There is an index to earlier articles in this series here The two earlier parts of 1999 are…
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
The story goes that in 1989, while recording Oh Mercy, Dylan exclaimed to producer Lanois, ‘This is archaic music we’re making.’ In other words, Dylan realised he was no longer on the cutting edge of rock music, which had become increasingly sophisticated during the 80s, and arguably increasingly over-produced, or at least elaborately produced – a tendency that continued into the 90s. Along with that sophistication came a certain slickness, the kind of slickness you hear in the Spice Girls, whose music now seems to typify the commercial sounds of that decade.
In the face of these developments, Dylan’s approach in the 90s seems determinedly retro. Not for the first time. At the end of the 1960s, when bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were making albums that were increasingly baroque, complex and sophisticated, and the Cream were producing their creamy sounds, Dylan released, John Wesley Harding which had a thin, minimal sound, deliberately backward looking musically.
Listening to some of these recordings from 1999, I’m struck by how 1950s the sound is, or at least how obviously and deeply rooted in the origins of rock music Dylan’s music is. Call it primitive, call it primal, call it dance music, call it roots music, call it whatever, Dylan determinedly evokes music from a previous age. Not just rock music but rock-and-roll, pre-rock. While the album Time out of Mind shows the influence of that ‘archaic music,’ more consciously and deliberately than Oh Mercy, his live performances tap directly into the music of a previous age. He loves to sing those old songs.
Buddy Holly was right on the cusp, as rock-and-roll was turning into rock music. Holly wrote ‘Not Fade Away’ in 1957, but in the late 90s we find Dylan doing wonderful performances of the song, heavier than Holly would have conceived, but smack-bang in that tradition. The one thing we know when listening to Dylan performing the song at Tramps, New York, is that this is not the Spice Girls, that this is as far away from that kind of music as you can get. That this, most joyfully, taps into the roots. While I love the more minimal version of 1998, the sheer verve and energy of this performance carries me away. I think I’ll just listen to it one more time.
Not fade away
Wow! that was as good as I thought it was. Even better. Buddy Holly would have loved it. Dylan does some nifty guitar work on this one. Stand up and dance!
‘Not Fade Away’ is not an isolated example. ‘Alabama Getaway’ is a Robert Hunter song, released by the Grateful Dead in 1980, but it taps right into Chuck Berry and the more ‘primitive’ tradition of 1950s countrified blues. I imagine Dylan likes the song because it’s doing what he wants to do, to return to the golden age of Sun records when the music was still fresh and you could go to jail for playing it. This is another from Tramps.
Dylan’s music is haunted by these 50s, early 60s pre-rock singers like
Buddy Holly, Jean Vincent, Dion – and of course Elvis Presley. Presley released ‘Money Honey’ (written by Jesse Stone) in 1956. Dylan clearly enjoys raking it over here, in 1999 (date unknown). It feels just like coming home.
It’s not hard to see how firmly rooted Dylan’s own rock songs are in this ‘primitive’ tradition, however sophisticated the lyrics might be. This performance of ‘Tombstone Blues’, for example, takes us right into the simple, jangling chords of old rock-and-roll, jump music. Dylan’s twin guitarists, Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, make all this possible with their happily expert, retro playing. It’s that disjunction between the ‘primitive’ music and the wild lyrics that makes Dylan’s rock songs so distinctive. This is another one from Tramps.
Tombstone Blues (A)
Fascinating lyric change here. This is what I think he’s singing:
‘Mama’s in the alley, she ain’t got no shoes Daddy’s in the graveyard, looking for the fuse’
I have tended to argue throughout this series that Dylan didn’t really stop writing protest songs, he just extended and deepened the range of protest. In ‘Tombstone Blues’ we find surrealist mockery as a form of social criticism.
‘The ghost of Belle Starr, she hands down her wits To Jezebel the nun, she violently knits A bald wig for Jack the Ripper who sits At the head of the Chamber of Commerce’
Where, I assume, he’s still sitting.
‘Tombstone Blues’ (1965) is not really a blues in the strict sense of the word. It’s not a three chord, twelve bar structure, with a repeated first line, and nor is ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way’. This latter song is fast and hard-driving, and the more advanced technology permits sounds impossible to achieve in the 50s, but it wouldn’t have sounded too out of place in a rock and roll dance hall of the late 50s. Some of these lyrics, though, might have sounded a bit strange. They still do:
‘The judge, he holds a grudge And he's about to call on you But he's badly built and he walks on stilts Watch out he don't fall on you’
Gone are the long, wandering epics of the earlier 90s. This is short and sharp and takes no prisoners. And the way Dylan drops his voice at the end of the lines (down-singing) makes for an ominous, nastyish effect. I start to reach for that word definitive when I think of this performance. It captures all the turbulence and bile of the original (Blonde on Blonde, 1966), but ups the tempo to a frenetic pace. It’s sharp and punky. Another Tramps performance.
