Publisher’s note: for reasons I can’t explain, the music for “Visions of Johanna” in the article below appears in a different format from that we normally use, but if you just click on the link, it will play perfectly well.
The first part of our consideration of the Never Ending Tour in 2002 is at Never Ending Tour, 2002, part 1, Seattle Showdown
This is episode 62 of the Never Ending Tour series. An index of the previous episodes is provided here.
NET, 2002, part 2, Tickling the Ivories
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
When I finished the last post, we were still working our way through the Seattle, 4th October 2002 concert in which, much to the surprise of everybody, Dylan put down his guitar and got in behind his little electric piano, changing his sound forever. We noticed that Dylan was intent on using the piano as a rhythm rather than a lead instrument, preferring it in the background, leaving Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton to do lead guitar work. He wanted the piano to be a part of the texture of the music rather than to stand out.
We were left with two piano songs to cover from that concert, both from Love and Theft.
‘High Water’ is number fifteen on the Seattle setlist, and by this time, after nine piano tracks, we are used to the driving, minimal sound Dylan achieves here. We can sense the menace in the bassline, and the lyrics are pushed forward. Dylan is in fine voice.
If he were singing about the anarchy let loose by climate change, Dylan got it right, but I’m not sure he is singing about that any more than he is singing about nuclear radiation in ‘Hard Rain.’ It just happens to fit. The idea of apocalypse by flood is hardly new. It’s interesting, however, to contrast that to the prediction in ‘God Knows’ (1991)
‘God knows there's gonna be no more water but fire next time’
In reality, it looks like it might be both.
Song seventeen on the Seattle setlist is the marvellous ‘Floater,’ a song that floats through scenes, attitudes and values that generally belong to a pre- WW1, or immediate post war society and culture. Some have suggested that these lines
‘Gotta get up near the teacher if you can If you wanna learn anything’
are very un-Dylan like, far from the kind of sentiments you’d expect him to express (why, I’m not quite sure). But the sentiment is perfect for the song, and the era it creates. All we have to do is look at the preceding two lines that set the scene:
‘You can smell the pine wood burnin' You can hear the school bell ring Gotta get up near the teacher if you can If you wanna learn anything’
That goes to show how misleading it can be to ascribe all of the attitudes and values expressed in any one song to Dylan himself.
A quick look at the dictionary shows several meanings for the word ‘floater’ including a person or thing that floats (People don’t live or die, people just float – ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’), or a person who frequently changes occupation or residence.
Dylan’s minimal piano playing suits this song as it helps evoke the era, and the upsinging suits the upbeat nature of the song.
And with ‘Floater’ our account of the Seattle concert comes to an end, but not our interest in Dylan’s early efforts on the piano. He’s laying the foundation for a sound that he will develop over the next three years. We will, however, stay with Love and Theft, catching up with ‘Bye and Bye’ a song I’ve always associated with ‘Moonlight’ as they both evoke the same era in a similar way, both deceptively gentle. While the music is tender and whimsical, the message isn’t quite so benign.
‘The future for me is already a thing of the past,’ he sings, lightly evoking the despair of Time Out of Mind.
‘Well, I'm gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more I'm gonna establish my rule through civil war’
Those lines put us in mind of these, from ‘Honest with Me’
‘I’m here to create a new imperial empire I’m going to do whatever circumstances require’
As with ‘Honest with Me’, the lines from ‘Bye and Bye’ recall Virgil who saw Augustus turn the Roman Republic into an Empire (See NET, 2001, part 6), and seem to uncannily predict Donald Trump’s imperial ambitions.
The lyrics are shot through with mild sounding jibes. To sing love’s praises with ‘sugar coated rhymes’ suggests a bitter truth hidden beneath the sentiment. The dark world of Time Out of Mind is here, only lurking beneath the sugar coating:
‘Well, I'm scufflin' and I'm shufflin' And I'm walkin' on briars I'm not even acquainted with my Own desires’
The promise of loyalty at the end of the song is quite ambiguous. Loyalty to his first love or to his imperial ambitions?
This rather quaint sounding song bounces along, punctuated by Dylan’s piano. At the end of each singing line he hits a chord. The effect is syncopated and jazzy. (Sorry, no date for this one.)
