So far Dylan in 2000 has been covered via
- Never Ending Tour 2000, Part 1 – Master Vocalist: Finding voice
- NET, 2000, Part 2. Master Vocalist – Please heed these words that I speak
- NET 2000 Part 3: Master Vocalist – Rock n roil
- NET, 2000, part 4: Back to Bedrock One
A full index to all previous articles in the series is given here.
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Bedrock songs are those, mostly written in the 1960s, which Dylan keeps alive in performance. They tend to come and go, and in 1999/2000 they were not performed as often, as the setlists had to make way for Time out of Mind songs and the many cover songs that Dylan did in these years. Some of them are quite rarely performed, such as ‘Song to Woody’, Dylan’s first composition [see footnote], one of only two Dylan songs that appear on his first album Bob Dylan (1962).
We first saw this song performed in 1999, (see NET, 1999, part 4) and here it is again. It is a tribute, not only to Dylan’s mentor, Woody Guthrie, but to the tradition of folk and blues which shaped Dylan as a song writer and singer. This is from Dresden, 25th May, and to my mind it is a superior recording to the 1999 performance. It feels closer and more intimate.
Song to Woody
Another song which made its first appearance on the NET in 1999 is ‘Fourth Time Around’ (1966), a nasty little tale written to the melody of ‘Norwegian Wood’ by Lennon and McCartney, a song Dylan thought sounded suspiciously like one of his own. It has been understood as a ‘morning after’ song, a fling that ended in rage and violence – ‘She worked on my face before breaking my eyes…’ The sweetness of the melody belies the content. The song, like ‘Ballad in Plain D’, could well be about the stress of lying; a relationship built on sex and lies will tend to end this way, in ignominy and flight.
As with ‘Song to Woody’, Dylan doesn’t mess with the song, playing it pretty much as he first did on Blonde on Blonde. The soft voice, the gently tinkling acoustic guitar, the deadly intent.
Fourth Time Around
If these two songs are rarely performed, ‘She Belongs to Me’ is not. It’s a Dylan favourite, this one. As I’ve said before, the title of the song is deeply ironic. She doesn’t belong to anyone, in fact you might end up belonging to her.
In this performance (Portsmouth), he increases the tempo, provides a richer backing, and cranks up the urgency of the song. Here Dylan is reaching for the kind of pounding beat he will later develop for the song post 2012. Incidentally, Dylan’s genius for concision, putting complex things into a nutshell, is very evident in this song:
‘She can take the dark out of the nighttime And paint the daytime black’
That’s almost Shakespearean in its play of opposites. Or what about this, a character sketch in one line:
‘She wears an Egyptian ring, it sparkles before she speaks.’
She Belongs to Me
If any 1960s song prefigures Dylan’s conversion to Christianity at the end of the 1970s, it would have to be ‘I Shall Be Released’ (1967). It has been seen as an anti-death penalty song, or a song about release from prison. Possibly, but those interpretations seem too literal to me. Dylan uses prison imagery (note ‘Cold Irons Bound’ and ‘Drifters Escape’) to suggest a spiritual incarceration in the prison of our own lies and denial (‘there’s a man who swears he’s not to blame’). But the release referred to may also point to death. The sun shines from the west to the east when it is low in the sky, about to sink.
Although short and to the point, the song lends itself to epic treatment. When the band joins Dylan on the chorus, and we have a rich, countrified backing sound, the song becomes an anthem, and the prospect of release becomes a yearning.
I shall be released
Another epic, even more familiar to us, is the dirge-like ‘Forever Young’. The song is a prayer, a fervent but forlorn hope. In his notes to ‘Biograph’ Dylan says the song was written to ‘one of my boys’ and that ‘The lines came to me, they were done in a minute… the song wrote itself’. Critics have noted how this song slyly references Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn:
‘For ever warm and still to be enjoyed For ever panting and for ever young’
The sting in the tail is that those figures on the Grecian Urn are not alive, which is why they are not subject to time. W B Yeats too, evokes the same prayer for his daughter (‘Prayer for my daughter’):
‘May she be granted beauty, and yet not Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught’
‘Forever Young’ is a dedication to hope infused with melancholy, for such hopes are forlorn. This beautiful performance is from Cardiff. Note how the band joins Dylan on the chorus, just as with ‘I Shall Be Released’ and with similar effect – to create an anthem, in this case to youth.
‘Rip down all hate, I screamed’, Dylan sings in ‘My Back Pages’, neatly encapsulating the paradox of liberalism. This sentiment, and the song itself, seemed to mark a break with Dylan’s liberal leanings, but the signs are there in other songs too, even his protest songs – ‘While others say don’t hate nothin’ at all/ except hatred’. Dylan saw that one can becomes one’s own enemy by becoming a soldier for liberty and equality:
‘In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand At the mongrel dogs who teach Fearing not that I’d become my enemy In the instant that I preach’
However, nothing could be more revolutionary than the notion that we can’t use ‘ideas as our maps’. What can we use as maps, if not ideas? If we take ‘Chimes of Freedom’ as some indicator, then revelation becomes our guiding force. Revelation will always trump ideas.
