Bob Dylan’s debilitating writer’s block in the late-1980s and how he came out of it. And why the world missed the ensuing masterpiece.
This is perhaps the most interesting story in Bob Dylan’s life. The most human moment in a superhuman career that has changed the course of music several times. Despite many who think he was a “folk singer”, not realizing that was just one-fifteenth of his near-sixty-year-old career, that he outgrew at the age of 24. Despite his legacy defined by his pioneering approach to song lyrics when he is actually the greatest and most prolific creator of songs in human history. Despite not enough people paying attention to the new ground he has broken in every single decade of his life, including this one.
The 1980s decade is considered the least productive decade of his career — that is actually measurably false, demonstrated below. But it is the decade when he had his biggest creative crisis, when he was convinced he had lost his ability to write songs, burnt out, dried up forever. Seriously contemplating premature retirement, the humility and integrity with which he faced up to this predicament is as timeless and valuable a story as any of his greatest songs. And contrary to popular notion, the songs that emerged from that phase might actually be the most consistent collection he came up with for a single project in 45 years — between 1976 and 2021. That music and the context in which it came into being should really be the stuff of legend, as it expands cumulative creative consciousness in many ways. Dylan himself wrote about it very vividly in his 2004 memoirs — Chronicles Volume 1. But even that is not the full story.
Unfortunately, some of the choices Dylan made at the time about which songs to include for public consumption did not put his best foot forward. Demos and outtakes from that period continued to emerge for almost two decades, preventing a coherent picture from forming, given how many disparate moving parts there were to this. With the distance of time, with some details in the earlier demos factored in, the clearer context that manifests shines a brighter light than before, and the view is magnificent.
This piece/essay/ report, whatever you want to call it, attempts to present that view with as much clarity as possible, hence its length. If you choose to listen to the music in the links, this is like a radio show. If you choose to also imagine the context as an unfolding human story, this is like a film (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom needn’t be the only compelling film around the recording of songs in a studio and invoking transformative creative spirits against the odds is as important a story as racism). The first half here builds the context (quoting from Chronicles at times but later, also from other sources, all listed at the end) and the second half demonstrates the big picture of this music in a way that has perhaps not been examined before (at least, it does not seem to have been discussed in these terms anywhere else till date). In the end, it also improves on the older outcome (the Oh Mercy album as it released), that these playlist times enable us to. (Reminder: to open links on separate tabs, Command/click on Mac and Control/click on Windows).
The point of this exercise is inspiration — the music and its goose-pimple-inducing context. The story begins where the 1980s commence.
From the outside, it looked like this: the great Dylan songs were still very much rolling along in the 1980s. Whether it be from his Born-Again Christian phase (1979–1981) or the time-honoured masterpiece from his 1983 album, even if the accompanying albums were uneven. Artistic relevance was complicated at the time (perhaps more than any other period before or since) — given all that was flowering at the same time — fresh expressions in disco, reggae, soul, funk, punk rock, rhythm-and-blues, alt rock, synth pop all vied for attention within a very short span of time (late-‘70s/ early-‘80s). But incandescent performances like this demonstrated that Dylan’s famous propensity to reinvent himself in different idioms was still very much in play.
Still, the reviews were getting more and more unkind, sales were dropping. Attempts to make him more relevant in 1985 may have resulted in videos like this but the song probably sounds fresher today than it did then. He was still a much sought-after figure in contemporary musical events where he made a palpable effort to give his best as well. Collaborations with leading figures also resulted in interesting work, like this one with Sam Shepard in 1986 or this in 1987 with Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead — though the accompanying albums were savaged. The media impatience around his work now actually was a bit strange, given that he had been through a similarly dry period in the early-1970s and eventually emerged with his 1975 masterpiece Blood On The Tracks. Why was the faith missing this time?
It didn’t help that Dylan made things tougher by not even finishing songs of this quality, let alone release them (this is from 1984). Or leaving out songs like this gem — considered one of his finest-ever now — from his then albums (perhaps its powerful anti-racism slant made him uncomfortable for taking him into “activism” territory reminding him of his folk phase, or he simply didn’t finish it properly as he claimed later). It wasn’t a new quirk; he had done this in varying degrees previously too. Like, this version overlooked in the 1967 classic album John Wesley Harding for a less sparkling take, which fit the tone of the album better. Perhaps the same reason for this track that could have been on 1976’s Desire — it finally released on Biograph — the 1985 release that popularised the box set genre. As a legacy act, Dylan was still the pre-eminent artist in the world.
But Dylan was much harder on himself, going through a serious crisis in his mind. “The whiskey had gone out of the bottle” he said in Chronicles Volume One (all italicised quotes from there). “I’m a ’60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows. My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It was like carrying a package of heavy rotting meat. I couldn’t understand where the old songs came from. The glow was gone and the match had burned right to the end. I was going through the motions. Try as I might, the engines wouldn’t start. I could see the future — an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theater of past triumphs. The problem was that after relying so long on instinct and intuition, both these ladies had turned into vultures and were sucking me dry. Even spontaneity had become a blind goat. My haystacks weren’t tied down and I was beginning to fear the wind. There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him.”
