The first two articles from 1997 appear at
- Never Ending Tour, 1997, part 1. The Lonely Graveyards of the Mind
- Never Ending Tour 1997, part 2: Hanging onto a Shadow
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Releasing his first album in six years (Time Out of Mind) in 1997 did not mean that Dylan made radical changes to his set lists or song arrangements. His tendency with new albums is to slip a few new songs in here and there, providing a sense of continuity with past years. Some of the older standbys, like ‘I and I’, begin to fade, others are brought forward, and some, like ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, never go away.
While his 1997 performances confirmed the tendency to move away from lengthy epics, this does not apply to ‘Tangled…’, so we kick off this post with yet another eleven minute version of the song. While Dylan tended to leave his harmonica at home in 1997, that also does not apply to ‘Tangled’, much to the delight of the audience.
While I have been pretty circumspect in my assessment of Dylan’s lead guitar playing, I have to note here how effective it is in pushing the tempo of the song. He may only be playing two or three notes, but how wonderfully they act as a driver. I think this is Mr Guitar Man at his best, not trying anything too fancy, just hammering that song along.
Tangled up in Blue
One of the enduring qualities of Dylan’s performances is their roughness and rawness. Dylan never sounds smooth, slick and accomplished. There is always an edginess. This is made more so in these audience recordings, which many prefer to the studio versions for just that reason. These audience recordings are very much live, and even when Dylan sings a softer, more intimate song, like ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, his emotional rawness still comes across. While full of bitterness and regret, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ never becomes a smaltzy tear jerker. Along the very edge of pain, there is a kind of resistance to pain. Whatever happens in life, well, that’s a price you have to pay… (This one from Tokyo 10th Feb)
You’re a big girl
From the same concert, we get a quietly paced ‘Shelter From the Storm’. This is another from Dylan’s regular stable of songs, and I’m glad of it. A sophisticated love song full of wry humour, it shows how love nourishes and protects even in a world where ‘it’s doom alone that counts’. As with “You’re a Big Girl’, it has that same rough tenderness.
Shelter from the Storm
By this time ‘I and I’, another song we’ve been following, is on the wane. It was only performed a couple of times in 1997, then once in 1998 and once in 1999. For my reckoning, the song reached its peak in 1993. The commitment is still there, but you get the sense that Dylan has nowhere new to take the song. For him, the magic was beginning to fade. For all that it remains a powerful, dramatic song in which he finds he’s ‘still pushing myself along the road/the darkest part.’ He’s the poet who listens only to his heart.
I and I
Now for a rather sumptuous performance of ‘Shooting Star’. I’ve always thought that the ‘shooting star’ of the song refers to a lot more than just an old love affair. It’s all our hopes for redemption, our fears. The shooting star is a portent, with a cosmic significance. Doom is never far off:
‘Listen to the engine listen to the bell As the last fire truck from hell goes rolling by All good people are praying It's the last temptation the last account The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount The last radio is playing.’
Digging back into the 1960s now, we discover some more regulars. Here’s a rocking performance of ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh’ from Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Blues always sounds better rough-edged. While this was stadium rock in that it was performed to a large audience, it has a blues club feel to it, rough and ready and forever 12 bars. (18th Dec)
It takes a lot to laugh
‘One Too Many Mornings,’ with its old before its time feel, also suits that rough-edged voice; Dylan doesn’t have to pretend to sound old. We’ve slipped back to the Tokyo concert to pick this one up. At 7 minutes it’s creeping up towards an epic. I loved the stark simplicity of the original album performance (The Times They Are A-Changing, 1964), but this slow, thoughtful version works just fine. Voice nicely upfront.
One too many mornings
‘Don’t Think Twice’ is another early song that has survived the test of time. It has a nice bouncy rhythm that is somewhat belied by the sadness of the lyrics. Some things were just never meant to be. Here Dylan gives it a bit of a country twist, especially in the instrumental. It wouldn’t go astray at a country dance.
Don’t think twice
Over the past couple of years we have been treated to some solid performances of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’. This is one song that Dylan can’t resist turning into an epic, and we have a ten minute version of it here. This is achieved mainly by Dylan slowing the song down to about as slow as it could go and still hold together. Again, I feel that the world weariness evident in the song is well suited to Dylan’s Time Out of Mind voice. If anything, the song is a plea for friendship, comradeship in the face of the relentless demands of the world.
