The Never Ending Tour… 1990
1990 Part 1: Vomiting Fire can be seen and heard here. Details of all the earlier episodes are at the foot of this article
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
We can already sense that Dylan’s setlist is shifting towards new material, and he likes to throw in a wild card here and there, but we also find him cultivating his classics. The songs he sings and will go on singing night after night, year after year. The fascination for us will be to hear them growing and changing, staying alive or falling flat.
So this post will mostly be dedicated to some of those old favourites, the songs that won’t go away, songs that in themselves never seem to tire even if the singer sometimes might. It is after all through the songs that he lives, and what better song to kick off with than one of his very greatest, ‘Desolation Row’, and I’m very glad he kept it in his stable. We mustn’t let it grow so familiar to us that we lose our sense of wonder at the huge canvas he’s created with this song.
Like its great sister song, ‘Visions of Johanna’, ‘Desolation Row’ is a mood song, yet not as murky and dark as ‘Visions’. The experience of an intense and melancholy alienation lies at the heart of both songs, but ‘Desolation Row’ is lit by the garish lights of the circus. Seems like everybody’s in drag, and nobody is who they quite seem to be:
Einstein disguised as Robin Hood With his memories in a trunk Passed this way an hour ago With his friend, some jealous monk
The darkness of the mood is ameliorated by the gentle beauty of the melodic line. This 1990 performance is exciting and fast paced. Worth noting is how well Dylan and GE Smith work together when playing acoustically. After all it’s a long song and not that easy to carry, but to keep it brisk, Dylan sacrifices two verses, with the loss of incomparable lines. I always loved the line ‘The Titanic sails at dawn’ and always miss it when it’s not there.
1 Desolation Row
Same goes for ‘Tangled up in Blue’. The loss of verses compromises the epic sweep of the song. The problem for Dylan with these long, complex songs is adapting them to a performance environment increasingly dominated by big stadium rock. Many of Dylan’s songs seem made for small, intimate performance venues, so they have to be cut to fit the stadium rock experience. Still, you can’t kill a good song like ‘Tangled’ and Dylan gives a spirited acoustic performance. Note the loose, jazzy feel that enters the music during Dylan’s final harp break – this is a harbinger of things to come.
2 Tangled up in Blue
We come once more to ‘She Belongs to Me’, that warning to all who might put their love on a pedestal. Later Dylan was to slow the pace of this song, but here he gives it the brisk 1990 treatment, pushing it along acoustically, with a harp solo that recalls the sixties rather than the squealing edge we got in 1989. Unadorned and vibrant, another acoustic gem from this year.
3 She Belongs to Me
‘One too many mornings’ is one of Dylan’s earliest songs. During Dylan’s 1966 tour and Rolling Thunder Tour this edgy little ballad got the full band treatment but here it is restored to its acoustic setting – but what a wild and passionate vocal treatment! The faded world weariness of the album version has been replaced by an anguished desperation. Once more Dylan and GE Smith duet excitingly on their guitars and Dylan’s harp work is rich and full of expression.
4 One to many mornings
Perhaps there will never be a performance of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s door’ as sublime as the ecstatic 1987 version (See NET 1987), and anyone comparing the two performances can see how Dylan’s vocal range has become constricted and his voice scratchy in the three years of touring and singing with the Travelling Wilburys. We’ll face this again, even more so, when we come to 1991.
But it builds up well from a lonely acoustic beginning to a thundering end. It is spirited rather than inspiring.
5 Knocking on heavens door
On another old favourite, the protest song ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ Dylan drops to a lower register to accommodate his compromised voice, and so delivers a dark, threatening performance, using vibrato at the end of the lines, as with a lot of 1990 performances. That bit of vibrato makes it sound like he’s really singing!
The problem with this performance is that he misses out the second to last verse, and so ruins a wonderful piece of storytelling, as we don’t get those shots ringing out ‘like the ocean’s pounding roar.’
People have rightly commented on what an incredible memory Dylan must have to recall all of those songs with their complex lyrics, and that’s true – but he does mess up quite often. We’ll come across this again later with that other great piece of story telling, ‘John Brown.’
