Master Harpist PS: Tangled up in Harmonicas, Part 2 (and the greatest ever version)

This article continues from Tangled up in Harmonicas Part 1.

An index to all the articles in the series is given at the foot of this article, and in the index file Bob Dylan Master Harpist.


By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

We ended part 1 of this postscript with a triumphant, acoustic, 1997 performance of Tangled Up in Blue. The pattern Dylan laid down in 1996, with amplified acoustic guitar and harmonica breaks, continued through to 2002 pretty much unchanged. This foot-stomper became a showcase for Dylan’s guitar and harmonica work.

I wasn’t going to include this 1999 performance, since it doesn’t break new ground, but it’s a good way of picking up from where we left off. A wonderful vigorous performance. Seems like the song has lost none of its luster for Dylan and the band

Performances continued, pretty much in the same vein, until Dylan put aside the guitar and took to the keyboards in 2002. I’ve written about this shift, and how it affected his sound, in Master Harpist 4. This song, from 2003, is a repeat, and I encourage the new reader go to that article for the full discussion.

This could well be the greatest ever performance of this song. Dylan, the band, they all sound so liberated, and boy, do they cook!

This performance, with the excited screams of the harp, is as epic and thrilling as those 1990’s ecstatic versions, while heading back in the electric direction for the guitars. Dylan evolved a mix of acoustic and electric sounds that work like charm, at least in this case. Acoustic rhythm guitar, electric bass and lead, acoustic piano.

It wasn’t until 2006/7 that we get another change in direction. Dylan moved from the piano to the organ, and at first, his tendency was to play the organ softly, lightly and whimsically, with a circus like sound. With these new arrangements, TUIB goes from being a foot-stomper to a toe-tapper. The opening harp break and the acoustic first verse takes us back to a slower, more reflective TUIB that has it roots in the original New York recordings in 1974.

Experience, as mediated through memory, becomes something not so much to be celebrated with wild sounds but gently probed. A whiff of sadness and nostalgia for times past can be heard in the opening and closing harp breaks (heartbreaks?) and while the song still builds to a climax, the mood has moved towards the somber. Here’s a performance from 2007.

From somber to desperate we go as we arrive in 2009, during which there were some highly ambivalent performances of TUIB. Again, I have written about this version in Master Harpist 4, and won’t now repeat those comments, except to say this ‘mechanical’ version, as I have nicknamed it, must be the strangest performance of TUIB you’re ever likely to hear. Strained and plodding, we’re a long way into weariness, the drudgery of memory, and far away from the ecstatic celebration of experience. Only the harp remembers the light and the airy.

By 2011, the song had regained its force and vigor. If Dylan is playing the organ here, I can’t hear it. For all its power, and Dylan’s passionate vocal, the song has been tamed a little, I can’t help but think. Those ten to twelve minute wild sprees have been cut back to a brisk six minutes.  And, brilliant as the harp break is, everything is under tight control.

In 2012 there is another shift in sound, as Dylan moves from the organ back to the piano, but this time a baby grand. Bob’s love affair with his baby grand begins, and this new love starts to push out his old used to be – his trusty harp.

A new arrangement emerges for TUIB that Dylan will keep for the next four years. He does the first verses center stage, does a mid-song harp break, then heads to the piano for the last verse and some piano flourishes to end. The harp thus loses its established position as the instrument that finishes the song off. Those wonderful, wild end breaks are gone for good.

There is a sense of excitement, however, in the early days of the new arrangement, with Dylan sometimes varying the pattern by playing a harp intro, as in the link below. Some of old wildness is there, even while the song is still trimmed back to six minutes and there are no guitar breaks. Dylan toots and shimmers his way through the harp break, but the triumphant piano ending announces the arrival of Dylan’s new love in the most emphatic manner.

What makes this version special is the re-appearance of the 1984 lyrics, spliced into the more familiar lyrics. Dylan was getting ready for a major reinvention of the song.

In 2015 there was another major shift, this time with the lyrics. For some time Dylan had been cutting out some of verses, and these we sorely miss. We lose the wonderful, ‘there was music in the cafés at night/ and revolution was in the air.’ And we lose the ‘working for a while on a fishing boat’ verse.

To my mind, this compromises the epic reach of the song, the sense of a life full of incidents and craziness. These stripped down versions are not as Odyssean as the earlier, richer song.

In the 2015 version, it all gets focused down to one event – the ‘she lit a burner on the stove’ verse. This verse is sandwiched between the opening two verses and the last verse. This makes it the focal point of the song, as if memory has faded to one or two emblematic incidents; the rich variety of experience honed to a few fragmentary moments.

That, however, doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the revamped last two verses.

These are lyrics in the 2015 version, largely unchanged to the present day.

Early one morning, the sun was shining
and he was lying in bed
Wondering if she changed at all,
if her hair was still red.
But their folks they said that their lives together
sure was gonna be rough,
they never liked mama’s homemade dress,
papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough.
He was turning on the side of the road
with the rain falling on his shoes,
Heading out for the east coast,
the radio blasting out the news,
right on through
Tangled up in blue.

