An index to the whole series on the Never Ending Tour can be found here. Below are the previous episodes for 2004.
- NET, 2004, Part 1 – The best singing audience
- NET 2004 part 2: The Jazz Connection
- Never Ending Tour, 2004, part 3, Harping On
- Never Ending Tour, 2004, Part 4 More jazz, regulars and rarities
- NET 2004 Part 5: Rocking on
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
When I get close to finishing my survey of a particular year of the NET, I often end with a rather ragbag collection of performances that are too good or too interesting to leave on the cutting room floor.
Take, for example, this version of ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ from the Glasgow concert.
It ain’t me babe
It has a lot going for it. A powerful vocal and harmonica, an intriguing steady beat, and a completely new arrangement. The problem here is because at some stage in the past we have bonded with a song, with its previous incarnation, because we have loved it so much, identified with the particular performance that struck us, we find it hard to take in a new vision of the song. Then we start making up all sorts of reasons why it is inferior to the one we identify with.
It took me a while with this ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ but I think I finally got it. Despite the rigidity of the beat and the awkwardness in the way some of the vocal lines fit, it’s a powerful reconfiguration of the song.
I could say something similar about this performance of the soul-searching folk ballad, ‘If You See Her Say Hello’ from Blood on the Tracks:
If you see her say hello
It comes out as a country rock song, which gives it an upbeat mood. It took me a while to get used to it as a foot-tapper, but the change in tempo hasn’t worn the painful edge off the song. Dylan makes some significant changes to the lyrics here. I haven’t tried to transcribe them, but they are worth noting. There’s a bit more bitterness in these lyrics, which remind me of the slow, agonizing, 1976 performance with the lyrics transformed into a much darker, more bitter mood. Dylan seems to veer from performing this as a ‘nice’ song with laudable sentiments, to a splenetic expression of grief. The miracle of the song is that it is both at the same time. (No date for that one, I’m sorry)
The essence of a song, however, can’t change, and that’s evident from this countrified ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,’ from the Toronto show (20th March)
I’ll be your baby tonight
It sounds great as a 1950’s style pop song. You could dance around the jukebox to this one. The careless beat, the apparent careless delivery. One of Dylan’s few genuinely carefree songs. He plays brilliantly with the vocal, playing a little tipsy (‘bring that bottle over here’), almost missing the beat but not quite. We can revel in the retro feel of it.
Rainy Day Woman is another song easy to overlook, and yet those brassy, insouciant opening chords, seeming to herald the arrival of the ringmaster of a circus, first pulled us into Blonde on Blonde. Hard to credit, fifty-five years on, just how provocative and dangerous this song was at the time. Play it too loud and you might get the police knocking at your door. It’s fine to sing this one with a bit of a stoned stumble. It’s all in good fun.
Rainy Day Woman
‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven Before They Close the Door,’ from Time Out Of Mind benefits from the lusher sound Dylan achieves in 2004. There’s a sense of resignation in it. And that profound disorientation that marks most of the songs on the album:
They tell me everything is gonna be all right But I don't know what "all right" even means
I couldn’t possibly have left out this beautifully considered performance.
Tryin’ to get to heaven
Any performance of ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ is hard to overlook. It’s such a drama of seduction (but who’s seducing who?), and a marvellous mood piece. While I don’t think Dylan has ever matched the soaring 1995 performance at Prague, the song never fails to cast its spell. In this one Dylan slows the tempo way down and creates a spooky atmosphere with his echoey voice.
Man in the long black coat.
I nearly left ‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum’ behind, but realized in time that this was only my own preference in action. Like any other compiler making a selection, I tend to favour songs with which I have formed a strong connection.
It’s not just the words themselves which seem obscure, probably no more so than other Dylan songs from “Love and Theft” but what may be driving the song. Often, despite the complexities in a Dylan song, most songs have a powerful affective centre. Look at the emotional drive in ‘Man In the Long Black Coat.’ The sense of horror and loss.
‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum’ doesn’t seem to have that kind of easily identifiable drive. I do see how it evokes the era of the 1920s and 30s, and I can see there’s a story of betrayal here, but I don’t have enough to answer the deceptively simple question – why did Dylan write this song? Favourite lines:
They walk among the stately trees They know the secrets of the breeze
What also convinced me to include the song was the superior nature of the recording at Rochester. If any performance is going to get the song across it will be this one.
