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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

The idea is too stupid and too brilliant to ignore, one of those endless in-jokes that spring eternal when music dorks start trying to make each other laugh. The difference in the case of Jesse Lauter and Sean O’Brien is that, at the time, the two are students in an NYU course taught by Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed—and arguably actual— “Dean of American Rock Critics.” And they’re musicians. Every week, the erstwhile Village Voice editor distributes listening and reading assignments, sometimes challenging students to reconsider songs from artists’ lesser revered works.

Christgau opens his Bob Dylan session with “Brownsville Girl,” from 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded. The panoramic production is stacked with gospel backup singers, burping synthesizers, overblown drums, a B3 organ, maybe an acoustic guitar, what sounds like a mariachi band and, in the middle of it, Bob Dylan sing-speaking a 17-verse, 11-minute epic. All parties join together for the histrionic choruses, which are when the lite-jazz sax becomes audible, too. “It basically [blew] the doors off any preconceived notion of what a Bob Dylan song is supposed to sound like,” O’Brien says. “It’s sort of awful, but there’s more to it than that.”

After class, Lauter and O’Brien start riffing on the time-honored music dork theme of potential band names. They remember The Shitty Beatles from Wayne’s World and go from there. Neil Dung and Crazy Shit? Pretty good, but no. Shitty Dan? Shitty/DC? For deep power-pop lovers, there’s Big Shit, playing the songs of Big Star very poorly. First and last, though, is Shitty Dylan.

Then, so it seems, it’s simply a matter of starting the group to go with it. The repertoire is easy enough to figure out: songs that reside mostly on the seven albums that Bob Dylan recorded between 1980 and 1989. So, Lauter and O’Brien dig in. But in doing so, they discover something deeper and more powerful and mysterious than a mere cover band can handle.

Eight years later, the two are the proud producers of the ATO release Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume One, wrangling tracks by Built To Spill, Craig Finn, Slash, Marco Benevento, Deer Tick, Dawn Landes, Hannah Cohen, Lucius, Tea Leaf Green, Chastity Brown, the artist formerly known as Gene Ween, and liner notes by novelist and noted Dylanologist Jonathan Lethem. Not only that, but they have become accidental bearers of a very particular torch. The bold 24-artist tribute project both reinvents and brings into focus the most opaque period of Bob Dylan’s long career, an era so fraught with confusion that it has become rock and roll’s de facto archetype for an artist disappearing into the wilderness.

“I wasn’t keeping my word with myself,” Dylan would assess in Chronicles, Volume One, his 2004 memoir. “What that word was, I couldn’t exactly remember, but I knew it was back there somewhere.”

A highly condensed biography and semi-sequential list of achievements, rumors, perceived aesthetic crimes, and baby boomer cultural markers connected with Bob Dylan during the 1980s: He released an album almost every year, slowly slipped into the lower reaches of the Billboard top 50 (or below) for the first time since the ‘60s as he experimented with overdubs and session musicians and reggae rhythm sections, scrapped his best recordings, released two final gospel albums and subsequently misplaced/transcended his Christianity (he never quite addressed it), appeared in one terrible movie and a few even worse music videos, popped up on a Chabad telethon playing recorder with actor Harry Dean Stanton, jammed with Slash, ripped out a one-time-only semi- punk “Jokerman” with a barely rehearsed band on Late Night with David Letterman, helped create the legacy rock supergroup archetype (and made one very good album) with the Traveling Wilburys, toured with the Grateful Dead, made a pretty terrible live album with the Grateful Dead, asked to join the Grateful Dead (Phil said “No”), wrote music for two sets of lyrics by Robert Hunter (“Silvio” and “Ugliest Girl in the World”), “got it on with the backup singers” (in the words of Jonathan Lethem), had some amount of children, brought his always-nasally voice into new cosmic realms, sported leather vests and ear piercings and magnificent Jew-fros, introduced a weird-ass style of vocal phrasing that obscured classics and buried new melodies, issued one “comeback” record that stayed pretty effing weird, and wrote 132 known songs.

Lauter and O'Brien get an email through to Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s longtime manager, about their concept for a multi- artist Shitty Dylan tribute album and hear back immediately and bluntly: “I love the concept, and I will support your project if you don’t call it that.” They visit Rosen’s lower Manhattan office, utterly nondescript besides the original Dylan paintings for Music from Big Pink and Self Portrait hanging casually on the wall. They settle on a new name and get their thunder rolling.

Since spontaneously excreting the idea, the producers have been busy. They play around New York as Shitty Dylan and put out an album with their own Bob-influenced band, The Alright Ma’s. O’Brien plays lap steel in PAPA, and Lauter makes albums with The Low Anthem and Elvis Perkins, and also books a Dawes show in the harmony-seeped cellar at Big Pink, where Dylan and The Band wrote a few dozen songs and created the myths of both basement rock and lost periods.

“Tribute albums sometimes sound like serious hodgepodges,” says Lauter. “I really wanted to make something consistent, something continuous that you could put on and feel like you were listening to a record.” As easy as it was to concoct the project in the first place, it was just as easy to figure out a musical strategy.

“Our mission was to strip away the gated snares and the synthesizers and the cheesy production,” he continues. “I didn’t want this to be an overdub-heavy record. I wanted it to feel like, ‘What if these ‘80s songs were recorded in the basement of Big Pink or the Columbia studios in the ‘60s?’

“I’m not saying this is some gold mine here—that’d be lying. But there were some amazing songs that were underserved by the production at the time. In a lot of ways, we’re highlighting an off-rhythm period, which he even characterized as being off- rhythm, and trying to bring harmony to it.”

They start with the even more remarkable music dork feat of fabulating who can actually perform these songs and make them work in ways that their songwriter couldn’t himself conceive. Who to bring the swagger to the absurdist half-finished delights of “Wiggle Wiggle?” Who to redeem the reggae-gospel thump-dirge of “Death Is Not the End?” Who to entrust with the fragile and revered turns of the Jesus-era coda “Every Grain of Sand?” And who to fulfill the promise of that Letterman “Jokerman?”

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