By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘They say sing while you slave and I just get bored’ (Maggie’s Farm)
When Bob Dylan appeared at Concord Pavilion on June 7 1988 for the first concert of a tour that was to last for the rest of his life, his line up was strictly minimal: lead guitar, bass and drums. With Dylan playing second or rhythm guitar. Gone were the big bands and girl choruses.
It was back to basics for Bob, with GE Smith on lead guitar, Kenny Aaronson on bass and Chris Parker on drums. But thanks to GE Smith’s comprehensive guitar work, the band didn’t sound too minimal. The pace was mostly fast and jangly. Often the guitars became a blurred, amorphous ‘wall of sound’ sound behind Dylan’s voice
Not all Dylan followers like the GE Smith period, which was to last until 1991, accusing him of pulverising Dylan’s subtle melodies with his often shattering sound, but I don’t think Smith was entirely responsible for that. Dylan himself seems, at times, to be assaulting his songs as much as singing them, rattling through them as if to get them out of the way, as if he’s sick of them.
These 1988 performances create an ambivalent effect. On one hand Dylan’s voice is as powerful and expressive as ever, on the other hand he seems to want to tear the heart out of the songs. His voice is a shock, too, for those used to his clear high mercurial tones; he grunts and snarls and vocalises in a hoarse, breathless, broken style like a man at the end of his tether. His frustration is palpable. You wanna hear this old song again? Well here it is, watch me rip it pieces.
[Just like a rolling stone]
An unsettling listening experience, I think you’ll agree, but it’s become my favourite because it’s so unsettling. The gleeful triumph of the Sixties performances has given way to a muffled rage. Almost sounds like the Sex Pistols!
Such ‘attack’ songs have been criticised as being vindictive, and this performance might support that impression, but it’s too easy to forget the influence of Existentialism in the 1960s when those songs were written. Everybody was reading Camus or a book by Colin Wilson called The Outsider. The idea is that most of us live in bad faith; we are not honest with ourselves or each other. We choose our blindness. We cling to precious illusions. What we need to do is live ‘authentic’ lives.
The girl accused in ‘Just like a rolling stone’ is an example of the worst kind of bad faith – a wilful blindness built on snobbery. Ultimately, living inauthentically is not living at all.
This same understanding animates other songs too, ‘Ramona’, ‘She belongs to me’, ‘Positively Fourth Street.’
The shattering of pretensions, illusions and delusions lie behind such great songs as ‘It’s all right Ma…’ and ‘Gates of Eden’. In that song, political, religious and ontological delusions are mocked, made meaningless, by the mysterious gates. Only behind those gates is the source of authenticity to be found; the only source of truth.
‘Sometimes I think there are no words But these to say what’s true And there are no truths Outside the gates of Eden’
I love the softer, more spooky versions from the late 90s, which take advantage of the Celtic melody, but this angry, powerful version reminds us that this is a kind of protest song. The drums crash and roll; the guitars plunge through the chords. No surrender to melodic sweetness here. Some of the lines come to life with this rough treatment.
‘The savage soldier sticks his head in sand and then complains…’
Wilful blindness again. The nightmare hallucinatory visions are thrown into stark relief by Dylan’s emphatic 1988 style.
‘The lamppost stands with folded arms its iron claws attached.’
[Gates of Eden; 10/6/1988]
The year, however, was not totally dominated by GE Smith’s guitar. There were a few great acoustic moments we can’t pass over. One is a strong rendition of ‘With God on Our Side,’ recorded in Oakland for TV (12/4), which accounts for its superior quality. You can still find this on You Tube. We could quibble that this song was recorded before the NET tour began, but I think it’s too good to miss. I was reluctant to drop it on that technicality because Dylan adds a verse about the Vietnam war he doesn’t use again. That war becomes included in the list of false histories learned at school.
‘The names of the heroes I was made to memorise With guns in their hands And god on their side.’
Some things don’t change much, it seems.
This is one song that doesn’t alter significalntly in performance, although these performances are rare enough. This sounds pretty much as it will sound six years later at the Unplugged 1994 concert, just a bit rawer.
[God on our side, 1988]
Wonderful to hear Dylan play acoustic solo guitar. I think Dylan has a second guitar with him on this folk classic ‘Barbara Allen’, a rough-edged performance which, because it doesn’t fall into a steady beat, sounds like a cross between a recitation and a song. A compelling performance. It’s of special interest because of its mention of Scarlet Town and Sweet William, both of which will appear in Dylan’s 2013 song ‘Scarlet Town.’ What a treasure this one is for those who love the folkie Dylan.
