Read the previous instalment covering Wilco’s Summerteeth here: link
It’s the middle of 1999: during that same bleak winter that I first encountered Wilco’s Summerteeth. I’m driving a rust riddled Holden Camira through the winding roads of Wattle Flat at night. There’s a thick fog that the Camira’s high beams are feebly attempting to seek a path through. I normally take care driving along this particular stretch of road, but on a night like this where visibility is significantly compromised I’m being extra attentive and maintaining a speed that will lessen the likelihood of catastrophe. I’m dropping a friend off at a party in Myponga and to compensate for the lack of conversation I’ve turned the car stereo up a fraction. The car is now making its way into the hills with a lethargic climb and tentative series of turns around several bends. Eventually we come to a slightly less bendy plateau and the fog is even worse up here. On one side of the road is a steep coverage of bracken; whilst on the other are the scrawny limbs of gum trees and a 100-odd metre drop into a valley.
The C-90 cassette in the stereo has been nothing but tape hiss for the past minute and has just auto flipped to the start of Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind. As the opener “Love Sick” comes into relief my friend interjects:
“This music is perfect for this kind of driving.”
I nod approvingly and keep my eyes fixed to the road.
* * *
When my parents separated in 1994, my mum, brother and I moved out of our house on Field Street in Normanville. We moved around the corner to another house and this is where I lived until I moved up to the city to study at university. The house we’d left behind was a small cottage that had various extensions tacked onto it over the years. My dad would eventually sell it in early 2001. Since my dad worked and stayed in the city during the week, the cottage was unattended for the most part. During the first couple of years of high school, when the systematic bullying became too much for me to bear, I would skip out on school, bypass my regular walking route and retreat to the cottage, spending most of my time watching tv or listening to records.
During this period of my life I felt like I had one-and-a-half homes: the one with my mum and brother, the other, an echo of the past that I could occasionally slip back into. Looking back now, I think that a large amount of my introspective personality and predilection for my own company galvanized itself during this time. If I wasn’t going on long walks by myself, I was retreating into the company of uninhabited domestic space, music and mid-90s daytime television. Given that this was on school time, I couldn’t make a regular habit of my long walks and hermitage, since the school would routinely alert my mum if my absences had become too frequent. When I was able to indulge these marabout tendencies, I became genuinely interested in music – flipping through a stack of vinyl records or rifling through various CDs and cassettes. Among the living room’s gaudy carpet and 80’s furniture were about half a dozen stringed instruments hanging from the walls. I couldn’t play guitar at the time, but their presence – in-situ with an extensive catalogue of music – gave this room a scrappy, piecemeal reverence. This was a special, private zone for discovering and listening to music.
Lend me your ears (and patience)
When my dad came down on weekends he’d often drop by our place (his relationship with my mum was fairly platonic) or I would drop by the cottage to see if he’d brought any music down from the city that I might be interested in. A couple of years later once I’d started learning guitar I think he’d properly cottoned on to my interest in music, so sometimes I’d be summoned to the house for the sole intention of hearing something he’d picked up. As many friends and family will attest, one of the strongest personality traits that I’ve inherited from my dad (along with the social anxiety and penchant for solitude) is an obsessive tendency to effuse at length about music. Even when he was in the city, his enthusiasm to share a discovery would often come down a phone line. I can recall a time around this period when he’d phoned me from the city so that I could hear a guitar solo on a Buddy Miller album that he was ridiculously enthusiastic about.
It was late September in 1997 and Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind had just come out. Dad was down for the weekend and the phone rang: I had to come around and hear this thing.
* * *
Dead Man, Dead Man
Prior to Time Out Of Mind coming out, I’d been listening to Dylan for probably a bit over a year and already had copies of The Freewheelin’, Highway 61 and Desire copied to cassettes. Desire was a particular favourite of mine, with its scrappy bohemian vibe and lyrical allusions to the Egyptian goddess Isis, Mozambique, and a volcanic atoll exploding and sinking into the sea. In 1996 I went through a considerable chunk of his back catalogue when I was convalesced for a few weeks following a horrendous bicycle accident which left me unable to do much other than lie down, eat custard and listen to music.
