By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘And I try to harmonize with song the lonesome sparrow sings’ (Gates of Eden)
‘I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.’
I begin this journey through thirty-two years (and counting) of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour with many fears and trepidations. I have to confess from the outset that I am no Dylan scholar; there are few Dylan books upon my shelf. Of Dylan’s life I know very little. I got about half way through Clinton Heylin’s compendious Behind the Shades but gave up on it. I’d rather spend the time I had listening to the songs.
That there might be something more to this than mere indifference only recently occurred to me when I encountered this quote from Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a Persian poet from the Thirteenth Century:
‘Study me as much as you like, you will never know me. For I differ a hundred ways from what you see me to be … I have chosen to dwell in a place you can’t see.’
Does this remind you of anybody we know? Wherever you think he is, he’s not there. In a similar vein Dylan has said:
‘I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.’
Rather than study Dylan, I immerse myself in the songs, entering them as one might a warm bath. You don’t study a warm bath, it might go cold on you; you just get into it. There may be hidden glimmerings of a life behind the songs, but it is through the songs themselves, and their various performances, that we come to know who ‘Bob Dylan’ is. And he is what he is in that moment of performance only.
‘I’m only Bob Dylan when I have to be. Most of the time I’m just myself.’ Most of the time.
So my journey through the NET (The Never-Ending Tour) will not become a biography, but rather move from performance to performance, the best performances of each year, at least those I can find. Unfortunately, I cannot date every performance, or move chronologically through each year, as my own records are patchy, and I sometimes didn’t keep the date of the song, only the year.
I could go on with more fears and trepidations and confessions of unfitness for the task ahead, but now I’m impatient to get on with it.
The first concert of the NET was on June 7 1988, but the best place to start is the year before, so we can get a sense of where Dylan was before the tour kicked off.
The misleading popular press would have it that Dylan was ‘in a sad place’ in 1987, in the months leading up to the tour. We are led to believe that he was ‘lost’ and ‘in search of directions.’ Maybe so, but this is not reflected the performances of that year, which are full of power and vigour.
Dylan worked with two bands in 1987, Tom Petty’s band and the Grateful Dead. Dylan had been working with Petty’s band since 1985, and by 1987 the performances were assured and confident. Dylan’s voice was sharp and clear, but he’d developed a staccato vocal style, breaking up his longer lines into shorter bursts and even single words, and this would carry through into 1988.
You can hear this breaking up of the lines clearly in the following performance of ‘Forever Young.’ The simple, clichéd lyrics can hardly account for the power of this song, which I believe lies in the impossibility of its repeated injunction: ‘may you stay forever young.’ There’s a heartbreak in here; we’d like to stay forever young, and our children too, but it is a forlorn yearning. Time will be time.
Of course we can stay young at heart, but even that doesn’t last forever.
The two versions of ‘Forever Young’ on the 1974 Planet Waves album point to the different ways of delivering this song, as an uplifting, upbeat celebration – or a dirge. The ninety-one year old Pete Seeger played it upbeat on the Dylan Amnesty tribute album, Chimes of Freedom (2012), but Dylan has almost always played it as a dirge, drawing out the essential pathos of the song. The slower the beat, the more drawn out and agonizing the main injunction becomes.
None more so than with this performance, London, November 17. Those who followed my Master Harpist series will be happy to note the thoughtful, gentle harp solo that introduces the song. The harp solo elaborates the theme of mortality and improvises around the sad-making melody line with its doomed uplift.
Wonderful, to hear way the voices of the girl chorus come floating in as we reach the end of the verses. Although he’d been working with girl choruses since the 1978 tour, and they played a big role in the Gospel years, by 1987 Dylan was using them very discretely and with subtle effect. Enjoy them while you can as 1987 was the last year Dylan was to use them.
Wonderful too, to hear how Petty’s pianist Benmont Tench anchors the musical line with playing that is solid and inventive.
Tench’s piano can also be heard to great effect on this haunting performance of ‘John Brown’, a little skipping riff that adds to the eeriness of the effect.
‘John Brown’ is one of those songs never officially released but which crept up on us through performances. Like ‘Masters of War’, John Brown is seen as an anti-war, protest song. It is that, but the driving heart of the song is the dramatic confrontation between mother and son on the train platform, when John Brown ‘comes home from the war.’
