NET 1991: Hidden Gems in a Train Wreck. Part 1 – The Undesirables.

By Michael Johnson

‘And when it all came crashing down
I became withdrawn’

‘On a freezing night that January, the traffic locked solid on the snowbound London streets, we shuffled back to the Hammersmith Odeon to see the latest episode of the saga. Dylan came on wearing a strange boxy plaid jacket that looked as though it belonged to someone else, and performed with a sort of wilful lethargy, constantly picking up the wrong harmonicas, forgetting words, leaving out entire verses of Desolation Row… As he mangled some old favourite, reducing a fine melody and incomparable lyric to an indecipherable racket, I turned to the occupant in the next seat. “Well,” I said, “I suppose they’re his songs, and he can do what he likes with them.” “Yes,” she replied, “That seems to be his idea too.”’

(Richard Williams, Bob Dylan, A Man Called Alias)

My readers will be aware that I try to steer clear of commentaries and commentators in favour of looking at the performances themselves, and 1991 should be no exception. But there is pretty much a universal consensus that the NET crashed in that year, particularly the summer tour of Europe.

Performances were messy and shambolic. Dylan’s voice was scratchy and brittle, his new band raw and unrehearsed. It was hard to recognise the songs. And so on. Looked like Bob had had his day!

The bad reputation that the NET gained in the popular press was mostly due to some dismal performances in that year. The band began to call themselves The Undesirables because of their negative reception.

The cracks were starting to show in 1990, with Dylan performing in a hoodie to hide his face, presumably, and covering his face while going through airports looking pretty wasted. Those wedded to referring everything he does back to Dylan’s personal life have had a field day, blaming his abrupt decline on all kinds of things from the break up of his second marriage to too much of a good time with his Traveling Wilburys mates.

Gossip is a poor substitute for critical appreciation. And, being an avid listener to Dylan’s performances, I have my own sense of what might have happened here, especially to Dylan’s voice. We need look no further than the previous three years in which, as I observed from time to time, Dylan seems to be tearing the hell out of his voice.

Remember those rough, forced performances in 1988, seeming to come from the back of his throat (see NET 1988, all parts). And those screaming-edge performances in 1989 and 1990. Not helped, perhaps, by having to compete with GE Smith’s metallic guitar sound.

This might have been Dylan’s attempt to re-create his ‘high, wild, mercury sound’, but my sense is that he did his voice in, simple as that. Three years of punishment, and he paid the price. It wouldn’t be until 1994 that Dylan recovered the luminous clarity of his voice.

And yet …and yet, if Dylan’s voice is so shot, how come he can sing the way he does on some of these songs, such as ‘The Man in Me’. Even given that he chooses the lower registers, mostly, the performances are passionate and his use of a low vibrato (to replace his high keening) makes it sound like he’s really singing.

The issue as to what extent Dylan’s voice really is shot, and to what extent he’s forcing that scratchiness to give feeling to the songs (just as, in the early sixties, he tried to sound older than he was) is a moot one. Or is this all too complicated, and what we’re hearing is just the natural ageing of his voice and the strategies he’s using to deal with that? You’ll have to be the judge.

There were other changes too that made for a messy year. GE Smith did his last concert with Dylan in October 1990, and guitarists auditioning with Dylan would find themselves onstage playing a concert. For the first 21 concerts of that European leg of the tour, Dylan added an extra guitar to the mix with John Johnson replacing GE Smith and Cesar Dias playing back up. After those first 21 concerts Dias dropped out, leaving the backing band as John Johnson, Ian Wallace on drums, and Tony Garnier on bass.

It wouldn’t be until the following year, 1992, with the arrival of the dobro, that Dylan began to forge the sound that would take him through the Nineties.  In 2004 Dylan made an interesting comment about these early NET years.

‘In the early 90’s, the media lost track of me, and that was the best thing that could happen. It was crucial, because you can’t achieve greatness under media scrutiny. You’re never allowed to be less than your legend. When the media picked up on me again five or six years later, I’d fully developed into the performer I needed to be and was in a good position to go any which way I wanted. The media will never catch up again. Once they let you go, they cannot get you back. It’s metaphysical. And it’s not good enough to retreat. You have to be considered irrelevant.’ (interview with Edna Gunderson)

I can’t help putting this quote from Dylan alongside the Richard Williams quote above and wonder if that ‘indecipherable racket’ Williams talks about isn’t Dylan deliberately being ‘less than his legend’, crashing that legend so he can start again. But then I’d be doing what I criticise others for doing – reading motives into Dylan’s behaviour. Sigh! After all, no performer willingly performs badly, surely?

Still, by the end of 1991 there were lots of people writing Dylan off as irrelevant, past his best etc, giving him the camouflage he needed to forge his sound, so who knows?

