The Mystery of “Can’t Wait” in Germany: three new versions of one old song

By mr tambourine man and Tony Attwood

“Can’t Wait” on Time out of Mind is a blues song, primarily rotating around two chords with a couple of extras put in at the end.  It tells how waiting is within the essence of a blues experience – and in this case the singer has had enough of waiting.  Waiting is what the bad times are all about; but no more, this is the end. The waiting is over.  He’s had enough.

But of course that “Time out of mind” recording was not the only “Can’t Wait”, because not only is there the other recorded “Can’t Wait” – the “Tell Tale Signs” Can’t-Wait, which is so different from the “Time Out of Mind” version – there are also at least three more versions which are very, very different from the originals.  And they each have something rather curious in common.

Although the two recorded versions certainly have different lyrics, they both work the theme of loss and emptiness. But they do it in such different ways that really they are utterly different approaches to the same concept.  In “Time out of Mind” we get the singer’s utter sense of desperation and loss, in “Tell Tale Signs” it is a blame game, and the blame is being dished out wholesale.

So it maybe isn’t too surprising that when Dylan has taken the song on the road, he’s revelled in the fact that he has not one but two songs – which in the world of Dylan implies that there are probably several more versions of the song lurking underneath, if only we can find them.

And find them in terms of musical arrangement, is indeed what mr tambourine man’s videos have done by bringing together the three completely different versions of “Can’t Wait” that have been performed in the German city of Erfurt.  And when we say “completely different” we mean not just different from each other, but utterly different from the two recordings cited above.

All three appear on this video – you might want to let it play while reading the rest of the article…

By way of background it is important to know that Bob Dylan has played Erfurt just these three times – and the first very curious thing we find here is that on all three occasions “Can’t Wait” was played in the city.

Of course it could be a coincidence, and to see if that notion can be justified we can have a look at what other songs were played on all three occasions the band went to the city.

In fact there was just one omnipresent song: “Like a Rolling Stone” – which has been played 2075 times on the tour, so it’s not too unlikely that it should be on the agenda at any particular venue.

And yes it can be argued that “Can’t Wait” in three different versions just happened to be on the set list in that city by chance, but that seems very, very unlikely.

Still, we need to look and so to try and justify this thought that it was a coincidence that one city was given “Can’t Wait” three times.  And upon looking, what we find is that in 2005 “Can’t Wait” got four outings, and after its final performance of that year it would not be played again until 2008.  Then after the three performances that year Bob played it again in 2009… in Erfurt.

Beyond that we had a long gap with very few outings until “Can’t Wait” turned up in Stockholm in 2019, about two weeks before the Erfurt 2019 show.  A run through before the main event perhaps.

So it seems we are indeed looking for a link between this song and the city of Erfurt, which means we now need to ask, “what do we know of Erfurt?” Can we find a clue in the city which gives us something on which to base our understanding of what Dylan is doing with this song in this city?

All about Erfurt

Erfurt was founded by Saint Boniface in the 8th century and became the economic centre of the Hanseatic League, was part of the Holy Roman Empire, then part of Prussia, then the GDR.  And is now of course part of Germany.

Martin Luther studied at the university in the city before entering the monastery.  The philosopher Meister Eckhart, the composer Johann Pachelbel (whose work most of us who studied classical music will know through having played his Canon) and Max Weber the sociologist all come from the city.  Is there a clue in that history?  Curiously there might be.

But  first, let’s think further about “Can’t Wait” itself. Bob has played it over 200 times which puts it in the same league (in terms of performances) as Blind Willie McTell, Gates of Eden, Visions of Johanna, It takes a lot to laugh, I and I, and Mama you been on my mind.   Which is to say, it’s in the top 100 when measured by performances.  In the top 15% of Dylan compositions that get performed by the maestro.

And it certainly is mainstream Dylan because at the heart of the song there is one of those absolute classic Dylan lines which Dylan created and then let slip away

You think you’ve lost it all there’s always more to lose

But – and this is an oddity it itself – that brilliant line only turns up in the Tell Tale Signs version.  So we have to drop that point.  Bob never sang that line in the German performances we are considering.

However what we do have is mainstream Bob Dylan and the blues – in three different versions.  Let’s see where they go.