He was actually planning to retire, this most feted singer-songwriter alive, convinced he did not have much of an audience left. “In many ways, this audience was past its prime and its reflexes were shot. They came to stare and not participate. That was okay, but the kind of crowd that would have to find me would be the kind of crowd who didn’t know what yesterday was. My fame was immense, could fill a football stadium, but it was like having some weird diploma that won’t get you into any college.” Later, he claimed he had “shaken hands with the idea of retirement and had gotten comfortable with it,” strongly rejecting the notion of staying in music post-retirement. “I fantasized about the business world. What could be more simple or elegant than venturing into that?” he writes. About his songs, he said, “I’d written plenty and that was fine. I did whatever it took to get there, had reached my goal and had no more high ambitions for it. Had long ceased running towards it. When and if an idea would come, I would no longer try to get in touch with the base of its power. I could easily deny it and stay clear of it. Just couldn’t make myself do it. I never expected to write anything ever again. Didn’t need any more songs anyway.”
He did not even hide this publicly.
All this while, on pure instinct, Dylan did end up loosely contemplating a few new songs as he responded to life around him, and putting them in the “drawer”, without expecting to think about them. Besides, he had commitments — a long tour with Tom Petty, a bunch of much anticipated shows with Grateful Dead and later, the musical romp that became the Traveling Wilburys (really a George Harrison/ Jeff Lynn project).
While feeling like a “fraud” for being so uninspired, he was searching hungrily for sparks that could rekindle his old self. Short-lived flickers of inspiration came and went, like his daughter’s school play where “the creative energy displayed onstage brought me to my senses”. But more significantly, there were two specific instances where he appeared to unlock something from within himself.
While first rehearsing with Grateful Dead, he was convinced he wouldn’t be able to do this, so he walked out of the rehearsal hall on some pretext with the intention of opting out (“If you have to lie, you should do it quickly and as well as you can.”) As he walked in the rain towards his hotel a few blocks down, he heard jazz sounds emanating from a tiny bar. He went in and noticed musicians playing at the back — “It was raining and there were few people inside. One of them was laughing at something. It looked like the last stop on the train to nowhere and the air was filled with cigarette smoke.” The band was playing jazz ballads, the singer was an older man — “He wasn’t very forceful, but he didn’t have to be; he was relaxed, but he sang with natural power. Suddenly and without warning, it was like the guy had an open window to my soul. It was like he was saying, ‘You should do it this way.’ All of a sudden, I understood something faster than I ever did before. I could feel how he worked at getting his power, what he was doing to get at it. I knew where the power was coming from and it wasn’t his voice, though the voice brought me sharply back to myself. I used to do this thing, I’m thinking. It was a long time ago and it had been automatic. No one had ever taught me. This technique was so elemental, so simple and I’d forgotten. It was like I’d forgotten how to button my own pants. I wondered if I could still do it. I wanted at least a chance to try. If I could in any way get close to handling this technique, I could get off this marathon stunt ride.”
So, Dylan went back to the rehearsal hall and tried to apply this new method instantly — “I had a premonition something would happen. At first it was hard going, like drilling through a brick wall. All I did was taste the dust. But then miraculously something internal came unhinged. In the beginning all I could get out was a blood-choked coughing grunt and it blasted up from the bottom of my lower self, but it bypassed my brain. That had never happened before. It burned, but I was awake. The scheme wasn’t sewed up too tight, would need a lot of stitches, but I grasped the idea. I had to concentrate like mad because I was having to manoeuvre more than one stratagem at the same time, but now I knew I could perform any of these songs without them having to be restricted to the world of words. This was revelatory.” Using this new approach, he finished playing the shows. It appeared to have loosened him up considerably and perhaps manifested on stage like this (those who trash the Dylan & the Dead period should listen to this).
This approach continued serving him well as he resumed his tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He found he could delve into his older songs effortlessly now — “The angles I was using were unwieldy but highly effective. Because of this different formulaic approach to the vocal technique, my voice never got blown out and I could sing forever without fatigue. Night after night it was like I was on cruise control.” But he still hadn’t changed his mind — “Regardless of all this, I was still planning to quit…retire from the scene. I hadn’t planned to take it any further, hadn’t talked myself out of that — I didn’t figure I had much of an audience anyway. Even on this tour, as big as the crowds were, Petty was drawing most of the people. It was tedious having to assemble and disassemble bands for a thirty- or forty-show run. It had become monotonous. My performances were an act, and the rituals were boring me.”
