NET, 2005, Part 5, Old friends grow old too

An index of the Never Ending Tour series can be found here.

Here are the earlier articles from 2005…

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

Some of these old friends are very old indeed and go all the way back to the early 1960s. These are the songs that made Dylan’s name, and he has never forgotten them. He has stuck by them. We like to say that the old ‘protest’ singer has gone, but he has never stopped singing the songs. Each year they appear again, sometimes in new guises.

One of these is ‘Masters of War,’ from the Freewheelin album of 1963. This darkly-driven song has never grown old, but performances have changed drastically over the years. By 2005, we have an emphatic, minimal piano-based version that can raise the hair on the back of your head. Maturity has brought this song some gravitas.

In my article ‘Masters of War & Extinction Rebellion: Bob Dylan’s ongoing contemporary relevance’, I argued that the song can’t die because the world won’t let it, that as long as those masters of war still rule, the song will stay fresh. (See: And, with the war in Ukraine raging as I write, who can doubt it?

This performance is from Berlin, (25th October), and to my mind is one of Dylan’s best ever performances of the song.

Masters of War

In my first post for 2005, I suggested that, to commit the sin of quoting myself, ‘these arrangements become dogmatic and thumpy, and might seem to run counter to the spirit of the songs.’  I think what I want to say here is that the songs are not as light on their feet as they were, not as agile in their arrangements and presentation. I’ll try and develop that idea a bit in these posts.

Right from the start ‘Hard Rain’ had a tendency to be a bit dumpty-dum because of the ballad form, but Dylan brilliantly overcomes this in both the Rolling Thunder Tour, with a swirling, hard-driving rock version, and in 1981 with an equally brilliant, fluid gospel version. But by 2005, London residency (4th Night), the dumpty-dum is back and, good as it is, seems too rigid considering those earlier versions.

Hard Rain

We could say something similar about that other great early 1960s masterpiece, ‘Chimes of Freedom.’ This is something of a rarity, an occasional visitor rather than a close friend, having been performed only fifty-six times, with ten of those performances in 2005. This song relates a mystical experience in which the value and grace of all life, especially for the poor and socially outcast, flashes forth in a storm. The stormy elements themselves seem to assert and celebrate the freedom of the spirit for all, and seem like bells tolling

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

In this respect, Dylan’s message hasn’t changed at all. Compare those lyrics with these from ‘Crossing the Rubicon’,  Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020):

I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives
I believe it’s within the reach of every man who lives

Dylan doesn’t sing all the six verses in this performance from 15th April (Boston), but enough to give us a good sense of the song and what it conveys. Again, however, it becomes dumpty-dum, the lilt of the original becomes somewhat too emphatic. Arguably, the song needs more fluidity to hold us.

Chimes of Freedom

This issue doesn’t arise in the same way with ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown,’ another protest classic from the 60s, because the blues, by its very nature, tends more towards rigidity of form than jazz. In other words, the musical form fits the song.

Hollis Brown

With ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, Dylan’s sustained vocal performance and the minimal nature of the instrumental backings push the problem of rigidity into the background. We don’t lose the narrative to the dumpty-dum. This one’s from Dublin (1st concert).

Hattie Carroll

Although it’s not a blues, ‘John Brown’ comes out of the same bag as ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown,’ a similarly paced protest song, in this case the story of a mother and her soldier son. The reality of war is sharply contrasted to the mother’s rosy image of ‘a good old fashioned war.’ In the wonderful 1994 MTV Unplugged performance, Dylan plays it as a rock song and the lines flow smoothly; here he plays it as a folk blues, happy to allow the thump of an emphatic beat to drive the vocal line. It’s effective in creating a drums of war feeling, but doesn’t allow for a fluid vocal line.

John Brown

We can’t leave these protest songs behind without covering that dearest old friend of all, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin,’ that ode to passing time. Over the years the song has become as much a celebration as a warning, and we have been treated to many majestic versions of it. This performance is not too different from its predecessors in that respect, but again there is this tendency for it to become a bit jerky and ricky-tick. Wonderful harp break for the finale, however. The superiority of these Crystal Cat London recordings is evident here. (2nd night)

The Times they are a changing

Are we really moving away from ‘protest songs’ when we come to ‘Drifter’s Escape’? I don’t think so. The poor drifter is caught up in a chaotic and vicious legal system, which he only escapes by divine intervention, when ‘lightning struck the courthouse out of shape.’ I think it must be the same lightning that flashed out the chimes of freedom in that song. No problem with any lumbering, emphatic quality. This performance, (Reno, 18th March), is one in a now long row of kick-arse rock versions, dating back to 2000. The heavier and thumpier the better.

