By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In November 1992 Dylan released an album of traditional songs and covers. These were recorded in his own garage with only his producer and sound engineer present. Apparently he undertook the album because of a contract, not because he wanted to do it. Once he got started, however, the project developed a life of its own as Dylan returned to his folk roots.
The resulting album, Good as I Been to You, was well received and it was natural that Dylan would air these songs in the following year – 1993. On the album Dylan plays solo acoustic, and on stage he keeps the acoustic feel while bringing in some subtle backing.
One of my favourite songs from the album is ‘Blackjack Davy’, a song of love and betrayal, right up Dylan’s alley. I loved the energy and rocking tempo of the song, and there’s no lack of that here (12/09/93).
That sounds very close to the album version. Not so with Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times’, a song from the depression era, reminding us that ‘protest songs’ were not invented in the 1960s. By slowing the tempo down, Dylan is able to wring every word for its effect, creating a powerful epic. Dylan has done gentler performances of the song, but none as moving as this one, at least for my ear.
He does something similar with ‘Jim Jones’, a song about the transporting of criminals from Britain to Australia in the late 19th Century, and the horror that awaited them when they got to Botany Bay. Again, by taking a bit more time, Dylan can build the song up in a way that didn’t happen on the album.
Jim Jones (Botany Bay)
Let’s slip back to the Supper Club for a moment (see previous post) and catch Dylan opening his second evening’s concert with ‘Ragged and Dirty’. With the band, he gives it a bounce, a kind of ragged ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ bounce.
Ragged and Dirty
Anyone in for a bit of weepy nostalgia? That background beat sounds just like the Inkspots, a 1950s black group. A lovely maudlin plodder with suitably agonised vocal delivery:
Before finishing this rich and varied year, there are some performances that didn’t quite fit anywhere else but were too good to leave behind.
One is this rare performance of the percussion driven ‘Series of Dreams.’ According to rumour, Lanois, the producer of Oh Mercy, wanted to include the song while Dylan did not. In the end Dylan prevailed, but when the song finally surfaced in 1991 (the Bootleg Series 1-3) it was much admired. Driven by hammering drums, Dylan takes us through an underworld of dreams and visions.
The lyrics for the song’s bridge are as good as anything he’s written.
‘Dreams where the umbrella is folded Into the path you are hurled And the cards are no good that you're holding Unless they're from another world’
(This line arrangement is my own, attempting to mimic where Dylan breaks the lines)
Live, the song struggles a bit, deprived of Lanois’ spooky arrangement and all the echoey stuff studios can do, but the performance builds up nicely, and Dylan is fully committed to his vocal. (08/09/93)
Series of Dreams
Followers of lyrical variations in Dylan will be fascinated by the changes here. I can’t pick up all the new lyrics but I do hear ‘In one, doors were opening and closing…’. Someone with a better ear than mine would need to piece this together.
Another rarity in terms of live performances is ‘Emotionally Yours’ from the 1985 Empire Burlesque album. This has never been my favourite Dylan song. The lyrics don’t go anywhere much. Dylan is a man of many masks, a protean artist capable of expressing a wide range of emotions, even sentimentalises such as this. But in performance terms, you won’t find anything better:
Another comparative rarity in performance is ‘License to Kill’, off Infidels (1984). The song was much praised, and taken as an indication that Dylan hadn’t lost his anti-war heart. However, having it next to the much reviled ‘Neighborhood Bully’ on the album creates a paradoxical effect, as that song could be described as Dylan’s one and only pro-war song. What remains is a powerful picture of a bereaved mother, and a killer who thinks he has a license to kill.
The portrait of the killer seems very contemporary. It makes me think of the young Kyle Rittenhouse who shot two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha recently. Dylan can do that sometimes – seem way ahead of his time.
‘Now, he's hell-bent for destruction he's afraid and confused And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill All he believes are his eyes And his eyes, they just tell him lies’
Dylan was asked about this song in an interview he gave to USA Today in 1995. He was talking about the nature of creativity.
Dylan: ‘As you get older, you get smarter and that can hinder because you try to gain control over the creative impulse. Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks. It’s something that has to be caressed and treated with great respect. If your mind is intellectually in the way, it can stop you. You’ve got to program your brain not to think too much.’
Interviewer:’ In ‘License to Kill’ you said, ‘Man has invented his doom/first step was touching the moon.’ Do you believe that?’