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum
‘God Knows’ is a song about war, and the imminence of war, although the lyrics might apply to a personal relationship. Being able to sing of the personal and the political at the same time is one of Dylan’s great achievements. When I hear these lines,
God knows it’s fragile
God knows everything
God knows it could snap apart right now
Just like putting scissors to a string
I can’t help thinking of the situation in Ukraine unfolding as I write. The stretched tension in those lines is palpable. Maybe it has already snapped apart like putting scissors to a string. Can we face it?
God knows it’s terrifying God sees it all unfold
This is another Dylan song that doesn’t lose its relevance as time goes on.
We have heard some exquisite performances of ‘Girl from the North Country’ over the past few years, and since 1999 especially. Mostly quite delicate, acoustic pieces. However, like all the very early songs Dylan is still performing, the song has had to adapt to the piano. Dylan uses the same baroque arrangement as in 2003, but this Glasgow performance has a special warmth that marks that concert out in 2004. When it begins, it almost has the feel of a medieval madrigal. Dylan’s tribute to this early love is warm and affectionate, the harp has just the right touch of pathos, and it’s hard not to feel a tear in your eye. We might love those old acoustic guitar versions, but there’s no doubt this one has the power to move us.
Girl from the North Country
‘Positively 4th Street’ is famous as an attack song:
You got a lotta nerve To say you are my friend..
But while this performance is not exactly affectionate, with Dylan’s rough been-through-the-mill voice, tired and world-weary, these lines seem to have lost their most vicious edge. There are two performances of this one I think are of interest. The first is from Toronto, and Dylan puts some roughness into his voice, maybe trying to keep the sentimentality out. Toughening it up.
Positively 4th Street (A)
This second performance (date unknown) sounds more in sorrow than anger. The same song, slightly different edge.
Positively 4th Street (B)
‘Saving Grace’ from Saved (1980) is something of a rarity. It is however a song that well suits Dylan’s rough careworn 2004 voice.
Death is often mentioned in the song; it’s near death that we might feel that ‘saving grace’ and the ongoing miracle of being alive. The sense that the prospect of death brings us closer to grace is the song’s driver, and Dylan’s 2004 crackle sounds closer to that ‘pine box for all eternity’ than the warm, vibrant album version. And is there not also a touch of wistfulness in it? That saving grace is there, but can we always feel it? And do we deserve it? There is perhaps as much hope as there is faith in this performance.
‘Dignity’ is a song I can easily overlook as it seems like a second rank Dylan song, but it’s a rocker with a swirling movement. I had it on my list for Part 5 of 2004, but it didn’t quite make the cut. This Rochester performance however is full of vigour. Can’t resist a performance with this flair, and I’m happy to slip it in here.
I went down where the vultures feed I would've got deeper, but there wasn't any need Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men Wasn't any difference to me
Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade House on fire, debts unpaid Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid Have you seen dignity
With lyrics like that, how come we tend to think of it as a ‘second rank’ Dylan song? Is there any such thing?
Acoustic or electric, ‘Masters of War’ has always been a strident song, but by 2004 that stridency has given way to a more funereal, threatening atmosphere, supported by Dylan’s dark thumping on the piano. I’d love to see this performance (8th Oct, Fishkill) put on You Tube as background to scenes from the Ukraine war. Still another song that’s kept its relevance.
Masters of War
While on the subject of war, I nearly overlooked this ‘Cat’s in the Well’ from the Manchester concert. Another of those ‘second rank’ Dylan songs. Wonderful vocal performance from Dylan. Listen to how he stages these lines. I’ve tried to set them out as I hear them.
The cat's in the well, the horse is going bump etybump. The cat's in the well, and the horse is going bump ety bump. Back alley Sally is doin’ the Ameeeer ican jump.
Maybe this song would be a good one to play against the background of the Ukraine war. ‘The dogs are going to war’… they sure are. The song’s last line, ‘Goodnight my love, may the lord have mercy on us all’ seems like the perfect way to finish this post.
Cat’s in the well
So that’s it for now…. But hey! wait a minute, isn’t there something we might’ve missed? A song in the shadows? Ah, how could I forget the old warhorse, ‘Tangled up in Blue’? Gotta slip it in at the end here. This is a song that, like Dylan himself, just keeps on keeping on. (Toronto)
Tangled Up in Blue
Ah! That’s better. See you soon with a brief epilogue for 2004 – some on the non-
Dylan songs he covered that year.