"There's no rule that claims that anyone must write their own songs. And I do. I write a lot of songs. But so what, you know? You could take another song that somebody else has written and you can make it yours. I'm not saying I made a definitive version of anything with this last record, but I liked the songs. Every so often you've gotta sing songs that're out there...Writing is such an isolated thing. You're in such an isolated frame of mind. You have to get into or be in that place. In the old days, I could get to it real quick. I can't get to it like that no more."
Bob Dylan 1988.
"Down In The Groove" was released on May 19th 1988 at a time when Bob Dylan was in serious danger of losing what little musical credibility he had left, and it did little or nothing to reverse that trend. The two studio albums that had been released since 1983's "Infidels" were both poor, and had it not been for 1985's 5LP retrospective "Biograph" this album could have sent him spiralling into obscurity, little did we know at the time that there was worse to come, but more of that later. The recording sessions took place in April and May of 1987, and the fact that CBS took a full twelve months to release the album says much for their faith (or lack thereof) in Dylan, who was turning up in some odd places at that time. In February of that year he jammed with Taj Mahal at LA's Palomino club, a week later at Burt Bacharach's house he duetted with Michael Jackson at Elizabeth Taylor's fifty-fifth birthday party and in March he performed "Soon" at the George Gershwin Celebration Concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The following month he turned up at a U2 concert in Los Angeles and performed two of his classic songs. Seemingly out of touch with musical trends, struggling to find inspiration and apparently seeking solace in alcohol, Dylan was clutching at straws. In July he undertook a six concert stadium tour with the Grateful Dead, a live album of which would be released in 1989, merely adding fuel to the opinion that he was a spent force. While doing nothing to change this perception, "Down In The Groove" does have a couple of reasonable tracks, but on the whole it is pretty dire stuff.
The opening track "Let's Stick Together" does little to inspire confidence in the rest of the album. This is lightweight stuff that has been recorded by numerous people in the past, and although Dylan gives it a decent shot, you cannot shake the feeling that he is just going through the motions. Admirable though the sentiments of "We made a vow, not to leave one another, never" and "...but consider the child/Cannot be happy without his mom and his pappy" are, they are trotted out in such an offhand manner as to make them trite and meaningless. There is a brief spurt of inspiration from Dylan's harmonica, but that is soon over, as thankfully is the song as we are left pondering the sad demise of a once great musical career.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica/ Danny Kortchmar: Guitar/ Steve Jordan: Drums/ Randy Jackson: Bass
"When Did You Leave Heaven?" is a really bad song, and however deserted Dylan felt by his muse, he surely must have been able to come up with something better than this drek. To hear him singing the lines "Why did you trade heaven/For these earthly things?/Where did you hide your halo?/Where did you lose your wings?" as if he is proud of them just beggars belief, at least Madelyn Quebec has the good grace to sound embarrassed. Not Dylan's finest hour, and very possibly the lowest point of the album.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Madelyn Quebec: Vocals, Keyboards/ Stephen Shelton: Drums
"Sally Sue Brown" is the only track to survive from what can only be described as one of the oddest events to occur during the recording of this album. Dylan had approached ex Sex Pistol Steve Jones, a man he had neither met nor even spoken to before, and asked him to put a band together, nobody was more surprised than Jones himself, who duly contacted Paul Simonon (bass player from the Clash). They joined Dylan in a session that Jones describes as "...surreal" and worked their way through a list of songs without really achieving anything. This unremarkable rock song is marginally better than some of the other stuff on the album, but is so far below the quality we expect from Dylan as to be totally forgettable. With its sexist overtones, the song gives us lines like "See her in that very tight skirt/Got what it takes just to make you hurt," enough said.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Steve Jones: Guitar/ Myron Grombacher: Drums: Paul Simonon: Bass/ Kevin Savigar: Keyboards/ Madelyn Quebec: Vocals: Bobby King, Willie Green: Background Vocals
"Death Is Not The End" is the first Dylan composition to appear, and under normal circumstances that would be a cause for celebration, but sadly that is not the case here. The long break between recording and release of the album allowed Dylan to indulge in his favourite eighties pastime of resequencing a finished product. Here he dragged out a song that had been considered inferior in 1983 during the recording of "Infidels" and it was still inferior five years later. Even the talents of Mark Knopfler, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar cannot stop this turgid, boring dirge from falling flat on its face. Two of my least favourite lines from Dylan's impressive body of work surface here, "And all that you've held sacred, falls down and does not mend" and "And all your dreams have vanished and you don't know what's up (sic) the bend" are real barrel bottom scrapers. If the theme of the song is meant to be hope, and if it is supposed to be inspirational and uplifting, then it is a dismal failure. The endless repetition of the chorus line only adds to the monotony, and the only blessing is when the song thankfully grinds to a halt.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica/ Clydie King: Background Vocals: Mark Knopfler: Guitar/ Robbie Shakespeare: Bass Sly Dunbar: Drums/ Alan Clarke: Keyboards
