For something that should have been quite simple, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits v3 has really frustrated me. As you may have noted, I haven’t paid great attention to the previous two Greatest Hits albums because, well, they cover material that I’ve already written about. I thought that would be the same thing here, and that when v3 (which I don’t own) rolled around I would note that it contained the single version of “Series of Dreams” and one unreleased track, “Dignity”. It is that last that has been a thorn in my side.
“Dignity” is, I am starting to think, one of the better late-Dylan era songs. It was recorded during the sessions for Oh Mercy with Daniel Lanois, and Dylan uber-critic Michael Gray argues that it should have been the lead song (instead of “Political World”). I agree with this argument. However, Dylan and Lanois could never come to grips with the song and how it should be performed and recorded. Here’s Dylan from Chronicles:
“We started “recording “Dignity” about nine o’clock. I knew what Lanois had in mind and thought that there might be something to it. The dichotomy of cutting this lyrically driven song with melodic changes, with a rockin’ Cajun band, might be interesting…but the only way to find out, is to find out. Once we started trying to capture it, the song seemed to get caught in a stranglehold. All the chugging rhythms began imprisoning the lyrics. This style seemed to be oblivious to their existence. Both Dan and I became plainly perplexed. Every performance was stealing more energy. We recorded it a lot, varying the tempos and even the keys, but it was like being cast into sudden hell. The demo with just me and Willie and Brian had sounded effortless and it flowed smooth. Certainly, as Danny said, it didn’t sound finished, but what recording ever does? Dopsie got almost as frustrated as me. It was a strange bull we were riding. He and his band never lost their composure, though. This song is not exactly a twelve-bar song and needed to project the perception of intimacy to be effective. It was becoming way too complicated and convoluted. An ambiance of texture and atmosphere is what the song called for and what Lanois is so good at. I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t getting it. You work hours on something and you get dizzy. After a while you lose your judgment.”
I have a copy of that original demo (‘just me and Willie and Brian’) and it is terrific. They should have just used that and left the Lanois material alone. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t, and the album became what it became.
Apparently when Greatest Hits v3 rolled around in 1994, there must have been some sense of needing to put a new song onto the album to get the hardcore fans to buy it (a basic record company scam) and “Dignity” was selected. The song was remixed by Brendan O’Brien from Dylan’s band (he played organ on the MTV Unplugged special, about which more on Saturday). Michael Gray writes: “All he did for “Dignity” was ruin it”.
While it is true that the O’Brien version of the song is not as good as the spare demo, I’m not sure that I would say it is “ruined”. I mean, compared to some of the things that happened on Empire Burlesque, it’s hard to use the term ‘ruined’. Nonetheless, this version is insanely hard to find. It is not included on Complete Album Collection, but rather a different version of the same song (from Best of Bob Dylan v2 in 2000) is used. That version is closer to the original demo.
So, not having Greatest Hits v3 nor the song from Complete Album Collection (which is beginning to look less complete with each passing day!), I started looking around on the internet for this version with no success – links to YouTube versions of it have been copyright enforced out of existence and I couldn’t find the album on streaming services. I finally cracked and paid $1.29 for it on iTunes just so that I could say I have it. As I say, not completely ruined, but it is the worst version of the song that I have.
The song itself will begin to take on a life of its own following its release on Greatest Hits v3. Dylan had never played it live before that release, but then, for some reason, performed it both nights of the MTV Unplugged sessions and the version from the second night made it onto the special and the subsequent album, giving it a second release. The Unplugged version is quite good.
From there it was picked up on the soundtrack of the tv show Touched By an Angel (yes!), but in a different version. That version was the one that was included on Best of Bob Dylan v2 and which is on the Complete Album Collection). Finally, two versions (one very partial – only two minutes long) can be found on Bootleg Series v8, including a spare demo version that is very close to the one I have on an Oh Mercy outtakes bootleg. Whew. That’s a lot of effort for a mostly forgotten song. Dylan has gone on to perform the song 53 times in the past twenty years – that makes it a semi-regular for him.
As for the album itself, it covers material dating back to the early-1970s (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, from the Pat Garrett soundtrack, being the oldest song included). It has a number of great songs (“Tangled Up in Blue”, “Forever Young”) but really doesn’t seem to include what I would have thought were his best songs from this period. It doesn’t include all of his singles (which is fine, most of them were not “hits”) and is more idiosyncratic. It does include the tremendous “Brownsville Girl”, which probably makes it worthwhile on its own.
Here’s a video of Dylan and his band rehearsing for the MTV Unplugged show and performing “Dignity” from either November 15 or 16, 1994 – they did the song five times on the 16th, but since he forgets the words it is possible that this is the version from the 15th.