Bob Dylan’s long and involved connection with the Grateful Dead continued in late 1999, when Dylan did a tour supported by Dead bassist Phil Lesh as the opening act in November and December. Lesh would frequently join Dylan onstage late in the show or during the encore, and they would frequently perform a Dead song as part of Dylan’s sets, like “West L.A. Fadeaway” or “Alabama Getaway”. The Dead song that Dylan most commonly covered was “Friend of the Devil”.
Dylan began covering “Friend of the Devil”, as near as I can tell, in 1995 (he may have done it before that – I stopped looking), and he made it a regular part of his rotation in 1996 (when he played it live 21 times). It continued to be a part of the repertoire for several years after this. I first noticed it a couple of weeks ago, when it started to show up frequently on fan made anthologies of the highlights of his tours. I’m not sure that the song was always a highlight, but given the huge overlap between Dylan and Dead fandoms, it’s not surprising to find it popping up frequently.
In 2000, Grateful Dead Records released a tribute album, Stolen Roses, and it included a live version of “Friend of the Devil” by Dylan. For the life of me I cannot figure out where and when it was recorded – even Bjorner doesn’t seem to have that information. I suppose you could listen to all of the hundreds of Dylan versions to try to figure it out, but I can’t say that it matters that much to me. Part of me wonders if they used a version with Lesh on bass, but the sites I looked at don’t even seem to know that. Could be, I guess. You can hear that version here.
A number of sites do agree that the song is one of the weak points on Stolen Roses, largely because it is clearly taken from a bootleg recording, and not a very good quality one – the audience is really loud. So, it’s a nice gesture to include the song, but if he wasn’t going to record it in the studio I think I probably would have left it off. On the other hand, it may be a fitting tribute to the always semi-disfunctional relationship between Dylan and the Dead, one that only makes sense in theory and almost never in practice.
I couldn’t find a good video of Dylan doing the song at the moment, so here’s Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt doing it. I saw Lovett perform last Monday, and he was great. His drummer was Russ Kunkel, and when he introduced him the immediate thought that went through my head was “he drummed on New Morning!”. Yes, I am that far gone.
Bob Dylan returned to the Grammy Awards in early 2000, not as a nominee (no new music produced to speak of in the past couple of years), but as a presenter for Album of the Year. Dylan won that award in 1998, and he co-presented with Lauryn Hill (who won in 1999). Presumably the previous winner is brought back to give away the statue the next year, but perhaps Dylan was double-booked in 1999? I don’t know.
I can’t find a complete clip of the presentation. You can see Hill reading the winner if you click through to the Grammys site here. Dylan is kind of funny here, pointing (I think) at Carlos Santana. Did he know who the winner was, or was he just suggesting that it should go to his friend? Likely the latter.
It must have been a big moment for Santana, who won a slew of awards that night. Lauryn Hill was one of the guest stars on Supernatural, and he toured extensively with Dylan in 1993, so it was a pretty ideal set up in terms of the people up there to give him the big prize.
Earlier in the show Santana performed “Smooth” with Rob Thomas. This song won three awards. Do you remember Matchbox 20? I had totally forgotten that they existed until I clicked on this video, and now it is stuck in my head. I’m terribly sorry.
Sorry, not much to this one – just an early 2000 Dylan cameo. Bit of a bizarre jacket, if you ask me. (Hill, of course, looks great).
Bob Dylan ended the 1900s on a bit of a downswing. In the midst of a four year drought where no new albums were released (and his only new song in 1999 was a redone version of “Chimes of Freedom” with Joan Osborne). There wasn’t much to report about all year.
Of course, Dylan toured relentlessly, because that’s what he does. Indeed, in 1999 he performed 119 concerts – a new Dylan record! These were broken up into five distinct tours:
January – March US Winter Tour 28 shows
April – May Europe Spring Tour 21 shows
June – July US Summer Tour with Paul Simon 38 shows
September US Fall Tour with Paul Simon 10 shows
October – November US Fall Tour with Phil Lesh 22 shows
Notably, 1999 was the year that Bucky Baxter left the Never Ending Tour (in May), replaced by Charlie Sexton. Sexton had one hit in 1985 (“Beat’s So Lonely”) and has toured with Dylan from 1999 to 2002, from 2009 to 2012, and from 2013 to today. I already miss Bucky Baxter on the slide guitar, though there are some interesting new arrangements and solos that Sexton has brought to some familiar songs. Life moves on.
