The Making of Dylan's "Love and Theft"

Two weeks, twelve songs - that's all it took for a new classic
Posted Sep 27, 2001 at 12:00am
At about 3:30 p.m. every day for two weeks last May, Bob Dylan arrived at a recording studio in midtown Manhattan and went straight to work. Dylan was making Love and Theft, his first studio album in four years. "And it was work," says organist and accordion player Augie Meyers, an old friend of Dylan's who played on the new record with the members of Dylan's touring band: guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, bassist Tony Garnier and think, 'What are we gonna do today?' And Bob would walk in, have all his papers there and go, 'Let's try this in [the key of] C.'

"There was none of this 'Hi, what's happening?' and a bit of BS," says the Texas-born Meyers, 61, who played in the Sir Douglas Quintet and has known Dylan since the 1960s. "It was, 'OK, let's go to work.' After we were through, at ten o'clock at night, it seemed like we'd only been there a couple of hours, because it was so much fun. Every day was a special day, because every day was a new song."

Love and Theft, to be released by Columbia Records on September 11th, caps an extended period of triumph for Dylan, who turned sixty on May 24th. His last studio album, 1997's Time Out of Mind, won three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. Earlier this year, Dylan took home an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his contribution to the Wonder Boys soundtrack, "Things Have Changed." And the eleven new original songs on Love and Theft - a twelfth, "Mississippi," is a Time Out of Mind outtake that Dylan recut for the new record - reflect the power and variety of his live shows in the last half-decade.

Love and Theft is vastly different in tone and atmosphere from Time Out of Mind, even though both records feature Dylan's group. The latter was produced by Daniel Lanois with an emphasis on shadows and foreboding. Dylan, in turn, produced Love and Theft (under an alias, Jack Frost) with a focus on vocal melodies and the interplay of Campbell and Sexton's guitars. Combining incisive reflection and complex narrative with sprawling, guitar-enriched Americana - jump blues, rockabilly, mountain balladry and saloon croon - Dylan has made one of the most jubilant and compelling records of his career. Asked why he recut "Mississippi" for Love and Theft and produced the album himself, Dylan replies, "If you had heard the original recording, you'd see in a second. The song was pretty much laid out intact melodically, lyrically and structurally, but Lanois didn't see it. Thought it was pedestrian. Took it down the Afro-polyrhythm route - multirhythm drumming, that sort of thing. Polyrhythm has its place, but it doesn't work for knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism.

"Maybe we had worked too hard on other things, I can't remember," Dylan continues, "but Lanois can get passionate about what he feels to be true. He's not above smashing guitars. I never cared about that unless it was one of mine. Things got contentious once in the parking lot. He tried to convince me that the song had to be 'sexy, sexy and more sexy.' I know about sexy, too. He reminded me of Sam Phillips, who had once said the same thing to John Prine about a song, but the circumstances were not similar. I tried to explain that the song had more to do with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights than witch doctors, and just couldn't be thought of as some kind of ideological voodoo thing. But he had his own way of looking at things, and in the end I had to reject this because I thought too highly of the expressive meaning behind the lyrics to bury them in some steamy cauldron of drum theory. On the performance you're hearing, the bass is playing a triplet beat, and that adds up to all the multirhythm you need, even in a slow-tempo song. I think Lanois is an excellent producer, though."

Amazingly, Dylan did much of his writing for Love and Theft on the spot, at the sessions. Dylan, says Meyers, would "fool around for a while with a song, then we'd cut it. And he'd say, 'I think I'm gonna write a couple more verses,' sit down and write five more verses. Each verse had six or eight lines. It's complicated stuff, and he was doing it right there."

The songs, Meyers adds, were mostly recorded live, including Dylan's vocals. "Bob don't like to overdub much," Meyers notes. "He would overdub some acoustic guitars, put some mandolin and fiddle on there. Sometimes he'd overdub his voice. If he messed up [a vocal], he'd overdub a word or two."

The band that recorded Love and Theft has known one another for decades. "We're all family at this point," Meyers notes. Sexton and Clay were childhood friends; Campbell played with Meyers and Sir Douglas Quintet leader Doug Sahm back in the 1970s. And Dylan was a frequent visitor to Meyers' Texas farm. Dylan will be playing U.S. arenas in October and November to promote the album. "They are a fantastic band," Meyers says of the touring group. "Larry and Tony, they got the chords - they know those from way back, because they've been playing with Bob so long. And Charlie" - who joined Dylan in 1999 - "knows the guitar from what's going on now. It all blends so well.

"I think Bob has got the perfect thing," Meyers adds. "Lord help him, if he can go for another ten or twelve years, I think that band will be there with him."

Written by DAVID FRICKE for News

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