This is part of our on-going series reviewing the Never Ending Tour. A full index to the previous articles can be found here. The first part of the review of 2000 can be found at Never Ending Tour 2000, Part 1 – Master Vocalist: Finding voice
By Mike Johnson (kiwipoet)
At the end of the last post (NET, 2000, part 1), we saw Dylan stretching his vocal chords in a way we’d never heard before with the songs, ‘Tryin to Get to Heaven’ and ‘Standing in the Doorway’, both songs from Time out of Mind.
He slows the tempo down to the point where the songs are hardly moving, and sings them in a style that belongs more to the world of the standards and the Great American Songbook, than to the rock or folk Dylan. These are songs from the golden age of American popular songs, an era that runs from about 1915 to 1960, and includes such great composers as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Harry Warren, Fats Waller, and Duke Ellington, songs that were sung by singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennet, Bing Crosby and all.
It’s not hard to see that Dylan wanted to join the ranks of these famous composers and singers. It would be fourteen years on from 2000 before Dylan would treat us to his ‘uncovers’ of Frank Sinatra’s corpus, but the seeds are here in the way Dylan is approaching his own newer songs. They are evidence of just how good a singer Dylan is, and how well he can master these vocal forms.
We can hear the same intention in this performance of ‘Not Dark Yet’, from Frankfurt (29th Sept). Vocally it’s reminiscent of Bobby Darin’s version of ‘Black Coffee’, written in 1948 by Burke and Webster. (Those interested in this history can check out Darin’s ‘Black Coffee’
They are both 3 am, end of the road songs. However, Darin’s voice is a little too beautiful for the sentiment; Dylan’s is not.
Scholar Christopher Ricks, in his playful book Dylan’s Visions of Sin, finds quite another comparison for the song – Keats’ ‘Ode to the Nightingale’. He finds correspondences that go beyond the coincidental, that is similarities of sentiment, to a closer mirroring. What caught my eye was Ricks’ quote from Keats: ‘… sharpening one’s vision of the heart and nature of Man, of convincing one’s nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and Oppression – whereby this Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d, and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages…’
Not Dark Yet
Ricks calls ‘Not Dark Yet’ one of Dylan’s ‘only a matter of time’ songs – how much longer? You could say the same about ‘Can’t Wait’, another strongly despairing song from Time out of Mind, another 3 am song – ‘Well it’s way past midnight…’ Once more Dylan slows the pace to enable him to draw out the vocals, which are full of snarling power. It’s not as hectic as the album version, but has a smoky, prowling intensity. A wonderfully sharp recording. This one’s from the first Portsmouth show. (24th Sept).
On 1st October, in Münster, Dylan sprang ‘If Dogs Run Free’ on an unsuspecting but delighted audience. This satirical song from New Morning had never been performed live before, and another side of Dylan’s vocal genius was revealed – the smoothed-voiced jazz singer, beat poet. The album version sounds very much like a piss-take, Dylan having fun at the expense of his beat poet friends, mocking the zen-cosmic philosophy of Allen Ginsberg, but this live performance does something more. It succeeds in being both satire and a fair evocation of the beat era. We are reminded of Jack Kerouac’s public readings from his On The Road, with a moody saxophone background. Suddenly the same lyrics sound, well… very hip.
‘If dogs run free, why not me Across the swamp of time? My mind weaves a symphony And tapestry of rhyme Oh, winds which rush my tale to thee So it may flow and be To each his own, it's all unknown If dogs run free’
But what’s it doing here, appearing all of a sudden out of nowhere after thirty years? I think it’s because of the era it evokes. The era of smoky clubs, fedoras and red-wine jazz. Think of the scene portrayed in Shadow Kingdom and you’ve got the era. It’s retro. It’s antique music. In that respect it fits in perfectly with the mood of Time out of Mind, and incidentally, Love and Theft, now only a year away.
It’s hard to listen to this without admiring the bass skills of Tony Garnier, and it’s always too easy to forget the way Garnier grounds the band, anchors it with his versatile bass.
Watch for lyrical variations. Instead of singing ‘To each his own/it’s all unknown’ he sings, ‘to each his own/throw me a bone’ (if my ears are not deceiving me). And it seems he makes up the last verse as he goes along. Here’s the official last verse:
‘If dogs run free, then what must be Must be, and that is all True love can make a blade of grass Stand up straight and tall In harmony with the cosmic sea True love needs no company It can cure the soul, it can make it whole If dogs run free’
See if you can figure out what he’s actually singing. I suspect he’s bullshitting his way through that last verse, cobbling it together, but you never know with Dylan.