The shows that I listened to all week were from all June and July (the tour with Paul Simon). It was an unusual tour, and clearly a nostalgia tour for the most part. The AP story about the announcement called it “nirvana for 1960s folk fans” and noted that each man would play a 75 minute set each night, flip-flopping the opening/closing spot. This was the first tour for Simon since 1992, with the AP noting that Simon had spent the last few years working on “the Broadway flop The Capeman”, which is something that I have never heard about in my life.
Let’s start with Simon. I used to have no strong feelings about Paul Simon. Like every other white person on the planet, I owned a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and I think that The Graduate has a great soundtrack. I kind of liked Garfunkel better than Simon, but if I’m being honest that’s just because Carnal Knowledge is such a great film. I hated the Paul Simon of the Graceland period, when it was inescapable on the radio, and his decision to break the cultural boycott of South Africa was simply unconscionable. Simon has “no regrets” and my feelings haven’t changed either – I think he’s a scumbag.
So. Here he is touring with Bob Dylan, playing to the nostalgia crowd (the bank managers super-show, as my wife just put it). Someone has nicely put together a lovely little two CD bootleg called Boys in the Bubble that includes selections from various shows with each performing solo, and a few of them playing together. It’s a well done set (they’ve even included Dylan and The Grateful Dead doing (badly) “The Boy in the Bubble” from 1987 (they can’t remember all the words), and a 1992 Dylan cover of “Homeward Bound”). Each disc opens with one man introducing the other for his set, which is a nice little touch.
The duets are probably the most notable things here. There are six of them:
“I Walk the Line” and “Blue Moon” from Mountain View. In Virginia Beach they did “That’ll Be the Day” and “The Wanderer”. “The Boxer”, which Dylan (horribly) covered on Self-Portrait, is included from Dallas, “Forever Young” (tried only one time) from Denver, “The Sound of Silence” from Concord, and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from Austin. The crowd goes crazy virtually every time – waiting for that magical moment, but it never really comes. Here’s a version of “Sounds of Silence” that is as good as they got together. It’s fine, but Dylan is no Garfunkel, so there isn’t a lot of effective harmonizing. In general, none of the duets are very good – but they’re better here than they are on any of the Dylan songs:
Generally speaking, Dylan performed far more interesting sets than Simon did. Simon does his hits. Dylan did “Highlands” (the whole song!) and “Down Along the Cove”. There is no question that Dylan is the more interesting artist at this juncture by a wide margin. Evidence of this can be found on best four shows from the tour where Simon doesn’t appear. These are collected in a five CD bootleg titled Ace of Clubs, because Dylan was playing small venues (Tramps in New York City the night before a Madison Square Garden show with Simon; Bogart’s in Cincinnati and so on). These shows are fantastic (except for the occasional idiot fan whooping and hollering, but what can you do?), and consistently a lot stronger than the big stadium shows. Dylan’s band is much more interesting when they’re trying to fill a small room than when they’re in full rockstar mode of any venue with a name like Coca Cola Star Lake Ampitheatre, Pepsi Arena, or Nissan Pavillion. I’d really recommend the Ace of Clubs collection as the highlight of the year, and I’d suggest simply skipping the Paul Simon shows.
I do wonder if Dylan and Simon are genuinely friendly. He seems to appreciate him on stage (Dylan is terrible about faking things like this). On the other hand, Simon did write this anti-Dylan piece in 1965:
In the 1960s I’d have put Simon a step below Dylan, but at least in the same ballpark. In 1999? It’s not even close – Simon is the anchor dragging down the summer Dylan shows.
In 1999 NBC aired a miniseries that seems symptomatic of the decline of network television. While HBO was putting The Sopranos and Sex and the City on television screens and changing our understanding of what the medium was capable of, NBC aired The Sixties. Check out the trailer:
Even the callback to Roots seems retrograde. I never watched this show, and, bizarrely, it doesn’t even seem to have a Wikipedia entry. It just looks like the worst thing ever.
