This is episode 57 of the Never Ending Tour series. An index of the previous 56 episodes is provided here.
The three previous episodes covering 2001 are
- Never Ending Tour, 2001, Part 1 – Love and fate: acoustic 1
- Never Ending Tour, 2001 Part 2 – The Spirit of Protest: acoustic 2
- Never Ending Tour, 2001, Part 3 – In bed with the blues
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
For the last three posts I have been building towards the arrival on stage of the new songs from Love and Theft, released later in the year. We’re getting there. The next two posts will be dedicated to those songs. In the meantime we’ve got some more old favourites to catch up on, so let’s kick off with the roughest and rowdiest of these songs – ‘The Wicked Messenger’.
I’ve talked myself into a bit of a corner with this song, having extolled the wonders of the 2000 performances, blathered on about peak performances and so on, not leaving me much space to move when it comes to the 2001 performances. Well, they are a bit rougher than the previous year, Dylan’s voice rougher, but I’d pretty much decided that the mythical ‘best ever’ performance of this song was this one, from Seattle (10th June)…
Wicked Messenger (A)
until I heard this next one and decided I’d finally arrived at the definitive electric version of the song with this blistering performance. Wonderfully staged vocal, and some wild guitar and harp work from Bob. You can hear him sing ‘Good News’ rather than just ‘good news’. Puts another slant on the song.
Wicked Messenger (B)
Keeping up the pace, let’s turn to ‘Tough Mama’ from 20th August. The song’s a tribute to a pretty wild woman, by the sounds of it, ‘tough mama… dark goddess… sweet angel’. We don’t know who Jack the Cowboy is, but he might be the Jack of Hearts from a song Dylan is soon to write, none other than the ‘leading player’ himself, Mr D, the ‘perfect stranger’. It might be a bit too easy to see (construe?) the seeds of Blood on the Tracks in these songs from the previous Planet Waves. This is a rowdy, robust love song. But where is Dylan in all this? Oh yes,
‘Today on the countryside it was a-hotter than a crotch I stood alone upon the ridge and all I did was watch Sweet goddess It must be time to carve another notch’
Another notch in his belt perhaps. Another conquest? Here’s a song dedicated to doing just that. ‘Lay Lady Lay’ needs no introduction. It may be Dylan’s most famous song of seduction.
Lay Lady Lay
What a tender, beguiling performance! Dylan uses all the resources of his mature voice, upsinging, downsinging, half talking/pleading, to produce this standout performance.
Of course, once the lady has lain across the bed, complications ensue, especially when we fall in love only to find the lady heading for a door, for ‘somebody’s room’. She’s a big girl now, and you’re bound for heartbreak, singing through your tears.
You’re a big girl now (A)
Another wrenching vocal performance (Larry on steel guitar, 5th Oct, Spokane). These 2001 performances are hard to beat, aren’t they? That was so good, let’s hear the song again, this time from the Hiroshima concert. I’ve got a weakness for this concert, the whole ambience of it. Dylan brings great focus to his performance, and takes the audience with him.
You’re a big girl now (B)
‘Just Like a Woman’ must be the most tender put-down song ever written. While it presents an uncompromising picture of the woman, in all her pretensions, we get an equally uncompromising picture of the man’s vulnerability, his denial and hunger. It’s how these two contrary elements work together that make this such a great song. The mature voice of 2001 Dylan is perfect for the song. Beautiful little heartbreaking harp break at the end of the song too. (15th Nov, Washington)
Just like a woman (A)
That was so nice, let’s hear another one, a little softer. Another consummate performance. This one from 19th Nov, New York
Just like a woman (B)
‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a put-down song without the tenderness, a song that throws us to the outer edges of existential despair. It’s hard to keep up snobby pretensions when you’re out on the street with the highway blues looking for your next fix, and there’s nowhere to go but down. This is an ‘I told you so’ kind of song. Whether the woman’s downfall is treated with triumph or sorrow, you’ll have to decide. Maybe it’s a mix of both. This one’s from 21st August, Telluride.
Like a Rolling Stone
Let’s return to Blood on the Tracks for a moment to catch our old favourite ‘Shelter from the Storm’. Here love is seen as a salvation from war and chaos. We understand love within this larger, grimmer context:
‘Well, the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount But nothing really matters much it's doom alone that counts And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn Come in, she said I'll give ya shelter from the storm’
To put it the other way round, in a world of doom, it’s love alone that counts.
This one’s also from 21st August, Telluride, and features Larry on the steel guitar.
