"I don't know what people think of me. I only know what the record companies say...and managers and people like that - people who want you to do things...I only hear about that stuff." Bob Dylan 1986
"If the records I'm making only sell a certain amount anyway, then why should I take so long putting them together?" Bob Dylan 1986
"Knocked Out Loaded" (released July 14th 1986) is considered by many as the Bob Dylan album with one excellent track surrounded by some pretty mediocre stuff, but there is more to it than that. Columbia needed an album to supplement the US leg of the tour that Dylan was currently on with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but his creative juices had been running dry, and "Empire Burlesque" his previous studio album had used up just about all of his available material. As a result of this, Dylan was forced to use the time between the Australasian and American legs of the tour reworking, rewriting and overdubbing material that had been previously rejected, and padding it out with cover versions and songs co-written with other people. The results were to say the least, mixed. The album suffers from over thinking, but although it lacks cohesion, Rolling Stone called it a "...conceptual mess" it has a certain warmth and charm that is lacking in some of Dylan's other eighties offerings. Also on the up side is the fact that he is in good voice, and his singing is relaxed and he seems to be enjoying himself with the undemanding material. Of course, the album is short, with one track, the classic "Brownsville Girl" taking up nearly a third of the running time, but on balance, "Knocked Out Loaded" (title and cover aside) is really not that bad.
The album opens with Junior Parker's "You Wanna Ramble," one of only three tracks that came out of the April/May sessions at the Skyline studio in Topanga canyon, California. Dylan had gone there initially to record the whole album quickly, and it appears that a lot of material was recorded but discarded, "There was enough stuff cut...to put out a great album" recalls Al Kooper "but I don't think we'll ever hear 'em..." a view that is supported by Mikal Gilmore, a journalist who was present at many of the sessions as part of an article he was writing for Rolling Stone. Sadly, only this track, Kris Kristofferson's "They Killed Him" and the traditional "Precious Memories" remain, but if Dylan was intent on recording covers, he should perhaps have chosen some with a little more substance. Without wishing to denigrate Parker in any way (he died of a brain tumour in 1971), the repeated "You wanna ramble/To the break of dawn" along with the nebulous subject matter were never going to make this a classic.
Bob Dylan: Guitar/ T. Bone Burnett: Guitar/ James Jamerson jr: Bass/ Al Kooper: Keyboards/ Raymond Lee Pounds: Drums/ Carol Dennis, Madelyn Quebec, Muffy Hendrix, Annette May Thomas: Background Vocals.
As mentioned above, Kris Kristofferson wrote "They Killed Him" and generously gave it to Dylan. It is probably the worst track on the album, (although Kristofferson's version is marginally better). Mawkish and melodramatic, the theme is hackneyed and the lyrics banal, and it is difficult to decide whether the addition of the children's choir improves the song or makes it even worse. Lumping together two modern day victims of assassination and then adding Jesus into the mix for the purposes of a song implies desperation, and to use a line like "He knew the deal was down and dirty" when describing someone as historically significant as Gandhi seems somehow disrespectful.
Bob Dylan: Guitar/ Jack Sherman: Guitar/ Vito San Filippo: Bass/ Raymond Lee Pounds: Drums/ Al Kooper: Keyboards/ Steve Douglas: Saxophone/ Steve Madaio: Trumpet/ Carol Dennis, Madelyn Quebec, Muffy Hendrix, Annette May Thomas: Background Vocals/ Damien Turnbough, Majason Bracy, Keysha Gwin, Crystal Pounds, Lara Firestone, Tiffany Wright, Chyna Wright, Angel Newell, Larry Mayhand, April Hendrix-Haberlin, Dewey B. Jones 11, Medena Smith, Daina Smith, Maia Smith: The Children's Choir.