She was married when they first met,
she was soon to be divorced,
Well, he helped her out of a jam I guess
but he used a little too much force.
And they drove that car just as far as they could
and they abandoned it way out west,
Splitting up on a dark, sad night
somewhere in the wilderness.
He turned around and looked at her,
as she was walking away
Saying over her shoulder,
“we’re gonna meet someday stepping on the avenue.”
Tangled up in blue.

She lit a burner on the stove
and then she swept away the dust.
“You look like someone that I used to know,” she said,
“You look like someone that I used to trust.”
Then she opened up a book of poems and she said,
“take that, just so you know.”
“Memorize these lines,
and remember these rhymes,
when you’re up there, walking to and fro.”
Every one of them words rang true
and they glowed like burning coal,
Pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul,
from me to you.
Tangled up in blue.

I’m going back again
I got to get to them somehow
Yesterday is dead and gone
and tomorrow might as well be now.
Some of them, they went to live upon the mount
And some of them went down to the ground.
Some of the names were written in flames
And some of them, well, they just left town.
And me I’m still on the road
trying to stay away from the joint.
We always felt the same
depending on your point of view.
Tangled up in blue.

 

Classic Dylan, that last verse. And the harp too has lost none its sharpness, it’s capacity to lift the song towards the wild and ecstatic.

And so it continued until 2017/18 when the song once more undergoes a dramatic rearrangement, but before going there, let’s just tune in to this 2016 performance. I’ve chosen it because of audience response. Oh, don’t we love this song, can’t get enough of it, and there is enough kick in the harp to take us back to earlier performances. Not quite the ecstatic version of old, but near enough for a Dylan fan!

 

There our story ends, pretty much. But I can’t finish without a listen to how the song sounds now, without any harp break, or guitar break. The song has some charm, but has become a tiptoe-through-the-tulips down memory lane.

Dylan’s post Sinatra singing is intriguing, to say the least, but control reigns and ecstatic rock is more than a swing and beat away. We’re down to a quick five minutes, in and out. Experience has lost its edge, perhaps; these things no longer hurt. A quick bounce and swing through the gallery of time. Was that even us?

We could say that all art is a tension between order and chaos. Too much order, and your work becomes rigid, predictable, too tightly framed. Too much chaos and there is no coherence, just a big mess. In Dylan’s work, we often see these two tendencies in play.

The song ‘Dark Eyes’ has been criticized for having too rigid a musical structure. Rigidity of form is to some extent built into rock music, more so than jazz. We think of the fanatical rigidity of the arrangements on Tempest, and the tight coherence of Frank Sinatra. In Tempest, Dylan emulated Sinatra’s method of recording, and Sinatra’s absolute control of the sound he created. Songs like ‘Narrow Way’ create a very narrow way musically indeed.

On the other hand, we find the wild innovator and improviser. The artist who could stand in front an audience and pretty much make up on the spot a whole set of new lyrics to ‘Serve Somebody’. The artist whose impulse to improvise is perhaps most vividly and clearly expressed in his harmonica solos, the best of which are touched by the wildness of a free spirit, passionate and playful.

TUIB attempts to capture the chaos of experience within the ordered development of a song. It’s all about experience – to be celebrated, anguished over, and, in the end it seems, tamed and neatly tied with a perfectly constrained musical ribbon.  And only the hint of a swagger, a touch of madness in this weird piano!

I’d be foolish to assume that the story of this mighty, indestructible song, ends here. If Dylan, in his late seventies, keeps on keeping one, like that bird that flew, who can tell what the future might hold, and that beautiful little instrument, the harmonica, might yet fly again too.

Kia Ora!

Bob Dylan Master Harpist…

 

 

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4 Responses to Master Harpist PS: Tangled up in Harmonicas, Part 2 (and the greatest ever version)

  1. Kiwipoet says:

    That last sentence should read, ‘keeps on keeping on’ of course.

  2. Robert Ford says:

    This exceptional series has achieved so much more than demonstrating Dylan’s unique skills as a harmonica player. Mike has shown that Dylan is a virtuoso. This series has taken an amazing musical journey with performances that have surprised and delighted people like myself who think that that they have heard everything. Then again, with the incredible Never Ending Tour in it’s 31st year ( which this series has brilliantly championed ) it is perhaps no surprise there are wonderful performances still to be discovered.

  3. PC says:

    ” And the harmonica around my neck
    I blew it for you free
    No one else could play that tune
    You know it was up to me “

  4. Kiwipoet says:

    Once more, thank you Robert for your support. And yes, there are wonderful performances still to be discovered. A lot I would like to share. So right now I’m plotting a series on the NET, year by year, a bit like Master Harpist only more ambitious. I’m a bit nervous about doing it, as it’s a big undertaking, but as it is already starting to take shape in my fevered brain, you’ll probably see the results soon enough!

    PC, thanks for the lines from Up To Me. I wish I’d remembered them when I wrote the series. I’d have used them as a front quote!

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