NET, 1998, part 2  Friends and other strangers

Previously in this series

NET 1998 Part 1: One who sings with his tongue on fire.

There is an index to the entire series on the Never Ending Tour here.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

In Part 1 of 1998 (see previous post) I tried to cover the songs from Time out of Mind new to live performance, and I found ‘Million Miles’ and ‘To Make you Feel my Love.’ However, I missed a song: ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’. I might have passed over it because I don’t think this is the best performance of the song that Dylan did, or even a memorable one, but I am being influenced by how it was to develop over the coming years, and how good it was to become.

This is a song, I contend, that Dylan would grow into as the years passed and the shadows lengthened. After all, he was still on the sunny side of sixty when he recorded Time Out of Mind, and such a stark encounter with mortality would need the following twenty years to fully develop. It was almost as if he was too young in 1997 to fully feel the bite of the lyrics. No other song on the album quite confronts death the way this one does. For a man who’s wrestled with his faith, the last verse is devastating, and signals a loss of faith.

‘I was born here and I'll die here against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there’

In the face of the gathering dark, our faith can fail us. To me, this performance from New London (CT) on the 14th of January sounds surprisingly tentative. He’s stepped away from Lanois’ swampy sound but doesn’t seem to have found a new sound that will bring the song to life, although I don’t want to judge this unfairly in the light of later performances that I prefer.

It’s not dark yet

In the previous post I pointed out that Dylan’s set list was pretty unvarying for this year, with the same songs cropping up again and again. One of these is ‘Serve Somebody’, the first track of the 1979 album Slow Train Coming. Because of its context, Dylan’s sudden conversion to Christianity, the song has been seen as a Christian song, but by 1998, nineteen years later, and set in the context of Time Out of Mind, I’m beginning to wonder. The song, in all its lyrical variants, merely states that no matter who we are, we are serving somebody, some force or other. We can serve the powers of good or the powers of evil, it’s up to us. That’s a much more universal message than a strictly Christian one. Are we really the good guys or not?

It’s hard to get past the powerful 1979 – 1981 performances of this song, but this is much rougher than those earlier gospel versions, rougher but no less powerful, I think. And some of those lyrical variations bring us closer to a Time Out of Mind state of mind:

might think that you’re living
might even think that you’re dead
sleeping on nails
sleeping on a feather bed

Dylan would kick off his shows with either this song or ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ (see part 1). Here he is blasting his way into the 5th of November, Wollongong (Australia) concert, and he’s in great voice.

Serve Somebody

The odd one out among these regulars, to my mind, is ‘The Man in Me’, a fairly minor song from New Morning (1970). I say this because there is a freshness of feeling in the song that is far from the spirit of Time Out of Mind.

‘But, oh, what a wonderful feeling
Just to know that you are near
Sets my a heart a-reeling
From my toes up to my ears’

Maybe that’s why Dylan brought it to the fore, for the contrast of feeling. He’d typically bring it in around number three on the setlist. Here it is from that wonderful San Jose concert (19th May)

Man in Me

In 1997/98 Dylan brought two songs to the fore that he’d never played live. One was ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and the other was ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, a song Dylan wrote with Rick Danko. I’ve written before  about how provocatively elusive the lyrics are to ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ (See NET, 1997, part 2), and the impression that the language is coded. Even the refrain is ambivalent in terms of its mood or intention; is it a threat or a promise?

‘No man alive will come to you
With another tale to tell
But you know that we shall meet again
If your mem’ry serves you well’

And dead men tell no tales…or do they? And is it a pleasant memory? Probably not, as it’s a reminder of an obligation incurred, and somebody will be back to collect the debt.

This version from New London (CT) certainly brings out the element of threat or darkness in the song, more so than the nostalgia of the Band’s recorded version (Music from Big Pink, 1968). That may be due to the ominous sound of the opening guitar riffs here, and the urgency of the drumming.