The 2005 edition has a bounce and a descending bass twice – once on each of the two chords (which for the blues is quite unusual).  It’s a clever musical trick because it emphasises the falling off the edge of the world due to the loss of the love.  The arrangement works wonderfully as well as we never lose that unusual descending bass.  It doesn’t intrude, but it doesn’t get lost in the sparseness of the arrangement either.   It gives us the emptiness and the bleakness, but with an extra bounce – which takes a lot of doing.

OK so now we’ve established what we have got, let’s see what the connection is with the inhabitants of this fine city where these performances took place.  Let us go to Pachelbel’s Canon.

Do you hear a connection?  OK probably not, it’s probably just Tony doing his music thing,  and I (Tony) maybe can hear it because I played the piece it as a young classical musician learning my way.  But it is there once you hear Dylan’s descending bass.  I know I’m taking a long shot, but there a certain musical link between what Bob has done to this piece, and what happens in the Canon composed by this city’s most famous musician of all time.

But before you close this file in dismay at the preposterousness of suggesting a Dylan blues is based on a famous classical piece, let us move us on to 2009.  On mr tambourine man’s recordings above it starts at 5’30”. And yep, there is that bounce again, but this time it is ascending, not descending, and played on the lead guitar not the bass.

What did Bob do here?  Did he sit down with the tapes of the 2005 gig, listen to that song and say “hey guys lets do it upside down”?  And then for no particular reason decided that every now and then he would sing lines with an accent on each and every beat?

Maybe he did.  And musically that is rather odd.  But it sure makes for a good piece of music.

Now hop along to 10’20” and if you’re not bemused enough already, that’s good, because what we’ve got is an element of the ascending line from the second version but played on the bass (as the line was in the first version).

It is hard to imagine that Bob could have arranged these second and third versions without reference back to the first.  We can’t know if he listened to the recording of the first and second gig to create the third version, but he certainly could remember what the band did.  And it would have been a hell of a lot easier if he did have a tape of the show.

Either way, this last version has a further kick, for around 12’50” the whole event stops for no particular reason to give us a reminder of the sort of speed the original was taken at, before we get going again and the instrumentalists now give us both the ascending and descending scales.

Does the music of the third version make any sense in relation to the lyrics?   In effect without reference to the music (rather than the lyrics) of the first two versions no it doesn’t.  Not in the slightest.   It can only be fully appreciated historically by reference to the music – and what are the chances of many in the audience doing that?  Very slight I’d say.   They were listening to a live concert.

But then, Bob was never one to give us too many clues along the way.

In 2019 he started playing “Can’t Wait” again, having played it fewer than 10 times a year from 2000 onwards.  So far it has had 40 outings including some really passionate performances such as Hyde Park 2019, The Beacon 2019, which can compare with Milan 2011, Worcester 2008 (available on mr tambourine video channel), Erfurt 2009 (included in this video), Portsmouth 2000 etc.

Dylan really enjoys singing this with a lot of passion in all the years he played it.

There is of course one other possible reason for what we might call the “Erfurt Effect”, and that there is in Erfurt someone who knows Bob, and who particularly likes that song.  Someone who is so special to Bob that he would go out of his way to create a completely new arrangement of that person’s favourite song.  And quite possibly, having gone to all that trouble, he might well think, “That works rather well,” and so kept it in the show.

We’d like to think so.

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

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  1. I can easily confuse myself without any help, but

    “When you think that you lost everything
    You find out that you can always lose a little more”

    appears in the lyrics of ‘Trying To Get To Heaven’ on the “Time Out Of Mind” album akin to the aphorism on the “Tell Tale Signs ” version of ‘Can’t Wait’

  2. Or rather I should say a version of ‘Can’t Wait’….Told ya…. I’m getting confused
    again (lol)

  3. Superb…thought provoking and plausible. These fine performances are somehow different and yet linked by a musical thread despite being over a 14 year period.
    It would seem to me that the 2019 performance is the strongest performance and most remarkable that he is performing better in 2019 than 2005 and 2009. Dylan’s vocals have miraculously got better these last few years and maybe the Sinatra inspired albums were part of this process rather like the 1994 Nara performances led to a vocal resurgence.

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