By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
In 1995, at Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday bash, Dylan presented a song I don’t think he’d ever performed live before, ‘Restless Farewell’. Apparently Sinatra requested the song. This is the last track on The Times They are a Changing(1964), and despite being a self-justifying exercise, it has a weary beauty with Dylan in fine lyrical form. The melody is from an old Scottish ballad, ‘The Parting Glass’. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Parting_Glass)
‘Oh, ev'ry thought that's strung a knot in my mind I might go insane if it couldn't be sprung But it's not to stand naked under unknowin' eyes It's for myself and my friends my stories are sung But the time ain't tall Yet on time you depend and no word is possessed By no special friend And though the line is cut It ain't quite the end I'll just bid farewell till we meet again’
It is therefore a surprise to find it appearing in 1998, quite out of the blue. I don’t think this is a particularly wonderful performance, or recording, but its sheer rarity value compels its inclusion here. This is from the Los Angeles concert 21st May:
From the same album, and in a very similar vein, we find ‘One Too Many Mornings’. It’s a sad farewell song in which the temporary, contingent nature of things is keenly felt. It captures that bleak, lonely feeling that might come upon you after a one night stand, or on realising that a love is all over. The song has a disarming simplicity, and is quite disingenuous in pretending to come from an unsophisticated, ‘unlearned’ man.
‘From the crossroads of my doorstep My eyes start to fade And I turn my head back to the room Where my love and I have laid And I gaze back to the street The sidewalk and the sign And I'm one too many mornings And a thousand miles behind’
Within that ‘restless hungry feeling,’ there is no room for the moral certainty or moral absolutism that rule the protest songs. In ‘Masters of War’ we find the certainty that ‘even Jesus would never forgive what you do’, but in ‘One Too Many Mornings’ we find ‘You’re right from your side/and I’m right from mine’. This moral relativism, if you like, prepares the way for a more thorough relativism in ‘My Back Pages’.
This song has been a regular on Dylan’s setlist over the years, and this a particularly good acoustic performance that captures the weariness and ambience of the original (31st March). That moral relativism sits quite naturally with the voice of the Time out of Mind Dylan, the voice of the soul possessed by alienation and despair.
One Too many Mornings (A)
Perhaps a little better recorded, with Dylan’s voice more to the front, is this performance. I think, from those opening chords, that the audience thinks they’re about to hear ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’.
One Too many Mornings (B)
Of course the early sixties was the era of the protest song, which Dylan himself made famous. Through the nineties, Dylan didn’t forget his protest songs, despite his dislike of the term. ‘What’s a protest song?’ he once famously responded to someone in the audience requesting one. It’s a good question, but his best known protest songs are not that hard to identify. They are mostly topical and protest against war and social injustice.
‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ is a perfect example with its dark, brooding blues melody and its tale of desperation and murder-suicide. Its lyrics evoke the rural dust bowl songs of the 1930s
‘The rats have got your flour Bad blood it got your mare’
but it has a contemporary force that makes it still relevant. Critic David Horowitz makes the following comment:
‘Technically speaking, “Hollis Brown” is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown’s plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other…. Indeed, the blues perspective itself, uncompromising, isolated and sardonic, is superbly suited to express the squalid reality of contemporary America….A striking example of the tough, ironic insight one associates with the blues.’
This is a particularly good performance, sparse and hard-driving acoustic. The electric performances of 1974 make great blues based rock music, but this arrangement again captures the desolate atmosphere of the original. (Sorry, no date for this one.)
The Ballad of Hollis Brown
Perhaps Dylan’s most famous protest song is ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. This is the song that made Dylan’s name. I believe there have been over sixty cover versions. It is built around a series of rhetorical questions designed to prick our consciences on matters of race and war. The song can easily become an anthem as it did in 1974 and 1984, but to my mind those anthem-like arrangements, despite audience participation, lose the frail intensity of the acoustic original. In this 1998 performance Dylan once more seems to be reaching back to the original sound and inspiration of the song, although the band joins him for the chorus.