And then at Locarno, Switzerland, it again appeared to fall apart for him. “For an instant I fell into a black hole. The stage was outdoors and the wind was blowing gales, the kind of night that can blow everything away. I opened my mouth to sing and the air tightened up — vocal presence was extinguished and nothing came out. The techniques weren’t working. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I had it down so well, yet it was just another trick. There’s no pleasure in getting caught in a situation like this. You can get a panic attack. You’re in front of thirty thousand people and they’re staring at you and nothing is coming out. Things can really get stupid. Figuring I had nothing to lose and not needing to take any precautions, I conjured up some different type of mechanism to jump-start the other techniques that weren’t working. I just did it automatically out of thin air, cast my own spell to drive out the devil. Instantly, it was like a thoroughbred had charged through the gates. Everything came back, and it came back in multi-dimension. Even I was surprised. It left me kind of shaky. Immediately, I was flying high. This new thing had taken place right in front of everybody’s eyes. A difference in energy might have been perceived, but that was about all. Nobody would have noticed that a metamorphosis had taken place. Now the energy was coming from a hundred different angles, completely unpredictable ones. I had a new faculty and it seemed to surpass all the other human requirements. If I ever wanted a different purpose, I had one. It was like I’d become a new performer, an unknown one in the true sense of the word. In more than thirty years of performing, I had never seen this place before, never been here. If I didn’t exist, someone would have to have invented me.” The moment is perhaps palpable here. But he still seemed mindful that short-term epiphanies wouldn’t get him out of this.
1988 came, the first Traveling Wilburys album happened, Dylan turned 47, and one day 28-year-old Bono visited him with some friends.
Dylan clearly had a lot of regard for him (“Spending time with Bono was like eating dinner on a train — feels like you’re moving, going somewhere”). Later in the evening when they were alone for a while, Bono asked his lifelong hero if he had any new music. Dylan showed him those “drawer” songs (there is a view that he had recorded some of those songs with Ron Wood but it is not mentioned in Chronicles) with the caveat that he wasn’t sure if they were any good. Bono examined them and suggested Dylan connect with this young Canadian producer U2 had worked with (and with Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson as well), as their musical ideas might be compatible. Dylan was doubtful but Bono immediately called up and found that this producer was in New Orleans busy making an album.
In a few days, the world’s most revered singer-songwriter bar none was on a plane to New Orleans to meet up with this relatively unknown 37-year-old Canadian producer (perhaps this deserves a beat).
Dylan remembers his first impression of Lanois and their first meeting thus — “He was noir all the way — dark sombrero, black britches, high boots, slip-on gloves — all shadow and silhouette — dimmed out, a black prince from the black hills. He was scuff proof. He orders a beer and I get an aspirin and Coke.”
Daniel Lanois heard the demos and stated his desire to work with Dylan, who in turn was drawn to his authenticity. This got further accentuated when he heard what Lanois was doing with the Neville Brothers, especially covers of two of his own songs, atmospherically re-souled. Lanois suggested Dylan come down to New Orleans to do this new album, even though that would have meant delaying work on his own solo album (Acadie, that also would release in 1989).
A few weeks later, in the spring of 1989, Dylan moved in there, and Lanois hired an independent bungalow to construct a new studio for this album.
Besides the outstanding local musical talent he would have access to (even Paul Simon had moved here for that very reason for a few songs on Graceland not very long ago), the location had its own pull for Dylan. As he writes at different points in Chronicles, “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There’s a thousand different angles at any moment. The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds — the cemeteries — and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time. The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing — spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There’s something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands. A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it, but you know it’s here. Somebody is always sinking. Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees. You never get tired of it. The devil comes here and sighs,” and later, “No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.”
This wasn’t some absent tribute to a city but the stuff of inspiration for the music that would flow.
The rest of this riveting story is best taken in by reading Chronicles which he builds up beat-by-beat, sometimes in hard-to-believe detail (but given that some of the verifiable details are a bit off, this is impressionistic, perhaps even novelistic).
The essence of it is that the sessions began badly. Dylan was seemingly standoffish in the early days with Lanois’ Canadian studio team and after a few days of that, Lanois gave him quite a talking-to, post which Dylan was very friendly and cooperative. Also, Lanois’ method to be a cheerleader in the studio to bring out better performances had worked with other artists, especially the likes of U2, but it was ineffective with Dylan. They were just not in synch. Dylan felt Lanois was trying things with the songs that he was not comfortable with. And also nagging him to come up with classic songs from his past, that Dylan simply could not materialize anymore, and this made him uncomfortable. The relentless experimentation bore Dylan down. He felt Lanois was burying his original intent with his atmospheric treatment and the songs were gradually losing their identity.
Meanwhile, Lanois’ understanding of success in this context was to perhaps take Dylan back to his supposed glory days and do an album of that stature. So, he was frustrated that his burning ambition for the album was not meeting Dylan’s ostensible trajectory in the present. Right at the beginning, he took Dylan out of his comfort zone by not providing him with a band around him which he had been used to for a long time now, where everything happened quickly as all the band-members contributed parts. Here, Lanois wanted to strip everything down and capture Dylan’s essence alone first, before getting a band into the process. It took Dylan some time to get used to the idea of “two guys on a porch first.” Years later, Lanois remembered, “I wanted to get to the heart of the matter. I wanted the center to be absolutely captured…The power of his stance and position represented.”
