Crawling Inside a Song and Shutting the Door

Bob Dylan on the set of Hearts of Fire

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.

Thanks Howard - really interesting insight and a great bit of writing on one of my all-time favorite songs. Springsteen writes in his autobiography about a similar idea - how as a singer he finds the truth in a song when he can truly inhabit his characters.

Nice read, cheers.

Really enjoyable read...I'd like to say he did something as good as "Old Five and Dimers" the times I've seen him, but he really hasn't been...just seemed to be going through the motions...

He was not good when I saw him.  Doesn't engage the crowd at all.

Funny you should say of the shows I saw he never said a word to the audience...not one...another time, he introduced the band, but that's it...nothing else...and you couldn't make out most of the names...I knew who they were and still couldn't make out most of the introductions...

Guess it depends on what you are expecting...I don't need someone to say thanks for coming...doesn't engage the crowd at all pretty much covers it...

I've only seen Dylan a couple of times and fairly recently and enjoyed the shows but engaging the audience was the last thing I expected from him. The last time was not long before Warren Zevon died and he played several Zevon songs without even saying anything about it. I suspect many in the audience thought they were new songs by him. When Zevon heard he was doing his songs on that tour he quipped that perhaps his upcoming death was worth it.

As I recall, Zevon also said that he'd made a "tactical error" in not seeing a doctor for 20 years and called it "one of those phobias that didn't really pay off" for Dylan, I wouldn't put either show I saw in the top 200 I've seen and it doesn't matter...had to go anyway...the guy I went with had seen him 50 plus times and said you never know what you will get and what I got basically was a couple of hours in the presence of perhaps the greatest living songwriter, and that's enough, even if you couldn't recognize his versions of his own songs...the fact that he played Zevon's songs at his concerts without mentioning whose songs they were simply reinforces that he doesn't really care what the audience's always been that way.

I love Dylan, but that picture makes him look like he was on Welcome Back, Kotter.

Obviously Dylan has always been about theater without needing to say a word. First time I heard/saw him, I was with my parents to see a movie about a soccer player. The quiet theater was suddenly booming with something I'd never heard the likes of before at my young age (and which would forever change me), with this guy in an alley with the song's words on cards that he was shuffling. To paraphrase, Dylan doesn't talk, he swears. As for covers, I've always found Dylan to be brilliant at them, especially on Self Portrait, which ironically or not comprises mostly covers. Even sitting here typing this is Dylan playing with me, forever young and forever theater.

Wow. Thanks for this. Never heard Dylan do that.

Can't agree with your take on Dylan's cover of "The Usual". I've always loved that one. Thanks for sharing this song. 

I like Billy Joe Shaver's writing. No doubt Dylan does, too.  "Old Five and Dimers" is a great song.  Just remember that Dylan came up through trad folk music, where all is interpretation of other's writings.  After his first LP with only 2 originals, he (along with the Beatles ) began the major change to the landscape of popdom. shifting to  performers being their own songwriters.  

For most effective performer/songwriters, after the initial spark of art's inspiration, (and maybe some judicious editing), all productions are:  theater;  artifice;  suspension of disbelief;  falsehood. But stagecraft itself a skill worth working on, to shine a light on a deeper truth or meaning. It is an essential part of the craft of performance.

Dylan has been known for a very loose recording style:  writing lyrics up to the last minute, recording with very little or no rehearsal with the backing band (to keep it fresh). If he can't get it, after one or two takes,  he moves on. Recording is only a moment in time, anyway. The song could change tomorrow. That is for recording.

In years past, in taking the recorded songs on the road, he might amend, add or subtract lyrics, chords or even melodies to hew it down to its best version. At least, that is how I see it.  

Yep good analysis.

 Dylan's take on "Couple More Years Years" didn't do much for you? That one has always captivated me, rooster crowing and all... There is indeed something about Dylan the actor inhabiting his songs in some performances--an ever present potential that can carry them to a completely new level. A line from "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," suggests he was not unaware, "There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts".  

From the older live recordings, especially with the Band and the Rolling Thunder Revue, it's obvious that Dylan was once a fantastic live performer.  But, I've seen him live three times since 1986, and those were not great concerts.  And, I doubt that I would be able to tolerate conversing with him in person for more than 5 or 10 minutes (not that I would ever have the opportunity).


However, I hear Dylan's astounding recordings and lyrics in my head every single day (and I am NOT a musician).  He was the greatest English-language songwriter of the 20th century.