The first verses quickly take John Brown off to war and back again, and build up the mother’s dewy-eyed patriotism and pride.
‘She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile As she showed them to the people from next door And she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun And these things she called a good old-fashioned war.’
Her illusions are shattered when her son returns, a broken man, to accuse her, and he finally ‘dropped his medals down into her hand.’ It is the bitterness of the young man, and the folly of his mother, that drives the narrative.
At the same time, we get what is perhaps Dylan’s most succinct attack on war, a telling observation that must surely resonate in our own age of perpetual war:
"Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here? I'm a-tryin' to kill somebody or die tryin'. But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close And I saw that his face looked just like mine. "
‘Die trying’ has entered our language as an expression of determination, but it is that identification of self with the hostile other that gives the song its touch of greatness.
The songs on John Wesely Harding (1967) are shot through with moral paradoxes and mysteries. ‘I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine’, written twelve years before Dylan’s conversion to Christianity, is steeped in religious feeling, a sense of spiritual despair. St Augustine is doomed to ‘tear through these quarters’, that is our world, ‘searching for the very souls/ whom already have been sold.’
At the end of the song we are confronted with the same realization that we found in John Brown – we are our own enemies.
I dreamed I saw St. Augustine Alive with fiery breath And I dreamed I was amongst the ones That put him out to death Oh, I awoke in anger So alone and terrified I put my fingers against the glass And bowed my head and cried
On the album, the song comes over as sad, and slow, but in performance, and these are quite rare, there is an added sense of anger and despair. In 1987, his ‘cut up’ vocals lends the song a strange edge as if each word or phrase is being torn out of the melodic line, torn out of the singer’s throat. A wonderful, powerful performance, again anchored by Tench’s piano.
I dreamed I saw St Augustine
Another song from that album that Dylan began to feature that year is ‘Wicked Messenger’. A mysterious narrative with religious overtones, I’ve always thought of it as a sister song to ‘All along the watchtower’ and it can be powerful in performance. It is, however, perhaps a little too mysterious, and without the apocalyptic subtext of ‘Watchtower’, although both songs appear to bring bad news.
I particularly like the sound the band achieves in this performance, a hard, rough and ready, minimal sound. Interesting, how Dylan was slowly shaping Petty’s band, which can play loud and heavy, into this thin, sharp sound. It’s beginning to sound more like he effect he will achieve in the first years of the NET.
We will see this song emerge in the late 90s in powerful, upbeat forms, but I think it’s the musical and vocal timing in this one that makes it one of my favourites.
‘I and I’, a gentle little song from the second side of Infidels, 1984, became a staple of the Petty years, often hard, bashing versions. By 1987 the sound was cut back to a crisp minimum. It’s worth picking up on the song here, as it will re-emerge in the 90s in both hard rock and softer forms.
I and I
There’s an apocryphal tale told about Dylan and Lenard Cohen having a conversion. Dylan expresses his admiration for Cohen’s ‘Halleluiah’, and asks him how long it took to write. “Five years,” Cohen replies, then expresses his admiration for ‘I and I’ and asks how long Dylan took to compose it. “Fifteen minutes,” Dyan says.
In terms of the lyrics, it’s an offbeat, whimsical song, touched with fantasy, which seems to express our fundamental aloneness in the world, even from our lovers, although the thought of them might offer comfort. The song contains the genius line: ‘Someone else is speaking with my mouth/but I’m listening only to my heart.’
And that wonderful chorus line:
‘I and I, in creation where one’s nature neither honours nor forgives.’
Another hard, unremitting, Old Testament view of human nature.
A song that will also stick around well into the 90s is the apocalyptic, ‘Senor’, off the 1978 album Street Legal. There are some fine performances of this song during the Gospel years but here, in 1987, it gets a particularly passionate treatment. (I have written about this song in Master Harpist 3, and suggest the reader check out those comments). Tench and Dylan again work well, with a hard-edged but minimal rock sound.
What Dylan setlist would be complete without ‘The times they are a-changing’, the protest song that doesn’t protest anything? It must be in the running for Dylan’s most iconic song, and we’ll see it going through its own changings. In 1987 he could still deliver it like the Dylan of old, as a challenge, and play discordant harp just like he used to. As he grows older, the stridency of the song will give way to more mellow, philosophical performances; like that other iconic protest song, ‘Blowin in the wind’, ‘Times…’ is more like a meditation on time than a call to arms.
