Bob Dylan: Surviving in a Ruthless World review
This review of Terry Gans' Bob Dylan: Surviving in a Ruthless World is taken from the Winter 2020 edition of Dylan Review and is reproduced in full. The review is by Walter Raubicheck of Pace University.
The establishment of the Bob Dylan Archive [BDA] in Tulsa marks the beginning of a new era of Dylan scholarship, revolutionary in scope and potential impact. Gaining access to multiple early drafts of lyrics as well as preliminary takes of officially released songs will significantly broaden our knowledge of both Dylan’s working methods and his artistic vision. The depth and breadth of the tapes, manuscripts, notebooks, and handwritten notes are simply astounding.
Certainly the BDA is an inestimable gift to those who wish to study his work. One of the first products to emerge from work in this archive is the new bookby Terry Gans, Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to Infidels, published by Red Planet Books. The title references Dylan’s working title for the album, and the book traces the evolution of the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements from his earliest ideas for the record in 1982 to its release in the fall of 1983. It is a fascinating journey; Gans presents us with the results of his work in a well-ordered, meticulous manner that is a testament to the hours he spent listening to studio tapes and reading folders filled with Infidels-related material – and obviously taking copious notes. What we are given here is as thorough as it is revelatory.
I for one am grateful that Gans devoted this time and hard work to this particular record, which tends to be overlooked when lists of Dylan’s “Ten Greatest Albums” are composed and compared. Infidels usually fails to compete with the three mid-‘60s classics, the ‘70s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, or such late-period triumphs like Time Out of Mind or “Love and Theft”. This is due in part to a common perception that the ‘80s were Dylan’s “Lost Decade,” one in which he lacked a sense of direction and purpose after he completed the Christian trilogy. Supposedly he only found this direction again with Oh Mercy in 1989. I would argue that Infidels is infused with a newfound purpose, felt on each track, and that the album is one of Dylan’s deepest meditations on the modern world, every bit as insightful and revealing as those found on Time Out of Mind or “Love and Theft”. And now we have Gans’s book to provide convincing evidence to support this claim . . . though he himself refrains from such critical evaluations.
In his Foreword, Gans clarifies his purpose in writing the book, which does not include interpreting what he discovered in his research: I will do my best to avoid hopeless traps like ’Bob must have thought’ or ‘Here is what Dylan meant’ . . . my hope is to stick to the facts: the drafts, notebook jottings. . . . We can all study clues, we can all enjoy songs and we can all cherish the journey of interpretation. To paraphrase: if you want a meaning you can trust, trust yourself. So the book resists all attempts to compare, for example, the religious content of Infidels to that of the explicitly Christian perspective of the preceding three albums or the religious imagery in the later Oh Mercy. This is the book’s strength, and its limitation.
The book is organized chronologically as it discusses the stages of the creative process. It begins with information regarding where and when Dylan composed the songs in 1982 (often sailing the Caribbean islands on a boat he co-owned,Water Pearl); how he went about finding a producer (ultimately settling on Mark Knopfler); and which musicians he hired for the project. Then comes the heart of the book: Gans describes the recording sessions for each song in the order in which they were first attempted in the studio, regardless of whether they appear on the finished album or not. So we begin with 'Blind Willie McTell,' since it was the first song recorded for the album, and end with 'Death is Not the End' – sixteen songs in all. Only eight were released on the album, others were released on subsequent albums (including official bootlegs), and one was never released at all ('Julius and Ethel'). For each of the sixteen songs, Gans uses the tapes in the BDA to inform us as to how many takes exist for each song, and how they differ from one another in tempo, arrangement, and, quite often, lyrics, since Dylan did a lot of writing and rewriting of words in the studio during the sessions themselves.
