I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One recently, given the continuing non-appearance of Chronicles: Volume Two. As you might expect from the Greatest Living Songwriter, it’s a) brilliant and b) episodic. It starts, reasonably enough, with his arrival in New York as a callow youth, with nothing but ambition and raw talent to his name; the next chapter leapfrogs his mid-Sixties imperial phase and instead focuses on his struggles with celebrity and the need for a quiet life as he writes the songs that will appear one of his late Sixties country albums, New Morning.
The last chapter time-shifts back to New York, with the callow youth this time in sniffing distance of fortune and fame (as all Dylanologists would tell you, you can pick one or the other though neither of them are to be what they claim). Before that final episode, though, Dylan spends the penultimate chapter telling us about events which lead to the making of his 1989 record, Oh Mercy.
It’s 1987 and our hero is in a bad place. Off the back of a long tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, he’s thinking of retiring. His last few albums have not sold well and the critics are on his back. To cap it all, he hurts his hand quite badly. Laid up at home, unable to play the guitar, a bunch of songs come to him unbidden and he writes them down, before shoving them in a drawer.
A little while later, he’s got Bono round to dinner (as you do. Well, as you do if you’re His Bobness). The wee fella’s brought a case of Guinness with him. After dinner, Bob’s wife tells him she’s going to bed. He tells her he’ll be up in a minute and cracks open another Guinness with Bono. At some point, the chat gets round to songwriting, as you might expect, and Bob says to Bono, actually, I’ve got a bunch of new stuff in a drawer, you want to take a look?
Oh, I suppose I might as well, Bono might have said, and Bob goes into the drawerful of songs to pull out the material for what will become Oh Mercy. Bono’s enthusiastic, and says Daniel Lanois would be a great producer for Bob – as well he might, given that Lanois has just co-produced one of U2’s all time best records, The Joshua Tree. After another Guinness they phone Danny up, and vague plans are made.
Soon enough your man finds himself in New Orleans, booked in to record with Lanois. He’s hopeful about the recording sessions, because the city’s one of his favourite places:
‘…I strolled into the dusk. The air was murky and intoxicating. At the corner of the block, a giant, gaunt cat crouched on a concrete ledge. I got up close to it and stopped and the cat didn’t move…
‘My eyes and ears were open, my consciousness fully alive. The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds – the cemeteries – and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sephulcres – palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay – ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who’ve died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time…
‘New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There’s something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or someone crying with their head in their hands…’
Lanois has set up ‘pick up and move’ recording studio in a Victorian house on Soniat Street ‘not far from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 – parlor windows, louvred shutters, high Gothic ceilings…’ Heavy blankets provide the soundproofing.
Now, it is needless to say seventh circle of hell level sacrilege to mention my own poor attempts at making some music and words type combinations that might think of themselves as songs in the same blog, let alone the same breath, as the making of one of Dylan’s later period classics.
However, there is at least one point of similarity between my and The GLS’s recording career: I too have recorded in houses.
The one exception to this, making the Tribute to Venus Carmichael album with Kelly, was at Substation in Rosyth, a very enjoyable experience, with Duncan operating what gave every appearance of an old-fashioned sound desk as I laid down guitar parts in a proper-looking sound-proofed room, or harmonica in the tiny vocal booth. Between times I could loll on a couch in the mixing room itself, when it was Kelly’s turn in the booth. Alison took some good pics at the time, which went into the cover art.
For the most part, however, my recording career has taken place in suburban spare bedrooms – either my own (pictured left, just tidied up) or, in the case of Isaac Brutal, Graham’s in Clermiston, although my parts for the band are often ‘dialled in’ from home these days. That’s the beauty of modern day, digital, recording, of course.
Let’s be honest here. With all due respect, neither my Seventies semi nor Graham’s house, nor even the modern detached place in the sprawling estate on the edge of Dunfermline where Venus did their first EP with a bloke called Kevin, can match a Victorian mansion in deepest New Orleans, with giant, gaunt cats to hand, up the road from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. I mean, imagine the atmosphere in a place like that!
Mind you, back on Soniat Street in 1989, things do not go well initially. Dylan’s to turn up with his songs and nothing else: Lanois has sourced the band and all the equipment. Bob helps himself to a vintage Telecaster he likes the look of and they have a go at ‘Political World’ first. They hammer away at it, but without really wrestling it to the ground in Dylan’s mind.
It’s late. Bob goes back to the house he’s renting nearby with his wife and family, taking a tape of the song so far to work on. By the time he comes back in the morning, Lanois has a funk-inspired version he’s really keen on. Dylan isn’t: apart from anything else, his Telecaster’s been dropped out of the mix altogether (we singer-songwriter types have our ego about that sort of thing, don’t you know).