The times they are a-changing
The work Dylan did with the Grateful Dead has been pretty well documented. Like other Dylan commentators, I often find the results strangely lacking despite the obvious effort everyone is putting in. There are however some real gems. Among them is a rare performance of ‘Under your spell’, the final track on Knocked out loaded, 1986. It is a forlorn song indeed, straight from the dark night of the soul : ‘I was knocked out and loaded in the naked night…’
The soul is in a piteous state, unable to connect emotionally or spiritually, facing death ‘two feet from the well’; in other words, so close to salvation, yet so far away. I take the ‘well’ to imply the waters of life in the deserts of feeling. The last lines are pure Old Testament despair:
‘Well the desert is hot, the mountain is cursed Pray that I don’t die of thirst Baby, two feet from the well’
Surely must be Dylan’s most despairing last lines ever.
To ‘let the dead bury the dead’ (Mathew 8: 22) suggests we put aside the past so we might be ‘born again’ into the future free of spirit. In this song, however, the spirit is heavily burdened by emotional stuff, intoxicated and unable to shake free.
I’ll see you later when I’m not so out of my head Maybe next time I’ll let the dead bury the dead
Under Your Spell
Because of the poor recording, Dylan’s voice sounds distant and wan – you have to strain to hear it – and this, more by accident than design I’m sure, fits in perfectly with songs ambience, its inherent pathos. A distant keening voice, almost extinguished. The thin sound of the harmonica picks up on that dreary mood and carries it to the end of the song. A mini-masterpiece it seems to me.
‘Idiot Wind,’ an acknowledged masterpiece, is difficult song to sustain in performance. It’s long and angry and I imagine takes a considerable emotional effort. Yet it remains the greatest of Dylan’s ‘attack’ songs, full of spite, anger, self-justification, smugness, pain and more pain – it’s an emotional tour-de-force. In this performance with the Grateful Dead, Dylan gives it all he’s got. Not an easy song to listen to, to see a soul laid bare in such a way. Magnificent.
Ballad of a Thin Man
As is this ripping performance of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, another song that we will often run into on our journey through the NET. I think it’s about the soul’s encounter with ‘otherness’ – the Other. In this age of multiple sexualities, this song seems to me to be more relevant than ever a carnival of the libido. These distorted carnival freaks reflect our own sexuality back to us, throw it in our faces, and when they’re done they say – ‘Here is your throat back, thanks for the loan.’
In carnival land, your power, status and literary pretensions mean nothing. Logic gives way to absurdity. Ego has nothing to cling to. You are in existential free-fall crying ‘Oh my God am I here all alone.’ Riddled with sexual imagery, the song sounds best when it’s given a sinister twist, as it is on the album Highway 61 Revisted, 1965. In this 1987 performance Dylan is in fine voice and there’s some nice guitar work by Gerry Garcia.
Knocking on Heavens door
If there is such a thing as definitive ‘Knocking on Heaven’s’ door, then this epic performance must be it. He just keeps on knocking! Is that a newly made-up verse I hear towards the end? Yes, and it sounds good.
This is a song of farewell, the final farewell of all. Death looms over the sweetness of this song, and Garcia sounds inspired. It’s Dylan’s vocal however which commands attention. Anyone tells you Dylan can’t sing, play them this one. Vibrant and passionate, full of promise. A perfect way to end this post.
See you next time for 1988, when the tour kicks off for real.
Articles on the songs above from the Untold Dylan archives
- Forever Young: the road to youth via a fragile work.
- Dylan’s “John Brown”: not just the song it is the staggering performance
- I dreamed I Saw St Augustine: the meaning of the song
- The Wicked Messenger. Bob Dylan; Kafka known and unknown.
- I And I (1983). I Am That I Am.
- Señor (Tales of Yankee Power). He was just wearing a blanket.
- The Times They Are A-Changin’. Bob Dylan stumbles among the lost cigars
- Under your spell: one of Bob Dylan’s stranger collaborations
- Idiot Wind: Dylan’s most enigmatic lines within an undisputed monument.
- Ballad of a Thin Man: the meaning of the music and the lyrics
- Knockin on Heaven’s door: change, change again.
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 594 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.
On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article. Email Tony@schools.co.uk
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, links back to our reviews