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The following piece is an excerpt from Chris Morris’ book Together Through Life: A Personal Journey With The Music Of Bob Dylan, and offers a moving look back at an album that rang in a fresh chapter in Dylan’s career.
In the fall of 1989, my wife packed her VW van, gathered up my two young sons, and moved to Flagstaff. It had all been going south for a while, and I had driven it there. I loved my boys, but they didn’t keep me at home, for I was crawling out of my own skin. I prowled the city, Hollywood, the West Side, Venice, looking for God knows what, but I know I went about it wrong. A man shouldn’t give his address out to bad company, but I had, and so I found myself sitting in a car in East Hollywood, waiting as one of my barroom friends scored his junk. I drank in every hellhole in the city, and they all let me drink until I was blind. One club owner would pull me into the office as soon as I walked in the door and dump a pile of blow on the desk. I wanted someone I knew I shouldn’t, and she wanted me, but guilt overtook me, and it went into the ditch. Now I was living alone in a three-bedroom house with a broken gate, leaks in the roof, and a six-pack and a bottle of Stolichnaya in the refrigerator; the weeds on the lawn were as tall as elephant grass. I’d set fire to my life.
It is one of the handful of records I’ve ever heard for which I can say I am truly grateful
I somehow managed to hang onto my sanity and my job, by my fingernails, but my nights grew later and longer. I’d drink at home, and my closest companion during those hours became a new Bob Dylan album. I had no reason to expect that I would ever want such companionship, never dreamed of it actually, for his music had left me profoundly unmoved for many years. But there were countless nights when I turned off all the lights and stretched out on the soiled, lumpy couch and listened to Oh Mercy filling the room. I thought of other, brighter days when my candle was burning magnesium-hot at both ends, and “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” had filled the hours approaching dawn. They had vibrated in the room the same way.
The music didn’t seem to emanate from my speakers; it hung in the air like drapes
It was the sound of the record that drew me in at first. The music didn’t seem to emanate from my speakers; it hung in the air like drapes, or like crepe. I was of course drawn to the songs of collapsed love first—“Where Teardrops Fall,” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” “Most of the Time,” “What Was It You Wanted,” “What Good Am I?” There was emotion in those deft songs, real longing and regret, confusion, pain! “Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine . . . most of the time.” And the music made that funereal emotion palpable, something you could almost touch with your hand. Daniel Lanois had produced the record (in an antique, atmospheric house in New Orleans, I would learn later), so carefully that a single note would rise out of the mix and pierce me, a steeply ascending bass line would thrust me down a rabbit hole.
Eventually I would connect with the rest of the songs on the record. I could understand the world-chaos that permeated “Political World” and “Everything Is Broken,” the album’s two most rocking songs, though they rolled more than rocked, and rippled too. Yes, certainly, everything was broken. I could identify myself in the bitter condemnation that was “The Disease of Conceit”—I had been sick with it. I accepted the blessing that was “Ring Them Bells,” that gathering of saints. And I saw my own life, and the lives of one or two others, arcing by me in “Shooting Star.”
Then I had no idea how this album had come to pass, how Dylan had found his way to exactly the same place I was, or at least someplace so much like it that I recognized it immediately, with intensity. I’d experienced something similar with one of his records 15 years before, but I couldn’t have anticipated it happening again as I rounded the curve, hollowed out and mad with sorrow, into middle age.
His voice stood out in relief, touched with the scratch of age, sometimes with a simmering rage, sometimes with remorse or disbelief. That effect had something to do with the necromancy of the production; the sound had a hyper-reality to it that I’d never experienced in his music previously. Through the songs or through the sound, he was in the room with me. And, listening, I was there with him.
I essayed Oh Mercy in print, professionally enough, praising it as many others did. I was hurting, and so I kept some things to myself. For me, its success was not merely about the rebirth of an artist after years off the trail, though the album certainly told that story. My response was not primarily an aesthetic one. The record was a mirror, a glass of water, a beacon, oxygen, a book written by another in which I read myself.
It is one of the handful of records I’ve ever heard for which I can say I am truly grateful, for it brought some grace into my withered world. In Dylan’s canon, and in my life, it occupies a sacred space.
You can (and should) grab a copy of Chris’ book, Together Through Life on Amazon.