Can’t Wait

1997’s Time Out of Mind is an album of push and pull between Bob Dylan and the album’s producer, Daniel Lanois. Lanois is an illustrious producer who has worked with a roster of who’s who in recorded music: Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, U2, Emmylou Harris, the Neville Brothers, and on and on. Lanois produced Dylan’s Oh Mercy in 1989, which had been a comeback of sorts for Dylan, proving lyrics, words, and instrumentation could come together in a singular sound and statement after Dylan’s here-be-monsters mid-80s run of albums.

Dylan and Lanois reunited for Time Out of Mind, and, while they may have agreed upon a shared vision at the beginning of the project, the tension and disagreements between the two during the sessions has been well documented since the release on the album. The divide appears to have started immediately during the formal album recordings in Miami when Lanois brought in a team of musicians and Dylan assembled his own crew, resulting in a strange brew of musical personalities and sounds. One of Dylan’s call-ins was the famous producer and keyboard player Jim Dickinson. (Dickinson has many credits to his name, including producing Big Star’s Third, The Replacements’ Let It Be, countless Ry Cooder albums, and playing piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” The last accomplishment deserves its own book beyond this mere parenthetical note.)

Dickinson commented extensively on the Time Out of Mind recording process with incredulity:

“Twelve musicians playing live – three sets of drums, [Whistles] it was unbelievable – two pedal steels, I’ve never even heard two pedal steels played at the same time before! It was, like, sheer chaos for an hour and a half and then eight minutes of beautiful music.”

“Can’t Wait” is one example of what comes out of this blending together of sounds and exhibits how Dylan and Lanois are able to capture the beauty inherent in the performance.

“Can’t Wait” is a song of lust. Dylan is in his dirty old man mode here. Choose whatever example from the lyrics you want: “The air burns and I’m trying to think straight / And I don’t know how much longer I can wait.” “Well, your loveliness has wounded me, I’m reeling from the blow / I wish I knew what it was that keeps me loving you so.” “I’m doomed to love you / I’ve been rolling through stormy weather. / I’m thinking of you / And all the places we could roam together.”

The slinky groove of the bass and drums reinforces the late night feel of the lyrics creating a noir-like atmosphere. Lanois creates a sample of a guitar blues lick and a harmonica (presumably by Dylan) which is looped throughout the song. Playing off of the sample and the groove are the approximately 127 musicians who are playing on the session, each inserting their own particular voice to the song.

This process was deliberate. Mark Howard was Lanois’s assistant at the time and engineered the Time Out of Mind sessions. Howard told Damien Love for Uncut in 2008:

“Dylan was very interested in Beck. He’d say, ‘These Beck records are sounding pretty cool. How does he make those records?’ So we’d talk about them being loop-based, and playing on top of them.”

So like Beck’s Odelay, Lanois has orchestrated this particular sound. Going back to Dickinson’s description of the Time Out of Mind sessions, Lanois has sculpted beautiful music out of the musical chaos of live players in a room through loops and sampling.

Contrasting the version of “Can’t Wait” that was released on Time Out of Mind is an alternate version, a demo, which was released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006 in 2008. Howard said in the same interview cited above that before the full album was recorded, Dylan would come to Lanois and Howard’s studio in Oxnard, CA to demo early versions of the songs he had been writing. Howard says that Dylan came in one day and

“He plays this song on the piano called ‘Can’t Wait.’ And this is a *gospel* version of the song. [Hip-hop drummer] Tony Mangurian, he hears it, and he just went over to the drumkit and he started playing this groove with him, this kind of hip-hop beat, a real sexy groove, and Bob is hammering out this gospel kind of piano and really singing, and, again, the hair on my arms went up, it was stunning. Luckily, I was recording, and I caught it.”

The demo version is indeed stunning. Dylan has professed that “On the piano, my favorite keys are the black keys.” This is exhibited on the demo as Dylan says right before they start recording, “Let’s try it in B flat.” The sexy, hip-hop groove described by Howard? Oh yeah, it’s there, and certainly a different feel than the orchestrated, sampled groove of the released version. Dylan’s voice on the demo is clearer perhaps because he is singing in a higher register. The lyrics are completely different from the official version, much more desperate as opposed to “dirty old man.” 

Do you ever lay awake at night, your face turned to the wall?
Drowning in your thoughtlessness and cut off from it all?
I don’t know, maybe for you, it’s not that late
But as for me, don’t know how much longer I can wait

One line that Dylan sings on the demo version is: “Well, my back is to the sun because the light is too intense / I can see what everybody in the world is up against.” That couplet did not make it to the officially released version, but Dylan didn’t forget it as it turns up as the opening lines to “Sugar Baby,” the last song on 2001’s “Love and Theft.”

The contrast between the two versions of “Can’t Wait” demonstrate two modes of recording music. One approach is composing a sound through studio processing, using loops, samples, layering of sounds, instruments, voices, and noises. This method is exhibited by the official version of “Can’t Wait.” Examples of what this “sound sculpture” method include David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, most of Radiohead’s discography, and, well, all of hip-hop.  

The second mode of recording technique is the attempt to capture the sound of musicians playing in a room. This was the only way to record music before multitrack recording became commonplace. Even with all manners of technology at hand, many artists still go for the live sound in the studio when recording. Dylan and Neil Young are two examples of artists working this way to the point of purposefully not telling the musicians the basic chords and musical ideas of the song they will be playing in order to document their first impressions. The ultimate example of this mode is the live concert, the sound of the musicians and the people hearing the music being played without any overdubs. 

These different recording approaches are simplifications for a vast array of recording techniques and possibilities, but it is fascinating to compare Dylan working in two distinct directions on a single song.

End note: Dylan recorded the early demos for Time Out of Mind in Oxnard, CA before forcing Lanois and his crew to relocate to Miami for the official recording of the album. Marc Maron asked Lanois during his appearance on Maron’s podcast WTF why they shifted operations to Miami. Lanois responded, “He probably needed to get away from his kids.” Those of us with kids completely understand, Bob. 

Photograph attribution: By Paolo Monti – Available in the BEIC digital library and uploaded in partnership with BEIC Foundation. The image comes from the Fondo Paolo Monti, owned by BEIC and located in the Civico Archivio Fotografico of Milan., CC BY-SA 4.0. More info here.

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