Absolute exclusive: Empire Burlesque and Biograph art work

      by Patrick Roefflaer

Empire Burlesque

  • Released                        June 10, 1985
  • Photographer                 Ken Regan
  • Drawing                         Bob Dylan
  • Art-director                    Nick Egan

The photographs

In the second half of 1984, Bruce Springsteen scores hit after hit with dance remixes of songs from of his album Born in The USA. All these mixes are the work of Arthur Baker.

Bob Dylan would also like a few hit singles, so he contacts the hip-hop producer and gives him free rein with the recordings for his next album. The message is concise, but clear: “I want to sell a lot of records!”

The packaging must also be fashionable: for the cover photo, he puts on a grey-white yuppie cardigan, complete with shoulder pads. The collar of the shirt neatly over the lapel and the sleeves rolled up à la Michael Jackson … Our hero looks like he’s ready for a supporting role in the popular Eighties series Miami Vice.

Ken Regan, Dylan’s official tour photographer since the days of the Rolling Thunder Revue, does the job in a photo studio. It paints a completely different picture of the singer than the photographs that Regan delivered for the covers of Desire and Hard Rain.

The mystery girl on the back

On the back of the album cover is another portrait of Dylan. This time he is wearing a straw hat, a black leather vest and an open shirt with a print motif. And he is in nice company. It is striking that the face of the exotic-looking young lady is half-hidden behind the frame.

There has been much speculation about her identity. Would she be Bob’s girlfriend? Or one of his singers? When he’s asked about it, Bob Dylan vaguely answered that she “happened to be next to him at a party”.

In January 2010, a Nicola Menicacci on the expectingrain.com forum claims to know the girl: “She is an Italian girl from Rome of Lybian Jewish origins.”

“You can see pictures of Bob with her family in the Biograph booklet”, he adds. You can find it at page 25. There the girl is sitting next to Dylan. He wears the same clothing as on the cover photo. Nicola adds that the photo was taken “in her cousin’s house during the 1984 tour.”

“I haven’t been authorized to disclose her name. But she does not belong to the star system. She actually comes from a trader and antique dealer’s family. She ran into Bob on the street close to the Roman railway station.”

Dylan played three concerts at Palazzo dello Sport in Rome, from 19 to 21 June 1984. Ken Regan was present as the official tour photographer. So the story could be true.

Incidentally, there is a nice anecdote about the shirt that Dylan is wearing on these photos. Ian McLagan, who played keyboards during this 1984 Europe Tour, tells it in his book All The Rage (1998).

“’Hey, I like your shirt.’ He [Dylan] was pointing at me. This was my chance to show solidarity with my hero. ‘Would you like it? It’s yours,’ I said, unbuttoning it and handing it to him. […] Bob never wore my shirt again after that night in Verona, but for some reason he kept it with him, and carried it over his shoulder every day as he walked to the bus and to the plane. […] It was odd, but the following year I saw a photograph of him wearing it on the back cover of his next album, Empire Burlesque.”

The design

In 1978, Londoner Nick Egan is a singer with the punk band The Tea Set. As a student graphic design at the College of Art and Design in Watford, he creates the covers of their singles. The manager of The Clash likes his work and asks for a few covers for the band’s singles ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘Tommy Gun’.

Egan’s first album cover is for Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, Dexys Midnight Runners debut.

A chance encounter with Malcolm McLaren leads to designs for the new group he is managing: Bow Wow Wow. The famous parody on Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbre, with a then 14-year-old Annabella Lwin posing nude, is a scandal success.

Via Malcolm’s girlfriend Viviane Westwood Egan rolls into the world of fashion.  Around 1984, he moves to New York to try to make it there.

His first major assignment is for Bob Dylan: Empire Burlesque.

His most striking contributions are a grey border around the front and back cover photographs.

 

On the front, the border is embellished with a blue and a yellow circle containing a star, plus a blue spot on the left, as a counterweight to the title on the right, executed in a font with computer-like dots.

On the dust sleeve of the vinyl album, Dylan is again showing off his Eighties jacket. On the other side, the song’s lyrics are printed, supplemented with a black-and-white portrait of a smiling young lady with closed eyes. Dylan made the drawing.

Because I thought it was remarkable that Egan, so short after his arrival in the States, received an order for such an important customer, I contacted him to asked how this happened. His answer is so fascinating that I present it in its entirety here.

From Empire Burlesque to Biograph

“Dylan had been interested in working with Malcolm McLaren, the man who helped orchestrate the British Punk scene in 1976. Which made perfect sense,  to me at least.

