Never Ending Tour, 1997, Part 2 – Hanging on to a shadow

Below is part 35 of the Never Ending Tour series of articles.  A full index of the series can be found here.   The most recent articles (including those mentioned within the article below) are…

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

Time Out of Mind came out in September 1997, and as far as I can tell, Dylan performed only four songs from the album in the last months of that year, ‘Lovesick’, ‘Till I Fell in Love with You’, ‘Can’t Wait’ and ‘Cold Irons Bound’. However he also brought forward some older songs he had never or rarely performed, such as ‘Blind Willie Mc Tell’ (See NET, 1997, part 1) and ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’.

He also covered quite a few songs by other artists. We get the feeling that in 1997 Dylan was attempting to widen his field and push his boundaries.

Let’s begin with some of the Dylan songs that were new to performance. ‘Wheels on Fire’ was first performed in 1996 (see NET, 1996, part 3) and I commented on that gutsy performance. The 1997 performance is somewhat more lush due to some wonderful steel guitar work by Bucky Baxter.  The song was associated with The Band, who recorded it on their first album and, up until 1996, it had remained that way, the only Dylan performances being on the Basement Tapes. At the beginning of this performance Dylan introduces Rick Danko, his old drummer from The Band. It sounds as though Danko takes the drums for this one. (Sorry don’t have the date)

Wheel’s on Fire

This captures all the allusiveness of the song. I miss the harmonica Dylan used to kick the song off in 1996, but Dylan does a great vocal here.  In 1997 generally, Dylan didn’t bring out the harp much. There are whole concerts played without it. Seems like Dylan had almost forgotten his trusty little instrument.

‘Tough Mama’ has always been my favourite song off Planet Waves (1974), and I regret that Dylan only rarely performed it. For me, the song belongs to a small group of ‘goddess songs’, a particular kind of love song which celebrates the divine female. Others I would put in that group include ‘Golden Loom’, ‘Isis’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm’. It sounds a bit like a throw-away rocker, but the lyrics are a stand out:

‘Ashes in the furnace, dust on the rise,
You came through it all the way, flyin' through the skies
Dark beauty
With that long night's journey in your eyes
Sweet goddess
Born of a blinding light and a changing wind,
Now, don't be modest, you know who you are and where you've been.
Jack the cowboy went up north
He's buried in your past.
The lone wolf went out drinking
That was over pretty fast.’

This performance is very close in tempo and spirit to the album version, and sounds suitably rough and road-worn.

Tough Mama

Another rarity is ‘The Wicked Messenger’ from John Wesley Harding (1967). The song seems to come out of the same box as ‘All along the Watchtower’ but has been overshadowed by that more famous song. Perhaps it’s not quite as focused as ‘Watchtower’ and one can’t help but wonder if the ‘wicked messenger’ is not Dylan himself in disguise as some Old Testament prophet.

‘Oh, the leaves began to fallin'
And the seas began to part
And the people that confronted him were many
And he was told but these few words
Which opened up his heart
If you can't bring good news, then don't bring any’

This song would become a staple over the next few years, with constant changes in the arrangement. The vocal is done well, but Dylan was to move away from the kind of thump-bash arrangement we find here. This arrangement flattens out the drama of the lyrics, but it’s a good place to start for this long neglected song.

Wicked Messenger

Dylan began performing ‘Born in Time’ in 1996 (See NET, 1996, part 3). I suggested that the song fits very well with the weary of love theme in Time out of Mind. The line ‘You can take what’s left of me…’ is not exactly a seductive invitation. To be born in time is to be born into the death of love. The ‘rising curve/where the ways of nature will test every nerve’ doesn’t leave much but the rag ends. The 1996 performance may be a little gentler than this one, but once more the tone is suitably weary and road worn. The steel guitar gives it a little touch of country music which does it no harm.

 Born in Time

‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’ was performed over fifty times in 1978, and not again until 1997, when it was performed twice. The song is an apology, and maybe one of the least interesting songs from Blonde on Blonde (1966).  It’s hard to know what might have drawn Dylan back to this song after nearly twenty years. The weary, laid back treatment suits it well, however. (13th August)

One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

Easier to see what drew Dylan back to another Blonde on Blonde performance rarity, ‘Pledging my Time’, a wonderful urban blues which neatly encapsulates the suffocating feeling of being trapped somewhere, at a party maybe, where you’d rather not be.

