This article is part of our on-going series tracing the Never Ending Tour, with commentary and audios of the performances.
A full index of all the articles tracing the tour from 1988 onward, is available here. The previous articles about the Prague concerts of 1995 are…
- 1995, part 1: The Prague Revelation and other astonishments
- 1995, part 2: The Prague Revelation – Salt for Salt, Peak Prague
- 1995, Part 3, The Prague Revelation – down in the flood
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Of course, Dylan’s revelatory three day residency on Prague was not the end of the 1995 story, just the beginning. He went on from there to performances equal to Prague, but not with the same consistency.
His three day residency in London, from the 29th to the 31st of March at the Brixton Academy, is a good example. It may well be that the recording of the London concerts was not as good. Despite their obvious audience source, there is something about the Prague recordings, how they capture the echo of the venue, and the clarity of the sound, that was not sustained in London. Yet there were some outstanding moments in London, such as this ‘Masters of War’, which equals the best of Prague:
Masters of War
For my ear, we have a ‘best ever’ performance of this song, at least in terms of acoustic versions. In my post for Master Harpist 2, I wrote regarding this performance: ‘Dylan can let rip with this song, and turn it into a howling rocker, but this performance is all restraint, a sense of holding back that emotion, which just breaks through the voice here and there, until we get to the harp, where we get a sharper, more trenchant comment. Listen to the way the guitar and harmonica surge back and forward in a syncopated manner, while Dylan’s vocal and harmonica phrasing drive the song forward. Hard to find a better Dylan performance than this.’
Another London performance we can’t overlook is this ‘Senor’, a song that takes us right to the borderlands of spiritual despair. It’s a wonderful moody song from Street Legal (1978) and never fails to create a spooky atmosphere on stage. There is a pretty good video of this performance, and you see Dylan, once more without guitar, putting on a very Prague-like performance. (I have added the audio link in case the You Tube clip disappears)
The London concerts are remarkable for a most rare performance of ‘Joey’ off Desire (1975). ‘Joey’ has never been my favourite Dylan song, as it appears to lionise a mafia figure. How different from ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol’ (1964) which presents us with a harrowing tale of how a poor black woman was randomly killed by a rich crook who might have been Joey, or at least a Joey type figure. As a story, this epic failed to move me, but if any performance of the song was going to move me it would be this one. Whatever you think of the song, the power of this performance turns it into a passionate narrative of betrayal. A remarkable vocal.
‘Dignity’ was written in 1989 for Oh Mercy, but Dylan was dissatisfied with the versions they tried out. He re-recorded it in 1994, and many of us first became aware of the song from the 1994 MTV Unplugged concert. A derisive humour lies behind this song. Dignity can no longer be found no matter where you search:
‘I went down where the vultures feed I would've got deeper, but there wasn't any need Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men Wasn't any difference to me’
You can listen to it as if dignity was a person, and the effect is quite odd. I’ve just added the capital D to dignity.
‘Somebody got murdered on New Year's Eve Somebody said Dignity was the first to leave I went into the city, went into the town Went into the land of the midnight sun’
This 1995 London performance recalls the MTV performance of the year before, but to my mind has the edge on the earlier performance, being a bit sharper and rougher.
What I like about Dylan’s 1995 vocals is the understated softness of his voice when he needs it. Yes, he can yell it out, and often the songs build from soft to loud, but in the case of the London performance of ‘She Belongs to Me’ he pretty much keeps it soft and intimate, as if it were a love song instead of a cautionary account of how one can be bewitched and end up ‘peeking through a keyhole down upon your knees.’ The woman in question is a charmer for sure – but what is the cost of getting involved? Serving another’s ego?
She belongs to me.
Feel like kicking back with a bit of rock blues? A song that belts along with a steady rock pace? Something to dance to? Try this London performance of ‘Tombstone Blues’. On the album (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965) the song happens at quite a frantic pace, thirty years later it rollicks along. The lyrics come over nice and clearly too.