For the most part it used exactly the kind of music that you would expect it to, and that is used in the trailer – pop hits from the Lovin’ Spoonful to R&B hits from Smokey Robinson. If you imagine that this is going to have to use “Sunshine of Your Love”, you’re absolutely correct.
As far as I can tell from the soundtrack listing, the only new song that they used was a cover of “Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan with Joan Osborne. Listen to that here:
Musically it is quite nice, even if the bass is a little too upfront for my tastes. Not a bad version at all. I don’t think that the presence of Osborne adds a great deal – she’s yet another talented vocalist who is pretty much incapable of finding a way of harmonizing with Dylan. Don’t worry, Joan, everyone fails this test.
Osborne is an interesting figure. An almost textbook definition of the one-hit wonder, she had tremendous success in 1995 with the horrible song “One of Us”, and has never come close to a hit subsequently. She’s still recording country music, and she clearly has some talent, but she would have seemed to be on the downside of her career by 1999, although she did open for The Dixie Chicks on their ill-fated 2003 tour (post-Natalie Maines criticism of George Bush).
The funny thing about the video of this song on YouTube is that the whomever made the fan video clearly thought that Dylan was singing with Joan Baez – and, indeed, more than a few commenters feel the same way. It’s sort of bizarre to hear Dylan and Osborne and to watch a series of stills of Dylan and Baez, even if it probably fits the theme of The ‘60s better.
Perfectly fine version of this. It was the only new material that Dylan put out in 1999 (one of his slowest years in a long time). Not memorably good nor bad, it’s just sort of out there. Forgettable is probably the best word for it.
One of the most inexplicable Bob Dylan appearances of any time or any place is his mysterious guest spot on Dharma and Greg on October 12, 1999. Dharma and Greg was one of those inexplicably popular shows (it followed Who Wants to Be a Millionaire at the height of that show’s ratings ascendancy) that ran for five seasons on a very thin premise, weak writing, a generally amiable cast, and very little inspiration. Jenna Elfman was the pixie-ish star, but most of the rest of the cast around her was funnier, though not by very much.
The episode with Dylan (“Play Lady Play”), which I just watched here, is really quite bad. The plotting is at a level that you would expect to find on The Brady Bunch – it is all very heavy-handed and ham-fisted. At a time when Seinfeld was on the air, this was a very backward-looking type of sitcom.
So, the plot, such as it is. Greg has quit his job as a lawyer and now argues incessantly with everyone around him. To escape her annoying husband, Dharma agrees to drum in the band of their teenaged grocery bag boy, Donald. They play a cocktail party, Dharma and Greg have a big fight, and Greg realizes that he’s been acting poorly and apologizes. The end. But it’s not the end. When they pack up Dharma’s drums, she tells him that she has another audition. Then the show has about a three and a half minute coda in which Dharma auditions for Bob Dylan (and T-Bone Burnett!), playing drums while he plays guitar (he doesn’t sing) and then trying to play a polka with him (unsuccessfully). Don’t believe me? Watch it yourself:
Dylan smiles. He kinda laughs. He genuinely seems to be enjoying himself in a way that you rarely see Dylan enjoying himself. It’s just sort of odd. Elfman is clearly in heaven about the whole thing too.
I have no idea – none at all – what would have attracted Dylan to this show, or who he might have known to get him hooked up with it. I suppose it is always possible that he was just a fan – I really, really don’t know.
The appearance wasn’t advertised in advance – you can find postings on Dylan mailing list alerting people on the west coast to turn in – and it was just a surprise thing for the die-hard Dharma and Greg audience, whomever they must have been. It’s Dylan’s first appearance on a sitcom, and one of his (at this point) very rare acting roles.
It’s all just kind of mystifying to me. I guess he liked Dharma and Greg.