‘Well, early in the morning
To late at night
I got a poison headache
But I feel alright’

I don’t know how you feel alright with a poison headache, but I guess if you’re stoned enough it doesn’t really matter. As so often with Dylan, he’s not telling a story but only alluding to it:

‘Well, they sent for the ambulance

Then  one was sent
Somebody got lucky
But it was an accident’

What exactly was going on in this stuffy room we can’t know, but we can guess. You don’t get that kind of headache from drinking mineral water and breathing fresh air. The murkiness in all this is a perfect way of leading up to the next song on the album, ‘Visions of Johanna’.

This is a great version with Dylan in fine voice. There’s nothing better to listen to on a pale afternoon than Dylan singing the blues. The band nails it too. (22nd of April)

Pledging my Time

Dylan revived ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ in 1996 (See NET, 1996, Part 3). This performance is not as cleanly recorded as the Berlin concert version of 1996, and feels a bit unrecorded, but it is still a magical piece of storytelling. It’s in this song that Dylan’s roots in the blues of the 1930s show. We could be back there in the dust bowl of the south listening to some blues singer telling us his story.

Ballad of Hollis Brown

Now we turn to some of the songs not written by Dylan which he covered in 1997, and after ‘Hollis Brown’, ‘Stone Wall and Steel Bars’ by Ray Pennington and Roy Marcum, released in 1963, seems to fit nicely. Dylan first performs this song in 1997, doing it twelve times. Tony Atwood has an interesting discussion and background to the song

As with ‘Blind Willy Mc Tell’ and ‘Born in Time’, I see this song as fitting in very well with the Time out of Mind ethos, and the musical tradition that album evokes. It’s not a big jump from ‘Stone Walls and Steel Bars’ to ‘Cold Irons Bound.’

Stone Walls and Steel Bars

Another take on love, murder and betrayal can be found in Lefty Frizzell’s ‘Long Black Veil’ from 1959. The song has a very Dylanish opening verse:

‘Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed, 'neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene, but they all agreed
That the slayer who ran, looked a lot like me’

It’s a great ghost story of a woman who haunts her lover’s grave, a lover who died to save her from dishonour.  It has a melancholy beauty. Like ‘Stone Walls’, it takes us back to the music of a bye-gone era, the 1930s and 40s.

Long black Veil

‘Shake Sugaree’ was written by Elizabeth Cotton, and is squarely in the country tradition. It’s a song about pawning everything and having nothing. The feel of country music starts to come through Dylan’s performances in 1996, and in 1997 that tendency continues. It’s there on Time out Of Mind in ‘Dirt Road Blues’, which has never been performed.

Shake Sugaree

‘Viola Lee Blues’ written by Noah Lewis pushes us even further back into musical history, into the 1920s, the era of the jug band and country blues, an era that could have produced a song like ‘Dirt Road Blues’.

Exploring his musical past is nothing new to Dylan. He did it in the early sixties, when he began writing songs, and again in 1971 while working on Self Portrait, and again in 1993/4 with his two albums of traditional songs, and he would do it again in 2014/15 with his exploration of what’s called ‘The Great American Songbook.’

However no album of Dylan songs has quite the retro feel of Time Out of Mind. It wasn’t just producer Lanois with his swampy southern sound, but Dylan who wanted an album that sounded like the old Sun Records of the forties and fifties. These songs we’re looking at here are from that era. Here’s ‘Viola Lee Blues.’ Incidentally,  Lewis was known as a great harmonica player, and I’m a touch disappointed that Dylan didn’t take him  on.

Viola Lee Blues

Another song which provides a backdrop to Time Out of Mind is ‘I’ll Not Be a Stranger’ by the Stanley Brothers who began performing their bluegrass back in the late 1940s. The song is both sentimental and yearning and Dylan does a fine job with the vocal.

I’ll not be a stranger

Buddy Holly needs no introduction. He was right at the cusp, as pop music was turning into rock and roll. His ‘Not Fade Away’ (1957) still sounds good, and hasn’t faded away.

Dylan tells of how, as a teenager, while attending one of Holly’s concerts, a ‘transmission’ took place between him and Holly. A look in which the musical baton was passed on. It’s a mysterious feeling, but I think I know what it’s like. I felt something akin to that when I first heard ‘Visions of Johanna’. For Dylan, it must have been a bit spooky too, for Holly was to die shortly afterwards.

Dylan’s ‘Not Fade Away’ is a great tribute to Holly, and to that musical history which, if Dylan can help it, will never fade away. (19th March)

Not Fade Away

I’ll be back soon with more sounds from 1997.

Kia Ora

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1 Response to Never Ending Tour, 1997, Part 2 – Hanging on to a shadow

  1. werner hofmann says:

    Wheels were Dankos and Dylans composition and Danko wasn´t at the drums but on bass

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