Drifters escape

Another song from John Wesley Harding that Dylan has been presenting as a kick-arse rocker is ‘Wicked Messenger.’ But here, ( 20th April, Verona, US) it gets a major overhaul. With a new arrangement that curiously pre-figures the way it would sound on Shadow Kingdom, 2021, Dylan rubs off the hard rock edges, and puts a bit of lilt into it.

I’m not too sure of it. I liked the old kick-arse versions. I’m not sure it sustains itself; I’m not sure that a bit of dumpty-dum doesn’t creep in. The song is on its way out in terms of Dylan setlists, and after a few more performances will be gone by 2009. The great years for the song were 2000 – 2002. Fascinating though.

Wicked Messenger.

‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine,’ another from the same album, is more of an occasional friend than a regular visitor, being played only thirty-nine times, this being the second to last performance.

We don’t turn to poets for the literal truth. The real St Augustine (of Hippo) was not ‘put out to death’ in the sense of being martyred, but died of illness and old age. Dylan’s dream St Augustine, is a herald, a messenger, and he brings sad news. He wears a coat of solid gold, suggesting spiritual richness and purity, but the souls he’s searching for ‘already have been sold.’ The song ends on a note of anguish.

This bitter-sweet performance is from Dublin (1st Night). Some beautiful steel guitar work from Herron saves it from being too dumpty-dum. Despite the upsinging, or maybe because of it, this is a powerful vocal performance.

St Augustine.

The rigidity, or lack of fluidity, I have been referring to may be the outcome of some successful adaption of Dylan’s early love songs to a more baroque feel. You hear it in this lovely, clear version of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and you’ll have to decide how successful that is.

Boots of Spanish Leather

One of the first songs to be given the baroque treatment is ‘Love Minus Zero (No Limit),’ and we have seen some successful adaptions of the song in that style. Here, however, he breaks away from that to deliver a mid-tempo performance, probably closer to the original pace than more recent slow versions. It’s quietly rollicking rather than dumpty-dum. (Dublin 2nd Night)

Love minus zero /No limit

Jubilation greets the opening bars of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, which over the years has become a celebration rather than a sombre reflection. The original affected a jauntiness that Dylan wants to recapture here. That jauntiness saves it from the dumpty-dum. This one from London (1st Night). Note the crowd rousing slammer of an ending.

Don’t think twice

A heavier, thumpier arrangement of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ worked brilliantly when set against Dylan’s soaring voice and harp in 1995. The 2005 arrangement, with hints of the baroque, does not work so well for me. The vocal line feels a bit rushed. It doesn’t feel like the great love song that it is. Somehow the soul of the song seems to have been lost.

It’s all over now baby blue

‘To Ramona’ has been a waltz right from the start, and so arguably suits the dumpty-dum treatment. With the slide guitar, this one has the feeling of a slowed down country waltz. I started off enjoying it very much, as it’s beautifully performed and recorded (London, 1st Night) but by the end I had wearied of the lumbering tempo. Dylan’s harp can often cut across lumbering rhythms and lift them, and although this happens to some extent at the end of the song, Dylan’s ‘tooting’ style on the harp rather accentuates the lumbering effect.

To Ramona

The fast-paced jazz songs, like ‘Summer Days,’ and equally fast-paced rockers like ‘Tombstone Blues,’ are largely immune to the dumpty-dum effect. This band does sound good in kick-arse mode. This one throbs along in fine style. Gets into the groove and doesn’t lose it. (29th June, Louisville, Kentucky.)

Tombstone blues

On the other hand ‘Tears of Rage’ was born with a lumbering beat back in the Basement Tapes days. You could say that The Band, with its album Music from Big Pink pioneered that heavy, ponderous sound. Maybe because of that, this mysterious song bears up well in the 2005 sound. (Hamburg, 24th Oct) It successfully carries both the rage and the grief of the song.

Tears of Rage

For this post, I have saved the best till last. ‘Desolation Row’, a loyal friend indeed. This is a full version, all the verses sung; you can hear that wonderful line, ‘the Titanic sails at dawn.’ Dylan seems to stumble on the verse by accident as he fudges the lyrics on an earlier verse by singing a line from the verse he always misses. That accidental line seems to lead him to the whole verse. This, added to a generally high standard, a willingness to allow this epic to be a twelve-minute epic, makes this one of his best-ever performances of the song. It’s a little too emphatic at times but survives the worst of the dumpty-dum. A powerhouse performance.

Desolation Row

That’s it for eighteen old friends, all from the 1960s. Their joints are a bit stiffer, but they have survived their years. In the next post I’ll look at some other friends from later years and see how they have fared.

Until then


Kia Ora

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