Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

24. Shot Of Love (1981)

When I first pressed 'Play' on Shot of Love my immediate reaction was to wonder whether I needed to adjust my stereo, or check that something hadn't come loose; I really couldn't believe that this horrible tinny, thin sound, like it was coming out of laptop speakers, was what I was meant to be hearing.

My second reaction, as the title track danced through my headphones, was to echo the first sentence of Greil Marcus' 1970 review of Self Portrait, and ask myself "What is this shit?".  If anything needs a shot of love it's this song, which is basically four and a half poorly recorded minutes of sub-Rolling Stones claptrap where the take home message can be summed up as "drugs are bad, mkay?"  Unbelievably produced by veteran Bumps Blackwell (Sam Cooke, Little Richard) this paranoid, angry rant is entirely devoid of love or empathy.

I read that Shot of Love was recorded in a variety of locations with a variety of musicians and producers, and I presume Heart Of Mine, if not recorded in the same place as the preceding track, was taped in a similar sized barn.  Like many songs on the album, it's based on scripture, in this case Jeremiah 17:9 on the deceitful heart, here Bob's own.  According to the sleevenotes it boasts an all-star (or all-Starr) cast of Ronnie Wood, Donald 'Duck' Dunn and Ringo.  Dylan says that several good takes had been achieved with other musicians, but he chose this one because these guys were on it "...and we did it in like ten minutes".  No kidding. There's a discernible tune, but it sounds like it's being played by a bunch of learners, except for the organ, played by Benmont Tench (who wins the prize for Best Ever Name In Rock, as well as Musician Who Sounds Most Like A Geological Feature).

Shot of Love was recorded mostly live with few overdubs, and although compared to his previous two albums it sounds extremely ropey, Bob succeeded in capturing the raw feel he was looking for.  It certainly has an immediacy, and by third track Property of Jesus I decided to think of the album as a live bootleg, which improved things no end.  This gospel-tinged rocker with rather self-satisfied lyrics is a swipe at those who'd criticised or questioned his faith, apparently including one Mick Jagger.  Rather suitably (and deliberately?) it's the most Stones-y song here, and with its sneering vocals, corking bluesy guitar solo and soaring chorus wouldn't be out of place on Sticky Fingers.  I dare say the phrase "heart of stone"  was no coincidence either.

Accompanied by just simple guitar and piano, on Lenny Bruce Is Dead Dylan lionises the satirist and comedian, portraying him as some kind of hero/martyr type in the same way he did Billy The Kid and Hurricane Carter.  Apart from the questionable lyrics, where it seems he's comparing Bruce's life to his own and even to that of Jesus, the song is a tiresome dirge that feels much longer than its 4:36 running time.  Bob displays his occasional tendency to use lazy, crap rhymes, the worst of them being:

"They stamped him and they labelled him like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts".


Watered-Down Love expands upon 1 Corinthians 13:7 "Love.. believes all things, hopes all things", and seems to suggest that the love others seek is not pure enough and therefore not good enough in Dylan's opinion.  This song could have been so much better if it weren't for its paper-thin sound, and what should have been a decent rock-soul crowd-pleaser is instead a watered-down version of one.  As a result, the outgoing refrain becomes annoying and can't be over soon enough.

The b-side to the single version of Heart of Mine was a session outtake called The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar.  Like many other songs Bob has inexplicably left off his records, Groom is superior to many of the tracks picked for the album, and it was added onto the cassette and CD versions of Shot of Love in the mid-80s after radio play proved it popular.  A frenetic, ramshackle garage-blues with pounding piano from Carl Pickhardt and Steve Douglas doing his thing on sax, it would have slotted nicely onto Highway 61 Revisited were it not for the harsh, dry production. Still, it's a fabulous song and I can even forgive Dylan for trying to (and almost succeeding in) rhyming "January" with "Buenos Aires".

