Excerpt from Chapter 16 of Dylan & the Grateful Dead: A Tale of Twisted Fate
Inspired to return to public service and perform his songs, Dylan unexpectedly put a pause on his plans due to a freak accident that injured his hand. “It had been ripped and mangled to the bone and was still in the acute state—it didn’t even feel like it was mine,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “It was like a black leopard had torn into my tattered flesh. It was plenty sore. After being on the threshold of something bold, innovative and adventurous, I was now on the threshold of nothing, ruined.”
Dylan wrote that the injury happened in 1987, and talked of being laid up in January, disappointed that his ensuing spring tour might be canceled. It’s obvious he’s talking about the 1988 tour, but surrounded by a legendary cast, he played guitar and sang “Like a Rolling Stone” when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 20, 1988. The accident might have happened after that ceremony, because there’s no record of any public appearances or recording sessions between January 20 and his Traveling Wilburys rendezvous in April. It’s an unusual period of inactivity for a restless soul. Regardless of whether the accident was before or after January 20, it was during this period of recovery that Dylan started writing again, and these terrific songs would end up on his next album, Oh Mercy.
Among those inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Dylan were the Beatles, Beach Boys, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Les Paul. One of the memorable moments was Bruce Springsteen’s induction speech for Dylan. Bruce said, “When I was fifteen and I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ I knew that I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard…a guy that had taken on the whole world and make me feel like I had to, too. The way Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind.” Paying homage to Dylan’s latest works, Springsteen added, “To this day, where great rock music is being made, there is the shadow of Bob Dylan over and over again…If there was a young guy out there writing ‘Sweetheart Like You,’ writing the Empire Burlesque album, writing ‘Every Grain of Sand.’ they’d be calling him the new Bob Dylan.” It was a thorough induction speech hitting all the right notes, putting Dylan on Mount Rushmore without putting him out to pasture.
Dylan couldn’t have fathomed that after paying his dues for twenty-six years on the road to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he hadn’t even reached the halfway point of his career. He would go on to play more shows in the second half of his career than the Grateful Dead did during their Long Strange Trip from 1965-1995. Of course, this was a silly and implausible notion for anyone to ponder back in 1988, but the new Dylan was on the cusp of a remarkable rebirth.
Jerry Garcia never changed masks. Year after year, it was the same musicians by his side and the same tie-dyed masses out there, getting larger and larger and becoming more supportive. It didn’t matter anymore how good the band was playing; everything was groovy and greeted with rapturous applause. Commenting on the crowds at the shows he was doing with Petty, Dylan said, “I’d see people in the crowd and they’d look like cutouts from a shooting gallery, there was no connection to them.” In March of 1988, as I heard Deadheads explode in ecstasy to mediocre music, I felt little connection to the scene. I wondered if Garcia felt the same way as Dylan did on certain nights, as if he was playing for spinning hippie puppets.
The Dead’s spring tour of ’88 had few shows that impressed me. At this point I was satisfied with a couple of hot jams per show, something worthy of repeated listens. There was a hot “Mississippi Half Step” in Atlanta, a killer “All Along the Watchtower” in Hampton, and a smoking “Fire on the Mountain” at the Brendan Byrne Arena. But after seeing three abysmal shows to end the tour in Hartford, the idea of putting in all this effort to watch Garcia deteriorate before my eyes didn’t make sense.
The coma did take something out of Garcia’s creativity on certain songs. The more intricate jams of “Let it Grow,” “Scarlet Begonias,” and “China Cat Sunflower” didn’t shine as they had before. In the Jerry Garcia Band, hard-hitting jam songs like “Let it Rock,” “After Midnight,” “Rhapsody in Red,” and “Sugaree” were replaced by soothing spiritual numbers. Garcia had aged physically beyond his years, and his insane workload and inability to kick his drug dependencies guaranteed a slow and steady decline, even though the band rebounded for some quality runs over the next two years.
As fans drifted in and out of the Dead touring scene, an unconditional love and allegiance to the band and Garcia remained. No matter how drugs negatively affected Garcia’s playing, Deadheads cherished the good times, and they never ranted against the direction the band was heading. Sure, after experiencing the Wall of Sound in ’74, there was disappointment for some in the stripped-down sound system and the tepid jams when the Dead returned to action in ’76, but their loyalty remained in place. Nobody shouted “Judas!” at Garcia or angrily protested the direction of the band. It was a world unto itself that defied the standard rules and conventions of rock and roll and it kept growing, even when the music went through periods of stagnation and decline. It was the opposite of Dylan’s love/hate relationship with his fans.
Physically and mentally on the mend, Dylan was ready to roll when he received the fateful call from George Harrison, inquiring if he could record a B side for a single in Dylan’s Point Dume home studio. After recording “Handle with Care” with Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne, the supergroup—and record executives—knew there was potential for something special. They decided to make an album, The Traveling Wilburys Volume 1. With Dylan’s tour starting in June, the Wilburys decided to write and record the album in a ten-day span in May, at the home and recording studio of Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.
