On February 19, 1985, Bob Dylan was 44 years old. At that point in his life and career, he had achieved everything he could have dreamed of as a musician: sold best-selling records, loved by millions of listeners, and even recognized as being the “voice of a generation.” He was also a father of five, divorced, and solidly middle-aged. Additionally, he had recently left behind his devotion to Jesus Christ, which had also been a commitment of his musical voice, both in the writing and performing. He was still writing songs, but the question for him was how to record them when the music industry had changed so much since he had started.
On February 19, 1985, he had a song he had written called “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.” Writer Eliot Mintz asked him about the composition of that song, and Dylan replied:
“It was bits and pieces of different places that went into writing that. Lines overheard here and there, you know, strung together over a long period of time, resulted in that particular piece.”
He was ready to record. How should the song sound? Who should he ask to record with him? In February 1985, the two biggest selling albums in the Billboard charts were Madonna’s Like a Virgin and Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen, which had spent 35 weeks on the charts and had embedded itself in Nissans and trucks across the country as well as the radio and MTV.
Bob had met Bruce 10 years before in 1975 during the Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan must have been impressed by the public’s overwhelming response to Born in the U.S.A. On that day in February, he asked two musicians long associated with Springsteen to help him record the song in hand: Steven Van Zandt and Roy Bittan.
Van Zandt had been Springsteen’s musical consigliere — playing guitar, co-producing, assisting with songwriting — through the recording of Born in the U.S.A. before leaving the E Street Band. Van Zandt would go on to be a successful solo recording artist and actor, famously portraying Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s consigliere on The Sopranos. For Van Zandt’s 2021 book Unrequited Infatuations, Dylan provided the following blurb:
“In the New Jersey state of mind somewhere between Bruce Springsteen Stadium and The Bon Jovi Arena is a little known street called Little Steven Boulevard with hundreds of endless souvenir shops, gift stores all associated with Little Steven the Consigliere, all top level stuff, the gangster memorabilia, Little Steven wallets and handbags, bandanas and head scarfs, Little Steven glassware and coffee mugs, Little Steven flags, key chains, stickers and patches, pens and guitar picks, cardboard stand-up cut outs of Little Steven, jigsaw puzzles and buttons. You can spend a fortune on the street, listen to every song he ever played on and watch every television show that he’s made, visit the underground garage and also enroll in Little Stevie’s underground college. It’s all there, a lot of copies of this book as well. And just like one of Stevie’s favorite songs, this book keeps you hanging on and checks all the boxes.”
It sounds as if Dylan is ready to come in as an investor in Van Zandt’s line of gift stores. Hey Little Steven, ask Dylan to cut the check now!
The other part of the E Street Band who played on this Dylan session was Roy Bittan. His piano playing was a key part of Springsteen’s sound as can be heard in “Thunder Road”:
Bittan became an in-demand session player for artists seeking that Springsteen piano sound. He performed on David Bowie’s Station to Station in 1976, providing a bit of Professor Longhair/New Orleans piano playing to the Thin White Duke’s nightmare of being consumed by his TV:
Bittan joined Dire Straits for the recording of Making Movies, which can be heard on the gorgeous “Romeo and Juliet”:
Bittan is one of those secret figures in rock ‘n roll who provides links between Dylan, Bowie, Springsteen, and more.
With Van Zandt and Bittan on hand and Sly & Robbie joining in as the rhythm section as they had a few years earlier on Infidels, Dylan was ready to chase that Springsteen sound himself with “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”:
Sly’s drums are the first sound we hear and then a big, confident, and slightly distorted electric guitar enters. That guitar sound has to belong to Van Zandt. The tempo is slow in the intro as Dylan starts to sing. Bittan adds slight piano accents. The intro presents two lovers at a pivotal point in their relationship; the narrator is returning after walking two hundred miles while his lover is burning his letters to her in the fireplace. Dylan sings:
It don’t matter who loves who
Either you’ll love me or I’ll love you.
Then, Dylan sings the key line, the title of the song: “When the night comes falling from the sky.” It’s a seemingly ordinary piece of songwriting by Dylan as reading these words on the page don’t have much of an impact. It’s a commonplace image. The night always falls from the sky. But Dylan’s emphasis of it in the context of the dramatic meeting of two lovers confronting one another again elevates the significance of the words.
