Episode 66
Empire Burlesque.
Blockhouse.
Recorded September 9, 2018.

Context (4:00)

Empire Burlesque was Bob Dylan’s 23rd official album. It was released on June 10, 1985, peaking at #33 on the Billboard charts in the US and #11 in the UK. The album was produced by Bob Dylan, but not Jack Frost. Dylan reportedly wanted to “make a record like Madonna or Prince… I want to sell a lot of records.” According to Michael Gray:

…dragging Arthur Baker into his arena in order to tart up Empire Burlesque delivered Dylan the worst of both worlds: it convinced neither the market that turns corporate rock into platinum / nor those whose ear and mind is on the lookout for an alternative to the mainstream. If you use your position in the evil empire of the music business to send someone out to buy you disco clothes, you’ll end up in the clothes of the emperor. And shopping for modishness is still shopping.

The album cover, for anyone who wasn’t consciously alive in the 1980s, is an immediate turnoff. It was designed by Nick Egan. While in college, he designed cover art for The Clash (“White Man in Hammersmith Palace” and “Tommy Gun” singles) and Dexys Midnight Runners’ Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. He’d got on design Biograph, to much more lasting effect. And because I can’t resist Empire Burlesque shade, Michael Gray sums up the cover art showing

…Dylan the perplexed fashion-victim in Bruce Willis jacket. Early Bob Dylan would have found the whole thing contemptible.

Song-by-song

In the podcast, Daniel recounts the multiple sessions from Intergalactic Studios in July of 1984, Delta Sound Studios, Cherokee Studios, and the reliable Power Station in New York City. In these notes, you’ll find who played on the song, Daniel and Kelly’s thoughts, and Daniel’s status updates.

“Tight Connection” (8:00)

  • Bass – Robbie Shakespeare
  • Drums – Sly Dunbar
  • Electric Guitar – Mick Taylor, Ted Perlman
  • Keyboards – Bob Dylan
  • Synthesizer – Richard Scher

Wanna know more about Sly & Robbie? We don’t talk about this song much beyond them because we already covered it in Episode 60!

Status Update: Shock

“Seeing the Real You At Last” (8:30)

  • Bass – Bob Glaub
  • Drums – Don Heffington
  • Electric Guitar – Bob Dylan, Mike Campbell
  • Keyboards – Benmont Tench
  • Soloist, Saxophone – David Watson

All I could think was Huey Lewis and the News

Kelly

He sings Well I sailed through the storm interestingly. Otherwise… Well, it also kinda moves right? The dissonant guitar works, for what it’s worth.

Outside of “Tight Connection,” this is full of movie references: Key Largo (1948); The Maltese Falcon (1941); The Big Sleep (1946); Bronco Billy (1980); and The Hustler (1961).

Status Update: Emotional Release

“I’ll Remember You” (11:20)

  • Bass – Howie Epstein
  • Drums – Jim Keltner
  • Electric Guitar – Mike Campbell
  • Piano – Bob Dylan
  • Vocals – Madelyn Quebec

The last song was ‘Aren’t women deceitful and awful.’ Then this song is like, ‘But…actually, you were great, and wasn’t I great, can’t we just agree that I also was great!

Kelly

It sounds so 80s. The guitar is straight out of “Word Than Words.” That said, the Heartbreakers find a way to salvage the track, especially at the end where things fade out.

All Daniel could think about was meeting a friend unfamiliar with Bob Dylan and playing them this and trying to explain that he’s one of greatest and most influential musicians of all-time. You would love that friendship.

