Bob Dylan is releasing his 41st album (by Columbia Records' count) in late
September. It's neither yet another "greatest hits" package (No. 40) nor a plugged/unplugged number (No. 39) nor a collection of neo-hootenanny covers (Nos. 38
and 37). Instead, the disc contains the first new songs Dylan has made public in seven long, dull years.
The disc is innocuously titled "Time Out of Mind," and at one point the 56-year-old cultural icon confesses, "I wish someone would push back the clock for me." In these Fleetwood Mac days, can you imagine such an admission coming from any other '60s relic -- say, Mick Jagger? No way -- the man is too perpetually hip. As for Bob, "someone" has already stepped forward to push the clock back for him -- Daniel Lanois. It's 1989 again, the year the two first worked together on "Oh Mercy" (No. 34). You see, Lanois is the producer of "Time Out of Mind," their eight-years-late follow-up. Although we all agree "Oh Mercy" was no "Blood on the Tracks 2," it was Dylan's most energetic recording since "Infidels" (No. 29) in 1983. It's now been seven long, lackluster years since "Oh Mercy" -- can Lanois fire up the Bard a second time?
I have an answer. Although I'm only an amateur Dylanologist, I'm not a Dylan apologist as are most professional members of the D group (say Greil Marcus, etc.). This means I have no trouble calling a bad song bad. By trade, I'm a Little, Brown novelist and this was what allowed me the privilege to attend a "listening session" in the Sony Tower in Manhattan to hear a work tape of "Time Out of Mind" two months before the scheduled release date. Not that Columbia is corporately connected to Little, Brown. I just shamelessly told the Columbia promo man how my forthcoming novel, "Bunny Modern" (No. 2), is set 20 years in the future when current electricity has disappeared because the voltage has flowed backwards in time to July 25, 1965, Newport, R.I. -- the moment when Bob Dylan first went publicly electric in America.
I know that sounds crazy, but my telling it scores me a spot on a couch in a windowless room filled with expensive, but chunky, wooden furniture located on the upper floors of the Sony tower in Manhattan. My listening partners are to be two Newsweek writers (one of whom is the only woman present). Also, the new editor of Spin. And last, a freelance journalist from Philly who just wrote a piece about the death of Jeff Buckley. We're all here because there will be no advance tapes of "Time Out of Mind" since Columbia isn't sure which 11 songs will remain on the record, and Dylan himself fears bootleggers.
Real fears. Dylan dumps masterpieces off his albums that are later bootlegged all the time. For example, "Infidels" would have been a seminal record if the Bard had allowed "Blind Willie McTell," "Foot of Pride" and "Julius and Ethel" to grace its grooves.
Just thinking about this keys me up as I hunch over a table full of Columbia-provided pizza. The Columbia's promo man ushers in the Bard's representative (who I'll call Mr. X because I didn't get his name). He's a slim, lawyerish looking guy. Probably in his early-40s. Trim beard and powder gray suite. After chitchat and pizza, Mr. X holds up the holy cassette and slips it into the machine, announcing that the first cut is called "Love Sick." We listen to it. Then Mr. X announces that the second song is called "Standing in the Doorway Crying." We listen. I take notes. The guy from Newsweek takes notes. Mr. X calls out the third title, "A Million Miles From Nowhere." It plays.
I have to tell you that the sound on these first three songs is great. The production is unadulterated aural Lanois -- he must bottle the stuff. Hear those jangly/ethereal guitars, tangible space between each note. But don't think the music is just imitation U2. The first song is quasi-reggae; the second is a tears in your beer number; the third, a filthy swamp blues. Besides guitars, the stand-out instrument on all three cuts is Augie Myer's (of Sir Douglas Quintet) spooky Farfisa organ. Rather than imitate the classic "all thumbs" sound of "Highway 61 Revisited," Augie's keyboards are from the soundtrack of some 1950s saucers-from-Mars drive-in movie. (I mean this as a compliment.)
I've grouped the first three songs together because by the end of "A Million Miles From Nowhere," I write in my notebook: "I hope Dylan plays this album for his brother David before it's released" -- referring to mid-December 1974, just two weeks before the release of "Blood on the Tracks," when Dylan flew home to Minnesota to play an acetate of his forthcoming record for his younger brother, Dave, who thought the songs sounded "skeletal." Bob took the kid's comment seriously and went to Minneapolis to re-cut half the album.
Comparisons between the final version of "B.O.T.T." and the acetate are astonishing. The original "Idiot Wind" is a quiet, pondering song, while "Tangled up in Blue" has no spunk. The first "B.O.T.T." would have been a masterpiece, but it would never have been both a masterpiece and a hit if Dylan had not recut the deadwood. I think the first three songs on "Time Out of Mind" drag and need Dylan's brother's touch.
