by Tony Attwood
Up to 1979 Dylan’s albums were big. Very big. Or to put it another way, very very big. Etc etc. Year after year, album after album, they went Silver, Gold and Platinum in all the major markets from Freewheelin to Slow Train Coming.
And then the endless run of high success stopped. Of course the albums still got the sort of sales that would make mere mortals think they had achieved their lifetime’s fulfilment, but compared with what had gone before, the audience reaction was poor.
Of course during this phase there was an intermediate stage of some success…
- 1980 Saved: The album went Silver in the UK
- 1981: Shot of Love: Again Silver in the UK
- 1983: Infidels: Another Gold album in the USA
But then a further decline with Empire Burlesque (1985), Down in the Groove (1988), and Knocked Out Loaded (1986), all delivering much much poorer sales.
I called my review of Bob’s writing in 1989 “Dylan stalked by the darkness” and I do think that is a fair reflection of what he was writing then. And it is true that Dylan did find his way back once more with Oh Mercy (1989) which went to Gold in the US and UK, but then in 1990 Under a Red Sky got Silver in the UK, but nothing in the US, and so in essence, Bob retaliated by ceasing to write songs.
And yet although the songs of 1990 are not ones remembered as Dylan classics (the children’s emphasis of some of the Red Sky songs did not go down well) it also included the second (third) Wilburys outing, and among the songs one magnificent pop song: Where were you last night.
But clearly Bob had had enough, and so he simply stopped writing.
Thus whereas the tours in the past had been a part of the whole process of composition, with new songs being tried out on stage in the afternoon rehearsal as the sound levels were checked, and gradually worked on in hotel rooms, now even these new pieces ceased to emerge.
The albums however were still being produced. In 1991 we had the first three official Bootleg CDs as a box set, and 1992 there was the confirmation that Bob really was not writing any more with “Good as I’ve been to you”, while in 1993 he followed this up with “World Gone Wrong”. Nothing wrong with either album, except that they were not full of songs written by Bob Dylan.
Meanwhile Bob was touring, touring and touring, although from as early as April 1992 there were signs of strain, when he twice found himself unable to complete the singing of “Desolation Row”. I am not a diarist and so don’t have any notes, but I do recall that the shows I saw during this period sometimes left me… well, underwhelmed is about the best I can say.
And as a composer, Dylan had absolute full-blown writer’s block. It had happened to him before where he had struggled to compose new songs – although he always came back with a bang in the end. This time it seems he didn’t even struggle – he just gave up the notion of writing anything new.
By 1994 the tour contained little that was new, although the band performed what I think was the all-time record of 104 shows in the course of the year. He did then take it a bit more slowly – in 1996 for example it was 86 shows, and at some stage around this time he started writing again.
In the latter part of 1996 Bob was back in the recording studios and “Time Out of Mind” was released in 1997. In May that year Bob was admitted to hospital mid-tour with chest pains. As he expressed it a little later, he was starting to think he was soon going to meet Elvis. He really had toured a venue too far.
We have four co-compositions that are listed in some sources as being from 1995:
but I retain my view that these all originate from sketches and lyrics from years earlier. Either way, with the exception of the first of these, I am not sure that they add too much to the world’s collection of songs.
But Bob did come back. Time Out of Mind went Platinum in the US and Gold in the UK. Bob had started writing again, although, as it turned out, the most stunning, amazing, brilliant song that he had recorded in September 1996 was left off the album and we wouldn’t get to hear Mississippi for a while. But still, we had a new album. And Bob had survived a pretty nasty health scare. Maybe he’d get back to his best….
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order at the foot of the home page and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
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, is starting to link back to our reviews.