Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Dec 13th 2007 11:00AM by Jessica Robertson
I was delighted to receive "the call" from John Hammond in September 1974 asking me to engineer some sessions with Bob Dylan.
"Phil? John Hammond. Listen, Dylan's in town and he's ready to record for us again. He wants to come back to 799 Seventh Avenue, and we need to capture the magic."
Although he'd made his name at Columbia Records, Bob had briefly left the label to record two albums for Elektra. Hammond, who'd recognized Bob's talent and signed him to Columbia twelve years earlier, wanted to bring him back to the CBS "family."
I'd toured with and recorded Bob Dylan and the Band in 1974, but 'Blood on the Tracks' was the first and only Dylan studio album I ever recorded. Like many fans, I was in awe of Bob's talent and respected his polite, distant attitude. I'm private too, and I'm tenacious about protecting the privacy of artists. Traveling with Dylan gave me a glimpse of his idiosyncrasies, and I'd developed a real affection for him and his music.
Since many of Dylan's early recordings had been made in studio A1 at 799 Seventh Avenue when it belonged to Columbia, his return to A&R brought everything full circle.
It was clear that this album was going to be personal. Bob was going through a separation; he was emotionally fragile and at a creative crossroads. I was elated that he'd chosen A&R, and felt privileged to be the engineer who'd preserve this watershed moment.
Things didn't seem to be planned, and that didn't unnerve me. If you understand who Dylan is and what his music is about, you know that he comes to the studio with what I call "prepared spontaneity." You're never quite sure what Bob is going to play, or what key he's going to play it in. He doesn't like to overdub, so you learn to build around him.
I didn't see Bob until he came to the first session on September 16. Earlier that day, Hammond called and asked if I could line up a few musicians. I didn't think the request was odd; I expected that Bob would just come in and lay down some voice and guitar tracks. But at the last minute, Bob decided that he wanted a few extra players.
The New York studio scene was flush with work, and I was expecting to find that most of the A-list session players had already been booked. Luckily, Eric Weissberg -- a versatile guitarist who was riding high on his hit song 'Dueling Banjos' (the theme from 'Deliverance') -- was recording at A&R that day. I bumped into him in the hallway, and told him of my dilemma.
Eric quickly pulled together a small band consisting of Charlie Brown and Barry Kornfeld (guitar and banjo), Richard Crooks (drums), Tony Brown (bass), and Tom McFaul (keyboards). All of them admired Dylan and were excited about working with him.
A few hours later Dylan arrived.
Other than the musicians, the only people in the studio were Columbia's Don DeVito, John Hammond, and me. Now, you've got to understand that Bob Dylan is a bit eccentric: He'll come into the studio and just start playing. And when he does, he concentrates solely on the music. When Bob came in, we got a quick level on him, and he launched into the first of more than a dozen songs.
To some, it probably seemed like Dylan was in his own world.
There was no structure to the session, no feeling that he was being guided or limited by anyone or anything. I didn't yell out, "Ready to roll? This will be Take Two." I'd stopped making those mistakes long before. Attaching numbers to a performance increases the artist's anxiety, however subtly.
I could tell that the free-form way that Bob stopped and started a song without paying attention to when a verse or chorus came around rattled those musicians who had come expecting a more focused collaboration. But that's how Dylan creates -- it's stream of consciousness.
On these dates, the songs poured out of him as if they were a medley. Bob would start with one song, go into a second song without warning, switch to a third midstream, and then jump back to the first.
Bob hardly ever played anything the same way twice, which was disconcerting if you weren't accustomed to it. On the first go-round he'd play an eight-bar phrase; the second time, that phrase would be shortened to six.
The sessions were unscripted and unpretentious. I saw them as a spiritual release -- a letting out of the man's insides. When he stepped up to the mike and began singing, I saw a sensational album start to unfold. For four days, Dylan stood at the mike and bared his soul on record. The intensity of songs like 'Tangled Up in Blue,' 'Idiot Wind,' 'If You See Her, Say Hello' and 'You're a Big Girl Now' -- which he arranged as he went along -- proved that this was a cathartic exercise. Dylan was purging in the only way he knew how, and I respected that.
There were no charts and no rehearsals. The musicians had to watch Bob's hands to figure out what key he was playing in. Don DeVito also gave them a suggestion: "To stay in the groove, you've got to watch his feet," Don explained. "It's something I learned from [producer] Bob Johnson, and that I witnessed on earlier sessions with Dylan." Between takes (of which there weren't more than a few), Bob would come into the booth for the playback. His comments were brief and decisive. "I don't like that. Let's do another one."
Bob's a nice guy, but he's not a conversationalist. You don't need that when you're making records: You have camaraderie with someone, and you enjoy them for who they are. Bob's self-imposed isolation wasn't some antisocial posturing; it was clear from his mood and body language that he was vulnerable. My way of working is that you don't break the code of privacy that the artist sets up, whatever that may be. Dylan shares what he needs to, and nothing more. At one point, we found ourselves in the men's room. I said, "How are you feeling?" He said, "I'm okay." That's Dylan.
I'm amused that I was later criticized for not paying enough attention to the musicians' pleas to get Bob to communicate more, and that I wasn't attentive enough to their needs. I understand the criticism and accept it. My view from the booth, as someone who understood the artist in front of me, was that I needed to stay out of the way as the music came down. When Dylan walked into the room with guitar in hand, I knew that it wasn't about balancing the guitar against the vocal, getting a better sound on the guitar, or moving the bass player around. I instinctively did what I knew was right.
Because of the subdued tone, I even let some small imperfections slip by, like the clicking sound of Bob's pick brushing against the microphone. I didn't interrupt the performance to correct it; I went into the studio while Bob was playing and carefully pulled the microphone back a couple of inches. What was I going to do, tell him he had to do another take because I screwed up, or because his pick was clicking in the microphone?
I knew that what I didn't do for Bob Dylan was as crucial as what I did, and that in this case I needed to step back and allow the poet before me to shape the music as he saw fit.
Except for a minor fix here or there -- and a part or two that Bob decided to add at the last minute -- we didn't overdub. The only corrections we made on the Dylan tapes were a few spots where John Hammond said, "We're missing a couple of words here," or, "The guitar gets strident during this phrase."
After that first prolific night (which yielded about thirty takes in all), Dylan came back to A&R on three successive nights to finish 'Blood on the Tracks.'
Excerpted from 'MAKING RECORDS' by Phil Ramone with Charles Granata. Copyright 2007 Phil Ramone, Inc. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.