“Ring them bells St. Peter where the four winds blow.
Ring them bells with an iron hand so the people will know.
Oh it’s rush hour now…on the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow.”
Bob Dylan is an icon not only of the music world but of our historical time period. Levon Helm said “we’re lucky to live in his time” and a statement could not be truer. When discussing unheralded Dylan classics, you must look at them not just as great songs, but as important statements from periods in the writer’s life. We all know the history of Bob Dylan, from his time as an acoustic inheritor to the Woody Guthrie school of songwriting to the R&B poet turning rock music into a lyrical art form. He has influenced all who came after him and changed the way music is written, played and, most importantly, heard.
It goes without saying that each ‘era’ of Dylan’s career will make this list in some capacity. By examining songs out of the context of time, we can evaluate the music on its own merits. The late 1980’s saw Dylan become more prolific than he had been through most of that decade. While 1983’s “Infidels” was a creative high point and yielded a massive amount of unreleased material, Dylan took a break from writing for several years. As detailed in his book Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan decided after a 1986 trek with Tom Petty that he would retire for good. Obviously, the man did just the opposite. Sidelined by a hand injury, Dylan began to pen lyrics for what would become his next album. Still, he felt reluctant to move ahead with a new project, not realizing his potential as a still-relevant artist. We forget that in the 1980’s, there was no template for the life of a middle aged rock star. Dylan would be one of the first to walk this road.
A visit to the ailing Dylan by U2’s Bono would result in the recommendation that these lyrics should not go to waste in a drawer, but be turned into an album. Bono would suggest famed Canadian record man Daniel Lanois as producer for the project, which Dylan would later follow through with. The resulting album, 1989’s Columbia release “Oh Mercy”, was recorded in the atmospheric city of New Orleans. Recording in an old house in a historic part of the city, Dylan forwent his usual road band to record with local musicians as well as famed Crescent City players the Neville Brothers and Rockin’ Dopsie. While many songs could compete for a spot here (‘Shooting Star’, ‘Most of the Time’ in particular), ‘Ring Them Bells’ is a true otherworldly masterpiece. While the meaning of the song is always left up to the listener, biblical images contrast with current world issues as call to arms for the listener. It is one of Maestro Dylan’s most startling visions and it continues to ring true today.
The album has since become what many view as the beginning of Dylan’s renaissance. Each song on the album is a statement unto itself, and it set the stage for the masterpieces to follow. It also coincided with the Traveling Wilburys project, another Dylan-fueled success. As per usual with Dylan, the extra material cut for the album only reinforces the importance of the project. 2008’s “Tell Tale Signs” 3 CD Box contains many outtakes, acoustic tracks and unreleased songs from the sessions. In particular, ‘Dignity’, ‘Born in Time’ and ‘Series of Dreams’ were all recorded for this album but were unused. While they warrant a listen, the original album cut is undeniably moving and essential listening for any music fan.
Alternate version from the Bootleg Series: