A Hole Full Of Light: The Making Of Bob Dylan’s Shot Of Love

Released in August 1981, Shot Of Love remains one of the most neglected albums of Bob Dylan’s career, in large part due to its association with his so-called “Born Again Period,” and popular kneejerk pigeonholing as the closing brimstone book of the “Christian Trilogy” that also includes 1979’s Slow Train Coming and 1980’s Saved.

“The critics,” Dylan said, while discussing the album for the notes to 1985’s retrospective box set Biograph, “all they talked about was Jesus this and Jesus that, like it was some kind of Methodist record…” Certainly, critical reception was harsh: “annoying… filled mainly with hatred, confusion and egoism,” Paul Nelson wrote in his Rolling Stone review, while, in the NME, Nick Kent summed his feelings up bluntly: “Dylan’s worst album to date.”

But Shot Of Love stands a little apart from the two records that preceded it. A spiritual searching and gospel slant remains, but shares space with a faith in the power of driving blues, rock’n’roll, and simple, battered old pop – indeed, the towering title track was produced by the veteran Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, best known for producing Little Richard’s legendary 1950s singles, and Sam Cooke’s heavenly “You Send Me.”

It’s an album worth revisiting, as a cult that includes everyone from PJ Harvey to Elvis Costello might testify. For one thing, in songs like “Every Grain Of Sand,” and “Angelina” (recorded, but not used for the album, it was eventually released on The Bootleg Series Vols 1-3), it catches Dylan during a particularly fecund period of writing. For another, in performances like the raging “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” (recorded for, but originally left off the album), he just blasts again in a way he hadn’t quite on record since maybe 1966. And for a third, sonically, it has the ragged, warm and spontaneous feel that marks all his best LPs – an approach to the studio he wouldn’t quite capture again until the turn of the century.

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“The record had something that could have been made in the 40s or maybe the 50s,” Dylan put it. Here, three of the album’s key players recall working with Dylan on the album, and how it just about came together.


VOICES

Chuck Plotkin: Dylan’s co-producer on Shot Of Love, best known for his long association with Bruce Springsteen
Fred Tackett: Played guitar in Dylan’s band throughout the intense “gospel” period of 1979-1981, and features on Saved and Shot Of Love.
Benmont Tench: The keyboards player in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Tench worked on the sessions for Shot Of Love and the following Empire Burlesque album, and played live with Dylan across 1986-87. He recorded with Dylan again in 2002, supplying stately organ on “Cross The Green Mountain”

 

BENMONT TENCH: My first ever experience of playing with Bob was a little before the Shot Of Love sessions started. It was when Dylan was working on a track called “Caribbean Wind,” which was probably when he was just starting work on what became Shot Of Love, but the song didn’t wind up being on the album. It eventually came out later [on Biograph]. But Jimmy Iovine was the producer on that first session, and I think Jimmy and Bob had some kind of a falling out – Jimmy left before we completed it. I’m not sure what happened there.

FRED TACKETT: Do I know why Iovine didn’t end up producing the whole album? Yeah. This is the same thing that happened with Harry Nilsson, by the way. Harry was one of my good friends, and Harry was like Bob in this: he wanted it spontaneous. He was writing songs in the studio, and there’d always be some guy with, like, a team of 18 guys who would come in and say, “Okay, now, Harry, if I could just get you to sit down here, and we’ll work out the A-Team sound, and then let me separate all the musicians and get them a nice, clean sound, and then…” And I just remember Harry picking up the telephone and calling security: “Get this guy out of my studio.” Bob was like that.

