By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
You might say that I saved the best till last, once you hear the first couple of performances, but it was not deliberate!
The pattern of these posts is starting to come clear to me. I use part 1 to introduce new songs, rare or unusual, and parts 2 and 3 to catch up with Dylan’s new approach to old favourites. This last part is a safety net of sorts, to catch any performances that had slipped by me.
So I’ve got a couple of absolute beauties to kick this off.
First up. ‘She Belongs to Me’, that hymn to the superior female, the girl who belongs to no one, probably the kind of woman your mother forgot to warn you about. Beware, lovers, put her on a pedestal and she’ll have you grovelling. We have met this song before and will do so again, but never this way, just Bob on acoustic guitar and harmonica. For lovers of Dylan’s acoustic sound, and his squealing 1989 harmonica style, this is an absolute gem. Classic performance coming up!
She Belongs to me
Just as you’re sighing with satisfaction from listening to that, consider the next performance – ‘Every Grain of Sand’. Most Dylan followers agree that this is one of his greatest songs. There’s a magic in it that goes beyond the lyrics.
In Master Harpist 3 I wrote about the song, and how Dylan seemed to be able to make some fairly corny lines sound wonderful. Many lovers of the song prefer the demo version he did at home on the piano, to the lush, swept-up version on the album (Shot of Love 1981). Like me you might have wondered what it would sound like if Dylan just played it alone, on the acoustic guitar, like it was a folk song. Well…wonder no longer. Here it is, the gems of gems, the discovery of discoveries.
Every grain of sand
Around the time of the harmonica break in the middle of the song, a second guitar joins. GE Smith, I suspect, doing some very discreet work, harmonising beautifully and unobtrusively with Dylan. Relatively rare to hear them working so closely together like this.
‘Deadman,’ also off Shot of Love, has always intrigued me because of its ambivalence. Presumably, the ‘deadman’ is a man unredeemed, who’d never accepted the word of god. Reprobates. But the descriptions suggest Dylan could be talking about the very crowd he’d fallen in with – the Pentecostals.
What are you tryin' to overpower me with, the doctrine or the gun? My back is already to the wall where can I run? The tuxedo that you're wearin' the flower in your lapel, Ooh, I can't stand it, I can't stand it, You want to take me down to hell.
When he sings ‘Do you have any faith at all/do you have any love to share?’ he’s most likely singing about those who claim to have faith and love, not the unconverted sinner. The deadman’s sin is worse as it is rooted in hypocrisy and Dylan’s old foe, godless materialism:
‘The glamor and the bright lights and the politics of sin, The ghetto you build for me is the one you end up in.’
Dylan’s voice here is deeper and darker than it was in 1981, and we get a nice sinister feel from this performance, with some great opening work from GE Smith. The problem here is that GE Smith doesn’t know when to end the song, which peters out after a couple of aimless choruses. It sounds to me as if Smith is expecting Dylan to round it off with another verse, or a harp break, and nothing happens. There are lot of these, shall we say ‘unrehearsed’ endings in 1989. Nobody quite sure what will happen next.
At the Toronto concert in 1980, his almost hysterical assertion of his faith in that powerful love song, ‘I believe in you,’ might well be Dylan’s greatest vocal ever. Any subsequent performances of the song have to suffer comparison with that superlative moment. I wasn’t expecting too much, therefore, and was pleasantly surprised. The 1980 sound is big and warm and rich. Here, nine years later, it is hard and spare, with that sharp metallic edge we have come to associate with 1989. Dylan’s performance is quite ragged, he messes up the lines a bit, but warms to the song as it goes. I find GE Smith’s guitar work quite intrusive on this one, but we get some nice plaintive harmonica work at the beginning and end.
I believe in you.
‘I dreamed I saw St Augustine,’ although written twelve years before ‘I believe in you’, fits in well with the religious theme here. I wrote about this song when we looked at 1988, and the sense of quiet despair that fills this little ballad. In the later, gospel songs, salvation is at hand, but in ‘I dreamed I saw St Augustine,’ salvation is nowhere to be found. On the album it’s a slow, gentle acoustic song but here it turns up with a solid rock base, medium tempo, sounding good. Sometimes I wonder if Dylan’s ‘folk songs’ are not rock songs in disguise.
Again we hear Dylan building the song up from a quiet, vocally understated beginning to the loud confessional climax: ‘I put my hands against the glass/and bowed my head and cried.’
I dreamed I saw St Augustine
I have to admit to an ongoing fascination with ‘Tears of Rage’ (1967). Again, this religious undertone. Again, lyrics that seem to lie just beyond our ability to comprehend them. Perhaps the song is not written to a person but to America. Perhaps that ‘false instruction’ is the kind of materialism that turns a ‘heart into a purse.’ It’s all perhaps perhaps, while the song continues to exert a mysterious power with a hint of grandeur. Dylan’s declamatory vocal style suits the song well as a form of rhetoric – ‘Oh what kind of love is this/which goes from bad to worse?’