"Driftin' Too Far From Shore" is an original Dylan composition that was left over from the early (Delta) sessions of "Empire Burlesque" and overdubbed in May 1986. It has definite echoes of that album, to the extent that it sounds like a poor relation of "Tight Connection To My Heart" which may be a little unfair, because it does stand on its own. Dylan uses a lot of metaphors here, like "...cat and mouse" and "...bottom of the barrel," and then we get the seemingly odd couplet "No gentleman likes making love to a servant/Especially when he's in his father's house" until you remember the pedigree of this song, and that we are back in the realms of movie dialogue (those lines are a paraphrase from the original version of the movie Sabrina). The song is full of lyrical quirks, none more so than the distinctly Dylanesque "I waited years sometimes for what I wanted/Everybody can't be as lucky as you." One of the album's brighter moments in one of its better songs.
Bob Dylan: Keyboards/ Ron Wood: Guitar/ Anton Fig: Drums/ John Paris: Bass/ Peggy Blu, Annette May Thomas, Madelyn Quebec, Carol Dennis, Muffy Hendrix: Background Vocals.
The first thing that surprises you about "Precious Memories" is the steel band and although to some the reggae beat grates, it adds a fresh sound to the song, particularly with Dylan's great vocal. A plain and uncomplicated song, simple and peaceful lyrics like "Precious father, loving mother" and "...old home scenes of my childhood/In fond memory appears" must have appealed to Dylan. It has to be said though that including lightweight material like this, as pleasant as the song is, would do Dylan's rapidly diminishing reputation and seriously dwindling fan base no favours whatsoever.
Bob Dylan: Guitar/ Raymond Lee Pounds: Drums/ James Jamerson jr: Bass/ Larry Myers: Mandolin/ Al Perkins: Steel Guitar/ Milton Gabriel, Mike Berment, Brian Parris: Steel Drums/ Queen Esther Marrow, Carol Dennis, Madelyn Quebec, Muffy Hendrix, Annette May Thomas: Background Vocals.
"Maybe Someday" is another song that was left over from the "Empire Burlesque" days, but from the later (Cherokee) sessions. It was rewritten for inclusion on this album, and although we don't know the extent of the rewrite, it seems to have borne fruit. Perhaps Dylan's muse had not deserted him after all, or maybe he was just not able to write from scratch, but there are similarities between the presentation of this and the later "Brownsville Girl." The theme of the song is betrayal, a familiar one with Dylan, and here we find a lot of bitterness and finger pointing "Maybe you'll beg me to take you back," "Maybe someday when you're by yourself alone" and "Maybe someday you'll have nowhere to turn/You'll look back and wonder 'bout the bridges you have burned" all have an air of self righteousness about them, but perhaps the most telling and transparent is "...you'll see you look much better with me than you do with him" but of course in such situations, none of these will ever happen. But this song really works, even when he throws in a reference to the ultimate betrayal "Thirty pieces of silver..." or alludes to his own frailties "Always was a sucker for the right cross/Never wanted to go home 'til the last cent was lost," there is no doubting what is at the core. A fine song this, but it is sadly overlooked because of the negative reputation that this album has acquired.
Bob Dylan : Guitar/ Mike Campbell: Guitar/ Howie Epstein: Bass/ Don Heffington: Drums/ Steve Douglas: Saxophone/ Steve Madaio: Trumpet/ Annette May Thomas, Carol Dennis, Madelyn Quebec, Elisecia Wright, Queen Esther Marrow, Peggi Blu: Background Vocals.
That reputation would be more deserving were it not for the wonderful "Brownsville Girl," which is for me one of the best songs that Dylan has ever written (or co-written) and performed. Collaboration has never been one of Dylan's strong points, even the others on this album smack of less than 50/50 input, but his writing here with Sam Shepard is superb. Every time I hear that opening line "Well, there was this movie I seen one time" I am amazed at how he uses such a simple premise to achieve so broad a canvas. The song is of course based on (or more correctly inspired by) the 1950 Gregory Peck movie The Gunfighter and although the film is never mentioned, Peck is several times. One could easily draw a parallel between Dylan and the eponymous character and how celebrity status or notoriety have made normal life virtually impossible, but he goes much further than that, "I'm not good at defining things" he said in 2004 "Even if I could tell you what the song was about I wouldn't. It's up to the listener to figure out what it means to him" and those words could well have been spoken about this song.
