Call me a heretic, but I consider Bob Dylan to be something of a prophet. Think about it: the man sees the world with astounding clarity (not to mention verticality) and shares that vision with others in ways that are as inspired as they often are perplexing. And he’s done so without compromise or deference to fashion. Well, at least, minimal deference to fashion (exhibit A, left).
Nowhere is this more evident than in his work from the 1980s, a period unfairly maligned as his most uninspired. I’m talking specifically about his post-Gospel, pre-Oh Mercy/Wilburys “wilderness period,” a time when he seemed genuinely at drift, both personally and creatively, an observation which his autobiography confirms. That the light kept on shining, albeit in a slightly obscured way, is a testament to the Bob’s genius – or simply more evidence in support of The Nazareth Principle. In fact, it’s the obscura factor that makes this period so fascinating, the glimpses of inspiration that those “with ears to hear,” i.e. the true believers(!), couldn’t help but notice. I’ll never forget borrowing the Bootleg Series Vol.1-3 boxed set from the library and discovering, much to my surprise, that almost all of the best songs on it were from the mid-1980s, none which ever made it onto an album. Many artists have stuff in the vault which is as good as the stuff they released (e.g. Springsteen, Ryan Adams, MJ); very few have any “lost songs” that legitimately and consistently surpass the official stuff. In fact, apart from Dylan and The Beach Boys, I can’t think of any other examples. Why didn’t he release this stuff?! Given what he was putting out, it didn’t make sense. That is, unless Dylan were operating on a whole different level than us mere mortals… Another layer to the Dylan-onion presented itself.
Before listing the songs to support these claims, it’s worth sharing two particularly pertinent quotes, both from this period (when he was supposedly “over” his born-again phase):
1985: “We’re all sinners. People seem to think that because their sins are different from other people’s sins, they’re not sinners. People don’t like to think of themselves as sinners. It makes them feel uncomfortable. ‘What do you mean a sinner?’ It puts them at a disadvantage in their mind. Most people walking around have this strange conception that they’re born good, that they’re really good people – but the world has just made a mess of their lives… But it’s not hard for me to identify with anybody who’s on the wrong side. We’re all on the wrong side, really.”
1986: “Well, for me, there is no right, and there is no left. There’s truth and there’s untruth, you know? There’s honesty and there’s hypocrisy. Look in the Bible, you don’t see nothing about right or left… I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that’s the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true.”
16 Great Dylan Songs from the 80s
- Every Grain of Sand – Shot Of Love . This one’s been covered to death, but for good reason. Of the two versions, I prefer the “perfect finished plan” one on the Bootleg Series, for obvious reasons.
- The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar – Shot of Love 
- Caribbean Wind – Biograph . Dare I say, one of his greatest songs, period? I’ve heard there’s a live version from 1980 which far eclipses the studio one, and that blows my mind.
- You Changed My Life – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 . Who changed his life, indeed…
- Jokerman – Infidels . Yet I prefer the Mats-style Letterman version.
- Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight – Infidels . If you can listen “through” the terrible production on the drums, you’ll hear a classic.
- Foot Of Pride – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 . Prophet time!
- Blind Willie McTell – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 . The Band almost pulled off the definitive version on their Jericho comeback album. And for the namesake, go here.
- Lord, Protect My Child – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 
- When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky – Bootleg Series, Vol.3 . This one (with the E Street Band) puts the version he released on Empire Burlesque to shame! No comparison…
- Emotionally Yours – Empire Burlesque 
- Dark Eyes – Empire Burlesque 
- Brownsville Girl – Knocked Out Loaded . Eleven minutes and somehow not a wasted moment. Co-written with Sam Shepherd, it contains a few of Dylan’s greatest lines: “You always said people don’t do what they believe in/ They just do what’s most convenient, then they repent/ And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby/ And let’s hope that the roof stays on.”
- Band Of The Hand – Band Of The Hand Soundtrack 
- Silvio – Down In The Groove 
- Death Is Not The End – Down In The Groove . “The tree of life is growing/ Where the spirit never dies/ And the bright light of salvation shines/ In dark and empty skies.” Amen.
What am I missing?