Both of them had very strong convictions and sparks flew constantly. A much-talked about moment had Lanois smashing a dobro steel guitar on the wall above Dylan’s monitor in a fit of frustrated rage, while Dylan turned white and an assistant burst into tears (later, Dylan would say that he didn’t particularly care how many guitars Lanois smashed as long as they were not his).
Interestingly, for both of them, getting out of their comfort zones also propelled the sessions forward. Dylan was struck by how much Lanois cared, how far he was willing to go for the music. (“He didn’t even want to swim. He wanted to jump in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid.”) And that in turn pushed him to not just try out Lanois experiments but also explore paths that he had perhaps not fully walked on himself. He also took inspiration from his surroundings itself — written about in great detail and considerable feeling in Chronicles — again, the vibe of the city itself, the late night local radio host, the film he saw in the local theatre nearby, solo bike rides he took in New Orleans (where he thought friendly policemen were waving at him but they were really trying to wave him down as he wasn’t wearing a helmet) and the overnight motorcycle trip he took with his wife after a particularly difficult session to the outskirts of New Orleans, meeting some interesting characters with accompanying conversations, one of which ended with a particularly interesting character (who didn’t know who he was) asking him, “You a prayin’ man, huh? What do you pray for? You pray for the world?” And Dylan replied, “I pray that I can be a kinder person.”
He came back from the short trip with greater clarity — understanding why the clashes were occurring — “I wasn’t looking to express myself in any kind of new way. All my ways were intact and had been for years. There wasn’t much chance in changing now. I didn’t need to climb the next mountain. If anything, what I wanted to do was to secure the place where I was at.”
“I reassured Bob I was not about to rest until we had a masterpiece,” Lanois recalls. “Even though I had all the rooms padded up and ready for blast off, we just made the whole record in the kitchen. Pretty much did the whole record right next to the coffee machine,” Lanois remembers. There was no air-conditioning in this “renegade” studio, so for quiet and lower temperatures, almost all the recording would happen at night, and that brought its own chemistry and vibe to proceedings. In fact, Dylan got so married to the idea of a “dripping nighttime record” that he stopped even the mixing from happening during daytime. As Lanois memorably said, “Late at night, we’re satisfied with slower rhythm.”
Gradually, Lanois and he found common ground, and in seven weeks, they recorded fifteen songs in all, five more than they needed for the album. They did not rework some of the earlier tracks that had seemed to elude them. With the distance of time, that is the greatest tragedy of the album. Because arguably three of the five best songs in the fifteen eventually did not make the album. At the time, it didn’t seem to make much difference to the album, titled Oh Mercy. It released six months later and got excellent reviews for its brooding and intimate songs and was hailed as Dylan’s “comeback album” even if it did not dramatically change his commercial standing by a great deal.
Those three overlooked songs, separated at birth, would meet different destinies. As mentioned above, this wasn’t the first time Dylan would have faltered in selecting the best tracks for the album but this would be the most notable instance.
Below is a closer examination of this, and another fascinating aspect that emerges if the original lyrics in the demos are compared with the finished versions in some cases. There is a very strong common thread that seems to tie all the songs together, not just the demos, but the finished album as well — a palpably vivid and well-defined theme, that appears to have been camouflaged later. The distinct theme of the missing Muse. (The album title itself suggests relief about the Muse having returned.) If the changed lyrics from Dylan’s early demos are any indication, his consistent and highly focused theme for this album was to find his Muse, to reach out to that other dimension through the same medium he was failing to adorn due to its absence. That deep, dark mysterious place within or without himself whose frequent absence now made him question his own purpose — a true spiritual crisis, if ever there was one.
Every song in the album is around this, in its essence, in fragile glory, sometimes very directly. More than ever before, Dylan had written autobiographically and directly about his deepest preoccupation of that moment. More than even Blood On The Tracks (famously about his broken first marriage), as all the tracks on that album were not about that. Here, not only is every single track imbued with this theme, mostly very directly, but the hauntingly dark musical treatment defines it even more explicitly.
And yet, this aspect was never played up. The “her” in the songs became a mysterious lover as described by reviewers and fans, even Lanois in interviews. But if it is actually identified as the Muse, it illuminates the entire album so immediately and comprehensively that it changes its comprehension and palpably enhances its emotional impact manifold. If Dylan had allowed this overarching theme to define the album publicly, it might have provided a powerful hook to access the album more easily. It would have been a win-win for all parties — artist, producer, label and of course, the listeners. (In much the same way his supposed concerns of mortality would dominate conversations about Time Out Of Mind, his now-legendary 1997 album. But Dylan would deny that quite vehemently, with good reason perhaps as his near-death illness would happen after the album would be completed but before its release. But there is no doubt about how much that perception helped in so many tuning in to the album’s tone.) Put prime tenderloin in your mouth expecting fish fillet and you’ll probably spit it out.