Dylan had a genuine punk attitude, in fact I think he is, in many ways,  the Godfather of punk. From the beginning he didn’t give a shit about what people thought, going electric at the 1964  Newport Folk Festival for example, is total punk.

Dylan’s 1964 performance were accompanied by criticisms of Dylan’s antics and dismissive nature;

‘Dylan made a spontaneous decision on the Saturday that he would challenge the Festival by performing with a fully amplified band.’

‘His attitude was, “Well, fuck them if they think they can keep electricity  out of here, I’ll  do it”

Just like Punk, later on, he didn’t care about petty rules, he wasn’t a singer.  In fact I believe, in the beginning, record labels considered him as only a songwriter, they wanted him to write songs for other artists. He created a very unique ‘non-singer’ vocal sound just like Punk did, immediately breaking down everything before him. I  think he saw Malcolm as being cut from the same cloth, both were Jewish, both questioned the status quo, both were creative geniuses. I always think it’s a mistake to lump Dylan in with anything else that happened in the 60’s, the only similarity was, he was there, but he was forging his own path,

He wanted Malcolm to make a music video for one of the tracks off ‘Empire Burlesque’, something Malcolm was not the least bit interested in doing.  Malcolm had asked me to check it out while I was in New York working on the album cover for his first solo record ‘Duck Rock’ and report back with my thoughts.

So I met with Jeff Rosen who ran Davasee Entertainment, Dylan’s publishing company. Now Jeff is a truly fantastic human being and really was the only person Dylan trusted to speak on his behalf. Jeff was an amiable, no bullshit, guy and without him, I wouldn’t have got as close to Dylan as I did. After the initial contact, Malcolm told me to pass, on his behalf, on the video idea.

This is something that rarely happens to Dylan, being turned down, I could feel their surprise. So when I offered to do the album cover if they needed it, their answer was  “yes!”.  They saw my close creative relationship with Malcolm and how he obviously trusted me to get on with the ‘Duck Rock’ album cover while he was in London.

Trust is a big thing with Dylan,  he kept a close-knit collection of people around him, who could vet any outsiders as well as hold CBS at bay, without Dylan ever having much to do with them, just like Malcolm. It always blew my mind when I was up at CBS, when these seasoned veterans of the record industry, who had dealt with every major artist on the planet, would be in awe that I worked directly with Bob himself, asking me what he was like and did he remember them from one meeting five years earlier.

In fact, the reason I felt so comfortable around him was, he reminded me of a really good friend of mine, photographer, Bob Gruen, who was from the same generation. Bob was always really laid back, rarely got angry and was always really appreciative of anything you did for him, plus his name was also Bob.

When I look back on it, I really was quite privileged to have such an icon of popular culture interested in my ideas and opinions. He found, in me, a connection into a new generation.

One surreal moment happened when my phone rang at 3:00am, my girlfriend at the time answered it ready to have a go at whoever was calling at such a late hour. I guess the caller asked if I was there and when she said “yes, who is it?”, he said “Bob Dylan” I think she thought it was a prank call, as I did when she told me.   I could  hear this distant voice say “hi Nick, it’s Bob” and I recognized the voice immediately, trying to comprehend that Bob Dylan was calling me from Moscow at 3:00 am  New York time, just to chat.

It was those off the cuff and unconventional moments I had with Bob that, I now look back on, as being part of his character the one that makes him Bob Dylan.  I experienced quite a few of that ‘genius at work’ moments in the time I worked with him.

From a marketing point of view he must have been a nightmare, he wasn’t interested in having a dialogue with anyone at the label and I think the idea of doing interviews were painful to him.

That whole promotional aspect was something that he knew was important, but it wasn’t something he wanted to spend a lot of time over.  I think the birth of MTV had made him reconsider his approach a little more, hence the reason he contacted Malcolm McLaren, when a lot of people didn’t know who Malcolm was. Dylan was in touch and knowledgeable but again, I think the process was what bothered him the most.

After I had agreed on working on the ‘Empire Burlesque’ album cover I was actually quite shocked about the photo. I had moved into being an  Art Director as opposed to being just a designer, for this very reason. I wanted to begin the creativity from scratch and that meant choosing and working with a photographer who I thought would get the best look for a concept. I was tired of dressing up bad publicity photos into album covers but I made an exception in this case.

