A short piece from Michael Gray's Outtakes On Bob Dylan: Selected Writings 1967-2021.
Published as part of my first column in ISIS, June 1997, this now seems a useful reminder of how things were, or seemed, at the time. We knew Time Out Of Mind had been recorded in January ’97 but it remained unreleased until the last day of September. (The bit below about musicians’ studio enthusiasms was used again as an entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, but the omitted other half of the ISIS column comprised no longer useful reviews of three compilation albums.)
It would have been great to begin this new column with a paean to something wonderful. Time Out Of Mind, ideally. I can’t remember when a new Bob Dylan album was so strongly yearned for, or had such high hopes riding on it.
This is something to do with how long Dylan has been doing the same songs over and over again ad infinitum, and mostly the very old and obvious ones, so that the passion to hear a whole album of new Dylan songs is almost desperate. And there’s the sheer fact of how long it’s been since such an album: a longer gap than from The Times They Are A-Changin’ through to Nashville Skyline.
The yearning for Time Out Of Mind is also to do with the rumoured length of the songs, and the choice of a producer about whom one may not feel unreserved enthusiasm but whose strengths include making Bob bother properly. That Dylan has gone back to him, after years of only giving people one restive try before switching to another modish industry favourite, is surely A Good Sign. And then there’s that rumoured total running time of 76 minutes (76 minutes! Under The Red Sky was 35). And then there are those enticing Jim Dickinson-generated stories that came out of the studio…
Of course no-one should ever believe session musicians. They always come out saying it’s Bob’s best since Blonde On Blonde and then it turns out to be Down In The Groove. It’s natural that they should be so deluded. First, they’re working in the presence of a genius, so they’re bound to be dazzled, even if his genius isn’t present; second, they’ve been hearing the playbacks on monumentally expensive speakers and very high-quality drugs; and thirdly, they have in mind the best tracks and the best mixes, which Dylan then deletes before the rest of us are offered the album.
Normally. But this time… well, you just can’t help but get your hopes up.
And then again, Dylan’s illness has made a lot of us stop moaning about what he’s been doing and not doing lately, and glow with warmth in the realisation of how ardently positive we feel about him underneath. You don’t miss your water till it turns a funny colour. Not long before news of his illness broke, I had a number of conversations with people who’d been feeling for some months, for the first time ever, that they weren’t all that bothered whether they heard, or even received cassettes of, all the concerts on the last leg of the tour, and who were more or less bemoaning having to go to the imminent shows.
How his going into hospital changed all that! Now we’ve all sorely missed hearing ‘All Along The Watchtower’ just those few precious extra times. And we’ve been fantasising about (in some cases planning to be) attending Bob’s first post-illness concerts.