I haven't mentioned the Bard's lyrics because few words stick. He's not doing any baroque wordplay. There is no "old Rounder in the iron mask" slipping him "the master key." Dylan's writing simpler songs, but none as perfect as "Man in the Long Black Coat." The few standout lines concern the singer going down a dirt road until his eyes begin to bleed. Later, his feet are tired and his brain is wired. And he's sick of love, but he is in the thick of it. And Dylan's love life has been so bad that at one point he sings in a voice craggier than we've ever heard him before: "I don't know if I saw you if I'd kiss you or kill you."
Then the Bard reveals why he's the Bard in the next song (Mr. X calls out, "Trying to Get to Heaven.") Lyrically, this song is marvelous and opens the album up for me. Dylan is "trying to get to heaven before they close the door," words as generic as the earlier "you left me standing in a doorway crying," but in the doorway song Dylan came off as just a big crybaby, while in this one he literally goes all over the map -- referring to a
time "when I was in Missouri." Then he goes down the river to New Orleans. He visits "Miss Mary Jane," who "has a house in Baltimore." He's even been to "Sugartown." In fact, he purrs out: "I've been all around the world, boys." And he's still gunning for the gates of heaven ...
Dylan may be denied paradise, but the next song is called, "Doin' All Right," a bluesy track recorded in Lanois' proverbial echo-laden cyber-bunker, with Dylan telling us that he was "doin' all right till I fell in love with you." Several minutes into this cut, Mr. X walks to the tape machine and begins slowly turning down the volume, duplicating how the song will just fade out in the middle of Dylan's singing when it appears on CD. Because I want to catch every word, I walk up to the speaker. Dylan sings that his house is on fire, but he thinks it will rain. Later, just before the singing disintegrates into tape hiss, Dylan kicks a guy out of cab, but lets him back in. The blood runs from my face as I hear those lines. Is this a reference to the notorious 1965 cab ride where Dylan kicked Phil Ochs out into the streets of Manhattan?
That evening I'll read through a stack of Dylan biographies and discover that the Bard was in a limo, not a cab. And the car sped away leaving Ochs in the street. But this research will give me crackpot insight into Dylan's up/down career. I'll read tale after tale of those terrible days of '65 when Dylan and hatchet man/flunky Bobby Neuwirth humiliated everyone from Ochs to Richard Fariqa to Donovan to Joan Baez. What if this abundance of unkindness accumulates into that state popularly called "bad karma"? Consider Dylan's various creative droughts -- the late '60s "Self-Portrait" fiasco. The "Knocked Out Loaded" doldrums lasting two-thirds of the '80s. Perhaps those lean times were Dylan's debt for being such an unkind fink in the golden days when everything he recorded was genius.
"I HAVE A BROTHER OR TWO AND A WHOLE LOT OF KARMA TO BURN" Dylan typed in capital letters on the liner notes of his 1975 album "Desire." And if this is true, the next song, "It's Not Dark Yet," announces his debt has been paid. The song is pure art, reminding one of the masterful songs from the "Blood on the Tracks" sessions, the ones that used repeated phrases like "a simple twist of fate" or "I guess it must be up to me" to reveal new meanings with each repetition of the verse. In "Not Dark Yet," Dylan similarly amplifies the phrase "it's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Please take what I say on faith. I can't share any examples because I was so moved by what I was hearing that I stopped taking notes ...
Then "Cold Iron Bound" starts, revealing that "the ghost of electricity howls from the bones" of Dylan's face. Here's one biting electric guitar lick. There's one distorted organ sound. This song is so electric and the players so good that I now want to reveal yet another Dylan rumor: Guitarist Chris Whitley -- a Daniel Lanois cohort -- told me last winter that Dylan intended "Time Out of Mind" to be a "Beck-style" album consisting of sampling and electronics. Dylan and Lanois worked on this venture in Hollywood for a month until Dylan scraped all the tracks, saying, "We can't make a record without a band." So they went to Criteria Studios in Miami to record with human beings.
I repeat this rumor to Mr. X, who replies, "Yeah, I heard about that," adding with great sarcasm, "It was on the Web."
I don't tell him I'm the one who put it there.
Then "To Make You Feel My Love" begins, and after only one verse, I'm going "Uh-oh." It's time to make lemonade. For all the great songs Dylan denied us, bootlegs reveal the clinkers we've also been spared, such as a clichid weeper from the "Infidels" sessions called "This Was My Love" -- a song so hackneyed and maudlin one can't believe the Bard actually wrote it. Likewise this new one, "To Make You Feel My Love," contains lyrics as dumb as Moon Pies. Am I exaggerating? Imagine Dylan singing about "the highway of regret" and the "winds of change" without a lick of irony. I'm telling you, Moon Pies ...
And when the song finishes, the Spin editor says, "This is gonna be Billy Joel's new single." At first I assume he means this as an insult. But he doesn't. Mr. X confirms that this is indeed Joel's next single. Holy highway of regret!