With no new album and only a few guest spots in 1998, I spent a lot of time listening to Dylan bootlegs this week. In 1998 Dylan kept on touring – performing the 1,000th show of the Never Ending Tour in Montreux at the Jazz Festival. I didn’t listen to that specific show as it didn’t earn any special praise anywhere that I saw. What I did listen to was a couple of compilations that I found really useful. One of the, Les Bons Moments, collects highlights from Dylan’s European tour. This is one of my favourite bootleg titles (for 1999 I have one titled Boots of Spanish Leather, which is highlights from his Spanish tour, that is even better). Another is a collection of better performances from Dylan’s New York City shows in 1998. Both of these are single CDs, and neither of them is totally awesome – there are some moments that left me thinking “if this is bon, what was mauvais?” At the same time, there is a great deal that I still like on these 1998 performances.
One thing that struck me about the New York disc is how poor the crowd behaves at Dylan shows by this point in time. Just awful. When Dylan does an interesting, but little known song, like “John Brown” or “Tomorrow is a Long Time” they essentially chat through it. When he plays a hit like “Desolation Row” they cheer when they hear the first line, and then go back to chit chatting. Plus there is always at least one guy “whoooing” away like Ric Flair. I am really starting to become intolerant of late era Dylan crowds.
One of the striking things about Dylan playing his hits thirty years later is that it always takes the crowd a few moments to pick up on the fact that he’s playing a song that they actually know. The version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” on the New York set, for example, begins with some frantic mandolin playing that segues into a Mexican guitar sound. It is impossible to imagine what song is coming until the lyrics finally arrive. This version is just completely different than any version that I had ever heard. Dylan and his band make even the most familiar of songs totally unpredictable, which is what makes these bootlegs worth listening to. Even when his voice fails him (increasing at this point) the musical creativity is still there.
“It used to be like that, and now it goes like this”. One of the best ever Dylan lines from the stage, spoken during the “Royal Albert Hall” show in 1966 as a way of introducing “I Don’t Believe You”. The crowd in Manchester that night was having none of those changes – they boo, they stomp, they clap off rhythm trying to throw off Dylan and the Hawks. The English fans were furious at the rhythmic changes that Dylan introduced to his music, something that will be his hallmark for the rest of his career.
The only “new” Dylan material in 1998 was the Bootleg Series 4: Live 1966, The Royal Albert Hall Concert. I didn’t buy this when it came out, because I had the concert on vinyl as part of Zimmerman: Ten of Swords, but I remember that I was thrilled that it had an official release because it seemed to signal that the Bootleg Series was going to be a potentially ongoing and huge series (which it is – the eleventh volume is due later this year) rather than just the one off triple CD. I wrote about this show in the 1966 week, but listened to the show again this week. It’s fascinating to return to the scene of the crime this many weeks later. In January I thought that this was one of the best shows Dylan would ever do. I still think it’s great, but it has also fallen a great deal for me. There are so many shows now that seem much more interesting and alive to me now. I’m not knocking this – and the sound quality here is really top notch – just realizing how much I over-estimated it in retrospect.
As I say, still a great show. The only song that I don’t much care for today is “Mr. Tambourine Man”, where Dylan sort of spits the word “to” into the microphone, popping it. This is far from my favourite Dylan song, and this version sort of irks me, but not nearly as much as the whole show irked his audience.
In 1998, Bootleg Series v4 may have served for a lot of people as a reminder of the young, dynamic, vibrant, outrage-inducing Dylan that they once knew and loved (or knew and hated). For a lot of those people – including me – the contemporary Dylan would’ve seemed second or third rate. Today I’m finding more and more that I’m excited about the Dylan that is still to come, rather than nostalgic at looking back to the Dylan from early in his career.
Can I give two strong examples of that? On a Dylan tour anthology that I have for 1999 he does “Highlands”. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning to listen to both of those tracks. Does he change the lyrics for “Highlands”? If he doesn’t, can he remember them all? It’s sixteen minutes long! More fascinatingly, in 2000 he’s going to start performing his worst song, “If Dogs Run Free”, for the first time (first ever: October 1, 2000 in Münster). I am so excited to see if he can turn this New Morning monstrosity into something worth hearing. With Dylan you have to keep moving forward into the past. So while it was nice to revisit 1966 briefly, there’s still a lot of future left to explore.
