Editor’s note: There is an index to the previous articles in this series at the end of this piece.
Blown out on the trail
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In Part 1, 1989, we considered new songs from Oh Mercy, with a few performances from older songs. In Part 2 we looked at Dylan’s continuing love affair with his sixties songs. Today we look at a spread of songs with a focus on the 1970s.
Before we get there though, let’s pause to listen to two traditional songs given wonderful voice here in 1989. I doubt you could find a more passionate rendition of ‘The Water is Wide.’ This is not just the best vocal performance of the year or getting there, but one of Dylan’s best ever. A NET standout. Kick back and enjoy.#
The Water is Wide
The official Bob Dylan website claims ‘Trail of Buffalo’ as a Dylan song, but it is not. Wikepedia says: ‘According to extensive research carried out by Jürgen Kloss in 2010-2012, this song is one of the many variants of John B Freeman’s “The Buffalo Song”. Dylan was continuing to do what he’d always done – immersing himself in the flow of traditional songs.
There are many variants to the lyrics, also. At heart, it’s a cowboy story of betrayal and murder. Familiar Dylan territory.
Trail of the Buffalo
Ah! Forever Young! We can’t escape it.
In 1974 Dylan is still pretty young himself; there is the ache of youth in his voice, but in 1989, with Dylan a couple of years off fifty, there’s a sharp edge of anguish in the performance, and an extra edge of wistfulness in the extended harp break at the end.
It’s wonderful the way the song is built up; from acoustic roots it grows into a rich, full-bodied rock song. His voice is raw and unaccompanied, and the song, with its impossible injunction to stay ‘forever young’ has seldom sounded so heartfelt.
Just as Dylan developed a core of sixties songs he could use night after night, in the grind of constant performance, so he did with the 1970’s, mainly concentrating on Blood on the Tracks, with a nod to Planet Waves and New Morning. Only ‘Senor’ survives into performance from the powerful Street Legal.
Next to ‘tangled up Blue’ we have ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, a song which is to become a fixture on the setlists. Switching the pronouns in the song gives rise to different stories. If, at the end, she ‘hunts him down by the water-front docks/where the sailors all come in’ he is likely to be a sailor and the girl a maybe one-time lover. However, if he hunts her down by the waterfront docks etc, she is likely to be a prostitute scoring from the sailors. Either way. It’s a one night stand or a short, intense affair that leaves a lingering taste of something that might have been – but there is no outguessing fate.
Simple twist of fate.
‘Shelter from the storm’ is still going strong, and will also stay the course through the years. It starts with the best lines Dylan ever wrote, surely.
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form Come in, she said I'll give ya shelter from the storm’
‘A creature void of form’? How good can lyrics get? This goddess gives shape to him. The song is the emotional counterpart of ‘She Belongs to Me.’ That song gives a warning about putting one’s love on a pedestal, and the humiliation that follows. In Shelter from the storm, ‘she’ is not just on a pedestal but touched by divinity, one who can save him from his martyrdom,
‘She came up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns…’
In performance, the song can be given a hard, driving rhythm, as in the 1976 Rolling Thunder tour. Here it is given an almost cowboy uplift. This most mystical of songs is given a jaunty treatment. Of interest is a joyful sense of experiment here. Dylan plays with a half-spoken style of vocal, punctuated by his harmonica in squeaky sixties style. Then he slows down the song for a few lines before picking up the rhythm again. The whole performance stays interesting right to the end. Don’t miss the slow, quiet harp break that finishes the song. A gem this one.
Shelter from the storm
How does it feel to be in the last stages of a relationship you suddenly don’t want to lose? Pretty abject. You’re on your knees pleading, making all kinds of promises about changing your lowdown ways. You do lots of crying, but it’s all to no avail because… she’s a big girl now.
You’re a big girl now.
Note how he sings most of the song through before an extended musical break. Dylan again squeezes some high-pitched shrills from his harp and GE Smith scales the heights. I think the bitter-sweetness of the song suits the 1989, sharp-edged, Dylan. We have to feel that ‘corkscrew to the heart’.
‘Man of Peace’ (1984) is one song that clearly signals Dylan’s withdrawal from certain kinds of Christian certainties. If Satan can come as a man of peace, then who can we trust? Even Jesus might have been Satan in disguise. Even the devil can quote scriptures. Dylan had this insight before.
‘But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency All non-believers and men-stealers talkin' in the name of religion.’ (‘Slow Train Coming’)
Now we get a clearer picture of what this ‘Satan’ looks like:
‘Well, first he's in the background, and then he's in the front Both eyes are looking like they're on a rabbit hunt’
And what about these marvellous lines:
‘Well, he can be fascinating, he can be dull He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull I can smell something cooking I can tell there's going to be a feast’
I don’t know if this song has ever fully realized its potential in performance. The power of the words tends to get lost in the chuggy beat. Sometimes I wonder what it might have sounded like slowed right down.
Man of Peace.
Talk of albums rarely visited, Empire Burlesque (1985) is a case in point. ‘Seeing the Real You at Last’ is the exception. You can see why; it’s good old beaty rocker. Check out the lyrics to this song; there are lines from different movies. Tony Attwood does a great job of unpicking some of these lines. This is approaching a cut-up method of songwriting, where lines are lifted from various sources and juxtaposed in interesting ways. Fascinating, in the light of Dylan’s recent epic ‘Murder Most Foul’ where this cut-up method is used extensively. My favourite lines?
‘I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble trouble always comes to pass’
A whiff of Humphrey Bogart in there.
Seeing the Real You at Last.
That’s it for ‘Blown out on the trail.’ I’ll be back shortly with the fourth and final part of this tour through Dylan’s 1989 performances.
The earlier parts of this series
- 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
- 1989 Part 1: A sharper edge
- 1989 Part 2 – A fire in the sun
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