Bob Dylan Exhumes His Back Pages On Tell Tale Signs – Disc One
Not long before Bob Dylan headed for New Orleans to record the album that became Oh Mercy in 1987, he was at a major crossroads in his life. For years, he admits, he had been coasting, riding the laurels of his legend, performing erratically and releasing albums that seemed little more than pale reflections of his glorious past.
He didn’t mince words about his predicament, which coincided with an injury to one of his hands that he feared might end his playing days. “Always prolific, never exact,” he wrote in Chronicles Volume One, “too many distractions had turned my musical path into a jungle of vines.”
At the same time, he became aware that he would have to change the way he would write and present music. “By combining certain elements of technique which ignite each other I could shift the levels of perception, time-frame structures and systems of rhythm which would give my songs a brighter countenance, call them up from the grave – stretch out the stiffness in their bodies and straighten them out.”
Whatever the hell that means – and he also writes about a musical numerical system that Lonnie Johnson taught him in the 1960s that guided the changes — his career slowly began turning around. Oh Mercy and Under the Red Sky, the next two studio albums, though unsteady, were improvements over Empire Burlesque, Knocked-Out Loaded, Dylan and the Dead and Down in the Groove. He followed those with two appealing albums of old songs, Good as I Been to Ya and World Gone Wrong that took him back to the basics – voice, guitar and harmonica. On the latter, he adapted songs written in the 1920s and 1930s to the present-day. Then all hell broke loose as he followed those four baby steps with three of the finest albums of his career, Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft and Modern Times.
The eighth edition of Dylan’s Official Bootleg series is the back-story to this rather remarkable period, glimpses into an artistic mind. It’s of a piece with Chronicles, his startling, revealing memoir, and his radio stint as host of Theme Time Radio Hour, an alternate universe of cultural tidbits, history and the vast ocean of music, new and old, upon which Dylan continues to gain sustenance. (“I like music that was recorded seventy years ago, and music that was recorded Tuesday,” he says on one of the shows.) The three discs are a mishmash of alternate studio takes or live recordings of songs already released, some original songs and cover versions left off his official albums and miscellaneous tracks from soundtracks and tribute albums.
Besides the quality of the material, the recordings provide a in-depth look into Dylan’s working habits in the period following his reawakening as a writer, singer and performer. Anyone who finds the work he’s done in that period compelling will find Tell Tale Signs equally engaging. For someone like me, who plays Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times more than any of his other albums these days, it is a treasure trove.
The full package includes three CDs and 39 tracks. That’s a lot of material, so we’ll just look at the first disc on this post, and write about the others as I digest them. There’s plenty to go around.
1) “Mississippi”: Each of the three discs comes packaged with a studio version of this song that appeared on Love and Theft. The three versions here were recorded years earlier, during the Time Out of Mind sessions, in different keys and with varied arrangements. Of the three, I like the lazy, acoustic-blues version that opens the first disc. But hey, take your pick.
2) “Most of the Time”: I much prefer this version with just acoustic guitar and harmonica over the official release or the other outtake on the third disc, but I think I can hear, conceptually, why he would choose the version he did for Oh Mercy.
Uncut magazine has a series of interviews with engineers and other insiders talking about Tell Tale Signs. Here’s one from Malcom Burn, who worked on the Oh Mercy album. Read the entire interview here.
“I remember, one night, we were going to do “Most Of The Time” and he sat down with his guitar, and I actually recorded this, I still have it somewhere, and he said, ‘Well, we could do it like this’ – and he played the entire song, just him on acoustic guitar and harmonica, the archetypal Bob Dylan thing. He actually referred to himself in the third person, ‘That would be like a typical Bob Dylan way of doin’ it.’”
And then he did it another way, and he played it like a blues, really slow, and I recorded that, too. And then there was the version that we ended up doing on the record, which is quite spacious and has that real Dan Lanois imprint all over it.”
The “archetypal Bob Dylan thing” is the version on Disc One. The really slow blues take is on Disc Two. See for yourself which you prefer – they’re both pretty darned good.
And it shows again what we know about Dylan’s approach to album creation. Even though he had a great acoustic take, he wanted a certain sound, so he did the song different ways until he got the one he wanted. It doesn’t mean he thought the others were inferior, just that they didn’t fit into the sound he heard on Oh Mercy.
3) “Dignity”: Two different versions are included in the set. This one is a short demo with Dylan singing it and playing piano. You get the feeling that, though this song was conceptually a great idea, he never seemed to get it the way he wanted, which is why it first appeared on Unplugged.
4) “Someday Baby”: Like “Mississippi,” this one, which showed up first on Modern Times, demonstrates how Dylan can shape a set of lyrics and chords into completely different musical arrangements and make it work.
5) “Red River Shore”: Maybe it’s because we just watched the Jack Nicholson film The Border on cable, whose soundtrack features Freddy Fender, Ry Cooder and John Hiatt, but this one reminds me of “Across the Borderline.”
Since “Blind Willie McTell,” a major Dylan song that was left off the Infidels album (Dylan said once that he didn’t think he got it quite right) and didn’t appear until the first Bootleg Series almost a decade later, it has become sport for Dylan fans to decide whether his choices for release are good ones. It’s good, clean fun, and Dylan allows you to play that game to your heart’s content on Tell Tale Signs. Here he offers two distinct versions (the other one is on Disc Three), each worth consideration.
6) “Tell Old Bill”: This bleak lamentation comes from a soundtrack for a little-known 2005 film called North Country, which also featured “Lay, Lady, Lay,” “Sweetheart Like You” and “Do Right to Me Baby.” It shows the kind of timeless sound Dylan envisioned in the memoir and has been using since. Whatever he did, it’s working.
7) “Born in Time”: Playing the Which Version is Better? Game described above, I find this one far superior instrumentally and especially vocally to the original on Under a Red Sky and Eric Clapton’s stab at it on Pilgrim.
8 “Can’t Wait”: It’s hard to argue with the official version on Time Out of Mind, but this slowed-down, more bluesy version is pretty good, and there’s another take for your consideration elsewhere on the set.
9) “Everything is Broken”: Another version of the song that first appeared on Oh Mercy.
10) “Dreamin’ of You”: The only reason he might have left this off Time Out of Mind is that he purloined some lyrics for other songs.
11) “Huck’s Tune”: This break-up song comes from a soundtrack for the film Lucky You.
12) “Marchin’ to the City”: Another unused song from Time Out of Mind. This beautiful version is pure gospel. A second recording on Disc Three, with an altered set of lyrics, sounds more like Booker T and the MGs. He might have not used this song because it sounds a lot like “Can’t Wait.”
13) “High Water (For Charlie Patton)”: This live version from an Ontario concert Aug. 23, 2003, is a tidal wave of kinetic music energy that can generally only be produced onstage, with each member of the band contributing to the cacophony. It’s like you’re in the middle of the flood, with every instrument screaming and begging for mercy. “Throw your panties overboard,” indeed.
More on the other discs as I digest them.