Behind any work of art, pretty much, there is some kind of “process.” The scope and complexity of this process differs across art forms, of course. The writer’s process is rather different than that of, let’s say, the magician David Copperfield. I find all artistic processes fascinating, and am drawn specifically to what happens “backstage.” Backstage is a world unto itself.
In the early 1970’s, the film director Sam Peckinpah was making a film called Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and he asked Bob Dylan to do the soundtrack. He also offered him a small role in the movie, a character called Alias. Dylan hadn’t really done a soundtrack before, nonetheless he headed down to Mexico to work on the film with Peckinpah. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid the film is ok; it’s not my favorite Peckinpah by any means. (That is reserved for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, with the one and only Warren Oates in the lead role. Oates around this time also starred in the film Cockfighter, which features the greatest rejected tagline of any film even “he came into town with his cock in his hands and what he did with it was illegal in 48 states.”) The Pat Garrett soundtrack in many ways transcends the film, mostly because this is where we are first introduced to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which would go on to become one of Dylan’s best known songs, and is a really good soundtrack overall, however I am more interested in an extended set of outtakes from the sessions which are collected on a bootleg record called Peco’s Blues. Peco’s Blues features a number of alternate versions of the best known songs on the soundtrack, including Heaven’s Door and “Billy,” however the most interesting part of Peco’s Blues is the black and forth patter between Dylan, his sound engineer Chuck, and his band. This patter, I suggest, opens a fascinating and unique window into Dylan’s working methods and general approach to art. In what follows we will look at each incident of patter or conversation in the order they occur. All of the instances occur within the first 20 minutes of the nearly 70 minute recording as Dylan, his band, and the engineer endeavor to get on the same musical page.
Patter at the End of “Billy 2,” around the 7:34 Mark:
Dylan (D) wraps up a lengthy take of Billy 2 and asks his engineer Chuck (C):
D: Was that any good?
C: Pretty good Bob. What happened was was you hit the mic twice when you were moving around out there and we had a couple of clunks on it.
D: That’s too bad (…) Shit, I wish Sam was here. He’d know what to do.
C: That mic’s just a little more sensitive than the Sennheiser’s and I’m getting a little…
D: That’s too, uh…that’s…
C: And I’m getting a little puff of wind sometimes when you get real close to it when you sing.
D: That’s too sensitive.
C: Let me move it back a little for you Bob.
D: I think we must have got it though Chuck.
C: (with what sounds like a pencil in his mouth) Oh I recorded it, darn tootin’. I had a little puff from your voice once and you knocked the mic twice.
D: Well that might have been alls that we need.
C: You wanna, you wanna hear a playback on it?
D: Yeah, I would.
We see right away here that Dylan is the boss and that the engineer is walking on eggshells a little bit. This is made clear by Dylan’s reference to “Sam,” who he obviously thinks is a better engineer than Chuck. We have more than a little sympathy for Chuck, as it wasn’t he that knocked the mic and he is trying his best to give Dylan the relevant information.
I love how Dylan here, while implicitly criticizing Chuck, also picks up on Chuck’s framing of the microphone situation and agrees that “that’s too sensitive.” However, the relative sensitivity of the mic is not Dylan’s main concern. Dylan, famously, likes to work fast. For some of his records that has been a positive, on these the sound and performances come across as organic and coordinated, like all of the players grasped their roles and just ran with them. On other records, Dylan’s preference for speed let’s him down, and songs, and especially the production, can feel rushed, even a little sloppy. Dylan famously warred with Uber-producer Daniel Lanois, who had produced U2 and Peter Gabriel among others before Dylan asked him to produce 1989’s Oh Mercy. Oh Mercy sounds great and was Dylan’s “comeback” album after a mixed, to say the least, mid 80’s period, however Lanois’ sonic fingerprints are all over it. Too much so for Dylan, who wanted a faster, looser approach. Lanois is no pushover, and held his own with Dylan. We get the sense that Chuck is no Lanois.