However, what we are to do with the mongrel dogs is not clear. Of course by 2000 Dylan is so much older than he was then, when he wrote the song, but the stance of youthfulness, if taken to be open-mindedness and not being stuck in an ideology, holds just as true as when he first sang it. In that respect he’s still younger than he was then, despite the cracked voice and the weariness of being just shy of sixty.
This Cardiff performance may well be the best ever. Larry Campbell plays the violin, giving the song a beauty not otherwise obvious. Dylan is in top voice, and there is a sweet harp break at the end to give the performance a touch of bluesy sadness. What a treat!
My Back Pages
Coming at the end of the sixties, ‘Country Pie’ isn’t out to challenge anybody, or tackle the paradoxes of liberal philosophy. As he says in the song,
‘I don’t need much and that ain’t no lie Ain’t runnin’ any race Give to me my country pie I won’t throw it up in anybody’s face’
‘Throw it up’ suggests vomiting as well as confrontation. And it’s such a jolly, happy song, isn’t it? Well yes, it is, and the song comes close to being a nonsense rhyme, but there is a clever play on the word ‘pie’. These lines, from ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ (2006) spring to mind as a comparison:
‘I got the pork chops she’s got the pie she ain’t no saint but neither am I’
Sexual innuendo may well animate the song. Sex is the answer to the paradoxes of life:
‘Saddle me up my big white goose Tie me on ’er and turn her loose Oh me, oh my Love that country pie’
‘Hearts in the Highlands’ (1997) is hardly a bedrock song. I didn’t have room for it in Parts 1 and 2 of this year, so it crops up here as an anomaly, but the themes of alienation, imprisonment and yearning for escape are as bedrock as you can get. The hope for parole expressed in ‘I Shall Be Released’ is not matched in ‘Highlands’. There is no parole from time.
‘Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery I wish someone'd come and push back the clock for me’
The way out of here (and there must be some way out of here) is not down Highway 61, but to follow your heart up to the Highlands, to Robert Burns country. Dylan begins the song with this line, ‘Well my heart’s in the highlands, gentle and fair…’ Note the archaic tone. Robert Burns begins his poem of the same name this way, ‘My heart’s in the highlands, my heart’s not here’.
Perhaps the song is about the consolation of words, of poetry itself (‘The wind it whispers to the buckeye trees of rhyme’) while the prospect of writing poetry seems lost to the years.
‘The sun is beginnin' to shine on me But it's not like the sun that used to be The party's over and there's less and less to say I got new eyes, everything looks far away’
It’s a long rambling song, but it does bring us to the edge of mind – ‘insanity is smashin’ against my soul’, and the hopelessness of regret.
So we come to the bedrock of bedrock songs, our old friend ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. The song epitomizes the Dylan of the NET as no other does: its forward movement, its dance beat, its attitude, its ecstasy. It is a song born for the road; there is something eternal about it. You can ‘split up on a dark, sad night’, but she will never escape your mind. You may learn resilience and fortitude, because in the end, no matter what happens, you have to ‘keep on keeping on’. These verses are fragments that celebrate a life on the run. The ‘going back again’ at the end of the song is but futile hope as the past is ‘an illusion’. There is no one to push back the clock for you, and time is always slippin’ away, which is why you remain… tangled up in blue.
Like ‘Highlands’, ‘Tangled’ is a song about the passing of time, but ‘Tangled’ has more bounce, both emotionally and musically.
I have two more ‘best ever’ performances for you here, as I do every year, one with harp and one without. Dylan’s acoustic guitar playing is at its best in this song, (and in Desolation Row, see NET, 2000, part 4). Spare and driving, Mr Guitar Man provides a vital momentum to the song. His insistent but uncluttered picking pushes the band along, as the band in turn pushes him along, and the performances sure do rock.
This first one, with harp, is from Billings, 25th March, and the audience loves it. The celebratory aspect of the song comes across when you take the band’s performance and the audience’s enthusiasm as a total package. Dylan and the audience both celebrate life on the run because, whether you’re physically running or not, it’s the human condition; it’s time itself that’s running away.
Tangled up in Blue (A)
Much as I love Dylan’s harp, and the gypsy touch it brings to the song, I have to concede that this Cardiff performance, sans harp, has the edge. It’s Dylan’s vocal that does it. An outstanding vocal performance, and a triumphant note on which to bring the curtain down on this post.
Tangled up in Blue (B)
I’ll be back soon with the final for 2000, Beyond Dylan.
*Publisher’s footnote. I make very few changes to the material so kindly provided by writers to Untold, but on this point as to first Dylan composition, elsewhere on this site we’ve taken a different view. It’s not a particularly important issue, but if you want to see a list of the songs Dylan is thought to have written before Song to Woody, they are detailed in the Songs of the 50s and 60s file. But as the note on that page says, the exact dates of composition of those 1959/60 songs are uncertain. Tony.