Traveling Wilburys Volume 3

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I’m not sure that quickly following Under the Red Sky with Traveling Wiburys v3 was such a good idea. The two albums were released within a month of each other at the end of 1990, and each was, in its own way, a disappointment relative to the album that preceded it. Just as Under the Red Sky paled in comparison to the near masterpiece that was Oh Mercy, Traveling Wilburys v3 was flat in comparison to the Volume 1 (there is, of course, no Volume 2. Some say that this was a George Harrison joke, others claim that Dylan and the band considered the widely circulating bootlegs to be Volume 2).

Traveling Wilburys Volume 3 demonstrates with absolute precision how great Roy Orbison was. Without Orbison there the band is fundamentally changed. As Orbison wasn’t primarily known as a song-writer, you can see that the songs themselves aren’t in decline here, but the presentation of them is. Jeff Lynne’s production tricks are all the same, the musicianship is rock solid, but the whole thing is just missing that one little thing, and that thing is Orbison’s voice. If you concentrate on a song like “Where Were You Last Night?” you can sort of will yourself into hearing where it should have gone.

To my ears, none of the songs on Volume 3 are as good as the best songs (the singles) from Volume 1. Some of the songs are actually pretty dreadful (“Cool Dry Place”) and others use production and musicianship to paper over ridiculously stupid lyrics. Here is the, I don’t know, ecological fable? that is “The Devil’s Been Busy”:

While you’re strolling down the fairway

Showing no remorse

Glowing from the poisons

They’ve sprayed on your golf course

While you’re busy sinking birdies

And keeping your scorecard

The devil’s been busy in your back yard

It’s no “Desolation Row”, that’s for sure. I do think that it’s funny that an album whose largest potential audience segment was middle-aged, middle-class white guys has an anti-golf song, I guess.

In general, this is an inoffensive album. I can’t imagine mustering the energy necessary to deride it, but there aren’t really any high points either. A song like “New Blue Moon” could have probably been amazing with Orbison singing it (it is really good without him). As Rebecca just noted to me, it sounds as if this is the backing track to the great Roy Orbison song that was never sung – it is missing the crucial piece, and when Dylan steps in to handle the lyrics, well, Dylan is no Orbison, as I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you.

It’s just sort of an unremarkable way to call it quits on the Traveling Wilburys idea.

Here’s “New Blue Moon”, which I think is the best thing on the album:

Under the Red Sky

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I own a copy of Under the Red Sky on vinyl. It is the most recent album that I can say that about. I have no idea how or why I have this – I think that it was probably given to me by someone. It has all the marks of having never ever been played.

Under the Red Sky is commonly regarded as the astonishing crash back to earth after Oh Mercy – the return of the half-assed Dylan who is just sort of hacking stuff out for no good reason. I don’t think that the album is awful, but it is true that it really isn’t any better than Knocked Out Loaded or Down in the Groove. There are a couple of worthwhile efforts here, but for the most part it is completely forgettable.

If I had been paying attention to Dylan at this point, I’m sure I would have shared in the disappointment of this album. It is chock full o’ guest stars (George Harrison, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Crosby, Elton John, Slash….) and was produced by Don Was, who was a hot commodity at the time (working with Elton John, Iggy Pop, Bonnie Raitt, and the B-52s). Some critics, notably Robert Christgau, really liked this album. One thing I have learned so far this year is that if Christgau says something is white, I’m positive that it’s black – we could not disagree more fundamentally on Dylan (I just watched a documentary about Dylan’s career in the 1980s and Christgau is in it and every single time he said something I disagreed with it).

Two of the songs here – “Born in Time” and “God Knows” – were left-overs from Oh Mercy. Not surprisingly, I would argue that they are two of the three good songs on this ten song misfire. Let’s take a look:

