This is episode 60 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
- NET, 2001, Part 5: Power, Wealth, Knowledge and Salvation
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff.’ ‘Sugar Baby’
This post is a continuation from the previous post in which I began to introduce the new songs from Love and Theft. As far as I can make out, ten of the twelve songs on that album were performed in the last two months of 2001. ‘Bye and Bye’ and ‘Po Boy’ would have to wait for 2002. (Since writing that I have heard that there is a recording of ‘Po Boy’ from 2001, but if so, I don’t have access to it.)
Because Dylan recorded Love and Theft with his touring band, not his usual practice, there is less distance between the studio and stage performances of the songs – unlike our experience with Time Out of Mind, which saw Dylan reacting to Lanois’ production by performing the songs in a harder, sharper manner.
In addition, Dylan did his own producing on Love and Theft (calling himself Jack Frost), the result being that the stage performances sound very much like the album’s.
Let’s start with ‘Lonesome Day Blues.’ As Dylan wrote the four bluesy songs for the album first, we can surmise that he used the blues, with its familiar 12 bar, three chord pattern, deeply rooted in American musical history, to write his way into the album.
‘Lonesome Day Blues’ might sound like a standard, urban blues song, but in terms of the lyrics it is far from that. There is a fanciful weave of phrases from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakusa and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are 12 references to Saga on the album, spread over five songs, generally two per song.
‘Lonesome Day Blues’:
‘Samantha Brown lived in my house For about four or five months Don’t know how it looked to other people I never slept with her even once’
‘Just because she was in the same house didn’t mean we were living together as man and wife… I don’t know how it looked to other people, but I never even slept with her, not once.’
‘Lonesome Day Blues’:
‘Well, my captain, he’s decorated He’s well schooled and he’s skilled He’s not sentimental, doesn’t bother him at all How many of his pals have been killed’
‘There was nothing sentimental about him – It didn’t bother him at all that some of his pals had been killed. He said he’d been given any number of decorations…’
‘Lonesome Day Blues’:
‘My sister, she ran off and got married Never was heard of any more’
‘…and my sister Ann ran off and got married and was never heard of no more.’
(My thanks To Richard F Thomas, Why Dylan Matters for these examples, pages 197 – 201. A reader has questioned this last example, however as simply phrases in common usage.)
This intertextuality gives the song a much great range of expression than most blues lyrics, which are about whisky, women and hard times.
I like this performance from Milwaukee, 28th Oct, for its sharpness and clarity.
Lonesome Day Blues (A)
However, this somewhat more solid version from New York, 19th Nov, has its attractions, with Dylan’s voice powerful and upfront. Excellent recording.
Lonesome Day Blues (B)
I find, in ‘Honest With Me,’ although it’s written fifteen years earlier, a curious echo of Donald Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again.’
‘I’m here to create the new imperial empire I’m going to do whatever circumstances require’
These dark lines go back to Virgil who witnessed Augustus turn the Roman republic into an empire. As a whole, however, the lyrics of ‘Honest With Me’ are a whirl of the humorous and the absurd. It’s more sheer fun than anything else. I’m reminded of the exuberant nonsense of ‘Mighty Quinn’ and ‘Tiny Montgomery.’
‘I'm stark naked but I don't care I'm goin' off into the woods, I'm huntin' bare’
This performance from Madison Square Gardens does full justice to the song. Larry sounding good on slide guitar. It rips along.
Honest with Me (A)
If you like your sound a bit harder and sharper, however, this one from Seattle might suit you better.
Honest with Me (B)
Dylan kicks off the album with ‘Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.’ It wasn’t my favourite track from the album, I had trouble relating to the lyrics. I just didn’t understand the song, and still don’t. Maybe these are the Siamese twins referred to in ‘Honest with Me.’ Is this a kind of protest song about the way the power-hungry echo each other? The song tempts us into political interpretations (Republicans and Democrats, Arabs and Israelis?) but these can’t be sustained. Sense has been abandoned.
What we do pick up is that these twins are backstabbing phonies, to borrow a phrase from ‘Cry A While.’ It’s all about power and wealth – and violence.
In his account of the song Tony Attwood quotes the critic Kot. It’s such an excellent quote I think it can be repeated here: ‘It rolls in like a storm, drums galloping over the horizon into earshot, guitar riffs slicing with terse dexterity while a tale about a pair of vagabonds unfolds. It ends in death, and sets the stage for an album populated by rogues, con men, outcasts, gamblers, gunfighters and desperados, many of them with nothing to lose, some of them out of their minds, all of them quintessentially American.’