Throughout Dylan’s songs there is a resistance to over-educated intellectualism. Dylan loved baiting intellectuals, wanna-be intellectuals and pretenders. In ‘Someone’s Got a Hold of My Heart’ he complains about ‘too much educated rap.’ There is an intellectual force behind his wild whirling words however, but it leans to the anarchic, the chaotic and the revelatory. In ‘Tombstone Blues’ we find this:
‘I wish I could write you a melody so plain That could hold you, dear lady, from going insane That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain Of your useless and pointless knowledge’
And this fucked up world is sure going to make you sick.
‘Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief Looks up at his hero, the Commander-in-Chief Saying, "Tell me great hero, but please, make it brief Is there a hole for me to get sick in?"’
A regular on Dylan’s set list, ‘If You See Her Say Hello’ wasn’t played at Prague, so it’s a pleasure to pick it up here, in London. These London performances make a nice complement to Prague.
The vocal is restrained, the harmonica sharp-edged and guitarist John Jackson gives the song a country twist. Again we get that easy, mid-tempo, catchy rhythm that makes these songs fun to listen to. It is less wrought than the album version (Blood on the Tracks, 1974), but no less nostalgic for that.
If you see her say hello
Before leaving the London concerts behind, here’s an unusual performance. On the last night, the 31st of March, Dylan is joined onstage by Elvis Costello for a rousing performance of ‘I Shall Be Released.’ Dylan’s distinctive voice and vocal phrasing do not make him an easy partner in any duet. But here they take turns and sing together only on the chorus and it turns out pretty okay. The video of this one is pretty cool too.
I shall be released.
We now move from London to Edinburgh, 7th April, for another rarity, the last ever performance of ‘What Was It You Wanted?’ (Oh Mercy 1989)
I have always admired this song for its portrayal of devastating emotional disconnection. Imagine two people sitting at a table. They are apparently having a conversation but what we hear is what just one of them is saying, or perhaps thinking. Are you listening to me? Are you there at all? It’s the ultimate disconnect.
‘Whatever you wanted Slipped out of my mind Would you remind me again If you'd be so kind Has the record been breaking Did the needle just skip Is there somebody waitin' Was there a slip of the lip?’
This verse is obsessively repetitive, the same notes repeated eight times before a chord change, making it sound as if the needle really is skipping on the track itself. Very clever. Structurally it’s relentless, as is the alienation it portrays. Do we even know whom we’re talking to or what about?
‘What was it you wanted I ain't keepin' score Are you the same person That was here before? Is it something important Maybe not What was it you wanted? Tell me again I forgot’
Of course people want something, even if they don’t come out and say it. So what’s their angle?
‘Whatever you wanted What can it be Did somebody tell you That you could get it from me Is it something that comes natural Is it easy to say Why do you want it Who are you anyway?’
This kind of hidden agenda makes us suspicious. ‘Are you talking to me?’ Do these two people even know each other? Self doubt intervenes.
‘Is the scenery changing Am I getting it wrong Is the whole thing going backwards Are they playing our song? Where were you when it started Do you want it for free What was it you wanted Are you talking to me?’
I don’t know why he left it behind after 1995, for by the sound of this performance Dylan is fully engaged with the song. It’s a great performance although Dylan’s voice is a bit soft or under-recorded at the beginning.
What was it you wanted?
While on the subject of songs from Oh Mercy, and still in Edinburgh, we find an equally committed performance of ‘Disease of Conceit.’ In 1996 this song too would be dropped from Dylan’s repertoire. It’s a very explicit song. There is nothing elusive in its imagery. It’s almost embarrassingly direct, and so suits Dylan’s understated, 1995 style.
The disease of conceit
That’s it for now. Next time we’ll be looking at some more compelling sounds from 1995. Until then, stay safe and happy listening.
There are details of some of our more recent articles listed on our home page. You’ll also find, at the top of the page, and index to some of our series established over the years.
If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to Tony@schools.co.uk with the details – or indeed the article itself.
We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down
(I shall be released)