An uncanny comradery continued through these recording sessions as five legendary singer/songwriters strummed acoustic guitars and set up microphones and recording equipment in Dave Stewart’s kitchen. Jim Keltner, the percussionist for these sessions who was dubbed “Buster Sidebury,” placed microphones on the fridge and rattled the doors with his drumsticks. From song lyrics to vocals, everyone contributed freely, although Petty admitted he was a bit intimidated when he was auditioned for lead vocal on a song right after Roy Orbison. There was tremendous reverence for Roy, and a giddy feeling of disbelief that he was in the band.
Having an ex-Beatle and Roy in the room must have put Dylan at ease—all eyes were not focused on his every gesture. Although, George was fascinated as he watched Bob write a large chunk of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” Harrison said, “The way he writes the words down, like very tiny, like a spider’s written it, you know, you can’t hardly read it. And that’s the amazing thing. It’s just unbelievable seeing how, how he did it.”
Being in the company of great singers forced Dylan to be attentive to his vocal performance. Dylan was coming off one of his roughest years as a singer; his voice was uneven, nasally, and whiny, and it sounded like he’d rather not be singing. Instead of being intimidated, Dylan’s voice offered a wonderfully gruff counterpoint to Orbison. And an engaged Dylan made Petty seem like an apprentice. As consistently smooth as Harrison and Lynne were, Orbison and Dylan are the standout voices of the Traveling Wilburys.
Paul Williams was an outstanding Dylan analysist, but I found his criticism of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” harsh: “To my taste the song that resulted is significantly lacking in charm; and Dylan’s delivery of the narrative as lead singer is void of presence or conviction.” I believe the opposite. The dynamic that makes this song special is Dylan’s singing. He could have used dummy lyrics with the driving energy and sharp cadence at play here. Even though the tune was constructed quickly, he sang brashly, as if this were an urgent tale. “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” is a light-hearted outlaw New Jersey adventure that includes the titles of two Springsteen songs, “Mansion on the Hill” and “Thunder Road,” and there are allusions to Dylan songs: You can hear them tires squeal (“Sweetheart Like You”), and in Jersey anything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught, which is similar to in Patterson that’s just the way things go (“Hurricane”). Steeped in Americana, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” is not so much a parody of a Springsteen or Dylan song as it’s a parody of the Traveling Wilburys and the song-making process they found so engaging. “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” makes my double CD collection of Dylan’s best songs of the decade.
“Dirty World,” a Prince parody with Dylan on lead vocals, follows “Handle with Care” on the Traveling Wilburys Volume 1. Dylan deadpans Prince in his own style with a bold and charming vocal. With its energetic bluster, playfully overt sexuality, and the campfire singalong finale, “Dirty World” is a zany piece of the Wilburys puzzle, but not the type of tune Dylan would bring to life at one of his shows. “Congratulations,” the other song Dylan sings lead on, is an outtake set of lyrics that Dylan brought with him to the sessions, and the only song that wasn’t organically created on the spot. If Dylan was determined to stand and get back to the place he once was, these sessions were a great workout.
There’s a magical flow to the album, and a camaraderie that’s distinctive to this group. These were the right musicians coming together at the right time. As they had perfectly layered “Handle with Care” with the right voices in the right spots, they accomplished the same effect on “Last Night,” as Orbison belted out another unforgettable bridge, “I asked her to marry me, she smiled and pulled out a knife. ‘The party's just beginning,’ she said, ‘it’s your money or your life.’”
Prior to “Tweeter,” the eighth track, “Margarita,” captured the joyous, freewheeling spirit of the album—everything they threw against the wall was bound to stick. It’s a simple ’50s-style pop tune with a one-word chorus, and Dylan grumbles the main verse with pizazz, “It was in Pittsburgh late one night. I lost my hat, got into a fight. I rolled and tumbled till I saw the light. Went to the Big Apple, took a bite.” With that rough voice busting in, it sounds like Dylan just stepped out of a barroom brawl. Even in a simple throwaway tune, Dylan was on his game.
Petty takes the lead on the feel-good finale and gives a shout-out to Jimi Hendrix, “Maybe somewhere down the road when somebody plays, Purple Haze.” “End of the Line” took on a haunting tone when Orbison died of a heart attack three months after the album was released. Yet, like “Touch of Grey,” it’s a triumphant song of survival.
Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey
Well it’s all right, you still got something to say
Well it’s all right, remember to live and let live
Well it’s all right, the best you can do is forgive
Well it’s all right, riding around in the breeze
Well it’s all right, if you live the life you please
Well it’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine
Well it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line
This record captures a time in the lives of five musical legends who had paid their dues, seen some tough times, and had just tasted the sweet smell of success or were on the threshold of something momentous. This is the coolest pop record of its kind. An album can be simple, humorous, spontaneous, and, one of the greatest albums of all time. This can’t be classified as a Dylan album, and I wouldn’t dare rank it with his ten best albums, but I’d find a spot for it in my Top 100. Like the famous Seinfeld episode when Jerry and George pitch a show about nothing to an executive at NBC, great music, like great TV, doesn’t have be about anything or have some important message.
DYLAN & THE GRATEFUL DEAD: A TALE OF TWISTED FATE