Things go from bad to worse. Lanois wants to stick to his funk version, but Dylan’s hearing it differently: ‘I didn’t think we were communicating very well and it was beginning to break my bloody heart. At one point things really began to boil. He got so frustrated, he flashed into a rage, swung around, flinging a metallic dobro like it was some kind of toy and smashed it to the floor with furious actions. There was a momentary silence in the room. A young girl, who’d been cataloging tracks and taking notes, stopped grinning and left in tears…’
Well, let me tell you, there’s none of that kind of stuff happening in my current recording session – but then, it is happening in an agreeable corner of Edinburgh. The Lanois to my Dylan in this context is Gerry Callaghan, who I mentioned previously volunteered to record an EP of my songs, ably aided and abetted by our mutual friend Norman Lamont. The sessions are happening in Gerry’s house in Balgreen Road, and there’s where possibly the only similarity between my story and that of his Bobness lies.
Like the house in New Orleans, Gerry’s place is Victorian – very late Victorian, around 1900 I understand. It’s a mid-terrace, high-ceilinged, warren of a place, the kind of house with nooks and corners you could lose yourself for an hour’s reflection in with ease. It has an atmosphere – all old houses do – and Gerry and his family have no doubt contributed to that feeling of warmth and welcome that washes over you when you come in the front door.
More than that, though, there’s a special feeling to it: the man that built the terrace of houses chose this one as his own. Beyond the back garden there’s a mutual area of ground where horses were tethered, back in the day when the local doctor lived here and went on his rounds in a horse and trap. You can practically hear the clip-clop of their hooves in the click track as you play.
In the surrounding area, there are more modern landmarks to hand – Murrayfield Rugby Stadium, for example, and at the end of the street, the former Jenner’s Depository, once used as the store house for Edinburgh’s premium department store, and now available for private furniture storage. But there is still an atmosphere from a bygone age, when Robert Louis Stevenson’s spindly shanks stalked nearby Corstorphine Hill. The route David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart take before parting in Kidknapped is close; John Muir, the Scottish American conservationist, also still passes by in the dead of night. (1)
Back in New Orleans, things improve during a late night session of recording with Rockin’ Dopsie and his Cajun Band. Brought in to give ‘Dignity’ a certain sound, the boys soon find things are far from straighforward at a Dylan/Lanois recording. They’re trying to get ‘Dignity’ down on tape, but it’s just not happening, at least not any better than the instrumentally spare version Dylan recorded with a couple of the regular session men the day before.
By three in the morning, they’ve given up and are jamming old country standards, when Dylan drops in ‘Where Teardrops Fall,’ another of his new songs. Five minutes later, they have the take that Dylan will fight to have as the version on the record, imperfections and all:
‘In the finale of the song, Dopsie’s saxophone player, John Hart, played a sobbing solo that nearly took my breath away. I leaned over and caught a glimpse of the musician’s face. He’d been sitting there all night in the dark and I hadn’t noticed him… [he] was the spitting image of Blind Gary Davis, the singing reverend that I’d known and followed around years before. What was he doing here? Same guy, same cheeks and chin, fedora, dark glasses….It was eerie….like he’d been raised upright and was watching over things, keeping constant vigilance over what was happening. He peered across the room at me in an odd way, like he had the ability to see beyond the moment, like he’d thrown a rope line out to grip. All of a sudden I know that I’m in the right place doing the right thing at the right time and Lanois is the right cat. Felt like I had turned a corner and was seeing the sight of a god’s face.’
The sessions finish. Lanois and Dylan go their separate ways, although they’ll meet up again in ten years’ time to produce another late-period classic, Time Out Of Mind. In the end, Dylan reflects:
‘There’s something magical about this record, though, and you might say that it was in the house or the parlor room or something, but there wasn’t any magic in the house. It’s what Lanois and me and Willie Green and Daryl and Brian Stoltz brought to the place that made it what it was. You live with what life deals you… Sometimes the things you liked the best and that have meant the most to you are the things that meant nothing at all to you when you first heard or saw them. Some of these songs fit into that category.’
And that’s the stone cold truth. I don’t know if the songs I’m recording with Gerry and Norman are going to be all time classics. I’m pretty damn keen on them, and the way they’re turning out. But what matters is what matters when I get together with Kelly, or the Brutal boys and girl: musicians that respect each others’ work, and are prepared to do what they can in service to the songs, whoever wrote them. Last week, Gerry drew a harmonica part out of me on the second take that was as good as I could have done in twenty more.
I can’t wait to see what we can do on Thursday. These sessions are a chicken soup for my soul right now, squeezed as they are between left-brain engaged things, like finishing up my current job and preparing the ground for my future consultancy work. Making music with these guys is inspiring, and although I’m keen to see the end results, I’m not in any hurry to get there.
Or as RLS would say, striding over Corstorphine Hill, it’s the journey: we travel not to go anywhere, but to go. We travel for travel’s sake.
The great affair is to move.
(1) See this post for more info on the two walks you can do in the area