Bob was always looking for, like, the old studios, the vintage places, where all the old R&B and country records were cut. Places like Gold Star in LA, we recorded over there, where a lot of historic records were made, Phil Spector records, things like that. And Bob was always searching for this stuff, old microphones, vintage studios. So, we came into this studio that was owned by Richard Perry, Studio 55, I believe, and it had used to be an old studio, but now it was like the Number One studio in LA: it had all the top equipment, all the newest technical stuff and everything. So the band got there first, and Jimmy Iovine was there, and the first thing he did was he separated us, which was the standard thing at the time. So, he had the acoustic guitars all separated from the drums, so there wouldn’t be any leakage from other instruments, all very clean sounding. And I was off in my little booth playing mandolin. And we were working on this song, “Caribbean Wind,” although I always seem to remember calling it “Mandolins In The Wind” back then. Anyway, Bob still hadn’t arrived, and we cut a version of the tune, and, you know, it sounded really crisp, really clean, Number One, A-Team sound, top record.

Then Bob comes in. And he’s standing at the back, just looking at the studio, and he’s listening to the playback of this thing that we’ve recorded. And, at that moment, somebody tells him, “Hey, Bob, y’know, this is the studio where Bing Crosby cut ‘White Christmas’ back in the 1940s…” And, right away, Bob turns to the assistant he had helping him, and says, “Go out and get me the music for ‘White Christmas.’ Because I can’t record any of my music in this studio.”

Then he shouts, “Fred, where are you?” And I’m like, “I’m over here, in this little room back here with the mandolin.” And he says, “Well, get your electric guitar and get out here.” And he goes around everybody, and next thing you know, the whole set up is just taken apart, and he’s got all of us, me and Steve Ripley, Jim Keltner and his drums, Tim [Drummond] the bass player, in the room together, with our amps and stuff hastily set up, and then we just started doing what we normally did, which was play a lot of songs. Bob started playing, we started joining in, and we played and we played and we played. And I look up – I remember, we were doing “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” – and I look up at the control room, and Jimmy Iovine and his engineer, they’ve just gone. They have just left. The second engineer was the only guy left in there recording stuff. It was hysterical.

CHUCK PLOTKIN: I believe it was David Geffen who first got me involved as Dylan’s co-producer for Shot Of Love. He and Bob were friends, and Bob was looking for somebody to help him make a record. I think Bob sensed he was accumulating material at a pretty ferocious pace, and that it was getting time to make another record. And he wanted some help from a source that he hadn’t worked with before. So David referred him to me.

It was kind of funny, actually. I had no idea. And I got a couple of telephone messages. I had this funky little recording studio in Hollywood, a little office upstairs. And I got these messages, saying it was Bob calling. I had never met him, and certainly didn’t expect to hear from him, so, I assumed it was some friend of mine pulling my leg. So I didn’t call back. Finally, I think it was the third call, somebody was calling on Bob’s behalf, and I picked up the message and called back. And, I was a big fan of Bob’s, y’know, he was a kind of hero of mine, and so the idea that he might be calling made me nervous. But, as I was dialling the number, while I was on the phone, I was thinking: Well, what the hell am I supposed to say if someone picks up? You know: “Is Bob there?” Is that the right thing? I mean, I can’t say, “Is Mr Dylan there?” That’s ridiculous. Do I say, “Is Bob Dylan there?” That was worse. I couldn’t find the right note. So, when somebody finally answered the phone, I tried, “…Is Bob there?” And the woman who answered, as if to pay me back for some failure in not having figured out the correct way to do this, said: “Bob who?” And, apparently, down in his spot there – he had this warehouse space, where he kept his road gear, and he had a rehearsal space in there where he could do some level of recording – there were a few people there called Bob. So I finally had to say, “Uh… Bob Dylan?”

Anyway, he got on the phone, and he was incredibly compassionate – what I mean is, he understood what it was like for somebody to get a phonecall out of the blue from him. He made it easy for me to talk to him. He said, “Well, I’m getting ready to start a record. Are you familiar with my work?” And I didn’t want to over-react about just how familiar with his work I was. So, I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, jeez, can you come by and take a listen to what I’m up to here?” I said, “Sure. When?” He said, “How about now?”