Then we hear "I Can't Wait" -- another bluesy song that's so out-there the sound seems to disintegrate as Dylan sings, "It's near midnight and there are people all around/Some are on their way up/Some are on their way down." What direction is Dylan going? As the song continues, he goes "strolling through the lonely graveyard" of his mind. It leaves me staring at the empty pizza boxes and pondering how a Dylan deathwatch of sorts started when the Bard's heart trouble was announced earlier this summer, reports saying the sac surrounding his ticker had inflamed, a condition usually caused by excessive contact with bat guano.
Can a man's love life be that bad? I recall reading that Johnny Cash once felt so low he pulled off the highway in Tennessee and crawled into a cave wanting to die. Has Dylan been in a similar funk, only his hole held bats? Can being a legend be this overwhelming? Bob will never tell us directly. Back in a 1986 issue of Interview magazine, he listed the questions he'll never answer. Topping this list was "How does it feel to be a legend?" followed by "How does it feel to have influenced a bunch of people?" and "Did you write the song for me?" The last question was: "Did you know Nixon?"
Ah. Tricky Dick. Just as Nixon died more-or-less redeemed, the final song on this album redeems Robert Zimmerman (should he ever again need the state of redemption). It's called "Highlands" and must last as long as "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." Its offhand lyrics are simultaneously throwaway lines while being as brilliantly dadaist as anything Dylan has ever written.
This is the song where the Bard wishes the clock were "pushed back." He also informs us the last book he read was by Erica Jong. He let's us know he's "listening to Neil Young/Gotta turn up the sound/Someone's always yelling, 'Turn it on down.'"
That could be another throwaway line, except Neil Young has been a creepy billboard showing up on every off-ramp on Dylan's "highway of regret" for years. In 1972, Dylan was holed up in Phoenix, where the radio played nothing but Neil Young's "Harvest," driving the poor Bard out of his mind. Dylan said in interviews: "I felt like that should have been me on the air waves." Then there's the incident that takes place outside an L.A. mansion where Neil Young is recording "Tonight's the Night" while Bob Dylan is hiding in the driveway in the dark taking notes.
"Highlands" ends with a 30- to 40-line digression that describes an autobiographical moment when the Bard orders hard-boiled eggs in a restaurant. I don't want to spoil the moment of your first listening by saying anymore about this song, except after hearing Bob finally share with us what it's like for Bob Dylan to be Bob Dylan, we can all thank god that it's happening to him rather than of any of us.
As soon as this song and album are over, I have an immediate sense of disappointment. I discover that I am still David Bowman. My life has not changed. But I still want to listen to the album again to see how much it will grow on me. Later, on the elevator ride down, Mr. X tells me that Bob Dylan has this recurring nightmare -- he finds himself giving the "so defiled that even your mother and father won't know you" speech that he gave when he was given the life achievement award at the Grammys, except Mom and Dad are gone. Instead, Dylan finds himself saying, "It's possible to be so defiled in this world ... that even David Bowman won't know you."
Ha! I'm just joking, of course. This is my way to admit that I am perhaps Dylan's worst listener: I'm the guy who expects him to continually be brilliant year after year. None of my peers or betters make this demand. I take it personally when Bob Dylan does shoddy music -- "Unplugged" indeed. Still, the only CDs I buy these days are Dylan bootlegs, hunted-down unreleased studio stuff mostly. Earlier this year an amazing song called "Lunatic Princess Revisited" was unearthed, a microscopic 90-second song recorded during the "Highway 61" sessions. Although it's as short as a love sigh, the song is completely enthused with the manic magic of those golden 13 months in the mid-'60s when Dylan released not one, not two, but three of the most extraordinary albums ever recorded -- only to have it all almost end on July 29, 1966, when he fell off a motorcycle zipping around his "landlord" Albert Grossman's estate in Woodstock.
Indulge me and imagine a few Philip K. Dick-style alternate histories of Dylan: What if the accident had killed him? (His death would have had such national psychic consequences that Johnson would have found himself ordering that Hanoi be nuked ...) What if the accident hadn't happened? (Dylan would
have finally given in to psychedelia like the Stones and released an album of sitar pluckings ...) Or let's go a decade later: What if Dylan had never kicked Jesus out of his cab and given us 25 years of religious music like Al Green? (That wouldn't have been so bad. The second best producer Dylan ever worked with was "Slow Train's" Jerry Wexler ...)
But forget these alternate histories. Philip K. Dick is dead and Dylan is alive, providing us with a different Dylan for every listener as well as a different Dylan for every writer. And I want to give Robert Zimmerman, himself, the last word on this phenomenon known as Dylan by recording the last lyrics of the album:
"The party is over/There is less and less to say/I got new eyes/Everything looks far away."