Never Ending Tour 1989 Part 2 – A fire in the sun

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

I’m very excited about the set of performances in this post. Not only some of the finest for 1989, but some ‘best ever’ or at least ‘very hard to beat’ performances of these 1960s favourites. I’ve learned my lesson when it comes to proclaiming a ‘definitive’ performance of any song, not just because someone will come up with a better one, but because the performances change from year to year and you can’t compare chalk with cheese.

Nevertheless, if you can point me to a better performance of ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ (10-31-89) please do – maybe 1974, with the Band?

 The Ballad of Hollis Brown

And while you’re enjoying the crisp, kick-arse vocals, and GE Smith’s scratchy little riff, take a moment to admire this elegant piece of storytelling. With its roots in the dustbowl poverty that Woody Guthrie sang about, this deadly, driving blues adroitly takes us through the stages of mind that lead Hollis Brown to murder his children and himself. One moment the shotgun is ‘hangin’ on the wall’ and the next it is in his hands. It’s narrated in the second person (you), rare in story telling, most opting for he/she or I. This ‘you’ brings us right into Hollis’s state of being; we’re right there standing in his shoes:

‘Well your brain is a-bleeding
and your legs can’t seem to stand…’

Interestingly, neither the first person (I), or the third person (he/she) would work here.

Is there anything to match that? Well, I think there is, in a gentler, more acoustic vein. ‘Love Minus Zero No Limit’ has, for me, remained a mystery wrapped in an enigma, just like the subject of the song herself, the silent, all-knowing one. And yes, it is a love song, and a very tender one, but what are we to make of these two verses?

‘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.
The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers' nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love she's like some raven
At my window with a broken wing.’

I could write ten thousand words and still be no closer to understanding these lyrics. Since they are resistant to interpretation, they keep their mystery. In performance, combined with the music and vocalisation, they seem to fit perfectly.

Dylan has said that we can enjoy a song without understanding it. He’s right. The question is, not what do these words mean, but rather how do they fit in with the feeling-tone of the song. This is Dylan at his best – specific yet elusive, restrained yet passionate. Enjoy!

Love minus zero

It’s all over in 2mins 53 seconds, the length of a pop song. Could be a no-frills 1988 performance. At the end of the song we get some twangy guitar playing that is not GE Smith. That’s Dylan, an early emergence of Dylan as second lead guitar. I’ll have more to say about Dylan’s guitar playing later, but it’s enough at this point to note it, and the dissonant effect it creates.

People are heard to complain, ‘Why doesn’t Dylan sound like the old Dylan?’ Well, because he was so much younger then, but also there are times when he does. This ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (below) takes us right back to the 1966 performances, right down to the swooping harmonica break. Actually, this performance, direct and forthright, reminds me of the Concert for Bangladesh sound (1969). Dylan in full voice. Like many of Dylan’s sixties songs, Mr Tambourine Man’ expresses a yearning to escape, escape those ‘ancient empty streets too dead for dreaming’ and to get ‘far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.’ If you wonder why Dylan is celebrated as a poet, wrap your ears around this.


Mr Tambourine Man

One of simplest and most affecting love songs Dylan wrote is ‘One too many mornings.’ On the album, the song takes a mere 2.45 seconds, but its brevity is matched by its profundity. The ache of loneliness we might feel after a night of lovemaking, the alienation and distance from our own feelings.

‘From the crossroads of my doorstep
My eyes they start to fade
And I turn my head back to the room
Where my love and I have laid
An' I gaze back to the street
The sidewalk and the sign
And I'm one too many mornings
An' a thousand miles behind’

Add to that the despair the artist might feel, the hopelessness of the quest for meaning.

‘It's a restless hungry feeling
That don't mean no one no good
When ev'rything I'm a-sayin'
You can say it just as good
You're right from your side
I'm right from mine’

Note the consummate clumsiness of the lines, the Okie grammar, rhyming good with itself, all to emphasise the artist’s confessed unfitness for the task. He don’t mean it folks – he can say it gooder.

In this 1989 performance, he doubles the length of the song, but doesn’t sacrifice brevity as he works through the verses in about 2.30 minutes and spends the next 3 minutes in guitar work, repeating a verse, and ending by trying to capture the exquisite nostalgia of the song in the frail tones of his harp.


One too many mornings.

We mustn’t be fooled by ‘Ramona’, (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964). It may sound like a love song waltz; like a love song, assume an intimacy like a love song – but it is not that. Yes, it is a farewell song, but it is more than that. Like ‘Just Like a Rolling Stone’, which it prefigures, ‘Ramona’ is an attack on false values, on living unauthentically, blinded by all the bullshit:

‘I see that your head
has been twisted and fed
with meaningless foam from the mouth…’

The music may sound gentle, but the attack is relentless, an expose of sorts of the subject’s underlying drive to conform. To be what others want you to be and not yourself is a grievous sin in Dylan’s moral universe. Peer pressure, we call it nowadays.

‘From fixtures and forces and friends
Your sorrow does stem
That hype you and type you
Making you feel
That you gotta' be just like them…’

This, raw, acoustic 1989 performance doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings, but there’s a certain compassion evident in the timbre of Dylan’s voice. This is no victory song.



Another farewell song from the same era, ‘It’s all over now Baby Blue’ gets the same raw, acoustic treatment. I noticed that the harmonica break at the end progresses to higher and higher notes until he seems to be squeezing out the highest notes, as if in search of a sound beyond audial range.