I had no involvement whatsoever in the photoshoot or even the selection of what photo to use and if it was up to me I would never have used it. No disrespect to Ken Regan, who is a very good photographer, it just wasn’t a front cover for me. The back cover photo was even stranger, the photo was some kind of snapshot by a friend, I think. I was specifically told to cut half of the girls face out of the photo, not all of it, just half.

I think a lot of great artists like to push boundaries to see how far they can get, almost daring someone to question it – ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ philosophy, which made it all the more interesting for me, a kind of creative subversion. So that’s why I framed it with those illustrative kitsch burlesque style sketches but just to keep people guessing I added the Matisse cut-outs which are artistic, hoping to get visually, what Bob was subversively saying.

Q: So, I guess it was your punk attitude that attracted him. Perhaps to counter-balance the slick photograph he wanted to use with the Miami Vice style jacket?

This is the interesting thing about a lot of artists, although the whole process is something many are not interested in when it comes to the final approval that’s something they nearly always obsess about. The minutia, the things you wouldn’t think they would care about, How big the type is, the colour of the type, placement of the album title, how big and where the production credits go.

Ironically those are the things I care least about, if there were no credits or lyrics at all, I’d be happy, but that’s where all the problems always occur. I’ve wasted more valuable time discussing whether the producer’s name should be bold and bigger than the engineers name and where the publishing and copyright lines go than I ever have about what photo to put on the cover.

I remember being called by Jeff Kramer (part of Dylan’s management team) to meet Bob and show him the finalized ideas for ‘Empire Burlesque’ at the Power Station Recording Studio, in New York,  before we went to print.

I casually made my way across the City, not able to find a cab, I ended up walking about 40 blocks from my apartment to the studio. I arrived about 30 mins late and when I got to lobby the `receptionist looked at me and said “they’ve been waiting for you for ages”  We didn’t have cell phones then so there was no way I could let them know I was going to be late and besides, I’d been in studio’s with dozens of bands all over the world and never remember it ever being a big deal, whatever time you arrived.

Generally, bands back then worked all night and I would show up sometime during the evening and even then I’d still have to wait around for two hours while someone was recording a vocal. Studios are like Las Vegas casinos, you have no sense of time as there are no windows and people could be drinking vodka at 6am like it was 6pm.

I was led into one of the studios, as the door opened I saw about 15 people all sitting around the edge of the room, most sitting on the floor, I couldn’t see Bob, but I could see an empty chair in the middle of the room next to the producer, I figured that was Bob’s chair and he must be in a recording booth until I heard his voice coming from in front of the mixing desk saying  “High Nick, take a seat” I realized that everyone had been waiting for me and that the pride of place was this empty chair, which is where I was meant to sit. I noticed a couple of people I recognized, Jan Wenner, editor and founder of Rolling Stone Magazine, Phil Ramone a big rock’n’roll producer, so I figured everyone in the room was some kind of  VIP.

People were obviously intrigued as to who I was but Bob didn’t say a word to anyone. He didn’t introduce me or ask why I was late.  He waited for me to sit down and then the recording engineer pressed play and began playing the ‘Empire Burlesque’ album from start to finish.

I could feel everyone in the room looking at the back of my chair and wondering who the hell I was and why I was so important that they waited for me to arrive before playing the album. To this day I think they still wonder who I was and why I was given the center of attention. I just knew that it made me extremely nervous to the point that I didn’t remember hearing a single note, made more so, by the fact that between each song,   Bob would turn around and look at me for approval, I just nodded each time.  When the playback finished the people in the room were ushered out quickly  Bob apologized for the awkward situation I found myself in and as if nothing had happened, we went through the final artwork.

This was Bob’s way of telling those sitting in that studio that he didn’t care what they thought, I just happened to be a useful prop, to illustrate that he was more interested in what some mysterious character’s opinion was than he was theirs. The fact he knew they wondered who I was, was all part of it and as I said, to this day not one of them is any the wiser. Even though I felt a little uncomfortable about being put on the spot like that, I totally get why he did it. It was another “fuck you!” to the music establishment.

It was pretty soon after finishing the artwork for ‘Empire Burlesque’ that I was invited to a meeting with Jeff Rosen about a special project. CBS were celebrating 20+ years of Dylan on their label by releasing the first Bob Dylan Box Set, ‘Biograph’.  I was to be given access to a collection of photos and unlike ‘Empire Burlesque’, where Bob’s involvement was minimal, ‘Biograph’ was completely different.

This was very important to him, in every aspect from the sequence of the songs, the sleeve notes to the artwork. He and I spent time discussing the songs and their relevance, he really wanted me to capture the essence of his work and he singled out certain songs that were important. He was very clear that the artwork should be ‘art’ and not just a record cover.