So, he gave me an address, and I drove to this rehearsal place, where he had some of his band assembled. And I found out afterwards that he was sort of interviewing possible producers. There was a list of people, and people were coming by, and they would hear a bit of a rehearsal, and have a bit of conversation, and somehow over a period of time, Bob figured out what would work best for him. In fact, when I showed up that first day, Bumps Blackwell was there, and they were rehearsing “Shot Of Love” itself – and that’s the version that’s on the record, and it was actually recorded at Bob’s rehearsal space. Bumps was standing there, sort of conducting Bob and the band, all these dramatic stops. And I didn’t know at the time who this guy was – I mean, I knew the name, I knew who “Bumps” Blackwell was, but I’d never met him, so I didn’t recognise him. That was the situation I walked into when I showed up. But Bumps, I think, had just come by. I don’t think he was someone Bob was interviewing to produce the whole album. I don’t know how Bob’s decisions are made, I don’t know why he finally decided it should be me. We got along, though, straight off, I liked him a lot, and we talked pretty easily together and it was comfortable. I’m not sure what happened with Jimmy [Iovine]. But Bob was experimenting. One of the things he said to me, when we talked on the phone, before I came down there, was along the lines of, “If you know my work, you’ll know that I’m not a reliably effective record-maker. Record making is not my fundamental thing.” And, of course, some of his records were among my favourite records of all time, so I almost didn’t know what he meant.

BENMONT TENCH: Dylan seemed very focussed on Shot Of Love. He didn’t seem to me to be searching for the way he wanted the songs to be; he seemed to know exactly what was in his head, and it didn’t feel like we were having much trouble getting what he was after. We cut everything live, which was wonderful, you know, with the backing singers really singing and playing percussion, the whole deal. We made it really quickly, just blazed through the songs.

CHUCK PLOTKIN: Part of what’s interesting to me, as somebody who has spent a lot of my adult life making records, is just figuring out what the issues are when you’re making a record. What is my particular job in this particular situation? And I think probably the single most important thing I did on Shot Of Love was deciding that I didn’t need to be in the control room. There was no point, and so I stopped being in the control room. I had a good relationship with [engineer] Toby Scott, and we could signal each other about things. And, the thing is, I would have been useless in the control room, anyway: because Bob didn’t want to wear headphones while he was recording. And, you know: that was the first time that I had ever run into that. But, I just thought, Okay, well, we’ll need to figure out some other kind of way to do this…You have to try to figure out a way to preserve the possibility of a certain vitality that happens if you don’t over-control the process. And so, we had to figure out some way to organise a little kind of mini-sound system inside the studio, so that nobody had to wear headphones. And that was a big challenge.

So, I was out in the studio, with the band. There was a day, Bob had been playing guitar, but at some point he suddenly moved over to the piano and began to play. Now, the piano was mic’ed, but there was no vocal mic at the piano, it just wasn’t set up, because Bob hadn’t been playing piano. And I realised: this is not a guy who wants to even think about going through the business of doing, like, seven takes. Forget seven takes. Once he’s got the words right: that’s your take, right there. He’s an artist, but he’s not a recording artist, it’s just not what he does. And so, he started to play at the piano, and I didn’t want to stop him.

He’s started playing, and he’s playing something, and I don’t know what it is – he’s playing a song I’ve never even heard before. I don’t know what’s going to happen. So, I grabbed hold of the mic from the stand where he had previously been playing guitar and singing, and I basically turned myself into a mic stand. I literally held the microphone up, tried to find a physically comfortable enough position so that I was not in his way, and that I could still manage to hold my arm out there for however long this song was going to take. And it was “Every Grain Of Sand!” I’m standing there, hearing this for the first time, and this song kills me, I think it’s one of his great, great songs – and I’m hearing it for the first time while standing beside him imitating a mic stand. And that was the version we used on the record. People ask me sometimes, “What is it you do as a producer?” And, well, sometimes that’s it: you act as a mic stand. You try to figure out how to keep the vitality in the process.

FRED TACKETT: Yeah, I remember that Chuck was more like hanging with us in the studio, and enjoying it, rather than being in the control room. And he always wanted to play drums, as I remember! I remember this one night, we had Ringo Starr there, you know, as well as Jim [Keltner] – couple of pretty good drummers – and I came in and Chuck was sitting playing Ringo’s drums! It was the song, “Heart Of Mine.” And I remember thinking, “Uh…why is Chuck Plotkin playing Ringo’s drums, while Ringo is standing around waiting to play?”

