Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati spent the first weeks of 1998 sifting through and mixing recordings from the Earthling tour, for what Bowie assumed would be his next release: a live CD provisionally (and excitingly) called Live and Well. However, Virgin balked at putting out a live album. Earthling itself hadn’t sold well and its supporting tour had mainly played clubs and small theaters, thus reducing the “audience souvenir” factor that typically drove live album purchases. So Live and Well died. Bowie went off to act in three films in quick succession, Gabrels started planning a solo album, Plati was busy producing Duncan Sheik and Hooverphonic.
During these mixing sessions, the trio also had recorded a few potential bonus tracks, one being a version of “Fun.” The curio was Bowie’s impromptu decision to cover Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” a song from Dylan’s just-released Time Out of Mind. Plati, who confirmed that Bowie’s cover hailed from this session and wasn’t an outtake from Hours, said “as far as why it was chosen, hmm…..beats me! I’d hazard a guess that David liked the song, and liked singing it. It was kind of like ‘Planet of Dreams‘, it just sort of popped up from out of nowhere. Which was fine by me!…I was psyched about it because it was a completely live track, and after all the programming we’d been doing it was a nice break in the cycle.”
Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s latest critical rehabilitation, beating out OK Computer in the Pazz & Jop poll of 1997. While similar (in overall tempo and production) to his previous critical rehabilitation, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind was the first collected evidence of Dylan’s “mature” songwriting. Having immersed himself in playing old country and blues songs, Dylan began making magpie collages. He would pilfer and quote from ghosts (he always had, to some extent). His new songs were palimpsests, sewn through with the words of other writers, with Dylan answering their voices, mocking them, shoring up their words with his own. He’d started out as a kid fervently playing these songs; now he broke them up, as if using them for kindling. He became the folk tradition (“the songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs” as he told Newsweek in ’97); he seemed to be walking backwards in time.
“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” which Dylan rewrote repeatedly during the album sessions, was a case in point. In its five verses, Dylan draws from Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory,” “Poor Boy”), Furry Lewis (“Turn Your Money Green“), various trad. folk songs (“Miss Mary Jane,” “Lonesome Valley,” “The Rising Sun Blues”) and for its chorus, he used a variant of a 19th Century hymn that Southern black churches had kept alive until the Thirties: “The Old Ark’s a-Movering” (“she trying to get to heaven ‘fo they close the do.'”). Yet the song hangs together as a single purgatory: a blasted world in which Dylan’s character wanders, from New Orleans to Baltimore, through valleys and across train platforms, subsisting on memories that are becoming a debased currency. He lies on the parlor floor, hoping for sleep, wondering if death will come in its place.
Maybe Bowie saw in Dylan’s developing late style a means to craft his own: the idea that history is over, or is merely repeating in lesser variations; accepting the past, or at least breaking it up and using it for spare parts; quarrying from memory; disappearing into your old, false selves. In 1971, Bowie had written his “Song For Bob Dylan” in the voice of a cult follower whose master’s gone to ground. In 1997, as he had back in the days of Self Portrait, Dylan had escaped into a songbook. But now he wasn’t in hiding anymore: he was living a public life again, seemingly touring every minor league baseball stadium and county fair that he came across (and his cult had become gentlemen academics).
Bowie’s version of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (which, at least in its circulating edit, cuts Dylan’s second verse and squeezes the fourth and fifth into one incoherent lump) is, essentially, a first draft of what would become Hours. The take begins somber and ashen enough. Yet the circularity of Dylan’s singing on “Tryin'”, conveying a journey undertaken but never in danger of ending, seemed to frustrate Bowie: he needed a narrative.
So in the “people on platforms” verse, Bowie builds to a manic desperation, as if he has to make an eleventh-hour sale or he’ll be sacked by his proprietor. We get a rattled “cha-hay-hay-hain,” a squeaked-out “looose,” the creaking onomatopoeia of “cloowwoose the door,” and a gargle. Having made a hash of Dylan’s last verses, Bowie latches onto a line as if he’d drawn it by lot to torture: “I’ve beeen! to Sugar Town-I shook! the su!gar down!” Dylan sang those words with an earned swagger, like a spendthrift man recalling a spent-out life. Bowie sang them as if he was just passingly familiar with the English language.
Whenever Bowie covered someone, he typically tended to go overboard in various directions (see “God Only Knows“). I once interviewed Tim Curry, who said when playing villains he’d give his directors different wattages for different takes: under the top, over the top, top over the top. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” seems to decide, midway through, to go top over the top. But what really murders the track is its backdrop: the cruddy reduction of Jim Keltner’s drum pattern on the Dylan track; the beyond-cliche blues licks that Gabrels plays; the somnolent keyboard “bed”; harmony vocals as a collective aural NyQuil. Bowie had been tasteless before, sure, but he’d never been so devotedly mediocre.
Recorded Looking Glass Studios?, ca. January-February 1998. Its only semi-official release was on a promo CD that also had the Danny Saber remixes of “Funhouse,” though fans learned of the Dylan cover when a Catalan radio station played the promo (and offered it as a download) in late 1999.