Drawn Blank

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A mid-1990s Dylan oddity is his fourth book, Drawn Blank. While two of his earlier books were obvious projects – The Songs of Bob Dylan (1975) and Lyrics, 1962-1985 (1985) – and one should have been an obvious project until it misfired (Tarantula), Drawn Blank was probably unexpected. The book is a collection of sketches for paintings that Dylan never painted. That it was published by Random House makes it that much more odd.

Dylan included sketches in his earlier collections of lyrics, and even painted the cover for Self-Portrait, so it was not out of the blue that he liked to dabble in drawing and painting. Drawn Blank collects pencil and charcoal sketches from 1989 to 1992, and he hadn’t significantly improved as a visual artist since the 1970s. The subjects are generally the same – life drawing (often nude, or semi-nude women) and, quite frequently, the views from what seem to be hotel rooms. It is these latter images that are more interesting to me, because they at least suggest something about Dylan and his lifestyle – the nudes, frankly, could be drawn by almost anyone.

That Dylan draws does not surprise me at all – creative people are often attracted to multiple modes of expression. What is surprising, I guess, is that a publisher the size of Random House would have seen a significant market for this work. Given the declining sales of Dylan albums at this time, the fan base must have seemed somewhat small. Then again, even a small fraction of Dylan’s album buying audience is probably larger than the market for all but the biggest art books.

Maybe it’s just that these drawings are so average. The work is quite mundane, and uninspired. It actually took some effort to flip through the library copy so that I could honestly say that I had at least looked at every one, and I would never have enough interest to go back to them. This is super-fan material, that’s for sure.

The copy that I have in front of me I took out from my university library. It has an old-fashioned paper in the back noting when it was checked out and back in. Since 1994 I am the fourth person to borrow it – and one of the other three was an interlibrary loan. Now I’m really curious about who the other two University of Calgary students or staff were that would have borrowed this, and I wonder what they were looking for that they couldn’t take in from a quick glance.

“You Belong to Me”

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I remember 1994 as the year that I met my wife. You might remember it as the year that Oliver Stone’s insanely overwrought film Natural Born Killers caused a lot of commotion about copy-cat killings. I remember that my wife and I saw the film in the theatre one night with some other scholars at a conference on Canada-Mexico cultural relations. 1994 was that kind of year.

I bring all of this up only to note that Bob Dylan had an unreleased song used on the soundtrack of the film. “You Belong To Me”, a cover of a Pee Wee King song from 1952, had been recorded during the same sessions as Good As I Been To You. It’s as good as anything on that album, and better than a lot of it, but for whatever reason it was left off the album. I like this version quite a bit. Sadly, however, Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails opted to help wreck it but overlaying dialogue from the film onto the instrumental portion of the end of the track. I hate that, and Reznor has done some genuine damage here. Jerk.

I don’t have a different version of this song – no live version (I’m not sure if he’s ever done it live; it’s not listed on his site), no alternate take. All I have is this version that Reznor dumped some crappy Tarantino dialogue onto. Tragic. Surprisingly, this song is not included in the Complete Album Collection (which does include some other soundtrack songs), which makes it even more disappointing.

You can listen to the song – and Reznor’s defacement of it – here. This is the whole soundtrack, and “You Belong to Me” starts at about 16:13.

As for Natural Born Killers, I haven’t seen it in twenty years. I can only imagine that it is dreadful. Got some good material on the soundtrack, though.

Three Collaborations (1994)

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Do we do these things from good to bad or bad to good? Bob Dylan had a few curious collaborations in 1994, and here’s three of them.

  1. Stevie Nicks. Sometime either in late-1993 or early-1994 Dylan showed up at a recording session for a new Stevie Nicks album, Street Angel. According to the Wikipedia entry for Nicks, she entered rehab for a pill addiction in “late-1993”, so Dylan’s collaboration with her probably took place after she got out. Regardless, he played guitar and harmonica on her cover of “Just Like a Woman” (below). This is a totally unnecessary cover of this song, with Nicks adding very little to it and Dylan adding almost nothing at all. The first time I played it I didn’t even hear the harmonica (actually, I didn’t really make it out on the second either – it is not prominent in any way), and the guitar playing could be almost any competent studio musician. Apparently this album came out at a nadir period for Nicks, where most of the coverage focused on her weight gains rather than her singing, and the whole thing was something of a flop. I had no idea it existed until the other day, and I’ll probably have forgotten it by tomorrow. I don’t have any real idea how Dylan knows Nicks, other than the idea that all famous people in LA probably know each other. I’ve seen Entourage. The best part of this fan-made video are the ultra-bizarre images of Nicks.