6 The Ballad of Hollis Brown
In Part 1 of this review of 1990 we saw several new songs from Oh Mercy enter the setlists, but he picked up on two he’d introduced in 1989, The Man in the Long Black Coat and The Disease of Conceit, for further development. (See NET 1989 Part 1)
‘Man with the long Black Coat’ is a spooky song, which would not fully come into its own until 1995, and in Part 1 of my 1989 study I mentioned a possible urban legend link to the story behind the song. In the 1990 version the gentle, strumming intro is augmented by a heavy, dark, fuzzy guitar from GE Smith, capturing something of the song’s spookiness. The brief harmonica solo at the end is a brilliant return to 1989 form, high-pitched and, in the lyrical context, screeching with fear.
7. Man in the Long Black Coat
As in 1989, Dylan is back on the piano again for his Oh Mercy song ‘Disease of Conceit.’ ‘Man in the long black Coat’ shows Dylan working to create a mysterious subtext through a subtle build up of imagery. In Disease he apparently gives up that artfulness and ability to be elusive to speak directly and plainly about conceit. I say ‘apparently’ because once more, as with ‘one too many mornings’ Dylan can hide his art behind his artlessness. The long, clumsy, prosey lines take us into a sermon. However, each verse begins with two long lines, followed by three or four narrowing lines with intensifying imagery. Consider the last verse:
There's a whole lot of people in trouble tonight from the disease of conceit Whole lot of people seeing trouble tonight from the disease of conceit Give you delusions of grandeur and an evil eye Give you the idea that you're too good to die Then bury you from your head to your feet From the disease of conceit
There’s nothing too discreet about the song, or how Dylan flaunts his sometimes clumsy sounding rhymes, and I wonder if behind all this overt preaching he may be hinting that he too is suffering from that same disease.
‘Ain't nothing too discreet about the disease of conceit.’
This 1990 performance is a little smoother than the year before, and GE Smith surpasses himself in bringing the song to a rousing conclusion, even if we don’t really need one.
8. Disease of Conceit
It would be a shame to finish our survey of this year without including ‘You Angel you’ from Planet Waves, 1974. In a setlist of darker, more serious songs, it’s refreshing to come across this happy, rather goofy love song, and to catch a smile:
The way you walk and the way you talk I feel I could almost sing
It’s refreshing too, to hear a song that captures those first, carefree, intoxicated moments of love rather than the endless farewells that haunt Dylan’s songs. It’s too easy to see it as a throw-away song, but only because it captures those heady moments so exactly. Dylan hasn’t performed this song very often, to our loss.
9. You Angel You
Nothing can ameliorate the pain in ‘You’re a Big Girl now’ however. The pain of loss and betrayal. There seem to be two tendencies at work in Dylan’s writing, the extravagant, surreal lyrical density we find on songs like ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Where are you Tonight’ – ‘Journey through dark heat’, and the sharp, pared down simplicity of some Blood on the Tracks songs.
Look at these lyrics:
‘Oh, I know where I can find you, oh In somebody's room It's a price I have to pay You're a big girl all the way’
Nothing too elusive or symbolist here, at least until we get to the ‘corkscrew to the heart’, and that hurts.
10. You’re a big girl now
Interesting how this version is bracketed by the harmonica, in addition to a harp break before the last verse, and how jazzy the harp sounds. That jazzy whimsicality lifts the performance out of the heartbreak of the lyrics into some more resilient place.
I thought I’d finish this post, and our tour of the year with a lovely vocal performance – ‘Tonight I’ll be Staying here with you.’ The last song on Nashville Skyline, 1969, it happily anticipates a night to be spent with a lover, happy to let the rest of the world go by. After all that love and betrayal. Looks like that ol’ hell bound train will be leaving town without Bob tonight.
11. Tonight I’ll be staying here with you
That finishes this post, and this brief trip through 1990. Mostly, it is a continuation of 1989, with a good sprinkling of acoustic songs and the mostly rapid performances we have seen since 1988. There are a couple of outstanding performances, ‘It’s all right Ma’ (see Part 1) and ‘The Man in the Long Black Coat’. And while Dylan’s voice got scratchier, his vocal performances are still full of power. A ‘broken voice’ suits some of these songs.
The overall sound is still metallic, and somehow without body, despite the hard work done by GE Smith to make all the backing sounds except drums and bass. Much of the harshness of the sounds from 1989 to 1990 are due to Smith’s sharp and edgy guitar.
My next post will shift to 1991, the most difficult and perhaps most disastrous year of the whole NET.
Glad to have had you along for the ride. Take care!
- 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
- Never Ending Tour 1989 Part 2 – A fire in the sun
- 1989 Part 3: Blown out on the trail
- 1990 Part 1: Vomiting Fire
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