So, despite the knocks on the mic and the puff of wind, Dylan is going to be fine with using this version on the record. Chuck, of course, is going to want Dylan to play it again. Chuck, or someone, would win this one because the extended take of Billy 2 here is not the one used on the final album. The little tussle between Dylan and Chuck ends in a draw as they agree to listen to the playback.
Patter at the Beginning of “Turkey,” around the 8:40 Mark:
D: Hey Roger, when I stop, when I stop, you stop. I’ll do something else and you figure it out. So it might go like this (Dylan starts playing and the band fills in a little hesitantly behind him).
D: Say Chuck, Chuck?
D: Let’s take this down and mark it under, uh, Turkey…We got a buzz in the amp.
C: I’m not picking it up.
D: OK come on now.
The band plays on the instrumental Turkey for about a minute before Dylan stops.
D: OK, this is under Turkey.
Dylan begins again, and this time the band fills in much better, the song sounding fuller and tighter in all ways.
This is in my opinion the most illuminating of Dylan’s comments and gives us a window into his way of working throughout his career. As mentioned above, Dylan works fast and expects his musicians to do the same. Thus he instructs Roger that when he Dylan stops, Roger is to stop, Dylan will “do something else” and Roger needs to “figure it out.” Dylan’s instructions may not sound very fair to poor Roger, but I think they actually are. A musical team is in this case not unlike a sports team, say a basketball team, where even if an offense is running a designed play or “set,” players need to figure out what’s going on and adjust their own position and movements constantly and on the fly. There is no playbook, not set of absolute rules about how to accomplish this any more than there is a set of rules about how to follow Dylan musically. The musician, like the athlete, just has to work by feel, take in all the information around him or her, and figure it out. If they can, they will keep their job; if not, not.
Patter at the Beginning of “Billy Surrenders,” around the 18:10 Mark:
D: Let’s see now. You know, you know what we want when Billy starts (laughs) this guy Jerry Fielding’s gonna go nuts man when he hears this (laughs). You know what we want when like Pat Garrett comes down from the hills right, and all these guys come out like one by one. And Billy comes out, he’s almost standing in a circle you know, so like (indistinct) one by one and then there’s like a big pause and he stops and there’s silence. You know those big organ notes, those scary things (hums organ notes) (laughs). Can you get behind that? (Dylan and the band laughing.)
The recording of the Pat Garrett soundtrack was pretty complicated, in large part because Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah’s usual composer, was relegated to a supporting role and apparently resented it. Accounts differ as to whether Fielding quit, walked off set (and maybe came back), actually did try to advise Dylan as requested, or some combination of the above, however the history of the film makes clear that there was friction. Dylan is clearly aware of the tension with Fielding, and makes a joke about it in a place where it doesn’t even seem relevant. Dylan seems to almost revel in the conflict, setting up Fielding to his band as a “suit” who is not in the field so to speak, and who Dylan enjoys winding up with his musical choices. Whatever the exact situation with Fielding was, the issue is clearly a live one at the time of recording.
My sense is that Dylan is mostly talking to his band here, as there are a number of people in the background laughing along with Dylan through this monologue. Despite his reputation for playing fast and loose most of the time, Dylan shows a pretty good grasp of particular scenes in the film and clearly knows what he wants. The “big organ notes” he mentions do indeed feature on the soundtrack, however maybe not to the extent Dylan wanted. I have to laugh at the very 1970’s question “can you get behind that?”
Overall, Peco’s Blues provides a fascinating window into Dylan’s working methods and expectations for his crew. Of course not every musician works this way; many will give much more precise instructions I am sure, and in the era of computer aided music Dylan’s approach on Pat Garrett is certainly a old-fashioned one. But I like it. It is absolutely worth listening to the entirety of Peco’s Blues to get a sense of Dylan’s working methods as well as how a band, here playing together live and recorded live, “figures itself out” and gets from sketch to finished product. I am myself not a musician but a writer, and the writing process, although never exactly easy, is perhaps a little less complex, mostly because most writers write by themselves, with an editor or editing team looking over the work at a later date. There is nothing in writing quite like “I’ll do something else and you figure it out,” and it is the shifting, quicksilver like nature of Dylan’s approach to music making here that continues to interest me and draw me in.