His use of language here is most impressive, the mix of established western imagery like " "...string him up by the neck" and "...I didn't feel like letting my head get blown off" blend seamlessly with the more contemporary "You know I can't believe we've lived so long and are still so far apart" and "...your busted down Ford and your platform heels," and he almost speaks the words in what is more of an elegy than a song. If I have one criticism of this piece, it is the rather contrived introduction into the third section with the line "Well, they were looking for somebody with a pompadour" and the way that Dylan says the word pompadour, as if he can't really believe he's saying it, but this is a minor complaint in the midst of all this richness. Anyway, before we get there we can enjoy the wonderfully resonant images that he conjures up with lines like "Well, we're drivin' this car and the sun is coming up over the Rockies/Now I know that she ain't you but she's here and she's got that dark rhythm in her soul" and the verbal exchange with Ruby "We're going all the way 'til the wheels fall off and burn/'Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies" to which the mysterious lady replies "Ah, you know some babies never learn."
This third section does produce some of the most enduring personal observations, after the brief courtroom scene where Dylan tips his hat to his alibi provider with the wonderfully concise "It was the best acting I saw anybody do" we get the thoughtful "Now I've always been the kind of person that doesn't like to trespass but sometimes you just find yourself over the line" which is followed by the extremely pertinent "Oh if there's an original thought out there, I could use it right now" These observations continue into the fourth section, which opens with the delightfully obtuse "You know, it's funny how things never turn out the way you had 'em planned/The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn't Henry Porter" which is followed by Dylan's take on the value of hardship "Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content" and the personal comment, "I don't have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I'm gone." This is followed by what is perhaps the truest reflection in the whole song, "...people don't do what they believe in, they just do what's most convenient, then they repent" as the "you/she" character describes how meaningless the word sorry is, an observation that Dylan neatly sidesteps with "Hang on to me baby, and lets hope that the roof stays on." The narrative comes full circle as he ends the song the same way he started it, with a reference to the movie, and the almost shamefaced "...I think I sat through it twice" and he reflects on a more innocent time "...a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down" when "stars" were idols rather than fodder for the tabloid press.
Like "Maybe Someday" this song originated at the 1984 Cherokee sessions where it was known as "New Danville Girl" but it was retitled and rewritten (much of it in the studio) for this album. The reworking of the song was obviously done without Sam Shepard's input, and some of the changes are quite interesting, "...we slept near the Alamo, fell out under the stars" becomes the far more sensitive "...we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft" and the awkward sounding "Something about it reminds me of you, like when she sings Baby let the good times roll" becomes the already quoted "Now I know she ain't you but she's here and she's got that dark rhythm in her soul" but perhaps most telling is the line that became "And a lot of them seemed to be looking my way" was originally "And everything he did reminded me of me. Yeah!" But the most fascinating aspect of "Brownsville Girl," is undoubtedly Dylan's delivery which is some indeterminate point between speaking and singing, which works so well. Certainly one of his finest pieces, a song that Michael Gray describes as "...a wonderful and innovative major work, intelligent and subtle, from a Bob Dylan...wholly in command of his incomparable vocal resources."
Bob Dylan: Guitar/ Don Heffington: Drums/ Carl Sealove: Bass/ Vince Melamed: Keyboards/ Ira Ingber: Guitar/ Steve Douglas: Saxophone/ Steve Madaio: Trumpet/ Elisecia Wright, Queen Esther Marrow, Muffy Hendrix, Carol Denis, Madelyn Quebec, Peggy Blu: Background Vocals.
Dylan was desperately seeking inspiration when he dropped in on Tom Petty's recording session at the Sound City studio in the middle of May. Petty and the Heartbreakers were recording what would become their 1987 album "Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)" and Petty took time out to collaborate with Dylan on "Got My Mind Made Up," which unfortunately comes across as if it were written by numbers. This uninspired little rocker does nothing for either of their reputations, and although Dylan gives the banal lyrics his best shot, the result is tired and lacklustre. I have no idea how much Tom Petty contributed to the song, but the lines "...I'm goin' off to Libya/There's a guy I gotta see/He's been living there three yeas now/In an oil refinery" are probably Dylan's, given his love of bizarre place names and rhymes. Not a song with any staying power for live performance (see below) and one of the least memorable in Dylan's catalogue.
