Bob Dylan What Was It You Wanted

 Dark but witty song from Oh Mercy features Daniel Lanois arrangement and funky licks from blues guitarist Mason Ruffner

What Was It You Wanted is a dark and witty narrative from Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy CD that show cases Mason Ruffner’s guitar. The song also features some funky 5th chords that make it usual. We’ll cover all of that.
A friend sent me a link to Mason Ruffner which I covered in Mason Ruffner insider’s view on Bob Dylan Oh Mercy
The story of the arguments between Lanois and Dylan on Oh Mercy are legends. Dylan was nursing a bad hand and case of writer’s block. He admits he was drifting musically. Dylan covered this story in his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One
Lanois had cut his chops producing U2 and was well known for creating layers of evocative music. He was working in New Orleans, a locale he liked for the atmosphere when Bono suggested Dylan check him out. Lanois once said that the bass got deeper and better the further down South you went. 
Dylan came to the recording session with lyrics and not much in the way of tunes. Lanois helped him put the songs together but sparks flew.

The Recording Session Details

The Oh Mercy CD credits list Ruffner on Political WorldDisease of Conceit and What Was it You Wanted
Michael Krogsgaard in The Dylan Recording Sessions sheds more light on what happened. Dylan, Lanois and Malcolm Burns the engineer started in the studio on March 7, 1989 working on What Good Am I and Ring Them Bells.
March 8th they were joined by Mason Ruffner (guitar), Cyril Neville (percussion), Willie Green (drums), Tony Hall (bass) and Political World came from that session. Dylan also recorded Disease of Conceit on piano at that session.
Ruffner was missing until March 21st when he recorded What Was it You Wanted. His playing is the main groove of the song with the strong tremolo C#5, F#, A5, progression. This is the “explosive licks with funky edges, rockabilly tremolo-influenced” sound that Bob Dylan noted in his biography Chronicles: Volume One.

Ruffner adds new details in his Uncut interview
How did I get the job? Daniel Lanois called me. He didn’t tell me when he called that it was going to be a Dylan record, though. I was living in New Orleans, and I was basically in the right place at the right time, I guess. But I’d *heard* that he was doing a Dylan record, so I wasn’t too surprised when I showed up and Bob Dylan was there.
I’d had this record out in 1987 that made some noise in America and Canada, Gypsy Blood. And I heard later that that had been lying around the studio and Dylan had listened to it, and
Dan, and that’s why they invited me on the session. So Dylan was aware of me when I showed up.
It was different. We were recording in an old house, we weren’t in a studio, and we were basically sitting around the living room in a circle, just sitting on chairs, with the drummer, Willie Green, just off to the corner a little a bit. There were no baffles or anything, we had monitors, and our amps were stuck off in the closest somewhere, kind of hidden. Bob had his little stand there with his lyrics, and we’d just cut off into something.
Seems like we were cutting these songs all kinds of ways. Rock groove, slow groove, a funk or folk kind of groove, just trying different grooves and different tempos to this stuff. He didn’t say much about what he was after. Nobody ever did point us in any particular direction or anything. Bob would just kind of put his head down and start playing, and we’d just tag along.
It just seemed like it was all a big experiment, try the song twenty different ways. I was a little bit surprised, thinking, “Why are we doing this?” There was a lot of experimentation, and that did surprise me. I had thought he’d come in with things a little more set in his head. But, with him, I guess he’d probably just doodled with these songs on the guitar or piano, and now that he was trying them with a band, it was up for us to try and create then, try different ways, and latch into one that he’d like. Then I guess it was up to Dan or Malcolm [Burn, engineer] or Mark Howard [engineer] to go through all those tapes and find the one that popped up.
We’d start around eight o’clock in the evening and finish whenever that was – two in the morning maybe. And after I left, they’d stay longer. I remember that song, “Man In The Long Black Coat”, we’d tried that with the band, and then Bob, Dan and Malcolm did it themselves after we left, and they used that version on the record, without the drums and all. I remember, too, that we were doodling with half of the songs that wound up on his *next* record, Under The Red Sky.
Bob was doodling a lot with the lyrics. He used a pencil. He didn’t use no ink-pen. And it was like he was always making changes and additions and subtractions as he went. I mean, an elephant could’ve walked in through the room and he wouldn’t have seen it. His concentration is really unbelievable. Dan and I actually commented on that later when we were chit-chatting about things. He can really concentrate.
One thing that sticks with me, I kind of got a wow-factor from Bob this one time. I played this little guitar solo on the end of this song “Disease Of Conceit”, he kind of gave me the wow-factor with that. He wrote me a letter after the session, saying that he’d played that recording for Eric Clapton, and Clapton was wondering if it was Mark Knopfler playing. I guess he was feeding me a compliment – I wasn’t sure – but I know he liked that.
For me, Bob was really easy to work for. But, in some ways, I think he was a pain in the ass to some people. Sometimes he’d argue with Lanois, looked like just for the sake of arguing.