If Dogs run Free
Another song, coming totally from left field, is ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’, a talking song from John Wesley Harding (1967). It’s a morality tale, a very ancient genre, but in this case, it seems, the story is a puzzle and ‘nothing is revealed’. It is a tale of temptation, and has a Kafkaesque feel to it. After the main character, Frankie Lee, dies we get this:
‘No one tried to say a thing When they carried him out in jest Except, of course, the little neighbor boy Who carried him to rest And he just walked along, alone With his guilt so well concealed And muttered underneath his breath "Nothing is revealed"’
But again, we have to wonder why Dylan chose to revive this song at this time, and give it such prominence. I can only speculate that the song’s moral obscurity fits well with the compromised faith evident on Time out of Mind. From our present perspective, this 2000 version offers yet another side of Dylan’s vocal dexterity. It has a talky, preachy tone, but is sung as the album version is not. Half talking, half singing, bending words where he wants to, it’s a remarkable performance.
The ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
This song is not the only song from John Wesley Harding to come to prominence in 2000. Five songs from that album are brought forward in 2000: ‘Wicked Messenger’, ‘Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’, ‘Drifter’s Escape’ and ‘Dear Landlord’, not to mention ‘All along the Watchtower’, six in all, more than from any other album, even Time out of Mind. Perhaps the attraction here for Dylan is that the Harding album is shot through with Biblical references but is not Christian, and many of the songs are ambiguous. There is mysteriousness to the album only matched by the Time out of Mind songs.
No song from Harding is more mysterious and ambiguous than ‘Wicked Messenger’.
Dylan had been performing ‘Wicked Messenger’ from 1987, and in all it has been performed 125 times, but it is in 2000 that the song reaches its peak as a hard rock anthem.
On this site, Jochen Markhurst comments, ‘But in the twenty-first century he rediscovers the song again and he plays “The Wicked Messenger” more than a hundred times. In viciously rocking, sharp versions, destroying much of the deceptive domesticity of the original from 1967, but no less attractive.’
Jochen is right about those viciously rocking, sharp versions, a transformation of the song from the acoustic album version described by Tony Attwood as ‘a very bouncy jolly piece of music.’ In 2000 it still bounces but is no longer jolly. It’s downright threatening. It’s that descending bass that does it, turns it into a great rock song. I see it as a sister song to ‘Watchtower’, similarly brief and tinged with the Apocalypse, but it lacks the lyrical clarity of ‘Watchtower’, being, perhaps, a little too immersed in its own ambiguity.
There were variations of approach during the year however. The most thunderous and heavy performance would have to be this one, from the first Portsmouth concert (24th Sept). Turn up your volume and hold onto your hat. Enjoy the blistering harp break, and of course Dylan’s rich, rough, tearing vocal.
I, however, prefer this somewhat lighter version from Glasgow (17th Sept). This performance is a little faster and more agile, not quite so thunderous, but no less viciously rocking and sharp. With the faster pace, the harp break sounds frenetic. Wonderful, irresistible. Think I’ll listen to it again….
‘Drifter’s Escape’ is another song from Harding that Dylan developed during 2000. It first emerged from obscurity in 1996 (See NET, 1996, part 3), where it was played with a steady rock beat and a fine rock blues harp break. It’s a song of the madcap adventure type. Remember ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’, and the wonderful ‘Black Diamond Bay’. They are full of crazy adventures and people doing absurd things. People are always crazy and times are always strange. ‘Drifter’s Escape’ has a bloodthirsty jury, an emotional judge and a lucky escape for the drifter, who is the lonesome hobo of that song from the same album, and might even be the wicked messenger.
In this first version, from London, 6th October, the arrangement is the same as the 1996 performance, minus the harp break. It powers along just fine.
But at Portsmouth (24th Sept) we get quite a different arrangement, a more jagged and peppy opening riff. The band, except for the drum, goes quiet during the singing, creating great drama. It tears along and Dylan rips it out of his throat like there’s no tomorrow.
Even more anarchic is this pumped version from Glasgow (17th Sept). If you like your rock rough, this one’s for you. It’s fast and furious. The frantic harp break is monumental. This one’s my favourite.
Dylan hadn’t played ‘Dear Landlord’ since 1992, but it was another Harding song revived in 2000. I think we’ve all dealt with authority figures who have wanted to put a price on our soul. The words feel improvised around a central feeling, that of being leaned on by a higher power. It’s a plea for mercy.
I don’t think this performance is especially wonderful, not like the others in this post, but it rounds off our account of Dylan’s excursions into Harding in 2000 very nicely, and sets us up for some solid sounds in the next post.
Until then, Kia Ora