In honor of this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature–couldn’t resist expanding/doubling the length:

Call me a heretic, but I consider Bob Dylan to be something of a prophet. The man not only sees the world with astounding clarity and verticality, he shares that vision with others in ways that are as luminous as they often are perplexing. And he’s done so without compromise or deference to fashion. Well, at least, minimal deference to fashion (exhibit A, right). Put it down to having been transfigured.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his work from the 1980s, a period unfairly maligned as his most uninspired. I’m talking specifically about the post-Gospel, pre-Oh Mercy/Wilburys “wilderness period,” a time when he seemed genuinely at drift, both personally and creatively, an observation which his autobiography confirms. That the light kept on shining, albeit in a slightly obscured way, is a testament to the Bob’s genius–or simply more evidence in support of The Nazareth Principle. In fact, it’s the obscura factor that makes this period so fascinating, the glimpses of inspiration that those “with ears to hear,” i.e. the true believers(!), couldn’t help but notice.

Remember, at the dawn of the decade Bob Dylan’s “born-again” phase was starting to lose steam. Or so it appeared. By 1981 he had lifted the self-imposed ban on playing secular material in concert, and seemed to be writing in less of a strict Gospel vein, returning to the more idiosyncratic wordplay for which he was known. Shot of Love, released that year, is considered the last of his overtly Christian records, and a considerable step up from the previous year’s Saved. Critics were relieved by the broader subject matter (which included a song-length ode to comedian Lenny Bruce, for example) and fell over themselves to gush over “Every Grain of Sand,” the undeniable masterpiece of the entire period.

The finished record, however, was not half of what it could have been, as Dylan left three of the best compositions on the mixing room floor (see below) in favor of a couple of duds (“Trouble” and “Dead Man Dead Man”). Apparently he wasn’t satisfied with the arrangements and/or feel of those recordings. Whatever the reasoning, it was perhaps the most contrarian “quality control” decision in a decade career full of them.

2cf96a74b9138aa035f4d6804f426390I mean, I’ll never forget borrowing the Bootleg Series Vol.1-3 boxed set from the library and discovering, much to my surprise, that almost all of the best songs on it were from the mid-1980s, none which ever made it onto an album. Many artists have stuff in the vault which is as good as the stuff they released (e.g. Springsteen, Ryan Adams, MJ); very few have any “lost songs” that consistently surpass the official stuff. Apart from Dylan and The Beach Boys, I can’t think of any other examples. Why didn’t he release this stuff?! Given what he was putting out, it didn’t make sense. That is, unless Dylan were operating on a whole different level than us mere mortals… Another layer to the Dylan-onion presented itself.

Before listing the songs to support these claims, it’s worth sharing two particularly pertinent quotes, both from this period (when he was supposedly “over” his born-again phase):

1985: “We’re all sinners. People seem to think that because their sins are different from other people’s sins, they’re not sinners. People don’t like to think of themselves as sinners. It makes them feel uncomfortable. ‘What do you mean a sinner?’ It puts them at a disadvantage in their mind. Most people walking around have this strange conception that they’re born good, that they’re really good people – but the world has just made a mess of their lives… But it’s not hard for me to identify with anybody who’s on the wrong side. We’re all on the wrong side, really.”

1986: “Well, for me, there is no right, and there is no left. There’s truth and there’s untruth, you know? There’s honesty and there’s hypocrisy. Look in the Bible, you don’t see nothing about right or left… I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that’s the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true.”

16 Great Dylan Songs from the 80s

  1. Every Grain of Sand – Shot Of Love [1981]. This one’s been covered to death, but for good reason. Of the two versions, I prefer the “perfect finished plan” one on the Bootleg Series, for obvious reasons.
  2. The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar – Shot of Love [1981]. Left off the original tracklisting of Shot for God only knows what reason, this one stomps and wails through six glorious minutes of apocalyptic imagery. It may not top “Every Grain” as Shot’s best song, but it grabs second place by a mile, musically as well as lyrically. Were it not for the (fabulous) background singers, the lurching accompaniment could be confused for a Highway 61 Revisited outtake. (In fact, in a not-so-simple twist of fate, a blistering version of “Groom” would be the last live performance by Highway 61 guitarist Mike Bloomfield.) But “apocalyptic” doesn’t quite do the song justice: “Eschatological” would be more precise. “Groom” opens with our man praying in the ghetto with “his face in the cement”, fumbling around in darkness as innocents are massacred and hallways deteriorate. The entropy isn’t wholly meaningless ‘natch—it is the “burning of the page/ curtain rising on a new age”. Meaning, what looks like the wrath of God may be the birth pangs of renewal and redemption. The kicker, of course, is that the bride of Christ has stood up the bridegroom. Those who “are supposed to know better are standin’ around like furniture.” A harlot to the end. But that’s only the first half of the song! In the second half, our clay-footed narrator gets distracted by thoughts of Claudette, the thorn in his flesh or the “one who got away”, it’s not clear. Mixed signals What is clear, however, is that while time is running out for all involved, “God has mercy on them who are slandered and humiliated”. The scene degenerates as the song draws to a close—“cities on fire, phones out of order” etc—but not before Dylan drops a laugh-out-loud couplet about dear Claudette, rhyming “January” with “Buenos Aires” and emphasizing the word “whorehouse”, just in case the ecclesiological import had been lost on any listeners. But he denies us any resolution. The groom isn’t the only one left hanging, in other words.
  3. Caribbean Wind – Biograph [1981]. Another Shot of Love casualty, and dare I say, one of his greatest songs, period? Word has it, there’s a live version from 1980 which far eclipses the studio one. That blows my mind.
  4. You Changed My Life – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 [1982]. Who changed his life, indeed… Again, Shot would’ve been hailed as a masterpiece if these three had made the cut.
  5. Jokerman – Infidels [1983]. Yet I prefer the Mats-style Letterman version.
  6. Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight – Infidels [1983]. If you can listen “through” the terrible production on the drums, you’ll hear a classic.
  7. Foot Of Pride – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 [1983]. Prophet time!
  8. Blind Willie McTell – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 [1983]. The Band almost pulled off the definitive version on their Jericho comeback album. And for the namesake, go here.
  9. Lord, Protect My Child – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 [1983]
  10. When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 [1985]. This one (with the E Street Band) puts the version he released on Empire Burlesque to shame! No comparison… This one features a powerful return of the “burning pages” imagery he used a few years earlier in “Groom”.
  11. Emotionally Yours – Empire Burlesque [1985]
  12. Dark Eyes – Empire Burlesque [1985]
  13. Brownsville Girl – Knocked Out Loaded [1986]. Eleven minutes and somehow not a wasted moment. Co-written with Sam Shepherd, it contains a few of Dylan’s greatest lines: “You always said people don’t do what they believe in/ They just do what’s most convenient, then they repent/ And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby/ And let’s hope that the roof stays on.”
  14. Band Of The Hand – Band Of The Hand Soundtrack [1986]. From that brief but glorious period where Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers served as Dylan’s backing band.
  15. Silvio – Down In The Groove [1988]
  16. Death Is Not The End – Down In The Groove [1988]. “The tree of life is growing/ Where the spirit never dies/ And the bright light of salvation shines/ In dark and empty skies.” Amen.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune – David Zahl from Mockingbird on Vimeo.