It also sets the stage for the strong streak of absurdist humour that runs through the album. We can be pushed beyond earnest outrage into a mad humour in which the whole spectacle becomes ridiculous and despicable. As for the tweedle dum and tweedle dee, neither of them are to be what they claim, to steal a line from a much earlier song. Incidentally, the phrase ‘His Master’s voice is calling me’ has been variously interpreted. My only contribution here is that ‘His Master’s Voice’ was a record label.
This performance is also from Seattle. The sharp sound from that concert suits the song, which if too muted can lose its potency. The song bears the full weight of Dylan’s vocal sarcasm. There’s nothing tender about the song. Another song ideally suited to Dylan’s downsinging.
Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee
Another song deeply steeped in the blues is ‘Cry A While.’ The changes of rhythm in the original, and these early performances, evoke different blues traditions. The underlying sentiment, that it’s ‘your turn’ to cry is common enough in the blues, where there is a lot of crying over lost and broken love – and above all, betrayal.
But no blues singer I’ve ever heard evokes the world of Italian Opera, in this case Don Pasquale, a story full of intrigue, false appearances, backstabbing and betrayal. The context in which Dylan puts this story, having the fool Pasquale making a ‘booty call’, is clearly humorous in its intent, despite the lack of humour in the heavy blues sound and nasty-edged delivery of the song.
‘Last night 'cross the alley there was a pounding on the walls It must have been Don Pasquale, making a 2 a.m. booty call To break a trusting heart like mine Was just your style’
While that might bring a smile to our faces, the song is darker than most of the others on the album. For a moment we return to a Time Out of Mind frame of mind, even maybe a taste from the Dylan of Blood On The Tracks:
‘I'm on the fringes of the night, fighting back tears that I can't control Some people they ain't human, they got no heart or soul But I'm crying to the Lord Tryin' to be meek and mild’
At the same time we’ve got the old Dylan resilience and defiance, retranslated for old age.
‘I'm gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey I'll die before I turn senile’
Mordant humour indeed. This one’s from 6th Nov. Again, it’s very like the album version, just a bit stronger and appropriately vengeful.
Cry A While
‘Sugar Baby’ seems to come from a similar dark place, reminding us that despair does not go away just because we make jokes in the face of it, or seek a larger, comic – cosmic? – perspective, or take refuge in absurdity, or channel the Classical poets. There is no cure for fate:
‘Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick Any minute of the day the bubble could burst Try to make things better for someone sometimes you just end up making it a thousand times worse’
Despite the grim chorus, I don’t feel this to be a finger-pointing song. Yes, it’s about betrayal in its most personal form, but behind that there lies a deeper sense of how the world might work.
‘Love is pleasing, love is teasing, love's not an evil thing.’
That strikes me as the central revelation of this slow, thoughtful song. Just to step out onto the street is be up for grabs. Eros and other gods are there eager to make a fool of you, but ‘love’s not an evil thing.’
‘The ladies down in Darktown, they're doing the Darktown Strut You always got to be prepared but you never know for what’
This one’s from New York (MSG), and features Tony Garnier on the upright bass.
If these two songs come from the darker side of the album, so does ‘Mississippi,’ the most famous song on the album. This song, however, is something of an odd man out here, originating in the Time Out of Mind sessions in 1997. The mood and themes of this song are deeply embedded in that album.
For those wishing to plumb the depths of this marvellous song, you couldn’t do better than read the 16 part account of the song by Jochen Markhorst on this site. Nothing I say here can add anything to that. As with the greatest Dylan songs, ‘Mississippi’ can bear countless hearings. It’s the way Dylan juxtaposes images, traditions and literatures that makes for a great Dylan song.
The song starts humbly enough, evoking Johnny Cash, the journey of the hobo, very familiar territory
‘Every step of the way, I walk the line Your days are numbered, and so are mine’
but soon gently extends the sentiment into a love/regret song of the highest order:
All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme Only one thing I did wrong Stayed in Mississippi a day too long’
What song better sums up the ethos of the blues journeyman, who never does put his suitcase down?
This first performance is from Portland. It’s a solid performance and a good introduction to how the song sounds onstage.
But I rather prefer this, harder-edged recording from the Washington concert.
So that’s it for 2001. Next up, the most pivotal year in the NET, perhaps in Dylan’s whole career. 2002, the year in which he would lay down his guitar.
See you then