Y’know Dan’s a real nice, soft-spoken guy, smooth and easy. But I think, at first, before Dylan realised he had a record there, I think he was aggravated, maybe even a little nervous about the outcome of this project. At first. But I think at the end, he was a lot different. I remember he did a drawing of Daniel, and he brought it offer, but he wouldn’t sign it. But then, after he’d left, he came back and signed it. And he was pretty nice to Daniel at the end, but – not at first. Malcolm Burn told me that I was the only one Bob liked for the first couple of weeks – but you’d have to ask Bob Dylan if that’s true or not.

After reading his book, Chronicles, though, it seems that that was a crucial time in Dylan’s life. It was kind of like: shit or get off the pot in his music career. I think he was a little apprehensive about it, and he didn’t really know who Daniel Lanois was that much at that time, and if he could make him a record. But, after he realised that they were going to make a good record there, I think Dylan softened up a lot.Uncut

What Was It You Wanted 
is a kiss-off “leave me alone” statement to the fans who hang on Dylan’s every word and move. But it’s more nuanced than that.
In the song, Dylan is paying slight attention to someone, a fan a lover or everyone. He weaves the complaint into a narrative that flows naturally in a disconnected conversation.
What was it you wanted
You can tell me I’m back
You got my attention
Go ahead speak
What was it you wanted
When you were kissing my cheek?
Was there somebody looking
When you gave me that kiss
Someone there in the shadows
Someone that I might have missed?
The kiss on the cheek could be a superficial kiss or the Judas kiss of betrayal of Positively 4th Street. “The biblical texts behind these references to the betrayal of Christ by his disciple Judas Escariot Matthew 17: 22″
The biblical reference is typical for Dylan. He also likes to work the song on several levels. “Are they playing our song?” implies a lover. “Did somebody tell you /That you could get it from me / Do you want it for free” implies a sycophant.
The song and singer weave in and out of the conversation about “get it back on track /Is the whole thing going backwards / Are they playing our song?
There’s a fine, very different piece on the darkness of ‘What Was It You Wanted?’ and, ironically, he’s very human, within it, on the power of wordlessness, as against Dylan’s getting in, with this song, ‘the first word, the last word, and every word along the way.’
The song is played in C# and the chords are mainly 5ths which gives the song its haunting sound. 5th chords are missing the major or minor 3rd note and often used as power chords in rock music. Dylan doesn’t have many songs that use 5th chords. We can guess this is Mason Ruffner’s influence. In this song, the chords are missing something which gives the song it’s pull but also makes it emotionally unsatisfying.
There is a good illustration of various 5th chord formations at Guitar Tutor Online.  You can pick whichever positions suit your style of playing. I prefer the sound of C5   – B5 rooted on the 5th string with 3 strings and G5 in the 6th string root with three strings.  The A5, G#5 and C#5 harp break can be played in the 6th root to keep as a descending line which simplifies playing harp at the same time.
Playing What Was it You Wanted is simplified in Dylan Chords as  C#m, F#m,  C#m with E, G#m, and C#m on the turnaround. The key is correct but the chords are simplified.

The Definitive Bob Dylan Songbook
 is closer although in the wrong key D. It tabs the song as D5, Gm, D5, F#sus……
Listening to the song you can hear the C#5 A5 /   F#m /   C#5 / /
Words and music copyright Bob Dylan, recording copyright Sony Music – both used for music criticism and commentary. Purchase the CD on Oh Mercy.
Willie Nelson does a very credible, laid back performance on the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration,

By Stephen Pate, NJN Network

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