CHUCK PLOTKIN: It’s almost impossible to explain how that happened. We had cut a version of it, it was one of the very few things that we cut more than one version, and the first version, it was at the wrong tempo, we didn’t get what, to me, felt like a workable version. Meanwhile, everybody who had found out that Bob was recording, friends of his, had called. So Ringo had called, “Oh, Jeez, I’m in town, I’d love to come by, maybe play on something.” And Bob mentioned this to me, and I’m like, “Sure, great.” So we plan a day, and we do it. And, of course, it turns out that Ronnie Wood comes along that day, too. You have to remember, I’m in my thirties at this point, I’ve never met any of these guys, I’ve got this funky little studio in Hollywood, really nothing fancy about the place at all – and, all of a sudden, I have Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, in my studio, playing together on this song. And Donald “Duck” Dunn was at that session, too.

Anyway. “Heart Of Mine” is the song that I know we need to get. Because it’s the obvious song for a single. And we’ve got Ringo, and Jim Keltner, and Jim was Our Man, you know. He was Bob’s Drummer. Just brilliant. We were crammed like sardines in the place. But for some reason, they were having trouble finding the right tempo, the right groove. So, we’re taking a break, and people spread out – there’s a little place upstairs to go relax in, people are off to the bathroom or grabbing a bite to eat – and I’m alone in the studio, and I sit down at Ringo’s set, it’s just a rented set of drums, and try to see if I can find the right groove. And I’m not a drummer, I don’t own a set, it’s not my instrument. But I’m playing, trying to locate the tempo, and Ringo walks back in, and he says, “There! That’s it. That’s the right feel, right there.” And so I start to get up for him to take over, and he says, “No, no, no. Don’t you get up. Don’t stop. You just stay right there and keep that going.” What am I going to say? That I’ve never played drums before? So, Ringo tells me, “You just sit there, you can play the hi-hat, the snare and the kick, and I’ll play the toms and the cymbal.” So, Ringo pulls up another seat, and the two of us are sitting at the same drum kit. People start coming back in the room, Keltner sits down, somebody calls “1-2-3,” and we start playing the song. And, if you listen to the recording, one of the things it is, yeah, is a bit raggedy-assed.

BENMONT TENCH: Everybody was very focussed on those sessions. I don’t remember any left turns in the arrangements or anything. But there was spontaneity. I remember we would record late into the night, till midnight, or sometimes long past. One of the songs – “Watered Down Love” – doesn’t have a bass on it. And that’s because, we were all done, long done for the day, and almost everybody had packed up and gone home, including Tim Drummond, the bass player. But I think two or three of us hung around for a little while, afterwards. And then, late, we went back into the studio, and cut the song without a bass. And that’s the version they kept on the album.

CHUCK PLOTKIN: There are a few things on the record that are a bit raggedy-assed. The whole record was like that. Like, for instance: the mixes. The mixes that got released on the record? Those are all just the monitor mixes that we’d get at the end of each night. We’d do a tune, get a track we liked, and we’d just run off a rough monitor mix. And those are the mixes you hear. Now, I tried to mix the record. The engineer Toby and I, we tried to squeeze some little level of aural finesse in there. But every time we did a finished mix and took it to Bob, he went: “Naw, naw, no. The other mix. The ones I’ve been listening to – that’s the record.” The rough mixes had some weird quality to them. He had the sense to realise it.

BENMONT TENCH: Chuck Plotkin’s production on Shot Of Love is very natural, very realistic, and I think the record holds up really well because the production wasn’t following any trend. It’s the sound of musicians and a singer performing some really great songs together. The thing that happened later in the 1980s was all to do with record production. You know: Empire Burlesque, which I also played on, sonically, seems to be chasing some kind of “current sound.” And, to my tastes, the current sound of the 1980s was a horror show. So that colours Empire Burlesque for me, as an album – it doesn’t colour the songs, because there are really terrific song on there. To me, that’s the story of Bob, no matter what, no matter the period: The songs.

