On the eve of the release of one of the most bootlegged of bootleg recordings ever made (Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes) I happened across another, much less-well known, perhaps totally obscure Bob Dylan bootleg recording -- an outtake from the soundtrack to an execrable film called Hearts of Fire, a star vehicle gone wrong for a burned-out, lost in the weeds mid-80's era Dylan, who later admitted that he was drunk most of shoot.
The film soundtrack featured exactly two new, and entirely throwaway, Bob Dylan songs -- “Night After Night” and “Had A Dream About You Baby, But the song, or rather, the performance that I’ve been listening to, is not a Dylan song at all, but a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five And Dimer.” It’s a skull-rattling gem.
According to a website called alldylan.com, Dylan went into a London studio over two days in August, 1986 to record music for the soundtrack. His band for the sessions included the likes of Eric Clapton and Ron Wood. On the first day, Dylan put the band to work on five takes of John Hiatt’s “The Usual,” one take of something called “Ride This Train,” which sounds like a mess of a half-formed original song that he quickly abandoned, before launching into five takes of “Had A Dream About You Baby.”
Then comes the solo take of "Old Five and Dimers" and, for three minutes and twelve seconds, Dylan delivers a performance that digs down and scrapes every bit of nuance to be had in a song that isn’t even his. It’s an astonishing bit of theater, and better by far than any acting he did onscreen for “Hearts of Fire.”
The “old five and dimer” who narrates the song is, on the surface, about the furthest thing in the wolrd from rock icon Bob Dylan. He’s a nobody, a guy that’s knocked around through mostly hard times, a Cadillac buyer who knows that “good times and fast bucks are too far and too few between.” Yet, even during Dylan’s mid-80’s nadir, when he seemed to be artistically and spritually bankrupt, he was still Bob Dylan -- a household name, a man who’d sold millions of records and put an indelible stamp on American popular music and culture. He was still someone who performed in sports arenas, who’d engendered a following of rabid acolytes who followed and examined his every move.
Yet, listening to this recoding, you would never know any of that. In fact, the singer in this recording sounds like the oldest, most five-and-dimerist, broken down singer you’d ever want to hear sing this song. The performance sounds authentic. It sounds real. At the end, he cries “An Old-Five and Dimer is all I intended to be!” the phrase positively drowning in weary, stubborn, hardcrabble, painful pride.
Really Bob? All you ever wanted was to be an anonymous, unknown, everyman kind of guy? That’s what you wanted, when you hitched a ride to New York City to seek fame and fortune and your place in the history books? To hear this recording, it’s almost believable.
So where in the world does Dylan get the nerve to imbue this song with the sort of raw conviction that he does? How does he do it? He gets inside the song. He plays the part. It’s theater.
Of course there is a lie behind the performance. One could even say that Dylan's not being authentic here. But he is. He’s using an example of something he knows little about (being a unknown failure) to express something about the way he feels right now that is beyond the scope of the language of his experience. It’s the same as when we feel so good that we say we feel like a million bucks. Or we feel like a King. Or we feel like we’re on top of the world -- even when we don’t really know what those things are actually like. We have a feeling that transcends our ability to capture it in words. so we reach for a metaphor to express it.
Isn’t that what all great, well-told stories do? They get at something that we feel but don’t know what to do with, because the feeling is so real. A good artist is brave enough, or lucky enough, to be able to do that with some regularity. A great artist, like Bob Dylan, can do it across a career that spans decades. It’s why we revere them so much, follow them, wait to see what they’re going to share with us next, because we never know when the muse will visit and allow him to imbue some song -- his or someone else’s -- with that kind of feeling that raises the hair on the back of our necks.These kinds of performances bring us closer to our own unplumbed, complicated feelings. They make us feel less alone.
And then, we can’t get the song, or the performance out of our heads. We want to share it. We want to tell everyone we know about it. So, check it out, and see what you think. And while you’re at it, listen to the one other keeper from these sessions, “To Fall In Love”, an unfinished original that sounds like it could have been part of those Basement Tapes that we're all listening to this week.