Culture & Criticism Since 2003
It’s often been written that the 1980s was Bob Dylan’s dead decade. And even though it’s become hip to believe that he didn’t do anything of note during the 1980s, nothing could be further from the truth. And Springtime In New York now provides attestation of this fact.
In retrospect, all that “dead decade” talk most likely got started in the aftermath of Dylan’s three gospel records. Shocked and dismayed that he had temporarily moved away from nuts and bolts rock and roll, many critics started to pan his releases after just a cursory spin, refusing to give them much of a chance, refusing to dig into the thesis point driving the records.
And looking back, I think Dylan himself lost energy in the wake of so much negativity. Even though his album Infidels (featuring Mark Knopfler) received high marks at the time of release, Dylan seemed generally disinterested in performing live until his classic appearance on the David Letterman Show on March 22, 1984.
The late night performances of “Jokerman” and “License to Kill”(included on the Deluxe edition), in addition to Roy Head’s blusy burner “Treat Her Right,” changed the course of Dylan’s career. This spot on Letterman was high energy, as he assembled a ragtag punk bar-band and played spontaneously for the hell of it in the grand image of old Jack Kerouac. The songs from the Letterman Show truly encapsulate Dylan’s 1980 catalog. This performance – along with the tour he did with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1986 – elevated him, taking him to another place as an artist.
In turn, Springtime In New York offers us another vital piece of the bootleg series, collecting material from Dylan’s three early 1980s records, Infidels, Shot of Love and Empire Burlesque. There is a lot of rich new music here, and we find Dylan in fine voice as both a writer and singer. This record boasts many high points, including a stunning outtake from Infidels called “Too Late;” a haunting alternate version of “Dark Eyes” from Empire Burlesque; a Spector-inspired electric version of “To Ramona” from 1980 featuring the band Dylan took on the road for the Gospel tours; a high-octane piano-driven version of “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” (with Roy Bittan on keys and Steve Van Zandt on guitar) that captures the feel and flavor of the Letterman Show; a rehearsal version of “Need A Woman” once covered by Ry Cooder; and a compelling outtake from Shot of Love titled “Price of Love” that recalls the tone and tenor of the Street Legal sessions.
But the real discovery here is an early version of “Brownsville Girl,” Dylan’s collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard that eventually appeared on Knocked Out Loaded in 1986 (with that version featuring incredible sax work by famed session man Steve Douglas). Contrarily, this early take is called “Danville Girl” and it’s sultry and smoky and mesmerizing, painting the scene of two poets talking about long-ago lost lovers, talking across a bridge in the fog at dawn.
The handsomely packaged deluxe edition (outside of the Blood On the Tracks installment, this is the nicest box set in the series) includes more treasure: Impassioned covers of The Temptations “I Wish It Would Rain ” (framed in Willie Smith’s swirling organ fills) and Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree” (as well as the Freeland-LaBounty composition “This Night Won’t Last Forever”) collectively find Dylan putting his indelible stamp on other people’s pieces, proving that his voice has the power to take ownership of whatever it touches. Finally, we gain new insight into the poet when we hear his version of “Sweet Caroline.” This is Dylan enjoying a moment in rehearsals as lounge crooner rather than “voice of his generation.” No pressure or expectations; instead, he’s just belting out another guy’s song while his band warms up. Remember: Dylan was 20 and covering other people’s material when John Hammond discovered him. This overlooked little cover of Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit affirms that there are days when he longs to go back to the sweet anonymity of 1962.
The 1980s as Bob Dylan’s dead decade? In the end, Dylan will be remembered as the poet who could not live down the early successes of his past. Think about it: If he had he not written Blonde On Blonde, Highway 61 or Freewheelin’, we’d all be calling Infidels, Shot of Love and Empire Burlesque classic records written by rock’s one true immutable voice.
Dear Sir, with respect the 1984 Letterman versions of Jokerman and Treat Her Right aren’t included on and track listing of the 5 CD edition I have seen. Kind regards.
Nice piece. I always felt this way about Dylan’s 80’s output. Thank you,
It was not simply a matter of critics punishing him for having had the temerity to become an outspoken Christian, although there was some of that. There has been no period of Dylan’s career that was less well represented by the contemporary official releases than the era covered by this collection. Even for those of us who doubted there would be many big revelations here because we were already familiar with strong material that was not officially released, this box has been rather astonishing, no? Dylan’s work will endure, and in the future, the once-common view that his season of genius essentially ended with the motorcycle accident will be little more than a historical curiosity.