- NET, 1994, part 1. In Full Voice; Absolutely vintage Dylan
- Greatest ever “Hard Rain” – Never Ending Tour, 1994, Part 2: Absolutely Vintage Dylan Again
- NET: the full index of articles, reviewing the Never Ending Tour from 1987 onwards
By Michael Johnson
Over the past two posts we have seen Dylan bringing his old sixties hits back to life for the nineties, in a series of stunning performances that mark a distinct improvement on previous years. If you take the last two posts and this one, we have twenty-five of Dylan’s foundation songs given new arrangements and impassioned performances. With three years behind them, the band sound at home in the material, and Dylan’s bizarre guitar style (Mr Guitar Man!) is still evident but often muted and, especially when he plays the acoustic guitar, well integrated into the overall sound.
A good place to start is that dirge to approaching death, ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. In these later versions, with the addition of the words, ‘Just like so many times before’, the song becomes a hymn of spiritual yearning and the desire for liberation. In this case the last verse finishes at 4.10 mins leaving another three and half minutes of guitar work in which Mr Guitar Man’s complex weaving of dark notes does the work of expressing that yearning. This one’s from the Boston concert.
The anthemic character of the song makes for a good encore, as does ‘All Along the Watchtower’. I don’t think this version quite matches the scintillating, jazzy 1992 performance, but it’s getting there. The song lends itself to an apocalyptic clash of guitars. This one, from the Woodstock concert, is up on You Tube (at least for the moment) and I was amazed at the negative reactions to Dylan’s vocal style, which some couldn’t get their heads around. Here’s a sample of the comments:
Lol I can't tell if he's being serious. Why, oh why, is Bob singing it like that? what the heck Bob? This is disappointing to watch. Bob Dylan has the ability to sing a lot better than that, it's like he's being awful on purpose. Seriously he is taking the piss out of every one of you. Dylan on helium amphetamine high speed dubbing. It deadass sounds like Popeye is singing the lyrics. He is too lazy to stop so he decided to say all the lyrics at once. How did this auction end up then ? What was the highest bid ?? Did he drink helium? I’m struggling, but I’m not able to enjoy that. I think if there’s no Hendrix, that song stays in the drawer.
Good Lord! There is some serious disconnect here. I…er…like the performance. There is an urgency in those rushed vocals, and every word comes clear. Just because he doesn’t try to sing it like Hendrix… But there is something else here, a tendency for Dylan to sing across the melody line. I see it (or rather hear it) as a deliberate ploy, not to wreck the song but to create a dissonance that draws attention to the lyrics. Heaven forbid that we become too comfortable with this song and its message.
And Mr Guitar man may be no Hendrix, but he sure can be insistent.
Over to you.
While we’re on the subject of songs that work well as encores, let’s try that sister song to ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’, ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. This nearly nine minute performance joins the ranks of the great acoustic performances that Dylan has been springing on us for the last couple of years. Once more the vocals are passionate and inventive, and Dylan’s spiky acoustic guitar sure pushes the song along. Brilliantly, he sings around the melody rather than right on it, pushing the words in unexpected directions.
And then, the vulnerable, trembling harp that veers into squeaky climaxes. What more can I say? Vintage Dylan indeed.
Another powerhouse performance from the Woodstock concert – ‘Just Like a Woman’. This is a contentious song that I have characterised as expressing vulnerability, but many have seen it as a full on attack song dripping with contempt. The insinuating leer that marked the album version has gone from Dylan’s voice in this rendition which is both open and passionate. There is more agony than spite in this 1994 version. And some great steel guitar work.
Switching back to the gentler sounds of the Unplugged concert, we find ‘My Back Pages’, generally considered to be a seminal Dylan song, signalling his change of direction in 1964 from acoustic protest to surreal electric.
The lyrics are quite dense and the sound worked on. But the movement from moral certainty to moral uncertainty was to haunt Dylan for the rest of his life, and he would seek that moral certainty once more during his Christian period, 1979 – 81. In ‘Ring Them Bells’ he laments the ‘breaking down the distance between right and wrong’.
‘In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand at the mongrel dogs who teach Fearing not that I'd become my enemy in the instant that I preach My existence led by confusion boats, mutiny from stern to bow Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats too noble to neglect Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect Good and bad, I define these terms quite clear, no doubt, somehow Ah, but I was so much older then I'm younger than that now’
‘I Don’t Believe You’ was years later to be complemented by ‘I Believe in You’, which expresses the opposite sentiment. ‘I Don’t Believe You’ is a strong reaction to a snub, to rejection. Remember the high-pitched yelling versions from 1966, when Dylan turned this acoustic song into an electric cry of pain.
This 1994 version, from the Krakow concert (7/17/1994), is most unusual for the sound the band creates. It may be the recording itself. It is very punky yet oddly muted. This one has slowly grown on me. The jazzy harmonica break certainly helps. I believe that’s rain you can hear pattering in the background.
I don’t think Dylan ever finished a concert with his Blonde on Blonde classic, ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, but I have no problem finishing this Absolutely Vintage Dylan series with it. It’s a foot-tapper. I’m not quite sure what I think of it without the young Dylan’s adolescent sounding whine, but I’m a sucker for the lyrics, how they hint at and rely on some unstated context, and how exactly they capture resentment, and resentment is what it’s all about.
The song contains one of Dylan’s most famous aphoristic lines: ‘To live outside the law you must be honest’. Paradoxical, but it makes perfect sense. I think, however that the line should be read in context:
‘Well, six white horses that you did promise Were finally delivered down to the penitentiary But to live outside the law, you must be honest I know you always say that you agree Alright, so where are you tonight, Sweet Marie?’
Those six white horses come straight out of the blues, perhaps from ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ but they pop up again in ‘Yonder Comes Sin’ (1981) as six wild horses.
‘I say: See them six wild horses, honey. You say: I don't even see one.. You say: Point them out to me, love. I say: Honey I got to run.’
However, back to the famous aphorism, the real kicker seems to me to lie in the following line. The two should be taken together:
‘But to live outside the law, you must be honest I know you always say that you agree’
But is she honest? That’s what the first line is building to. The world of Blonde on Blonde is full of duplicity, and despite the aphorism, we just don’t know whom to trust.
This is another from the other Unplugged.
So that brings to a close this three part survey of Dylan’s 1994 performances of his sixties classics. I trust you have enjoyed yourselves. If you are having a Xmas break enjoy it. We look forward to a brighter 2021, we hope, and I’ll be back to see how Dylan handled his post sixties work in this breakthrough year of 1994.
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