Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to Infidels

Surviving in a Ruthless World: Bob Dylan’s Voyage to Infidels

By Terry Gans (Red Planet Books 2020)

Some thoughts and meditations from Alan Dearling.

A new book about the many devils in the detail of one of Bob Dylan’s oft-forgotten albums.

It’s a strange forensic trip into every conceivable nook and cranny of the words, recording sessions, notebooks, scribbles and the ‘vagueness’ (as Joan Baez calls it) that surrounds His Bobness. Investigative author, Terry Gans calls it the, “Mystery and magic” of Bob’s art. Consider it an academic anorak investigation. But it’s a lavish production, hardback, and including some high quality photos.

There’s much in this book that is fascinating for the disciples of Bob. It links Bob’s time on his co-owned yacht, ‘Water Pearl’, as it sailed around the Caribbean islands. Much reggae was listened to. Gans tells us, “…he allowed the sounds of the Islands to seep into the rhythm of his writing and the music he envisioned for the writings.” As a reader of Gans’ book, and one quite interested in Bob’s writings and mystique, I went on the voyage with a developing sense of awe, frustration and marvel. ‘Infidels’ was recorded in a series of sessions early in 1983. It was developed by Dylan for his recording label, CBS Records, as an antidote to the previous run of three albums, regarded widely as Dylan’s Gospel (born-again)Trinity of albums: ‘Slow train coming’, ‘Saved’ and ‘Shot of Love’. Did CBS co-head really phone Bob and say of the next album: “No fucking religion – not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim. Nothing?”

On the yacht, Dylan had filled a lot of notebooks with jottings, potential lyrics, song structures, titles and more. These and much other material are now housed in the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, established in 2016. It also houses all the published lyrics for ‘Infidels’, the session recordings and many images – Terry Gans was granted access to this diverse and richly confusing treasure trove on Bob-stuff. He also interviewed some, but not all of the key players – neither Bob himself, or, musician and the co-record-producer of ‘Infidels’, Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.

The structure of the book is not one designed or suited to the casual reader. It’s far more akin to a university thesis; the product of a research project. This makes it hard work. Eighteen main potential tracks, 16 originals from Dylan (and dozens of other covers, jams and snippets) were recorded at the Power Station Studio in Manhattan by Bob (playing guitar, harp, piano and more) with an elite core group of musicians: Mark Knopfler – guitars; Alan Clark – keyboards; Mick Taylor – guitars; Sly Dunbar – drums,  and Robbie Shakespeare – bass. A formidable team and a departure for Dylan. Likewise, this was his first album using digital techniques of cut-ins, multiple overdubs and quick fixes. A heck of a lot of new recording toys for Dylan to tinker with. Perhaps too many! Yet the actual digital recordings were onto 32 minute long master tapes.  Only eight tracks made it to the album, which was originally intended to be titled by Dylan as, ‘Surviving in a Ruthless World’, which became ‘Infidels’, but Gans really offers no clue as to why.

At an early juncture in the book, Terry Gans suggests that you go and listen to the album. Stream it if you must. And he repeats Frank Zappa’s wise words that talking about music is like, “…dancing about architecture.” I’m not sure this book really adheres to that suggested dictum, instead providing microscopic analysis of every version of the lyrics, recordings and ephemera. Each of the potential 18 tracks forms a chapter in the order in which they were first recorded. Published lyrics first, followed by extensive notes under the headings: ‘writing’ and ‘recording’. It’s often a seriously challenging ‘read’! For me, this is wryly evidenced in Terry Gans’ final comment on an oft-bootlegged version of the rather wonderful song, ‘Blind Willie McTell’, a song left off the album. Gans suggests: “It is interesting to listen to, but horrible to hear.”

The ‘meaning’ of Dylan’s songs has filled many books. From ‘Dylan on Dylan’ (Cott, J., 2006), we can learn much about how the more we read them, the more obscure the lyrics often become. We are “…prisoners in a world of mystery”, as Dylan sings in the song ‘Highlands’. And, “Even if I could tell you what the song is about I wouldn’t.” He’s the ultimate chameleon – the ever changing and evolving poet and scribe – saying, “I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”  

Terry Gans offers plenty of detail concerning the words and recording sessions from ‘Infidels’. There’s a lot on religion and interpretations of songs as metaphors for the state of Israel. He also offers some pretty obscure information on the tracks that didn’t make it on to the album that was released. And he speculates on the very different album that could have been created in the CD age without the 42 minutes vinyl time constraints. Whether they are ‘insights’ is in the eye and mind of the beholder. Gans suggests that. “We guess. We surmise. We speculate. And we project.” ‘Infidels’ contains much fine playing, some memorable songs such as ‘Jokerman’, ‘Sweetheart like you’, ‘Neighborhood Bully’, ‘License to kill’ and ‘I and I’. The ‘Jokerman’ video is worth watching, a clever mash-up of art, Dylan and some cut-up icons of history:

And the live recording with a pick-up bunch of musicians for TV show, ‘Late Night with David Letterman’:–PD1BcGE     (the ‘Infidels’ tracks come later in the video, so scroll forward).

This is very Dylan – and definitely and defiantly not what you would expect from an artist promoting his new album. ‘Contrary’, might easily be Bob’s middle name!  That much does come over in Terry Gans’ minutely detailed new book.

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