We are told how Dylan, Knopfler, and the engineers reacted to each take and what songs were played in the studio that day besides the one being recorded for the record (often blues jams). Following the chapter on 'Death Is Not the End,' Gans lists the several cover songs that were recorded for possible release as well as what he calls the “Covers, Jams, Noodles, Etc” that Dylan and the musicians played for fun or relaxation in the studio in between the songs that were intended for the album or for separate release. He also devotes a chapter to describing the work that went into creating the two videos that were used to promote the album ('Sweetheart Like You' and 'Jokerman') as well as a rundown of Dylan’s March 22, 1984 performance on Late Night with David Letterman of two songs from the album ('Jokerman' and 'License to Kill').
Finally, Gans gives us useful appendices, especially the list of how often Dylan performed each song recorded during the Infidels sessions in subsequent years. We also receive a list of “Cliches, Aphorisms, and Images” that are either colloquialisms or adaptations of lines from other texts (which, as of 1983, were not yet considered scandalous). Interestingly, he also provides the information about each image and painting seen in the 'Jokerman' video and concludes with a list of which songs, covers, and jams were played at each session between April 11, 1983 and May 5, 1983—the final session for Infidels.
It is instructive to learn how much Knopfler contributed to the album in terms of the arrangements, not to mention his constant affirmations and cheerleading. Also, to know for sure what Mick Taylor played, what Knopfler played, and how reliable and supportive Sly and Robby were gives us a new appreciation of the dynamic during the sessions. Since Knopfler had to leave in early May 1983 for a Dire Straits tour, he was not present for later overdubbing and mixing, during which Dylan took control. But the respect between him and Dylan comes through very clearly in the book, a respect that contributed to the wonderful performances and singing that characterize Infidels.
Surviving in a Ruthless World is now the definitive description of what went down in The Power Station Studio C in New York in April and May of 1983. The thoroughness that is the strength of the book, though, is also the source of a reader’s occasional frustration. To what end is the research pointing? Clearly that must be interpretation of the lyrics and a reconsideration of the place that Infidels occupies within the Dylan canon—which Gans has no intention of attempting. He largely leaves it up to us to address some of the traditional controversy surrounding the record: Does Infidels mark Dylan’s rejection of Christianity and his return to Judaism? Or is it a return to “secular music”? Why did he leave so many fine songs recorded at the sessions off the album, in particular 'Blind Willie McTell'?
Despite himself, at times Gans does provide some interesting interpretations. In the discussion of 'License to Kill' he writes that “the song encapsulates the core exploration of Infidels, the present-day self-absorbed species and its relationship with the Earth, its brethren and its Lord.” Similarly, he says in his conclusion, Man could be viewed as the Infidel, betraying the promise of life and the earth the Lord provided. A case for the poisoned relationship between Man and the universe can be made in each song. Perhaps Infidels, with a global application, is a title better suited to the collection of songs than the more personal Surviving in a RuthlessnWorld would have been.
These are insightful reflections about the overall vision of the record. But Gans does not explore this vision “in each song,” giving us instead a plethora of unused lyrics that, together with the lyrics on the album—along with the published lyrics— provide a framework for a fascinating insight into Dylan’s worldview in 1983.
In addition, the number and quality of early lyrics Gans found for Infidels in the Archive is surprising and impressive. Dylan’s writing for the album in 1982 and 1983—in notebooks, on typewritten drafts, on the stationery of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manhattan, or created in the studio between takes—represents a resurgence of his unique lyrical abilities. After the heavy biblical imagery of the Christian albums, in which his own distinctive imagery was de-emphasized, the words he wrote for the Infidels songs are—well, Dylanesque. This new poetic vitality was first in evidence in several songs written during the Shot of Love sessions: 'Every Grain of Sand,' 'The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,' 'Caribbean Wind,' and 'Angelina.' In fact, those four songs have more in common with the Infidels lyrics than they do with the other songs on Shot of Love or the songs on Saved and Slow Train Coming. Deeply religious, they express their spirituality in Dylan’s own symbolic language as opposed to the language of Christian scripture—even when they are conveying scriptural ideas.