Here’s “Cold Irons Bound” from Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, October 29:
We had nothin’
I had to do something
So I’m Knocking On Heaven’s Door
like I’m Bob Dylan
So sings Wyclef Jean in “Gone Til November” the third single from his first post-Fugees album, The Carnival. That would be a minor thing – lots of musicians have name-dropped Dylan – but the truly bizarre thing is that Jean then got Dylan to appear in the music video. Shot at an airport, Jean sort of wanders around singing this sad song about leaving his girl, and then, suddenly, he’s sitting on a bench and Bob Dylan is beside him in a black cowboy shirt just sort of, I don’t know, smiling beatifically at him. It’s kind of creepy.
Good song though.
Jean told MTV: “‘Gone Till November’ is an original song that I wrote, but I mention Bob Dylan’s name in the song. I said, ‘I had none, so I had to do some/ So I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door like Bob Dylan.’ And I was like, ‘Yo, we should get Bob Dylan in the video!’ And it was like, ‘You ain’t getting no Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan never shows up in videos, man! Bob Dylan doesn’t do that kind of stuff!’ But I was like, ‘Yo, we can get him, man!’ And we got Bob Dylan. I think that what Bob Dylan brought to the game is lyrical continuity in the music, and [the idea that] it’s not all about the commercialism. It’s about standing up for something and speaking out for the rights of the people.”
I don’t know about any of that. I mean, I certainly don’t get the idea that this song is about speaking out for the rights of anyone, but who am I to judge?
As we transition from 1997 to 1998 on the LongAndWastedYear, the best segue is the 40th annual Grammy Awards, where the big winner was Bob Dylan. Dylan was nominated for three awards for Time Out of Mind:
Best Contemporary Folk Album
Best Male Contemporary Rock Vocal Performance (for “Cold Irons Bound”)
Album of the Year
He won all three of these awards.
The Grammys are a little bizarre in terms of the Album of the Year award, alternating (at this point in their history) between celebrated new comers and grizzled veterans with returns to form. Check it out:
1993 Eric Clapton Unplugged
1994 Whitney Houston The Bodyguard Soundtrack
1995 Tony Bennett Unplugged
1996 Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill
1997 Celine Dion Falling Into You
1998 Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind
1999 Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
2000 Santana Supernatural
So your best shot of winning this award for the better part of a decade was to be an old man or a young woman.
Of the other nominees, I think only one of these albums is particularly well remembered at this point:
Babyface The Day
Paula Cole This Fire
Paul McCartney Flaming Pie
Radiohead OK Computer
The Radiohead, obviously, is now seen as one of the defining albums of the 1990s (although I’ve never been much of a fan). The other three all seem forgettable to me. I do think that the Dylan win was a bit of a surprise. In the video below (which is a compilation of Dylan bits from across the entire show) Celine Dion seems genuinely shocked (at first I thought she must have just lost to him, but she wasn’t a nominee) while Patti Smith seems positively elated. Dylan even gave a speech that made some sense.
Of course, this Grammys was best remembered for the bit that opens that video: Soy Bomb. During a performance of “Love Sick”, and a good one, Dylan has an audience of black-clad hipsters behind him. One of them breaks from the crowd, and dances in spasms with “Soy Bomb” written on his chest. Dylan looks on and tries not to panic until Soy Bomb is ushered off stage.
Soy Bomb, we now know, is the multimedia artist Michael Portnoy, who does performance art and stand-up comedy. He was himself the object of parody on both SNL and Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, though I can’t find either of those clips. The Eels, however, wrote a song about him.
For some reason I recall watching the Soy Bomb performance. Why I would have been watching the Grammys in 1997 I have no idea, but I did see it. Definitely a memorable moment.
I should also note that Jakob Dylan was nominated for two Grammys at this show for his song with The Wallflowers, “One Headlight” (Best Rock Vocal and Best Rock Performance By a Duo or a Group with Vocal) and he won both of those. So a great night for the Dylan family, and a career-defining moment for Michael Portnoy.
In his Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s best album in two decades, Time Out of Mind, critic Greg Kot calls “Make You Feel My Love”: “a spare ballad undermined by greeting card lyrics that breaks the album’s spell”. Harsh, dude. I don’t agree, necessarily, but there is something a little “greeting card” about this song. How do I know? Well, it has been covered by a lot of greeting card singers. Let’s break them down (in order from worst to, um, slightly better than worst).