Wheel’s on fire

We find the same sense of threat in the guitar work on ‘Blind Willie McTell’ which I think we need to think of as a protest song. ‘This land is condemned’ and ‘power and greed and corruptible seed’ rule that land, America. This is justly considered one of Dylan’s greatest songs, written in 1983, yet he seems to have become aware of that in only 1997/98. It contains unforgettable pictures of a fallen America with imagery that takes us back to the Civil War (1860s)

‘Seen them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghost of slavery ship
I can hear them tribes moaning
Hear the undertakers bell
Nobody can sing the blues like blind Wille McTell’

This is what he mostly sings. But there are variations and ellipses in performance, as well as in written versions. Consider this verse:

‘There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like some squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There's chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like blind Wille McTell’

However, the official lyrics have this:

‘There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
Some of them died in the battle
Some of them survived as well…’

… which I’ve never heard him sing. In most of the live performances the rebels disappear to be replaced by the undertaker’s bell. Sadly, his tendency is to drop the wonderful ‘big plantations burning’ verse altogether. Whatever the lyrical variations, however, it remains a powerful song, powerfully delivered, and it sits very comfortably with the Time Out of Mind songs. (Sorry, no date for this one)

Blind Willie McTell

Another regular on Dylan’s setlist in 1998 is ‘Across the Borderline’, a song by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Jim Dickinson. When you look at the lyrics it’s easy to see what attracted Dylan to this song at this time. Dylan could have written it himself for Time Out of Mind:

‘When you reach the broken promised land
And every dream slips through your hands
Then you'll know that it's too late to change your mind
'Cause you've paid the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you're still just across the borderline’

This one’s from November 3rd, a sweet, reflective rendition.

Across the Borderline

Another song that never strayed far from the setlists is our old friend ‘Tangled up in Blue.’ No stranger, this song. Ten years on the road and the song hasn’t lost its bite; the memories it canvasses still sound fresh. Dylan rarely produced the harmonica in 1998, but he does here at the San Jose concert for this song. A sharp and edgy performance.

Tangled up in Blue

On the subject of brief harp breaks, the opening harp work on this ‘Just Like a Woman’ sets a gentle and fragile tone. Strip the Blonde on Blonde  jeer from Dylan’s voice, make it sound more care-worn, and we get quite a different impression of the song. Indeed the mood can shift from scorn to compassion. Suddenly the details feel different, maybe more sad:

‘everybody knows
that baby's got new clothes
but lately I see her ribbons and her bows
have fallen
from her curls’

A very telling detail. Like ‘Miss Lonely’ in ‘Just like a Rolling Stone’, the woman here has fallen, her pretty pretences stripped away. And then there’s the matter of the singer’s hunger, of which he is ashamed. I think we tend to be scornful of those we have revealed too much of ourselves to. Revealing our need makes us vulnerable, so we hit back. But in this performance, there’s not so much hitting back as regretting. (23rd October) It was just one of those things:

Just like a Woman

‘Masters of War’ is another song that got plenty of stage time in 1998. I still think his 1995, London concert version is the best, but by 1998 Dylan has settled on a slow, heavy beat for the song. He has largely abandoned fast electric versions for these ominous acoustic sounds. It’s interesting that even within the confines of the same basic arrangement, the mood and tone of the song can vary a lot.

In this first one, from San Jose, the song sounds urgent and intimate, the anger very evident. There’s a furious crackle in his voice.

Masters of War (A)

In this following performance, however, from Los Angeles, 21st May, the sound is more distant, softer and more spooky. The differences in recording might play a part here, but it sounds to me as if Dylan is using the echo of the Los Angeles venue to effect that more distant voice.

 Masters of War (B)

In 1998, Dylan often returned to that wonderful dirge, ‘Forever Young’. As with ‘Masters of War’ the mood and tone of the song vary a lot from concert to concert. It’s another old friend that ages well. Apparently Dylan wrote the song for one of his children in 1974, but by 1998 it sounds more grandfatherly. We oldies might grow old but you young ones please stay young. It’s a plea from age to youth. The older Dylan’s voice sounds, the deeper the irony becomes.

The first is from San Jose, another intimate performance, yet with the first signs of upsinging (lifting the voice at the end of the line) which will come to plague later performances. Here it works all right, as he’s not doing it at the end of every line. The ragged chorus works well too.

Forever young (A)

This next one is slower, gentler perhaps, with no upsinging. Another irresistible performance. (23rd October)

Forever Young (B)

So that’s it for this time around, folks. Stay young (at least at heart), and we’ll be back soon with another round of friends and other strangers.

Kia Ora

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