Dylan: ‘Yeah, I do. I have no idea why I wrote that line, but at some level it’s just like a door into the unknown.’
License to Kill
‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ is the favourite Dylan song of poetry professor Christopher Ricks, famous for his study of Tennyson and Keats. One of the few Dylan books I do have on my shelf is Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin (Harper Collins, 2004). For Ricks, Dylan never did Hattie Carroll better than the album version (The Times they are A-changing, 1964). ‘If he sings it more gently, he sentimentalises it. If he sings it more urgently, he allies himself with Zanzinger’ (p16).
Ricks has the same issue that I have with Visions of Johanna, and Tony Attwood has with Wicked Messenger – the originals are the best, so we think. This may be a very personal thing – the version we first bonded with. The New Yorker replied to Ricks, affirming the musician’s ‘license to expand his songs in performance’(Ricks, p 17).
Often in this account of the NET, I have questioned what purpose this ‘license to expand’ might serve in terms of what any particular song says or does. Some of Mr Guitar Man’s long breaks are problematic in this regard, potentially turning a neat, crisp song into a quagmire. Dylan is a risk taker, he never plays safe, and risk takers are bound to fall at some point.
One of Dylan’s best known protest songs, ‘Hattie Carroll’ covers the wanton murder of a black kitchen hand by a rich, self-entitled bar patron, Zanzinger. It is a song that carefully harbours and balances its rage. Ricks probably doesn’t like this performance (the start is a bit ragged), but I find the semi-talking style, emphasising the reporting aspect of the song, effective. Arguably, Baxter’s haunting steel guitar sounds sweeten the music a little too much for the message. Your call!
Ricks makes a very interesting comment on the artfulness of the song’s lyrics.
‘Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage And never sat once at the head of the table And didn't even talk to the people at the table Who just cleaned up all the food from the table And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane That sailed through the air and came down through the room Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle’
Of the discomforting repetition of the word ‘table’, Ricks observes, ‘Hattie Carroll has her enslaved rhyming – or rather non-rhyming, since a rhyme would offer some change, some relief from monotony of ‘the table…the table…the table as the grim ending of three consecutive lines.’ (Ricks, p 225)
‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’, a blues song from Highway 61 Revisited (1965), became a regular visitor to Dylan’s setlists, and remained so right through to 2018. It works well as a late night, yearning for love, blues. When I first heard the album I was struck by the concision and beauty of the last verse.
‘Now, the wintertime is comin', the windows are filled with frost I went to tell everybody but I could not get across Well, I want to be your lover, baby, I don't want to be your boss Don't say I never warned you when your train gets lost’
Years later I learned about a Japanese four-line verse form, loosely called a tanka. The first line states the major idea or image; the second line extends that idea or image; the third line introduces a new idea or image, and the last line is the wild card line that somehow encapsulates all of it. The verse just quoted is a perfect tanka.
I speculate that Dylan hit on the form naturally, its neat progression being aesthetically pleasing. This is far from his best performance of the song (wait until next year, 1994) but it’s of interest as Baxter uses the chords off ‘Rainy Day Woman’ to background the vocals.
It takes a lot to laugh
I’m up against my word limit here, but want to slip in three more performances. We are familiar with ‘Cat’s in the Well’ from Under the Red Sky (1991). It often became a rather raucous concluding song. I like the stripped down minimalism of this performance.
Cat’s in the Well
We can’t leave the year without ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, a song we have followed through the years of the NET. Dylan does a great vocal. The verses are sung by 5.30 mins and over the next four minutes Mr Guitar Man takes his Stratocaster for a walk, and we are treated to his punky, angular ‘off key’ style.
Ballad of a thin man
Last but not least, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, a suitably apocalyptic way to end a concert – and our brief survey of 1993.
We can see 1993 as a year of emergence. Dylan, still pretty ragged but starting to reclaim his vocal range, the band coming together and starting to work their sounds in interesting ways. There are some outstanding performances (see Part 1), but above all, the emergence of Dylan as a lead guitar player with a distinctive, unsettling style. Mr Guitar Man has arrived.
I’m very excited about 1994, as everything that is good about the 1993 performances just gets better.
The index to all the articles in the Never Ending Tour series is here.
12 years of Untold Dylan
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‘I’m not the songs. It’s like somebody expecting Shakespeare to be Hamlet, or Goethe to be Faust…’[Bob Dylan]