1. Billy Joel. Recorded for his Greatest Hits v3 (seriously, I did not know that he had that many hits!). This is sort of a pounding piano performance of the type that Joel does best. Piano, some drums, and he belts parts of it out. Throw in some harmonica and a little organ. What a mess. Joel’s version was released as a single two months before Dylan’s album was released, and it hit #50 on the charts.
2. Kelly Clarkson. All piano and production and hitting notes with a mechanical precision. I can’t get all the way through this version. This is the type of thing that people sing on American Idol, which is why I don’t watch American Idol.
3. Taylor Hicks. Speaking of which. Here’s another one, from the season five winner.
4. Josh Kelley. I’m not even sure who he is. This is from the soundtrack of A Cinderella Story. Completely over-produced. Gets awful about 1:00 in.
5. Garth Brooks. Brooks also goes the piano route here. It’s better than Joel’s version, but that’s not saying a whole lot. His version was used on the soundtrack for the much derided Sandra Bullock film, Hope Floats. I only like Brooks when he is being a douchebag (“Friends in Low Places”), so this earnest version is no good. This a real greeting card version of this one.
6. Trisha Yearwood. From the same soundtrack as the Brooks version (Hope Floats), this is helping to establish this as a showpiece for vocal pyrotechnics. Minimal organ and some strings and a whole lot of Trisha.
7. Joan Osborne. From her 2000 album Righteous Love. All vocals and drums. At least she does something different with it. I don’t much care for her vocals though.
8. Bryan Ferry. Aging new wave star singing treacly love song. This one is pretty lifeless. Ferry also recorded “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, so he has a long connection to Dylan covers. He also did “Let’s Stick Together”, which Dylan also covered.
9. Neil Diamond. He’s the best, isn’t he? Who doesn’t love Neil Diamond? This is actually pretty good. Neil sounds like he gets this one on the level that Dylan wrote it. Almost no music at first – all Diamond, baby.
10. Adele. Adele recorded this on her first album, and it was released as the fifth single. Again, keyboards and vocals. She makes this work a lot better than the men do. Here she does a live version dedicated to Amy Winehouse that actually turns it into a semi-tragic anthem.
Wikipedia cites about two dozen additional covers of this song, but a lot of them are by people I’ve never even heard of and life is short. Prince apparently covers this live, but I didn’t find a good video of it.
I would have thought that the ultimate sign of the greeting card-ifcation of this song would be in its relentless use on daytime soap operas or the fact that American Airlines used it as the muzak on their inflight systems this year, but that would be wrong. Here it is a tribute to Cory Monteith on Glee:
It’s a tear-jerker, I guess.
Of all the great songs on Time Out of Mind, the most-remembered, by far, seems like it will be one of the slightest. Oh well, that’s showbiz.
This has been probably the most interesting week of the year for my ridiculous Dylan blogging project. 1997. I would not have guessed that.
It’s been four weeks since there has been a new Dylan album (not counting the live MTV Unplugged or Greatest Hits compilations). It has been seven weeks since we have heard new songs from him. It was seven years in real time. Then, suddenly, Time Out of Mind, his most heralded recording since at least Blood on the Tracks.
Despite the fact that it won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1998, and for best male vocal performance (“Cold Irons Bound”), I had never listened to this album before this week. Never. I knew a few of the songs (“Love Sick”, “Cold Irons Bound”. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”) but I never bought this album, and had just never heard it at all.
What a revelation.
I listened to it for the first time last Sunday on a bike ride and I didn’t really like it. My initial reaction was that it all sounded too much the same – rhythms and tempos were all pretty similar, and it had a layer of Daniel Lanois-esque production on top of it. I was disappointed. It didn’t live up to the hype. Listening to it for a second time that night I thought it was better than my initial listen but only a bit. On Monday morning it got a bit better. Monday afternoon, riding home from work in the midst of a summer blizzard (hey, that’s life in the mountains), it started to sound good to me. It was that night that my reaction shifted gears.
