain about. Maybe he’s putting us on. Regardless, he decided to rededicate himself to the craft of live performance. He restructured the way that he approached songs, the way that he sang, where he channeled his voice from, and he put together a touring band that was meant to be permanent. Bob Dylan was going on the road. Forever.

In 1988 Bob Dylan performed 71 shows. In 1989 he did 99. On those tours he performed 122 different songs. Think about that for a moment – 122 different songs on the same tour. Few performers, of course, have ever had the range of song-writing to even attempt what Dylan was attempting in 1989. By most accounts he would decide on the set list only shortly before the band went on stage, and he would often switch the list while on stage.

The Never-Ending Tour (NET), which began in 1988, and which really kicked into gear in 1989, is probably the dividing point for early and late career Bob Dylan. He was looking for a new audience – he wasn’t going to play just the hits any longer. He would do new songs. He would do covers. He would become a new artist, and not just a relic from the 1960s. He wasn’t going to coast any longer.

It seems to me that the really hardcore Dylan fans, the really, really hardcore ones, are the ones who love the NET (of course, Dylan never calls it that – each mini-tour within the tour has a proper title). They are the ones with all 99 bootlegs from this year, and the ones who compile best of collections for the rest of us. Today, I’m not with them.

Just because Dylan was rededicated, it doesn’t mean that the shows were that much better. He even writes about his struggle to come up with the new approach and how he felt it could take years. He talks at length in Chronicles about the mathematics and architecture of his new approach, in which he plays guitar in a different scale: thematic triplets. I have to admit, I don’t know enough about music to really be able to hear the differences that he’s talking about. Yes, Dylan started playing some of his songs radically differently than he had written them, but I would not have been able to sort through this difference myself (and even with him writing about it for five pages I’m not sure that I get what he’s saying). The new approach took time, and, frankly, his band needed some time to gel.

I have a five CD bootleg that is a best of the 1989 tour – six and a half hours long. I annoyed my fellow vacationers in London with it all week. There are songs from all over – seventy-seven in total – but not even one copy of everything from the tour. It’s an epic wandering, but too unfocussed to make much sense of.

I attended one of the 1989 shows, the one at the Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada’s Wonderland (an amusement park north of Toronto) at the end of July with my then girlfriend. We had excellent seats – maybe six rows deep, dead centre. It was the closest that I ever sat to Dylan, but I always recalled that I didn’t think very much of the show. Partly, I was fading on my enthusiasm for the man. Mostly it was that I wasn’t part of his new audience.

I have a bootleg of that show, and I can tell why I didn’t like it. He opened with, of all things, “Trouble” from Shot of Love. That alone is an indicator of how wide-ranging Dylan was going with his song selection (his website indicates that this was the third of only seven times he ever played that live). I had never heard that album, and had definitely not heard the song. He followed that with a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, which was unexpected, to say the least, and then did “Tears of Rage” from The Basement Tapes. This was a bizarre (to me) way to start a show.

Dylan segued into his hits after that (“I Don’t Believe You”, “Just Like a Woman”, and “Simple Twist of Fate”) before the acoustic set (“It’s Alright, Ma”, “Don’t Think Twice”, and “Gates of Eden”). When the band returned it was more mystery city for me: the Leon McBride song “Hey La La” (the last time he ever played that live, according to Bjorner), “In the Garden” (which I didn’t know), “Silvio” (which I didn’t like; also, an EXTREMELY different take than is on the album) and finishing up with “Like a Rolling Stone”. The encore was “Times They Are A-Changin’” and “All Along the Watchtower”.

Listening to the show now, I think it is the best Dylan show that I had seen live, but at the time I was hugely disappointed because a third of the songs were ones that I didn’t know at all. Now that I do, I hear it all completely differently, though there are flaws (some songs take G.E. Smith and Co. almost a full minute to wrap up; rock star ending just drawing things out).

The one thing that I clearly recall from the show was that Dylan audibled one of the songs to Smith. He turned from the mic, walked towards the band and changed the song. I remember Smith then yelled it to the band. I have a vague (possibly apocryphal) memory of someone asking what key they were going to do it in, and then Dylan starting. It would have to be “Hey La La” – that is the only song that has a significant gap between it and the preceding song, but Dylan doesn’t start before the rest of the band, they all start together. Still, I do think he might have switched that on the band from the stage based on the long pause. Listening to the pause, I had actually thought at first that Dylan was responding to a request, but re-listening it is clear that someone yelled “Ramona”. Oh well. Close. They hadn’t played that song in six weeks when they did it that night, so it was possible that it was unexpected.

A brief postscript: Dylan’s version of “Early Morning Rain” is a highlight of that show, partly because it’s such a great song. My friend Keith wrote me today to ask why I hadn’t written anything about Dylan inducting Gordon Lightfoot into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986. The truth is, I didn’t know he did it. I just watched that video here. This is one of the worst public appearances Dylan ever made. It’s hard to imagine how he could have been more obnoxious on an important night for one of his friends. It must suck to be friends with Bob Dylan if he acts like this. Check it out for yourself:

To make up for that, here’s the brilliant Gordon Lightfoot – no one does this song better than this.

Dylan and the Dead



Dylan and the Dead was the album that ended my relationship with Bob Dylan. Released in February 1989 (but recorded in July 1987), I actually didn’t buy it at that time. I saw Dylan perform outside of Toronto at the end of July 1989, and I was still somewhat a fan. I remember reading the terrible reviews for this album and avoiding it for a really long time. I finally bought it on sale one day at a record shop in London, Ontario. I think I played it twice.

