By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
At the end of 1992 Dylan released Good as I Been to You, an album of mostly traditional folk songs. The album was well received, better than Under the Red Sky, and he was to follow up in 1993 with World Gone Wrong. These were both solo acoustic albums, and were generally viewed as Dylan returning to his roots, searching for inspiration as the commentators saw it.
One of Dylan’s favourite songs from these albums is ‘Delia’, from World Gone Wrong. ‘Delia’ is one of those songs which seems just made for Dylan; it sounds like a Dylan song, which goes to show how close much of Dylan’s work is to that tradition.
Although it didn’t come out until the following year, Dylan was trying it out in 1992, not as a solo acoustic, but a gently paced full-band ballad. It’s a little gem, this one, with Dylan fully committed to the vocal.
However, 1992 did see some incomparable solo acoustic performances; the last year, I believe, when Dylan appeared on stage alone with guitar and harmonica. These following acoustic performances are all the more precious for that, but this wasn’t just a last hurrah for the legend; these performances are superlative. He’s not just dusting off his old material but re-exploring it with a passion, feeling his way into the songs as if he’d just written them, trying them out in different ways from one performance to the next.
Let’s start with that mysterious love song ‘Love minus Zero No Limit’. The vocal is so upfront and clear that it sounds like a soundboard, rather than an audience, recording. This one is from the 24th of March. In this case the ragged edge to Dylan’s voice works perfectly. This one is surely a candidate for one of the NET’s finest moments – at least to date.
Love Minus Zero (A)
In other performances he brings in the harmonica. Hard to kill a legend when offering such legendary performances. Hard to escape a twinge of nostalgia when that harp begins to blow. Masterful vocal. Wonderful to sense a respectful audience. Sorry don’t have the date for this one.
Love Minus Zero (B)
And, just in case you haven’t had enough of that classic song, here’s another knockout performance, this one from the 15th of March.
*Love Minus Zero (C)
Sigh! Sometimes it’s great when Dylan just plays Dylan, no tricks, no great baroque extensions. Just Bob and his genius. Blink for a moment and you’re back in the 1960s.
Here’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ just like it ever was, except that exquisite vocal timing makes it lighter and more peppy than the sixties performances. And that dancing, peppering harmonica!
How many years must some people exist Before they're allowed to be free? And how many times can a man turn his head And pretend that he just doesn't see
Perhaps we have become so familiar with these lyrics that we can’t hear them anymore, but these rhetorical questions still cut to the heart of the human condition. The quoted lines take us right out onto the streets of our contemporary world where the Black Lives Matter demonstrations are happening. Perhaps it takes such a fresh performance to remind us. Simple it may appear, its questions unanswerable, ‘Blowin’ remains one of Dylan’s greatest songs. And this must be one of his greatest performances of it.
Blowing in the wind
Listening to Dylan’s wonderful acoustic guitar work as he accompanies himself, it occurs to me that we are reaping the benefits of those long hours he was putting in recording ‘Good as I been to You’, alone in his garage. Discovering the guitar parts for those traditional songs seems to have lead to a rediscovery of his own songs and the joys of acoustic performance.
And while deep in the nostalgia of acoustic Legendland, we just can’t afford to get any older without listening to this brisk but cutting performance of ‘Ramona’. Perhaps behind this ‘attack’ song there is a plea for us to live more aware lives, to be aware of the ‘fixtures and forces’ that govern our lives and bring us to grief. Lovers of Dylan the Master Harpist will be in ecstasies over the last minute or so of this performance. Enough said!
Ah, very nice, but there is more to come in this acoustic promised land. Like this tender version of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, one of Dylan’s earliest separation songs. The song is remarkable for its dialogue, a score for two voices, and the build up of pathos. We feel that the lover will never return, at least not as a lover, and the singer will never get his boots of Spanish leather. Once more, note the gorgeous harp solo, reminiscent of, but more sophisticated than his sixties playing. Don’t the audience just love this! No wonder, it’s a treat.
Boots of Spanish Leather
We are so deep in our nostalgia trip now that there is no stopping us. The gentle, intimate and reflective Dylan is irresistible. So there’s nowhere to go but to the equally tender and reflective ‘Girl from the North Country’. I have described this song as one of Dylan’s most pure love songs, as it is free of bitterness and without any ambiguous edges. The song is in itself an exercise in nostalgia, that place beyond tears where we can fondly remember old loves. So once more Dylan throws aside the stadium rocker, which he plays so well, to be his old folkie self again, and deliver this subtle, understated performance.
