Below is part 34 of the Never Ending Tour series of articles. A full index of the series can be found here. The previous section on 1966 contained:
- 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
- Never Ending Tour, 1996, part 4. In the House of Blues forever.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘While I'm strolling through the lonely graveyard of my mind I left my life with you somewhere back there along the line I thought somehow that I would be spared this fate But I don't know how much longer I can wait’
1997 was a big and varied year for Bob Dylan. In September the album he’d been working on since August 1996, Time out of Mind was released, his first since Under the Red Sky in 1991. This meant it was only later in the year that some of the songs from the new album made their way into the concerts. As well as a few of the new songs, Dylan introduced a couple of older songs he’s never performed, most importantly ‘Blind Willy McTell’. ‘The Wicked Messenger’, also, which hadn’t been performed since 1987 I believe, was to become a staple over the next few years.
There were also some changes to the make up of his band, also the first since 1991. Larry Campbell joined in March, replacing John Jackson, and in October 1996 David Kemper took over the drums from Winston Watson.
Watson has been criticised for being too heavy-handed on the drums. That heavy-handedness worked brilliantly for some performances – try ‘I and I’ in 1991 (see 1991: Part 1 Hidden Gems in a Train Wreck – The Undesirables) – but perhaps didn’t always work so well. However you feel about that, Kemper did bring a new sensitivity to the drums, which subtly altered the sound of the band.
Larry Campbell, who would stay with Dylan through to 2004, is generally considered to be a better guitarist than John Jackson. I think Jackson did his best guitar work for Dylan in 1993, when Dylan was veering towards the jazzy side. Campbell is also credited with being a multi-instrumentalist. Wikipedia comments: ‘Campbell expanded the role to multi-instrumentalist, playing instruments such as cittern, violin/fiddle, pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, mandolin, banjo, and slide guitar,’ but I’m not sure of the accuracy of that. Bucky Baxter was retained as steel guitarist, and is also credited with playing dobro, pedal steel guitar and mandolin for Dylan.
In addition 1997 was the year the apparently unstoppable Dylan ended up in hospital with a chest infection. Official statements indicated that the ailment was histoplasmosis, a fungal infection of the lung that causes swelling of the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart. After recovering, and going back on the road Dylan’s only comment was: ‘Thought I was going to see Elvis.’
Finally, in 1997, Dylan performed before Pope John Paul II, at the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, with an audience of 400,000. (Sept 27th). The performances were not as outstanding as the occasion.
The anonymous CM, of the website A Thousand Highways, flatly declares that ‘1997 is one of the best years of Bob Dylan’s NeverEnding Tour.’ I don’t entirely agree, but I’m happy to put it to the test in the next few posts.
Let’s start with those new songs from Time out of Mind. The first track of the album is ‘Lovesick’, a song which would undergo many changes in the next ten years. Dylan has indicated that he believes ‘Lovesick’ to be one of the few songs he’s written that might be worthy of inclusion in what is loosely called the Great American Songbook. In the song we drift like ghosts through the nighttime world, observing the rites of humanity as if from afar.
‘I see I see lovers in the meadow I see I see silhouettes in the window I watch them 'til they're gone And they leave me hangin' on To a shadow’
‘Lovesick’ is an astonishing and dramatic introduction to the despair and alienation of the album, setting the tone for the coming songs. Its slow, heavy, death-march beat, and sudden reversal at the very end, all make for one of Dylan’s most memorable songs.
Dylan exploits a possible ambiguity in the term ‘lovesick’ which he creates for the song. During most of the song he uses the term to mean being sick of love, which is not the conventional meaning of the term. Only at the very end does the sentiment return to the normal meaning of the term, to feel sick from being in love. The misery of that last line changes the whole meaning of the song. He’s sick of love because he’s lovesick, if you can make sense of that.
This first performance is from San Jose, 14th of November. He sticks pretty much to the studio arrangement. The backing is good, Larry Campbell emphasising the heavy grandeur of the chords and the emotional anguish of the vocals.
Dylan sounds a bit wan, but that’s at least partly how he’s singing the song. He really does sound like a wandering ghost. That effect may be, at least in part, a result of the recording. Here’s another version from December the 18th (El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles) that’s stronger and more upfront:
Overall, however, we’ll find that Dylan’s vocals are nothing too special in 1997. He doesn’t soar the way he did in 1995, and despite the energy of some of the performances, I get the feeling that Dylan is once more struggling with his voice. New cracks and fissures are opening up in his voice which will eventually lead, after 2004 or so, to his fully cracked, circus barker voice. To my ear, this is not the scratchiness of the early nineties, which he eventually overcame, but a more genuine ageing.