Nick Hornby has a scene in High Fidelity that precisely describes me buying this album, in which a man anxiously stops browsing the record bins and stomps over to buy the album that he has decided that he will settle on buying if he can’t find something that he genuinely wants. It’s a great quote, but my Google skills have failed to turn it up. No matter. That was exactly it. I knew I didn’t want to listen to Dylan and the Dead, and then one day I really had to have a new album, and that was the best I could come up with. I hated it and resented it.

The album itself, though released early in 1989, was recorded in 1987. In July of that year Dylan performed six shows with the Dead as his backing band. Each show opened with a two hour Dead show and then a show with Dylan playing with them. They did either 13 or 15 songs each night. The shows were in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Eugene, Oakland and Anaheim, each at a football stadium. Dylan never spoke during any of them (indeed, he wouldn’t speak to the audience again until 1990), and he didn’t play any songs solo for the first time in maybe forever.

Over the course of the six shows, Dylan and the Dead performed twenty-nine different Dylan songs, including five that he had never performed live before ever. Of those, two wound up on the album (“Joey” and “Queen Jane Approximately” – it’s hard to imagine that he’d never played the latter live previously). As befits the Dead, most of the song versions are longer than typical for Dylan, and there are only seven songs on the album taken from four of the shows (nothing from Philadelphia or New York). The album is a greatest hits version of the tour, which is quite damning.

Not surprisingly given how bootlegged both acts are, there are excellent quality soundboard recordings of all six of these shows. I don’t have any of them. Bjorner, who is generally pretty good with his bootleg reviews lists none of them as recommended, and if they thought that this was the seven best songs, well, those must have been some rough shows to sit through. I was surprised to not be able to find a bootleg compilation that would put together a four or five disc set compiling the best version of all twenty-nine songs from this mini-tour. The fact that it doesn’t seem to exist probably tells you all that you need to know about this thing was received.

Listening to it with fresh ears this week I was initially poised to tell you that it has been unjustly maligned. I sort of like the version of “Slow Train” from Boston that opens it, and “I Want You” is also pretty good. That’s when it all falls apart though. The entire second side is just garbage. The versions of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (two live Dylan staples) are just about as lousy as anything that he ever did – just limp and lifeless. “Knockin’” just mercifully fades out to end the album – I have a sense that the Dead could have noodled on that for another hour until I would have had to kill myself. The whole thing is just a major bust.

Dylan writes about this tour – or, really, the rehearsals for it – in Chronicles v1. He notes that he had been on auto-pilot at that point in his career, refusing to take suggestions from The Heartbreakers about new songs to play live (“Benmont Tench, one of the musicians in Petty’s band, would always be asking me, almost pleadingly, about including different numbers in the show. “Chimes of Freedom” — can we try that? Or what about “My Back Pages”? Or “Spanish Harlem Incident”? And I’d always be making some lame excuse.”). He actually writes that when the Dead asked him to play some non-traditional material (like “Joey”) he left the rehearsal space with the intention of never returning. He claims that he was inspired to return only after listening to a jazz singer in a club, who inspired him to come up with a new way of singing that he would debut with the Dead, and which would break him out of his cocoon. That’s probably apocryphal, but it is true that Dylan tried new things on the mini-tour, dramatically re-approaching some of his old songs to give them new life. It didn’t work, but he tried. He’d be still trying in 1989 when he began the Never-Ending Tour.

Here, if you want to watch it, is the almost complete Dead set and complete Dylan and the Dead set from New York on YouTube (I haven’t watch this). It’s three hours long:

For the less hardcore among you, here’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from the same show. I don’t think that this is a good version of this song, but it seems pretty typical of what they were doing:

Technical Difficulties


Just a quick note to say that I will return to blogging about Bob Dylan on Monday, catching up with and finishing 1989. I’ve been able to write some posts while in England, but have not really been able to access the site due to unbelievably poor internet connectivity in my rental apartment.

In the interim, please enjoy these photos of Bob Dylan bootlegs that I found on Portobello Road!

photo 2

This is a double-vinyl version of the Rolling Thunder show at Maple Leaf Gardens in December 1, 1975. I have this show on MP3 so I didn’t buy it because I would be buying it solely for the fetish value. Note the single-colour sleeve, which is just a piece of paper wrapped around a blank white sleeve. I had never seen this photo of Dylan and Baez previously and now it is just my favourite thing ever. Good show.

photo 3

This is a US release from 1974 of the Witmark Demos, which I have on vinyl on Zimmerman Ten of Swords and on CD as part of the Bootleg Series. It was re-issued a decade later where they fixed the typo in the title. This is just a photocopied sheet on a white plastic sleeve.

photo 4

This is a truly horrible cover on a German LP. This is the first half of Eissporthalle, Manheim from July 18, 1981. To get the whole show you also need an album titled No Sin. I have this on MP3 and I recall that it was a good show. This is from the period where Dylan opened with religious songs, but then also did his hits, which is a good period. Truly an awful, awful cover.

“Heading for the Light”


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I suppose if you wanted to determine which was the most important member of the Traveling Wilburys, one metric you would use was: Who wrote their singles? The third, and final, single from their first album, peaking at number seven on the pop charts, was “Heading for the Light”. This is one is written, and sung, like the other two, by George Harrison.

I don’t have much to say about this one from a Dylan-ological perspective. Unless you were told he was involved you would never guess it – you can’t make out his voice here, and his guitar-playing is never distinctive enough to notice.

This is a very nice melodic pop song in the George Harrison mood. It is the least Wilbury-esque of the three singles because it sounds like a Harrison solo project with Lynne’s production. Absolutely nothing wrong with it, but nothing Dylan about it either.