While hiding original intent is a perfectly valid and sophisticated artistic conceit, in all probability perhaps this dimension crossed the vulnerability line for Dylan and he chose to camouflage that intent by giving a more pointed direction to the songs publicly. Perhaps he was not comfortable in exposing himself so nakedly during a period when he was being criticized markedly for everything he put out; if the songs had failed to make an impression, it might have been too much for Dylan, given how personal they were. Or perhaps he believed that his travails with the missing Muse was no-one else’s business. Or maybe he thought romantic disillusionment was more commercial than writer’s block.
Here are three early demo/ outtakes.
“Born In Time” is the most curious track of all. Even though Dylan does not mention this song at all in Chronicles, Columbia Records logs suggest that this was the very first track Dylan recorded in these sessions — an imperfect early take. One of his most melodic songs, unique in Dylan’s entire body of work, beautifully sung, with a sense of wonder and tenderness, otherworldly, a distinct seeking that the words illuminate, especially notable for lines that were left out in the track that released a year later, like “Just when I thought you were gone/ you came back/ Just when I was waiting to receive ya” and later “Just when I knew who to thank/ you went blank.” As blatant as it can be. All these lines were gone in future versions, including the released track in 1990 in a very different form (more on that below).
For some reason, Dylan never came back to this song. Perhaps it did not fit his conception of the album’s sound as it evolved, and more significantly, for the central theme that he sought to camouflage or change. Its omission from the album is one of the most perverse things Dylan ever did — given that it was so palpably its foundation stone in a sense, and given its undeniable beauty.
Interestingly, Eric Clapton was deeply moved by the song when it appeared in the 1990 album and was very keen to cover it. But here’s the thing — when his version released in his 1998 album Pilgrim, it was actually based, both musically and lyrically, not on the official 1990 Dylan version but this above demo — which would not release officially till 2008! Perhaps Dylan played this version to his old friend when he asked to cover it, with its clear superiority impossible to get past.
Then, there was this early take of a new song — that should have been an instantly recognisable masterpiece, if ever there was one.
“Series of Dreams” is very overtly about the Muse, every line in it. And it hits Lanois’ sweet spot as well, for the atmospheric possibilities the song’s very essence provides, not to speak of its perfect match with the eventual album’s tone. And yet, Dylan noted, “although Lanois liked the song, he liked the bridge better, wanted the whole song to be like that. I knew what he meant, but it just couldn’t be done.”
Lanois’ experimentations with the song put Dylan off and he just got fed up of that at some point and moved on to another song, inexplicably never to come back to it. Perhaps if this song had been first attempted in the second half of the sessions when things were more harmonious, this would have been a sureshot inclusion in the album. Years later, Lanois said in an interview that he had wanted this song to actually open the album which might even have given the album its title, instead of Oh Mercy. But Dylan just left it out entirely. Again, was it because it opened him up more than he could bear at that point?
The tribulations continued with this song as well.
“Dignity” was one of the songs Dylan had tucked away into his drawer that he came to New Orleans with (and probably showed to Bono as well). He claimed in Chronicles that this was written when he was contemplating retirement but ostensibly inspired by how he felt about the premature death of basketball player Peter Maravich (“Pistol Pete”), which date-stamps it to early-January 1988.
If the idea that the Muse is simply given the name “Dignity” here is not convincing enough, consider that the sparse piano demo of the song has the lines (that would stay in the final released version as well) — “I went down where the vultures feed/ Would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need/ Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men/ It all sounded no different to me.” Again, pretty damn blatant. And in the Cajun band version that follows it, there are the following lines — “Dignity is a woman unspoiled/ By fame and greed and snakes that are coiled” and later “Looking at a glass that’s half-filled/ Looking at a dream that’s just been killed.” None of these lines would survive this version. But the thematic unity is undeniable.
Lanois was excited by the piano demo and suggested that they try playing it with a Cajun band (local stars Rockin’ Dopsie and His Cajun Band). Dylan wasn’t sure that was the right direction to go but out of sheer curiosity, he went along. “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.”
Dylan could not understand why Lanois did not use the piano demo as the foundation and simply provide his trademark “ambiance of texture and atmosphere.” They worked on it for hours and then losing their judgment, they started playing cover songs for fun. Next night, they heard all the takes, over twenty of them and Dylan was frustrated. “Whatever promise Dan (Lanois) had seen in the song was beaten into a bloody mess. Where we had started from, we’d never gotten back to, a fishing expedition gone nowhere. In no take did we ever turn back the clock. We just kept winding it. Every take another ball of confusion. Takes that could almost make you question your own existence.” Yet another track they would never come back to.
There was another demo — for a track called “God Knows” that wouldn’t make the final album, and underwent several changes in its lyrics camouflaging its original intent somewhat (when it would release in the next Dylan album in 1990). This original version perhaps has the missing Muse written all over it too? “It was supposed to last a season/ But it’s been so strong for so long”.
