The Ugliest Girl in the World: The Reanimation of _Bob Dylan in the ‘80s_

Jesse Jarnow on May 13, 2014

The idea is too stupid and too brilliant to ignore, one of those endless in-jokes that spring eternal when music dorks start trying to make each other laugh. The difference in the case of Jesse Lauter and Sean O’Brien is that, at the time, the two are students in an NYU course taught by Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed—and arguably actual— “Dean of American Rock Critics.” And they’re musicians. Every week, the erstwhile Village Voice editor distributes listening and reading assignments, sometimes challenging students to reconsider songs from artists’ lesser revered works.

Christgau opens his Bob Dylan session with “Brownsville Girl,” from 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded. The panoramic production is stacked with gospel backup singers, burping synthesizers, overblown drums, a B3 organ, maybe an acoustic guitar, what sounds like a mariachi band and, in the middle of it, Bob Dylan sing-speaking a 17-verse, 11-minute epic. All parties join together for the histrionic choruses, which are when the lite-jazz sax becomes audible, too. “It basically [blew] the doors off any preconceived notion of what a Bob Dylan song is supposed to sound like,” O’Brien says. “It’s sort of awful, but there’s more to it than that.”

After class, Lauter and O’Brien start riffing on the time-honored music dork theme of potential band names. They remember The Shitty Beatles from Wayne’s World and go from there. Neil Dung and Crazy Shit? Pretty good, but no. Shitty Dan? Shitty/DC? For deep power-pop lovers, there’s Big Shit, playing the songs of Big Star very poorly. First and last, though, is Shitty Dylan.

Then, so it seems, it’s simply a matter of starting the group to go with it. The repertoire is easy enough to figure out: songs that reside mostly on the seven albums that Bob Dylan recorded between 1980 and 1989. So, Lauter and O’Brien dig in. But in doing so, they discover something deeper and more powerful and mysterious than a mere cover band can handle.

Eight years later, the two are the proud producers of the ATO release Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume One, wrangling tracks by Built To Spill, Craig Finn, Slash, Marco Benevento, Deer Tick, Dawn Landes, Hannah Cohen, Lucius, Tea Leaf Green, Chastity Brown, the artist formerly known as Gene Ween, and liner notes by novelist and noted Dylanologist Jonathan Lethem. Not only that, but they have become accidental bearers of a very particular torch. The bold 24-artist tribute project both reinvents and brings into focus the most opaque period of Bob Dylan’s long career, an era so fraught with confusion that it has become rock and roll’s de facto archetype for an artist disappearing into the wilderness.

“I wasn’t keeping my word with myself,” Dylan would assess in Chronicles, Volume One, his 2004 memoir. “What that word was, I couldn’t exactly remember, but I knew it was back there somewhere.”

A highly condensed biography and semi-sequential list of achievements, rumors, perceived aesthetic crimes, and baby boomer cultural markers connected with Bob Dylan during the 1980s: He released an album almost every year, slowly slipped into the lower reaches of the Billboard top 50 (or below) for the first time since the ‘60s as he experimented with overdubs and session musicians and reggae rhythm sections, scrapped his best recordings, released two final gospel albums and subsequently misplaced/transcended his Christianity (he never quite addressed it), appeared in one terrible movie and a few even worse music videos, popped up on a Chabad telethon playing recorder with actor Harry Dean Stanton, jammed with Slash, ripped out a one-time-only semi- punk “Jokerman” with a barely rehearsed band on Late Night with David Letterman, helped create the legacy rock supergroup archetype (and made one very good album) with the Traveling Wilburys, toured with the Grateful Dead, made a pretty terrible live album with the Grateful Dead, asked to join the Grateful Dead (Phil said “No”), wrote music for two sets of lyrics by Robert Hunter (“Silvio” and “Ugliest Girl in the World”), “got it on with the backup singers” (in the words of Jonathan Lethem), had some amount of children, brought his always-nasally voice into new cosmic realms, sported leather vests and ear piercings and magnificent Jew-fros, introduced a weird-ass style of vocal phrasing that obscured classics and buried new melodies, issued one “comeback” record that stayed pretty effing weird, and wrote 132 known songs.

