Never Ending Tour 2000, Part 1 – Master Vocalist: Finding voice

The index to all the Never Ending Tour articles is to be found here.

The previous article in the series was NET, 1999, part 6. Honky Tonk Dylan: Despair and sentimentality.

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By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)

Dylan surged into the new millennium on the back of a year of powerful performances. Most commentators agree that 1999 was an outstanding year for the NET, and I wouldn’t disagree, but, to my ear, 2000 was even stronger. We find some extraordinary and unparalleled performances in 2000, and I’m prepared to stick my neck out and say that some of these performances are Dylan’s best ever, and I’ll do my best to prove it.

Take that mysterious song, ‘Gates of Eden’ which we have been following since the angry, electric version of 1988. (As a comparison, readers might like to check it out at NET, 1988, part 1 ). But no subsequent performance is as exquisitely spooky as this one. Whenever I want to hear this song, I play this.  It has a sense of spaciousness, and something very ancient. I wrote about this performance in my Master Harpist series, and here is what I said (Master harpist 2, slightly adapted):

‘There has always been a Celtic feel to ‘Gates of Eden’, and never more so than in this warmly received 2000 performance. At first I didn’t quite understand what I was hearing when he began to blow the harp. A low wailing sound away in the Celtic mists, maybe like the lonely sound of a bagpipe playing a single moaning note over an ancient battlefield:

‘Of war and peace The truth just twists Its curfew gull just glides’

Then it falls into place. It’s the harmonica! and what a haunting edge it gives the song. More fey sounds, friends! At first I thought it might be under recorded, but on reflection the balance is just right; the harmonica is supposed to be heard behind the sound, to creep up on us from a distance, a musical lament on the human condition.

It is said that Dylan ignores his audience. Not true. In this performance he’s playing the audience as much as the song. You can hear the magic that can spring up between audience and performer.’

If you’ve never heard this, you’re in for a treat. Prepare to be transported to some other time and place. (Sorry, I’ve lost the date of this performance.)

Gates of Eden

Note the way Dylan uses his voice, his greatest instrument. He can make it soft and gentle, soft and spooky, dark and low; he can roughen it, make it high and harsh – he can wring the emotion out of the song while holding a steady control and sense of restraint. A master vocalist is Bob Dylan.

He pulls off the same thing with ‘Girl from the North Country’, another old favourite of Dylan’s which we’ve heard many times. But we’ve never quite heard it like this. I can go back over the previous years of the NET, tuning into this song, but I can’t find anything that matches this. Again, I wrote about this performance in Master harpist 2:

‘Girl from the North Country’ is one of the purest of Dylan’s love songs; I mean untouched by bitterness, or back-biting, or some like sting in the tail. But it can be given a very nostalgic spin, or driven to a lumbering, maudlin weariness as in Dylan and Johnny Cash’s duet version. In the following performance, the mood is upbeat, and while the vocal is sensitive and restrained, the bouncy harmonica solo at the end lifts the song into a celebration. It’s a perky, jazzy, cheeky performance, and the audience loves it.’

Girl from the North Country

From sadness to celebration, from reflection to joy, from stillness to dancing; the huge potential of that little three minute song from 1963 is fully realized here. I have to take my hat off to Sexton and Campbell for their imaginative backing guitar work, and to Tony Garnier’s bow playing on the double bass which gives the opening bars a dark undertone.

What we’ve been hearing is the folk Dylan, and the voice he’s evolved for singing his old acoustic songs. But there is another Dylan, the rock Dylan, and he requires a different kind of voice, more snarly and powerful. And with that downsinging (dropping the voice at the end of the line) used so effectively, we come close to the more sinister tones Dylan used on Blonde on Blonde, or at least that resonance is there. Things can very quickly take a nasty turn, as we’ll hear on these performances of ‘Things have Changed’.

Dylan wrote Time Out of Mind in a burst, and didn’t write another song until 1999, and that was ‘Things have Changed’, released in May 2000. The song, written for the film Wonder Boys was an immediate hit, and was to win Dylan an Academy Award, and the Golden Globe Award, in 2001. Dylan was delighted with the win, and congratulated the Academy Award judges for being ‘bold enough to give me this award for this song, which is a song that doesn’t pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature.’

According to Wikipedia, ‘Brian Hiatt, writing in Rolling Stone, where the song placed first on a 2020 list of “The 25 Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 21st Century”, saw it as a stylistic about-face from 1997’s Daniel Lanois-produced Time Out of Mind and the beginning of an important new chapter in Dylan’s career: “The effortless feel of the playful-yet-ominous, hard-grooving, utterly dazzling ‘Things Have Changed’ was an early indication of the renewed friskiness of Dylan’s 21st-century work — and the vividly live-in-the studio creations he would achieve as his own producer, with the help of engineer Chris Shaw”’.