The live performances of this song have been particularly good, and this is no exception.
Queen Jane Approximately
Because of the depth and seriousness of most Dylan songs, it’s easy enough for us to overlook the comic element in his art. His humour can be overt or sly. We find it perhaps most clearly in the early Dylan, those talking songs like ‘Talking World War 3 Blues’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’, where the intention is satirical and the lyrics lean towards the absurd.
Absurdism is not always funny, although always surprising. A song like ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, is absurd, and leans towards that particular kind of humour called nonsense rhymes.
Nonsense rhymes are an ancient if neglected tradition in poetry. The idea is that such rhymes should just be sheer fun, and a play with the sounds of words. They tend to be found in nursery rhymes and children’s writers such as Edward Lear and AA Milne. The Britannica describes them as ‘humorous or whimsical verse that differs from other comic verse in its resistance to any rational or allegorical interpretation.’
Here’s a part of a poem by Edward Lear (1812 – 1888) that reminds me a little of Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’
‘On the Coast of Coromandel, Where the early pumpkins blow, In the middle of the woods Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò. Two old chairs, and half a candle One old jug without a handle These were all his worldly goods: In the middle of the woods,’
Arguably, you can make more sense of that if you’re trying hard (poverty?) than this from Dylan:
‘Buy me some rings and a gun that sings A flute that toots and a bee that stings A sky that cries and a bird that flies A fish that walks and a dog that talks’
Having said all that, the song is clearly celebratory. ‘Tomorrow’s the day my bride’s a-gonna come…’ suggests a crazy and buoyant anticipation. Nothing makes sense because it doesn’t have to. It’s an expression of sheer exuberance.
For more on the song, see Tony Attwood’s excellent discussion here, particularly on lyrical variations. Dylan just can’t sing it the same twice
In the meantime, let’s listen to a fun and energetic performance of the song by Dylan. This nicely captures the countrified happy-go-lucky spirit of the original Basement Tapes version.
You ain’t going nowhere
‘Tombstone Blues’ is also absurdist, but the lyrics are sharper and the edge satirical. The effect is of strangeness, but it is not funny.
‘The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves Then sends them out to the jungle’
The actions of the ‘king of Philistines’ don’t make that much sense, but there is a vague atmosphere of threat and the abuse of power. Certainly something is going on beyond our everyday expectations. Narratives themselves can be absurd, or flirt with absurdity:
‘The hysterical bride in the penny arcade Screaming she moans, "I've just been made" Then sends out for the doctor, who pulls down the shade And says, "My advice is to not let the boys in" Now, the medicine man comes and he shuffles inside He walks with a swagger and he says to the bride "Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride You will not die, it's not poison"’
What has happened to the hysterical bride? We’re not told, but it doesn’t sound too nice. Compare those lyrics with these from Highway 61:
‘Now, the fifth daughter on the twelfth night Told the first father that things weren't right "My complexion", she says, "Is much too white" He said, "Come here and step into the light" He says, "Hmm, you're right" "Let me tell the second mother, this has been done"’
The elusiveness of this kind of absurdity is the point, I think. We have to imagine what might have happened to the hysterical bride and the fifth daughter.
This is a great performance of the song which rattles along in fine 1997 style. Fans of Dylan’s harp, like me, will be glad to hear a few brief blasts from that little instrument here, but the last few choruses of instrumentals don’t seem to go anywhere (18th of April):
‘Maggie’s Farm’ is another song that uses absurdist humour to make its point. One method in comedy is to exaggerate to comic effect. Here Dylan is able to make fun of an intolerable situation in a family from hell by comic exaggeration:
‘I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more No, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's pa no more Well, he puts his cigar out in your face, just for kicks His bedroom window, it is made out of bricks The National Guard stands around his door’
I love the minimal trenchant arrangement of this performance, one of the best of many in my opinion. For me, the backing has been too rowdy on many of the performances in previous years. This one just seems to hit the spot. (the 3rd of August)
We’ll leave Bob there, slaving away on Maggie’s farm until next time when we’ll finish off 1997. See you then.
In case you missed it:
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