The first three 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
- Never Ending Tour 1997, part 3: I came in from the wilderness
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
When I get to the fourth post of a particular year, I am sometimes left with a random collection of performances that don’t quite fit in anywhere else. That has led to some interesting results. It’s the same this year, although I find most of my ‘leftovers’ are familiar songs from the 1960s, a bunch of the usual suspects.
There are, however, a couple of rarities. ‘Roving Gambler’ is new to us in terms of the NET, but is a song Dylan has been singing, with variations, since the early 1960s. I urge interested readers to see the full account of this song by Tony Attwood here.
‘So we have one answer to why Bob Dylan likes it – it is a long lived song that has turned up in many places. And it is unusual with the drawn out final line and the harmony opportunities that offers the performers. The change of tempo is not unique to this song, but it is unusual, and seems to date back to some of the early performances.’
It’s a good rollicking performance piece, and fun to listen to, but I’d add that Dylan may like the song because it fits in perfectly with the ethos of his persona: the lonesome hobo, the travelling man, the blues journeyman who goes from town to town gambling his genius on stage and maybe breaking a pretty girl’s heart before leaving town at dawn, just like so many times before.
A joyful performance. (9th August)
‘Joey’, from Desire (1975), is another rarity, although we have had a couple of strong performances in previous years. ‘Joey’ is an ambitious song, telling the story of the life and death of Joey Gallo, a mobster murdered on his birthday in 1972. Joey Gallo is not as sympathetic a figure as Hurricane Carter, and other than his rebel, outlaw status, it is hard to see what attracted Dylan to the story. It seems that Dylan saw him as an underdog hero:
‘I was on the outside of whatever side there was.’
In 2016 Dylan described the story as ‘Homeric’ ( Gundersen, Edna (2016-10-28). “World exclusive: Bob Dylan – I’ll be at the Nobel Prize ceremony… if I can”. The Telegraph), but also claimed that his collaborator on the Desire songs, Jacques Levy, wrote all the lyrics.
It is my least favourite song on the album, and was described by music critic Lester Bang as ‘repellent romanticist bullshit,’ a judgement I tend to share. I would have preferred to see ‘Golden Loom’ or ‘Abandoned Love’ on the album instead and would have rather tiptoed past the song in silence here. However, it is the only Desire song that Dylan performed during the NET, and according to a Mojo poll, “Joey” was rated the 74th most popular Bob Dylan song of all time.
One thing I can say is that the live performances of the song are certainly heroic. Dylan throws everything he’s got at this performance. (Sorry, no date for this one)
‘To Ramona’ (1964) is described by Wikipedia as a ‘folk waltz’ and ‘inspired by traditional Mexican Corrido folk music’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Ramona). The song has been linked to Dylan’s relationship with Joan Baez, and is not as gentle as it sounds, or as the melody would have us believe. The song seems to attack the more apocalyptic wing of the protest movement:
‘You’ve been fooled into thinking that the finishing end is at hand’
but is a more general exposé of the destructive effects of living inauthentically and personal fakery.
‘But it grieves my heart, love To see you tryin' to be a part of A world that just don't exist It's all just a dream, babe A vacuum, a scheme, babe That sucks you into feelin' like this’
It is no fun being deceived by the appearances of the world. In this 1997 performance Dylan plays the vocals pretty tenderly, but it won’t be long before he begins to give the song a rather nasty twist. There is an underlying element of jeering or mockery which balances the love in the song, and this can only be brought out in performance, the way it is sung. At this stage there are only hints of it.
This is an intimate, acoustic performance, with some nicely restrained guitar work by Dylan.(13th August)
Another song linked to Joan Baez is the famous ‘It Ain’t Me Babe.’ This song can be seen as an extension of the sentiment in ‘To Ramona,’ and the further rejection of the role of supporter of a lover’s illusions and delusions. No hippy bullshit for Bob. This performance relies heavily on Mr Guitar Man’s acoustic work, and while I would have preferred a harp solo, which always gives the song a certain piquancy, the vocal is as rough and true as you could wish. (18th December)
It Ain’t me Babe
Yet another song linked to Joan Baez is ‘Positively 4th Street’. Here the gloves have come off, and it is one of Dylan’s most deliberately nasty songs. As with ‘Just Like a Woman,’ however, it is too easy to miss the vulnerability and hurt revealed by the song. We always want to hit back when we have been betrayed and slighted by those who profess to love us. Dylan doesn’t filter or censor his feelings. It tumbles out raw and tough and real. Things have turned very sour, as these things do when love turns to hate. You can see a progression from ‘To Ramona,’ through ‘It Aint Me Babe’ to this:
‘Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes You'd know what a drag it is to see you’
The original had a deceptively bouncy tempo. This created a disjunction between the lyrics and the upbeat sound. It only sounded like a happy song.
