The Never Ending Tour: 1988 part 3. Absolutely still on the road

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

Previously on the tour…

We finished Part 2 of our tour of the first year of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour with ‘All along the Watchtower,’ a song that would remain embedded in Dylan’s setlist for many years. We begin Part 3 with Tangled Up in Blue (from Blood on the Tracks, 1974) another perennial.

I have traced one thread of this song’s remarkable history in the Master Harpist epilogue, Tangled up in Harmonicas Part 1 and  Tangled up in Harmonicas Part 2

And while this song did become a showcase for Dylan’s virtuoso harmonica playing, this is not the case in 1988 where, true to that year’s form, there is no harmonica, the song bustles along with a bit of jingle-jangle from guitarist GE Smith, and is all over in six minutes.

However, Dylan  is right on top of the vocals, in full mastery of the song, and gives us a clear, up front performance, using his 1988 abrasiveness to put a sheen of irony on the lyrics. This is not an exercise in nostalgia for times lost past, as the song can sometimes be, but a wry, hard-bitten look at what we call ‘experience.’

Tangled up in Blue

Another song of love and regret from Blood on the Tracks, ‘You’re a big girl now’ doesn’t last the course the way Tangled does in terms of Dylan repertoire but can carry a strong emotional punch when performed. The bitterness underpinning the repeated ‘…you’re a big girl now,’ is not softened in this 1988 performance; there’s no attempt to ease the pain, or let the melancholy of the melody take over. Those who like that album for its raw edge might well enjoy this.

You’re a big girl now

‘Rank Strangers’ isn’t a Dylan song but it could be. Like ‘Silvio’, ‘Rank Strangers’ is one of those songs he has made his own, all the more as its sentiment is very Dylan like – that sense of estrangement or alienation from the world. This 1988 version is a very solid performance indeed, with the full power of Dylan’s voice evident, enough to blow you out of your seat. And the performance is not rushed, with some thoughtfulness in the backing that will become a feature of 1989.

Rank Strangers

A traditional song that Dylan also made his own is ‘Man of Constant Sorrow.’ He sang it often in the early 1960s, and it was to appear again in a completely transformed version in 2005. Being a ‘man of constant sorrow’ was a part of Dylan’s image, always leaving town, always on the dark side of the road burdened with a broken heart. What I find interesting is how this archetype of the alienated outsider that comes through so much of the old, country-and-western and cowboy music was absorbed into Dylan’s persona, and reflected in his lyrics. He became the archetype.

Man of Constant Sorrow.

Dylan would never perform ‘Serve Somebody’ with the same fervour as during the gospel years, 1979 – 1981, and this is not a particularly distinguished performance, so why place it at the end of my tour of 1988? Because, rough-and-ready as it is, it comes with a completely new set of lyrics, and I can’t know this for sure of course, but it sounds as if he’s improvising, making up new verses as he goes. In other words, just having fun, which is not the feeling we get from most 1988 performances, which are tightly constrained.

In this respect it points forward to later years, when improvisation will play a greater role. And the new lyrics, as far as I can make them out, are also fun and cheeky, suggesting that Dylan hasn’t entirely lost his sense of humour.

Serve somebody

So how are we to regard the performances during the first year of the Never Ending Tour? They seem rushed and abrasive. Call it a garage band roughness.  Dylan’s voice often sounds forced and hoarse, with a throw-away feel you can hear most strongly in the first song of this study ‘Just Like a Rolling Stone’ (See NET, 1988 Part 1). He sounds impatient, tearing through his old songs and spitting them out as fast as he can. It’s all pretty tightly controlled.

These are Dylan songs stripped down to their bare essentials, to the core of each song. There is nothing relaxed or expansive here, the performances are driven, often seemingly torn from the singer’s will. There’s no lack of passion, and some of the performances are masterful – ‘Gates of Eden’ is one of my favourites. (See NET, 1988 Part 1) Dylan’s voice is always upfront, the words in our faces.

It is a little too easy to overlook these early NET performances, as there were greater things to come, and sometimes I have returned to them and been surprised and gratified by their direct and unadorned force.

There is something deeper here too. I called this year ‘Desperate Stratagems’, not quite sure why. Now I think it has to do with an underlying claustrophobia evident in the performances; there’s an almost breathless desperation here. A flailing against invisible walls. This is the sound of a soul paying its dues, as it were, on the treadmill of song, and he will never sound quite like this again.

See you next time for a four part look at 1989.

Stay alert, stay alive!

Kia Ora

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  1. I love that version of Man of Constant Sorrow, and the notion that Dylan was challenging himself with improvising words on stage. Improvisation in music and theatre is a special talent, but one that is rarely acknowledged by traditionalists.

  2. Another great Dylan performance of a cover song, ‘Rank Strangers’. The album version is terrific but here he takes it to another level. I find it remarkable that Dylan can take a songs which when performed by the original artist sound contrived and transform them into great, passionate songs. One of his greatest transformations is the Mississippi Sheiks song ‘Blood in My Eyes’ where he takes an uptempo shanty and slows it down into a poignant masterpiece. He has a great musical instinct for capturing the essence of a song. It is also a measure of his greatness as a performer that despite having the finest body of work to draw on when he performs, he chooses to perform a wide range of cover songs.

  3. ” Rank Strangers is one of those songs he has made his own…” Absolutely. Great performance. It is his ability to get inside a song and go deep within himself that results in such timeless performances.

  4. I did not realise on the first couple of listens just how brilliant this ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ ( I love “Gotta” ) is. Wonderful improvised words, an intense vocal and a red- hot band performance. It confirms for me that you need to listen a few times to get into a performance.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. Tony, I know what you mean about the challenge of improvisation. I heard a rapper at a party once, standing in corner rapping away to himself and anyone who would listen. It was a stream of language. I realised he was improvising and wondered how the hell he could do it.
    And can’t help but agree that this Rank Strangers is one of Dylan’s great vocal performances.

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