Gans quotes or paraphrases many of the unused lyrics: for example, in his discussion of 'Jokerman,' we learn that Dylan had written “standing in the river catching fish with your hands” for an opening line and that the prince in the final verse originally will “take your soul” and “take your children as his sacrifice.” In addition, the priests “at this point are not in a pocket but are turned ‘into pimps that make old men bark.’” The alternatives to the words Dylan sings on the album are often, but not always, just as powerful: and thanks to Gans, we now know what other lyrical possibilities Dylan the songwriter had to choose from. Why he made the choices he did, of course, can be known only by the songwriter, if they can be known at all.
Gans mentions that in 1983 Dylan studied with a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn. Of course, when this news was broadcast at the time, it led to the popular theory that Dylan had abandoned Christianity and returned to his Jewish roots. Gans does not speculate on this piece of Dylan’s biography, but Infidels was cited at the time as evidence of this new “conversion.” Christ is not mentioned specifically in the recorded lyrics, the published lyrics, or the alternative lyrics Gans provides. And while 'Neighborhood Bully' is a passionately pro-Israel song, no matter how Dylan tried to downplay that fact in interviews, a close reading of all the lyric alternatives indicates that the songwriter was drawing on concepts from both the Old and New Testament in these songs. For example, Gans points out that in a draft of 'Clean Cut Kid' Dylan had written “MYSTERY BABYLON MOTHER OF WHORES,” a direct quote from the Book of Revelations. We also have in 'Man of Peace' the star “that three men followed from the East.” That the Jokerman has “The Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy” as his only scriptural teachers does not indicate that he is adequately prepared to resist the temptations of evil. If the trio of albums that preceded Infidels can be considered his Christian phase, then Infidels can be considered a Biblical record, one whose vision includes ideas from both Testaments. In his Rolling Stone interview of June 1984 (an excellent companion piece to Infidels), when asked if the Old and New Testaments were “equally valid,” Dylan answered, “To me.”
These are the kinds of reflections that Gans’s book induces but does not carry out. As he says, any “speculations” he does make in his book are meant to “provoke” the reader, and clearly my reading of his book provoked me in many ways to re-think the meaning of Infidels and to reconsider its position within Dylan’s corpus. It has risen even higher in my estimation, certainly lyrically, but also musically. Knopler’s production is clean and crisp, his and Taylor’s licks always enhance the atmosphere of the songs, and Sly and Robbie’s rhythm section is rock solid. Dylan’s singing is strong on the rockers and both forceful and tender on mid-tempo ballads like 'Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight' and 'Sweetheart Like You.' His singing has not yet accumulated the rasp that is first in evidence on Oh Mercy (and which he has learned to use for expressive purposes in his later work).
With Infidels, Dylan reclaimed his reputation as rock’s foremost wordsmith. After Blonde on Blonde he moved away from the powerfully surreal imagery of his most influential song/poems, attempting to find new veins of imagery within traditional country and folk, until he found his distinctive muse again on Blood on the Tracks. The lyrics of Desire adopted a consistently narrative mode, and while Street Legal was a grand attempt at recapturing the lyrical fire of his mid-‘60s work, it was a hit-and-miss affair. Then came the Christian songs in which Dylan restrained his own unique language in deference to his new-found religious vocabulary . . . until, as mentioned, a handful of songs intended for Shot of Love.
But on Infidels we have a compelling vision of the world described with symbolic images drawn from the creative mind of Bob Dylan. (Who else could have written “Well he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool” or “He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull” or “No more mud cake creatures lying in your arms”?) Thanks to Terry Gans’s research and new book, we now know infinitely more about when Dylan first wrote these lyrics and what other words he conjured up in the context of this album.
Gans has provided the groundwork for all future studies of this important period in Dylan’s career. Anyone else who writes seriously about Infidels will need to begin by reading and studying Terry Gans’s Surviving in a Ruthless World.