By Tony Attwood
Steel Bars is a song that Bob Dylan wrote with Michael Bolton for his Time, Love & Tenderness album.
Commenting very briefly on this song Heylin makes two points. One was that Dylan was at a very low point in his writing career when this song was created, and he suspects that the managements of Dylan and of Michael Bolton and Bob Dylan put the two men together.
The second point is made by citing the old comment, “No one ever lost money by underestimating the tastes of the public.” I think that is a cheap jibe, but still, there are reasons to think this is a song to listen to and then set aside.
Heylin does condescend however to suggesting that four lines from the song are recognisable as Dylan writing on cruise control.
I'm bound forever, till the end of time Steel bars wrapped around this heart of mine Trying hard to recognise See the face behind the eyes.
The prime source for what happened in the creation of this song is Boulton’s own commentary, part of which comes from the Rolling Stone article Bob Dylan’s greatest collaborations
‘Many were shocked when they saw the liner notes to Michael Bolton’s 1991 hit album Time, Love and Tenderness and saw that the final track was co-written with Bob Dylan. “Someone who works with Dylan called me up and said, ‘Bob Dylan would like to write with you,’ ” Bolton said. “I was awed. I told him, ‘I don’t even know how I could write a lyric when working with you … I’m too intimidated.’ But then we started messing around with some chords and wrote ‘Steel Bars,’ a song about obsession. It took us two sessions to write, and when I left, I was told, ‘Bob likes you and he wants you to come back.’ “
The video below has a brief extract from a live performance and then after a re-load pause runs the record
Incidentally, and for clarity, this is absolutely not the same song as Stone Walls and Steel Bars which Dylan has performed some 30 odd times on stage – and which is an arrangement of a traditional song. I just wanted to make that clear, as I have read one commentary that seems to get the two songs mixed up.
The ever excellent Dylan chords site says of this song
‘These definitely are classic “Dylan Lyrics” (shows his well hadn’t run dry), I knew it when I heard it, that it was Dylan. I wonder though, if the melody and the chords are all his, I sure hope so. Great song. Nice key change too. Lyrics can be found at bobdylan.com.’
An article in courant.com says, “Before he became famous for his soul-choked voice, Michael Bolton made his living as a hit songwriter, having considerable success collaborating with other hit writers such as Dianne Warren and Desmond Child, and producing hits for everyone from Kiss to Cher.”
The article continues “Nowadays the New Haven-born artist, who will be celebrated Thursday in a gala homecoming show at the Hartford Civic Center, tends to keep his best songs for himself.”
Bolton himself reports that, “While working in Los Angeles, he said, “I got a phone call from a woman named Suzanne Mann, who works with Bob. She said Bob was going to be in town for a few weeks and would I like to write with him? I said, `Are you serious?'” `Yeah, it’s serious. He’d like to work with you and if you want to work with him you’ll have to come up here [in Malibu]. He’s working with a few contemporary songwriters now. But they come and work up here. Bob doesn’t come down [to L.A.] and work other places.’
“I have a little porta-studio I work on,” Bolton went on. “So I wasn’t about to say, `Well if he can’t come down here . . .’ “I actually would have hitchhiked over there!”
Two days later he was on his way to Malibu, and the gravity of the situation began to weigh on him. “I got nervous thinking about … you know, Bob Dylan! Maybe she meant a different Bob Dylan. The legend. Who wrote all the lyrics, who made me wonder how anybody could put words like that together.
“And I became a little intimidated. And I thought: `How am I going to work with this guy? What if I don’t like one of his lyrics? What if I don’t like an idea he comes up with? What am I going to say? `No Bob, that’s not good enough?’ I didn’t know how I was going to write with him.”
His fears subsided soon after he pulled into Dylan’s Malibu compound. “We just hit it off right away, talking about mutual life experiences and laughing about it and just trying to cut through the ice.”
Bolton brought along a musical idea he had started at the time, which was then only a melody. It was something, Bolton said, “that I thought would be compatible with his musical sensibility….
“I started looking for verses and he started shouting out: `How about, `Turn around, you’re in my sleep’? “I almost started laughing, because it was so Dylan.”
Later he added, “With Bob we worked at two sessions, the first one about five hours long. And the second one, we worked about four hours.”
For the final tweaks to the song they faxed each other back and forth and suggests the line “Time itself is so obscene,” is one that Bob sent back in this way.
What makes the song particularly unusual is the chord sequence and the key changes – this is nothing like I have ever Bob Dylan ever do in song – which suggests Bob was limited to the lyrics.
The song starts in…. well not in a a key at all. B flat as the opening chord and moves to Dsus4 – a chord that doesn’t exist within B flat. That’s not to say you can’t use it but it mean we don’t know where we are. The B flat becomes Bb9 and the alternation continues.
Then suddenly with the “I’ve tried running” section we are alternating Em and C, then Am C7 and D – all of which suggests we are in the key of G – without once having had the chord G played. It certainly is unusual, and the reason it works is because the melody means these changes don’t feel forced. They are certainly unusual and would make a musician think twice and then think again, but it works. But it is not a song like a 12 bar blues where musicians could simply hear the start and then have a very good idea where it goes.
The chorus then clearly is in G and the middle 8 stays very much in that key. But then having just got used to this as a verse in, well, no key at all really, suddenly it jumps up a semi-tone to A flat for the final verse. Generally such a sudden shift without any musical need for it sounds very forced and is really just a way of extending a song by making the final chorus sound different – and when added to the unaccompanied verse before this chord jump it does begin to feel more like a production rather than a song. It works ok on first or second hearing, but then, hmmm… for me at least it all sounds a bit forced and seriously reduces the impact of the song.
Added to this the singer (for me) is straining too hard on singing “Steel bars” – there really is too much production, too much forced pain, too much, “I’m hurting now – listen I am even singing it a semi-tone higher.
Here are the lyrics…
In the night I hear you speak
Turn around, you’re in my sleep
Feel your hands inside your soul
You’re holding on and won’t let go
I’ve tried running but there’s no escape
Can’t bend them, and (I know) I just can’t break these…
(Chorus) Steel bars, wrapped all around me
I’ve been your prisoner since the day you found me
I’m bound forever, till the end of time
Steel bars wrapped around this heart of mine
Trying hard to recognize
See the face behind the eyes
Feel your haunting ways like chains
‘Round my heart they still remain
I’m still running, but there’s nowhere to hide
My love for you has got me locked up inside these…
And with every step I take
Every desperate move I make
It’s clear to me
What can all my living mean
When time itself is so obscene
When time itself don’t mean a thing
I’m still loving you
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