This series charts the NET from its origins to the present day, with multiple examples of Dylan’s performances through the period in question. The full index is here.
The most recent articles are…
- Never Ending Tour, 1996, part 1. Busy being born. With Al Kooper in Liverpool
- Never Ending Tour, 1996, Part 2 – More Liverpool
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
While I have taken the Liverpool concerts at the end of June as representative of Dylan’s 1996 form (see NET, 1996, parts 1 and 2 above), those concerts may not have been the very best of that year. Many commentators point to the Berlin concert earlier in June, on the 17th, as being the high point of the year.
Certainly the recordings are better, so the performances come over more clearly and sharply. The song Dylan used to kick off the Berlin show, ‘Drifter’s Escape’ is a good example. The Liverpool performance (See NET, 1996, part 1) sounds very similar to this one, even the harp break is the same, but this Berlin performance certainly has the edge.
The same applies to ‘Watching the River Flow.’ The same countrified arrangement as in Liverpool, very similar vocals, with perhaps a bit more energy than the Liverpool concert. This is a real pleasure to listen to. I think this arrangement gives rise to Dylan’s best performances of the song. While it suited to some extent the hard rock treatment he’d been giving it, there is a levity, a devil-may-care attitude in the song which suits this lighter treatment.
Watching the river flow
One song that did not appear in Liverpool setlists is ‘Seeing the Real You at Last’ (from Empire Burlesque, 1985). Dylan is consistently concerned with false versus true appearances, being real in the world and true to oneself. This spirit animates many of Dylan’s so called finger pointing songs like ‘Just Like a Rolling Stone’.
Behind many Dylan songs, no matter how complex, there lies a recognizable, common emotion or experience. I’m sure many of us know what it’s like to suddenly see somebody in a new, more real light. It’s not a pleasant sensation, not if we’ve been seeing someone through rose-coloured glasses.
Dylan has often performed this song in a strident or triumphant tone. Ha ha! Now I’ve seen the real you! Here, however, we find a softer, more reflective performance. It’s been a long time coming, honey, but now I see who you really are. The lyrics are studded with lines from tough-guy style, late 1940s movies.
Seeing the real you at last
‘Friend of the Devil’ is another Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter song, but Dylan makes a few changes to the lyrics. This verse from the Grateful Dead reads:
‘I ran down to the levee But the Devil caught me there He took my twenty dollar bill And he vanished in the air’
Dylan changes that to:
‘I went down to the crossroads and the devil met me there took my twenty dollar bill and vanished in the air’
‘Crossroads’ evokes that famous blues song of that name by Robert Johnson. He sang:
‘Standin' at the crossroad, baby, risin' sun goin' down Standin' at the crossroad, baby, eee-eee, risin' sun goin' down I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin' down’
Friend of the Devil
Another song not performed at Liverpool is that mysterious Sixties classic ‘Love Minus Zero’. Since 1994 Dylan had been cultivating a slow version of the song, savouring each one of those puzzling lines. While ‘She Belongs to Me’ (also of the 1965 Subterranean Homesick Blues album) warns of the dangers of adoration, ‘Love minus Zero’ expresses and celebrates that adoration. When we love someone with sufficient intensity, they take on a mysterious quality which in turn suffuses and colours our vision of the world itself.
‘The wind howls like a hammer the night blows cold and rainy my love she's like some raven at my window with a broken wing.’
I couldn’t ask more of this lovingly delivered performance except perhaps a harp break at the end.
Love Minus Zero
1996 was a big year for ‘Positively 4th Street,’ one of Dylan’s great sarcastic songs. Yet, as we saw with the Liverpool performance, these 1996 versions go beyond the whining sarcasm of the original 1965 recording. Performed more slowly and thoughtfully, the complaint goes deeper and we catch a glimpse of moral outrage at hypocritical, callous behaviour. I like the song better this way. It rubs off the nasty edge of the song, and takes us to that sinking feeling we get when we know we’ve been shafted.
Positively 4th Street
I must have introduced that kaleidoscope of life lived, that compelling foot-tapper of a song ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ at least a dozen times since starting this series, and every time I think ‘this is a version that will blow everybody’s socks off’ and every time I am right. This is the performance of all performances that will blow you away, just like a last one. Another epic not to be skipped. Listen to how Mr Guitar Man drives the song forward with his relentless picking at a few notes, and how Dylan’s harp achieves a beautiful balance between restraint and ecstasy.