CHUCK PLOTKIN: You know, I remember the first time I heard “Gotta Serve Somebody,” off of the Slow Train album. I heard it on the radio, and I thought it was just great, fantastic. The religious overtones didn’t impede me from receiving this thing as a great piece of Bob. And I checked it out to find out who that band was, and, man – he’d made it in Muscle Shoals. Y’know: those guys. Just great musicians and highly disciplined characters, and Bob’s found his way into a wonderful situation, where everyone can be relied upon to do their part. That’s what I thought about that. But then – when I actually talked to Bob a little bit during Shot Of Love, I said to him how I thought that Slow Train was a great record. And Bob said to me: “I felt uncomfortable making it. Because, the first thing they did when I got down there was, I had to sit down and play them all the songs. They wanted to hear all the songs!”

And, you know, if it wasn’t Bob Dylan saying this to you, you might think, “Well, that’s not an unreasonable request… OF COURSE they want to hear all the songs!” But the fact is, you can skip that with Bob. The most important thing on the record might turn out to be something that he’s writing at the back of his mind, right now. He doesn’t want to sit in a room and play all the songs for somebody. And it’s not arrogance: it’s an acknowledgement of what it is that helps him keep his thing alive. And one of the results of that is, y’know, me standing there holding a microphone in front of his mouth while “Every Grain Of Sand” comes out of it.

BENMONT TENCH: I think, out of all the times I played with Dylan, Shot Of Love is the one that kind of sums up the experience: and especially the moment when he showed us “Every Grain Of Sand.” He played it on piano and then, when we recorded, he was on harmonica, and I was very close to him and the backing singers the way I was set up. And so I was just watching him play this harmonica solo, and, I don’t know, something about watching Bob doing that was really, really pretty moving.

FRED TACKETT: One moment that really stands out for me from around this period was when we did a version of “Every Grain Of Sand,” where it was just Bob and I. You know, because people would just go off and do whatever they were doing: we’d play a bunch, and then we took a break, and everybody, Chuck and Jim and Ringo, I think, was there that day. And everybody, they’d all just kind of went off to go to lunch or whatever. And it wound up that Bob and I were the only two left sitting around in the studio. And he started playing “Every Grain Of Sand,” on piano, and I was playing acoustic guitar, and that recording just came out great, I think. That stands out, and “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar,” that really stands out, because it was such a rocker.

CHUCK PLOTKIN: “Groom’s Still Waiting” didn’t make it onto the original version of the album when it was first released. When Bob was trying to figure out what goes on the record and what doesn’t, something about that recording bothered him. It just wasn’t quite working. And I was trying to figure out what it was that wasn’t quite working, and the only thing I could think of was the tempo: we just cut it a little too slow. It had a good feel, but it was just cut too slow. Now, artists like Bob tend to be very suspicious, and with good reason, of the manipulations that you can do, using technology. But, at some point, I think we were going to use it as a B-side, and I played around and I found the right degree of speeding it up, without messing it up. Y’know: not going into that thing that makes it sound not real. At that time, 1981, there was just barely beginning to become available the equipment necessary to be able to speed something up without changing the pitch. Four, five years earlier, you just couldn’t do it. So, I sped it up a little. Bob was out on the road, and I went out, caught up with him at a show, and I brought this version of “Groom’s Still Waiting” along with me – it was the same thing, but just slightly sped up, enough so that it felt different, and the emotional impact was there, as opposed to being dragged back by the tempo. Now, when we were first listening to it, I couldn’t just say to Bob, “I think it’s too slow, let me speed it up.” That just wouldn’t work. It wasn’t a possible response. But, when he heard it out there on the road, he liked it. So that’s how it got on the B-side, and once it was out there, it went on the album when it was reissued on CD.

