This is episode 58 of the Never Ending Tour series. An index of the previous episodes is provided here. The 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
- Never Ending Tour, 2001, Part 4 – Down Electric Avenue
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
“All my songs, the styles I work in, were all developed before I was born. When I came into the world, that spirit of things was still very strong. Billie Holiday was still alive. Duke Ellington. All those old blues singers were still alive. And that was the music that was dear to me. I was never really interested in pop music.”
Bob Dylan 2001
“The whole album deals with power. If life teaches us anything, it’s that there’s nothing that men and women won’t do to get power. The album deals with power, wealth, knowledge and salvation – the way I look at it.” Dylan on “Love and Theft.”
When David Kempler, Bob Dylan’s drummer, emerged from a twelve-day recording session in May 2001, he made a very revealing comment: “And when we went in to record Love and Theft it was like, oh my God he’d been teaching us this music, not literally these songs but these styles. As a band, we’re familiar with every one of these.”
This comment provides a clue as to what Dylan had been doing onstage since Time out of Mind in 1997. He had been training the band in this antique music, those old sounds he loved so much. We have noted the number of covers of old songs Dylan performed in 1999 (Honky Tonk Dylan: Despair and sentimentality) and 2000 (Beyond Dylan), and the fifties rock and roll sound he evolved for some of his own songs. There was a strategy to all this; he knew where his music was heading, and he was keen to take the band with him.
“On any given day, Dylan might have played the band members a vintage recording by Holiday or Jimmy Rushing, have them learn that song, and then ask them to adapt that feel and arrangement to his own tune. But after listening back to a take, Dylan would just as often ask the musicians to change their instruments and adapt different keys or tempos for that song.” (Rolling Stone)
The result of all this was an album radically different from anything Dylan had done before. He pushed the boundaries of his music all the way back to the 1920s. This, and lyrics that ranged even further back, to the classical era of Catullus, Virgil and Ovid, enabled Dylan to encompass the despair evident on Time out of Mind within a larger framework, even a comic perspective. The despair didn’t go away, it was subsumed within the expanded borders of his art.
Untold editor Tony Attwood has shown how Dylan worked his way into the album though writing the blues songs first, as the blues is a solid link with Dylan’s previous work, but I would like to start with ‘Floater’ as this song drops us in the middle of these antique sounds.
Following Dylan only through his studio albums, there is nothing there to prepare us for a song like ‘Floater.’ Musically it takes us way back to the beginning of the 20th Century. The lyrics take us back to that era too.
‘I keep listenin' for footsteps But I ain't hearing any From the boat I fish for bullheads I catch a lot, sometimes too many A summer breeze is blowing A squall is settin' in’
Dylan creates a family to exemplify the lifestyles and values of the time. There’s a touch of pastoralism here, a touch of nostalgia, mixed with tougher, more bitter elements:
‘My grandfather was a duck trapper He could do it with just dragnets and ropes My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes I had 'em once though, I suppose, to go along With all the ring dancin' Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves I left all my dreams and hopes Buried under tobacco leaves’
This is a wonderfully clear recording from Washington, 15th Nov. Bear in mind that the album was not released until 11th of Sept (the infamous 9/11) so we only have about two months worth of concerts to consider.
A bouncy, exuberant song, its brilliance as a lyrical composition has been largely overlooked because of barren arguments about Dylan’s ‘plagiarism.’ We should be clear from the outset that a song is not an academic essay; a song doesn’t have footnotes or references. Richard F Thomas (Why Dylan Matters, 2017) has identified twelve references to Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza across five songs on the album. Rather than attacks on the ‘Freestealing’ Bob Dylan, Thomas comments: ‘I was interested in how these lifted passages might work in their new settings. A Japanese gangster’s novel and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, side by side, felt like the sort of creative, surrealistic juxtapositions that had roots in Dylan’s songwriting going back to the sixties.’
Dylan is able to weave disparate elements into his compositions to create, in the case of ‘Floater,’ a sparkling collage-like portrait of life pre World War 1. Thomas goes on to say, ‘This method of composition is not to be thought of as mere quotation or citation. Rather it is a creative act involving the “transfiguring” of song and literature going back through Rome to Homer. It is the means by which Dylan imagines and creates the worlds that he then inhabits in his songs and performances.’
