The early 1970s are often defined as a period of searching for a return to form. As the country limped along, ravaged by the disillusionment of unfulfilled promise, so did Bob Dylan. The narrative that leads up to 1975’s masterpiece Blood On The Tracks is generally perceived as one of more valleys than peaks, but the optimist in us wants to believe it was a generally upward trend. The time that begins with Blood and ends with Desire and the conclusion of the Rolling Thunder Revue was a period of success without the overwhelming rock star world that accompanied Dylan’s mid-sixties fame, but that could only last for so long.
Dylan enjoyed a relative freedom from the demands of the public in the 1970s, both creatively and personally. The wildfire of the sixties had died down considerably after a few reclusive years and he was able to make albums with minimal touring. Yes, his marriage ended, yes there was an incident with a fanatical stalker but Dylan’s life was essentially peaceful.
Dylan’s next step couldn’t have been more jarring. The so called “entertainer,” now took the stage in a leather jacket, wearing eye-liner and some sort of hair product. Dylan was playing stadiums; this was the era of the Japanese tour where concert promoters dictated his set list. In a period of a year, Dylan had gone from gypsy band leader to the world of larger than life fame and demand.
Street Legal was his response to being thrust back into the spotlight; in a way it was his punk album. The angry chords of “New Pony” are an attempt to obliterate the music that preceded it including his own. Again exhausted and spiritually empty, as he was in the late 60s, he turned to Christianity. The Born Again Period was a way to find not only spiritual peace but also a way to continue the rejection of his own past, trading his classic material for Evangelical banter on stage and alienating his over-demanding fans as a result. This was a way for Dylan to recapture some of the freedom he’d enjoyed just a few years before. Before long, he’d softened on the evangelism but this brief foray to the other side stirred the spiritual, mystical part of Dylan which had always been there and resulted in some of his most incredible songs.
The period spanning from 1979’s Slow Train Coming to 1989’s Oh Mercy saw Dylan’s writing take on a unique spiritualism that is the product of utter isolation. Dylan did not make a record in the 1980s that charted inside the top 20. It seemed the world had forgotten him and perhaps this was exactly what he needed. The best songs of this period have a dark strangeness and a fascination with death and an attempt to look at the state of the world at large from eyes that have seen things evolve and break down. Dylan’s lyrics during this period are a return to his earlier Rimbaud and Baudelaire inspired imagism. Wonderful parallels are drawn between observation and the observer himself. Is it the world that has been loved, betrayed, worn down and aged beyond recognition or is it the singer? The eighties were the eighties and especially to twenty-first century ears the production—synthesizers, drum machines and odd layering—seems terribly out of step with the exemplar Dylan sounds. There are puzzling songs, and some that are plain awful. None of the albums are listenable all the way through, and some of the best material exists not on the official studio albums, but on The Bootleg Sessions. Still, all this strangeness and inaccessibility serve to keep the demands of the masses at bay. Dylan had enough of being loved. He had given his fans plenty. The best of the records are mature ruminations of the lonely life and without concession or the desire to please.
In the coming weeks, I will profile, one at a time, my favorite cuts of this under-appreciated period of Dylan’s career as I assemble the ultimate Eighties Dylan mix.