Tears of Rage
Every concert, like every album, needs a fast, hard rocker or two to remind us that rock is one of Dylan’s first loves, even before he became a folk-singing icon. The fast, hard and irreverent ‘Highway 61 Revisited (on the album version, Dylan blows a police whistle) sounds frivolous, with throw-away lyrics, but that is far from the case. The first verse, however casual the language, catches the Biblical Abraham as he was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. God holds Abraham back, an act of divine mercy.
The answer to all earthly woes is ‘Highway 61’. Back in the druggy days of the sixties, junkies called their veins ‘highways’, but there’s no need to get snagged by that interpretation, despite the allusion to some sinister ritual or other:
Now, the fifth daughter on the twelfth night Told the first father that things weren't right "My complexion, " she says, "is much too white" He said, "Come here and step into the light" He said, "Hmm, you're right, let me tell the second mother this has been done" But the second mother was with the seventh son And they were both out on Highway 61
Highway 61 is a place where you can abdicate all responsibility and allow evil things to happen, even a ‘next world war.’ Have a think about all this serious stuff while you rock along!
Highway 61 Revisited
The accepted narrative is that Bob Dylan stopped writing protest songs and started writing ‘surrealist’ or ‘symbolist’ songs. That’s so hardly true, it’s false. Dylan stopped writing topical songs, like ‘Oxford Town’, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll’ and ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ but a song like ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ takes protest to another level – a zany, madcap level. Humour and satire are the weapons here. As Dylan was to write many years later, ‘People are crazy and times are strange.’
‘It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry,’ off the same album, has quite a different intent. While Dylan never wanted to become trapped by the blues, he likes to put at least one twelve-bar blues on every album. I think it’s his way of acknowledging the importance of the blues in his music. Blues singers were writing strange lyrics long before Bob, and of course the structure of the blues underlies a lot of rock music. On the album, it’s a gentle rollicking love song with some impeccable verses, but in performance it tends to heavy up. It’s easy for something that starts with the flavour of country blues to slip into a surging, urban blues.
It takes a lot to laugh
To finish off this post, and the year of 1989, we come to ‘Visions of Johanna’, and I lose all objectivity and even-handedness as a commentator. For me, ‘Visions’ is a lot more than a song. To listen to the studio version (Blonde on Blonde, 1966), or the live acoustic performances of that year, is to enter another medium, like stepping into another world. It’s like trying to stand underwater; it makes you feel queasy. You reach for the bottom but there is no bottom – you just keep falling. It’s like being in somebody’s bad trip. There are strange people in this world, which is a very claustrophobic place, and they plumb the depth of cynicism:
The peddler now speaks to the Countess Who’s pretending to care for him Saying, name me someone who’s not a parasite And I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.
‘Visions’ is a nightmare of Dantesque proportions. The question it generates is, why does the poet’s conscience ‘explode’ at the end of the song? Because sinister and unconscionable things have been going on, unsavoury rituals only hinted at. Everybody seems seriously fucked up.
The jelly-faced women all sneeze And the one with the moustache says ‘Jeez I can’t find my knees.’
You find yourself in receding hallways of echoing voices, haunted by the absence of a certain Johanna. The phantasmagoric world around us becomes an ‘empty cage’ which we see ‘corrode’. There is no salvation here, merely the echo of it. The song ends with the vanishing sound of harmonicas in the rain. It’s a crepuscular song, a consummate mood piece…
… at least, that’s how it sounded in 1966. After all this raving about it, I think we need to hear what I’m talking about. This is ‘Visions of Johanna,’ Sheffield, 1966.
Visions of Johanna
A voice like a fallen angel!
Tony Attwood has posted Dylan’s Australian performance* from that year, one of delightful weariness. This is peak Dylan.
These performances are unmatchable. Subsequent performances of the song just don’t seem to cut the mustard. The lyrics are there, but the fast beat means he has to rush through them, almost throwing them away. He doesn’t savour the lines, those magnificent lines, rolling them around in the echo chambers of his mind. The spookiness has gone, and the hints of depravity somehow don’t resonate. But here it is, ‘Visions’ 1989 style. Just another song.
That brings to a close this article and the series ‘The Piercing Edge’ in which I looked at some highlights from Dylan’s 1989 NET. What can we say about 1989? The effect is looser and less locked-down than 1988. Dylan’s prepared to sing the song through, then allow time for improvisation, either GE Smith on the guitar or Dylan on the harp.
As I have commented, there is a sharp, metallic sound to most of these performances, reinforced by Dylan’s piercing edge harmonica. He’s beginning to work his songs from quiet beginnings, often acoustic, to a pounding climax. As in 1988, his voice is strong and to the fore and there are some passionate performances to be found.
I’ll be back shortly with the next round, 1990 – a new decade. Take care out there, in the cities of the plague.
Please note this final audio was originally missed from the presentation. Apologies.
*The recording from Australia is now appearing with a note that it is only available in some regions, but there is a second performance in that article which is also worth hearing
- 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
- 1989 Part 3: Blown out on the trail
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