The apocalypse was clearly at hand. Bob Dylan was dead and done. He had snapped and self-destructed. As the ‘80s dawned, even those who worshipped the man were having their doubts. The rebel, the doubter, the immensely skeptical, infinitely gifted oracle from Minnesota who predicted that the times they were a changin’ was suddenly, unexpectedly, off seeking meaning in established Christianity. I vividly remember hearing grumbling in 1979 as an angry, restless crowd filed out of the Tucson Convention Center having just witnessed a show on Dylan’s Gospel Tour. The problem they had was not about religion or the new material, much of which was actually very fine, but that Dylan stubbornly refused to play anything except new songs from the recent Slow Train Coming and Saved albums. Song title shout-outs from Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks by the audience went unfulfilled. To make matters worse, the normally reticent singer/songwriter—who today can rarely bring himself to say “hello” during an entire concert—rattled on between tunes about his newfound beliefs. Tucson, by the way, is supposedly where in 1978 Dylan had seen his first “vision”.
To be fair, he and other prominent musicians/songwriters (Elvis, John Lennon) were always seekers. Elvis read about the Shroud of Turin. The Beatles went to India. Add to that the fact that Dylan had always laced his lyrics with Biblical allusions. Also, he was used to creating controversy. His so-called “religious period” caused less of a stir than his “going electric” move had 15 years before. Finally, in a long career like Dylan’s, creative slumps, or unsuccessful left turns are bound to happen. Still, given all that, Bob’s turn towards proselytizing did catch a lot of people off guard. By the time of Shot of Love (1981), an album savaged by critics and the public alike, Dylan was down, way down, some thought for the count.
So, of course, he pulled a disappearing act, one that matched the post-Blonde on Blonde flight that was supposedly caused by a 1966 motorcycle accident for which he sought no medical treatment. This time though, while he was away, the music business underwent big changes. The promotional juggernaut MTV, which actually featured music in the beginning, was launched. The CD came into widespread use and early digital equipment began arriving in recording studios with mixed results. In his wonderfully imagistic Dylanspeak, Dylan commented on this period in his 2004 autobiography Chronicles: Volume One: “I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck. Too much static in my head and I couldn’t dump the stuff… My own songs had become strangers to me… My haystacks weren’t tied down and I was beginning to fear the wind.”
Fully aware of how unpopular his religious-themed records were, and how he was becoming irrelevant in the go-go 80’s as Punk Rock turned into New Wave, in 1983 Dylan began to return to secular songwriting. It’s this fascinating period, between 1980 and 1985—Dylan’s revival from his spiritual awakening, if you will—that is covered by the 16th installment in the Dylan-directed Bootleg series, the oh-so appropriately titled, Springtime in New York. Released in September, it’s a miraculous explosion of creativity—over 30 new songs cut into two albums—from one of popular music’s greatest originators, proving that Dylan’s artistic vision, unknowable as ever, was anything but empty.
To start the process of making what became 1983’s Infidels album (and it’s musically solid but sonically disastrous mate, Empire Burlesque), Dylan began rehearsing with a band that included such great talents as former Rolling Stones secret weapon Mick Taylor and the all-world rhythm section of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. Stax Records’ house bassist and M.G.’s member Donald “Duck” Dunn, drummers Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner, and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, also added their instrumental voices to the mix. Dylan’s lover at the time, Clydie King, was the primary background vocalist. The selection of outtakes on this set from the over 70 that exist from the Infidels sessions are outstanding. It’s instructive to hear outtakes of the two tunes controversially left off Infidels at the last minute, “Blind Willie McTell” and “Foot of Pride.” The outtake of the raucous “Julius and Ethel” is fun. The alternate take of one of his finest love songs, “Sweetheart Like You,” slows the tempo and accentuates the lyrics. And the voice-and-guitar knockout closer of Empire Burlesque, “Dark Eyes,” (heard here in an alternate take), will always be a career highlight.
But it’s the wealth of the covers that are the most surprising part of Springtime in New York. The versions here among the Infidels outtakes of bluesman Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”, are superb. Even more telling is the first volume of the five-volume deluxe edition. Chock full of covers, it highlights what he was listening to at the time and in what direction he was heading as he returned to secular music. A telling and consecutive string of tracks on this volume begins with a slow, storming, almost Stonesy version of the chugging Elvis Presley hit, “Mystery Train.” Next up is his version of the LaBounty/Freeman-penned one hit wonder sung by Michael Johnson, “This Night Can’t Last Forever,” which not only shows that Dylan was aware of the AC (Adult Contemporary) charts, but also that he was immersing himself in the pop music of the time. That impulse continues on another surprising cover and AC hit, Dave Mason’s genial “We Just Disagree.” After a take of his own “Let’s Keep It Between Us,” (memorably covered by Bonnie Raitt in 1982), Dylan launches into a very serious, very credible cover of Neil Diamond’s immortal “Sweet Caroline,” whose strangeness in the Dylan catalog is eclipsed only by his 2009 Christmas record, Christmas in the Heart. Finally, there’s a slow, bluesy take of “Fever”, the same tune that was the hit on Elvis Presley’s first post-army album, 1960’s Elvis is Back, which was also Presley’s first album recorded in stereo.
Infidels, which was universally acclaimed upon release,and Empire Burlesque, which was not, also marked a departure in the way Dylan made records. Where he once preferred to cut everything live in studio, in unbroken takes, with the entire band playing at once, he now tried what he always called “the other way.” For these sessions, everyone recorded their parts separately, using overdubs as fixes and eventually mixing everything together. Sadly, in a common tale from the early days of digital recording—the time when tape and anything analogue were suddenly deemed passé by the studios—the 32-track digital tape system used to capture Infidels has since become completely obsolete, with no machine left to play back the original tapes. Since the beginning, the sound of Infidels, and especially Empire Burlesque, has been a source of controversy, particularly among audiophiles. In particular, the songs on Empire Burlesque are far better than the production lets on. Where fans of digital (or those who don’t know any better) loved what they heard, others held the albums up as prime examples of early digital excess: overly bright, too much reverb, too many processed drum sounds.
The sessions covered by Springtime in New York document a remarkable turnaround in a career that many fans at the time thought had perhaps done more than just stumble. Infidels and Empire Burlesque are proof that like many of the most transcendent musical artists, Dylan’s capacity for self-reinvention and renewal was resilient and masterful. About his so-called religious period, he later told Newsweek, “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”