In this 1997 performance however, Dylan slows the tempo right down to create a nine minute epic. Oddly the effect is more tender and yearning than we would expect, and the passionate delivery is devoid of jeering edges. It is odd. It sounds almost like a love song. At least it sounds shot through with regret rather than anger. It has that world weariness more fitting to a Time out of Mind state of mind. (sorry, no date for this one)
Positively 4th Street
A song closely associated with Dylan’s move away from topical protest songs is ‘My Back Pages’ (1964). When introducing this song previously, I suggested that the loss of moral certainty, the subject of the song, would cost Dylan dearly later on. The loss of moral compass is an important thread in Time out of Mind, and what I find fascinating about this performance in the year Dylan released that album is the way he hurls it out so defiantly. It becomes a forceful declaration, not of faith but of lack of faith. A declaration of uncertainty.
My back Pages
With ‘God Knows’ (1991), uncertainty turns into jeopardy. It might be important for considering Under the Red Sky to remember that 1991 was also the year of the first Gulf War, the year of the first US and coalition attack on Iraq. Suddenly the world was on a knife edge once more:
‘God knows it’s fragile God knows everything God knows it snap apart right now Just like putting scissors to a string’
That’s just what it felt like to live through that war, with the possibility always lurking that it could turn into a more general Middle Eastern war:
‘God knows it's terrifying God sees it all unfold There's a million reasons for you to be crying You been so bold and so cold’
It’s hard not to feel that the repeated phrase ‘God knows’ is meant sarcastically – God knows everything! And yet it is ambiguous. This same God ‘knows the secrets of your heart’ and might offer some hope, some prospect of a purpose, or even the ever elusive prospect of salvation.
‘God knows there's a purpose God knows there's a chance God knows you can rise above the darkest hour Of any circumstance’
Here Dylan sticks pretty much to the tempo and spirit of the original album version, although the last two minutes are given over to the hectic, apocalyptic musings of Mr Guitar Man on his punky Stratocaster. God knows, you could have knocked a minute and a half off this performance with no loss, but maybe that ominous swirl of sound is the point. Remember the head-bashing 1993 performance? (see NET, 1993, Part 1). Note he changes the word ‘purpose’ in the last verse to ‘reason.’ (2nd October)
As has been the pattern in the 90s, Dylan has sung ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ without a chorus. During the Rolling Thunder Tour, the song sounded magnificent with a ragged chorus of voices all knocking on heaven’s door. In the 90s Dylan performs the song unaided, which creates an impression of heroic fragility, especially with this cracked voice. This is a wonderful vocal performance, with the voice upfront and well recorded. This is an encore, which might help explain the rough, end of the night voice. The song starts 1.40 mins into the recording. (13th August)
Knocking on heaven’s door
In this spirited performance of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, we hear Dylan ‘upsinging’ in at least one verse. Upsinging is when the voice is raised at the end of each line. Later this would become an annoying mannerism but at this stage he’s only trying it out. Since this performance is faster than the album version (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965), it sounds a bit rushed, but Dylan’s high-pitched singing gives it a suitably desperate edge. (18th April)
Ballad of a Thin Man
During the 90s Dylan was perfecting a slow, sumptuous arrangement of the mysterious ‘Love Minus Zero No Limit’ (1965). This 1997 version is pretty much the same arrangement (minus harp) as the MTV Unplugged performance of 1994. But to my ear the vocal is stronger, Dylan’s voice more expressive. The emotional range of the Time out of Mind songs, and the voice he finds to sing them, takes us further than Dylan has gone before, and he now brings that extended range to his earlier songs with, in this case at least, gorgeous effect. (Date not known)
Love Minus Zero
The same applies to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, another from 1965. With the youthful idealism leached from the song by Dylan’s more aged voice, the desire to escape down ‘the foggy ruins of time’ away from this world ‘of crazy sorrow’ sounds world weary and disillusioned, just like the Time out of Mind songs. (18th December)
Mr T Man
It is hard to overestimate the effect that recording Time out of Mind had on Dylan’s performances in 1997. A new maturity and emotional range are evident, and he delivers his familiar setlist with a renewed vigour and power. His voice is changing. There are new cracks. He takes advantage of this change, adding a feeling of being broken by age and experience – but still on the road, still singing the old songs, just like so many times before.
We’ll be back soon to have a look at 1998.