Bob Dylan’s Lost Masterpiece

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Bob Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels gets four stars from All Music.com. After commenting that the writing is close to his peaks in the 1970’s and some of the songs, especially on side one, are “minor classics” the review states, “For a while, Infidels seems like a latter-day masterpiece, but toward the end of the record it runs out of steam…” This is indeed a shame for if you listen to the original sessions for the album there is plenty of steam.

A while ago, I had the pleasure of obtaining a recording of indeterminable origin (bootleg) containing the sessions that Dylan recorded for Infidels (Dylan, Knopfler and Taylor). He had assembled for this project a glorious band consisting of Sly and Robbie (Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare) of reggae fame on drums and bass, Mark Knopfler and former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on guitars, Alan Clark (of Dire Straits) on keyboards, Clydie King on vocals and himself on Vocals, Harmonica, Guitar and Keyboards. And the recording contained 26 tracks compared to Infidel’s eight. Much of it, to me at least sounds superior to the officially released version, especially, Sweetheart like You and I and I.

The standouts of the bootleg were two songs, Foot of Pride and a tune that recalled classic Dylan, titled Blind Willie McTell. There are versions of both on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991. Foot of Pride contains a line that I especially like, “Feed you coconut bread, spice buns in your bed”. These are both Jamaican specialties; Coco bread and bun and cheese. However, the lost masterpiece in my opinion is Blind Willie McTell. The version on The Bootleg Series is an acoustic one. The track on the real bootleg (Dylan, Knopfler and Taylor) is electric. I would put the electric version on a par with his All Along the Watchtower.

It begins with Dylan singing and accompanying himself on piano with Taylor filling in on slide guitar. The tune is in D minor and roughly follows the chord changes of St. James Infirmary. Dylan blows the first line, singing “I saw the arrow on the dog bone” instead of I saw the arrow on the doorpost. He chuckles after singing this but then continues undeterred. This could have easily been edited out because it is an introduction and the band doesn’t join in until after the next verse. After the next verse you can hear Dylan tapping out the beat with his foot, like on an old John Lee Hooker recording, and then the band joins with Knopfler on rhythm guitar, Clark on organ and Sly and Robbie on rock solid drum and bass.

The lyrics are written from the vantage point of an observer who sees the history of African American music. It is not a romantic view. It acknowledges the brutal truth by admitting that “This land is condemned, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem.” The observer hears the cracking of whips and sees the “ghosts of slavery ships”. Yes, the reference to Jerusalem makes the connection of the oppressors to their religion and its complicity in the crime. The narrator sums it all up by saying, “I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

Dylan’s vocal timing is impeccable, like Sinatra at his best. His passion is evident in his voice and in his playing on harmonica and piano. Taylor’s guitar work ranks with his finest.  Why this was not included on Infidels is a mystery and a shame.

Dylan was by this time famous for leaving great songs off of his albums. Remember, his Great White Wonder was the first rock bootleg for this very reason. Songs like The Mighty Quinn, This Wheel’s on Fire, Farewell Angelina, Too Much of Nothing, Only a Hobo, Tomorrow is a Long Time, etc. were left for others to record before Dylan officially left his imprint on them. However, one can only speculate on the reception Infidels would have had if it had included Foot of Pride and Blind Willie McTell.

For fear of violating the DMCA, I will not link to Dylan’s album or the bootleg. However, here is a link to my version of Blind Willie McTell:  Blind Willie

If anyone would like me to take it down, please let me know.

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