This is Dylan’s longest album since Self-Portrait, and only his third double album (on vinyl, it’s a single CD). One of the effects of that is that I didn’t always listen to the whole thing all the way through in one sitting. At almost 73 minutes long, if I turned it on at lunch in my office I would generally turn it off at almost an hour. I think that the first four times that I deliberately sat down to hear the album I turned it off at the end of “Can’t Wait”. I think it was Tuesday before I actually listened to the last song, “Highlands”, and then this whole thing made sense.
I don’t think that “Highlands” is the best song on Time Out of Mind in the same way that “Brownsville Girl” is the only great song on Knocked Out Loaded, but they serve similar ends. “Highlands” is the longest song that Dylan had yet recorded – 16:31 – and it is astonishing. The version on the album is the rundown – musically it’s just the same thing over and over and over and over forever, with Dylan talking/singing over top. Initially when I heard it I could barely keep my focus on it. It sort of drifts in and out, and the imagery in the opening about Scotland is very general. For me, the song roars to life about 6:00 minutes in, with an extended centrepiece featuring Dylan and a waitress in a Boston diner (“She got a pretty face and long white shiny nails”). It is a remarkable, cinematic piece of script-writing. By the time he sings:
Then she says, “You don’t read women authors, do you?”
Least that’s what I think I hear her say
I knew that we were in some pretty special territory. “Highlands” is 864 words long. In comparison, “Brownsville Girl” is 1117 and “Desolation Row” is a mere 660. It’s an epic. Funnily, I do think that I will tire of “Highlands” more quickly than the other two epics. I still like “Desolation Row” and I absolutely adore “Brownville Girl”. The revelations of “Highlands” seem smaller and more intimate and may fade over time, but I’ve loved this song this week. Dylan has played it nine times in concert (mostly in 1999 and 2001) and I’ll be curious to hear that – there is a lot of room in this song for extended improvisation and lyrical changes.
Okay, so the rest of this album. In general, of the eleven songs, I like ten of them. Actually, I even like the one that I don’t like, but I just don’t think it fits thematically on this album. Almost everything is long – six songs longer than five and a half minutes, three longer than seven minutes. This is an epic’s epic.
The opening track, “Love Sick”, which was also the second single from the album, really does set the agenda for the whole album to come. Moody, atmospheric, Lanois-esque, the whole thing driven by the sounds of the organ and Dylan’s razor-like voice with the those cutting occasional guitar chords (one of the least guitar-driven songs Dylan has ever recorded). The organ playing recalls Ray Manzarek of The Doors at times, while Dylan is moving towards Tom Waits as a vocal stylist. Dylan was 56 when he recorded this plaintive wail of a song. It is typically dark and anti-love, but, of course, ends with the sort of sad admission: “I don’t know what to do/I don’t anything to be with you”. The White Stripes covered this one. Great song.
“Dirt Road Blues”, the second song, is the only one that I don’t really like. It’s not that it’s a bad song – it’s perfectly fine – but it just seems out of place. Generic. You could put this song on so many Dylan albums after Blonde on Blonde and it would feel absolutely like it belonged there. Put it on Nashville Skyline and you’d think “Yup, that fits”. Same with Under the Red Sky. There is a continuity here of Dylan’s interests that makes it undeniably Dylan-esque. But it doesn’t really add anything here. It’s a change of pace song that arrives too early – the pace hasn’t been set yet. Funnily, when I was first listening to this album my complaints were that it was all too much the same in terms of tempos and keys, but by the end of the week it was the one song that varies those things that I liked least. Go figure. Also, I don’t like the crude way that Lanois fades this one out. There are a couple of hackneyed fade outs on this album (probably to keep it to the length of one CD – they really move up to the boundary on this album – but it bothers me).
“Standing in the Doorway” seems like the most typical song here, in that it has a walking tempo, the organ, some slide guitar, and it’s sad. It is one of the songs with the clearest Christian content (by the way, to all of those people who argue that Dylan reverted from his Christianity, how are we reconciling songs like this one?). This is a beautiful song of reconciling with the inevitability of death:
Last night I danced with a stranger
But she just reminded me you were the one
You left me standing in the doorway crying
In the dark land of the sun
I think this has the best musicianship on the album and some of Dylan’s best singing here too. The vocals are really full and up front. Lovely.