Lauter and O’Brien get an email through to Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s longtime manager, about their concept for a multi- artist Shitty Dylan tribute album and hear back immediately and bluntly: “I love the concept, and I will support your project if you don’t call it that.” They visit Rosen’s lower Manhattan office, utterly nondescript besides the original Dylan paintings for Music from Big Pink and Self Portrait hanging casually on the wall. They settle on a new name and get their thunder rolling.

Since spontaneously excreting the idea, the producers have been busy. They play around New York as Shitty Dylan and put out an album with their own Bob-influenced band, The Alright Ma’s. O’Brien plays lap steel in PAPA, and Lauter makes albums with The Low Anthem and Elvis Perkins, and also books a Dawes show in the harmony-seeped cellar at Big Pink, where Dylan and The Band wrote a few dozen songs and created the myths of both basement rock and lost periods.

“Tribute albums sometimes sound like serious hodgepodges,” says Lauter. “I really wanted to make something consistent, something continuous that you could put on and feel like you were listening to a record.” As easy as it was to concoct the project in the first place, it was just as easy to figure out a musical strategy.

“Our mission was to strip away the gated snares and the synthesizers and the cheesy production,” he continues. “I didn’t want this to be an overdub-heavy record. I wanted it to feel like, ‘What if these ‘80s songs were recorded in the basement of Big Pink or the Columbia studios in the ‘60s?’

“I’m not saying this is some gold mine here—that’d be lying. But there were some amazing songs that were underserved by the production at the time. In a lot of ways, we’re highlighting an off-rhythm period, which he even characterized as being off- rhythm, and trying to bring harmony to it.”

They start with the even more remarkable music dork feat of fabulating who can actually perform these songs and make them work in ways that their songwriter couldn’t himself conceive. Who to bring the swagger to the absurdist half-finished delights of “Wiggle Wiggle?” Who to redeem the reggae-gospel thump-dirge of “Death Is Not the End?” Who to entrust with the fragile and revered turns of the Jesus-era coda “Every Grain of Sand?” And who to fulfill the promise of that Letterman “Jokerman?”

Bob Dylan covers have been popular for longer than Bob Dylan has, starting with Peter, Paul and Mary’s No. 2 hit with “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963 when Dylan was still an opening act for Joan Baez. The full-length tribute craze began in ‘65 with Odetta Sings Dylan, the surf-guitar rambles of Duane Eddy Does Bob Dylan and, after the surprise smash of Dylan’s own “Like a Rolling Stone,” the Glen Campbell-abetted Dylan Jazz. While the former Mr. Zimmerman was off the grid recuperating from his 1966 motorcycle crash, the demand only increased.

Joan Baez did Any Day Now in ‘68, The Hollies released The Hollies Sing Dylan in ‘69. There’s also Jesse Lauter’s personal favorite, Lo And Behold by Coulson, Dean, McGuinness and Flint, capturing a batch of then-unreleased basement tunes in ‘72. The tributes haven’t ceased since; Dylan’s endlessly nourishing songbook is open to anyone willing to form chords and try singing. Its meandering pages welcome reinterpretation, suggesting themes and passageways and eye-widening vistas.

Some of the tributes are one-cut wonders, like the otherwise drab Dylan Country from 2004, redeemed by Nanci Griffith’s transfixing “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Some offer listeners new frames, like the heartbroken Italian swoon of Francesco De Gregori’s “If You See Her, Say Hello” on the Masked & Anonymous soundtrack. The vast majority remain unattached to albums, a long and distinguished list, as well as a nearly infinite supply of unimaginative blues-rock jams on “All Along the Watchtower” that stretches from here to Hibbing, with a possible exception granted for Neil Young and the MG’s’ take on Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration.

So why do we need any more Dylan covers?

“If my songs were just about the words, then what was Duane Eddy, the great rock-and-roll guitarist, doing recording an album full of instrumental melodies of my songs?” Dylan poses in Chronicles, and it is a wonderful point he raises. “Musicians have always known that my songs were about more than just words, but most people are not musicians.”