Doubt and self-loathing rear their heads on the lilting, sort-of-reggae of Dead Man, Dead Man, where an exploration of the conflict between Bob's lifestyle and his faith are accompanied by Douglas' sax farting away in the background and some unfocused backing vocals from a similar, but less intrusive version of the female trio on Slow Train Coming and Saved.  It's one of the weakest songs here, the human fallibility described in the lyrics matching that of his songwriting.

Either In The Summertime is a vast improvement in terms of sound quality, or I was just getting used to it, but I really liked it immediately.  It opens with the welcome sound of Dylan on harmonica, and his voice here is warm and affectionate.  A love song that could be interpreted as being addressed to a former lover or to God, the final verse (before an oddly abrupt fade-out) is terrifically moving, ending with:

"And I'm still carrying the gift you gave
It's a part of me now, it's been cherished and saved
It'll be with me unto the grave
And then unto eternity".

The electric blues of Trouble, which is all about, erm, trouble, is the track that sounds most like a demo.  The scuzzy guitar riff is suited to the rawer sound, but the repetitive nature of the song renders it boring.  There's a disconcertingly loud "yeah" at around 3:43, as if Bob's fallen face-first into the mike for a second, the thought of which is most entertaining, possibly more so than Trouble itself.

Like he so often does, Dylan saves the best for last.  After two albums of mostly dogma he's finally able to express his faith in his own terms, uniting his gift for imagery with his new-found beliefs.  Every Grain of Sand borrows from Blake's Auguries of Innocence:

"To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour".

Using this idea as inspiration he reflects upon the question of whether the events of his life are within his control, consoling himself with the belief that even when he feels alone and despairing, his god is close; "That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand".  It's one of his most beautiful, transporting pieces of work to date, the introspective, spiritual lyrics elevated by cooing bvs, piano and ringing guitar.  The sound is much better and more intimate than on the rest of the album, and the overriding feeling of hope reminds me of Forever Young.  Best of all are the two harmonica solos; they are soft, gorgeous and full of emotion, and if an instrument could ever convey a man's belief, acceptance and frailty all in a few bars, it is this one, in the hands of Robert Zimmerman.  On the demo version on the Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3 the second to last line goes "I'm hanging in the balance of a perfect, finished plan", but here it has changed to "I'm hanging in the balance of the reality of man", signalling the ongoing struggle between the spiritual and the earthly.  As well as summing up his feelings about his faith, from what I gather Every Grain of Sand also draws a line under his overtly Christian period in terms of his musical output.

After displaying his versatility by writing some very decent gospel songs, on Shot of Love Dylan has returned to more familiar territory with a mostly rock sound.  That he used several different studios over a longer recording period than usual shows in the varying sound quality across the album, with some potentially great songs spoiled by poor production.  It seems that Chuck Plotkin, who co-produced the bulk of it, fought a losing battle over both mixing and song choice, failing to get superior works such as Caribbean Wind and Angelina onto the record.  Dylan rejected most of Plotkin's "nice mixes" according to drummer Jim Keltner, who claims that "most everything you hear on that Shot of Love album turns out to be the monitor mixes".  I believe him, but Bob was obviously happy with its sound, citing it as one of his favourites.  That he wouldn't budge on the track choices is a shame; even less good outtakes like Need A Woman and You Changed My Life would have been preferable to Dead Man, Dead Man and Trouble.  Some remixing or remastering wouldn't go amiss; according to Shot of Love has "never received a sonic upgrade to date".  Other sources disagree, so I'm unsure whether it was one of the albums to be remastered for the BobBox like Street Legal and Saved were, among others.  If not, they've missed a trick.

Even so, I enjoyed Shot of Love more than I'd expected to (the sleeve art wasn't very encouraging), and the stronger tracks make up for the weak ones, especially the transcendent Every Grain of Sand, which after the tangible anger running through the album, and the dominant theme of spiritual bankruptcy, acts as a soothing balm.  If this song is a sign of where things are headed, the future looks bright indeed - but of course word of Bob's 80s reputation is unavoidable and it looks like the next few albums in the BobBox could be a struggle to get through.  I do hope you can join me.

*****BobBox price check***** - £130.65 (free postage)
Discogs - from £105.72
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 29/07/2015

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