Curiously, Dylan often stumbles over the lyrics of this song, or gets them a little wrong, but he covers up well for the gaffes and delivers a powerful performance. (23rd October)
Blowin in the Wind
While ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ might be Dylan’s best known protest song, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall’ may be his most wide reaching outside ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’. Dylan’s ‘surrealist period’ of the mid-sixties is prefigured here in a stunning series of apocalyptic images that show rather than tell. The effect of this is that these images have not aged. They are as contemporary now as when they were written.
‘I saw ten-thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children’
That sounds like the 21st Century to me.
In 1998 Dylan does not seek radical arrangements of these old songs, but rather to reach back and uncover the impulse that led to the writing of the songs. With ‘Hard Rain’, we have a subtle reworking of the mood and tone of the song. We have had the loud, driving electric version of 1975/6, the slow, lush orchestral version of 1994, but here we have a gently lilting, discreetly adorned performance, not as strident as the original, but sadder and more contemplative. (20th January)
Aside from ‘Masters of War’ (see NET, 1998, part 2), ‘John Brown’ is Dylan’s most effective anti-war song. It precisely identifies the generational gap between the young, anti-war movement and the parents of those young people. The song sets out to demystify war. The physically broken young returning soldier confronts his patriotic mother on the railway station upon his return. It’s quite astonishing that the song was written in 1962, several years before the Vietnam War became an issue, and soldiers did come back from ‘the war’ their bodies and souls broken. In that respect the song is remarkably prescient. (Sorry, date not available for this one.)
Is ‘Tears of Rage’ also a protest song? Not as obviously as ‘John Brown’ or ‘Masters of War’, but the song seems to be driven by a moral outrage that at least belongs to the spirit of protest.
‘It was all very painless When you went out to receive All that false instruction Which we never could believe And now the heart is filled with gold As if it was a purse But oh, what kind of love is this Which goes from bad to worse ?’
Whatever that ‘false instruction’ might be, it leads to the kind of greedy materialism that always provokes Dylan to outrage. Fast forward to 2020 and ‘False Prophet’:
‘Bury 'em naked with their silver and gold Put them six feet under and pray for their souls’
Or ‘Silvio’ (1988), a regular in the concerts of the late nineties:
‘Silvio, silver and gold Won't buy back the beat of a heart grown cold’
What we think of as a protest song depends on our frame of reference. In ‘Tears of Rage’, rage and grief go hand in hand. It’s hard to find a more passionate performance of the song than this one, from 13th January.
Tears of Rage
So maybe ‘Desolation Row’ too is a kind of protest song:
‘And the riot squad they’re restless They need somewhere to go…’
Look at ‘False Prophet’ again:
‘I’m the enemy of treason I’m the enemy of strife I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life’
Something of the quality of that ‘unlived meaningless life’ comes through in ‘Desolation Row’:
‘To her death is quite romantic She wears an iron vest Her profession's her religion Her sin is her lifelessness’
But we all suffer from some variation of the same oppression:
‘Now at midnight all the agents And the superhuman crew Come out and round up everyone That knows more than they do Then they bring them to the factory Where the heart-attack machine Is strapped across their shoulders And then the kerosene Is brought down from the castles By insurance men who go Check to see that nobody is escaping To Desolation Row’
Isn’t there a deeper sense of protest here than in even the recognised protest songs?
In 1997/98 ‘Desolation Row’ fell into the background. It was only performed once in 1997, and rarely in 1998. I don’t think this is a best ever performance, but I find it hard to pass over any performance of what might be Dylan’s greatest song ever.
Finally, what about ‘All along the Watchtower’? Aren’t the first verses, the conversation between the joker and the thief, all about the insufferable oppressiveness of our modern culture, which in itself is on the edge of a more ancient doom, doom the ‘two riders’ will bring with them. ‘There must be some way out of here…’ but maybe there isn’t, except for that approaching doom. I always felt that ‘Watchtower’ was a protest song without quite understanding why. Perhaps it’s that ominous tone, or the guitar war that breaks out after the last verse. Again it depends on your terms of reference.
I like the way he breaks up the verses, fragments the lines, in this performance. (6th June)
‘So let us not talk falsely now the hour is getting late…’
Words as true now as when they were written. May the spirit of protest never die, in whatever guise it comes!
That’s it for now, gentle reader. I’ll be back with more from 1998 soon.
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