Status Update: Depression and Isolation

“Clean Cut Kid” (13:00)

  • Bass – John Paris*
  • Drums – Anton Fig
  • Electric Guitar – Bob Dylan, Ron Wood
  • Piano – Benmont Tench

Oh he definitely sounds like why people don’t like Bob Dylan for the majority of this album

Kelly

This was another song recorded during the Infidels sessions. Robert Christgau said it was “the toughest Vietnam-vet song yet,” but that’s not true (see Minutemen’s “The Price of Paradise,” from 1985 and on the playlist). At least Dylan sounds refreshed and the backing vocals aren’t the worst. He references The Sandpiper from 1965. In the end, this song was better as “With God On Our Side.” Ronnie Wood, of the Rolling Stones, tried to make sense of the process he saw:

[The engineers would] say, ‘Hey Bob, we don’t need this,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, okay.’ And they’d make a mix to their ears, and he’d just stand outside and let them do it. And I’d be saying, ‘Hey! You can’t let these guys…Look!! They’ve left off the background vocals!’ or ‘What about the drums?!’ But there would be something going on in the back of his head which didn’t allow him to interfere. And yet if he’d have gone into the control room with the dominance that he had while we were cutting the stuff, it could have been mind-bending.

Status Update: Physical Illness

“Never Gonna Be the Same Again” (17:15)

  • Bass – Robbie Shakespeare
  • Drums – Sly Dunbar
  • Electric Guitar – Sid McGuiness (Late Show with David Letterman)
  • Keyboards – Bob Dylan
  • Synthesizer – Anne Clark, Richard Scher
  • Vocals – Carol Dennis

He just wanted to make something that sounded of the moment, but then he also wanted to be alternative. He couldn’t let that part of himself that wanted to be a good songwriter and have a vision go… So that’s what you get: this terrible mashup of alt-country and 80s synth pop. And what you get is synth chimes that lead you straight into a Renaissance Fair.

Kelly

Spotify (as of recording) labels this song as “Never Gonna the Same Again” because no one can be bothered with this shit. More references: Shane (1954). In short: terrible song with terrible lyrics. Offensively bad. Seriously, what the fuck is Sorry if I touched the place where your secrets are hid. Jesus.

Status Update: Panic and Anxiety

“Trust Yourself” (21:00)

  • Bass – Robbie Shakespeare
  • Drums – Jim Keltner
  • Electric Guitar – Bob Dylan, Mike Campbell
  • Keyboards – Benmont Tench
  • Percussion – Bashiri Johnson
  • Vocals – Carol Dennis, Madelyn Quebec

Perhaps it’s a rebuke of “You Gotta Serve Somebody” because, you know, you’re serving yourself instead of Jesus… That said, it’s not the worst. Again, Heartbreakers salvage this. Robbie Shakespeare’s bass is excellent as well. The main takeaway though is that Dylan is bad at oohs so there’s that. Basic ass song. One thumb down from Daniel.

Status Update: Anger and Hostility

“Emotionally Yours” (24:30)

  • Bass – Howie Epstein
  • Drums – Jim Keltner
  • Electric Guitar – Mike Campbell
  • Organ – Benmont Tench
  • Piano – Bob Dylan
  • Synthesizer [Horns] – Richard Scher

It began as a breath of fresh air to hear Dylan on piano. Then the dumb gated reverb drum shit starts. Then Dylan starts singing on some utter bullshit. (I mean, the soundtrack to you listening to this shouting at him to stop singing “Come baby” has more value.) I’ll let Michael Gray drag this fucking song:

Here is the shameful spectacle of a man whose early work avoids every pop dissimulation in work of unsurpassed, pioneering clarity of individual vision and vocal richness, now mewling his thin vocal way through a thick murk of formulaic riffs, licks and echo-laden AOR noises devised with a desperate eye on rock-radio formats. Here is the artist whose mature intelligence revolutionised the love song in popular music, now reduced to lines like ‘You to me were true / You to me were the best’ and titles like ‘Emotionally Yours’.

Even the Heartbreakers couldn’t save this shit. Two thumbs down, touching the floor, making subtle gouging motions as a newly developed twitch from listening to this record.

Status Update: Guilt

“When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” (28:00)

  • Bass – Robbie Shakespeare
  • Drums – Sly Dunbar
  • Electric Guitar – Bob Dylan, Stuart Kimball, Al Kooper (rhythm)
  • Horns – Urban Blight
  • Percussion – Bashiri Johnson
  • Synthesizer – Richard Scher
  • Vocals – Madelyn Quebec

“Disco Dylan” is right. Daniel had to add the version from The Bootleg Series, Volume 1-3 to balance out the Empire version. Daniel and Kelly briefly lost their minds trying to make heads and tails of this. Shining light: Stu Kimball is on electric guitar and would later become part of the Never Ending Tour band. Daniel’s two thumbs have fallen off (although he rides for the Bootleg Series version with Steven Van Zandt and Roy Bittan of Springsteen’s E Street Band). Really, its biggest sin is how boring it is.

