There is an index to this series of articles on the Never Ending Tour here. This is episode 31.
‘It might look like I’m moving but I’m standing still’
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘It is not a year remembered with great fondness by most long-term fans. In contrast to the innovation and stellar performing levels of most of 1995, it was all too predictable; same band, same set structure, and not many song debuts. Overall the shows were solid enough, but, as in late ’93 and periods of ’94, just not particularly special. More alarmingly, some of the overlong, uninspired, unproductive guitar instrumentals were reappearing too.’
-Andrew Muir, One More Night: Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour
Doesn’t sound too hopeful, does it? From Muir’s point of view, having reached a peak in 1995, Dylan had nowhere left to go but down. With dogged inspiration Dylan had led the band on its rising curve from 1991 to 1995, but without some new input or change, he could at best mark time. And of course he is talking about our Mr Guitar Man, Bob himself, when he identifies ‘overlong, uninspired, unproductive guitar instrumentals,’ although he doesn’t say so.
There tends to be more guitar work in 1996, as Dylan uses the harmonica less. For the next couple of years the harp would fall out of favour.
CS, the anonymous compiler at A Thousand Highways, has a gentler perspective:
‘1996 was not an especially noteworthy year of performances for Bob Dylan, though it would be the last full year of touring before Dylan shifted towards performing new and traditional material with his 1997 release of Time Out Of Mind. In the interim, he and his band stuck to the sound they had established over the past two years.’
In other words, Dylan was on the edge of another great leap forward. Tony Attwood, Editor of Untold Dylan, puts it this way in “Bob Dylan in 1966”
‘Bob Dylan toured consistently in 1996 from April through to August, before finally taking a break. And at this point, for the first time in over five years, he started writing and recording new songs again, and from this we have the first set of songs that became Time out of Mind.
The re-writing of the songs, plus the addition of new compositions, continued through to 1997, but 1996 clearly marks not just the end of Dylan’s longest period without writing songs at all but the emergence of a new way of writing songs about moving on – and despair.’
Time Out of Mind, starting to incubate in Dylan’s mind in 1996, would not be just another Dylan album, but arguably the darkest, most despairing album Dylan ever cut, although Blonde on Blonde (1966) and Street Legal (1978) are rivals for that distinction. I bear that in mind when watching some of Dylan’s stony-faced performances of 1996 (The Hyde Park performances, for example, twenty minutes of which you can find on You Tube). We can only assume that Dylan was performing in that face of that despair during 1996.
However, as with other lesser years of the NET, we find a number of treasures and standout performances. There are also some concerts well worth tuning into. A standout in my mind are the Liverpool concerts of the 26th and 27th of June, when he was joined by his organist from the 1960s, Al Kooper, who came up with that famous organ opening to the album version of ‘Just Like a Rolling Stone’.
These performances may not have the aura of magic of the Prague concerts of 1995, but if this is another day at the office for Dylan, these Liverpool performances are pretty damn good. New cracks are beginning to appear in his voice. The voice we hear on Time Out of Mind is far from the clear, high tones of 1995, but this is not the scratchiness of the early nineties, rather the beginning of a new stage or new maturity in his voice. There is no loss of power and conviction.
I see 1996 as a year of consolidation and preparation. There was, however, some innovation and experiment. Remember that bouncy ‘Positively 4th Street’ from the 1965/66 era. It is a song of complaint about the betrayal of a friendship. I liked the studio version as its message is at odds with the happy sounding music, creating a pleasing disjunction. Here, however, Dylan has slowed down the tempo and drawn it out, and it sounds less happily vicious. Great to hear Al Kooper doing the opening chords. (June 26th)
Positively 4th Street
Some of the songs get a bit of a country twist. That works brilliantly for ‘Watching the River Flow’ which up to this point has been given the full rock treatment. This may well be the most successful adaptation of this wonderful paean to indolence. Impossible not to enjoy this fast paced performance. Great work from the steel guitar. (Also from June 26th)
Watching the River Flow
A bit of country twang works well too for ‘She Belongs to Me’. Almost sounds like a love song with that lazy beat and a vocal performance that reeks of regret.
She belongs to Me.
Staying with the June 26th concert, and Al Kooper’s backing, we come to that magnificent tale of temptation and loss, ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. This version doesn’t have the soaring harmonica of the unforgettable 1995 Prague performances, but Dylan’s vocal compares favourably to any previous performances. Beautifully atmospheric.
Man in the long black coat.
‘Silvio’, co-written with the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, makes for a great rock song. To my mind, these early performances of the song are the best. In later years it was to become a bit of beaty filler, but here (June 26th) we hear it fresh and full of life. I read that Hunter wrote the lyrics and Dylan wrote the music, but find that kind of hard to believe given how Dylan-like the lyrics are:
‘I give what I got until I got no more I take what I get until I even the score You know I love you and further more When it is time to go you got an open door I can tell you fancy I can tell you plain You give something up for everything you gain Since every pleasure's got an edge of pain Pay for your ticket and don't complain’
I’m not complaining, but can you see anything there that doesn’t sound like Dylan? Hunter channelling Dylan? He was to do it again with Dylan in 2009 with the album Together Through Life.
‘Seven Days’ was written back in 1976, and first performed in that year, but rarely played during the NET. This is one of Dylan’s orphan songs, never recorded in a studio, and only known through the few performances of it. And yet it is a powerful expression of desire for an absent lover, and would have fitted the Desire album perfectly. It captures that impatience we feel anticipating the arrival of a lover. Joe Cocker did a great live performance of the song in 1982.
This 1996 performance is as good as any with its descending guitar line. (June 27th)
‘Drifter’s Escape’ was first played live in 1992, but rarely performed until 1996. It’s another madcap tale from 1967. The website Songfacts makes this comment: ‘The surreal absurdity of the song has been compared to the writing of Franz Kafka. Its ambiguous nature has provoked all manner of analyses. Some critics have noted that the song mirrored Dylan’s own experience with the media and his fans and critics (which seemed to overlap more frequently than one might expect).’
From 1996, over the next few years, Dylan was to develop the song into a hard-hitting and powerful rocker. This particular arrangement was only to last for a couple years, and features some full-on rock harp. (26th July).
‘Ramona’, a 1960s favourite, has been performed some 380 times. This 1996 performance is certainly no better than the 1995 version, but it’s a solid performance. Again, don’t be deceived into thinking that this is a love song. It may arise out of love, but is a song of admonition, and a warning not to be deceived by the appearances of life. (27th June)
The arrangement of ‘Masters of War’ that Dylan came up with in 1995 for his stunning London performance of that year was pretty much the same as this 1996 version, minus the harp. Its surging, menacing beat is perfect for this song, one of Dylan’s most explicit protest, anti war songs . As long as we have war, and companies manufacturing weapons for profit, this song will be playing in the background. As eternally true as warmongering itself. (26th June)
Masters of War
Andrew Muir, in the front quote to this article, says that there were not many debut songs in 1996. Well, one of those ‘not many’ is ‘Alabama Getaway’, another Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter song. It’s a zany little number with Dylan-like, absurdist lyrics. It’s a good spot to pause in this look at Dylan’s Liverpool performances of 1996.
I’ll be back shortly to look further at the performances from that concert.
You’ll also find, at the top of this page, and index to some of our series established over the years. Series we are currently running include
- The art work of Bob Dylan’s albums
- The Never Ending Tour year by year with recordings
- Bob Dylan and Stephen Crane
- Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
- All Directions at Once
You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site
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