Twenty-five years ago, on or around May 31, 1988, Columbia Records released Bob Dylan’s 25th studio album.*
It appeared during a difficult time in Dylan’s career. Most readers already know the story, but to oversimplify, he apparently lost the plot of his own career in the 1980s. What I will focus on is Dylan’s battle with his own past, or at least my interpretation, and its effect on “Down In The Groove.”
While it is difficult to ever really know what Dylan’s thinking, he appeared to be at an artistic crossroads at the time. When the first rock bootleg, “Great White Wonder,” was released in 1969, Dylan replied with “Self Portrait,” and when Columbia released the box set retrospective “Biograph,” he answered with the mish-mosh of “Knocked Out Loaded.”
After Dylan closed 1985‘s Live Aid with a relevant, unconventional, and misunderstood set, and then starred as a has-been in the critically panned film “Hearts Of Fire,” it was time to rebuild his career. Dylan soon toured the world with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, with a little side trip leading the Grateful Dead through six stadium shows in the summer of 1987.
While Dylan’s mid-1980s output was not his best, despite some optimistic reviews and at least one song from each album played heavily on most FM rock stations, it was clear Dylan was not living up to his potential.
Playing with the Dead must have sparked something in Dylan. Their unconventional style was something to which he could relate: Changing set lists, improvisations, and touring for the hell of it, not necessarily to promote a new album. After all, with someone as idiosyncratic as Dylan, where else could he turn?
“Down In The Groove” went through many changes after being rejected by his record company, which must have come as a shock to someone of Dylan’s stature. Track lists were tweaked, with covers of “The Usual,” “Important Words,” and a rockin’ “Got Love If You Want It,” not making the final cut.
There was some buzz surrounding the album, with hopes that appearances by members of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, among others, might lead to some exciting tracks. Before the album’s release, I remember someone from Sony giving me a promo CD called “Forever Young,” featuring the single “Silvio,” along with a selection of classic Dylan tracks. There was some excitement in the air, and the song itself became a minor hit and a concert staple for many years to come.
The Dead had a major commercial breaktrough around this time with “Touch Of Grey.” “Silvio” featured Dead members Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Brent Mydland on backing vocals, and was recorded just before the joint tour. This was one of two songs on “Down In The Groove” written with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, while the rest of the album featured two Dylan leftovers and six covers.
While not a classic album, “Down In The Groove” showed Dylan still had some life in him. The album had a punk/rootsy feel, and considering what else was out at the time, was still one of the year’s better albums, at least to me.
Dylan was reportedly scheduled to appear on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” around this time. According to Monica’s Dude:
In the spring of 1988, the late night TV show had narrowly avoided cancellation just two years earlier after a period of creative and popular decline; but now the retooled SNL was recovering smartly. Lorne Michaels, by the beginning of March, had mapped out a top-drawer season finale, featuring Gilda Radner as host, making her return to the show after eight years, and Dylan as musical guest.
And then in early March, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. While most of the 1987-88 TV season was unaffected, the scripted-on-the-fly, live or same-day taped series like Tonight and SNL were forced to shut down. The strike, the longest of its kind, dragged on until August.
The appearance was never rescheduled.
That summer, Dylan began his so-called “Never-Ending Tour,” which continues to this day. The show I caught at Great Woods in Mansfield , Massachusetts, was one of the most exciting I’d ever seen him do. It was a stripped down affair with a punk attitude, not unlike his appearance on David Letterman in 1984. The show was short at 80 minutes, but not a moment was wasted.
Sans harmonica, Dylan came out with all six-strings a-blazing, miming guitar solos in front of G.E. Smith, who played behind him with letter-perfect lines. The set began with songs I never even hoped I’d ever hear Dylan perform, namely a high speed “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and an electric “Pretty Peggy-O.” Next up was a trifle from “Down In The Groove” and “Hearts Of Fire,” “Had A Dream About You, Baby,” played with the same intensity and passioned vocals as the others. According to His Bobness, “Had A Dream” has only been played live four times. The song was suddenly cooler, at least in my book.
The rest of the show was full of classics, with a set-up not unlike the track list from “Before The Flood,” a short acoustic set played between the electric ones. For the penultimate song of the main set, Dylan performed his new hit, “Silvio.” The arrangement was already changed from the studio version, with the repetitive riff replaced by a hammered one, not unlike the arrangement found in the Miracles‘ “Going To A Go-Go.”
Thus, Dylan again rose from the ashes in 1988. Soon would come the Traveling Wilburys and “Oh Mercy,” and the decade would end on a high note.
Only six songs from the album have ever been played live, with four performed ten times or less, “Rank Stangers to Me” 26 times, and “Silvio” nearly 600. After a few years, the song had fallen out of favor, only to return in 1995. Jerry Garcia died later that year, and the song became a staple through 1999, interpreted by many as an ongoing tribute to his departed friend.
*Searching For A Gem lists the release date as May 19. It is Dylan’s 25th album if you include 1973’s “Dylan” and 1975’s “The Basement Tapes”.
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