Some positives can be found in "Had A Dream About You, Baby" which is another song that does not come from these sessions. It was recorded for Dylan's 1987 movie "Hearts Of Fire" in London late August 1986, and replaced another song from that movie that was destined for the album, John Hiatt's "The Usual." Backed by old friends Clapton and Wood, Dylan performs this rocker with something approaching enthusiasm, and although the lyrics are a long way from being his best they are superior to many on the album. The image he evokes with "Late last night you come a-rollin' across my mind" are reminiscent of some of Dylan's far better work. To digress for a moment, "Hearts Of Fire," in which Dylan stars with Rupert Everett and Fiona (one of the increasing band of female stars who like to be referred to by only one name) was not a success. It was withdrawn after three weeks in the UK and did not receive cinema release in America, going straight to video. After a brief appearance in Oliver Stone's "The Doors" Fiona's career, like the movie, sank without trace. "Hearts Of Fire" is not as bad as most people would have you believe, it has a certain charm, and Dylan's performance (he doesn't really act, he just portrays himself) can best be described as quirky.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Eric Clapton: Guitar/ Ron Wood: Bass/ Kip Winger: Bass: Beau Hill: Keyboards/ Henry Spinetti: Drums
The mean-spirited "Ugliest Girl In The World" is one of a pair of songs co-written by Dylan and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and competes with "Death Is Not The End" for the dubious title of worst song on the album. This song does Dylan no credit whatsoever, and if there is any humour to be found in this tale of the girl who stammers, snores, has flat feet, wears second hand clothes and has a hook through her nose then it is lost on me.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica/ Danny Kortchmar: Guitar/ Randy Jackson: Bass: Stephen Shelton: Keyboards/ Madelyn Quebec, Carol Dennis: Background Vocals: Steve Jordan: Drums
The fact that "Silvio" turned up on "Greatest Hits Vol. 3" in the company of such classics as "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Brownsville Girl" gives some indication of how much thought goes into preparing these packages. It is the second song on "Down In The Groove" to be co-written by Dylan and Hunter and although it does not deserve to be in such company, it is far better than the previous track. At last Dylan seems to be enjoying himself, the song rocks along with some decent lyrics and the additional vocals by Garcia, Weir and Mydland complete the Grateful Dead connection. Dylan is in philosophical mood here with "Seen better times, but who has not" and "If you don't like it you can leave me alone" and the line "Since every pleasure's got an edge of pain" reminds one of a sentiment expressed in 1997's "Not Dark Yet." Although it does not stand up against his classics, "Silvio" is an obvious favourite with Dylan, having been performed hundreds of times in concert since this release.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Nathan East: Bass/ Mike Baird: Drums/ Madelyn Quebec, Carol Dennis: Additional Vocals/ Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Brent Mydland: Additional Vocals
"Ninety Miles An Hour (Down A Dead End Street)" the tale of an illicit love affair that neither participant can stop has plenty of passion in the vocal. I often feel that this song, recorded by Hank Snow, should work but for some reason it doesn't. Using the analogy of a speeding vehicle to represent the out of control relationship gives us lines like "...suddenly we found that the brakes had gone" and "...a bad motorcycle with a devil in the seat" and all because he just took her home from a party. This is the first of a trio of marginally better songs on the album.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Madelyn Quebec: Vocals, Keyboards/ Willie Green, Bobby King: Background Vocals
I like Dylan's version of "Shenandoah," stripped down to just guitar, harmonica and bass, the vocal works well in conjunction with the understated female chorus. Dylan's hesitant almost whispered delivery is the forerunner of the voice we would hear on the next studio album and the one that we would hear deteriorating over the next few years, but here it works well.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica/ Nathan East: Bass/ Madelyn Quebec, Carol Dennis, Peggi Blu, Alexandra Brown: Background Vocals
Even more stripped down and possibly the finest vocal on the whole album is the final track "Rank Strangers To Me." Dylan has long been a fan of the bluegrass duo the Stanley Brothers, his association with them goes back to "Man Of Constant Sorrow" on his debut album (although not written by them, this song, like that one has strong ties), and their song "I'm The Man, Thomas" often appears in his live shows. "Rank Strangers To Me" is the poignant tale of a man returning to his home, recalling the happiness of his youth, only to find everything changed and no-one recognising him "They knew not my name and I knew not their faces" he sings, and again we find a passion here that is absent from the bulk of the album. As he accepts the inevitability of the changes, he muses to himself "Some beautiful day, I'll meet them in heaven/Where no-one will be a rank stranger to me," a simple song but beautifully performed.
Bob Dylan: Vocals, Guitar/ Larry Klein: Bass
I do not think that anybody could consider "Down In The Groove" worthy of Dylan's undoubted talents. That said, if he had treated the bulk of the album with the enthusiasm evident on the last three tracks, it would certainly have been a better record, but there is too much to suggest that he was just going through the motions. The release of "Dylan And The Dead" the following year, which as I have stated elsewhere in these pages is the worst record in his entire catalogue only served to compound this feeling. Dylan was giving the impression of a man going nowhere and not caring, U2's Bono with whom he had shared stage and studio in 1987 said "He's very hung up on actually being Bob Dylan. He feels he's trapped in his past, and in a way, he is." There were even rumours that Dylan was considering giving up his musical career but had an epiphany on stage in Switzerland and changed his mind. On the positive side, it has to be borne in mind that both "Down In The Groove" and "Dylan And The Dead" although released in 1988 and 1989 respectively, were products of 1987 and by the time of the release of the former he was out of that trough and recording as twenty per cent of the Traveling Wilburys. The release of the first Wilbury's album in late 1988 and the Daniel Lanois produced "Oh Mercy" in 1989 coupled with a well received tour of the USA did much to reinstate Dylan's credibility as a serious artist. Ironically, on January 20th 1988 at a time when his stock was at an all time low, Dylan was inducted into the rock and roll Hall Of Fame, with Bruce Springsteen's famous words "Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body." Sadly though, 1988 will probably remembered for "Down In The Groove" and although not Dylan's shortest album, at thirty-two minutes it's a close run thing and for once that is probably a blessing.