“Shooting Star” — this haunting song, conceived in New Orleans, too seemed from that thematic space. Dylan wrote “The song came to me complete, full in the eyes like I’d been traveling on the garden pathway of the sun and just found it. It was illuminated.” This was an early demo of the song, that had the lines — “Something reaching out to me/ Something coming through” and later “I was lookin’ up/ and wondered if the dawn was breakin’ through.” These lines too vanished from subsequent versions.
But at least, this song found a satisfying fruition in Oh Mercy itself, as it memorably closed the album, even if it shifted axis now to summon up the regret of lost love. As Dylan says — “On one of the last takes, Dan (Lanois) had hyped the snare and captured the song in its essence. It was frigid and burning, yearning — lonely and apart. Many hundreds of miles of pain went into it.”
The first track to go through smoothly happened earlier though. When they were struggling with “Series of Dreams” and “Dignity”, suddenly out of the blue, this song fell into place effortlessly. As Dylan remembered, “It was just a three-minute ballad, but it made you stand straight up and stay right where you were. It’s like someone had pulled the cord to stop the train. The song was beautiful and magical, upbeat, and it was complete.” The song was “Where Teardrops Fall” and it had the lines “We banged the drum slowly/ And played the fife lowly/ You know the song in my heart/ In the turning of twilight/ In the shadows of moonlight/ You can show me a new place to start.” Thematic unity?
The song was unrehearsed and apparently took barely five minutes to put down. Then, this happened — “In the finale of the song, Dopsie’s saxophone player, John Hart, played a sobbing solo that nearly took my breath away. I leaned over and caught a glimpse of the musician’s face. He’d been sitting there the whole night in the dark and I hadn’t noticed him. The man was the spitting image of Blind Gary Davis, the singing reverend that I’d known and followed around years earlier. What was he doing here? Same guy, same cheeks and chin, fedora, dark glasses. Same build, same height, same long black coat — the works. It was eerie. Reverend Gary Davis, one of the wizards of modern music…like he’d been raised upright and was watching over things, keeping constant vigilance over what was happening. He peered across the room at me in an odd way, like he had the ability to see beyond the moment, like he’d thrown a rope line out to grip. All of a sudden I know that I’m in the right place doing the right thing at the right time and Lanois is the right cat. Felt like I had turned a corner and was seeing the sight of a god’s face.”
Oh Mercy would actually begin with “Political World” — a seemingly cranky invective that set very different expectations from it than what the thematic foundation of this album was.
An eighties-style video appeared to drill the point in. But consider what Dylan says in Chronicles at one point — “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.”And then again, a little later — “The political world in the song is more of an underworld, not the world where men live, toil and die like men. With the song, I thought I might have broken through to something. It was like you wake up from a deep and drugged slumber and somebody strikes a little silver gong and you come to your senses.” He says it himself; no conjecture here.
Meanwhile, every other song serves this central theme as well. “What Good Am I?” is overt — wondering about the point of existence without the Muse. The lyrics were fully written before Dylan began searching for the melody, “trying too hard” and exhausting his energy before he was fully satisfied. Lanois thought they had something and Dylan went with his “layered rhythms to create a mood for this song.”
“What Was It You Wanted” appears to flip the same idea — the Muse showing up and addressing the receiver, not particularly placatingly. Dylan appreciated what Lanois did with the song — “The way the microphones are placed makes the atmosphere seem to be texturally rich, jet lagged and loaded — Quaaludes, misty. It starts mixed and cooked in a pot like a gumbo, right from the downbeat, dreamy and ambiguous. We had to keep the song level and right-side up. Danny’s sonic atmosphere makes it sound like it’s coming out of some mysterious, silent land.” Which it was, of course.
Two seemingly very different songs actually speak of the same thing — damaged, broken, chaotic, upside-down worlds — the result of this creative, spiritual turmoil (even though romantic disillusionment was attributed as the theme in both cases by critics and listeners). “Everything Is Broken” is staccato rock, that actually began life with the title “”Broken Days”, for which Dylan says — “The semantic meaning is all in the sounds of the words. The lyrics are your dance partner.” And for the song itself, he lets loose this— “Critics usually didn’t like a song like this coming out of me because it didn’t seem to be autobiographical.” Ha.
Meanwhile, “Ring Them Bells” is hymn-like and it is notable when Dylan says this, “This is the flat-out truth: I find religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else.” It’s almost like he wrote the “Oh Mercy” chapter in Chronicles to set the record straight, as far as his relationship with the absent Muse goes. About the process here, Dylan says, “We cut this song exactly the way I found it…two or three takes with me on the piano, Dan on guitar and Malcolm Burn on keyboards. He definitely captured the moment. He might have even captured the whole era. He did the right thing — came up with an accurate, dynamic version. Anybody can hear it. The song sustains itself from beginning to end — Lanois brought out all its keen, harmonic sense.”
