By Paul Hobson and Tony Attwood
In this second article in the series we continue to look at versions of Dylan’s songs which turn out to be quite different from the original recordings. This time we are looking at Like a Rolling Stone, Positively 4th Street and Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues.
You can find the first article in the series here where we looked at Pretty Peggy O, Ring them Bells and the total reworking of Visions.
So now, moving on…
“Like a Rolling Stone” presents Bob Dylan with a real problem because both the verse and the chorus are so singular they come to define the song. Change them and the song would be changed so much that it would no longer be Rolling Stone.
So yes that is a big problem, but our Bob knows a thing or two about music and so here he does two things. First the instrumentation in the verse is changed with additional runs from the guitars. That gives us a totally different feel. Second Bob gives up on any attempt to tell us what the lyrics are – he is assuming that we know them all off by heart as of course we do. He sings them, but in such a word the words merge one to another.
So everything comes out as a gabble of sounds; vocal sounds pour out one on top of the music. Indeed we may ask, “Are they words?” Well, yes occasionally we catch the last two or three words of a line, but nothing more.
And then… oh wow what a total surprise – an instrumental break unlike anything we’ve heard before in terms of Rolling Stone – or come to that virtually any Dylan composition. It is in total contrast to the blast that makes up each rush through of a verse.
The second break takes us on another journey. The chord sequence stops, and the song goes on hold. Then there is part of the sequence back again as we get to that gradual slow down, the last two chords are held… we wait, we wait, and the crash of the ending hits us. Clever stuff.
Bob is saying, “OK guys, you all know this, you probably know it better than I do, but there is more to this song that a lot of clever lyrics. Have you actually listened to the music?” And then he forces us to do just that.
Moving on to our second revisitation, Positively 4th Street has had over 350 live outings. But in this version Dylan sings it with regret rather than the anger and disdain that the lyrics proclaim. Here he is sad not so much that the relationship is over but because of what the woman is, and the fact that she cannot be different. Maybe he recognises that there was something there originally – even though the lyrics tell a different tale – but overwhelmingly this is a tale of what is. “That’s how you are,” he says. “And that’s that. Nothing to get too worked up about.”
Of course that was the message on the single when we first heard it, but now it seems to be made even clearer.
The very laid back instrumental break just takes the song around and around, those two lines repeating and repeating and repeating, for she can never change, she can never be any different, she just is, the situation just is.
Positively 4th Street without the anger – as it was from the start, but now he is more distanced than ever. Just look at Bob’s face as he sings. He’s just a commentator now; there is no story, no involvement, just the recounting.
Finally for this selection, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from the early 2000s. Again we have Bob in relaxed style, telling the story as if he has no involvement in it whatsoever. He can just stand there an rock gently to the rhythm as the bass player takes a gentle stroll up and down behind him. And why not, we’re all just lolloping along.
But notice how clear Bob is enunciating the lyrics – this is what he is valuing here; the words so carefully crafted, that overlay the melody. Forget the tune guys, here’s where the genius is.
If we think again about those lyrics that we all probably know by heart yes they can be taken at this slow relaxed pace. Because as with 4th Street, it is now all over, he’s reflecting…
Now all the authorities
They just stand around and boast
How they blackmailed the sergeant-at-arms
Into leaving his post
And picking up Angel who
Just arrived here from the coast
Who looked so fine at first
But left looking just like a ghost
Indeed it is only after he’s sung the last two lines of the whole piece, sung with extra feeling if not venom…
I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough
do we find that the band can really pick up some energy. He’s done reflecting, he’s packed his bags, he’s going back home. Let’s play some riffs.
Footnote from Tony
This series looking at selected live performances came about through an idea of Paul’s and this is now being explored in articles such as this.
Meanwhile Larry’s series of articles about the way Dylan uses language and the writings of others came out of his comments on some pieces I’d written. Jochan’s reconsidering of individual Dylan songs came from work he had already published in his native tongue. Jochen also suggested that we might look at the songs Bob mentions as being an influence on him, which became the “Why does Dylan like?” series. Likewise Mike Johnson came up with the idea for Dylan Master Harpist and is promising a new article in the near future.
And there must be 1000 of other ideas out there which we could explore in a series of articles. If you can think of one, please do write to me (Tony@schools.co.uk) and set out your thoughts. If you want to write the series or part of it, great. If not, that’s fine too – set out the notion and I’ll see if I can tackle it myself.