By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)
Part One: Most of the time.
‘and I’m just like that bird singing just for you’
Coming from the tightly controlled performances of 1988, we find lots that’s new and different in 1989, despite the same line up: lead guitar, second guitar, bass guitar and drums. There is a looser, more expansive feel; it’s not all so locked down. And Dylan rediscovers his harmonica as a lead instrument, taking the pressure off his voice as being the main focus.
And there are other changes too. On June 10, Dylan was joined by a new, young bass play, Tony Garnier, who is to stay with Dylan for the next thirty years, becoming the backbone of Dylan’s sound. Always there, steady as a rock. Together Garnier and GE Smith, who’s had a year now to settle in with Dylan, provide a sensitive and sometimes imaginative backing for Dylan’s songs. For my money, 1989 is GE Smith’s best year with Dylan.
At the same time, the recordings from that year all have a metallic quality not evident in 1988. At first I thought it might be the recordings themselves, but now I think that the sharp, piercing sound is what Dylan wanted.
On 18th September, 1989 Dylan released the album, Oh Mercy. It was Dylan’s 26th studio album, and hailed by the critics as being his best since Blood on the Tracks fifteen years earlier. Dylan didn’t swamp his set list with Oh Mercy songs, however, as he was equally interested in dusting off some songs seldom performed. The 1989 performance of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ in this post is probably the best he ever did of that song.
One of the highlights of Oh Mercy, is ‘Most of the Time’. It’s brilliant the way the refrain ‘most of the time’ undercuts all the bold posturing in the song. All the bravado and protestations are shown up, at the end of every verse, to be hollow.
‘I can smile in the face of mankind don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine …. most of the time’
The almost whispered performance on the album, with its swampy background, is fully expressive, almost revelling in the emotional paradoxes of the song. The sarcastic edge is softened by the whispered voice and Laniot’s spooky musical backdrop.
In the following performance (10-29-89) we get a very different sense of the song. These quiet and hollow self-reassurances become shouted defiances. The undercutting ‘most of the time’ come slashing in with rage and confusion. It starts quietly enough, but the vocals soon begin to build. Building a song to a vocal climax is something Dylan is just starting to feel out. Of special note is the way the ending is staged, moving from restraint to pogoing its way to a shrieking conclusion.
Most of the time
‘What good am I’ must be one of Dylan’s quietest and most reflective songs. It captures those self-doubting moments we all have when we wonder if we’ve done enough for others and the world. Moments when we’re forced to face our uselessness. A song with a different sentiment, but which matches its humble mood might be ‘What Can I do for You’ (1981). Gentle as it is, it holds the soul to task.
In the age of the Covid 19 plague in which I’m writing, and as the daily death count gets higher, I can’t help noticing these lines.
‘If I just turn my back while you silently die what good am I?’
(I’ve broken the lines here to try to match how Dylan sings them)
In this 1989 performance (11-02), it remains slow and thoughtful but there is a sharp edge to the music, and the vocal build up veers towards self-accusation rather than self-reflection.
What good am I?
My personal favourite from Oh Mercy would have to be ‘Man in the Long Black Coat.’ There is an urban legend that the Devil will hang around dance halls looking for easy prey – innocent young females. After one dance the Devil would spirit the innocent girl to hell; having danced with the devil she was no longer innocent. This story was probably told to said innocent girls to scare them off dances and keep them at home at night doing their homework and other innocent things.
In Dylan’s hands it becomes a tale of temptation and fate, sinister and ghostly. Dylan was to come back to this song many times in the 1990s, but here’s how it sounds given his 1989 whiplash treatment.
Man in the Long Black Coat
Like ‘What Good am I?’ ‘The disease of Conceit’, is a quiet, reflective song from Oh Mercy.
The sentiment seems obvious until you reflect on the huge damage done by egotism. Like many of the human failings and crimes Dylan writes about, conceit is blind, and such blindness will lead to delusion and death.
‘Give you delusions of grandeur and an evil eye Give you the idea that you're too good to die Then they bury you from head to your feet From the disease of conceit’
As with ‘What Good am I?’ the performed version is harder and sharper than the album version. Dylan takes to the piano for this one. Dylan playing keyboard on stage is still a rarity at this point in the NET.
The disease of conceit.
There is a continuity of message from Dylan’s early protest songs, a warning about the false nature of modern materialism;
‘Advertising signs they con you into thinking you’re the one that can do what’s never been done that can win what’s never been won’ ‘It’s all right Ma (I’m only bleeding)’
Other songs from Oh Mercy would have to wait their turn. Dylan had begun to get interested in how he could not only adapt his early songs for the rock stadium stage but reinterpret those songs, give them something new in performance. In the case of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ the 1989 live performance here (date not known), with its thoughtful, gentle harmonica opening, reaches for an emotional range that the album version doesn’t quite achieve.
The tiredness of the album version is attractive, but this vibrant performance seems to touch the core of hurt that lies at the heart of the song. The song is an appeal. When all the false appearances and expectations of this world have fallen away, then come and see me. Again, Dylan experiments with an extended ending, using the harmonica to wring the last ounces of feeling from the situation. It all sounds a bit unrehearsed but all the better for that spontaneous feel. And GE Smith has moments of inspiration.
Queen Jane Approximately
After the end of the gospel tour in 1981, Dylan seldom revisited his Christain songs. ‘Serve Somebody’ appears now and again, and Dylan has had an ongoing interest in ‘When you Gonna Wake Up,’ from Slow Train Coming, 1979. In the 21st Century, this song would reappear with a whole new set of lyrics. Here, in 1989 (10-20), he has fun with the song, experimenting with his ‘primitive’ 1930s, staccato piano style.
When you Gonna Wake Up
‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ gets a nice quiet intro with harmonica. Dylan’s vocal is clear and powerful. Dylan returns to the harp for a final solo with some whimsical work by GE Smith. This song, an encounter with the stranger regions of our psyche, sounds good spooky, as it is on the album, and it makes for a good crashing rocker, but I like this version for its cutting feel, and edgy sharpness.
Ballad of a thin man.
We have been following Dylan’s magnificent protest song, John Brown, now since 1987, all wonderful performances. I have written about this song in those previous posts, and how the song is driven by the dramatic encounter between mother and son on the train station after John Brown got ‘home from the war.’
It now occurs to me that this songs puts its finger on the generational divide that became so evident in the sixties. The young anti-war boomers turned on their parents who could still talk in terms of ‘a good old fashioned war.’ There is no such thing. The dropping of his medals into his mother’s hand at the end is a gesture of contempt, and a rejection of the values of the ‘older generation.’ It is for songs like this that Dylan is known as a ‘spokesman for his generation,’ a label Dylan has always rejected.
In 1989 Tangled up in Blue begins to emerge as the crowd-pleasing, foot-stomper it will become in the 1990s. At this stage, however, it is still pretty tightly controlled, and Dylan bustles though it at a fair pace. We could almost be back in 1988, except for extended harp break at the end. This harmonica break is pretty tentative compared to the glories to come in the nineties (see the Master Harpist series), but the pattern is laid down here, a willingness to use the catchy, precipitous rhythm of the song for extended instrumental breaks. A strong vocal performance.
Tangled up in Blue
We can look forward to some exciting stuff in the next post, which will feature some of Dylan’s quieter, more acoustic moments in 1989.
- The Never-Ending Tour: 1987 – Farewell to all that
- NET 1988: Desperate stratagems, Part 1: Heroes and Villains
- 1988 Part 2: The 60s revisited
- 1988 Part 3: Absolutely still on the road
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