The Rubin-Dylan Rumor: Why it Would Never Work

By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on

Ever since the bearded Buddha of reinvention dumped his treasured American Recordings label in the lap of WB—an unsurprising move given that Rubin produced some of his own favorite albums for WB (Petty’s Wildflowers in 1994, for one)–and signed on to become a big cat executive at Columbia Records, the internet has teemed with rumors of a new Bob Dylan album with Rubin at the console. It’s exactly the kind of hope that Dylan freaks everywhere (including myself) are instantly magnetized to, desperate to interpret as fact something that really doesn’t make much sense on the surface. Now that it’s pretty clear no such project is in the works and that the only new Rubin-Dylan record on the docket is Jakob Dylan’s upcoming solo debut, the largely acoustic Seeing Things which Rubin did indeed produce, it’s time to take a step back and recognize how absurd the idea really is.

Rubin’s M.O.D. of late is to climb onto the shoulders of giants like Johnny Cash or Neil Diamond, get them in a headlock, and noogie them with every golden thing they ever did over the past half a century. Then he handcuffs them to their guitars and says “now make it sound like that!” That this operation has produced such a consistent onslaught of brilliant albums—Diamond’s overlooked 12 Songs being the most recent example—remains one of the industry’s enduring miracles. But that’s Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash. Here we’re talking about Bob Dylan, he of the “Don’t Look Back” philosophy, who routinely asserts that “the past is for losers” and has gained a reputation on his so-called “never-ending tour” of resisting a “nostalgia act” with all the might he still commands, delivering instead constantly reworked renditions of classics that are occasionally unrecognizable in their new clothes. Dylan, professorial curmudgeon that he’s become, claims “that’s a bunch of bullshit . . . The arrangements don’t change night after night. The rhythmic structures are different, that’s all. You can’t change the arrangement night after night — it’s impossible.” In any event, the ceaselessly forward-looking Dylan is one of the last men in music to respond to Rubin’s method of recording new material with older artists that echoes their long-ago glories.

Similarly, Dylan earned the distinction of becoming the oldest artist ever to reach the top of the charts with 2006’s Modern Times, hitting #1 at the age of 65. Whereas Diamond, Donovan or Cash turned to Rick as refugees with a vague notion that there might still be something to prove, Dylan’s been basking in a resurgence of attention he hasn’t experienced in over 30 years ever since the release of 1997’s indescribably brilliant Time out of Mind. What can Rubin do for Dylan that he isn’t already doing for himself? The trilogy of albums Dylan’s released amid his celebrated return to form hit just as hard as anything the man has done–Elvis Costello went so far as to call Time out of Mind the best album of Bob Dylan’s career. As much of a magician as Rubin is, it’s hard to imagine what more he can add.

And that brings us to yet another rub: despite all that Daniel Lanois—producer of 1989’s Oh Mercy as well as Time out of Mind—has done for Dylan, still the old buzzard came out of the Time Out of Mind sessions grumbling of a failure to find musicians who could play at the bouncier pace he craved for outtakes like “Mississippi,” which eventually found a home on 2001’s Love & Theft after Sheryl Crow murdered it on her Globe Sessions album. Lanois’s experience with Dylan, while it yielded the prize of an Album of the Year Grammy, attests to just how willful a recording artist Dylan can be. As Dylan describes in his Chronicles memoir, Lanois is no cupcake himself, famous for the kind of in-studio tantrum he threw during the Oh Mercy sessions when he couldn’t get the record to sound that way it did in his mind. Yet even Lanois couldn’t entirely bring Dylan around. Dylan’s own discussion of those sessions in his book reveals one situation after another in which Dylan rebuffs the liberties Lanois had taken with his sound. Just a casual look at footage from his famed world tour in 1965 gives you an idea of how good Dylan is at taking orders–not very.

Post-record grumbling has become a characteristic of his, as illustrated in his widely reported condemnation of his own Modern Times for a sound quality that fell below his standards. In an interview with Jonathan Lethem for Rolling Stone, he groaned that the songs “sounded ten times better in the studio when we recorded ‘em. You do the best you can,” he continued, “you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.” As you can imagine, he took some heat for that one, of course, but the cool thing about being Bob Dylan is that you don’t have to give a fuck, and he doesn’t. are the reasons he chose to produced both albums he recorded since his last stint with Lanois, taking subtle jabs at that voodoo master of Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby by asserting that Lanois’s heavy hand cluttered the rawer and more immediate sound Dylan himself has captured on his more recent work, a kind of down-in-the-delta-boogie that combines ‘50s prom and depression-era Appalachian hoe-down in a vital blitz of passion and influence. It was only after Love & Theft that Dylan suggested he’d finally found a voice that fits him in his dotage.

This is not a man who responds favorably to the idea of producers and perfect takes. Few artists are as indifferent to nailing down the perfect take as Dylan, who always takes a live band into the studio with him, records at a frenetic pace, and rarely lingers over any single number, preferring instead the many visits he’ll pay each new tune on stage, every one lending the song a different dimension (I know, Bob, it’s all bullshit.) Everything we know of Dylan’s habits as a recording artist suggests that Rubin’s pursuit of perfection with bands like RHCP, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Donovan or Neil Diamond is wholly in opposition to Dylan’s aesthetic. It is no wonder, then, that Isis Magazine recently shot down the rumor, calling it “incorrect.” To say that a Rubin-Dylan collaboration would be a shock is to grossly undersell the truth of the matter. Nonetheless, the many who eat, breathe and dream Dylan cling to the possibility, and so the rumor persists. But take it from us–and we would love to be wrong on this one–don’t hold your breath.