Crawling Inside a Song and Shutting the Door
Amidst the hubbub surrounding Bob Dylan winning the Nobel for Literature, I’ve been listening to a recording of him singing a song he didn’t write — an obscure, unreleased outtake from the soundtrack to Hearts of Fire, the star vehicle-gone-wrong for a burned out, lost in the weeds mid-'80s Dylan who would later admit that he was drunk for most of shoot.
The film’s official soundtrack featured exactly two new Bob Dylan compositions, both of them throwaways — “Night After Night” and “Had A Dream About You Baby.” But the song, or rather, the performance that I’ve been listening to is his cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five And Dimer.” Dylan’s take on it is a lost, skull-rattling gem.
He went into a London studio over two days in August 1986 to record music for Hearts of Fire. His ensemble included no less than Eric Clapton and Ronnie Wood, but the sessions yielded no sparks. On day one, Dylan put the band to work on five workmanlike 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), and five takes of “Had A Dream About You Baby.” There is nothing good here, nothing that ever needs to be heard again.
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 would attempt in the film.
The “Old Five and Dimer” who narrates the song is, superficially, everything that Bob Dylan was and is not. Even during his mid-career nosedive, when he flirted with (and some would say achieved) complete cultural and artistic irrelevance, he was still Bob Dylan, legend. A household name. A man who’d sold millions of records and put his indelible stamp on American music. He was still someone who performed in massive stadiums, who’d engendered an international following of rabid acolytes.
Yet, on this recording, that man completely disappears. The narrator here is a nobody. He’s knocked around through mostly rough times, buying and selling used Cadillacs, a hard luck loser who knows that “good times and fast bucks are too far and too few between.” And somehow, Dylan becomes this guy. He inhabits the song, transforming himself into a desperate, broken down nobody. At the conclusion, he cries “An Old-Five and Dimer is all I intended to be!” the phrase drowning in weary, stubborn, hardscrabble pride. To hear Dylan sing it, it becomes believable that all he ever wanted — this icon who, once upon a time as a 20-year-oldd kid in love with Woody Guthrie, hitched a ride to New York City to seek fame and fortune and a place in history — was to be an anonymous, unknown, everyman.
Where does Dylan find the chutzpah to flood this song with the raw, painful conviction it possesses? How does he do it? He gets inside the song. He plays the part. It’s theater.
There is a lie behind the performance, and then behind that lie, there is truth. Not “the Accountant’s Truth,” as Werner Herzog ruefully calls it, but something more real, more cathartic. The truth that can sometimes only be accessed by the donning a mask, and the freedom that ensues. Dylan here is using an example of something he’s had little real experience with (being a nobody) to express something profound about his emotional state. It’s what great fiction and great drama can do, and it’s an essential and often overlooked component of Dylan’s craft.
Dylan has been doing this with astonishing regularity for half a century. It’s another reason that we revere him, follow him, wait to see what he’s going to share with us next, because we never know when the muse will visit and allow him to imbue his performance of some song -- whether his or someone else’s -- with this kind of feeling. It’s why his recent albums of standards, or his turn last month at Tony Bennett’s 90th (singing the Strouse and Lee show tune “Once Upon A Time”) deserve our attention right alongside his Nobel Prize-winning catalog of original songs. Dylan the performer, the interpreter, the song and dance man, knows how to raise the hair on the back of our necks. To bring us closer to our own unplumbed, complicated feelings. To keep us company. To reveal us to ourselves.