NET 1992 – Part 2 – What good am I?

An index to the series thus far is published at the foot of this article.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

 

We finished Part 1 of this tour through some of Dylan’s 1992 performances by considering some of the songs from Under the Red Sky (1990) on his setlist that year. Now we turn to his previous album, Oh Mercy (1989), and catch up with some of those performances.

The four Oh Mercy songs Dylan presents this year were all first performed in 1990 and 1991. Two of these songs, ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ and ‘What good am I?’ would stick around, and would be further developed, whereas ‘Most of the Time’ and ‘Everything is Broken’ would fade away.

That makes the performances of the latter two songs all the more precious, especially ‘Most of the Time’, as it is a masterpiece of ironical undercutting. In 1990 we heard a passionate presentation of the song which was anything but reconciled to the song’s contradictions.

This 1992 version creates a mixed impression. The sound is richer and more laid back, with Bucky Baxter again creating some fine musical textures. It all sounds pretty good. Then Dylan starts to sing and the whole thing becomes a lot more fraught. It’s a strange, almost strangled performance, full of odd timing, moments of bitterness – and maybe he’s not quite remembering the lyrics, the order of the verses. It’s all pretty hair-raising, and far from the triumphant 1990 performance.

It’s a pity that the harp break at the end is not better articulated. It strikes me that Dylan is just not able to find his way into this song in terms of performance, and it is perhaps not surprising that he drops it from his setlists.

Most of the time

‘Everything is Broken’ fares much better. The band sounds good and strong with a rocking beat. Dylan sounds a little diffident at the beginning but soon warms to the vocals. Like a lot of Dylan’s protest songs, this one is couched in terms which manage to be both specific and general.

Broken cutters, broken saws,
Broken buckles, broken laws,
Broken bodies, broken bones,
Broken voices on broken phones
Take a deep breath, feel like you're chokin',
Everything is broken

I quote these particular lines because they could have been written yesterday – or tomorrow. That ‘feel like you’re chokin’ reminds me of ‘I can’t breathe’ which has become the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. By these mysterious means Dylan songs stay relevant. When I hear ‘broken laws/ broken bodies, broken bones’ I see scenes of police violence in the streets of American cities right now.

Everything is broken

‘What good am I?’  is a song full of self doubt, often performed with Dylan on the piano. Not in this case, however. A soft easy rhythm is established against which Dylan delivers a passionate, quivering vocal. As I suggested when looking at the 1990 performance, I find this song seems to gain in contemporary relevance as the years roll on, and all those things we might turn a blind eye to have just grown worse. The question ‘what good am I?’ confronts us in the face of growing injustices, social and environmental.

What good am I?

Arguably ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ is the jewel in the Oh Mercy crown, and Dylan worked hard at developing the song over the years. The direction of that development is towards great grandiosity, as the drama enacted in the song evolves from the swampy horror story of Lanois’ album production into a cosmic tragedy – the seduction of innocence on a grand scale. Moral doubt and self-reflection play a large part in the album, including, ‘What Good am I?’, ‘The Disease of Conceit’, ‘What was it you wanted?’, and ‘Shooting Star’. This shows up in ‘…Black Coat’, in lines that cast doubt on the function of our consciences:

Preacher was talking there's a sermon he gave
He said every man's conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it's you who must keep it satisfied

This is the human paradox; morally, we can’t trust ourselves. This is a shot across the bows of anybody who appeals to their own conscience alone as justification for their actions. That twisted sanctimoniousness that would take the word of scripture and turn it to evil purposes.

Somebody said from the bible he’d quote
There was dust on the man in the long black coat

Perhaps what makes this song special in the Dylan canon is that the devil himself puts in an appearance, sinister and dramatic. I can’t think of any other Dylan song, even from his gospel period (1979 -1981), that so vividly personifies the seductive power of the devil.

