By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Previously in this mega-series we have looked at the very start of the Never Ending Tour (NET).
- The Never-Ending Tour: 1987 – Farewell to all that
- NET 1988: Desperate stratagems, Part 1: Heroes and Villains
So now we come on to NET 1988, Part Two – the 1960s revisited.
Check any setlist of Dylan’s in 1988 and you’ll find it weighted towards his sixties hits, his tried and true favourites. We have traditional folk songs, and ‘Silvio’ and ‘Rank Strangers’, not written by Dylan, from the album Down in the Groove released in May 1988, just before the NET began. I found one performance of ‘Drifting too far from Shore’ from Knocked Out Loaded, 1986, but the recording is too poor to include here.
The ten songs in this post, therefore, are from his early period, 1962 to 1966. What he appears to be doing is putting together a group of core songs, known to the audience, and popular songs on which his reputation was built. This group of songs, with variations, was to carry him through into the 2000s when a lot of new songs would come on stream, and the sixties material would begin to take a back seat. He wanted durable songs that would keep him going night after night. And there were plenty to find.
Songs like ‘Just Like Tom Thumb Blues’, the junky’s lament. He delivers the song in a brisk four and half minutes here. It’s pretty up-tempo, which may not appeal to everybody. The song may better suit the world-weary, druggy slowness you find on the album version. The backing is mediocre, but, as in all these 1988 performances, Dylan’s voice, right up front, pushes the song right into your face.
Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues
We heard John Brown powerfully delivered in 1987, and this 1988 version is hardly less powerful, although I do miss Baumont Tench’s nifty piano riff (see NET, part 1, 1987). The pace is a little slower, Dylan’s vocal delivery more emphatic than the 1987 performance, and GE Smith’s sharp, twangy sound fits well with the hard-edged drama that takes place between the returning soldier and his mother.
For the fan of the old acoustic Dylan, however, it is Dylan’s acoustic performances of 1988 that must stand out. Dylan continued to perform solo acoustic guitar with his songs until 1993, so while this version of his 1964 classic ‘Love Minus Zero No Limit’ is to be surpassed in later, more sumptuous versions, this ‘primitive’ simple solo strumming takes us right back to the old Dylan, the tousled haired kid who charmed us with his poetry.
This song happily idolises his love without the awful sting in the tail we get with songs like ‘She Belongs to Me.’ There’s a tenderness and beauty that even the gruff 1988 Dylan can’t hide. This song is tribute to his love. There is a touch of the divine to this figure, who, possessed by a deep wisdom, seems to rise above the everyday aspects of life.
‘The cloak and dagger dangles Madams light the candles In ceremonies of the horsemen Even the pawn must hold a grudge Statues made of matchsticks Crumble into one another My love winks, she does not bother She knows too much to argue or to judge’
Love Minus Zero
Similarly, ‘A hard rain’s a gonna fall’ sounds pretty much the way Dylan first sang it, way back in 1962. Perhaps his greatest protest song, a surreal nightmare of what life might be like in an apocalypse. Surely this song must ring a bell in a world right now suffering it own viral apocalypse. These images are terrifying and universal, images of a dying world which speak just as clearly to us now as they did when they were written. The harsh, urgent, 1988 voice suits the song perfectly.
Written in 1967, thirteen years before Dylan’s Christian period, ‘I shall be released’ expresses the desire of the soul for liberation, for release. Release from being hemmed in, trapped and isolated in ‘this lonely crowd’. We find this theme in ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ and still going strong in ‘Mississippi,’ in 2001, where the soul is ‘all boxed in no room to escape.’ In ‘I Shall be Released’ we find: ‘So, I swear I see my reflection/Somewhere inside these walls.’
I bet that pretty much describes a lot of us right now living in lockdown.
The raucous versions from The Rolling Thunder Tour, with The Band singing along, do not, to my mind, serve this rather delicate, oblique little song that well; it suits a quieter, more acoustic sound. We don’t get that exactly with GE Smith in the background, but it’s great to hear Dylan singing solo on the choruses, and, sounding raw, this is as affecting as any performance you might hear.
I Shall be Released
There are some songs that remind us of Dylan’s rock/blues roots, and ‘It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry’ (1965), is one of those. On the album, Highway 61 Revisited (1965), it takes the form of a gentle, lyrical, bluesy ballad, somewhat on the melancholy side.
‘Now, the wintertime is comin', the windows are filled with frost I went to tell everybody but I could not get across Well, I want to be your lover, baby, I don't want to be your boss Don't say I never warned you when your train gets lost.’
It has the feel of country blues about it with simple strumming and minimal backing. In performance it became something else, a heavier and more urban blues, a rollicking rocker. It stays that way, with variations right up to the present time. You can find a heavy, crashing version on YouTube from 2018. Meanwhile, here’s how it sounds in 1988.
It takes a lot to laugh
Along with ‘Hard Rain’, ‘Masters of War’ is associated with Bob Dylan the protest singer, the one who is ‘young and unlearned’ but knows the truth anyway, the truth that can’t be hidden. Stripped of any Dylanesque ambiguities, the song hits hard at the real war criminals, the arms manufacturers. (I’ve written about this song in the post Masters of War and Extinction Rebellion.) It’s a song that suits both acoustic and electric treatment. Here it gets a hard-edged treatment, courtesy of GE Smith’s guitar and Dylan’s punchy voice.
Master of war
‘Maggies Farm’ from the 1964 album ‘bringing it all back home’ typifies the defiance and rebellion that marked Dylan’s early image. Maggies farm, the place, is another closed-in space to be broken out of, a place full of lies, hypocrisy, slavery and general paranoia – ‘his bedroom window is made out of bricks…’ The farm is the absurdist face of modern American culture, represented as the mad, dysfunctional family. Who wouldn’t want to make their escape? The implicit anger in these 1988 performances finds a perfect vehicle here. Dylan’s voice is dripped with fury and contempt.
And a touch of that same contempt suits the psychology of ‘She Belongs to Me’. She doesn’t belong to anybody, and is the much revered and hated mistress of his soul. She is sarcastically described as a ‘hypnotist collector’ a ‘walking antique’ but on the other hand she has him down on his knees peeking through keyholes. Like ‘Romana’, it sounds like a love song, like an intention towards a love song, but it isn’t. The love, hate and humiliation are all there, given powerful voice. What this performance may lack in smoothness and some of the more rounded versions we hear later, it makes up for in raw, rough power.
Interestingly, ‘She Belongs to Me’ would last all the way through the NET, even through the Frank Sinatra years from 2014 to 2017 and undergo many transformations.
She Belong to Me
‘All along the Watchtower’ from John Wesley Harding was to become the standard rocker with which to end shows – to go out with an apocalyptic roar. GE Smith is only too happy to oblige. But once more, the presentation is minimal; packed into four minutes, it makes its statement and gets out with none of the wild improvisations we’re going to find further down the track. This is the unadorned core of the song, and as such is typical of these 1988 performances.
All along the Watchtower
That’s it for Part 2 of our tour through 1988. Next post will be Part 3, finishing off 1988 with a few choice performances.
See you then, and in the meantime, stay safe.
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