That Time Michael Bolton Wrote a Song With Bob Dylan

“Anybody in their right mind would stop whatever they were doing,” singer recalls of the lead-up to the pair’s unlikely 1990 collaboration on “Steel Bars”


David Browne
michael bolton bob dylan 1991

As Rolling Stone reported last monthBob Dylan’s heartfelt Time Out of Mind track “Make You Feel My Love” has oddly become one of his most-covered songs, with more than 400 interpretations to date. One of those is by Michael Bolton, who included a version with German singer Helene Fischer on a recent duets album.

But as Bolton was reminded during a recent conversation with RS, it wasn’t the first Dylan song he put on tape. Nearly 30 years ago, the two unlikely collaborators — rock’s preeminent songwriter and pop’s then-reigning lord of the power ballad — converged to write “Steel Bars,” which wound up on the hugest album of Bolton’s career, 1991’s TimeLove & Tenderness.

As Bolton remembers, the head-scratching partnership began in 1990 with a phone call from an employee in Dylan’s office, asking if Bolton wanted to write a song with her client. And very soon — two days from then. At first Bolton thought the call was a practical joke from songwriter Dianne Warren, since Bolton had been scheduled to convene with her for a songwriting session around the same time. But Bolton quickly realized the call was real, and soon was in his car on the way to Dylan’s compound in Malibu. To clear his head, he canceled his work dates with Warren and Brill Building legends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. “It wasn’t difficult to get out of those sessions,” he says. “Anybody in their right mind would stop whatever they were doing and would have driven to Malibu.”

During that first call, Bolton had been given a word of warning by Dylan’s office: “If he doesn’t love what you guys worked on the first day, there won’t be a second day.” So before the drive, he worked on a few “different song ideas and chord structures,” he says. “I’ve been in awe of him since I was probably 12, so I know melodically where he’s at home.”

Pulling into a hilltop property and parking outside a garage, Bolton was escorted into a home studio, where he pulled out his guitar, and suddenly there was Dylan. Bolton began strumming some of those wordless chord changes, and eventually the phrase “steel bars” emerged, although Bolton can no longer recall if it was he or Dylan who came up with it. For Bolton, the experience was utterly surreal: “I couldn’t shut my mind down from repeating this mantra: ‘Oh, my God, this is Bob Dylan.’”

But there was work to do, sometimes with Dylan sitting behind a drum kit or playing bass, and a song began to take shape around that phrase. The problem, Bolton realized, was what do if he didn’t like something Dylan offered up, which happened when Dylan suggested the line “It was your resistance/It was my persistence.” “When he suggested a lyric, if I didn’t love it, I just kind of counted to 10 and thought about how one would say to Bob Dylan, ‘I’m not sure about that one,’” he says. “I couldn’t do it. But I didn’t have to. He kept coming up with alternatives.”

During downtime, Dylan talked about touring and enduring a divorce; Bolton mentioned he was going to Brazil for some tour dates, and Dylan “got excited and told me to get a four-wheel-drive vehicle and drive to the mountains.”

Eventually, Bolton felt less nervous and suddenly Dylan said, “So when are we gonna finish this?” Given the warning he’d been given, those words were “a great relief,” Bolton says. The next day, the two polished up “Steel Bars,” and Bolton flew up to San Francisco to record the song two days later. In the studio, he received a fax from Dylan with alternate lyrics for ones they’d struggled with: “When time itself is so obscene” was the result. The final version of the song sounded nothing like Dylan and everything like the angsty, amped-up power ballads of the era.

Bolton would only run into Dylan one more time over the years, when the two found themselves at their shared label, Columbia. “He made a comment about my hair, since I’d just cut it short,” Bolton says. He’d never received word from Dylan’s camp about his version of “Make You Feel My Love.”

Bolton says that long-ago collaboration made him consider doing an entire album of Dylan covers, and he says it still remains a possibility, even if he has a feeling some may not be thrilled. “I haven’t stopped thinking about that since,” he says. “Not that I wouldn’t catch hell about it.”

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