“Love and Theft” famously came out on September 11, 2001, making it the second most important thing to happen that day but forever intertwined from a pop culture standpoint. As a matter of fact, some of the commentary surrounding the album made it seem like Dylan kinda knew what the post 9-11 zeitgeist was going to be as he was making the record. Which was insane, but went to the doomy quality of a song like “High Water (For Charley Patton)”.
Filled with eerie backing vocals, drums that imply a beat more than play them, and eternally riding upon a doomy combo of banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar, “High Water (For Charley Patton)” certainly sounds post-apocalyptic enough.
So when Dylan sings:
Things are breakin’ up out there High water everywhere
you definitely want to start heading for higher ground.
But like much of “Love and Theft,” – which is easily Dylan’s funniest album since Highway 61 Revisited – the takeaway from “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is this: apocalypse is coming, and man is it funny! Which accounts for great verses like this one:
Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew “You can’t open your mind, boys To every conceivable point of view” They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five Judge says to the High Sheriff, “I want him dead or alive Either one, I don’t care” High water everywhere
Message: I used to not care, but things have changed.
Fan-made video for “High Water (For Charley Patton)”
By 1997, I think that the last thing even the most fanatical of Dylan fanatics expected was to get a whole album of great songs from the man. Not only had he not put out an album of original material since 1990’s ambivalent Under The Red Sky, most of the 90s proper were spent celebrating his past: The Bootleg Series, The 30th Anniversary Concert, Greatest Hits Volume 3, the acoustic covers albums, MTV Unplugged. All of these things basically signaled that he was done writing new songs, that he was content to touring endlessly on the strength of what was already the greatest song catalog in popular music.
Thus the miracle of Time Out of Mind, the album that kicked off what has now been a nearly 20-year endgame. Working with Daniel Lanois, Time Out of Mind utilizes the same swampy mixed of atmospherics they utilized on the near-miss Oh Mercy, but this time, he’d written a bunch of great songs, all of which fit the dark and doomy sound Lanios imposed.
And the greatest of those songs was the utterly gorgeous centerpiece “Not Dark Yet.” A companion piece of sorts to “Most of The Time,” easily the best thing from Oh Mercy, but channeling some of the same despair that fueled his last great album, Blood on the Tracks, “Not Dark Yet” sounds like a fucking suicide note.
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Gorgeously played and sung, with an utterly beautiful melody, “Not Dark Yet” makes me worry about what’s going to happen when it actually gets dark.
It’s weird, but despite the fact I became a Bob Dylan fan in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until World Gone Wrong that he put out an album of new recordings that I truly loved as much as I loved his classic 60s & 70s recordings. Sure, there was the unreleased stuff on Biograph and The Bootleg Series, but while I liked – and loved – songs from every album from Slow Train Coming through Under the Red Sky, none of those records did it start to finish for me.
All the friends I ever had are gone
So I really didn’t have high hopes for World Gone Wrong. After all, it was his second all-acoustic covers album in a row, coming relatively soon after the tepid Good As I Been To You. Acoustic Dylan is my least favorite Dylan. Cover songs are not why I revere the man. If anything should have signaled the final and utter artistic decline of Bob Dylan in my eyes, it was this eye-rolling record.
All the friends I ever had are gone
Still, I bought it because it was Bob Dylan, duh – probably walked down the street and got a used copy at Ragin’ Records – but I wasn’t really expecting much. And about halfway through, this song happened:
Delia was a gambling girl, gambled all around, Delia was a gambling girl, she laid her money down. All the friends I ever had are gone.
Just like that, the sadness of “Delia” just leapt out, grabbed me, and dragged me into the rest of World Gone Wrong. It wasn’t even the story of Delia’s death that I responded to, but rather the tag of every single verse: "all the friends I ever had are gone.“ In 1993, with my career as a drummer at a standstill; the Wild Blue slowly giving up on live music; the Video Zone declining; and the Tower District scene inevitably changing as everybody grew up and became, you know, adults, how Bob Dylan sang that phrase resonated with me.
All the friends I ever had are gone
As always, with hindsight, that seems silly. I mean, by the time I was 30, I’d been through enough that I should have remembered that whatever was happening in my life was temporary, just so long as I remembered that I had agency to change things up. And in fact, things were in motion that would change my life for the better forever: I was also getting on the internet for the first time, and making a whole bunch of new friends – some of them other Dylan fans – from all over the country, and Rox and I had started seeing each other.