My immediate dilemma was how to portray such a huge and important body of work with a definitive cover, Jeff Rosen added that the cover of the booklet,  inside the box was just as important as the box cover. The second I saw the black and white publicity photo from around 1961 I knew that was it, that was the cover, nothing else came close. It had a very Punk Rock quality, his messy hair, the aloof look to the side, the black high collar, it could have been Johnny Thunders, Patti Smith or Mick Jones from The Clash, it was full of rebellion, revolution and attitude. I wanted to take this iconic image and turn it into something contemporary like Andy Warhol had done with Marilyn Monroe.  I was also influenced by Matisse’s  ‘Jazz’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern art and his use of shapes and primary colours. There was also an artist duo from the UK called Gilbert and George who took photographs and turned them into a large colourful stained glass window style, that were backlit which is where the thick outline idea around the photo came from.

I also loved the high contrast minimal white background photos that were in Italian Vogue at the time but I also wanted the photo to be the focus so a red overlay was the best way to catch people’s eyes and a very small almost unnoticeable title at the top. I argued at the time that there would be very few people on the planet who wouldn’t immediately recognize it as Bob Dylan. The challenge also was that people didn’t think it was just his early music so I ghosted two images on the background of Bob from different eras, one with an electric guitar, the other with acoustic.

The cover of the booklet also reflected the American Pop Art scene that started in the 50’s but was starting to become popular at the very same time Dylan was recording his first record. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Hamilton were using photo collage. Dylan fits right into the revolution in American art, more than any other musical artist at the time. So it was fitting that ‘Biograph’ was launched at the Whitney Museum of Art, in November 1985. Images from the artwork were blown up to giant sizes and were hung on the walls of the Whitney Museum. So, I achieved exactly what I set out to do, to make the images in ‘Biograph’  works of art.

Bob and Jeff Rosen were blown away by the packaging and Jeff, later on, presented me with a signed copy ‘Biograph’ as a gift from Bob, it reads

“To Nick Egan, thanks for making this what it is, you’re a star, Bob Dylan”

There have been a few artists who have gone out of their way to show appreciation for what I’ve done for them, but few went to the lengths Dylan did.

Sometime that year I was applying for my Green Card and my lawyer told me I needed to get letters of support from at least three people of exceptional merit and achievement in their field.

I asked Jeff Rosen if Bob might consider writing one of these letters. Jeff wasn’t too optimistic about me getting it, he told me the last time Dylan did this for anyone, it was for John Lennon and he hadn’t done it since, but that he said he would at least ask.

A few days later I get a call from Jeff telling me Bob had agreed and signed the letter.  Unbelievable, to have this incredible artist who had helped define American culture and who will go down as one of the greatest artists of all time had written a letter in support of my immigration, me and John Lennon (the other two people of exceptional merit who also wrote on my behalf were INXS and film Director John Hughes).

The thank-you Bob gave me on ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ was a surprise as I wasn’t involved with that packaging at all.

Naming Empire Burlesque

In their book Bob Dylan: All the Songs – the Story Behind Every Track, Phillippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon suggest that the title “possibly refers to America, which became a superpower in an increasingly ridiculous world.”

On the English Wikipedia page you can find a completely different opinion: “The title of the album, Empire Burlesque, probably refers to a theatre in Newark, NJ, where strippers and comedians entertained[…]. If Dylan was inspired, it remains to be discovered. It might have been a stop on his way to visit Woody Guthrie in Greystone Park.”

But… it is impossible that young Dylan would have taken a look there, while passing in January 1961. The theatre closed its doors on February 14, 1957 and in July 1958 the building was demolished. When Dylan took the bus to New Jersey to visit Woody, he would have seen only a parking place on the spot, designed for customers of the shopping centre.


What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 594 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, links back to our reviews

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2 Responses to Absolute exclusive: Empire Burlesque and Biograph art work

  1. jas says:

    Thank you for this very interesting article with the rare informations and photos around two Bob Dylan´s albums. It is great have the possibility to can to read these stories. Thanks for it!

  2. Sue Hay says:

    2 13 2020
    The mermaid held a string of 26 reasons
    Roped
    In neck and lace
    Scissor and glue

    9 7 2014
    Shells and Pearls
    Underneath
    The iridescent sails
    In the mirage
    Of the harbor
    Unlike any other gem
    A dream has come in
    To reveal the shimmering loveliness

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