Mercy Revisited

The 1980s were frankly a rubbish time to become a Bob Dylan fan. Having first got into him just before the decade ticked over, I remember the excitement of getting ‘Street Legal,’ his 1978 album, and playing it for the first time. OK, so it wasn’t his mid-Sixties peak, but it was pretty good all the same, with lots of mysterious tarot card based lyrics for my 17-year-old self to decode.

(Interesting cover of ‘Senor’ from ‘Street Legal)

Then he started writing about God. Nothing wrong with that, and he had Mark Knopfler on guitar on some of these albums, but it was confusing as I’d pretty much decided he was at least some sort of minor deity, and here he was writing about Them in the third person. Plus there was that whole born-again connection to Reagan and all those right wing types.

After he stopped banging on about religion so much, around the middle of the decade, he proceeded to produce  – and I use the word produce in its loosest possible sense – a series of, by his standards, crap albums. Sure, there were some good songs – although some of them, like ‘Blind Willie McTell’ weren’t to surface till later – but still.

Then Bono took him in hand, and introduced him to Danny Lanois.

As Dylan tells it in a chapter of ‘Chronicles, Volume One,’ he was at a low ebb. Off the back of a tour with Tom Petty (I saw him on that tour and thought he was brilliant, but what did I know) he did some gigs with the Grateful Dead. Although he doesn’t mention it in his book, he reportedly asked to join the Dead, they voted on it, and knocked him back. I mean, how low can you go? Then he injures his hand, is laid up, and out of the blue starts writing some songs, putting them in a drawer and forgetting about them – so he says.

Here’s an interesting acoustic cover of the song that kicked it all off, ‘Political World’

Just as he’s contemplating retiring who should turn up at his door with a crate of Guinness but the diminutive U2 lead singer who, off the back of the Lanois and Eno-produced success of ‘The Joshua Tree,’ puts Bob in touch with Danny and sets in train what becomes the recording of ‘Oh Mercy.’

The story of the album’s difficult birth, the struggles between artist and producer, all set in the hot spiritual-soup atmosphere of New Orleans, is told at some length in Dylan’s chapter. The record received positive reviews, although, as Dylan notes wryly, reviews don’t sell records. However, it has always remained one of my favourite, and most-played, Dylan albums; and the existence of all this material around the making of it (Lanois has also talked about it in interviews) made me think, what about a show based on the album’s ten songs, but weaving some of that story in?

Cover of one of the songs inspiring Emma, one of the band’s singers.

The easy bit, paradoxically, has been pulling together a merry band of musicians who want to play some Dylan songs. Four or so rehearsals in, things are really starting to take shape, and it’s great fun getting under the bonnet of the material and seeing how we can hotwire it to our own versions (we’re not even going to attempt a faithful replica of Lanois’s swamped-up sound).

The difficult bit, so far, has been the words, and that really non rock n’ roll concept of intellectual property. Whilst we can play the songs in any venue that has a PRS licence, reading out chunks of ‘Chronicles, Volume One’ would not be kosher, IP-wise, even before we get to the issue of editing Dylan’s deathless prose (I mean, all very purple, Bob, but you do go on a bit, with respect!)

However, it looks like we have a solution to that. Working with a skilled writer and long-term Dylan fan, Kevin Crowe, we’re creating a storytelling arc around the songs that reflects their themes, but approaches them from a different direction. I’m really excited about this project – it promises to be a great show, combining some great music and excellent spoken word.

Hold the dial here for further details! Meantime, here’s what Daniel Lanois had to say about producing the Man  from Minnesota.




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