Alongside Lauter and O’Brien’s Bob Dylan in the 80s this season comes another remarkable new addition to the Zimmy tribute canon, Buda Musique’s From Another World: A Tribute to Bob Dylan, the product of French producer Alain Weber. The collection posits Dylan’s Chronicles question even more directly—13 songs sung in 13 different languages—an album almost literally impossible for any one person to understand.

To Weber, Dylan’s lyrics contain “a sense of spirituality, morality and wisdom, using double meanings, where every word has a real importance,” and he moved through Dylan’s songbook to find lyrics that reflect different traditions. “Father Of Night,” from 1970’s New Morning, is “a tribute to the creator, describing nature in a sacred way, as do the Aboriginal people with their songlines.” Weber had songs translated into local dialects and soon discovered that the musicians “all wanted to appropriate the songs, go beyond the original melody or adapt it to their own culture,” he says. “It was something natural, so I just had to let it go that way, even though at the beginning, I wanted them to respect the melody.”

The results are sometimes unrecognizable, even by Dylan’s own liberal standards, and yet they are familiar. As at a Dylan show, it might take one a few verses to realize that he or she is hearing “Jokerman.” Iranian singer Salah Aghili is given “Every Grain of Sand” and recognizes the depth of the lyrics. But even more, he recognizes its melody and is inspired to scrap the translation and instead sing verses by the Persian mystic poet Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmi. From Australia, the Aboriginal People Yolingu of Yalakun boil “Father Of Night” into a ritual chant accompanied by clapsticks and didgeridoo. That the song is generally as maligned as anything from Dylan’s ‘80s songbook becomes immaterial.

From Another World has the answer, and the answer, my friend, is that Dylan’s songs are about more than either the words or the melodies, but horcruxes he’s locked inside each one. You can tell it’s the right answer because the album even solves the “All Along the Watchtower” conundrum. Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa’s sly, swinging version is great.

What’s great about the original “Wiggle Wiggle?” What’s terrible? What did you want to bring from it to your version?

“The entire song really hinges on the lyric ‘wiggle ‘til you vomit fire,’” says the former Ween frontman Aaron Freeman. “It provides the answer to all three questions.” One of many artists assigned a song by the producers, he enthuses to Lauter, “This is the song I was born to sing.”

New York’s Yellowbirds tackle the surrealistic Oh Mercy outtake “Series Of Dreams,” a song likewise suggested by Lauter and O’Brien. A fan of Dylan’s classic periods, as well as the turn-of-the-century masterpieces Time Out of Mind and “Love & Theft,” Yellowbirds leader Sam Cohen suggests, “I think I’m the guy this album is designed to educate.”

“I heard Dylan and the Dead [recorded in 1987] around age 13 when I had my first band going, and just thought, ‘How cool!’” he continues. “Everything that is popular in music usually sticks to a shtick and a format, and they were just playing together and being musicians. It wasn’t an act. It just struck me as a cool way to be.” He wasn’t far off from what Lauter and O’Brien would discover a quarter-century later.

The duo figures out session bands for the songs they’re producing themselves, including New York staple trio of drummer Joe Russo, guitarist Scott Metzger, and bassist Dave Dreiwitz (dubbed “The Jokermen” for the occasion) to back The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. The producers also hatch deeper concepts, getting in their argument for Dylan’s melodic skills by challenging keyboardist Marco Benevento to an instrumental take of “Every Grain of Sand,” in Lauter’s words, “arguably the greatest song from the ‘80s.”

Out go the tunes and back come the results. “I was mainly trying to create a similar mood, which is ethereal,” says Benevento. “Sometimes when people hear [Dylan’s] music from the ‘80s, their immediate response is that it sounds cheesy, mainly because of the heavy production,” he continues. “[But] I like hearing artists changing and growing with the times and experimenting with recording techniques of the time frame that they’re in.”

Deer Tick convert “Night After Night” (from the Hearts Of Fire soundtrack) into a gentle lilt about the soul’s dusk-to-dawn darknesses—individual and global. Venerable San Francisco jamband Tea Leaf Green transmogrify the 1985 half-ska toss-off “Waiting to Get Beat” into a credibly pixelated Vampire Weekend-style Afro- shuffle. It’s My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel who discovers the latent sing-along and sweet comforts inside “Death Is Not the End.” And when Freeman’s “Wiggle Wiggle” arrives back in Lauter’s ears, the producer finds himself in New York’s High Line elevated park, tears rolling down his cheeks. The answer for “Jokerman” arrives in the form of an email from Doug Martsch, asking if Built to Spill can contribute.