2. On May 23, 1994 Dylan showed up at the Rhythm, Country and Blues show in Los Angeles. I had never heard of this, so here’s a CNN report about it:

Here he played the least duet-ish duet of all time with a sort of stunned looking Trisha Yearwood. Watch as Dylan strides out on stage and launches into “Tomorrow Night” (which he had recorded on Good As I Been To You). Watch as he never even acknowledges that she is also on stage. Watch as Yearwood eyes him warily, the way you might eye a racoon who is caught under your back porch. Tentatively, oh so tentatively, she tries to come in on the chorus. I think she must wondering where he might end up going at any moment here. It doesn’t matter – it’s not like he lets her sing a verse or anything. This is one selfish performance. Also, until I saw the video below I didn’t realize that Dylan outsourced the harmonica part here. An oddity, for sure.

3. Finally, and unfortunately I can’t find a version of this on the web, in November Dylan appeared on Mike Seeger’s album, Third Annual Farewell Reunion. Seeger played banjo while Dylan sang “Ballad of Hollis Brown”. It might not be as good as Dylan sang it back in the day, but Seeger is an incredible musician and his playing is awesome here. You’re going to have to trust me – or buy the track on iTunes – but this is not just the best of this sad lot, but actually a track well worth having.

The Great Music Experience

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Seven and a half months into this project there are still some things that surprise me about Bob Dylan, and, very rarely, there are still some things that astound me. This morning fell into the latter category, where I found myself watching a 1994 video of Dylan and thinking “Wait, what? He could still perform like this?”.

The place was Nara, Japan. UNESCO had the very good idea of producing a series of concerts at UNESCO World Heritage Sites in order to draw attention to them. Get a bunch of big western musical stars to come to Japan to perform with traditional Japanese artists at the Buddhist temple at Todai-ji and call it The Great Music Experience (it sounds inelegant, but perhaps it scans better in Japanese). The whole thing was produced by Tony Hollingsworth, orchestrated by Michael Kamen, and Beatles producer George Martin was there, in the role of the guy with enough gravitas to tell people what to do and actually be listened to. The list of western stars was a bit mid-1990s: INXS, Jon Bon Jovi (who was apparently terrible), Richie Sambora, Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, and Joni Mitchell. The show also featured the Chiba-based heavy metal band X Japan, whose fans were unruly. The idea was to bring two musical cultures into dialogue through rehearsals, and then play three shows (May 20-22) with the third one broadcast worldwide.

I have no memory of this show at all, so if it was broadcast in Canada I completely missed it. You can watch the whole thing here on YouTube, or skip ahead to the Dylan section (48:30). I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that incredible? Who knew Dylan could still sing that way?

This was the first time that Dylan ever played with an orchestra (the Tokyo New Philharmonic Orchestra). That completely changes the way that he has to approach the song. As Hollingsworth’s remarkable blog on the event (I strongly recommend this article) makes clear, for the first time probably ever Dylan was following a band rather than leading them. A sixty piece orchestra is playing from sheet music – they are not going to improv with him like GE Smith – he has to sing it the way that they practiced it or the whole thing is going to fall apart. Apparently this approach – or the venue, or the sushi, who knows? – brought something out of Dylan, because that is just about the most beautiful version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” that he’s ever sung. It is really an eye-opening revelation.

Yesterday I was writing about how Dylan should have toured doing his acoustic band versions of songs to breathe new life into his music. Today I’m thinking he should have done a tour with a full-fledged orchestra. The fact is that Dylan definitely still had it in him – there can be no doubt of that after this – it’s just that he only rarely let it all out.

Dylan and the orchestra did the same three songs each night – “Hard Rain”, “I Shall Be Released” and “Ring Them Bells”. On the last, they use bells from the temple and it is a lovely effect as well. I’ve only heard this night’s performance, but it sounds like all three nights were remarkable. Quite the surprise for a Sunday morning in 1994 of the Long and Wasted Year.

David Letterman (3)

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A little postscript to the Supper Club shows. At each of those four shows, Dylan and his band did “Forever Young”. Two nights after the last of those shows they turned up on Late Night with David Letterman for Dylan’s third appearance on that show playing this new version. If Dylan’s first appearance had been one of his most interesting ever performances, and his second was an absolute disappointment, this was a triumph.

You may have to be on Facebook to be able to click through to watch this, but it is totally worth it. Dylan sings beautifully, and the instrumentation is lovely. The slide guitar (by Bucky Baxter) works wonderfully, and about three minutes in Dylan plays a great solo. You can see Paul Schaeffer playing organ in the background, but it’s tough to make it out. For the most part, this is another tease of how Dylan might have sounded had he opted to tour his old material with a toned down band and acoustic guitars. Sadly, it was not to be. But this is a great performance of this song.

