By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Below is part 34 of the Never Ending Tour series of articles. A full index of the series can be found here, and the earlier 1966 articles are:
- Never Ending Tour, 1996, part 1. Busy being born. With Al Kooper in Liverpool
- Never Ending Tour, 1996, Part 2 – More Liverpool
- Never Ending Tour 1996 part 3: Berlin and Beyond
Dylan’s stint in Atlanta, at the House of the Blues (August 3rd and 4th), gave rise to some solid and even outstanding performances, and we are lucky enough to have some of these on video.
My favourite is this impassioned performance of ‘My Back Pages’, Dylan’s awakening in 1964 to moral complexity and the failure of a simple, black and white view of the world. We see here Dylan’s restless style, and his one-handed harp playing – harp and microphone in one hand. The harp break is sharp and trenchant. As usual I’ve added the audio file in case the video vanishes.
My Back Pages
Another video worth watching is this ‘To Be Alone with You,’ a light-hearted love song from Nashville Skyline (1969) which takes on a harder edge in this poker-faced performance. Dylan doesn’t expend energy needlessly on stage, which may be the secret of his longevity as a performer. It’s a good song to kick off the concert as the ‘you’ in the song could be read as the audience. It’s a good song to get people jiving and in the mood for some Dylan.
‘To be alone with you At the close of the day With only you in view While evening slips away It only goes to show That while life's pleasures be few The only one I know Is when I'm alone with you’
To Be Alone with You
Time now to check out some of the usual suspects, songs that Dylan has been cultivating from the start of the NET and which regularly show up on his setlists. A core of songs, mainly from the sixties and seventies around which his concerts are built. If you have the patience, it’s fascinating to follow these songs through the years, how they change over time.
One of the songs that doesn’t change a lot, although we get both electric and acoustic versions, is ‘Gates of Eden’. Dylan would continue to plumb the mystery and menace of this song right through to 2001. One of Dylan’s great strengths is the ability to express a profound alienation from the world. ‘Gates of Eden’ hits both the unreal and horrific nature of the world and our separation from it.
‘The foreign sun, it squints upon A bed that is never mine As friends and other strangers From their fates try to resign Leaving men wholly, totally free To do anything they wish to do but die And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden’
Those two lines, ‘Leaving men wholly, totally free/ to do anything they wish to do but die,’ are a neat summing up of the kind of existentialism encountered in Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, writers very much in the air in the mid sixties. At the same time, these lines foreshadow the biblically rooted sentiment we would later find in ‘Precious Angel’ (1979), ‘Can they imagine the darkness that will fall from on high/When men will beg God to kill them and they won’t be able to die.’
While I love the dark, plunging electric performance of 1988 (See NET, 1988, part 1), I think it’s these minimal, acoustic versions that move me the most. No drums, a gentle sound, with Mr Guitar Man excelling himself picking thoughtfully around the melody. (date unknown)
Gates of Eden
Also in a quiet, reflective mood is this ‘Shelter from the Storm.’ This is a good example of the quiet electric sound. You think for a moment that it is acoustic. Again, while I like the fast, upbeat performances of the song, and the hammering performance form the Rolling Thunder Tour, I think the slower, thoughtful performances such as this one suit the song best. This song is surely a candidate for Dylan’s best 1970’s love song, maybe his best ever, particularly if we count the wry humour behind the lyrics.
‘Suddenly I turned around and she was standin' there With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns Come in, she said I'll give ya shelter from the storm’
While Dylan gave the hippie, flower-power philosophy short shrift in the 1960s, here the hippy chick is reborn as a goddess, goddess of protection and maybe even salvation, although that’s a big ask. Be careful what you ask for, as they say:
‘In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose’
Shelter from the Storm
Never too far away from ‘Shelter from the Storm’, you will find ‘If You See Her Say Hello’, another song about what once was. If you listen to the evolution of the song on the compilation More Blood More Tracks you can hear Dylan trying out the song with a number of different moods and tempos. Slow it down and you accentuate the nostalgia; speed it up and it sounds more like a happy hour recollection. Dylan keeps this one fast and upbeat, giving it a bit of a country touch.
A lovely, generous, magnanimous song. I’m not quite sure than I believe the sentiment, it’s a bit too nice for me, but I’m happy to try it on for size (July 3rd)
If you see her say hello
There is something epic in the chord structure of ‘Tears of Rage’ so we don’t mind getting a nine and half minute performance. The editor of Untold Dylan, Tony Atwood, has a fine discussion of the chord changes , but flounders a bit when it comes to the song’s meaning, as indeed do I. What I do get is the sense of betrayal, of selling out to greed, materialism and ‘false instructions’.
