NET 1988: Desperate stratagems, Part 1: Heroes and Villains

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.

[Joey 1988]

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.

[Hallelujah 1988]


We’ll be back shortly with Part 2, 1988, for more of that year’s rich and abrasive sounds.

Kia Ora!

The Never Ending Tour 1987: Farewell to all that.

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 

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  1. Thank you for the article and music, I read and listen them, I read about NET 1987 and previous Durango too. Thanks for posting!

  2. Thank you for this article. I really enjoyed its very descriptive and informative literary style. The words line up so smoothly with the many unique audio recordings from Bob’s 1988 performances.This is one article that I will revisit often. Keep up the great work!

  3. I remember the shock of first hearing the 1988 concerts and the ferocity of the band performances. Some songs are unscathed by this high octane performance but others buckle under. However, we have the glorious acoustic performances such as the truly magnificent ‘Barbara Allan’ ( one of his greatest ever vocals ) to counter balance the blistering band performances. This ‘Gates of Eden’ is for me an absolute triumph and has Neil Young playing with the band. This great performance is on youtube. How can one musician offer such contrasting brilliance ?

  4. Superb. I do not think you can over emphasise how significant the changes were that Dylan made in 1988. No organ player for the first time ever, the female backing singers gone after 10 years, co-singers no longer on the stage, a second acoustic guitar on the acoustic songs and, amazingly, the harmonica felt unnecessary. The music revolved around the duelling guitars both electric and acoustic and yet another unique vocal style. This resulted in performances as liberating and divisive as 1966 and 1976. Sometimes the vocal was I feel too strident as in the ‘Joey’ included in these fine performances. This may have been due to the power the band could achieve but mostly his vocal performances were wonderful with his incomparable phrasing and presence. Listen to ‘Barbara Allan’ and ‘Gates of Eden’ above to get a feel for just how special these performances are.

  5. The other significant change that I failed to mention was the increased amount of cover songs that Dylan performed in 1988. He had started to play more covers in 1986 with Petty’s band then stopped performing them in 1987. Then there was a huge increase in the cover songs he performed with nearly 30 performed in 1988. Many of these covers were landmark performances such as ‘Barbara Allan’, ‘Across the Borderline’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ,arguably, his greatest NET cover ‘Eileen Aroon’. G E Smith delights in explaining that during the band’s audition the most important factor was how the band could perform ‘Pretty Peggy-o’. When you add to these covers the new Dylan songs he introduced such as the great opening song ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ then you have some of the most inspiring concerts he has ever performed.

  6. This performance of ‘Hallelujah’ is one of his greatest ever and for me captures the 1988 “minimalist feel” in full flight. The vocal is pure genius…it gives me goosebumps. The lead guitar fills are beautiful and the whole band performance is restrained but still powerful. G E Smith has some memorable tales to tell of his role in the band and how playing acoustic guitar with Dylan on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ brought him to tears.

  7. thanx again and again. the comment “G.E.Smith is behaving” is music in my ears, though of course his guitarwork is not questinable of course, no way.

  8. Thanks for all your comments. PC, if I’d had access to ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ I would certainly have included it. I had it once in cassette form, I believe from an album Stuck Inside New York from the New York concert. An internet search might well turn it up somewhere. Same with Subterranean Homesick Blues. And now I’m cursing myself for leaving out ‘Eileen Aroon.’ I decided that my main focus should be Dylan compositions.

  9. I suposse when u say about With God On Our Side in Oakland that he is playing acoustic guitar alone , it means together with GE Smith . His six-song set performance deserves a particular review into the first year of NET , in despite that was part of the second annual Bridge School Benefit show.Dylan recovers San Francisco Bay Blues(Jesse Fuller) since his early days in 1960 smashing the tastes of a piano and Pretty-Boy Floyd (Woody Guthrie) But Forever Young is where I pointing , because this iconic song Dylan played a lot of times acoustically with his band , but it’s the first and the second time ever he played only acoustic . Never before and never after . And what a version !!!! . Last time he played in Oakland was with Grateful Dead in July 1987 .

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