Bob Dylan: Vocals/ Tom Petty: Guitar/ Mike Campbell: Guitar/ Benmont Tench: Keyboards/ Stan Lynch: Drums/ Howie Epstein: Bass/ Philip Lyn Jones: Conga/ Carol Denis, Queen Esther Marrow, Elisecia Wright/ Madelyn Quebec: Background Vocals.
"Under Your Spell" is the third and final song that is a product of collaboration. This time the co-writer was Carole Bayer Sager, but she maintains that she provided little more than the title, "Although it was really exciting" she told Howard Sounes, "it was probably one of the least collaborative experiences I had with anybody." Co-written or not, the song which is probably the most underrated on the album, provides the title and again sees Dylan turn in an excellent vocal performance. "I was knocked out and loaded in the naked night/When my last dream exploded, I noticed your light/Baby, oh what a story I could tell" he sings, with more feeling than we are used to for most of his eighties work. Although he insisted that he could not have written this song without Sager, most of the lyrics sound suspiciously like they originated from Dylan's pen, "Well, its four in the morning by the sound of the birds/I'm starin' at your picture, I'm hearin' your words" sounds distinctly Boblike, as does "Pray that I don't die of thirst/Baby, two feet from the well." The other point worth noting is that this song closes the album, and when one considers some album closers from the past (and indeed the future) the most likely contender here would surely be "Brownsville Girl" so maybe there is more to "Under Your Spell" than meets the eye.
Bob Dylan: Guitar/ Dave Stewart: Guitar/ Clem Burke: Drums/ Patrick Seymour: Keyboards/ John McKenzie: Bass/ Muffy Hendrix, Carol Dennis, Queen Esther Marrow, Elisecia Wright, Madelyn Quebec: Background Vocals.
"Knocked Out Loaded" was released slap bang in the middle of the American leg of the Dylan/Petty True Confessions tour and about the only thing it did for Dylan's career was enhance its decline. Dylan himself seemed as dismissive of it as most of the critics, as the album was all but ignored on stage. "...Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers helped me record a song that Tom and I wrote, it's called "Got My Mind Made Up." Anyway, we're gonna try it out this evening, it sounds alright" was the way he introduced the one and only performance of that song on the opening night of the tour, 9th June 1986 in San Diego. The only other allusion to the album was on the final night of the tour in Paso Robles, California where he played a brief chorus of "Brownsville Girl" but there seems to have been some coercion involved "...that was an old song that I recorded" he said afterwards, adding "We did that for T.V. Anyway I'll get back to the regular part of the programme here." The snippet aired on Entertainment Tonight the following evening, 7th August 1986. Other than this the album was totally disregarded. Rolling Stone gave it three stars, but a lukewarm review that Anthony Decurtis ended with the prophetic words "Less bad than pointless, "Knocked Out Loaded" will prove most satisfying to those content to expect the very least from it." The album sold poorly, worse in fact than any up to that point excluding his debut, and did not even reach the top fifty. One of the strangest things about "Knocked Out Loaded" is the number of people listed on the cover under Special Thanks To... where Dylan appears to be thanking everyone associated with his whole career and not just this album. Although they do not appear, Sly and Robbie get a mention, (they would not have been wasted on "Precious Memories") as do several other notable absentees from Eric (Clapton?) and George (Harrison?) to the frankly bizarre Gal Shaped Just Like A Frog. Sadly it would be three years before Dylan's stock improved, as his next studio album, 1988's "Down In The Groove" was a critical and commercial failure, and that was followed by the career lowpoint of "Dylan And The Dead" in 1989. But that year also saw the release of the critically acclaimed "Oh Mercy" and his fortunes took a decided upswing.