I have written about the emotion behind this song in Master Harpist 2, in relation to a 1995 performance, and described it as love’s last song. The issue is not so much living falsely, as in Ramona, but suffering the pain of a disappointed love:

‘the lover who’s just walked out your door
has taken all his blankets from the floor.’

But lurking behind this pain, there’s a sense of the greater moral emptiness and confusion of the great hippy, free-love movement.

‘The empty handed painter from your street
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheet.’

And always we are haunted by our vagabond past.

‘the vagabond who’s rapping at your door
is standing in the clothes that you once wore’

Despite the pain, we have to get up and get on with our lives. Strike another match. A very common saying, used to wonderful effect here, at the end of the song.


It’s all over now baby Blue.

‘Knocking on Heaven’s door’ is another kind of farewell song. We heard a very intense vocal on this one in 1987, with the Grateful Dead, (See Net 1987), and this is a lot rougher but no less intense. Dylan tears out the lyrics. Especially recommended is Dylan’s high-pitched squeaky harp work so typical of 1989. Quite jazzy and experimental; he seems to want to push the little instrument to its very limits. The  combination of Dylan on the acoustic guitar and GE Smith playing electric works well in this case. A knock-out version.

This performance may not match the most magnificent 1988 ‘Gates of Eden’ (See NET 1988), but the problem is mostly with the rowdy audience. I nearly excluded it on those grounds, but in the end Dylan’s vibrant vocal proved too persuasive. If you can listen through the idiotic chatter, you’ll hear genius at work, filling these mysterious lyrics with an equally mysterious passion.

Knocking on Heaven’s door

In NET 1988 part 2, I called ‘I shall be released’ a rather delicate, oblique little song. None of us are to blame, of course, we’ve all been framed. We cry out loud for salvation. You’ll have to decide how this one stacks up beside the 1988 performance. A little lyrical sweetness from GE Smith’s guitar.


Gates of Eden

In NET 1988 part 2, I called ‘I shall be released’ a rather delicate, oblique little song. None of us are to blame, of course, we’ve all been framed. We cry out loud for salvation. You’ll have to decide how this one stacks up beside the 1988 performance. A little lyrical sweetness from GE Smith’s guitar.


I shall be released

The template for this fast-paced ‘It’s alright Ma…’ (1964) was created during the Tom Petty years in the mid-eighties and has changed little since. It is Dylan’s most comprehensive protest song, an all-out assault on everything false and phoney, the great rip-off machine. It’s his last blast at the world before departing the protest scene.

In the light of Dylan’s later development, and conversion to Christianity,  consider the terms of his attack.

‘Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It's easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred.’

The real crime is the desacralisation of culture from religion to sex. We are ruled by Mammon, the god of money, and he blasphemes: ‘money doesn’t talk it swears…’

And yet the song does not despair; it has a message of resilience because all this crap getting thrown at us is just ‘life and life only.’ And we ‘can make it.’

Do the words just come pouring out! I loved the flat, nasal delivery of the mid-sixties, which constrained the passion of the song, and the 1974 howling version, but have grown to enjoy these hard-out fast versions. This one doesn’t spark the way the 1990 performance will, but it gives us something to look forward to.

‘It’s all right Ma.’


Kia Ora

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Time and distance separate the singer from his love, as if all this happened may years ago and far away ‘where the winds grow heavy on the borderline.’

Those who are always searching for autobiographical meaning in Dylan’s songs might assume the ‘borderline’ to refer to Canada, and that may be so, but it speaks more of that borderline between memory and desire


  1. Resistant to interpretation? Them thar are fightin’ words!
    Resistant to a sure-fire interpretation ‘yes’ but you mention ‘the border line between memory and desire’ …”,she’s at my window like some raven with a broken wing”.

    Edgar Allan Poe’s Lenore ‘rapping , rapping at my chamber door’ ( window) – “The Raven”

    The narrator idealizes a Pygmalion lover; she may appear to him
    not to argue or judge , but she’s tormented….perhaps by her tell-tale heart.

  2. Thank you, Kiwipoet, for continuing the article about NET 1989. You made very beautiful selection of uploads, The Ballad of Hollis Brown, Knocking of Heaven´s Door, One too many mornings I like the most of them.

  3. thanx again for your research, Hollis Brown is exeptional not only because of Bob but very much because of GE behaving very very well!

  4. We are most fortunate in having Bob Dylan’s music so well documented and, despite the fact that nothing can compare to being in the auditorium when he performs, these superb performances demonstrate that his songs only come to life when he performs them. I was in attendance when he performed most of these songs in 1989 and these performances remind me of the electricity that was in the air when he sung these songs.

  5. These performances are further evidence of Dylan’s spontaneity and improvisational skills…the songs changed from night to night depending on his mood ,etc. The performances of individual songs changed night to night with the voice, guitar interplay and harmonica being driven by his feelings on the night. Most of the time, GE Smith was able to respond to Dylan’s mood but this approach to music is prone to risks and this is what makes Dylan special although the purist’s dislike this genius.

  6. Thanks again. Looks like some of my notes got left at the end of the article. Those last two comments. I always have to watch that; I tend to push fragments down as I write and forget to clean them up. In this case, it’s sort of worked out okay, since the comments about time and distance and autobiographical meanings, while not integrated into the post, are worth keeping. I’m glad they didn’t end up in the trash!

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