This is episode 32; the first part of the series about Liverpool appeared as
You can find details of our current series and latest articles on the Untold Dylan home page.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In the previous post we saw that although 1996 does not have a good reputation among Dylan commentators, the performances are solid and workmanlike. They are not as inspired as some of the 1995 performances, but you don’t always need inspiration to bring these songs to life.
One way or another, acoustic or electric, Dylan has pounded the hell out of a core group of songs that have proved indestructible. Unless Dylan is in very bad form, which despite rumours to the contrary doesn’t happen that often, the inspiration of the song itself will carry it in performance. Over the long term, it’s the greatness of the songs themselves that shines through.
A perfect example of this is ‘Girl from the North Country.’ Written in 1963, this song has the feel of a timeless classic. Fond remembrance is the emotion it evokes, and every time I listen to it in various performances, it works the same magic. This is from June 26th.
Girl from the North Country
I have chosen the two Liverpool performances (26th, 27th of June) as they are perhaps the most typically representative of that year. Not breathtaking, but solid and satisfying. Dylan sounds fully committed to the vocal and his guitar picking is just as complex and dissonant as ever.
What I’ve said about ‘Girl from the North Country’, you could say about ‘Don’t Think Twice’, a song from the same era. It suits the upbeat performance we find here, the audience is quite delighted with Dylan’s spirited vocal and keen to join in. The darkness of the song is buoyed by the brisk pace. This wonderful performance reminds me, in spirit, of the 1964 upbeat performances. (June 26th)
Don’t Think Twice
Let’s make that three in a row by listening to ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ (27th June). For me this song is about shrugging off all of those things people project onto you, about who you are and what kind of person you are. The singer’s not buying into any hippie idealizations of love. Dylan’s disenchantment with the more doozie aspects of the mid-sixties youth moment shows in this song.
At eleven and a half minutes, this is another epic performance. I might have wanted a little less guitar, but Mr Guitar Man was very much to the fore in 1996. Dylan works hard at these guitar breaks which Andrew Muir in his book on the Never Ending Tour describes as ‘overlong, uninspired, unproductive’, and while I’m not as set in my opinion as Muir, I do wonder what Dylan was intending or doing with these breaks, and his guitar work in general, both acoustic and electric. There is a driving quality to them that’s hard to shake.
It Ain’t me Babe
‘My Back Pages’ is credited with being the first song in which Dylan confronts his disillusion with the counterculture and his move away from the moral certainties of the protest movement. Its famous refrain ‘I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now’ suggests a return to a more open-ended view of the world.
This performance, from June 26th. Once more the audience joins in. It’s not the most accessible of Dylan’s songs, but here he makes it sound almost homely and familiar. Once of the reasons I like the Liverpool performances is the audience’s response to the songs. This would have been a wonderful concert to attend as there is a special rapport between Dylan and his audience. This rapport gives these performances their singular feel.
My Back Pages
This ‘When I Paint my Masterpiece’ is one of my favourite versions of the song. It’s carried along by a slow, easy beat and the lyrics come across sharp and clear. The perfections of the imagined masterpiece are contrasted to the messy imperfections and craziness of life. The nice paradox is that the song itself is a masterpiece in which the disparate elements of an itinerant life come into a momentary balance. (27th June)
When I paint my Masterpiece
In 1995 Dylan perfected a slow, thoughtful version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ that stands in contrast to the bright, assertive performance on the album (1965). The song is about surrender to the deeper, more magical forces of life, and must be counted as one of Dylan’s top ten songs. It paves the way for much darker songs like ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’. These long, slow versions accentuate the yearning in the song, and the weariness explicit in the lyrics. Arguably, the original version was too bright and bouncy for the lyrics, although the ‘skipping reels of rhyme’ work with a faster pace.
I like these slower paced versions as they immerse me deeper into the song, and those lyrics are good enough to linger over and be savoured. (July 27th)
Mr Tambourine Man
Staying in the sixties, but moving away from acoustic performances, we once more encounter ‘Ballad of a Thin Man,’ Dylan’s great ode to strangeness. The song lands us squarely in the circus world of geeks (circus performers who bite off the heads of chickens for the delight of audiences), freaks and other strangers. Anyone who’s been pushed way out of their comfort zone will relate to this story, and, along with some other commentators, I can’t help thinking that the Mr Jones of the song is not some convention bound reporter or squarehead but a freaked out kid from Hibbing.
Always good as a heavy, though slow rocker, this performance doesn’t disappoint. I don’t think any live performance has captured the sinister spooky atmosphere of the album version, but there’s plenty of fright and anger in it, and Al Kooper is on home ground with his thumping organ. (27th July)
Ballad of a Thin Man
I’ve always had a soft spot for the song ‘Under the Red Sky’ from the album of that name (1991). There is a beautiful but world weary whimsicality to it, with its children’s song, fairy-tale like structure and imagery. This performance brings out all the gentleness and the reflective quality of the song. It’s a sad little number with a mysterious heart.
Under the Red Sky
Ah! Where would we be without a scintillating rendition of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’? While my personal favourite for this kaleidoscope of a song, at least for the nineties, remains the 1993 performance, with Mr Guitar Man’s whacky break and a brilliant harp break (See NET, 1993, part 1), this 1996 version can stand proudly with any previous versions, including the glittering Prague performances of 1995. You might have heard it a hundred times before, and Dylan might have played it a thousand times before, but from those opening chords tipping you headlong into the song, you’re a goner until the final, grand chord sounds. Whew! What a trip.
Tangled up in Blue
I was going to leave out this performance of ‘John Brown’ one of Dylan’s great protest songs, as Dylan’s voice feels under-recorded, and I didn’t think it was quite up to scratch. Listening to it again now, however, I think it is worth inclusion, although I prefer the MTV Unplugged performance from 1994. The band sounds great, giving the song a relentless forward movement, with Tony Garnier providing a dark undertone by using the bow on the double bass. (27th July)
Dylan finished off his two day gig at Liverpool with an abrasive ‘Maggie’s Farm.’ This song was meant to be rough and rowdy and in your face. The phantasmagoric American family it portrays are a danger to your body and your soul. Better to get out quick while the going is good. This song is similar in spirit and imagery to ‘On the Road Again,’ (Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1965) which to my knowledge Dylan hasn’t performed live. In it he sings, ‘You ask why I don’t live here/ Honey, how come you don’t move?’
That’s it for Liverpool, 1996. Soon we’ll be back to consider the Berlin concert from that year and other goodies. In the meantime, keep listening and stay clear of the plague.
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
- Beautiful Obscurity – the unexpected covers
- All Directions at Once
You’ll find links to all of them on the home page of this site
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