By Michael Johnson
This article continues from Hidden gems in a train wreck. Part 1: The Undesirables
A full list of articles in this series appears at the end of this piece.
Back to the most difficult yet fascinating year of the NET, the year of Undesirables, as the band called themselves. 1991, the year of botched performances and strange fruit. The year of hidden gems. The more I listen to these 1991 performances, the more I begin to wonder if there ever was any train wreck. What we are hearing, perhaps, are more like rehearsals, a new band finding its groove. Dylan reaching for a new sound. Feeling his way into the songs once more. As with the bit of jazzy undertow we find in this ‘What Good Am I?’ from Oh Mercy.
What good am I?
In an article in the New York Times, just published, Dylan is asked what role improvisation plays in his music. This is his answer.
‘None at all. There’s no way you can change the nature of a song once you’ve invented it. You can set different guitar or piano patterns upon the structural lines and go from there, but that’s not improvisation. Improvisation leaves you open to good or bad performances and the idea is to stay consistent. You basically play the same thing time after time in the most perfect way you can.’
This is a bit trickier than it sounds, and it sounds like Plato. Somewhere, in the sphere of perfection, there is a perfect performance of the song, and no earthly performance can match its perfect form, merely approximate it. But you can play ‘the same thing’ many different ways, and notions of perfection might change over the years.
Perhaps improvisation is the wrong word for what Dylan is doing, say on a performance like this one of ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ from 1974. From the opening harp break, he’s feeling his way into the ‘structural lines’ of the song in a sad, whimsical mood, rather than the prowling anger of the 1978 performances, or the howling grief of the 1976 performances. Those ‘structures’ are pretty open ended in terms of the ‘patterns’ that can be set on them. And sometimes those patterns seem … well, improvised.
You’re a big girl now
And Dylan is not asked about vocal improvisation, ways of singing within the structures of the song that give it variation. Structurally, ‘Blowing in the Wind’ must be one of Dylan’s simplest songs, based as it is on the repetitive ‘No More Auction Blocks.’ But the vocal line can be quite complex in the way in which the voice can seek to link images and ideas. This performance, again from the much maligned summer tour, reminds me of Dylan’s vocal work in 1981, extending across lines, rather than breaking them up, seeking variation within the set structure.
Blowing in the wind.
New to Dylan’s repertoire for 1991 is ‘Shooting Star’ from Oh Mercy. While everybody is naturally drawn to the magnificent ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’, and the dramatic ‘Most of the Time’, ‘Shooting Star’, with its powerful sense of lost possibilities, is hard to overlook. It could be treated as a straight love song, but for that middle section:
Listen to the engine Listen to the bells As the last fire truck from hell Goes rolling by All the people are praying
It’s the last temptation The last account The last time you’ll hear The sermon on the mount The last radio playing
As in medieval times, the shooting star may be a harbinger of doom, even the end of the world. This puts a different light on the rest of the lyrics. It’s ‘too late’, not just to make up with lost loves, but to catch salvation. Too late to save the world. Our opportunities for reconciliation with God ‘slip away’ just like lost loves and loves that never were but could have been. Hard to find a better live performance of the song than this one – and his voice doesn’t sound quite so wrecked all of a sudden, does it? In fact he’s in fine voice.
Those who have enjoyed Dylan’s ‘uncovers’ of old Frank Sinatra and American Songbook songs will enjoy this next item, ‘Lucky Old Sun’. It gets the acoustic treatment, sung with force and feeling. It’s fascinating to compare this to performances he did of this song from 2015 – 2018.