Bye and Bye
Of all the songs on Love and Theft, ‘Po’ Boy’ is the most jazzy and un-Dylan like. This is from Wikipedia: ‘Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell recalls Dylan showing him the chord changes for the new song “Po’ Boy” shortly after the band had recorded Dylan’s Oscar-winning original song “Things Have Changed” in 1999: “They were relatively sophisticated changes for a Bob Dylan song…That was the first inkling of what the material might be like – taking elements from the jazz era and adding a folk sensibility to it”’
In ‘Po’ Boy’, despite its jokiness, we catch an inside view of a black man living under Jim Crow laws trying ‘not to fall between the cars’, cars being railway carriages. There’s a happy-go-lucky feel to the song, but the picture it paints is not so lucky:
‘Workin' like on the mainline, workin' like the devil The game is the same it's just up on a different level Poor boy, dressed in black Police at your back’
It is interesting that in later years Dylan would put this verse at the end of the song. It’s a beautiful evocation of the era. Except for ‘Mississippi’ it’s my favourite song on the album, perhaps because of the wonderful balance between flippancy and seriousness. (15th Nov)
We leave Love and Theft behind for a moment to consider further how some other, older Dylan songs sound with Dylan on the piano. Staying with the flippant mood, ‘Yay Heavy & a Bottle of Bread’ is a good place to start. This is a rarity. According to the official Dylan website, the song was only performed twice on the NET, once in 2002, at the Madison Square Gardens on 25th Nov, the other in 2003. (My information doesn’t add up, however, as this performance has also been dated to 11th November.) The song appears to have some affinity with the Love and Theft songs in its evident humour and nonsense. In his account of the song, Tony Attwood suggests that it is just ‘abstractly weird’ without any substance behind the weirdness other than poking fun at psychedelics. A great poet, working hard not to make any sense, might just succeed. It doesn’t really matter too much as it’s just a whole lot of silly fun.
Yay heavy and a bottle of bread.
In Part 1 of 2002, we heard the Seattle performance of ‘Love Minus Zero,’ a gentle, minimal performance. This performance from later in the year (exact date not known, sorry) shows Dylan growing in confidence in his use of the keyboard. It’s a slower, but more punchy, assured performance. Gone is constant upsinging. Dylan’s vocal is breathy and intimate, the addition of the harmonica perfectly fitting the nostalgia and mystery of the song. The lyrics are a mystery because the woman is a mystery. Hard to beat this performance.
Love Minus Zero
The piano gives a nice bluesy feel to ‘Just like Tom Thumb Blues.’ Dylan no longer sounds like a kid who just got out of his depth in Juarez, but some hardened old addict in his last gasp. In that respect, I (almost) prefer this to his famous, grating 1966 performances when he tried to sound much older than he was. In 2002, he doesn’t have to try. Mercifully free of upsinging, Dylan gives a great, rough, despairing vocal performance on this one. I have called this song a junky’s lament, that state of mind where ‘negativity don’t get you through.’ This sounds to me like blues club music. (Can’t date this one, but it belongs to the Summer Tour).
Just like Tom Thumb Blues
‘Visions of Johanna’ gets a talky, hushed treatment that goes a long way towards capturing this moody song, although he misses the lyric at one point, and doesn’t sing all the verses. It’s a brave attempt, and the last verse comes over well. The piano fits in ok, although the rhythm is a bit too dumpty-dum for my taste. His 1966 solo acoustic performances are forever embedded in my brain until voices echo this is what the song used to sound like after a while.
Some of the finest poetry of the 20th Century is right here:
‘The peddler now speaks to the countess who's pretending to care for him Sayin', "Name me someone that's not a parasite and I'll go out and say a prayer for him" But like Louise always says "Ya can't look at much, can ya man?" As she, herself, prepares for him And Madonna, she still has not showed We see this empty cage now corrode Where her cape of the stage once had flowed The fiddler, he now steps to the road He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed On the back of the fish truck that loads While my conscience explodes The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain’
Visions of Johanna
‘You’re a Big Girl Now,’ fares better than ‘Visions of Johanna.’ Dylan sounds more confident with it. No fumbles here, in fact there is a thoughtful reworking of the lyric at one point. I don’t know if I’ve got it right but it sounds a bit like this:
I know that I can found you In somebody’s care But I ain’t gonna look there You’re a big girl…(something)… share
It’s a vibrant, heartfelt vocal, and the piano, always a little syncopated, bumps the song along.
You’re a big girl now.
I want to finish this post with an exuberant performance of ‘To Be Alone With You.’ When Dylan first took to the keyboards his detractors immediately went to work. He’s no Oscar Peterson, they said. True, but Oscar Peterson is no Bob Dylan either. His ‘primitive’ piano style is perfectly suited to the music he’s playing. It pushes the songs along while allowing the other musicians plenty of room to move. As Dylan said, the band relate differently to each other when he’s not playing guitar.
This ‘To Be Alone with You’ is very 1950s with a hint of boogie-woogie. Now boogie-woogie is all about letting loose and having some fun, which is what Dylan is doing here. His joyful, energetic keyboard playing and singing augurs well for the future.
To be alone with you
Next post we’ll be back with more performances from this watershed year – 2002.