I’m not sure that Hiatt’s last comment is quite accurate, as Dylan was experimenting with ‘live in studio creations’ for Time out of Mind in an attempt to recreate the sound of the old Sun records, and in fact most of Dylan’s albums are created ‘live in the studio’, but he is right in that the sound Dylan created for the song is far from the echoey sound of Time out of Mind and much more like what he will create on “Love and Theft’ in 2001. With this song, Dylan became his own producer, Jack Frost.

It is a song which takes us to the edge of the abyss. But should the song be taken as a purely personal expression? I don’t think so. Dylan’s tendency to write dramatic monologues confounds attempts to ascribe personal meanings to his songs. That is particularly so in this case, as the song’s point of view is ostensibly that of Grady Tripp, a character in Wonder Boys. The references to ‘dancing lessons’, ‘the jitterbug rag’ and dressing ‘in drag’, all relate back to the character of Tripp.

However, the relish with which he delivers the refrain, ‘I used to care but things have changed’, and those lyrics themselves, have given rise to the simplistic view that Dylan, once the passionate protester, doesn’t care anymore. He’s given up. But that’s far from true as the song itself, and the subsequent album Love and Theft testifies. The apocalypse is freaking the 59 year old Dylan as much as it did the 22 year old who wrote ‘Hard Rain’, it just has a more zany, absurdist expression. The song is bursting with energy, an exuberant despair, if we can call it that.

‘I've been walking forty miles of bad road
If the bible is right, the world will explode
I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can
Some things are too hot to touch
The human mind can only stand so much
You can't win with a losing hand
Feel like falling in love with the first woman I meet
Putting her in a wheel barrow and wheeling her down the street
People are crazy and times are strange
I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range
I used to care, but things have changed’

Twenty years on, and people are even crazier, and the times are even stranger, so the song is just as potent now as it was then, perhaps more so. With months of lockdown and social isolation in many countries, a lot of people have felt ‘locked in tight and out of range’.

Tony Attwood notes the connection between this song and TS Eliot’s poem ‘The love song of J Alfred Prufrock’ . I see another Eliot connection, to his play Murder in the Cathedral: ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’.

There’s a devil-may-care, throw away feel to the song, but the lyrics are precision tooled for the job.

For sheer vocal power, it’s hard to get past this performance from London (6th October). Sustained notes, hints of vibrato, subtle downsinging, surges of volume, going from the familiar nasal twang to full throat – that voice holds the performance all the way through, speeding us through the lyrics without breaking a sweat.

Things have changed

We get a sharper feel, however, from this performance (19th Oct, Newcastle). It might be the recording, but it sounds to me like Dylan is giving the song harsher treatment. I think I prefer this version as more unsettlingly ‘not turning a blind eye’ as Dylan put it.

Things have changed 

One more for luck. This one from Anaheim (10th March); further vocal variations and emotional nuances.

Things have changed 

It was, however, the performances of songs from Time out of Mind that we hear Dylan’s most adventurous vocalizing in 2000. The folk Dylan and the rock Dylan both give way to a new Dylan voice, a voice that would, thirteen hears later, take on the Frank Sinatra canon.

We heard ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ in 1999 (see part 2) in which Dylan first exercises what I could call his Great American Songbook voice: modulated, jazzy and tuneful. In this 2000 version he slows the song down even more than in 1999, savouring every line and fully demonstrating his vocal prowess. He sacrifices the tempo of the song, which drove the album version, in favour of exploring the melodic line with loving care in this more gentle, and arguably more expressive performance.

Trying to get to heaven

But his finest vocal performance of the year might have to go to ‘Standing in the Doorway’, a song from Time out of Mind we haven’t yet heard. Three years on from the album’s release and Dylan finally presents his melancholy masterpiece, a veritable hymn to betrayal. It is easy to see this song as another love gone sour song, and it is that, but the resonances go deeper, go into disillusionment with the promises of religion. To stand in a doorway is to stand on the threshold of a new life, to be at the crossroads between two worlds, damnation and salvation, perhaps.

‘I can hear the church bells ringin' in the yard
I wonder who they're ringin' for?
I know I can't win
But my heart just won't give in’

But in the ultimate extremity, won’t there be a comforting presence? Surely there will:

‘I eat when I'm hungry, drink when I'm dry
And live my life on the square
And even if the flesh falls off of my face
I know someone will be there to care’

Remember the song from the gospel years, ‘The Groom’s Still Standing at the Altar’? He’s still there. If earthly love is next to divine love, then earthly betrayal is next to divine betrayal; the first blurs into the second.

Dylan does the same here as with “Trying to Get to Heaven.’ Slows it right down, takes his time with every line and uses all his vocal resources to bring out the dark emotion behind the song.  (6th October)

Standing in the Doorway

Even Mr Guitar Man’s sharp, dissonant interjections make a kind of sense here. Little jabs to the heart.

Catch you next time for the second part of Bob Dylan, master vocalist.

Kia Ora

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