Girl from the North Country
Of course, the acoustic performance lies at the heart of early sixties protest songs, even songs like ‘John Brown’ which we have only heard in rock versions, probably because it makes such a good rocker. Think back to the 1987 performance with Tom Petty’s band, one of the best ever (see NET 1987), or the version with GE Smith in 1990, another kick-arse rocker. But now we hear it as the acoustic song it must have started as. And what a powerful performance, with the song building to a climax as Dylan wrings everything he can from his sandpaper voice.
‘John Brown’ takes us into the world of Dylan’s early sixties protest songs, and perhaps the greatest of those songs, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’. This nightmare/hallucination still haunts after all these years, and Dylan certainly hasn’t tired of it yet. Lines that seem so contemporary still jump out at us:
I saw a white man who walked a black dog.
This performance is close to the tempo of the original, perhaps a little faster, and there is some fine acoustic guitar work. Dylan stretches his voice to deliver a performance with more vocal variation than we’re accustomed to with this song. The challenge for many of these long, repetitive songs is to keep up the interest, to build, vocally and musically to that stunning final verse.
I’m a-going back out ’fore the rain starts a-falling I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest Where the people are many and their hands are all empty Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison And the executioner’s face is always well hidden Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten Where black is the color, where none is the number And I’ll tell it, and speak it, and think it, and breathe it And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinking But I’ll know my song well before I start singing
I quote these lines in full to remind us of just how good they are, in case we start taking the song for granted. These last lines demonstrate what dramatists call ‘rising action’ – a build towards a final climax, a lyrical momentum that gathers pace as the images flash by. This helps to mitigate the somewhat plodding nature of the original, which might have worked fine in the summer of 1962, when the song was written, but not so well thirty years later.
This is a spirited vocal – just a pity he had to leave off those last two lines, suggesting that he didn’t know his song so well before he started singing.
Note that while this is acoustic, it is not Dylan alone onstage. I think I can detect two other guitars at work. It starts off sounding solo, but it isn’t, not quite.
Same applies to that other iconic song, that ode to escapism, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, which remains acoustic but slowly brings in the rest of the band, drums and all. This performance clips along a little too fast for me, but the extra pace makes for some nifty guitar work and a suitably squeaky harp break. Pity about the loudmouth in the audience who comes so close to wrecking the experience of the song that I almost left it out.
Still, part of the experience of listening to these audience recordings is hearing the response of the audience, in this case a little too positive. Much depends on who was near the recorder at the time.
Mr Tambourine man
Another track from side B of Bringing it all Back Home (1964) that we have been closely following is ‘Gates of Eden’, that classic symbolist song that never seems to lose its mystery. We have heard some very fine performances of this song, particularly the 1988 version (See NET 1988, part 1). This performance is not likely to go down as anyone’s favourite owing to Dylan’s scratchy, nasal performance, but the rapid strumming and faster pace, which seems to be a feature of 1992, keeps it interesting.
Gates of Eden
I’d like to pause for a moment here to note that both these songs offer some picture of their creator. In Mr Tambourine Man we find this:
And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme To your tambourine in time It's just a ragged clown behind I wouldn't pay it any mind It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing
The ‘ragged clown’, I would suggest, is a perfect image for the Dylan who wrote this song. Those skipping reels of rhyme aptly describe the song itself. Those critics of Dylan’s shift from his ‘protest songs’ to his ‘symbolist songs’ might well agree that the man had given up the good fight in favour of chasing shadows.
In Gates of Eden we get a different formulation:
And I try to harmonise with songs the lonesome sparrow sings
‘The lonesome sparrow’, I would suggest, is a perfect image for the Dylan who wrote ‘Gates of Eden’, as it is more cryptic and Zen-like than the ‘Tambourine’ quote. And ‘Gates’ ends on a suitably cryptic, Zen-like note:
Sometimes I think there are no words But these to say what’s true…
These lines should be my cue to exit this post, as I’ve hit the word limit, but I still have a couple of these acoustic performances to go. So, I’m going to unceremoniously jam them in at the end here. They are both songs we will return to. Guitar driven performances of ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe.’
It Ain’t Me Babe
Stay safe from the ravaging plague, and I’ll be back soon with the final part of this survey of the NET, 1992.
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