By Tony Attwood
Throughout 1984 and 1985 Dylan had worked on finding a new “voice” – a new way of writing music, another approach to move on to, as he had moved so many times before. During this period he explored all sorts of routes, tried all sorts of approaches, from the epic tale of Brownsville Girl to love songs such as I’ll remember you and ventures into different arenas such as Maybe Someday and Seeing the real you at last.
But Dylan never lost his love for the old time rock n roll and the blues – indeed we’ve seen this with the utterly magical “I once knew a man”. And so it is not too surprising that Dylan on tour with Tom Petty seems to have been a time of guys who really loved rock and roll having great fun together celebrating their musical heritage, as well as playing some of the songs the audience expected.
It is in this tradition that we find “Rock em dead”. As with “I once knew a man” there must be antecedents and they are not too hard to find, although as the review of “I once knew” pointed out, the links that some writers claim to have found really bear little if any relationship to the work Dylan produced.
As several writers have pointed out Dylan’s song owes something to “Uranium Rock” by Warren Smith. Dylan keeps the “Money, money honey” line and the basic riff, but ups the tempo until it becomes truly frenetic. (Dylan also performed Smith’s “Red Cadillac and black moustache” at three of the gigs). And as a result the whole feel of the song changes, so it is more a case of taking one line and seeing where it goes, rather than basing one song on an earlier classic.
We should also remember this sort of fun jam session is what many bands whose music is rooted in the popular music of the past do as a break during rehearsals, or as sound checks, or simply as a warm up. All Dylan has done here is taken it a step further and put the event on stage. And why not?
It really is great fun, and should not be put down as in some obscure and unexplained way “messing with the minds of his fans” as Heylin says. Most Dylan fans that I know are far more knowledgeable and far more sophisticated than that.
And indeed I wonder sometimes just how closely Heylin actually listens to Dylan while doing all his analysis of each and every recording of each and every song, for he quite fails to mention the way Dylan re-used “Rock em Dead” in 2001 in the song Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum That version is more organised, more rehearsed and with sorted out lyrics, but it is basically a journey into the darker side of “Rock em Dead”.
And where does all this end? In a sense I guess with songs like “Thunder on the mountain” by which time he has become more sombre, more reflective. He has rocked ’em dead. He’s gone to the dark side with the tweedles, and now he looks back at it all. It is Dylan’s journey through rock n roll with his own take on it, each step of the way.
Below is a link to Dylan’s Rock em Dead. It is the only recording I’ve been able to find. If you know of any others, please do provide a link. And of course if you have deciphered the words please do provide a transcript. It would be another first for us as no one else has managed it.
Here’s Warren Smith’s earlier Uranium Rock, for the sake of comparison.
The Discussion Group
We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/
The Chronology Files
There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.
- Dylan songs of the 1960s
- Dylan songs of the 1970s
- Dylan songs of the 1980s
- Dylan songs of the 1990s
- Dylan songs of the 21st century
All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there