After the intro, the band kicks into double time, driving at 65 mph with the brakes not responding and going until they run out of gas. Meanwhile in the first half of the song, the narrator is talking to his lover in the second person, but, at a certain point, there is a shift and it seems as if Dylan is actually addressing himself:
I can hear your trembling heart beat like a river
And recently you thought you’d seen it all
But you’re disappointed now with those who did not deliver
But it was you who set yourself up for a fall.
I’ve seen thousands who could have overcome the darkness
For the love of a lousy buck, I’ve watched them die
Stick around, baby, we’re not through
Don’t look for me, I’ll see you
When the night comes falling from the sky.
Dylan tells us that he is singing himself in the text of the song in a few different ways. The first example is the line: ”In your teardrops, I can see my own reflection.” This could be the mirror-like aspect of the tears, but he is telling us that he sees himself in both “you” and “I.” The self-reflection is seen again in a later verse:
For all eternity I think I will remember
The whirlpool of life that’s in your eye
You will seek me and you’ll find me
In the wasteland of your mind
When the night comes falling from the sky.
The “I” in this verse is remembering the “whirlpool of life” reflecting in the eye of “you.” “I” is also occupying a permanent space in the mind of “you.” So many pronouns, so many personalities. The strongest indication that Dylan is addressing himself in the song is the passion in his vocals. There is true commitment in his singing, which is not always the case for his mid-80s work. He is inspired by the band, by the sound, and by the words themselves to dedicate himself to provide the necessary emotions that the song requires. At times, it’s as if he’s giving himself a pep talk:
I’m so tired of those who use you for their own pleasure
Who think they’ve got a monopoly on love.
Well, this time I’m asking for freedom
Freedom from a world which you deny
And you’ll give it to me now
Or I’ll take it anyhow
When the night comes falling from the sky.
On February 19, Dylan would go on to record “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky” a number of other times with Van Zandt, Bittan, and Sly & Robbie. Two alternate takes can be heard on the latest edition of The Bootleg Series, The Bootleg Series Vol. 16: Springtime in New York 1980–1985. Experimenting with different tempos and instrumental emphasis, all three renditions of the song that have been released from this day are impassioned and forceful on Dylan’s part. Van Zandt was later asked on Twitter about Blood on the Tracks, perhaps Dylan’s most respected albums. Van Zandt gives Blood on the Tracks its due, but makes sure that everyone knows his preference by replying:
“Certainly one of his best of the post-Renaissance period. Tangled Up In Blue could be his second best vocal (post-Renaissance) after When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky.”
Van Zandt has always maintained his love of the music that Dylan and that particular band made on that day. But for Dylan, he was uncertain about the results. Though Springsteen had one of the biggest albums on February 19 1985, the songs on the radio of that particular week have entirely different sound, which can been heard from the top three singles of the week: “Careless Whisper” by Wham, “Lover Boy” by Billy Ocean, and “Easy Lover” by Philip Bailey with Phil Collins.
A few days after the Van Zandt/Bittan session, Dylan sought out Arthur Baker, a producer known for his work with early hip-hop artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and creating dance remixes for big pop radio singles. Baker recalled first talking with Dylan and listening to the recordings of “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”:
“We listened back to the version they’d cut, and it sounded great…but, Bob said, ‘Ah, you know. It sounds like Springsteen.’ And I said, ‘Well, hey, yeah – you get Van Zandt and Roy Bittan to play on it: it’s gonna sound like Springsteen.’”
Dylan must have brought in Baker because he could help create the sound of the singles that Dylan was hearing on the radio. Dylan shelved the performances with Van Zandt and Bittan. As Baker said: “So he decided to cut another version of [“When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky’], which is the one that ended up on the record.” The album was called Empire Burlesque and was released in June 1985 and has Baker’s dance music production techniques throughout, as can be heard on the released version of “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky”:
That certainly sounds like the 1985 I remember! I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever need to hear that version again. I recognize that Dylan was attempting to try something different and that there was a danger in sounding too much like Springsteen, opening himself up to criticism from some who would say that he was trying to capitalize on Springsteen’s success. I also respect the desire to stretch himself as an artist, to experiment and stay contemporary. Unfortunately, the result was the worst example of the sound of the early 80s musical production.
One of the versions of “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky” was released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991 and, as referenced above, the other two came out in the latest opening of Dylan’s vault. The three different performances of “When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky” present a model for how Dylan’s mid-80s work could have sounded, music demonstrating desperation, yearning, and commitment. Instead, it was only heard in fits and starts in the years that followed before a full embracing of that sound on Oh Mercy.
Photo by Scott Bunn