Prior to dad’s phone call, I’d read a couple of things in the paper about how this new album by Dylan was apparently a big deal. According to various reports he’d narrowly evaded death following a weird infection near his heart, and in the aftermath had penned a stack of new material musing on mortality. The backstory – if taken in its entirety – was largely conflated and followed the telltale logic of Dylanophiles. If trainspotting has its anorak-clad sociopaths, and World of Warcraft its legion of basement dwelling virgins, then Dylanophilia comes in the form of the most irritating person(s) you can imagine occupying a record store. In essence it’s a more obnoxious version of Deadheads. Has there ever been a time (either as a fellow patron or customer at the behest of a staff member) when you became so enraged by their demented lust for obscure minutia (coupled with a passive-aggressive zeal) that you felt like bringing the roof down on them and taking yourself with it? If only, just to escape and bring an end to the most tedious conversation you’ve had in your life.
The Dylanophile will affix a mythos to practically anything Dylan has done, whether it was the apparent reason(s) why he deliberately played out of key, smoked a particular brand of smokes or was spotted picking his laundry up several blocks from where he lived at the time. Before you start feeling sorry for Dylan, bear in mind that the man himself has fuelled the entirety of his career on bullshitting and playing everyone for chumps, especially his maniacally loyal followers who are more than willing to pick through the crumbs of meaninglessness and concoct something meaningful out of them.
There was also a buzz surrounding the release of Time Out Of Mind since one of Dylan’s sons, Jakob Dylan was fronting an alternative rock band called The Wallflowers. On the cusp of the Internet ubiquity, the musical landscape of the 1990s was a subcultural milieu waiting to be capitalized on and exploited shamelessly by huge corporations. This was the last hurrah for big record companies before the Internet came along and fucked everything up for them. Mountains of cash were made on the back of grunge, British British-ness, 1970s Americana revisionism and the previously niche genres of house and techno. Wedged into this mix awkwardly was alternative rock, which bands like R.E.M., The Smiths and The Pixies had pioneered in the 80s. In the miserable space where grunge was snuffing itself out, middle class youngsters with good looks and expensive guitars took over. That’s pretty much you need to know about The Wallflowers. They weren’t that bad, but they weren’t that good either. Where contemporaries like Pavement or The Breeders were a bit too rough for the ears of the masses, the inoffensive charms and modest angst of Dylan Jr. were a welcome substitute; henceforth, 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse would join their CD collection with the latest albums by The Coors, The Dave Matthews Band and probably Jeff Buckley’s Grace.
Inevitably, with a name like Dylan floating around and selling a shitload of records, the rock criticism clique started asking questions and wondered when Old Man Dylan might reemerge with something new.
If anyone had actually been paying attention, Old Man Dylan couldn’t have been accused of being idle. Following 1990’s Under The Red Sky he had released a couple of acoustic covers albums and been feted with a bizarre 30th Anniversary concert, all the while continuing the ‘alimony blues’ odyssey of The Never Ending Tour. So far, so busy. The problem was that the albums he made weren’t particularly good or appealing and worst still, his live performances from around this era were truly ghastly.
Search YouTube for ‘Bob Dylan live 1991/92’ and the atrocity is laid bare. A drunken wretch – vaguely resembling Bob Dylan – sloppily rocks back and forth from the microphone in an ill-fitting suit with a straw hat sitting uneasily atop unwashed clumps of greasy hair. He bleats incoherent lyrics like a wounded duck, whilst blasting spittle-inflected whines from a harmonica strapped around his neck. I had to squint a couple of times since I could have sworn he had been blowing into an Aztec Death Whistle. Not so. The guitar fares worst of all: not only is the semblance of conventional rhythm abandoned entirely, but it’s steadily going out of tune and thinning itself out as if it’s attempting to kill itself in the hands of its abusive owner.
I wonder how the audience felt as they were witnessing the spectacle of Bob Dylan mauling his repertoire on stage, night after night. Separate the average punters from the band of token apologists (looking at you, Dylanophiles), and you’d be left with a crowd about fifty bucks lighter per head and wondering if this guy would be dead in a week’s time.