“Million Miles” is near the bottom for me on this album. The jazz parts just seem too self-consciously jazzy – the drum flourishes and vamping of the organ are almost parodies of jazz stylings. This is one of those pieces where I think that the song itself is better than the recording of it on this album. Probably would fall into the ten spot out of eleven songs. Let’s move on. Not a whole lot to see here.
“Tryin’ to Get To Heaven” explores the same themes as “Standing in the Doorway”, but probably even more explicitly. This is a well-recorded song, with a lot of Dylan up front and some minimalist musicianship in the back. It’s the only song on the album where he plays harmonica, but that isn’t a very showy part of the song – almost tentative. I love the last verse here way more than I probably should:
Some trains don’t pull no gamblers
No midnight ramblers like they did before
I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down
Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door
It’s the Sugar Town/sugar down rhyme that gets me every time, particularly the way that Dylan speeds his way through it. I love this one.
“Til I Fell In Love With You”. I hate to keep harping on this, but to the people who want to say that this is a post-Christian Dylan: “I know God is my shield and he won’t lead me astray”. Seriously, people. This is another pretty good song. This one sounds like it could have gone on Oh Mercy, the previous collaboration with Lanois. Another one with a slow tempo, but it has a little bit of funk to it.
A pretty strong argument can be made for “Not Dark Yet” as the best song on this album, and one of his best in two decades at least. This is one of his best expressions of Christian faith (it was used on the soundtrack for The Passion of the Christ (which was a collection of songs that weren’t used in the Mel Gibson movie)). Whatever one might want to say about Lanois, the production on this is just exemplary. Every single time Dylan sings the refrain, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”, it gets to me. This one is a mini-masterpiece.
Here is a terrible quality music video for it:
Dylan won a Grammy for singing “Cold Irons Bound”. Seriously, a singing Grammy (again!). It’s another strong contender for best song on this album. Another dying love song, with biting guitar. The vocals are interesting – they seem a little distant, as if they were echoing forward from somewhere else, though there isn’t anything so obvious as an echo effect. Like “Love Sick”, this is a dark, moody, haunting song with a touch of bitterness to it. The central image from the title “twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound” is tremendous – that little shift in the word order makes the phrase seem slightly alien. I always find it a tiny tongue-twister – the plural of irons get me every time. Dylan has used every song (but “Highlands”) on this album in his live sets, but this is up there at the top – more than 400 performances. It is truly a mature rock song.
“Make You Feel My Love” is near the bottom of my list for songs on this album, and some critics dismiss it outright. I’m going to write a separate post about this one later today.
“Can’t Wait”, the penultimate song, is one of the thinner ones. This one probably falls into the “fine” category. It would seem better if the rest of the album wasn’t so much better than it is – I think it is only minor in comparison.
So, Time Out of Mind. Incredible album. This is the kind of mature, late-50s, been all around the world, lived, loved and lost, found God, lost my talent, found it again album that only someone like Dylan probably could have written. Remarkable album. Dylan apparently isn’t that fond of it as an album, having problems with the Lanois sound (notably he has produced all of his own albums since this one), and though it does at times sound like a Lanois album, that’s not really that bad a thing.
It’s funny, I haven’t been that down on Dylan for the past few weeks. I really thoroughly enjoyed his 1995, and even though 1996 seemed to be a bit of “more of the same” I thought he was doing well. It takes something like Time Out of Mind, though, to remind me of how much higher he could go.
Dylan seems to like the songs from this album. All of these songs are played frequently now, which is something that hasn’t been the case since the 1970s. Generally Dylan will only use a few songs from any new album in his sets, but on this one he has played most of the songs hundreds of times. It seems clear that this album was the start of something new for him. Because it arrived in stores just after his first major health scare – chest pains in May had led to the cancellation of his European tour. The album was widely reviewed as Dylan coming to terms with his own mortality, even though it was recorded before he fell ill. I think at the time it was feared that it might be the last major Dylan project, although, of course, it was far from that.
It really is the best Dylan thing in months. Certainly the best album since Infidels, maybe the best since Desire. It might even be a top five contender. I’m not ready to turn the page into 1998 at midnight!