So I approached this year with some trepidation, thinking I’d have nothing much to offer you but a bunch of botched performances. To my surprise I found all kinds of strange fruit – hidden gems and oddities, especially in that disastrous summer tour. It suddenly became an exciting adventure. Dylan was on a new path, the very beginning. His audiences would change. He would lose some, those who just wanted to see the legend; he wasn’t playing for them. And he would gain some, those who wanted to follow a new musical direction. Those who could leave Bob Dylan behind.

So let’s start with one. First blood, as it were. A messy, improved ‘New Morning’ from the summer tour but unrecognisable from the jaunty first song off that album. At first I thought the track had been misnamed as it sounds like a jam session, then Dylan starts to sing, some chords emerge, and low and behold! ‘New Morning’.

Remarkable for its harmonica solo (how did I miss it for my Master Harpist series? I ask myself) and Dylan’s free flowing piano work. Suddenly this is jazz. We’re in another world. Dylan wouldn’t take to the keyboards until 2002. And moving from harp to piano would come much later also. This is a special recording I would say, and shows Dylan willing to explore, improvise and re-arrange his songs. It is indeed a new morning.

New Morning

Remarkable for its harmonica solo (how did I miss it for my Master Harpist series? I ask myself) and Dylan’s free flowing piano work. Suddenly this is jazz. We’re in another world. Dylan wouldn’t take to the keyboards until 2002. And moving from harp to piano would come much later also. This is a special recording I would say, and shows Dylan willing to explore, improvise and re-arrange his songs. It is indeed a new morning.

Acoustic jam

In the same exploratory vein, we have this unnamed acoustic jam. It might have turned into a song but didn’t. Another from that dreaded summer tour. The Undesirables having fun. When you’ve nothing, you’ve  got nothing to lose. It just bounces along and then stops.

Man gave names

Now here’s an oddity from that dreaded summer tour. ‘Man gave Names to all the Animals.’ A rarity enough in itself, and far from typical of his gospel songs, but here it gets a spirited airing. And the lyrics… not sure if he remembers them very well, and he mumbles over a few lines, and doesn’t end the song properly, allowing it to peter out, but who cares?

 

Bob Dylan’s Dream

Hidden away on the second side of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan (1962) is a powerful piece of nostalgia, ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream,’ – yet another neglected masterpiece, I suspect, since it’s written from the point of view of someone much older than its 21 year old composer.

Now, many a year has passed and gone.
Many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a first friend
And each one I've never seen again

The song was justly praised for its extraordinary emotional maturity. It captures that sadness we feel when we look back at the friends of our youth, and the wonderful illusions we laboured under. And here’s our protest singer showing an acute awareness of the complexity of things two years before ‘I was so much older then,’ which is often taken as his first indication that he was tuning out of the protest movement.

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices they were few so the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split

What a pity Dylan didn’t cultivate this song for his performances. I’m not pretending that this rare 1991 performance packs the same emotional wallop as the original, but in this rough, scratchy version, the age at least sounds about right.

 

The Man in Me

The next song, again from the summer tour, ‘The Man in Me’ from the New Morning album, is notable in several respects. Dylan’s voice sounds just fine if a little reedy; we could almost be back with the voice he used on Infidels in 1984. There’s a lot more than ‘wilful lethargy’ here.

Listen to the guitar break that begins around 2.25 seconds into the song and you hear Dylan on his Stratocaster. It may be difficult at first to distinguish Dylan’s guitar from Johnson and Diaz, but it has a distinctive, wirey sound that dominates the music until the harp break begins around 4.25 seconds. This heralds the arrived of Mr Guitar Man, whose sound will dominate the electric sets until 2002, when Dylan will take to the piano.

There is much to be said about Mr Guitar Man, but I’ll leave that for a later date.

Its all over now baby blue: 1

I want to finish this first part of The Undesirables with two takes on ‘It’s all over now Baby Blue.’ I have discussed this song previously, most fully in my Master Harpist series, when I presented Dylan’s wonderful 1995 performance of the song (see Master Harpist part 2: performances you will simply not believe.), and refer my reader to that post.

The first take here is from the summer tour we have been dipping into. The emphasis is on crafting an effective vocal line for the song. It is all in the voice, which is close and intimate, and those sublime lyrics. Only the last sixty seconds are left for some sweet harmonica and guitar work, weaving in and out. It’s tentative, but fresh and interesting.

Its all over now baby blue: 2

The second take is from the later, fall tour of the US, as the band began to leave The Undesirables behind. Here Dylan slows the tempo, and while the last verse finishes at 4.20 secs, we have three more minutes of improvisation, both guitar and harp. While the harp break at the end cannot match the soaring grief of the 1995 performance, we can hear it taking shape, thoughtful, contemplative and sad.

 

That’s it for now. I’ll be back soon for the next instalment of this puzzling and provocative year – 1991.

Kia ora

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1 Response to NET 1991: Hidden Gems in a Train Wreck. Part 1 – The Undesirables.

  1. Kiwipoet says:

    One typo I didn’t pick up, the guitarist is John Jackson, not Johnson.

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