The Ghost of Electricity Pt.1
Prior to the creation of Time Out of Mind, Dylan and its producer Daniel Lanois had a history. The last time they had worked together was back in 1989 when Lanois had recorded and produced Dylan’s apparent ‘return to form’, Oh Mercy. During the 1980s Lanois had made a name for himself as a record producer, whose knack for evoking mood and atmosphere – coupled with a preference for vintage gear and instruments – stood in stark opposition to the slick and synthetic sounds diffusing through the decade. Not since Phil Spector had a record producer utilized reverberation so liberally. In addition to this, a Spector-esque ‘Wall Of Sound’ principle largely applied, whereupon layers of instruments were built up until something sonically monolithic resulted. Big spacious sound. This approach had worked a treat for U2 on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. Elsewhere, Lanois and Brian Eno (with Brian’s brother, Roger) sonically propelled themselves into the depths of space on 1983’s gorgeous Apollo Soundtracks.
When Dylan arrived at Lanois’ studio in New Orleans in 1989 with a guitar and a dozen songs, they spent a few weeks trying to generate some chemistry with a handpicked crew of musicians and a room full of vintage equipment. The sessions themselves were frequently fractious – either Dylan was uninspired or Lanois was throwing tantrums in the control room and smashing guitars. In those rare moments when things clicked, excellent takes of the spooky “Man In The Long Black Coat” and elegiac “Ring Them Bells” resulted. Best of all was “Most Of The Time”. From a strictly lyrical point of view, anyone could have written this with his or her hands tied behind their back whilst being submerged underwater. Such are the banality of the lyrics:
Most of the time
She ain’t even in my mind
I wouldn’t know her if I saw her
She’s that far behind
Most of the time
I can’t even be sure
If she was ever with me
Or if I was ever with her
This is where Lanois’ expert direction comes into to play: to transform something otherwise mediocre into something truly special. On “Most Of The Time”, Dylan’s sounds like he’s just woken up, his voice is cracking and cloaked in echo as waves of feedbacking guitars swirl around loping, slippery basslines and clattering drums. It’s a truly amazing recording and a testament to what a decent producer with fresh ears could do for a floundering artist like Dylan.
Indeed, without Lanois at the helm, Oh Mercy could have been an entirely (in)different record. It’s quite telling that when Dylan did record again the following year with a different producer at the helm, the results (Under The Red Sky) left a lot to be desired, or at best, forgotten in their entirety. But in saying this – and with full sympathy to Under The Red Sky’s producer Don Was – I don’t really know how any producer could have worked with material like “Unbelievable”, “Cat’s In The Well”, “Handy Dandy” or “Wiggle Wiggle”:
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a bowl of soup
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a rolling hoop
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle like a ton of lead
Wiggle, you can raise the dead
Wiggle till you’re high, wiggle till you’re higher
Wiggle till you vomit fire
Wiggle till it whispers, wiggle till it hums
Wiggle till it answers, wiggle till it comes
This was from the same guy who penned “Visions Of Johanna”, “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” and “Changing Of The Guards”.
So, that was that. From this point on, history conveniently connects with the aforementioned live performances of 1991-92, and save for the odd redeeming performance, Dylan was just about washed up.
The Ghost of Electricity Pt.2 (or, “Make it sound like this.”)
One of Dylan’s instructions to Lanois when they were making Time Out Of Mind was for it to sound a like a country blues record from the 1930s or 40s. Spontaneity, authenticity and atmosphere would be key. Everyone who was on a given track had to be in room at the same time, acoustic instruments were preferred and an emphasis on the recording space itself was crucial. That’s not to suggest that electric instruments and treatments were banished, they’re everywhere on Time Out Of Mind. But along with their actual presence on the record, they seem to embody the realm of electricity itself. One of the things that makes early blues records so spooky is the presence of electricity in the recordings. That is, the crackle and hiss of the electromechanical apparatus that initially transcribed the performance and subsequently reproduced it are forever embedded in the recording. Though the recording may be acoustic in nature, it is manifest and made real (for the listener) through the eeriness of electricity.
