This is part of our mega-series covering the whole of the Never Ending Tour. There is an index to the series here.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In the first post in this 1995 series ( See Part 1 ) I introduced Dylan’s 1995 Prague concerts with some sample sounds. This post I’ve set aside for my favourite performances from Dylan’s three night gig, 11th 12th, and 13th of March. For my ear, this is the cream of the cream, maybe the best Dylan you’ll ever hear, although it’s difficult to make such a claim because of the changes in Dylan’s voice and style over the years.
There is magic in these Prague concerts. Perhaps the flu stretched him to the point where… I don’t know, something else happened. A breakthrough of a kind in terms of the range of his vocal expression, and emotional expression in his harmonica playing. He wasn’t just up there grinding it out; there is a fire in these performances, and a sense of restraint. We feel the banked up emotion behind the restraint, just as we do with the great blues singers like Lightning Hopkins and Otis Span.
The setlist over the three nights varied, with not many songs done on all three nights. ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, however, on its way to becoming one of the three most performed Dylan song ever, did turn up on all three setlists. While Dylan achieves an extended emotional range by slowing down many of the songs performed in Prague, with ‘Tangled’ he speeds it up, or at least gives that impression from the urgency of the backing. All three performances crackle with energy. They are more disciplined than the ten, twelve minute versions we find in 1993/4, years in which epic versions ruled, but all the more punchy for it. (Those interested in the evolution of this song might enjoy the two postscripts to my Master Harpist series.
The first performance, from the 11th, scintillates with energy, with Dylan’s voice swooping through the lyrics, with the sharp edged harmonica to finish off. If you don’t start moving your feet to this one, they may be glued to the floor.
Tangled up in Blue: 1
The performance from the 12th kicks along at about the same speed but the sound is more full bodied. That might be the recording, it’s hard to tell. With these faster versions we get the sense of a life flashing by, or hurtling by; it all goes by so fast. Before we can catch up with events, more events have piled on top. The slower version from the album and the even slower version from the 1974 New York recordings, the first takes of the song, make it a much more contemplative, reflective song than it is here, performed at this hectic pace. We fall headlong through life, from one scene to the next, with hardly time to remember, ‘all the people we used to know.’
Tangled up in Blue: 2
On the 13th Dylan introduces the song with the harp and launches into another faultless vocal performance. What is amazing is that if you listen to all three vocals you find he sings it differently each time, emphasising and elongating different words, creating different tonal effects.
Tangled up in Blue: 3
‘License to Kill’ is a quiet, reflective protest song from Infidels. The chorus centres around a bereaved woman, lamenting the death of a loved one, maybe a soldier. The verses tend to focus on the training and brainwashing of a killer, and the subsequent plight of mankind. When I wrote about this song when it appeared in 1993, I quoted these lyrics:
‘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’
I suggested that this reminded me of more current killers, those who think that a license to carry firearms is a license to kill. (See NET, 1993, Part 5) That was written before the January 6th attack on the Capitol in the US. Now the lyrics seem even more contemporary:
‘Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled Oh, man is opposed to fair play, He wants it all and he wants it his way’
In this last verse the attack opens up to include all of humanity, the killers and the colluders. It’s humankind’s massive greed that gets in the way.
This may not be Dylan’s greatest protest song, but this performance from the 13th is certainly the greatest performance of the song. The power of performance is such that Dylan convinces us that it is a great song. The plaintive harp break at the end is the icing on the cake.
License to Kill
‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ is a spooky song based on the Devil at the Dance motif from Oh Mercy (1989) Dylan had been cultivating for three years. Those following these posts will have been alerted to the growing strength of this song in performance, with Dylan trying out slow tempos and varying musical arrangements. Its evolution has been from a swampy supernatural story to a cosmic drama of demonic seduction. As with the best Dylan songs, the drama pulls us into its orbit with its more universal application:
‘Preacher was talking there's a sermon he gave He said every man's conscience is vile and depraved You cannot depend on it to be your guide When it's you who must keep it satisfied’
The message is dark: we cannot alone find our way in the moral jungle, especially as, according to the old saying, the devil can quote scriptures.