“Most Of The Time” — after its travails with Lanois’ heavy-handed treatments (according to Dylan), this track eventually worked immaculately off a thick atmosphere. Dylan originally wanted a sparser treatment (demo here) but Lanois had his way here. Dylan eventually released a different band version as an official video (not clear if that was with Lanois; probably wasn’t, though that snare drum is his territory). The album version is outstanding though and not surprisingly, it is perhaps the most popular track on the album, meeting the darkness of its tone with Lanois’ strengths perfectly. Matured regretful love, sure, if you cannot accept that the “she” and “her” are the Muse. But can you really get that idea out of your head when you listen to the song now, if you pay attention to the words? Does anything else fit anywhere near as perfectly?
“Man In The Long Black Coat” is widely considered the masterpiece on this album — both Dylan and Lanois believed this to be the most realised song they worked on. Dylan additionally felt it was his “I Walk The Line” — the Johnny Cash classic — “one of the most mysterious and revolutionary of all time, a song that makes an attack on your most vulnerable spots, sharp words from a master.” Another cue to what the song is about here?
The song came to Dylan right after his motorcycle trip and he believes it would not exist without that. New Orleans perhaps looms over the slow burn song, otherworldly and enigmatic, perfectly constructed for Lanois to inject his haunting atmospherics.
Thematically and sonically, this song seems more vivid about that deep dark place where those spirits are sought. And the words support that — in the very first verse — “Not a word of goodbye not even a note/ She gone with the man in the long black coat”. Many consider this to be about death, but death of what? As perhaps the most memorable verse in the song later offers — “There are no mistakes in life some people say/ It is true sometimes you can see it that way/ But people don’t live or die people just float/ She went with the man in the long black coat.”
No album of Dylan’s in his career has had such a clear common thread running through it, such a powerful, single-minded thematic excavation. Just allowing for that filter to permeate the listener’s consciousness would have been enough to make its real power apparent. Not only did he not do that, he also kept out from the album probably three of the best five songs brought to the sessions. Those three songs were too inherently brilliant to not find their toehold within Dylan’s body of work but they would have had pre-eminent positions if they’d released in the right company and within the most apt context. Much like so many people in real life who miss opportunities.
It is interesting to note what happened to those three songs.
“Born In Time” would make it to the next Dylan album, made the very next year, Under the Red Sky (1990) produced by Don Was, a young and “hot” producer at the time, who later deeply regretted that he was out of his league when he worked with Dylan at the time. He had wanted to do a classic 1960s Dylan album, which Dylan was absolutely not interested in, and the net result was a seemingly neither-nor-there album that undid some of the goodwill Dylan had got back with Oh Mercy. This was easily still the best song on the album though and its new arrangement (with Bruce Hornsby on piano) serviced the beauty of the song adequately — accentuating its strange Japanese vibe (Dylan is huge in Japan, having inspired a couple of generations of singer-songwriters there; translating his lyrics into Japanese for song has been a very difficult experience though apparently).
Years later, Was would regret not having grasped “the deepness of the song and responded better to its world-weariness” (which is interesting as well, since the Oh Mercy version was more wonderstruck fragile — the changed words changed the tone that much). Again, the song transformed into being about the sadness of unrequited love, rather than where its origins perhaps really lay. And this, with its previous version, is yet another example perhaps of where the real poetry of lyrics fall when they lie in Dylan’s music — their value in defining the song’s soul and rhythm is far more significant than specific lines that are quoted as poetry.
But here’s another hugely interesting footnote to this, or perhaps it is more significant than a mere footnote, given its correlation to what happened with Oh Mercy as well. Many of the songs in this album were derided for resembling nursery rhymes, inviting a lot of contempt for “taking it far too easy”. Again, there was just a small hint to what might have been really going on — a small dedication to “Gabby Goo Goo” — Dylan’s nickname for his four-year-old daughter at the time (from his second wife). Dylan never denied or confirmed whether some of these songs were directed to his daughter but if one chooses to listen to the album through that filter, many of the songs especially the opening song “Wiggle Wiggle” suddenly don’t seem quite as outlandish and the title track sounds positively beautiful, and imagined as a bedtime story to sleep-defiant four-year-old eyes; Dylan’s accordion (the first time he played that on a song) and George Harrison’s luminous slide guitar work seem that much more touched by wonder.
“Series of Dreams” was remixed and released as the closing track of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. Ironically, it bore Lanois’ touch even in its final very satisfactorily realised form (with perhaps the finest video made on a Dylan song till date). It would be among Dyan’s best received songs in many years and still features on most lists of his greatest ever songs.
“Dignity” made its way into a compilation album of Dylan’s hits in 1994 (Vol. 3) — the only unreleased track in that collection. The song was now produced by Brendan O’Brien (who would go on to make quite a name for himself, especially for his work with Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen). Compositionally the same from before, O’Brien even retained the original lead vocals from the Oh Mercy sessions but changed the entire rhythm track — bringing it close to Dylan’s original intention for the song, probably enhancing it with a melody line of its own. The song entered into the public consciousness more prominently very soon as it featured on Dylan’s now legendary “MTV Unplugged” performance (with Brendan O’Brien on organ).