All the friends I ever had are gone
And yet, all these years later, "Delia” still affects me. I guess it’s because the inevitability of losing people you love – even temporarily – comes through so deep and so hard in his playing and singing, it doesn’t even matter what my current circumstances are. Which I guess is what I also instinctively responded to in 1993: not only was Bob Dylan’s artistic decline not happening, he was going back to his artistic source as fuel for a rebirth.
Welcome to the 1980s. Welcome to bottomless wells of reverb, walls of backing vocals, fake-sounding drums, faker-sounding horns and a complete and utter sonic disregard for, well, anything. And yet, like good cholesterol kicking ass over bad cholesterol, the sheer fun and complete over-the-topness (over-the-topitude?) of “Brownsville Girl” transcends its terrible sound.
Co-written with Sam Shepard (presumably after Shepard wrote his unproduced play “Boy Oh Boy, I Can’t Believe I’m Sleeping With Jessica Lange”), “Brownsville Girl” is half weird travelogue – he’s back in the American Southwest, which didn’t treat him so well back in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and half meditation on the awesomeness of Gregory Peck.
So one hand, in his best preaching cadence, we get Dylan intoning the following fable:
Well, you saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune. Underneath it, it said, “A man with no alibi” You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears It was the best acting I saw anybody do
On the other hand, we get this confession:
Well, I’m standin’ in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck Yeah, but you know it’s not the one that I had in mind He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about But I’ll see him in anything, so I’ll stand in line
It shouldn’t work at all, especially since it goes back over and over again to the “Brownsville girl, with your Brownsville curl” chorus, which is honestly the weakest part of the song, as its completely overladen with backing vocals and those fucking godforsaken synth-horns or whatever in the fuck they are, and yet, it’s also too damn catchy to completely dismiss.
And let’s not forget this line, which I’ve stolen over and over and will steal again for the rest of my life:
The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter
Just as the only thing we know for sure about Bob Dylan is that is name isn’t Bob Dylan.
As the first new album that Bob Dylan released that I could actually play for other people as a DJ on the radio, Infidels holds a special place in my heart, even though it’s not as great as it could have been. When it – and to a lesser extent, Empire Burlesque – came out, I felt like I was part of a great continuum of college students going back for two decades who were totally thrilled to pour over the latest offering from Dylan.
Which I did, and really only one song totally stood out as worthy that scrutiny. But that one song – “Jokerman” – is as as worthy of scrutiny as any song the man has ever written.
After years of lists and cants, it was great to be reminded that the man could still pour out a surreal torrent of non-linear images in his lyrics. And after so many years of saying what he meant, it was even more fun to figure out if they were personal:
Shedding off one more layer of skin Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within
Or religious (but with a joke!):
You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister
Or maybe political:
Well, the rifleman’s stalking the sick and the lame Preacherman seeks the same, who’ll get there first is uncertain Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin Only a matter of time ’til night comes steppin’ in
But, of course, in another way, it didn’t matter, because of the music of “Jokerman.”. With Sly and Robbie playing a reggae-inspired groove that never falls into the trap of being straight reggae, and Mark Knopfler doing that guitar thing that he does, Dylan returns again and again to what might be his most beautiful chorus:
Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune Bird fly high by the light of the moon Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman
By the time he gets to the last iteration of that chorus, just before the last harmonica solo, there is so much joy in his voice, like singing this song has lifted the weight of the past – well, decade – right from his shoulders.
Definitely a Top 5 Dylan song for me. And the video only solidified it for me.
Oh man. That video. I first encountered it on Night Flight, the all-night music show on USA that Kirk and/or Rob and I used to watch in the wee hours of the weekend mornings. You know, when the evenings had played out but it didn’t feel quite time to crash either because you were suddenly old enough to stay up late and young enough not to have any reason not to.
So Night Flight was a pretty big deal around our apartment, cos you never knew what kinda crazy shit they were going to show.. Sometimes, it might be a new Miles Davis video, other times they’d show Ladies & Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains in its entirety.
Probably a year after Infidels came out, maybe longer, there it was, this amazing video. “Bob Dylan’s ‘Jokerman’ explodes with mixed imagery” said the Night Flight lady on the version one of us taped on Kirk’s ever-handy beta machine that sat on the floor under the TV. Clearly, they must have given advance warning, or maybe one of us (that would probably be me) fucking DOVE for the “record” button when it came up.
The insanely great video for “Jokerman”
BONUS “Jokerman” video.
This is an absolutely terrible, tossed-off version of “Jokerman” Dylan performed on Late Night With David Letterman with a band he seemingly recruited from the audience waiting in line to see the show. Worth it for the the moment at 3:03 when Dylan tosses off his guitar, grabs a harmonica, and starts to play, only to realize it’s in the wrong key. Or something. What happens next won’t particularly surprise you.