Lucky Old Sun
In his book, Why Dylan Matters, Richard F Thomas cites, ‘When I Paint my Masterpiece’ as one of the earliest of Dylan’s songs to show a strong connection with the classical world. Even the lines about following ‘a pack of wild geese’ should not be taken biographically, but refer to the sacred geese from the Roman goddess Juno who warned the Romans that invading tribesmen from Gaul were attacking. (see Thomas p79)
Dylan seems to agree. When asked about the song in that same New York Times interview, Dylan says,
‘It’s grown on me as well. I think this song has something to do with the classical world, something that’s out of reach. Someplace you’d like to be beyond your experience. Something that is so supreme and first rate that you could never come back down from the mountain. That you’ve achieved the unthinkable. That’s what the song tries to say, and you’d have to put it in that context.’
In other words, the Platonist’s dream. The perfect song, or work of art. This is by no means a perfect performance. In fact it’s pretty rough, and so is the audience. But my ol’ harp-lovin heart is a sucker for the bluesy-jazz harp breaks at the beginning and end, and the song kicks along at a nice easy pace.
When I paint my Masterpiece.
Talk of masterpieces, and along comes ‘Every Grain of Sand’. I’ve written about this song in previous NET posts, and in Master Harpist 4, about the alchemy that brings the elements of the song together in a way that moves us deeply, even when some of the lyrics may seem cliché. There’s a vulnerability in this ragged-voiced version. This is far from the slick, accomplished album version. The beat is gentle, and once more Dylan’s wirey, contentious guitar is evident, as is the constriction of his voice. It starts to sound pretty strained.
I’m not sure what he does with that last verse, and it all gets a bit shaky towards the end. This might be the most forlorn performance of the song I’ve heard.
Every Grain of Sand
And a song that could be forlorn, but isn’t, at least here, is ‘Girl from the North Country’, another song from Dylan’s stable of sixties favourites. By increasing the tempo and livening it up with a peppery harmonica, it escapes any tendency to wallow in nostalgia – that tendency had its full expression in the maudlin duet Dylan did with Johnny Cash back in 1970. Dylan was to develop this upbeat pattern for the song over the years, and we’ll hear a sublime version of it when we get to 2000, but it starts here, rough and ready.
Girl from the North Country
Another sad number from the same era, and another from Dylan’s sixties stable, is ‘One too Many Mornings.’ Some of the pathos of the original, album version has been replaced with a feeling more gentle and resigned. Again, that easy, foot-tapping rhythm carries us along. We’re back in Master Harpist territory with the exploratory harp work that brackets the vocals. It’s not a dramatic, knock your eye out performance, but again we hear Dylan reaching for the structure of the song within a new tempo and mood.
One too many mornings.
We have been following ‘Gates of Eden’, one of the most mysterious songs in Dylan’s sixties stable, and while I still go back to the stunning 1988 performance (See NET 1988, part 1), this more up tempo treatment does the song no injustice. Dylan’s voice is reedier, but clear and sharp. Dylan has often been credited with bringing French Symbolism into modern American music in the style of Verlaine and Rimbaud, and the song certainly does that. But there is a strong echo of Ginsberg and the beat poets too:
The motorcycle, black madonna two wheeled gypsy queen And her silver-studded phantom cause The gray flannel dwarf to scream
Gates of Eden.
Dylan never lets us forget, for too long at least, that he is a rocker at heart. There is the feel of the fifties in this performance of ‘Watching the River Flow.’ This 1971 song, that seems to celebrate the values of relaxation and just kicking back, was not released on an album, but appeared on Bob Dylan’s greatest hits Vol 2 in that year. In spirit, however, it belongs to New Morning and the bucolic Dylan from that era. It’s a bit too kick-arse, however, to be really relaxed. That old ‘midnight café’ is a place for black coffee and brooding. I don’t think Dylan hangs out much the way this song suggests. This is a gutsy, raw performance, from the summer tour of Europe.
Watching the River Flow.
That’s it for part 2 of our tour of that fascinating year, 1991. I’ll be back shortly with the continuation.
Stay safe and Kia Ora
- 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
- 1990 Part 2 – Songs of love, songs of betrayal
- 1991: Part 1 Hidden Gems in a Train Wreck – The Undesirables
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