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The Ugliest Girl in the World: The Reanimation of Bob Dylan in the ‘80s

by Jesse Jarnow on May 13, 2014

Deer Tick convert “Night After Night” (from the Hearts Of Fire soundtrack) into a gentle lilt about the soul’s dusk-to-dawn darknesses—individual and global. Venerable San Francisco jamband Tea Leaf Green transmogrify the 1985 half-ska toss-off “Waiting to Get Beat” into a credibly pixelated Vampire Weekend-style Afro- shuffle. It’s My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel who discovers the latent sing-along and sweet comforts inside “Death Is Not the End.” And when Freeman’s “Wiggle Wiggle” arrives back in Lauter’s ears, the producer finds himself in New York’s High Line elevated park, tears rolling down his cheeks. The answer for “Jokerman” arrives in the form of an email from Doug Martsch, asking if Built to Spill can contribute.

While most of the artists record the tracks themselves, Lauter and O’Brien insist on mixing them, part of their mandate to give the album its identity. They scatter Easter eggs throughout, ready for eagle-eared Dylan freaks. They add barking dogs to Benevento’s “Every Grain of Sand,” conjuring the ambiance of the demo on The Bootleg Series.

And there, jamming on Freeman’s swamp-dementia dream of “Wiggle Wiggle,” overdubbed later, is Slash. This might seem like a non-sequitur collaboration were it not for the Guns N’ Roses guitarist’s presence on Dylan’s original studio recording. Slash told the producers a story about his session with Dylan. “He showed up ready to play all these lead licks, but Dylan thought it sounded too much like Guns N’ Roses. All he ended up keeping was Slash strumming away on this acoustic section.”

On Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume One, in addition to his long-deferred guitar solo, the man born Saul Hudson plays the part of a giant Easter egg with a top hat. There are eight fairly excellent ‘80s Dylan songs left for Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume Two: “Foot Of Pride,” “Most of the Time,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” “City Of Gold,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “What Good Am I?,” “Dignity,” “Everything Is Broken.” One not-that-great Bob Dylan song still left for Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume Two: “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love).”

The opener for 1985’s Empire Burlesque contains another très ‘80s moment: that time that Dylan started cribbing lines from Humphrey Bogart movies and (possibly) Star Trek episodes for his lyrics. As a songwriter, Dylan had long borrowed melodies, images, and even whole couplets from old folk sources. But for the first time, he now plunged, however subtly, into the realms of pop culture. The move would become an entrenched artistic method for him well into the 21st century, from “Love & Theft”’s ambient quotations from Junichi Saga’s Japanese novel Confessions of a Yakuza to the literally hundreds of micro-references that scholar Scott Warmuth has overturned throughout Chronicles to the wholesale borrowings that made up the 2011 art show of Dylan’s “Asia Series” paintings.

In the 1980s, Bob Dylan also launched his Never Ending Tour, which continues in some capacity to the present day. In doing so, he began his reinvention as a live performer, eventually capitalizing on the ‘80s’ down- and-outness to create a whole new Southern gentleman-on-the-skids persona.

It might have been the 1980s, but—despite all the goofy ‘80s-ness of all he was doing—Bob Dylan continued to evolve, even if his creative decisions didn’t resonate with much of his audience. It’s not that his music deserves a free pass, but merely a second or third or fourth listen because of what arrived before (and after) it. Sometimes, he connected anyway.

“Dylan launches into a sheer masterpiece of a vocal appearance, uniting 1966 and 1986 like they were born twins and then bursting beyond any re-creations of the song into an astonishing cry of urgency,” wrote lifelong Dylan obsessive Paul Williams of a 1986 London performance of “I Want You,” and that’s one of Williams’ more restrained commentaries.

It was Williams who launched the first rock magazine, Crawdaddy!, in 1966, wrote Dylan—What Happened? when Dylan went Christian in ‘79—Dylan himself ordered 114 copies—and kept on keeping on with the Bobhead. Crawdaddy! had grown from the zine-writing science fiction world of which Williams was a part, where the proto-geek parlance of the times deemed him a “trufan.” Bob Dylan in the 80s is dedicated to Williams, who passed away in 2013. “He felt [Dylan] could transcend the act of songwriting and kinetically deliver art in the moment,” says O’Brien.

Even if Dylan himself couldn’t locate the word he was supposed to be keeping with himself, Paul Williams never lost sight of it. He followed every questionable move in real time, giddily inventing entirely new metrics and metaphors to gauge Dylan’s success. Paul Williams came to a complete appreciation of Dylan, and the whole Bob. Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One is an aural and alchemical approximation of that experience, a transmogrification of the ugly into the gorgeous by way of sheer enthusiasm, and realizing they were the same all along. Not bad for a stupid joke. Listen to Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume One and become an instant trufan.

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