  1. “Wiggle Wiggle”. This is the song that regularly winds up at the top of “Worst Dylan Song Ever” listicles. It isn’t that – it isn’t even the worst song on this album – but it isn’t really very good either. Dylan dedicated this album to his young daughter, and “Wiggle Wiggle” is sort of a children’s song (only sort of, though) and, well, it seems few people want that from Dylan. Especially as the lead song on the album. I think that this would receive a lot less hate if it occupied, for instance, the spot “Handy Dandy” does. Which is to say that by the time people got to the song, they’d already mentally quit on the album. Slash plays guitar on this and he later covered it.
  2. “Under the Red Sky”. Also, I think, a children’s song. Dylan repeats the first two lines of each verse in a kind of nod to traditional songs, and the lyrics are very straightforward and fairy-tale like, including the old man in the moon: “Let the wind blow low, let the wind blow high / One day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie”. To me this song doesn’t amount to much. George Harrison plays the slide guitar here.
  3. “Unbelievable”. I wrote about this the other day. I think that this is the best song on the album, but it’s not a great song. Nice little piece of boogie boogie blues and that’s about it.
  4. “Born in Time”. Bruce Hornsby is on the piano on this one. I think this is alright. It would probably have fit better on Oh Mercy, and that might have played up its gravitas a little better.
  5. “TV Talking Song”. I can’t stand this. Dylan singing about the evils of television. I hate it musically, lyrically, ideologically. Whatever. This is the worst song on the album – it’s the only one that I immediately hit skip on when it comes on. Dreadful.
  6. “10,000 Men”. This is the song with Stevie Ray Vaughan playing guitar. I don’t think that I get this song or what it’s really trying to accomplish. Dylan has played it live only once (in 2000) and it is just sort of a blank for me.
  7. “2 x 2”. This is the song with Elton John on piano. Apparently I was there for the last time he ever played this live (in 1992 at Massey Hall in Toronto), so that is somewhat cool. I feel like this may be a great forgotten Dylan song. It’s a simple counting song, which, of course, go back centuries. It has religious overtones (“Two by two, they stepped into the ark”) but it is very elusive. I feel like this is a song that a lot of people probably like a lot more than I do.
  8. “God Knows”. Stevie Ray Vaughan is also on this one. I like this, but I don’t love it. I think it should probably be more aggressive musically. It is a classic Dylan fake-out song. The first lyric is “God knows you ain’t pretty”, which sets you up for an anti-love song, but it then turns out to be a fairly straightforward return to Religious Dylan from the late-1970s.
  9. “Handy Dandy”. Rebecca’s choice for worst song on the album, because it gets stuck in her head like an ear worm. It’s true, this is garbage. I have no proof, but this sounds to me like a rejected Wilburys song – it has that lighthearted goofy Americana tone, but it just doesn’t make anything from it. The problem with this song is that the “Handy Dandy” of the title is actually supposed to be a person….
  10. “Cats in the Well”. A very slight nothing to wrap it all up. If on Monday, when I’ve moved on to 1991, you ask me: “Hey, did Dylan ever do a song called “Cat’s in the Well”?” I’ll tell you no, he didn’t, because there is nothing to remember about this song as well. Wallpaper

It’s not his worst album by any stretch of the imagination, but it is half-assed. A genuine retreat from what he accomplished only a year ago with Oh Mercy.

Roy Orbison Tribute Show

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In February 1990, a little over a year since he had passed away from a heart attack, a tribute was held for Roy Orbison. While rumours of a live Traveling Wilbury’s appearance turned out to be unfounded, Bob Dylan did appear at the show in (in a white jacket) to join a re-assembled version of The Byrds on two songs, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “He Was a Friend of Mine”.

Rolling Stone has a good short article here on the state of The Byrds at this time, which was a history that I knew nothing about at all. They describe the version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” as the most noteworthy part of the show. Certainly the crowd goes a little crazy when he strolls on out. You can watch that here:

This is another in a seemingly endless series of videos featuring people collaborating with Dylan where they are not all on the same page. It looks to me that they thought he was going to take over singing the song there, but it just didn’t happen – he’s happy to stand with David Crosby and harmonize. Awkward.

I don’t have a video of “He Was a Friend of Mine”. Dylan doesn’t sing on it, just played guitar.

Finally, he appears in the big group sing of “Only the Lonely” that ended the show. This is, as is typical of that kind of thing, a bit of a debacle. Too many cooks… Bjorner lists the singers on this as “Cindy Bullens, Gary Busey, Joe Ely, Chris Frantz, John Fogerty, Larry Gatlin, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Harrison, Levon Helm, John Hiatt, John Lee Hooker, Chris Isaak, Booker T, B. B. King, Al Kooper, Michael McDonald, Slim Jim Phantom, Iggy Pop, BonnieRaitt, Lee Rocker, Brian Setzer, Ricky Skaggs, Harry Dean Stanton, Syd Straw, Don Was, David Was, Tina Weymouth, Dwight Yoakam and others”. Sort of sad that Iggy Pop made it to this show but none of the Wilburys but Dylan….

That whole mess is available here:

Serenading the Masters of War

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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)

“Unbelievable”

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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?

Preserve

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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:

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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.

Catchfire

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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.

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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.

DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE!

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