The Supper Club Shows

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I spent most of this week listening to the same four recordings. I missed out on listening to any of Dylan’s 1993 US tour with Carlos Santana (some days Dylan headlined, some days he opened; they never played during each other’s sets) and the European tour and everything else. Instead I became somewhat fixated on November 16 and 17, when Dylan performed four short concerts at New York’s Supper Club.

These shows took place just after the release of World Gone Wrong (which came out in October). Dylan performed with his touring band (Bucky Baxter, John Jackson, Tony Garnier and Winston Watson) for an intimate series of acoustic sets that were professionally recorded and filmed at Dylan’s expense for a television special that never happened. There are countless bootlegs of this material. The ones that I have are the “Genuine Supper Club Shows” and they seem excellent to me. Given how well these shows were recorded I would expect most of the bootlegs are pretty comparable. I also would not be at all surprised if they eventually show up as part of the Bootleg Series. They probably should.

Over the course of four one hour long shows, Dylan performed nineteen different songs. Three of these, “Ring Them Bells”, “Forever Young” and “Queen Jane Approximately”, appeared in each of the four sets. The last of these was somewhat surprising, because Dylan had only performed this song a couple of dozen times in his life before this – it was not at all a common song in his rotation. He does a beautiful version of it here:

Other songs from the shows included some of the recently released traditional pieces (“Jack-A-Roe”, “Jim Jones”, “Delia”, “Ragged and Dirty”, “Blood in My Eyes”) and classics like “One More Cup of Coffee” and “My Back Pages”. Not everything works – I don’t like the phrasing on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” – but some things are fascinating (“Tight Connection to my Heart” from Empire Burlesque is stripped of all the bullshit). If you’re the type of person who likes Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, these are very tantalizing shows, suggesting a direction that the touring Dylan might have taken in 1994. Sadly, it’s not to be – he tours relentlessly in 1994 (most shows since 1979) – but is back to a full band sound.

These would have been tremendous shows to have attended live. I don’t know how many people the Supper Club holds, but I’m guessing it is not that many. These shows seems to be one of the real high points for Dylan in the 1990s, and they are the shows that I had been most looking forward to since the beginning of summer. They’re a sort of frustrating tease of a Dylan era that might have been.

Dylan will sort of return to this terrain with his MTV Unplugged show in 1995, although I do think that these shows were stronger. Hopefully they will get a full-fledged official release, although they’re easy to find on the web. Here, for example, are both November 16th shows as a single stream.

These four shows have been my favourite Dylan thing in weeks and weeks. I love these shows.

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World Gone Wrong

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The problem with writing about Bob Dylan is that I can’t write as well as Bob Dylan. When you pause to consider what you might say about an album like World Gone Wrong, don’t make the mistake of reading the liner notes, because it will freeze you dead in your tracks. These liner notes can’t be topped by way of explanation.

World Gone Wrong, released in 1993, was a sort of sequel to Good As I Been To You. Recorded in a very similar fashion in his garage, without any over-dubbing or accompaniment, the album was the last on his then current contract with Columbia, and after it he was a free agent. Although it didn’t do much business (peaking at #70), it did win Dylan another Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1995 (neither Wikipedia nor the Grammys website lists the other nominees, which is pathetic when you think about it – it was the big year for Alanis Morissette and Hootie and the Blowfish won Best New Group. Yikes!).

World Gone Wrong is actually more of a blues album than a folk album. It is considerably darker in its song selection than was Good As I Been To You. I like it considerably better than its predecessor, particularly “Blood in My Eyes”, “Jack-A-Roe” and the title track. It is a tired sounding album, deliberately so. The rumour is that all the songs were recorded without even a single change in guitar strings. It isn’t polished (it is an anti-Jeff Lynne album), and there are even some bum notes that most people would have cleaned up and polished off. The album is probably all the better for those minor miscues. Dylan is starting to sound like he’s being recorded in the fields by Alan Lomax, which may be what he wanted.

Dylan had been criticized on Good As I Been to You for not properly citing his arrangements of traditional songs, and a series of disputes arose. That album had very little information, but this one has epic liner notes written in a style that would have been at home in Dylan’s records from the 1960s. “Broke Down Engine”, he says is about “the fortunes of the privileged elite, flood control”.  “Stack A Lee”  is “not some egotistical degraded existentialist dionysian idiot, neither does he represent any alternative lifestyle scam”. “Blood in My Eyes” and “World Gone Wrong” are credited to the Mississippi Sheiks (who also did “Sitting on Top of the World”, which Dylan recorded on Good As I Been To You).

After this album came out Dylan was without a recording contract for a few months,and explored some options before eventually signing a new ten album deal with Columbia (which he is presumably still on, because he hasn’t released ten albums since this one). He won’t release a new studio for four more years, when he gets back together with Daniel Lanois for his next career reviving album, Time Out of Mind.

I think that this may be my favourite Dylan album cover, by the way. What a photo!

Here’s the Mississippi Sheiks: