The Never Ending Tour 1994 part 5: Dancing to the nightingale’s tune

 

This is part of the ongoing series on the Never Ending Tour.  A full index to the articles can be found here.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

We finish this survey of Dylan’s monumental 1994 year with a brief look at his treatment of some of his 1980s songs. We start with ‘Lenny Bruce’ from Shot of Love, 1981, the third album in Dylan’s Christian trilogy. It’s not a particularly Christian song at all, rather a celebration of the life of the great comedian, Lenny Bruce, whose hard hitting comedy routines Dylan admired.

The song itself however is not that much admired, however, and some of the loose, prose-like lyrics attracted adverse comment,

‘Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies' heads,
He just took the folks in high places 
    and he shined a light in their face.’

These may not be Dylan’s finest lyrics, but they do provide us with an insight into those qualities Dylan admired that Christ and Lenny Bruce shared:

‘He was an outlaw, that's for sure,
More of an outlaw than you ever were.’

And,

‘They said that he was sick 'cause he didn't play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools
They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts’

I have argued that what drew Dylan to Christ was Christ’s outlaw status, and that’s what draws him to Lenny Bruce. A man who, like Dylan himself, refused to be stamped and labelled.

What makes this performance attractive is the easy pace it sets up. This is the case with many 1994 performances of Dylan’s setlists. He often finds a rhythm, a forward, driving beat that carries the song along. (St Louis, April 10).

Lenny Bruce

Moving on from Shot of Love to Infidels (1984), we come to the opening track on that album, ‘Jokerman’. Jokerman is clearly a major song, with some wonderful lyrics, but somehow I haven’t been able to develop a tight connection to the song. I’m made curious, and in some awe at the lyrics, but remain unmoved.

I sense that the song registers Dylan’s movement away from the Pentecostal Christianity with which he had engaged.

'Sheddin’ off one more layer of skin
Keepin' one step ahead of the persecutor within’

This sounds more like the Dylan of old, and in the repeated chorus there is the sensation of liberation and flight.

‘Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune
Birds fly high by the light of the moon
Ohh, ohh, jokerman‘

And it’s still the same old bad-ass world out there:

‘Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks
Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain
False hearted judges
Dying in the webs that they spin
Only a matter of time
'Til night comes steppin' in’

Starting to sound like our world again. At the same time it’s shot through with imagery from the Old Testament mixed with scenes from Hieronymus Bosch. Truly a magical mix. Don’t really know why I can’t get with it.

There are two performances of the song in 1994 worth listening to. The first is from Krakov (7/7) and the second is from Portland (August 10)

Jokerman Krakov

Jokerman Portland

Also from Infidels we have ‘I and I’, another song that seems to celebrate a liberation from Pentecostal restrictions:

‘Been so long since a strange woman has slept in my bed
Look how sweet she sleeps, how free must be her dreams’

It is a complex, melancholy song, behind which lurks some Old Testament ferocity:

‘I and I
in creation where one’s nature neither honours nor forgives
I and I
one said to the other no man sees my face and lives’

The song also contains outstanding lines that belong with the very best of Dylan:

‘Someone else is speaking with my mouth
but I’m listening only to my heart’

What better way of expressing a fundamental alienation of the self, a split between the I and I?

To my ear, this song reached peak performance in 1993 (See 1993 part 1 – Tangled up in guitars). This 1994 performance sounds post peak to me, but still magnificent. Like ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’, there’s a sense of grandeur in the song.

I and I

Next we move to Oh Mercy (1989) and some of the songs from that album that Dylan cultivated in performance. Most notable of these is the aforementioned  ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. This song is undergoing a change from a swampy ghost story into a cosmic drama. When we come to 1995, and the Prague performance, we’ll have a useful comparison. In the meantime, this performance shapes up well enough, although I find Mr Guitar Man’s work a little busy; too much being jammed in doesn’t allow the song to breathe. This brings us back to the issue of Dylan’s electric guitar playing and what it might contribute or fail to contribute to the song.