Again, it boggles the mind to comprehend what might have happened if “Born In Time”, “Series Of Dreams” and “Dignity” had stayed part of Oh Mercy. And if the album, already perhaps the most centered one Dylan had ever done, had been overt about its undeniably singular and powerful theme, already reflected in the title itself. This is not a fantasy exercise, given that all these songs happened for the same album. When is the last time Dylan recorded such a consistently high quality sequence of songs for the same project?
Considering the stand-alone quality of each song and also the sum of its parts, is this reimagined Oh Mercy (with these three songs included) Dylan’s most powerful album since 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, and perhaps his most consistent and finest after that till date? Desire (1976), Time Out Of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020) are perhaps the most serious contenders but song-for-song, does this not top all those? Subjective? Sure, just as rating The Beatles over The Rolling Stones may be (or in some cases, over Eagles).
Perhaps this album would have been amongst Dylan’s five greatest albums of his career, instead of the best fifteen, as Oh Mercy currently is. That would also make it one of the great albums of not just the 1980s decade but all of rock and roll history; that’s what three great songs causing unimpeachable consistency can do, along with a coherent overarching theme of vulnerability to process it all through. Till date, no other artist has even come close to expressing mid-life crisis or creative burnout anywhere nearly like this, where every song reached out to address a creative block, a spiritual clog.
You decide its place. Even without a unified production, here is the reimagined 51-minute album below. The lyrics don’t need to change back to their original intent, once you know what this is all about. Try skipping a single track.
The track listing for the album with timestamps are below. The three discarded songs open this reimagined album (followed by nine of the ten tracks that made the released album), easing into the overarching theme from different directions before finding its singular power. The ebbs and flows of tone and rhythm perhaps work even better in this new sequence, with the second half (tracks 7–12) very faithful to its original intent. (And if the 23 minutes per side LP limitation of its time is applied, then songs 5 and 9 can go without any diminished power)
1. Series Of Dreams [00:03]
2. Born In Time [05:49]
3. Dignity [09:58]
4. Most Of The Time [15:51]
5. What Good Am I? [20:52]
6. Man In The Long Black Coat [25:35]
7. Political World [30:06]
8. Where Teardrops Fall [33:48]
9. Everything Is Broken [36:18]
10. Ring Them Bells [39:31]
11. What Was It You Wanted [42:29]
12. Shooting Star [47:28]
Daniel Lanois considers the Oh Mercy album to be one of the highlights of his life’s work. But was it the missed opportunity of touching even greater heights that led him to collaborate again with Dylan in 1996/97 in Miami and Los Angeles next time around on the album that became Time Out Of Mind?
As it happened, working on that album produced its share of bitter arguments and smashed guitars as well. Again, Dylan would be fed up of the experimentation as he sought a raw band sound; they’d miss out on one great song (unlike three last time around) — “Mississippi”. It was so bad at times that Dylan would not even communicate with Lanois directly, instead using intermediaries. As a 2017 Rolling Stone article revealed, Jim Dickenson, a producer and pianist characterized the sessions as an hour of chaos leading to “five or eight minutes of absolute clarity” — believed Dylan used Lanois “to know what it was he wanted — and what he didn’t want.” Curiously, it would be the last time Dylan ever worked with an outside producer. All the albums post that have been produced by him under the pseudonym of “Jack Frost”.
Time Out Of Mind till date remains Dylan’s most celebrated later day album, winning awards and plaudits (even though, with the notable exception of “Not Dark Yet”, none of its tracks perhaps top most of the songs on the reimagined Oh Mercy, at least not as stand-alone tracks, and his singing is better on Oh Mercy overall). This was considered his “comeback” album on the scale Oh Mercy should have been. Perhaps its timing of release helped it considerably, as did the context of mortality ascribed to it.
A more celebrated album no doubt, but not a better one than Oh Mercy, at least the reimagined one, and certainly not with a better story attached.
Oh Mercy ©Columbia Records
The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006
The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles Volume 1©Simon & Schuster
Inside Bob Dylan’s ‘Time Out of Mind’ Sessions (Rolling Stone, 2017)
Did the Needle Just Skip :: 30 Years of Oh Mercy (Aquarium Drunkard)
Daniel Lanois & Bob Dylan’s Night Record — Reserve Channel
Producer Mark Howard on making music and meeting demands for Neil Young, Bob Dylan and more The Globe And Mail
Bob Dylan: Tell Tale Signs Special — Mark Howard! Uncut
Daniel Lanois on ‘The Making Of’ Bob Dylan’s ‘Oh Mercy’ — CBC Music
And to the uncredited photos taken from the web.
(This is a non-profit piece.)
Other pieces on Dylan by the same writer:
February 2021 — the five great myths about Bob Dylan’s place in history
June 2020 — placing Rough and Rowdy Ways in his body of work
December 2016 — why lyrics is just a component of why he won the Nobel
October 2016 — immediate reaction after he won the Nobel
August 2016 — objectively why he is the greatest artist alive