[Barbara Allen, 1988]
And while we’re on the subject of acoustic performances, along comes ‘The Times they are a-changing’ again. I prefer this more intense, thoughtful version to the raucous, crowd-pleasing 1987 version, although I do miss Tench’s piano. (See NET 1987 -) The song changes with the times and suits the 1988 minimal sound just as much as big, dramatic productions.
[MJ NET 1988 Part 1, insert 6 Times a-changing]
The next offering is a real delight, capturing a rare performance of ‘The ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’ from the 1967 album John Wesley Harding. Dylan tried a few talking songs during the Basement Tapes era that preceded the album, but this is one of the few to make it onto an album. I’ve never quite worked the song out, despite being apparently told the moral at the end. The so-called moral just increases our puzzlement. It’s all about temptation and falling into illusion, but it’s a lot less straightforward than it seems: nothing is revealed.
‘No one tried to say a thing When they took him out in jest Except, of course, the little neighbour boy Who carried him to rest And he just walked along, alone With his guilt so well concealed And muttered underneath his breath Nothing is revealed’
It bounces along very nicely, however. GE Smith behaves himself and it makes for a lighter moment among some intense performances.
[Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, 1988]
At this stage, I think, we begin to notice something. Because Dylan almost never pulls out the harmonica, and because GE Smith often puts himself in the background, the whole weight of the performance falls on Dylan’s voice. Despite GE Smith’s ability to produce quite a racket, the performances have a minimalist feel. This gives 1988 its unique sound; that harried, hurried, somehow forced rush of a voice carries the show.
A more gentle reflective song like ‘Man in Me’ from the 1970 New Morning album, however, takes on a sharper edge in the 1988 performances. Dylan’s half-shouting vocal style brings the song to life. A sudden eruption of joyousness. When you stop hiding (from yourself and others) you can be your authentic self. ‘Oh, what a wonderful feeling!’
[The Man in Me, 1988]
‘Joey,’ of the 1975 Desire album, has never been one of my favourite songs. I find that it drags, and I haven’t often listened to it all the way through. Underneath it all, I think I am resistant to a celebration of a gangster’s life. I can’t help contrasting it to ‘The lonesome death of Hattie Carrol’ in which a poor, black working woman is randomly killed by a gangster who could have been Joey. If this is a protest song, it seems to miss the mark. I include it here, however, out of a sense of duty since it was very rarely performed, and this is a powerful performance, stronger than the album version I would say. The song benefits from Dylan’s energetic, half shouting, 1988 style.
Arguably, ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is Dylan’s greatest album. Dylan’s adolescent, petulant whine and insinuating vocal style gives many of those songs something of a sinister edge that has never been duplicated in subsequent performances, at least for me. Dylan’s voice keeps hinting at some subtext we have to keep reaching for, giving the songs a depth and mystery beyond their lyrics. ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ is a good example. All that brooding resentment and whining complaint perfectly delivered in Dylan’s wah-wah Sixties-tones, the inimitable rise and fall of his voice.
‘I waited for you when I was half-sick I waited for you When you hated me I waited for you Inside of the frozen traffic When you knew I had Some other place to be’
This doesn’t come across in later performances. In 1988 we get the energy and the anger – and a bouncy rock song. It’s a lively performance, and what it does do is remind us of the rock and roll roots of Dylan’s music; it almost has a 50s feel, Buddy Holly like. Dylan snarls and jeers in fine 1988 style, and if you can forget about the album version, it’s quite a lot of fun.
[Absolutely Sweet Marie, 1988]
I’ve reserved the last slot of Part 1 for a cover. Dylan does Lenard Cohen. Hallelujah! As well as Cohen’s own loveable plodding version, and Jeff Buckley’s soft and soulful version, we have some sixty other cover versions, most of them in the Buckley vein. Typical of Dylan’s 1988 mood, that the song should be shouted out, the repeated ‘Hallelujah!’ more like a cry of agony than a shout of joy.
We’ll be back shortly with Part 2, 1988, for more of that year’s rich and abrasive sounds.
Mike’s previous series: Bob Dylan Master Harpist is indexed here.
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 596 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