NET, 2003, part 6: The Ragged Clown

This is part of a series covering the whole of the Never Ending Tour.  You can find an index to all the articles here.

So far in 2003 we have had

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

In my last post, I quoted Dylan commentator Professor Christopher Ricks that the album version of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ is ‘a perfect song perfectly rendered once and for all.’ I have some sympathy with Ricks as I felt the same way about the album version of ‘Visions of Johanna‘– until I heard some of the 1966 solo acoustic performances. Then I felt that the collective performances from 1966 qualified as ‘the perfect song perfectly rendered (several times)’ and still do.

On reflection, I realized that in the early years when Dylan played solo, with just his guitar and harmonica, he could change the tempo of a song while he was singing it, in other words he could slow the song down or speed it up to fit the vocal line as he wished. He certainly does this on the album version of ‘Hattie Carroll’, which lends weight to Ricks’ contention that only once did Dylan achieve the magic formula in which the vocal line is most perfectly expressed in musical form.

As soon as Dylan began singing with a band, he had to adapt the song to a single tempo and so lose that sensitivity of vocal line to the musical line. He could vary the timing of the vocal but not the tempo.

‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ is another example that gives me a Ricks moment. The album version does have some subtle variations of tempo, but for me it is not until we get to 1995, and the Prague concert, that we find ‘the perfect song perfectly rendered.’

By 2003, the song is in trouble. Dylan’s attempt to put a baroque, and therefore quite rigid, structure to the song, which works so well with ‘Love Minus Zero’, does not lead to a satisfying performance despite the richness of the opening chords. It sounds too constrained, too choppy, and he struggles to fit the vocal lines, themselves of varying length, into that rigid structure. This performance is from Birmingham (21st Nov)

Baby Blue

We could say the same for ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, those lovely free flowing lines of the original album version, and 1966 live performances, were an integral part of the meaning and impact of the song. The more rigid structure of the following performance does not suit the song so well, although we find a powerful and blistering performance, using the same tempo and chord progression, in 2001 (See NET, 2001, Part 1). This 2003 performance is from Niagara Falls (23rd August).

Mr T Man

We could argue that this song announces Dylan’s move away from protest songs rather than ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ (‘it’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escaping on the run…’), for the song has wider terms of reference, famously giving voice to our desire to escape from our dull and humdrum lives.

It’s disappointing that Dylan has chosen to drop the ‘ragged clown’ verse from later performances of the song. It could be read as a self-portrait, a portrait of a troubled young rhymester chasing shadows in the dark, in ‘evening’s empire’:

Though you might hear laughing, spinning, swinging madly across the sun
It's not aimed at anyone
It's just escaping on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facing
And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time
It's just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn't pay it any mind
It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing

‘Skipping reels of rhyme’ is a perfect description of the song itself, the ‘ragged clown’ the perfect circus Dylan.

‘My Back Pages’ is another song from the same solo Dylan era. It fares better than ‘Baby Blue’ and ‘Mr T Man’ although he does tie it to a lumbering tempo, more rigid than the original album version. We might still feel that he’s struggling to fit the vocal line into the musical line, having to break up the vocal line to do it. The violin backing helps to pull up this Red Bluff performance and give the performance a bit of a country twist (7th Oct).

My Back Pages (A)

Dylan may not have been entirely happy with this lumbering tempo, as a few weeks later, in London (23rd Nov) he speeds it up, uses some nice fat chords on the piano to push the song along. This turns it into a foot-tapper, but does the vocal line better suit the musical line? He’s still breaking the vocal line up. I’ll leave it to my dear reader to decide.

My Back Pages (B)

We don’t get the same issue with ‘Masters of War,’ another from Dylan’s solo era, as it has always had a firm, almost military tempo, and has adapted well to having a backing band. Bass and drums make it sound threatening and funereal at the same time. This song has been evolving successfully as a slow-paced dirge, which seems to fit the song better than the fast-paced, hard rock versions of 1978 and 1986. This one’s from Sydney, 17th Feb. The most enduring protest song of all time, given perfect expression here (almost – check out the 1995 Brixton performance).

Masters of War

Now along comes a rarity. ‘Heavy and a Bottle of Bread’ from the Basement Tapes was only performed twice during the NET, once in 2002 (see NET, 2002, part 2) and once in 2003, in London (25th Nov). There’s plenty of tempo changing going on in the Basement Tapes, as fits its casual, throwaway feel. I discern behind the nonsense rhymes of ‘Heavy and a Bottle of Bread’, a song about addiction. Addiction and a certain madness.

