By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)
Watch out, Lester Take it, Lou Join the monks The C.I.O Tell 'em all that Tiny Montgomery says hello
Part 1 – The Promised Land in sight.
Going from 1991 to 1992 is a bit like going from the desert to the Promised Land. We find a cornucopia of riches. At least at first sight. We have a lot to look forward to in the next few posts.
Dylan expanded the band by adding multi-guitarist Bucky Baxter and having two drummers, Charlie Quintana and Winton Watson. That duo lasted from April until September when Quintana left the band. With the slide guitar and dobro (Hawaiian guitar), Baxter would soften the sound of the band, but also add a richer, ‘orchestral’ effect which won’t come fully into play until 1994/5.
Dylan’s voice hasn’t improved much, if at all, but the band is on fire. I could hardly credit that the jazz guitarist that comes racing out in some of these tracks is the same John Jackson who blundered along with Dylan in 1991. This jazzy turn sees the band kicking along in a way we’ve never heard before. It certainly gives a boost to the great apocalyptic ‘All along the Watchtower’.
Within that jazzy framework, Dylan’s harmonica too becomes more adventurous, more open and free. No other year quite captures that emergent spirit, the sense of joyful innovation. (Readers of my Master Harpist Series will recognise this track from Part 1 of that series)
Same goes for Dylan’s great seventies epic ‘Tangled up in Blue’.This broken, fragmentary narrative, as the singer faces his painful, confused and confusing past, gets full epic treatment here. At nearly eleven minutes, with a medium tempo beat, this is the first in a long line of epic performances of this song. But Dylan’s interest here is not so much in story telling, as he drops out the third verse anyway, but in musical exploration – Dylan taking long guitar and harp breaks.
Tangled up in Blue
At this stage the guitar breaks are quite tentative (they will fully come into their own in 1993) compared to the confident, high flying harmonica. Baroque musical extensions work okay with songs like ‘Watchtower’ and ‘Tangled,’ which have an inherently Baroque reach, but what about the more minimalist songs?
‘I and I’ started life as a sweet/bitter little ballad on Infidels (1984) and became a loud, thumping crowd pleaser during the Tom Petty years. It resurfaces here as an eight minute epic with its own apocalyptic subtext to the fore. Dylan scratches away at the lyric as best he can with that sandpaper voice, showing his voice no mercy ‘in creation where one’s nature neither honours nor forgives’. It turns into a powerful vocal performance, scratch and all.
The bulk of the performance, however, is taken up with Dylan and John Jackson working with, and sometimes against, the textures Bucky Baxter is creating with those long, drawn out notes. This collaboration won’t fully pay off until the following year for this song. But it’s Dylan’s musical development, in particular developing his own unique approach to the guitar, that is his main focus here. More Baroque developments to come.
I and I
Dylan might have stopped writing topical protest songs in the mid sixties, but I have argued that he extended the range of his social critique with so-called attack songs like ‘Just like a Rolling Stone’, ‘Ramona’, and ‘Just Like a Woman’ to include living blindly and in bad faith – those ‘unlived meaningless lives’ (False Prophet).
But he also continued to write politically, and one of his most political songs is ‘Union Sundown’, also from Infidels, a song attacking the loss of US productive capacity. An early insight into the pitfalls of globalisation
When it costs too much to build it at home You just build it cheaper someplace else
But it aroused the antagonism of Dylan’s more left wing audience, as it seems to blame the greedy unions and government regulations for America’s decline.
I can see a time coming when even your home garden is gonna be against the law
However, these sentiments are balanced with a deeper dig into what’s going on politically. The last verse is as succinct and sharp as anything Dylan’s written in terms of direct social commentary. The rhythms wouldn’t fit, but the sentiment could have come from ‘It’s All Right Ma’ back in 1964.
Democracy don't rule the world You better get that in your head This world is ruled by violence But I guess that's better left unsaid From Broadway to the Milky Way That's a lot of territory indeed And a man's gonna do what he has to do When he's got a hungry mouth to feed
The song has only rarely been performed. This is the only recording of it that I have, although others may exist. But is this ‘Union Sundown’ at all? I can’t match any of the words except the chorus, at least those words I can make out. Is this another off the cuff performance, or has Dylan rewritten the song? I’d love to see a transcript of this, although I don’t have the ear or the patience to do it. The song rocks along and the band is pretty tight, but Dylan’s vocal delivery gets messy. I feel like I’m back in 1991, with a shambles just around the corner.
‘Cat’s in the Well’ from Under the Red Sky (1991) is another very political song, but the politics of Under the Red Sky are very different from Infidels. ‘Unbelievable’, off the latter album, delivers swift judgment on what might have happened to the Promised Land.
Once it was a land of milk and honey now they say it’s a land of money who’d ever thought, they could make that stick it’s unbelievable, you can get this rich this quick.
‘Cat’s in the Well’ puts the critique on a different level by using animals from fables. A menacing air is created at the beginning of the song.
Cat’s in the well and the wolf is looking down he got his big bushy tail dragging all over the ground
A cat in a well of course is a desperate creature. That same desperation lies behind our polite facades.
The cat's in the well and the servant is at the door. The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war.
Dylan’s outrage at the state of the world is no less than it was, back in the early sixties, in his protest day.
The cat's in the well and grief is showing its face The world's being slaughtered and it's such a bloody disgrace.
Dylan was often to use this song as a rocker to close gigs, and it was often rushed through or turned into a guitar fest, but this is a pretty clean performance.
Cat’s in the Well
While on the subject of Under the Red Sky and Dylan’s ongoing political commentary, we find a little song called ‘2 by 2’. In their eagerness to dismiss the album, and write off ‘2 by 2’ as song writing by numbers, the commentators miss once more the engagement with social issues of these songs.
How many paths did they try and fail? How many of their brothers and sisters lingered in jail? How much poison did they inhale? How many black cats crossed their trail?
It has a catchy melody and beat, but the song never quite came over, and Dylan rarely performed it. In this performance he misses out the chorus I’ve quoted in favour of repeating the last chorus twice, which is somewhat more generalised in terms of social critique.
How many tomorrows have they given away? How many compared to yesterday? How many more without any reward? How many more can they afford?
Listen out for Bucky Baxter’s nice slide guitar work, and an arresting ending to the song. No spoilers!
2 by 2
We can’t leave Under the Red Sky without that much despised song ‘Wiggle Wiggle.’ I offered some defence for that song when looking at 1991 (See NET 1991 Part One), suggesting that it was a deliberate and provocative attack on human sexuality, and as such a powerful song. So powerful it got everybody offended and up in arms. They came to see ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and got ‘Wiggle Wiggle’. Quite an effective way to destroy your legend.
Here it is, with the lyrics restored. There’s some pretty fancy guitar work here by John Jackson. This jazzy extension seems to be what interests the musicians. The audience seem to get it, and have a good time. ‘Wiggle you can raise the dead!’ Oh Lordy.
Well, I’m going to wiggle right out of here and prepare the next post, which will check in on how the Oh Mercy songs are developing, plus some other goodies.
The index to all the articles covering the Never Ending Tour from 1987 onwards can be found here.
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