Objectively speaking, there was no real reason for hope in 1986. At that highwater mark of American jingoism — when patriotic fantasies of world domination and austerity measures intended to further starve the poor were the fashion of the time — Bob Dylan too felt like a hopeless presence. We had seen him unmoored before, and certainly we had seen him behaving strangely: The surly, spindly, speed freak of the middle ‘60s seemingly weaving new forms of oblivion from every word and deed. The oddly transformed countrypolitan crooner whose major — really only — subjects suddenly seemed to be manual labor and loving his woman. The comically hectoring evangelical preacher who refused to play anything but his new gospel songs and said things on stage like “If you want rock and roll, you can go and see KISS and rock and roll all the way down to the pit!” So yes, he had been weird. But 1986 was different from all of that. In 1986, he seemed to have finally and truly been separated from his gift.
To put on Knocked Out Loaded, the LP he released that year, was to first be encountered by a troubling question: Was he going deaf? Dylan had famously struggled to adjust to the evolving recording techniques of the digital age, a struggle clearly abetted by the additional problem that he simply didn’t give a shit, but Knocked Out Loaded is so aggressively abrasive in all of its teeth grinding high-end and dog-whistle synths that it practically scans as avant-garde. If Tom Waits had made a record that sounded like this, one might conclude that his intention was to deliberately fuck with people in some Beefheart-adjacent way, a meta-commentary on the demented plasticity of the year that brought us Top Gun. In Dylan’s case, there is simply no plausible indication of intentionality. The quick-change blues opener “You Wanna Ramble” clanks away insanely for three and a half interminable minutes, the sound of broken power tools escaping from the repair shop and starting an MC5 cover band.
On track after track, Dylan wails away with hair-on-fire conviction, typically abetted by some combination of the 21 backing vocalists credited on the LP. One conjures the image of the confused genius winding down Santa Monica Boulevard on his motorcycle, stopping to ask people in random cars if they’d like to come sing backup on his record. This probably didn’t happen, but inarguably an all-hands-on-deck approach came to characterize the proceedings. Like, literally every hand: Tom Petty and all of the Heartbreakers appear, as well as Ron Wood, Al Kooper, “Teenage” Steve Douglas, T-Bone Burnett, and Dave Stewart. Clem Burke from Blondie shows up on drums, as does legendary R&B session man James Jamerson Jr. on bass. If you were a musician passing through Los Angeles in 1985, there was glancingly little chance that you would not appear on Knocked Out Loaded. How Jim Keltner avoided this fate will menace music historians in perpetuity.
In actuality, sessions for Knocked Out Loaded began in New York City in 1984, where Dylan and Ron Wood achieved the rudiments of “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore,” a prototypically batshit melding of programmed drums, woozy synths and a half-great song about drifting too far from shore. It is hard to know what Dylan thought this music sounded like. It bears some resemblance to Prince’s work at the time, except if Prince had traded in his studied perfectionism for the unpredictable aesthetic choices of a long-term boxcar hobo. Whatever the case, Dylan felt strongly enough that he was on to something that he continued to pursue the project in what turned out to be over 30 sessions in a variety of studios ranging from London to Van Nuys. “I think the next record is going to sound better than Empire Burlesque,” he enthused to a reporter at the time, suggesting concerningly that he thought 1985’s Empire Burlesque sounded good. It did not, but Knocked Out Loaded failed to fulfill the prophecy just the same.
Now it’s important to remember context. We all know how it turns out — the wilderness years of the late ‘80s, the weird tour with the Dead, more uneven records with squint-and-you-can-see-it-greatness, the near-fatal heart disease, the perfectly calculated comeback with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind where Dylan astonishingly reassembles all his talents into yet another novel and brilliant musical vernacular. The victory lap of one brilliant late-career release after the next, the shrugging acceptance of the Nobel Prize.
Knowing what we know now, it can be possible to listen back to tracks like the crowded, hectic, geriatric-New Wave tantrum “Maybe Someday” and notice some good things happening. Dylan’s phrasing remains utterly peerless, and he gets off a decent line here and there. The hard-charging Dylan-Petty co-write “Got My Mind Made Up” is rowdy and unequivocal — he really does sound like he’s made a decision — but honestly it would have taken a tarot card reader of true sophistication to listen to this material and imagine anything other than a future of oldies-circuit shows featuring bitter, perfunctory performances of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Interviews from that period tend to run towards the one where the justifiably bewildered journalist Toby Creswell queries Dylan for Australia’s version of Rolling Stone and asks questions like: “You’ve been doing a lot of work with Dave Stewart. What do you think of the video age?” and Dylan responds, “I don’t think much about it at all.” There are shades of the scenes of Martin Sheen questioning Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. “They say you have gone totally insane …”
It practically goes without saying that Dylan couldn’t simply make a crass and lunatic-sounding compendium of unpleasant noises without throwing in arguably his best song. To do less would be insufficiently perverse. And so the 11-minute epic “Brownsville Girl” just shows up, the sixth track of a paltry eight-track running order, unassumingly tearing the top off of our jaded heads. Composed with the playwright Sam Shepard and containing as many great aphorisms as “Visions Of Johanna” or “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Brownsville Girl” is a shaggy-dog Western epic and a conscious, hilarious acknowledgment of Dylan’s own increasing obsolescence.
This was the first appearance of the late-period trickster character that Dylan would occupy — a sly operator with casual morals, unusual mustaches and many lifetimes of experience. As he has been confronted with the reversals of age in a youth-driven industry, his uncanniness for reinvention is rivaled by only Bowie. Even in the scorched earth bewilderment of Knocked Out Loaded we can recognize the seeds of rebirth.
Pivoting back to its I’m-not-sure-you-guys-understand-New-Wave clamoring unctuousness, the final track on Knocked Out Loaded is “Under Your Spell” which starts out with the couplet: “There’s something about you that I can’t shake/ Don’t know how much more of this I can take.” It’s the best description I can think of for Dylan during his wooly ‘80s years, when he flailed around courageously and desperately at a time when seemingly no meaningful rock star had ever endured beyond the age of 45. Two minutes into Knocked Out Loaded you, the listener, reasonably want to ramble. They say the darkest hour is right before dawn.
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