35 years ago today, Bob Dylan made one of the most notable onstage guest appearances of his career. Notable, that is, because I've got a theory I can't prove: Bob was, on some level, auditioning Dire Straits to be his next backing band.
If that sounds far-fetched, remember the timing. Dylan’s February 1986 sit-in with Dire Straits occurred during Bob’s first tour backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It would not be the last; they'd convene intermittently through 1987. When he wasn't being backed by the Heartbreakers, he was playing shows backed by the Grateful Dead. For the one and only time in his career, he toured exclusively backed by established groups with large fanbases of their own. And in 1986, Dire Straits would have fit the bill perfectly.
In fact, on paper, Dire Straits might have made more sense than his Heartbreaker tours. In these pre-Wilburys days, Dylan had a deeper professional relationship with head Strait Mark Knopfler than he did with Petty. Knopfler played guitar on Slow Train Coming in 1979 and produced Infidels just three years before this show. The band was also, in 1986, simply a bigger band than the Heartbreakers commercially. Petty's 1985 album, Southern Accents, had done pretty well, buoyed by its hit single "Don't Come Around Here No More." But Dire Straits' 1985 album was Brothers in Arms, which remains one of the best-selling albums ever. Dire Straits didn't stay atop the mountain for long, but, in February 1986, there was no one bigger.
And it’s reasonable to think Bob might be considering other famous-in-their-own-right backing bands to follow this model. In an interview during the tour, Dylan called it "a lot easier" to play with an established band, adding, "as band members, they sort of think as one person. When you put people together who’ve never played together before, there’s so many different people; it takes years for people to play together like the Tom Petty band." He surely knew the Heartbreakers were unlikely to take a permanent gig as his backing band. I'm guessing he was wondering what other bands he could swap in. So he decided to sit in with one, give ‘em a trial by fire.
Here's the other reason I think he was auditioning Dire Straits: He did four songs. I know that doesn't sound like a lot, but Dylan rarely sits in with anyone; he's never been a Springsteen type, hopping up at the Stone Pony with whatever bar band his friend's cousin's brother-in-law plays bass in. And when Bob does sit in, it's usually one song. Half the time he doesn't even sing. With Dire Straits, you get four songs where he appears to be giving it his all. Plus, Dire Straits delivers full-throated renditions of this songs. They clearly rehearsed; this isn't a Dead-style winging it. Those four songs maintain the same hits-to-new-material ratio he was using with Petty, as if he was already thinking about the next chapter.
And they sound great! As I've said before, I'm a huge fan of the '86 Petty tour, and this Dire Straits set fits right into that model: Big, fun arena rock. This period is not Dylan at his most nuanced or subtle, but if you like Bob belting the hits accompanied by a lot of hotshot guitar solos and arena-filling drums, Dylan Straits makes an excellent supergroup. "All Along the Watchtower" sounds like it was made for this band. Even without video, I know damn well it's not Bob knocking out these guitar solos. A full show of this would have been killer.
(Also, don't you want to see more of Bob and Mark going toe-to-toe on who can wear the most insane '80s outfit?)
Thirty-five years later, it's probably not a spoiler alert to say that Dire Straits did not go on to be Bob Dylan's backing band. Bob’s relationship with Mark Knopfler has continued - they were playing together as recently as 2012 - but he never did anything with the full band again. Did they fail the test? Did they tell Bob they had no interest in switching from being one of the biggest bands on the planet to sidemen? Did Bob ever even ask? Who knows. But I'm convinced that, in the back of Bob's mind at least, there was more to this sit-in than "Let's play a few songs for a lark." At least we got this - but I wish we’d gotten more.
02-19-1986, Sports And Entertainment Centre, Melbourne, Australia [Dire Straits w/ Bob]
"Happy Valentine's Day to you and you and you and you!"
1998-02-14, Public Hall, Cleveland, OH
Dylan at the Grammys I: "Maggie's Farm," 2011
2011-02-13, Grammy Awards, Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
On deck: Dylan at the Grammys parts II-V [paid subscribers only]