This, I believe is why Time Out Of Mind is so spooky and atmospheric. There are no hisses and crackles, but the presence of electric instruments surrounding the acoustic instruments (along with predominantly blues-esque arrangements) gives the album an almost otherworldly feel – as if it had been made in the past, at some undefined period and was being projected into the present. Look at the cover of Time Out Mind: it’s a grainy black and white image of Dylan sitting with a guitar in (presumably) Lanois’ control room. It looks as though it had been shot underwater, or was a distant transmission from somewhere out of place. Out of time. Out of mind.
* * *
We’re back in the Camira on the way to Myponga: “Love Sick” begins with what sounds like a room full of instruments shuffling in their respective seats before they become comfortable. Successive jabs of organ establish the beat before the rest of the band kicks in. Dylan’s croaking voice appears, sounding as if it had been recorded through a tin can (maybe it was). My friend interjects saying how ideal this music is for our drive. I agree. The song ambles along with a dark energy as its lyrics allude to ‘streets that are dead’ and ‘silhouettes in the window’ before the 2-chord chorus arrives with its declamation:
I’m sick of love
That I’m in the thick of it
This kind of love
I’m so sick of it
“Dirt Road Blues” follows. We’re a bit closer to Myponga. A rambunctious blues shuffle, with any hint of actual rambunctiousness offset by the beleaguered state of the character whose setting off on a lonely trek down a dirt road until his eyes start to bleed or he’s buried alive under the rain and hail. He’s out looking for the sunny side of love, and unlike Blood On The Tracks’ “Shelter From The Storm”, there’s no signs of salvation or sanctuary. He’s just going to have to keep rambling on. Charley Patton represent.
The situation is somewhat the same (or even worse) by the time “Standing In The Door” comes along. Was it better to be walking that endless dirt road or beset by the worst kind of lonliness imaginable as you reach civilization and pass through bars and dancehalls where everyone’s having a hoot and getting laid. Church bells are ringing for someone and there’s no way out of this fix you’ve found yourself in. You’ve got the blues bad, man.
As the Camira and its occupants would attest, nighttime is the right time and some real nocturnal blues kick in next with “Million Miles”. Whatever sympathy we might have had for the character (assuming this is the same character) has since evaporated now he seems to give zero fucks that the romance fell apart and he’s doing his best to get as far away from it that he can. Ah, the several stages of grief, etc.
One last digression: Myponga.
Now if my memory serves, by the time “Million Miles” fades out I’ve bid my friend a good night, performed a u-turn in the Camira and I’m heading back from Myponga to Normanville.
Almost a year later, a family member would be driving this same car on the outskirts of Myponga before the engine made a horrible sound and the cabin filled with blue smoke. That was the end of the Camira – one of the worst cars ever manufactured. I had bought my Camira from a creepy guy who lived in a rotting clapboard bungalow in Carrickalinga. I was particularly nervous when he asked to accompany me on the test drive around the block. In the time I owned it over two years the CV joint snapped in half, the radiator blew (scolding my arm in the process), both side mirrors fell off (whilst driving) and eventually it died violently with two pistons fused inside the engine. Barring the theatrical episode of a snapped CV joint on Normanville’s main street, all the other things happened either in or on the outskirts of Myponga.
To an outsider, Myponga might seem to be an innocuously charming country town girth by pastoral land and huge reservoir. All well and good, but Myponga is in actual fact a weird place and in spite of the intervening years and a far less dramatic turn of mind, it still gives me the creeps. For me, Myponga is a place with genuine Twin Peak-sy vibes, with its dark undercurrents and unsolved mysteries. Are these all in my head? Probably. But permit me to posit one thing: why on Earth did they build a large-scale cheese factory in a town with a population of just under a hundred at the time? Who worked there? Was it actually a cheese factory? It was once home to a salvage yard, which my mum ran. Then they moved across the road into the former bank. I was once told that nobody could venture into the cheese factory’s basement level since the gas down there could kill you. I still – on rare occasions – think about the basement in the cheese factory.
Maybe we should get back on track.
Although I have a vivid memory of the drive to Myponga in 1999, I have absolutely no recollection of driving home that night. I don’t even know if I listened to the rest of Time Out Of Mind. But let’s imagine that I did, so by the time that I’m leaving the town limits “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” has started.
“Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” contains the first of several near-transcendent instances on Time Out Of Mind. As with Oh Mercy’s “Most Of Time”, “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven” is another one of those Lanois Fairy Dust moments where everything seems to be in the right place and the right time. Much like the rest of the album, the performances are full of little serendipitous gestures that bring such character and dimension to the songs. Half the time they’re mistakes and fluffed notes, sometime they’re supremely executed with thoughtfulness and economy, and other times they’re just dead simple. In the case of the latter, take for example Dylan’s ‘harmonica solos’ which features during the instrumental passages of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”. I’ve purposefully put that reference to the harmonica in inverted commas since I don’t know if you could call it a harmonica solo, in the same way that Mark Hollis’ performance “After The Flood” (from Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock) could possibly be called a clarinet solo. But much like Hollis’ stammering clarinet, Dylan’s clumps of distorted harmonica seem to work beautifully as it bellows over the gliding accompaniment of pedal steel guitar, bass and organ.
Skipping past the otherwise excellent stomping blues of “Til’ I Fell In Love With You”, another highlight is to be found in the doom ballad, “Not Dark Yet”. Whilst my heart and soul will always regard Dylan’s “Simple Twist Of Fate” (from Blood On The Tracks) as my favourite song of his, “Not Dark Yet” is right up there by virtue of its delivery and production. Nowhere else on Time Out Of Mind will you find a better example of this record’s otherworldly (yet eerily worldly) feel and underlying themes of long dark blues. The protagonist is completely broken down here. One of the reasons why I hold “Simple Twist Of Fate” in such high esteem is because it’s sung so well. Dylan cops a lot of flak for not being a terribly good singer – sometimes for very good reason – but when he can actually be bothered and he feels the stuff he’s singing, for my money he’s one of the best singers out there. I’ve long held the belief that in order to be a good singer, you don’t even have to sing in a conventionally acceptable way. As long as it’s coming through and its embodying whatever you’re singing about, that’s what counts. This is why I love singers like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithful, Kurt Wagner, Emmy Lou Harris, Mark Linkous, Jason Molina; they wouldn’t stand a chance in talent competitions, but by crikey – they can sing.
Remember, we’re in the Camira on the way back to Normanville, so by this point we’re probably descending into Wattle Flat and “Cold Irons Bound” is cranking up. There might have still been fog by this point of the night, but if “Cold Irons Bound” had been playing, there couldn’t have been a better accompaniment as I drove the Camira – that rickety piece-of-shit – through the night. If only the roads had been flooded out. That would have been perfect, but also very, very dangerous.
“Cold Irons Bound” is full of danger. Our protagonist is on the run from the fuzz! The hillside’s made of mud, he looks up and sees nothing but clouds of blood. He’s fucked up bad and he’s going down. Electric guitars are howling everywhere and the drums are being thumped into the ninth layer of Hell. It would be only appropriate if the Camira had burst into flames by this point.
But then again, maybe “To Make You Feel My Love” might have made the Camira immolate itself. Not because “To Make You Feel My Love” is an amazing song, it’s not an amazing song; it’s arguably one of the worst things Dylan has ever written and recorded. If it had been so inclined, the Camira might have become so repulsed by the sheer banality and sickly platitude of “To Make You Feel My Love” that it might have thought that fire was too energy intensive and cut its losses by skidding off the road and wrapping itself around a gum tree. It’s not even a blues song. It’s just a lazy piano and vocal ballad that does nothing. Enough years have passed that I can zone out whenever this song comes around so that it doesn’t blight my otherwise favourable impression of the album. Such is “To Make You Feel My Love” emptiness; its ersatz, flimsy emptiness that it’s no surprise that Billy Joel recorded a version of it.