Most likely you go your way (A)
That Tramps version is very hard-edged, but Dylan didn’t always perform it like that. This performance (date unknown) changes the mood a bit with a more echoey sound and a less strident vocal. I sometimes wonder if these variations of sound and mood have to do with the acoustics of the venue, and even the nature of the recording, but this one certainly has a different feel to it. Both are great vocal performances.
Most likely you go your way (B)
The rise of rock-and-roll, and later rock music, is closely associated with the blues, and how blues spilled across racial boundaries to became popular with young white kids. (For those interested in that history, I recommend the acclaimed multi-part PBS series ‘Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues’.) Also, listen to Dylan’s early 1960s recording of ‘One Kind Favour’ and you’ll get the feel for how important the blues were in shaping Dylan’s music and vocal style.
A catchy little blues number, ‘Down Along the Cove’ comes as the second to last track on John Wesley Harding (1967), but we had to wait until 1999 to get the first live performance. Bringing it forward at this point, nested among the Time out of Mind songs, and antique songs, is yet another indication of the influence of this retro music on Dylan’s own songs. It’s a Dylan song but could almost be someone else’s. It’s a straight no frills rock blues. A treat for the ears. (8th November)
Down along the Cove
While on the subject of the blues, let’s consider ‘Leopardskin Pillbox Hat,’ a derisive social commentary in blues style. But while he keeps the twelve bar, three chord structure, instead of repeating the first line, he makes up a new one for line two:
‘Well if you, wanna see the sun rise Honey, I know where We'll go out and see it sometime We'll both just sit there and stare Me with my belt wrapped around my head And you just sittin' there In your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat’
Dripping with sarcasm, it’s a comic put down. Taken out of Blonde on Blonde and transferred to 1999, with Campbell and Sexton on the job, it loses none of its jeering insouciance. (Date unknown)
Leopardskin Pillbox hat
Funny thing is, this song sounded pretty retro even in 1966 when it first appeared. It was a throwback to an earlier urban blues sound.
Mockery as social criticism is again to the fore in ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ another retro sounding song, although less obviously derived from the blues. Again the complexity of the lyrics is set against a simple, ‘primitive’ jump music structure. It’s a lot of irreverent fun. This Tramps performance really pushes it along, the wild lyrics flying by before we can get a hold of them. Taming Dylan’s lyrics to the page hardly does justice to the madcap, whirling effect this song creates.
Highway 61 revisited
A little less hard and fast, but no less rooted in the early history of rock is the 1985 ‘Seeing The Real You At Last’. Its dramatic portentous style might hark back to early Ray Charles, but it’s that same jump rhythm that marks these Dylan songs. The lyrics too, some of them lifted from late 1940s movies (the Humphrey Bogart connection), reinforce the antique feel of the music. I keep thinking I’ve heard it before somewhere. There’s an echo of Presley in it. This snarling Tramps performance does it full justice. The song is starting to fade from Dylan’s setlists, so it’s good to hear it get such lively treatment.
Seeing the Real You
Let’s end this post where we started, with that pivotal figure Buddy Holly, that mid fifties rock and roll singer whose music pointed firmly towards the future. ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (1957) is another Holly song that fits quite seamlessly into Dylan’s setlists in 1999. In this case, Dylan creates a medley with Dion’s ‘The Wanderer’. Dion DiMucci is another transitional figure, the last of the great doo-woppers who didn’t quite make it onto rock music, and whose sound had already dated by the mid sixties. Yet there are echoes of Dion’s high, clear voice in Dylan, and some of Dylan’s 1999 performances of ‘The Wanderer’ sound uncannily like Dion himself.
By morphing without changing the beat from Holly to Dion, it says a lot about 50s pop music. These songs are sort of interchangeable. But it also says a lot about the influence of these singer/songwriters on Dylan. In some respects Dylan belongs more to that era of pop music which featured the vocalist (Dion, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin…) than to the rock music of the 60s which was oriented towards groups, bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, the Animals…).
Even in his heyday in the 60s, there was something retro about Dylan – ‘the last of the best…’
I think he’s singing here with Paul Simon, another lone singer/songwriter. (20th July)
That’ll be the Day/The wanderer
In the light of all this, I’m tempted to declare Dylan to be the last and the greatest of the old rock-and-roll merchants, yet he was able to do what those 50s singers didn’t or couldn’t do, namely bring rock-and-roll into the rock era.
Of course there was another side to Bob Dylan, that of the folk singer, another kind of retro, it is there we’ll be turning in the next post.
Stay cool and safe.