This is episode 21 of the Never Ending Tour series by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
A full index of all the articles in the Never Ending Tour series is given here.
This and the previous post are dedicated to the songs of the 1960s, and how Dylan was bringing them back to life in 1994. Without any recent albums introducing new material into the shows, Dylan was thrown back on his old favourites and that core of songs that made him famous in the first place.
Prominent in this core group is ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’(1963), one of Dylan’s earliest and perhaps greatest protest songs. In musical form it is based on the 19th century ballad ‘Lord Randal’, but oh, what a makeover it gets when Dylan performs it in front of a full orchestra. If you haven’t already found this on You Tube you’re in for a treat. Dylan went to Japan for The Great Musical Experience, which is just what it was.
Dylan has learned with this song, and other long, repetitive songs like ‘Desolation Row’, to start quietly and build the vocal to a climax. Guitar and harmonica breaks are also staged to gather to a climax. These climaxes are not built into the musical form but created by Dylan to introduce an element of musical drama the originals lack. This ‘Hard Rain’ is a beautiful illustration of Dylan’s developing vocal mastery.
With the full orchestra, these climaxes are accompanied by the swirl of strings and the wail of horns. It shouldn’t work but it does.
Readers of these posts know that I don’t use You Tube links, partly because many of the songs I look at are not on You Tube, but also because those links may vanish as fast as they appear, and all too often we’re confronted with a ‘This video is not available’ notice. But there is special fascination I think in seeing Dylan out of his usual habitat, with solemn Japanese playing their violins as if Dylan were Beethoven, and Dylan himself turning that ballad into a wonderful musical epic. It is lavish and extravagant. Enjoy. I have put the audio link in as usual in case some day the vid falls foul of the Web sheriff.
The rumourmongers have been hard at work explaining how come Dylan’s voice improved so much. Dylan got singing lessons before going to Japan. Dylan gave up drinking in 1994. Take your pick or make up your own, but don’t forget to enjoy the results. Not Caruso exactly but getting there…!
I have described ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ as a junky’s lament. It’s a bleak song. Take this encounter with a prostitute:
‘Sweet Melinda, the peasants call her the goddess of gloom She speaks good English and she invites you up into her room And you're so kind and careful not to go to her too soon And she takes your voice and leaves you howling at the moon’
The third line refers to the practice of allowing time before going to the woman’s room in order not to alert the police to her activities. And we are in a place where ‘the cops don’t need you/and man they expect the same’.
In performance, Dylan has found a tempo that kicks it along, and while it may not achieve the bone-grating desperation of the 1966 performances, it carries us along just fine.
Tom Thumb Blues
According to my often unreliable sources this is the only time Dylan played the song in 1994 (August 26).
While we’re hanging around Highway 61 Revisited (1964), what better than to go to the next track on the album, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ itself. In previous posts I have suggested that this song is more serious than it sounds. On the album, it has a manic energy and a bouncy upbeat melody, as if this were some cheerful, throwaway exercise. It is, however, anything but cheerful and throwaway, being about God and Death and Mercy and World War III – and a girl whose complexion is much too white.
Not quite as energetic as the studio version, it also clips along at a fair, crowd-pleasing pace and Dylan’s vocals are spot on. If it’s energy and madness you want, wait until the guitars come in blazing…
Highway 61 revisited.
‘Positively 4th Street’, from the Highway 61 Revisited era, but not included on the album, is one of Dylan’s most famous attack songs. Most decidedly not a love song, and maybe best delivered in a jeering voice. Look at how Dylan twists the popular saying that to have empathy for a person you need to able to ‘stand in their shoes’.
I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes And just for that one moment I could be you Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes You'd know what a drag it is to see you
Positively 4th Street (A)
The You Tube clip of this performance is replete with hyperbole: ‘Fantastic!!! Exceptional…’ It’s a wonderful performance but shouldn’t be oversold. Because then we have no adjectives left, or run out of exclamation marks, when we come upon a truly moving performance like this understated one, so much more deadly for not being too accusative. Touches of gentleness and hurt are allowed to show, and the song’s greatness is revealed. Not a single moment of the nine minutes feels wasted. It becomes more contemplative and dreamy, more in the vein of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’.
Positively 4th Street (B)
My problem is that I can’t confidently date this performance. It turned up in my lists, an orphan. I can’t even be sure that it’s from 1994, and would be happy if a knowledgeable reader could identify it. There was nowhere else to put it, and it’s so good I couldn’t leave it out.
‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ comes at the cusp of Dylan’s changeover from folk singer to rock singer and has often been seen as a farewell to his old life. Significantly, the last track on Bringing It all Back Home (1965). This may well be true, just as it may well be a farewell song to Joan Baez, but as I suggested in my Master Harpist series, it may be one of Dylan’s greatest love songs – love’s last song. The final gut wrenching moment of separation. Admirers of Dylan’s 1995 Prague performance of the song will find earlier versions of that arrangement here, in 1994.
It’s driven by an insistent, compelling beat we don’t find in the original. Against that beat Dylan can pit his voice and his harp, using both to push and explore the emotional reaches of the song. Images of sadness and separation are all the more effective by being surreal and indirect:
‘Yonder stands your orphan with his gun Crying like a fire in the sun’
The throes of love are expressed in an equally elusive and suggestive way:
‘The empty handed painter from your street Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheet’
It’s the wonder of poetry that in two lines you can express something it would take a couple of paragraphs of prose to explain, and you still wouldn’t have it. The great thing about poetry is that it can’t be reduced to prose explanations without loss of essence.
I’ve chosen two performances of this great song, partly just to enjoy a good thing, but also to show how hard Dylan was working on it. Each performance is just different enough for us to hear the search for the most perfect expression of the song. That would have to wait until next year. In the meantime this performance (Germany, don’t have exact date) sees Dylan reaching for that balance between restraint and passion in a performance tremulous and heartbroken.
It’s all over now (A)
Dylan was trying out this new arrangement all through the year, giving rise to a number of brilliant performances, each one approaching the song with a slightly different emphasis and vocal intonation. This next one (date unknown) is slower and more empathic. A different kind of balance, Dylan’s voice soaring in counterpoint to Garnier’s long, low drawn out notes on the double bass.
It’s all over now (B)
This is a good place to pause. There is more but you can have too much of a good thing – Dylan’s core songs given such rich and imaginative treatment. I’ll be back soon with the final in this Absolutely Vintage Dylan season – Encore.
Stay safe and keep rockin.
12 years of Untold Dylan
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