Well, the comic book and me, just us, we caught the bus
The poor little chauffeur, though, she was back in bed
On the very next day, with a nose full of pus

Cocaine anyone? And again:

Now, pull that drummer out from behind that bottle
Bring me my pipe, we’re gonna shake it
Slap that drummer with a pie that smells
Take me down to California, baby

Booze and dope, anyone? It’s a very zonked song.

Heavy and a Bottle of Bread

Dylan has tried out a number of different approaches to ‘If Not For You,’ from the New Morning album. I love the forlorn, solo version from Another Self Portrait, (official Bootleg Series Vol 10); the more swinging version he did with George Harrison is fun to listen to, as is the upbeat New Morning version. This version from London (23rd Nov) also swings, and Dylan does a great vocal. For my ear, the guitar break is a little harsh for the sweetness of the song.

If not for you

(I’m sorry if I have created some confusion over the London dates. Dylan did three concerts in London, Shepherd’s Bush 23 Nov, Hammersmith, 24th Nov, and The Brixton Academy 25th Nov.)

This performance of ‘Under The Red Sky’ is from Shepherd’s Bush, and while I always enjoy this song, its fairy-tale inspired lyrics, and its hint of despair and broken innocence, I feel that the long instrumental break adds little to the song, and merely pads it out.

Under the Red Sky

Dylan kicked off the St Paul (30th Oct) concert with ‘Seeing the Real You At Last’ from Empire Burlesque r(1985). (According to the official website, which is often wrong, Dylan only played this song once in 2003, at Melbourne 8th Feb)

It’s a great rocker, with plenty of bounce. Anybody who’s mistaken about somebody, maybe has an idealized picture of them, must eventually have a moment when the scales fall from their eyes and they see the real person. The sirens’ call can create powerful illusions around the loved one’s goodness, virtues and prowess while the past remains hidden:

When I met you, baby
You didn't show no visible scars
You could ride like Annie Oakley
You could shoot like Belle Star.

Dylan belts it out fine style.

Seeing the real you

In my first post for 2003, I grumbled that Dylan tends to use his New Zealand concerts as rehearsals, but it isn’t all bad. This ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ is from Auckland 23rd of Feb. It’s a gentle, muted performance, well suited to this hymn to love and chance. It’s all about the poignancy of those chance meetings, those one-night stands that are so bitter sweet. We’re all blind men at the gate when it comes to the whim of the gods.

Simple twist of fate

‘Cat’s in the Well’ from Under the Red Sky is a ferocious song and a real hard hitting rocker. There is a typical Dylan wildness to the lyrics, but it’s an easy song to overlook as, like ‘Silvio,’ it can sound like a filler. If you don’t know them, I recommend that you pull up the lyrics and read as you listen.

The cat's in the well and the servant is at the door
the drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war

Classic Dylan lyrics, as true now as the day they were written back in1990.  I speculate that the first Gulf War (1990 – 1991) helped forge the passion behind this song. ‘May the lord have mercy on us all.’ Indeed. (This one’s from Berlin, 3O Oct)

Cat’s in the Well (A)

That’s a great performance, but unfortunately, the recording is a little muted if not fuzzy. You may prefer this one from Hammersmith. I don’t know that it’s that much better in terms of performance, but the sound is much clearer and sharper.

Cat’s in the Well (B)

Since Dylan often closes his concert with ‘All Along the Watchtower’ I have fallen into the pattern of finishing up a particular year with the song. To go out in a blizzard of screaming apocalyptic guitars is fitting, as it returns us to one of Dylan’s most enduring themes – the imminence of war. (Isn’t that what’s driving ‘Cat’s in the Well’?) Whenever I hear this song done well, I think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his ‘ancestral voices prophesying war.’ (From ‘Kubla Khan’) There may well be no way ‘out of here.’

Again I’ve got two offerings. The first is from that wonderful Red Bluff concert. It reeks of Jimi Hendrix.

Watchtower (A)

And this from the equally wonderful Hammersmith concert. Note the theme song from Exodus at the start. Cool descending riff backs up the verses.

Watchtower (B)

A perfect song perfectly rendered – twice?

That brings my survey of 2003 to a close. A year of innovation and rambunctious energy. There’s a loose, tearaway element to the year’s performances. Dylan’s occasional slurring, his vocal roughness, his urgent piano. This is not a peak year for polished performances such as we saw in 2000 and 2001, but there is a rugged, jaggy energy here unmatched by any other year we’ve so far encountered.

I’ll be back soon to see what happened in the following year – 2004.

Kia Ora

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