There were some wonderful things that we just didn’t have room for on the album. We almost didn’t have “Groom’s Still Waiting.” And “Angelina,” was a wonderful thing, y’know. Sometimes, as a producer, you can fight to have a song included. But you have to pick your fights. Part of the problem is, you know that your job depends on having the artist feel completely supported in what he or she is doing. But, at the same time, he’s hired you to, from time to time, say, “No, I think this could be better,” or, “No, I think we should use this.” I can’t remember now whether I fought with Bob over any particular song. But, y’know, I’ve worked with Springsteen for 25 years, and there were times there when I just used to say to myself, “Well, another brave soldier bites the dust…” It just happens. Songs go. Sometime you can make the case for a song. But if you’re too pushy about it, the trust breaks down. Bruce and I, we had some amazing battles over songs, I can tell you.

BENMONT TENCH: I think Shot Of Love is an album that has maybe been somewhat overlooked, and maybe because it’s associated with this “Christian trilogy” label. It’s a pity what fundamentalists have done to the reputation of Christianity, to the point where a lot of people won’t given even a chance to anything that has a hint of Christianity about it, because fundamentalists have left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth…But you can’t just write off a piece of work that is searching for spiritual meaning. I mean, are we going to write off Milton’s Paradise Lost? Shot Of Love is the album that has “Every Grain Of Sand” on it. You can’t write that off. And, you know, “Trouble,” there’s a great song. I think Bob really wrote his ass off on that record.

FRED TACKETT: Those albums – all three of them, Slow Train, Saved and Shot Of Love – they were great records. And I think if you ask Bob, he likes those records, too. They were just good songs. But people just freaked out a little, I guess, about the whole religious thing. I never understood the logic of it. That was a wonderful time, though. Yeah: we were on the mission. Bob had a definite point of view, that he wanted to do this kind of music, and so, those of us in those bands around then, we felt like we were participating in something historic. It wasn’t like we were just going in and doing the newest Miley Cyrus record or whatever. It wasn’t like just playing on another record. It was doing something where you thought, this has some importance to it. This has some significance. This is good music, a good thing, a positive thing. You know: all the great artists in music have spent some time playing secular music, and some time playing religious music. I really felt it was like a fulfilment of my musical career to have a chance to do this. Everything about those three years of my life with Bob Dylan was precious to me. I was playing with these amazing musicians, and I loved every second of it, even when the travel was hard, or it was funky hotel, or whatever, the whole experience was absolutely wonderful. Yeah, it was just a great experience.

CHUCK PLOTKIN: Shot of Love came after Saved, and Saved, I think, was his most reviled record ever – a lot of his regular fans felt almost betrayed that he was venturing into some zone that had already been defined by other people, if you know what I mean. They were like: Where did Bob go? They felt that Bob disappeared into a kind of black hole. Whereas, Bob would say, “No: that’s a hole full of light…”

But his audience was pissed at him, there’s no question about it. And it did affect the reception of Shot Of Love. But also, the record has this strange, wild, raggedy-assed quality to it, that some people couldn’t hear through. But that quality went perfectly well with how the record had to be made to survive at all. It’s got that weird quality. We used rough mixes. Really rough. But, yeah, I feel like it has been a neglected record. And in part, I feel responsible. In order to get the record made at all, I had to relinquish a lot of control over things that I ordinarily would have a lot of control over. And so, somebody might say to me, “Plotkin, it’s the wrong balance. It’s done incorrectly, and you ought to be able to hear that…”

But I really believe that I did as much as I could to make it work for regular listeners. And it’s not a regular record. I mean, if you read the words to “Every Grain Of Sand.” It’s just an amazing thing – he couldn’t have written that 10 or 20 years earlier. There’s somebody who actually understands his own life, and understands our lives in depth and precision. “…I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame/ And every time I pass that way I always hear my name…” It’s like, Woooaaaah: Go Bob! God, it still makes me cry.

These interviews were all conducted around 2014,
and are edited from my work-in-progress manuscript
Rolling: In The Studio With Bob Dylan,
which I might finish one day.