‘He looked into her eyes when she stopped him to ask If he wanted to dance, he had a face like a mask Somebody said from the Bible he'd quote There was dust on the man in the long black coat’
This leaves us in a limbo where we are neither alive nor dead but ‘float’ in some kind of intermediary zone:
‘But people don't live or die people just float She went with the man in the long black coat’
These words remind me of ‘the disrobed faceless forms of no position’ we can find in ‘Chimes of Freedom’ way back in 1964.
At Prague the song was another of those rare ones that was performed on all three nights, and what a magnificent sequence they make. At last we feel that the song has come into focus. Enjoy these three performances, as the song will never sound so good again.
On the first night, the 11th, it’s all in place except the harmonica. The long drawn out sounds on the steel guitar, the deep, thundery base. Magnificent.
Man in the long black coat: 1
Magnificent as that was, it was just a warm up for what was to come on the 12th, with Dylan’s triumphant harmonica to the fore.
I wrote about the March 12th performance for the Master Harpist series. I can’t say it better now than I said it then, so, with my editor’s indulgence, I’m putting in this quote from that article:
‘The pop and rock music of the 1980s veered towards creating sonic landscapes, orchestral sounds, and we don’t normally associate Bob Dylan with this kind of music, but in this grand and grandiose version of ‘Man in The Long Black Coat’ you hear Dylan and his band aiming for a full orchestral effect, which is where the harmonica comes in, lifting the song into one huge wall of sound. It’s a pity that the recording devices, or the original sound system for all I know, was not up to capturing the full range of this magnificent achievement – not to mention the limitations of MP3s! It’s a sheer blast, with long sustained harmonica notes pushing the music ever higher, finally floating above the wall of sound, thin and insistent, and ultimately as haunting as the song itself. The first solo is just a warm up for the climax to follow the last verse.’
I can’t add much to that except to say that every time I play this one, it exerts the same deep, magical pull. It is undoubtedly one of Dylan’s finest moments onstage.
Man in the long black coat: 2
The third performance of the song, on the 13th seems like an anticlimax when compared to the 12th, but of course it is another out of the box rendition. The vocal is just as magnificent and while the harp does not soar into the stratosphere, it has a sharp, cutting edge.
Man in the long black coat: 3
Two songs always linked in my mind are ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe.’ Both were written about the same time (1964) and both seem to be get lost songs. But things are not always what they seem when it comes to Dylan. These may be goodbye and good luck songs, but they are also love songs of the highest order, particularly ‘Baby Blue’.
‘It Ain’t Me Babe,’ may sound brash and dismissive if it’s sung that way, and it does work that way, but sung in a lonely, tender voice it becomes something else. Can we ever dismiss a lover without some tinge of regret, some strain of sorrow? And can love ever be banished by such brave assertions and protestations? Listen to this performance from the 12th and decide for yourself. And if you are in any doubt, try that most gentle and fragile harp break. Such exquisite restraint.
It ain’t me babe
But for the final coup-de-grace as far as outstanding performances go, and a strong candidate for the best ever Dylan harp performance, we must turn to ‘Baby Blue’ on the first night, the 11th.
Once again, I wrote about this performance for the Master Harpist series, and again with my editor’s indulgence I’ll quote myself:
‘Baby Blue’, performed in a strident, declarative, in-your-face manner, might be classed as one of Dylan’s put-down songs: get yourself together and piss off! But sung the way he does at Prague, the song, all through the vocal, skirts the edges of heartbreak, and when the harmonica takes over, the mood is pushed into outright heartbreak. There’s been a lot of tedious speculation as to whether this song is for Joan Baez (do we really care?), or was written as a farewell to the protest movement (ho-hum), but what these speculations might obscure is that ‘Baby Blue’ is a break-up song, which implies heart-break, finality, the end of love. It is love’s last song.
Suddenly the lyrics don’t sound so tough any more, and we wonder if he’s exhorting himself to get a new life as much as the ‘you’ he’s addressing. Listen to how Dylan lifts his voice in the last verse, how the harmonica takes over from where the voice leaves off, lays bare the real heartbreak and gives unrestrained voice to grief. Dylan can’t cry onstage, but his harmonica can, and boy it sure does, and how painful it is at the end as he repeats the same notes over and over, like one of those protracted goodbyes everybody hates but sometimes you just can’t escape. Just one more goodbye…one more… all the way to emotional exhaustion:
It’s all over now baby blue
What a note on which to end this post of the best of the best at Prague, 1995. I’ll be back soon to finish off what Dylan started at Prague.
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