This is his Time out of Mind voice, full of bitter experience and marinated in awareness of mortality. Arguably, Dylan’s songs have never strayed too far from an awareness of mortality; what is different in Time out of Mind is Dylan’s response to ageing. It crops up directly in songs like ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ and ‘Highlands,’ but permeates the whole album, and is cultivated in his voice.
It’s hard to match ‘Can’t Wait’ for desperate weariness, both as a song and in performance. Different studio versions of the song found on Tell Tale Signs (a compilation of outtakes released in 2008) show Dylan working hard to find the right sound and tempo for the song, and that experimentation would continue right up to 2019. Dylan may never have settled on a particular arrangement and sound for the song, but the journey itself is a fascinating one.
Even during 1997 Dylan was trying out different paced performances. This first, fast tempo performance is from the highly regarded December 19th show at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. (There were three shows at El Ray, the 19th is the second of them.) It’s full of verve, yet sung by a man sounding at the very end of this tether. Can’t wait for what? Love? Death? The end of time? The end of mind? Whatever, it’s a real kicker.
Can’t Wait (A).
In tailoring this song for the stage, Dylan eschewed the swampy sound Lanois achieved on the album. This is much more raw. But he didn’t always play it at this pace. Sometimes he slowed it down. This one’s from the 24th of October. The slower pace enables Dylan to relish the despair of the song.
Can’t Wait (B)
‘Cold Irons Bound’ is one of the most acknowledged songs on Time Out of Mind. and won Dylan a Grammy award. In the song the lovesick poet, whose love is ‘taking such a long time to die,’ is likened to a prisoner chained in cold irons.
‘One look at you and I’m out of control Like the universe has swallowed me whole I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound’
While this state of mind might have been sparked by a love he couldn’t kill, the feeling is universalised into a general sense of alienation from the world. The ‘too many heads’ refers to the Greek myth of a Hydra who would grow two new heads for every one chopped off. We find the same desperation here as in ‘Can’t Wait’.
‘Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds Reality has always had too many heads Some things last longer than you think they will There are some kind of things you can never kill’
This hard-driving rocker suits Dylan’s snarling delivery perfectly. This is from the 11th of November, and had only been played a couple of times. It’s fresh and full of fire.
Cold Irons Bound (A)
No less compelling is this performance from the 19th of December, the Los Angeles show.
Cold Iron Bound (B)
Until I heard the following performance, I’d always thought of the bluesy ‘Till I Fell in Love with You’ as one of the lesser tracks on Time Out of Mind. One of those fillers you get from time to time on Dylan albums. But this rough and tearing performance, plus another look at the lyrics, has convinced me otherwise.
The album version can’t match the sheer raw power of this 19 of December Los Angeles performance. The throat-ripping vocal takes me back to the early days of the NET, 1988/89, and the lyrics are some of the very best in terms of how Dylan can convey his inner state by the condition of his body. Remember ‘Mr Tambourine Man’:
‘My weariness amazes me I’m branded on my feet I have no one to meet And the ancient empty streets too dead for dreaming’
Compare that to this from ‘Till I Fell..’
‘Well, my nerves are exploding And my body's tense I feel like the whole world Got me pinned up against the fence’
Dylan songs are full of references to, and the feeling of, entrapment; as he’d later put it in ‘Mississippi’ – nowhere to escape. ‘Till I Fell…’ gives powerful expression to the physicality of that feeling:
‘Well junk is piling up Taking up space My eyes feel Like they're falling off my face Sweat falling down I'm staring at the floor I'm thinking about that girl Who won't be back no more’
At the risk of getting sidetracked, I’m reminded of these lyrics from ‘Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight’ from Infidels (1983), a song Dylan has never performed as far as I know.
‘But it's like I'm stuck inside a painting That's hanging in the Louvre My throat start to tickle and my nose itches But I know that I can't move’
Anyway, here it is. I can’t help feeling that this is what Dylan really had in mind for the song, the way it should sound, the emotions right up front, not buried in an echo chamber.
Till I fell in love with You
I’m running out space, but I want to finish this post with two performances of ‘Blind Willie McTell’, performed for the first time in 1997 and which would, over the coming years, be developed alongside the Time out of Mind songs. Although written for Infidels, but never included on the album, it fits well with the dark aesthetic of Time out of Mind.
‘Well god is in his heaven And we are what was his But power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is’
The first performance is from the 5th of October. It swings along and Dylan is in great cracked-voice form.
This second performance, from the 23rd of October, slows the pace down a fraction, giving Dylan more time to savour those wonderful lyrics. Some great guitar work on both these performances.
NET, 1997, part 1 ins 8 Blind Willie (B)
I’ll be back shortly with more exciting sounds from 1997.
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