Shelter from the Storm
If love may offer some escape from doom and craziness, the drifter in ‘The Drifter’ finds another escape, by sheer luck and maybe a flash of God’s grace. Chaos can cut both ways. It can take us deeper into the madness, as in ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ or offer a door to freedom. The drifter takes the door and the frenetic song is over. The slashing, blistering rock performance fits the song quite perfectly. Interesting that three of the hardest rock songs on Dylan’s setlist come from that quiet, gentle album, John Wesley Harding. (‘Watchtower’, ‘Drifter’s Escape’, ‘Wicked Messenger’)
This performance from Madison Square Gardens comes out on top for me, hard-hitting and sustained harp solo. It rips along.
Drifters Escape (A)
But this one from 10th of May is a strong contender. A little more on the gutsier side, perhaps. It’s a real pleasure trying to decide which is best.
Drifters Escape (B)
There’s no escape, however, from the world of ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile’. It’s a world full of strangeness and falsity, it’s Dylan’s circus world, and there’s no back door.
‘And the ladies treat me kindly And furnish me with tape But deep inside my heart Lord, I know I can't escape’
The song is claustrophobic, funny, and maybe a bit scary. Dylan’s 2001 half talking, up and downsinging, use of all his vocal resources fits this song like a glove. True, I’ll never get over the album version, but that won’t stop me from appreciating this masterpiece. Dylan sets an even pace, doesn’t try to hurry the song, and before long we’re away, lost in one of Bob Dylan’s dreams.
Stuck inside of Mobile
Slipping ‘Thing’s Have Changed’ (2000) into these 60s songs creates an odd effect. Some things have not changed; the prospect of escape is as elusive as ever:
‘Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose Any minute now I'm expecting all hell to break loose’
That world would fit easily into ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile.’
A similar paradox arises here to what we find in ‘Watching the River Flow’. In that song the indolence of the lyrics is belied by the vigour of the performance; with ‘Things have Changed’, the more passionately he sings it, the less I believe it. He cares all right, can’t you tell by his voice? A remarkable vocal performance. (MSG)
Things have changed.
There is some sense of escape in ‘This Wheel’s on Fire,’ as this wheel’s rollin’ down the road, but it’s headed for disintegration, the explosion of self. The wheel’s not in control, it has no free will. It’s headed for destruction in most peculiar circumstances involving unspecified ‘favours’. I’m glad Dylan kept this song alive on stage. These later performances are not as spooky as the originals from The Basement Tapes, but we are in the hands of fate nonetheless. Some nice harmonies in the choruses.
This wheel’s on fire
One way out of the conundrums and terrors of life is – death. Dylan is too feisty and robust to yearn for death. Only on his latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways do I hear a trace of it.
‘Black rider, black rider, tell me when, tell me how If there ever was a time, then let it be now Let me go through, open the door My soul is distressed, my mind is at war’
But Dylan has been knocking on that door for a long time now, not because of a desire for death, but because there’s not much else you can do when you’re bleeding out and the world’s growing darker. The drifter has to really knock hard on that door, or it’s the other place, the place whose gates are always gaping open wide. That’s why he has to keep on knocking. Eventually somebody might answer. (10th May)
Knocking on Heaven’s Door
However dire things may be, and you may even be knocking on heaven’s door, but you can still ring them bells. Ring out the good news. Or the Good News.
‘Ring them bells for Saint Catherine from the top of the room Ring them bells from the fortress for the lilies that bloom’
How poignant that second line is. A fortress may be a sanctuary from our enemies, but it may also be the prison. The lilies that bloom seem just within reach. Freedom is theirs. Even in the midst of unending moral war. (3rd August)
The most famous live performance of this song is probably from The Supper Club, 1993, but I rather like this slow, dreamy version. It’s Larry’s steel guitar that gives it that quality.
Ring them Bells
A song Dylan has often used to escape his concerts is ‘All Along the Watchtower’, always a rousing ending to a night of Dylan. There is ‘someway out of here’, it’s the highway to the next concert. Sometimes I wish he might have tried a simple, acoustic approach to the song, but no, the hurricane is upon us. The ghost of Hendrix rides.
This is a good gutsy one from 21st August, Telluride
But if you can take another dose, try this one. It starts with the chords to ‘The Exodus Song’, a stirring anthem about the Jewish return to Palestine after WW2, sung by Pat Boone and family back in 1960. (20th August Telluride)
There is however another way to finish a Dylan concert. A timely reminder that they’ll stone you whatever you do. There is no escape from getting stoned. ‘Stone you when you’re hit by a truck’, he sings here. Stone you and wish you good luck. (MSG)
So I’ll wish you all good luck and see you next time with the Love and Theft songs.
Rainy Day Woman