NET, 1995, part 6: The kingdoms of experience

There is a full index to our series on the Never Ending Tour here.

The 1995 episodes published so far are

By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)

So we come to the last of my posts on that most remarkable year in Dylan’s Never Ending Tour – 1995. The performances I’ve included here did not fit neatly into any of the previous articles, but are no afterthoughts. Or if they are, they are necessary afterthoughts. We wouldn’t want to be without them for a full understanding of Dylan’s achievements in that year.

We’ll kick off with something of a rarity, a live performance of the blues ‘Pledging My Time’ from Blonde on Blonde(1966). I remember around the time I first heard Dylan I was very much into the blues. I was not alone. The blues was sweeping into our musical world from The Rolling Stones and rock music in general, from jazz and singers like Ray Charles, and the rural blues men like Lightning Hopkins. The blues was everywhere. I remember thinking when I heard Dylan’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘One Kind Favour’ that Dylan could become a great blues singer, with his expressive inflections, maybe the greatest.

Dylan loved the blues but also avoided it; he didn’t want to be defined by it. He had other fish to fry.  But when he decides to get into it, he can do it like no other. This is one of the more successful adaptions of his Blonde on Blonde songs to live performance. Just leave the insinuating inflections of the album behind and you have, well… just the blues. (Don’t know date of this one, I’m afraid)

Pledging my time.

Staying with Blonde on Blonde we have a committed performance of ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. This is a long song and not an easy one to sustain in performance. Given the lyrics it’s well worth persevering with, however. It takes us into the same circus territory as ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’. Whereas ‘Visions of Johanna’ is a queasy evocation of a 3 a.m. zonkout, ‘Mobile’ is a surreal trip through the madness of the world, and all the freaked out people in it, and has its roots in Dylan’s earlier more humorous madcap adventure songs like ‘Talking World War 3 Blues’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’.

The sense of being trapped in a claustrophobic world is strong in Dylan, and has been right from the start. It comes through strongly on Blonde on Blonde. I always loved ‘Mobile’ for this devastating last verse. This performance may not have the gloomy intensity of the album version, coming over more like a raw cry for help. (No date for this one either, sorry).

‘Now, the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed
An' here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice’

Stuck inside of mobile.

Another of Dylan’s mid-sixties classics is ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, another madcap song full of mysterious characters and events. Once more the meaninglessness of material accumulation comes under fire. A couple of circus characters have this conversation:

‘Well, Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
"I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things?"
And Louie the King said, "Let me think for a minute, son"

And he said, "Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61" ‘

When the album came out, the buzz was that Highway 61 was a reference to the main artery in the arm which junkies use to hit up. Maybe but maybe not. The humour here is derisive. Highway 61 is the junkyard of the spirit. This song is deeper than it sounds on first listening.

For my ear, the virtues of the song have all too often been buried in a blizzard of guitar sounds. Yes, it’s supposed to rip along with the images flashing by, but this is one of my favourite performances with its dark, insistent beat and minimal backing. There is no sense of strain either with the vocals, which come across loud and clear. (2nd April, Birmingham)

Highway 61 Revisited.

My favourite version of ‘When I Paint my Masterpiece’ (1967) has to be the piano demo found on the ‘Other Self Portrait’. It has something of a lumbering beat and is not easy to pull off in performance as it can easily drag. In this performance, however, Dylan doesn’t let it drag, using his wonderful voice to lift it at the end, working to build up the energy of the song. It seems to hit on the yearning of all artists to achieve something astonishing and superlative, but the message seems to be that lots of scenes go by and that masterpiece will probably never be painted.

‘Sailing round the world in a dirty gondola
Oh to be back in the land of Coca-cola.
Well I left Rome, and landed in Brussels
On a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried
Clergy men in uniform, and young girls pulling muscles
Everyone was there to greet me when I stepped inside
Newspaper men eating candy
Had to be held down by big police.
Someday, everything's gonna be different
When I paint my masterpiece.’

The song reflects the crazy life of the rock star on tour, wishing he was back in America. It’s also the first Dylan song to express Dylan’s interest in the classics and the world of antiquity which would play such a big part in his compositions after 2000. (26th October, Bloomington)

When I paint my masterpiece.

When ‘Jokerman’ appeared in 1994, I commented on the difficulties the song presented, not only in the complexity of its lyrics. I see the song in terms of Dylan distancing himself from the Christianity that had driven his gospel years (1979-81),

‘Shedding off one more layer of skin
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within’

and moving closer to the Old Testament:

‘Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers
In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed
Michelangelo indeed could've carved out your features
Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space
Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face’

I’m not sure where the small dog fits in, but I love the imagery of those last four lines. Again, it’s not an easy song to carry, but the 1995 Dylan is up to the challenge. The song suits the softer treatment. (2nd April, Birmingham)

Jokerman.

‘The Man in Me’ from New Morning (1971) is no masterpiece, and arguably the lyrics are a little weak, but it is a love song and Dylan’s soaring vocals bring it to life. Mr Guitar Man has a fair go at it too, with his strange repetitive guitar work, hammering away on the same few notes. (June 29th Oslo)

The Man in Me.

Perhaps because it’s such a crowd-pleaser, and a great song to end a concert. You can go out with an apocalyptic storm of guitars. I can’t think of a song that better expresses that sense of impending doom – oh, he ain’t no false prophet. Those riders arriving at the end are not bringing good news. In a few short verses Dylan is able to evoke a fantasy land under siege by external forces.

What I like about this performance is the way the band goes quiet while Dylan is singing. Between verses the guitars can let rip. Mr Guitar Man is in his element, his often discordant guitar sounds finding their perfect home. (27th March Cardiff, Wales)

Watchtower

To finish off this post, let’s return to Blonde on Blonde, and that wonderful concert at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on the 13th of December. ‘Rainy Day Woman 12 & 35’ is one of Dylan’s funniest, most irreverent songs. ‘Everybody must get stoned’ became something of a rallying cry for all stoners, most of whom didn’t get the more shadowy implication that to ‘get stoned’ also meant to be killed by stoning, an Old Testament punishment. I like the story, true or not, that when the police busted The Rolling Stones in 1966 this song was playing full bore. A bit of an embarrassment, really.

This is a wonderful performance of the song, with the audience once more singing along on the punchline. This is pretty close to the in-your-face irreverence of the original, but after a minute and a half Dylan gives up singing and the song turns into an instrumental. Everybody’s having a great time, and Mr Guitar Man excels himself for the next five minutes. It’s a rough and rowdy goodbye.

Rainy Day Woman

So ends our account of the NET, 1995, a year in which Dylan’s voice breaks through the constrictions of previous years, building solidly on his 1994 performances. And the band feels happily at home in his material. Dylan’s performances reach a certain peak in 1995.

What else?

You can read about the writers who kindly contribute to Untold Dylan in our About the Authors page.

And you can keep an eye on our current series by checking the listings on the home page

You’ll also find, at the top of this 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

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1 Response to NET, 1995, part 6: The kingdoms of experience

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    Constellation Canis Minor – ‘the smaller dog’

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