Tangled up In Blue
I’d like to leave the Berlin concert with this slow ‘Queen Jane Approximately’. It’s an invitation to share a world-weariness which sounds aged but has been a part of Dylan’s emotional mix right from the start. I’m reminded of ‘One Too Many Mornings’. However it goes deeper in suggesting that only when you have reached the depths of existential despair and alienation should you get in touch with me. Then we will have something to share. When you’ve had enough of the world and all its uses, come see me.
As in ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’, Dylan takes a sideswipe at hippie idealism.
‘Now, when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you And the smell of their roses does not remain…’
I don’t think you’ll find a more tenderhearted performance of the song than this ten and half minute, gorgeously sung version.
I’m sorry I don’t have the performance date for this wonderful acoustic version of ‘To Ramona’. We know that Dylan no longer stands alone before an audience with just acoustic guitar and harmonica, but this performance comes the closest of any I’ve heard to capturing that quality. The common complaint that Dylan never sounds the way he used to, or sings the songs the way he used to, doesn’t stand up in this case. Except for that crack of age in his voice, it’s eerie how like a sixties performance this is.
The harp break is a rare treat, as this song usually lacks the harp. To me, despite the harshness of it, this performance is more loving and accepting than the original. The recording itself is a bit on the hard, metallic side. The song is unsettling in its accusations but not without compassion.
Again, I don’t know the date of this powerful performance of that rarity ‘Born in Time’. In performance Dylan’s soft approach to the vocals can mean his voice gets overwhelmed by the band. This doesn’t happen here. In this case the sharpness of the recording works in our favour. Although the song is from Under the Red Sky (1991), it always sounds to me as if it were written later. It wouldn’t go amiss on Time Out of Mind:
‘In the hills of mystery, In the foggy web of destiny, You can have what's left of me, Where we were born in time.’
The seeds of the despair in Time Out of Mind, which Dylan started writing in 1996, can be found in the earlier album.
Born in Time
‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ is a masterpiece of storytelling. It tells of one desperate man’s build up to murder and suicide, a crime born out of poverty. The plight of this small farmer has its roots in the 1930s depression, and the imagery of the song echoes the same era.
‘The rats have got your flour Bad blood it got your mare The rats have got your flour Bad blood it got your mare If there’s anyone that knows Is there anyone that cares?’
Coming from the same place, Harlan Howard wrote ‘Busted’ probably about a year before Dylan wrote ‘Hollis Brown’. ‘Busted’ was sung by Johnny Cash and Ray Charles:
‘My bills are all due and the baby needs shoes and I'm busted Cotton is down to a quarter a pound, but I'm busted I got a cow that went dry and a hen that won't lay A big stack of bills that gets bigger each day The county's gonna haul my belongings away cause I'm busted’
Unlike the Harlan Howard song, however, which is a long recitation of woes, Dylan’s song builds narrative tension to a shattering climax.
‘Way out in the wilderness A cold coyote calls Way out in the wilderness A cold coyote calls Your eyes fix on the shotgun That’s hanging on the wall Your brain is a-bleedin' And your legs can’t seem to stand Your brain is a-bleedin' And your legs can’t seem to stand Your eyes fix on the shotgun That you’re holding in your hand’
How wonderfully (in narrative terms) that shotgun moves from the wall into his hands as if by its own volition. I love the hard rock version Dylan did in 1974, because of its cracking pace, but this slower paced performance is just as relentless, and the band echoes the sound of those early blues records. Forget you are in 1996, you could be in 1936. Wonderfully rough and hard-edged. (2nd July)
Ballad of Hollis Brown
I would like to leave this post on an exciting note, what I believe to be the first ever live performance of ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ from the Basement Tapes (1967). The lyrics of this song are obscure, and point to events hidden from our sight by a veil of coded language:
‘If your memory serves you well I was going to confiscate your lace And wrap it up in a sailor’s knot And hide it in your case If I knew for sure that it was yours But it was oh so hard to tell But you knew that we would meet again If your memory serves you well’
It is uncertain if the anticipated next meeting will be a pleasant one. Maybe not. But what is certain is that this is a powerful song, serving as a reminder and a warning, a warning not to forget ‘favours’ done. Dark circumstances are hinted at.
I can’t help feeling that it is no accident that Dylan returned to this song in the year he was to write most of Time out of Mind. The darkness of the lyrics suits the flavour of the new album that is brewing.
This performance has a wonderfully gutsy sound, quite distinct from what has come before, and foreshadowing what is to come in later years.
This Wheel’s on Fire
Catch you next post, when I will be wrapping up 1996.
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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