This 1992 performance is certainly the best so far, with a sharp, telling harp break at the end, doing what Dylan’s harp does best, elaborating and exploring the emotional valences made possible by the song. It’s a wonderful performance, and a stepping stone to even greater performances in 1995

 Man in the long black coat

We move the clock back now to Blood on the Tracks (1974), and catch up with how Dylan has been working with those songs. We heard a scintillating performance of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ in Part 1, 1992, and we now turn to those other perennials, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ and ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, songs Dylan has been cultivating since they were written.

‘Simple Twist of Fate’, with its famously shifting pronouns is a quiet reflective song, and the effectiveness of Bucky Baxter’s dobro in creating long sustained sounds behind the verses is evident. I nearly dropped this song out because of the rowdy audience. The background noise is frustrating, especially at the beginning when a quiet, melancholy mood is being set, but things quieten down somewhat after a while and Dylan delivers a moody, if scratchy vocal. The expression ‘ships that pass in the night’ is what passes through my mind when I think about this song. A connection made, but only just. A one night stand that turns sad with the dawn. A memory that will never fade. The one that got away will always haunt.

He woke up, the room was bare
He didn't see her anywhere
He told himself he didn't care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside

Except in this variation Dylan sings:

He told himself he didn’t care
But he pushed back the blinds
Found a note she’d left behind
To which he just could not relate
Any more than that simple twist of fate

 A simple twist of fate

There is a gorgeous harmonica break, sweet and sensitive, against the rolling thunder of the drums, but audience noise once more distracts us from the beautiful quiet ending.

More darkly driven than ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ registers the anguish we might all feel when someone grows away from us, grows out of us as if we were clothes that had grown too small. The one that got away is the one most bitterly regretted.

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

Dylan’s in fine voice for this performance, and once again we hear how this band can create quiet, more intimate music without having to be acoustic. Baxter again creating a rich, ‘orchestral’ texture. Dylan can go softly with the voice or hard; give it a harsh edge, or sound thin and vulnerable.

You’re a big girl now

As far as I know, 1992 was the last year Dylan attempted to perform that great splenetic masterpiece ‘Idiot Wind’ on stage. It must be a hell of a song to sustain, all that outrage and anger, over so many verses.

And it’s not the kind of song that offers alternatives in terms of musical interpretation or reworking. It flashes like fire or not at all. It can’t be tamed. There is no sweetening the bitter pill. It is an aggrieved beast. I think the 1976 Rolling Thunder versions are probably the best in performance terms, but Dylan gives this 1992 performance his all, using ‘upsinging’ (raising his voice at the end of every line) to keep it rolling. The harp break keeps up the brittle edge of the song, but, perhaps in the final analysis, Dylan’s voice, although he’s trying hard, just isn’t quite up to it – it’s your call.

 

I’m going to finish this post with a song that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else, ‘Seeing the Real You at Last’. Off the 1985 album, Empire Burlesque, it’s one of the new songs from that album that Dylan keeps coming back to from time to time. In one performance he had the stage lights directed at the audience when he hit the chorus line, suggesting that it might be us he’s singing about. We, the audience, lurk behind the figure of the girl, but eventually we are exposed for what we are. Or again, the woman in the song could be a personification of America, the promised land which doesn’t turn out to be quite what was promised but just a set of filmic projections.

I'm hungry and irritable
And I'm tired of this bag of tricks
At one time there was nothing wrong with me
That you could not fix.
Well, I sailed through the storm
Strapped to the mast
Oh, but our time has come
And I'm seeing the real you at last.

The strapped to the mast reference is to Odysseus, who straps himself to the mast so he can hear the song of the sirens and not be lured to his death, as the travellers pass that island.

But there is no escaping paradox:

From now on I'll be busy
Ain't going nowhere fast

When I take a look around me, I see a whole world busy going nowhere fast. Maybe we are all seeing the ‘real you’ at long last – and it’s not a pleasant sight.

Seeing the real you at last

Take care and stay wise. I’ll be back soon to look at some of Dylan’s acoustic performances in 1992

Kia Ora

 

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