Two songs round out the rest of Time Out Of Mind – “Can’t Wait” and “Highlands”. “Can’t Wait” is what I like to call ‘Lanois Blues’, since it’s got a swampy swagger to it which evokes carousing around on Beale Street or other similar New Orleans haunts. It’s also a bit sexy, which is one of the things that Dylan wasn’t particularly happy about when he was making the record with Lanois. According to Dylan in a rare interview, one of the reasons he hasn’t worked with Lanois since Time Out Of Time is because Lanois was pressing Dylan to make things sound more sexy. Banging his ear incessantly: sexy, sexy, sexy.
Anyone who’s ever seen footage of Lanois performing will understand where this drive for sexiness comes from. Strap a guitar on Lanois and watch him go: he grooves like 50 year-olds dancing to “Nutbush City Limits” whilst he jacks off the guitar with such a horny zeal that it would make Prince blush. I can understand why this approach might have grated with Dylan. Obviously the man isn’t very sexy and the few times he’s gone out of his way to be somehow sexy in a typically roundabout Dylan way – like his appearance in the awful 1987 film Hearts Of Fire – are best forgotten. Quickly. And this is one of the reasons why – in spite of great instrumental work across the track – vocally, “Can’t Wait” deviates from the overall feel of Time Out Of Mind. Dylan is trying to sound seductive and cooing in your ears. Whilst this is not anywhere as offensive as “To Make You Feel My Love”, “Can’t Wait” is still a bit iffy.
Thankfully, the closer “Highlands” redeems everything. Did I mention this goes for eighteen minutes? If I had been in the Camira by this point, I would have had already pulled into the drive by the third verse and made a cup of tea by verse nine and taken myself to bed as it began to fade out.
What is this song about? I have, and no-one else has the faintest idea. Again, much like the previous two songs, “Highlands” is a deviation from the majority of Time Out Of Mind. Whilst it’s much closer in feel to everything through to “Cold Iron’s Bound”, it still feels remote and detached. It’s as if the protagonist – who somehow miraculously evaded capture from the authorities in “Cold Irons Bound” – took a trans-dimensional path to somewhere entirely different, and by the time he lands in the ‘highlands’ he’s Bob Dylan and he’s simply doing what Bob Dylan does on a given day.
But – wait a second – now I’m sounding like a Dylanophile: the very thing I loathe. Maybe that’s what “Highlands” is by design – an exercise in piss-taking where mundane things are peppered along the way for the diehards to mull and obsess over. But is there really that much to pick apart in “Highlands”? After all, the character in the song is simply wandering about and not lending too much interpretation to his observations and interactions. He walks along a street, sees a mangy dog, goes into a café, wants some hard boiled eggs, has a conversation with a waitress…oh, and at one point he’s listening to Neil Young.
It’s as if Dylan is suggesting in this song: ‘Do ya really think I’m so special? Well, this is what I do on a day off.” The protagonist might be Dylan, it might not be; but in my mind it’s an entirely appropriate way to bring Time Out Of Mind to a close. Whatever mystique and allusion the previous songs had has now fallen away, leaving a guy going about his life. Just living. No pretense, no bullshit.
The way I’ve written about Time Out Of Mind – for the most part – makes it sound like a concept album in a way. But I don’t think it’s that at all. It’s a mood record and – in spite of its odd diversions – it fits situations and environments so well. I’m still working through that particular idea, but as I was writing this, the word ‘ambient’ kept cropping up.
About a year ago, when I was holding down a miserable finance role that made me feel miserable, each morning before leaving for work I would put on a side of Time Out Of Mind as I ate my breakfast before leaving for work. By this point, I’d acquired a limited edition double-LP version of the record. It works remarkably well in this format, especially if you’re feeling low down and need something to accompany your bleak mood as you’re eating your breakfast. There’s no time for it’s 70-plus minute duration, so one side will have to satisfy.
I needed something like that at that particular point in time and it didn’t necessarily make my situation any better, but I doubt it made it any worse. It was just the perfect accompaniment for that particular time and place.
And in that respect, some eighteen years prior it fit that scenario of driving the Camira on an empty road at night, cloaked in fog. Neither my friend or I were feeling particularly down and out, but something about having Time Out Of Mind on the stereo clicked. If we only listened to this kind of music when we felt like shit we would have wiped ourselves a long time ago.
Music isn’t so simplistic in that respect. A lasting record covers all manner of situations and environments.