I could take a stab at it, and suggest that if the song were sung by George Washington, or rather the ghost of George Washington, or one of the founding fathers of America, and if the ‘daughter’ were America, then the song would make some kind of sense. The betrayal would be the way America has betrayed the ideals of the founding fathers, and the upsurge of hope on Independence Day. As it stands, however, the song works on an emotional level and we can’t say exactly why. (Date unknown)
Tears of Rage
‘What Good Am I?’ is an unusual song in Dylan’s canon. He doesn’t usually question himself, or his own veracity, in quite this way. We all know what it feels like to have to face the way in which we have ignored or sidelined important things. Facing that inner uselessness is not an easy thing to do. Sung in a hard, waspish voice, as we heard in 1989 and 1990, the song comes across as a bitter self accusation. Here, it is much more gentle, and our sins of omission sad rather than anything else.
While I think the instrumental break goes on for too long at the end, Dylan’s singing is soft and sensitive, a beautiful and therefore painful probing of our shortcomings. (date unknown)
What good am I
GE Smith tells a story of how, back in 1988, when he was auditioning for the role of Dylan’s guitarist, Dylan played nothing but ‘Pretty Peggy-O’ over and over again. Smith comments that Dylan must have liked the song very much. And indeed it seems he does, for of all the folk songs he learned before starting to write songs himself, ‘Pretty Peggy-O’ survives and has been performed from time to time.
This song originated in Scotland several hundred years ago. Here’s a summary of the story. ‘The song is a fairly standard trooper-and-maid story: that is, soldier passes through town, soldier seduces girl, soldier is ordered to leave, girl says hey I’m pregnant, soldier says tough luck and marches away. In some versions the girl follows him, though only for a little while, but in most versions she ends up abandoned.’
It’s fun to look at the original Scottish lyrics. Here are the first couple of verses:
There once was a troop o’ Irishdragoons Cam marching doon through Fyvie-o And the captain’s fa’en in love wi’ a very bonnie lass And her name it was ca’d pretty Peggy-o
There’s many a bonnie lass in the Howe o Auchterless There’s many a bonnie lass in the Garioch There’s many a bonnie Jean in the streets of Aiberdeen But the floower o’ them aw lies in Fyvie-o
Once the song migrated to America, various lyrical variations occurred, Dylan’s cryptic version being one of them. Here are Dylan’s opening verses:
I’ve been around this whole country But I never yet found Fenneario.
Well, as we marched down, as we marched down Well, as we marched down to Fennerio’ Well, our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove Her name that she had was Pretty Peggy-O Well, what will your mother say, what will your mother say What will your mother say, Pretty Peggy-O What will your mother say to know you’re going away You’re never, never, never coming back-io ?
The story is not so much told as alluded to in Dylan’s inimitable way. What is fascinating about this 1996 performance is that Dylan makes further lyrical variations which have not been written down. I don’t have the ear to transcribe them all, but if you look at Dylan’s known variation as you listen to this, you will be able to hear the differences. In Dylan’s hands it becomes a Civil War ballad, and my suggestion here is that it underlay a group of songs with a historical aspect that he wrote while writing the Time Out of Mind songs. Songs such as ‘Red River Shore’, ‘Girl on the Green Briar Shore’ and ‘Cross the Green Mountain’ all seem to relate or look back to ‘Pretty Peggy-O’. (date unknown).
When looking at Dylan’s 1995 performances, we highlighted two versions of ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ (NET, 1995 part 1 and 1995 part 5) and noted how the song itself is a-changing in mood as the times change. By the mid nineties the song is no longer a rallying cry for action, but an occasion for nostalgia for those earlier, more radical times. The audience sings along on the chorus and a little sadness enters. It is both sad and uplifting at the same time.
In 1996 Dylan keeps the same, slow-paced arrangement, but for this performance he is joined onstage by two members of the Dave Matthews Band, a saxophonist and a violinist. You don’t hear much of the sax, but the violin, after a tentative start, adds a melancholy strain to the song in perfect keeping with the mood. It’s that violin that lifts this performance above others like it. He gets the words a bit mixed up, but that harp break cuts to the heart. The audience loves it and so do I. Enjoy. (July 3rd)
The times they are a changing
I’ve been holding back this one so that I can end this post, and our visit to the NET in 1996, with a real blast. It’s ‘Rainy Day Woman’ like you’ve never heard it. It’s got all of the insouciant lurch of the original, album version with the added dimension of the Dave Mathews band joining in, particularly the sax.
My usually reliable info sources tell me that Dylan is joined by a saxophone and a violin, but I can’t hear the violin. The rollicking, instrumental break that begins at about 4.10 mins, seems to have two saxes, both wailing away in fine blues jazz style. It’s over to your ear on that one. Whatever, it’s a helluva way to go out, all that swagger and vigour, that screaming sax.
Makes you wonder what’s around the corner in 1997.
See you then.
Rainy Day Woman
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
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