Brian Boyles examines the story Dylan's memoir "Chronicles" really tells about his time in New Orleans.
[Brian Boyles is the author of New Orleans Boom and Blackout: One Hundred Days in America's Coolest Hotspot, and an occasional contributor. The announcement that Bob Dylan would play the Saenger Theatre tonight prompted him to re-read the New Orleans section in Dylan's Chronicles Vol. 1. Here is his takeaway.]
“There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.” Bob Dylan
“Man, I’ve been here two or three days. When the fuck’s Bob Dylan showing up?” Willie Green.
When I was a freshman at Tulane, just at the dawn of dial-up, Bob Dylan was rumored to keep a home on Audubon Place. This provoked occasional, butt-drunk ideas of scaling the walls to visit the legend. You think there are dogs? What the fuck would we say, anyway? Dylan played McAllister Auditorium on campus that year, and we imagined him walking home afterward to sleep among his fellow powerful men. At that age, everything is still hypothetical when it comes to your heroes--they are costumes you can wear as you edge up to adulthood. The fact that Dylan might walk those same streets through which I stumbled was, well, thought about quite a bit.
It wasn’t until the 2004 publication of Chronicles, the first volume of his memoirs, that the general public got a better glimpse of Dylan in New Orleans, albeit through his own cagey prose. The “Oh Mercy” chapter covers his 1989 stay in the city (six years prior to my own arrival and stakeouts) for the recording of the album of the same name. This week, as I prepared for Dylan’s April 29 show at the Saenger Theatre, I re-read his description of that period. It struck me that Bob Dylan, wherever he owned a home, did not feel himself to be altogether powerful in New Orleans; in fact, he was at his wits’ end. But he made it through, and something about his struggles resounded with me.
Like a lot of people, Dylan arrived in the city desperate, but not without a vision. He writes that in 1987 he is at a crossroads, artistically spent and physically incapacitated after a freak hand injury. He considers retirement. “I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck. Too much static in my head and I couldn’t dump the stuff.” A long tour with Tom Petty intersects with a run fronting and co-headlining with the Grateful Dead. Somewhere in there he caught sight of a new way of playing, lost a sailboat, dug Joe Tex on the Johnny Carson show and mourned Pistol Pete Maravich. Songs began to emerge, but what to do with them?
Enter Bono. Apparently the two used to get together and get heavy. “(Bono) can roar ‘til the earth shakes. He’s also a closet philosopher. He brought a case of Guinness with him.” I know, I know. Anyway, Dylan shows Bono the songs and the Irishman recommends Daniel Lanois, who along with Brian Eno produced The Joshua Tree and who was then based in New Orleans. Cut to Dylan and G.E. Smith poolside at the Marie Antoinette Hotel (now the Hotel Le Marais on Conti Street). Lanois arrives, “noir all the way—dark sombrero, black britches, high boots, slip-on gloves—all shadow and silhouette—dimmed out, a black prince from the black hills.” Picture the other guests! G.E. takes his leave and Lanois tells Dylan that hit records aren’t important. “Miles Davis never made any.”
Thus begins Dylan’s curious tale of a relationship that bore ample fruit that year, if never full agreement. As a reader, you come away admiring Lanois, the worthy partner and capable combatant. Neither man will concede control, but they seem to understand one another. Dylan can’t put Lanois into the little brother role, and he respects Lanois for that. “We need songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘Girl from the North Country,’ or ‘With God on Our Side,’” Lanois repeated in the ensuing sessions. Now, can you imagine saying that to 48 year old, slightly burned out Bob Dylan?
Aside from Dylan and Lanois, New Orleans is the main character of the chapter. Before he can begin the recording sessions, Dylan has to set up in New Orleans. He “moved into a large rented house near Audubon Park, a comfortable place, all the rooms fair sized, furnished quite simply…. We couldn’t have come to a better place for me.” He sets to lurking through the night, and describes the terrain in ways that flirt with cliché, only to pivot in decidedly Dylanesque ways. “The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds—the cemeteries—and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here.”
Like many a visiting writer, he is willing to generalize:
“New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it.”
“Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going.”
“Bluebloods, titled persons like crazy drunks, lean weakly against the walls and drag themselves through the gutter.”
The last quote reflects Dylan’s sensitivity to the city’s darkness, its gothic cruelty, its wastrels. Throughout the chapter, he notes the melancholia, the presence of the devil—nothing original, but all the more important as we read these observations now, in a time of unparalleled boosterism. Whatever myths he carves for himself and the city, Dylan tunes into the essentials.
He also tunes into WWOZ, “the great New Orleans station.” I remember reading this section in New York when the book came out, and missing the hell out of daily life accompanied by ‘OZ. Dylan rhapsodizes about DJ Brown Sugar: “I wondered if she knew her voice had drawn me in, filled me with inner peace and serenity and would upend all my frustration.” If you’ve ever selected music for other people, imagine reading this about yourself; now imagine that the words belonged to the great American songwriter. Listening to ‘OZ constantly “brought me back to the trials of my youth and touched the spirit of it.” Twenty years after my first encounter with the station, however different our trials and youth, I really dig this.