Dylan is working hard during these guitar breaks. He’s packing the field with dark sounds, dark and always sounding a little off key, as if, as I have suggested before, he’s playing under the note. The last half of this performance is a good example. This is not classic blues or rock guitar at all. It’s more akin to jazz, but above all, it’s Dylan’s own distinctive sound.

Man in the Long Black Coat

Back in part 2 of this 1994 series, we heard Dylan singing ‘Hard Rain’ in Japan with full orchestra backing in a concert called “The Great Musical Experience.” That was a truly remarkable and memorable performance, but to my mind ‘Ring Them Bells’ is better suited to that full orchestral treatment given the grandeur of those chord changes. And of the words. On the surface it seems like a throwback to the Christian period (1979 -81), but for me it works emotionally on a deeper level that’s difficult to explain. The command to ‘ring them bells’ is not as a call to prayer, or a celebration, but as a warning:

‘Ring them bells Saint Catherine from the top of the room
Ring them bells from the fortress for the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long
and the fighting is strong
And they're breaking down the distance between
right and wrong’

(my own line arrangement, as I hear it sung)

Ring them Bells

From July 4th, Besançon, France, we get a brooding, powerful performance of ‘What Good Am I?’ While I like Dylan’s piano versions of this song, I have to say that as soon as I heard this performance it immediately became my favourite. Arguably a peak performance of this wonderful piece of self-questioning. It’s Dylan’s vocal that won me over. You can hear Mr Guitar Man at his quiet and intricate best, but it’s that cry-of-the-heart vocal that does the job.

The song has a political implication or dimension, questioning our indifference to the sufferings of others. When introducing the song in 1999, he dedicated to the ‘rain forests’, suggesting an environmental dimension, but for me the most telling verse is personal:

‘What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don't try
What good am I?’

What good am I

‘Everything is Broken’ is a fast beaty number from Oh Mercy. It’s a foot-tapper, but it shows Dylan re-evoking the spirit of protest. Everything is indeed broken. For me, however, the lyrics are a little unfocused. It’s a kind of scatter-gun approach listing all those broken things.

‘Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken’

The song doesn’t have the coherence or the punch of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.

This is another MTV Unplugged outtake. Just think, we could have had an amazing double album.

Everything is broken

On Under the Red Sky (1990), we find a modest little ballad called ‘Born in Time’. Perhaps because the album was not well received, this little gem got overlooked. Like many of Dylan’s great songs, it is steeped in fate. Love and destiny haunt the song, but something more too, a message: the more powerful love becomes, the more that love will test you. Here are the last three verses of the song:

‘On the rising curve
Where the ways of nature will test every nerve,
You won't get anything you don't deserve
Where we were born in time.

You pressed me once, you pressed me twice,
You hang the flame, you'll pay the price,
Oh babe, that fire
Is still smokin'.
You were snow, you were rain
You were striped, you were plain,
Oh babe, truer words
Have not been spoken or broken.

In the hills of mystery,
In the foggy web of destiny,
You can have what's left of me,
Where we were born in time.’

To be ‘born in time’ is to be born into love and suffering, a place where we ‘hang the flame’. The song goes beyond complaint to surrender. The last two lines are devastating. ‘You can have what’s left of me’ is hardly a come on line, but strips us back to the emotional core.

I can’t know why Dylan neglected this song and so rarely performed it. It’s a little melancholy masterpiece. Dylan blurs a line or two, but these last verses are sung with such agony and passion!

Born in time

So that brings to a close our trip through 1994, and what a trip it has been. Perhaps because he was not writing new material, he had to re-invent his back list. I can see that the NET tour itself has been on a rising curve since 1991 as Dylan found his voice and the band came together as a solid unit.

However, that curve is still on the rise and, I would argue, reaches its peak in 1995. I’m keen to try to prove that argument when I return to tune into that year.

Kia Ora.

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