Status Update: Difficulty Resuming Normal Routines

“Something’s Burning, Baby” (34:00)

  • Bass – Robbie Shakespeare
  • Drums – Don Heffington
  • Electric Guitar – Ira Ingber
  • Synthesizer – Richard Scher, Vince Melamed
  • Vocals – Madelyn Quebec

I don’t hate the euphony of the 1980s — K

Starts as a funeral dirge (for this record? if only) yet is one of the only highlights on this album. While there are too many “baby’s” in the song, it has these surprising moments that stick with you. The bridge is elegant, given the circumstances:

I can feel it in the night when I think of you
I can feel it in the light and it’s got to be true
You can’t live by bread alone, you won’t be satisfied
You can’t roll away the stone if your hands are tied

And while Dylan still hasn’t learned the art of the ooh, his singers have him covered. Daniel’s primary complaint is that these songs can be good but there’s something about the presentation and sound of mid-80s that feels so bleak and sad.

Status Update: Hopefulness

[[[Weird vocal static that prompted ordering new mics, quite delayed]]]

“Dark Eyes” (37:00)

  • Guitar, Harmonica – Bob Dylan

“Dark Eyes” was recorded on March 3 as a brand-new composition only a few days old live-to-tape with no editing, embellishing or overdubs. That explains why this song feels out of place on this disaster and transcends it as one of his finer compositions of the era.

As I stepped out of the elevator, a call girl was coming toward me in the hallway—pale yellow hair wearing a fox coat—high heeled shoes that could pierce your heart. She had blue circles around her eyes, black eyeliner, dark eyes. She looked like she’d been beaten up and was afraid that she’d get beat up again. In her hand, crimson purple wine in a glass. ‘I’m just dying for a drink,’ she said as she passed me in the hall. She had a beautifulness, but not for this kind of world.

Bob Dylan, on “Dark Eyes” from Chronicles

It’s just understated and, dare they say, normal, compared to the flourishes of the rest of the record. Excellent end that almost makes up for “Emotionally Yours.” Almost.

Status Update: Acceptance and Moving Forward

Daniel falling down the rabbit hole (38:45)

After talking it out, Daniel found himself falling down the rabbit hole. “Dark Eyes” was essentially the entire album of Empire Burlesque: the soldier from “Clean Cut Kid,” the flames from “Something’s Burning, Baby,” the danger and drama in the French girl and the drunken man pulled out “Tight Connection to My Heart.”

So what about the obvious filler songs? Like “I’ll Remember You” and “Never Gonna Be the Same Again?” Or actual crimes like “Emotionally Yours?” Are they bad on purpose as commentary on the vapidness of the 1980s, these songs passing as “love” and “feeling.” Is Dylan trying to woo the character from “Tight Connection” with this bile, coming full circle, writing an album of shitty love songs to show that it CAN’T WORK before the catharsis of “Dark Eyes?”

No. Didn’t think so.

Mixed Up Confusion 

In addition to our full episode on Empire Burlesque, Kelly and Daniel also dipped into the past to talk about 1985, the year in music.

Recommendations (40:30)

Kelly recommends our playlist for the week and Life After Beth.

Daniel recommends IDLES Joy as an Act of Resistance. (namely, one of the best songs of 2018, “Danny Nedelko”), Alkaline Trio Is This Thing Cursed? and Aaron Lee Tasjan Karma For Cheap.

Endings (45:00)

There are 444 songs left. God save us from another Empire Burlesque track. Just let us out of the 1980s. Kelly guessed #71. It’s actually #72!!!!!!!!! Because she was so close, Daniel gave her a choice: “Rambling Gambling Willie” or “Boots of Spanish Leather.” She chose “Boots!”

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Published by Daniel

Occasional writer, persistent nomad; restless, moving, changing. Currently in Portland, Oregon.

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