While most of the artists record the tracks themselves, Lauter and O’Brien insist on mixing them, part of their mandate to give the album its identity. They scatter Easter eggs throughout, ready for eagle-eared Dylan freaks. They add barking dogs to Benevento’s “Every Grain of Sand,” conjuring the ambiance of the demo on The Bootleg Series.

And there, jamming on Freeman’s swamp-dementia dream of “Wiggle Wiggle,” overdubbed later, is Slash. This might seem like a non-sequitur collaboration were it not for the Guns N’ Roses guitarist’s presence on Dylan’s original studio recording. Slash told the producers a story about his session with Dylan. “He showed up ready to play all these lead licks, but Dylan thought it sounded too much like Guns N’ Roses. All he ended up keeping was Slash strumming away on this acoustic section.”

On Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume One, in addition to his long-deferred guitar solo, the man born Saul Hudson plays the part of a giant Easter egg with a top hat. There are eight fairly excellent ‘80s Dylan songs left for Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume Two: “Foot Of Pride,” “Most of the Time,” “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” “City Of Gold,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “What Good Am I?,” “Dignity,” “Everything Is Broken.” One not-that-great Bob Dylan song still left for Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume Two: “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love).”

The opener for 1985’s Empire Burlesque contains another très ‘80s moment: that time that Dylan started cribbing lines from Humphrey Bogart movies and (possibly) Star Trek episodes for his lyrics. As a songwriter, Dylan had long borrowed melodies, images, and even whole couplets from old folk sources. But for the first time, he now plunged, however subtly, into the realms of pop culture. The move would become an entrenched artistic method for him well into the 21st century, from “Love & Theft”’s ambient quotations from Junichi Saga’s Japanese novel Confessions of a Yakuza to the literally hundreds of micro-references that scholar Scott Warmuth has overturned throughout Chronicles to the wholesale borrowings that made up the 2011 art show of Dylan’s “Asia Series” paintings.

In the 1980s, Bob Dylan also launched his Never Ending Tour, which continues in some capacity to the present day. In doing so, he began his reinvention as a live performer, eventually capitalizing on the ‘80s’ down- and-outness to create a whole new Southern gentleman-on-the-skids persona.

It might have been the 1980s, but—despite all the goofy ‘80s-ness of all he was doing—Bob Dylan continued to evolve, even if his creative decisions didn’t resonate with much of his audience. It’s not that his music deserves a free pass, but merely a second or third or fourth listen because of what arrived before (and after) it. Sometimes, he connected anyway.

“Dylan launches into a sheer masterpiece of a vocal appearance, uniting 1966 and 1986 like they were born twins and then bursting beyond any re-creations of the song into an astonishing cry of urgency,” wrote lifelong Dylan obsessive Paul Williams of a 1986 London performance of “I Want You,” and that’s one of Williams’ more restrained commentaries.

It was Williams who launched the first rock magazine, Crawdaddy!, in 1966, wrote Dylan—What Happened? when Dylan went Christian in ‘79—Dylan himself ordered 114 copies—and kept on keeping on with the Bobhead. Crawdaddy! had grown from the zine-writing science fiction world of which Williams was a part, where the proto-geek parlance of the times deemed him a “trufan.” Bob Dylan in the 80s is dedicated to Williams, who passed away in 2013. “He felt [Dylan] could transcend the act of songwriting and kinetically deliver art in the moment,” says O’Brien.

Even if Dylan himself couldn’t locate the word he was supposed to be keeping with himself, Paul Williams never lost sight of it. He followed every questionable move in real time, giddily inventing entirely new metrics and metaphors to gauge Dylan’s success. Paul Williams came to a complete appreciation of Dylan, and the whole Bob. Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One is an aural and alchemical approximation of that experience, a transmogrification of the ugly into the gorgeous by way of sheer enthusiasm, and realizing they were the same all along. Not bad for a stupid joke. Listen to Bob Dylan in the 80s, Volume One and become an instant trufan.