The most interesting thing about Dylan’s 21st Century work is its dense intertextuality, how it ranges through time, space and traditions
Also full of melodious buoyancy is ‘Moonlight,’ another song that evokes this earliest era of modern music. The refrain ‘won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone’ is repeated six times, and so the question arises, how much longer must he keep asking? The more often it’s asked, the more it tends to bring the anticipated meeting into question. There’s a melancholy here which suggests that maybe it’s already too late. When the invitation turns to pleading we might suspect that this romance is more wishful thinking than anything else, and the pastoralism of the song reinforces that sense.
The same thing happens when Dylan sings ‘don’t think twice, it’s all right’ four times in that song. The repetition undermines itself, and leads us to suspect that perhaps the underlying instruction is actually to think twice, maybe three or four times.
‘Moonlight’ is an exquisite little song. What is extraordinary about it in terms of Dylan’s oeuvre, is its use of natural imagery. We are far away from stuffy rooms and claustrophobia. We are out there with ‘the earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone’ and where ‘branches cast their shadows over stone.’ The song is a lyrical masterpiece posing as a gentle little filler.
This performance is from 28th October, Milwaukee. A beautifully clear, gentle performance.
This one, from Seattle (6th Sept) is a bit looser, swings a bit more, maybe a little more relaxed. And what a joy it is to hear that whimsical harmonica break at the end. It doesn’t get better than this. By the way, the opening bars on the guitar remind me strongly of the Ink Spots, the singing group from the 1930s and 40s. Try ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’ which you can find on You Tube.
Rolling Stone magazine described Love and Theft as ‘an album steeped in Chicago blues, Tin Pan Alley crooning, jump blues and Western swing.’ Jump blues or jump jazz, described by our old friend Google as ‘A sub-style of swing played by small bands in the late 1930s and 1940s that combined strong rhythms, riff tunes, blues, and pop songs. A precursor to rhythm and blues.’
That last phrase springs to mind when considering ‘Summer Days,’ a brisk jump blues. It’s shot through with sexual innuendo, as that kind of music was, and has a happy, anarchic, celebratory feel. A touch of cheekiness and absurdity. There’s a sting in the tail here and there, but life is to be treated with gay abandon. Good humour reigns. This is the devil-may-care music of the Charleston era. Think of that frantic post WW1 dancing. Kick up your heels!
‘She's looking into my eyes, she's holding my hand She's looking into my eyes, she's holding my hand She says, "You can't repeat the past, " I say, "You can't? What do you mean, you can't, of course you can!"’
This one’s from 19th November, and kicks along just fine. Some fine antique guitar work, with Mr Guitar Man sounding right at home.
Summer Days (A)
Since Dylan didn’t vary the song much at all, I didn’t think it worth putting in a second performance until I heard this one from the Washington concert. Perhaps it’s just better recorded, but everything clicks. Hard to stay still for this one.
Summer Days (B)
It’s little wonder that ‘High Water (for Charley Patton)’ is one of the most popular songs on the album. Patten was a blues singer from the 1920s and 30s, famous for his slide guitar. It’s worthwhile to point out that Dylan’s evocation of this era is just that, an evocation not an imitation. Dylan and his band are modern, sophisticated musicians, masters of many styles, and bring to the music a certain panache the originals lacked.
But ‘High Water’ brings another element to this antique music, a very contemporary concern with environmental destruction and extreme weather events, now commonplace, making the song more relevant with every passing year. The song has its prophetic side, Hurricane Katrina arrived four years later. The spirit of the song, however, like ‘Summer Days’, is anarchic and Devil-may-care (‘throw your panties overboard!’) but with a more desperate aspect.
‘High water risin', six inches 'bove my head Coffins droppin' in the street Like balloons made out of lead Water pourin' into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm going to do "Don't reach out for me, " she said "Can't you see I'm drownin' too?"’
We might suspect that for Dylan the ‘high water’ is as much metaphorical as literal, like ‘hard rain.’ Not his fault if his metaphors turn into physical reality. There’s zaniness, and an exuberance here too that wouldn’t be out of place in his 1965 ‘Tombstone Blues’:
‘They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five Judge says to the High Sheriff "I want him dead or alive Either one, I don't care" High Water everywhere’
Again the Washington performance is hard to beat. The song has a good bounce with a brooding guitar riff. Wonderfully sharp recording.
High Water (A)
The backing on this one from Madison Square Gardens however is muted by comparison, Dylan’s voice foregrounded. I couldn’t overlook this one:
High Water (B)
That takes us to about halfway through the songs from Love and Theft that Dylan introduced to the NET in 2001. Performances full of zest, and a sense that the sixty-year-old Dylan is revelling in the expanded musical and lyrical horizons these new songs offer.
I’ll be back soon to complete our account of these new songs in the next post.