In the studio, a rotating cast of great New Orleans musicians attempts to fit within the Dylan and Lanois wrestling match. The producer had just finished up the Neville Brothers’ classic, Yellow Moon, and the band’s Cyril Neville, Willie Green, Tony Hall and Brian Stoltz play on the Dylan sessions. Rockin Dopsie Jr. and his band try to make “Dignity” work, and end up jamming at 3 a.m. on “Jambalaya,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and “There Stands the Glass,” all of which, I hope, will appear on a future Bootleg Series collection. Overall, the process sounds uncomfortable, irritating, a slog that tested the patience of all involved.
Interestingly, a recent Uncut magazine oral history of Dylan’s sessions from 1989 to 2006 captures the memories of the other Oh Mercy participants, most of who noted Dylan’s aloofness. “Bob never really spoke to the other musicians,” recalled engineer Malcolm Burn.
I was sitting at the mixing board, and Bob was like, four feet away. Willie [Green] says, ‘Man, I’ve been here two or three days. When the fuck’s Bob Dylan showing up?’ I said, ‘Willie, he’s sitting right next to you.’ ‘Oh. Is that Bob Dylan right there?’ And then, seriously, the bass player, Tony [Hall], he comes in, and he says, ‘Man, that Bob Dylan is some weird motherfucker.’ Bob just sort of looked up and raised his eyebrow. Then went back to working on his lyrics.
Pretty dope: the New Orleans cats aren’t having any bullshit, they’re there to work; so is Dylan.
Sojourns through the city bring equal doses of clarity and confusion. Dylan cruises “Ferret Street” on a vintage Harley, then checks out the Chalmette Battlefield. He and his wife ride to Thibodaux, pass through Houma and Morgan City, then stay the night in Napoleonville. “I laid down, listened to the crickets and wildlife out the window in the eerie blackness. I liked the night. Things grow at night.” He wakes feeling clearer, more resolute in his stance toward the sessions. “There wasn’t much chance in changing now. I didn’t need the next mountain. If anything, what I wanted to do was to secure the place where I was at. I wasn’t sure Lanois understood that.”
This is quite a turnaround. The voyage to New Orleans starts out with Dylan feeling burnt out, grasping for a new music to push him from the brink of retirement. Now, after weeks in New Orleans trying to make it work, he declares his intention to be himself, secure and unchangeable. Sort of a middle-aged stance, but also a local one: I escaped to this place, and I can be myself here, amid the darkness, the strangeness, the people who don’t know my face. It’s telling that Dylan didn’t settle for a fanciful reinvention, go full zydeco or strip down to just an acoustic guitar, but instead gritted his teeth and made a tight, sneering album about politics (“Political World”), self-doubt (“What Good Am I?”) and solitude (“Man in the Long Black Coat”).
The motorcycle trip includes a strange stop at a country store, where the proprietor, Sun Pie, offers a theory on the Chinese origins of Native Americans. “Trouble was that they split up into parties and tribes and started wearing feathers and forgot they were Chinese. They started wars with each other for no reason, one tribe against another. You could make enemies out of anyone.” Not to worry, Sun Pie said, the Chinese would be back soon enough. This is classic Dylan Dadaism. Sun Pie keeps asking if Dylan is “a praying man.” It may be a sly nod to Dylan’s “Born Again Period,” of the late '70s, or just the sort of direct question you get from isolated philosophers. They discuss Bruce Lee; a poster of Mao hangs on the wall. “Does your conscience bother you?” Sun Pie asks. Dylan buys a “World’s Greatest Grandpa” bumper sticker and rides on.
Back in town, the session picks up steam as the humidity descends. Lanois asks what Dylan’s been listening to. “I told him Ice-T.” Also Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Run-DMC. “These guys definitely weren’t bullshitting.” Rather, they were the vanguard. “A new performer was bound to appear, and one unlike Presley. He wouldn’t be swinging his hips and staring at the lassies. He’d be doing it with hard words and he’d be working eighteen hours a day.” One thinks of Kanye, Eminem, Kendrick. One thinks of Bob Dylan sitting on Audubon Place listening to Straight Outta Compton. Maybe we would’ve had something to talk about after all.
In the end, Oh Mercy leaves him ambivalent, which for Dylan is a good feeling. Despite their stilted dialogue, he and Lanois have a relationship, one that continued on later albums. They’d avoided schmaltz, reached for funk; Lanois was no flunky. “There’s something magical about this record, though, and you might say that it was in the house or the parlor room or something, but there wasn’t any magic in the house. It’s what Lanois and me and Willie Green and Daryl [Johnson] and Brian Stoltz brought to the place that made it what it was. You live with what life deals you. We have to make things fit.”
That’s a good New Orleans lesson. The fact that things are hard, that people get awkward and far out, that you can be silent and alienated—these were lessons I learned standing outside Audubon Place and other walled off places in a much different city. It will be good to hear him at the Saenger and search again for the answers that hide between the lines. For me, that was always the Bob Dylan lesson.