Never Ending Tour, 2006, Part 3 Walking through the cities of the plague

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

‘Bob Dylan’s spookiest song.’


‘One of his darkest songs.’

‘Dylan at his bone chilling best.’

‘Mysterious blues-noir, virtually magic realist in places.’

‘This is a dying world; dead gods, dead morals and dead hopes 
litter the roadside. Dylan blends mythology, ancient poetry, 
folk and blues to create a landscape of pure corruption - 
and I absolutely love it.’

These are some of the comments, gleaned from Reddit and Wikipedia, on ‘Ain’t Talkin,’ the last and for me the best song on Modern Times. It is a song full of strangeness, terror and violence. That violence, Dylan as the bringer of vengeance, entered his work when he started to immerse himself in the Roman Classics, Ovid and Catullus.

I don’t have the space here for a full exploration of the song, so I’ll just make a couple of comments. The real mystery is who is narrating? Whose point of view are we hearing? I suggest that the narrator is perhaps Ovid himself or some like figure from Roman times, someone who’s been banished, exiled, and is full of resentment and hate.

Well, the whole world is filled with speculation
The whole wide world which people say is round
They will tear your mind away from contemplation
They will jump on your misfortune when you're down

Consider that second line. It can only come from the world of antiquity, where the roundness of the world was matter for speculation rather than knowledge. Dylan has captured the mindset of Ovid as he travels to this place of exile, to ‘the last outback at the world’s end’ (Ovid, Black Sea Letters 2.7.66) and this may be the song’s greatest achievement.

Appeals to the ‘mother’ or ‘mama’ have deep roots in Dylan’s songwriting (Oh, mama, can this really be the end…’). The injunction to ‘pray from the mother’ in ‘Ain’t Talkin’ is mysterious and powerful. We’re not to pray to the mother, or for the mother, but from within the mother.

They say prayer has the power to heal
So pray from the mother
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell
I am a-tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain't going well

So why do the lyrics on the official change them to this?

They say prayer has the power to help
So pray for me mother
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell
I’m trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain’t going well

Perhaps somebody thought that it made more sense that way, but it’s not what he sings.

Finally, in this darkest of songs, we find this wonderful flash of humour:

Well, it's bright in the heavens and the wheels are flyin'
Fame and honor never seem to fade
The fire gone out but the light is never dyin'
Who says I can't get heavenly aid?

Maybe the gods really are on Dylan’s side.

In this song Dylan’s organ playing comes into focus. Those distant, sustained notes, both churchy and circus-like, are eerie in their own right. Like the soundtrack to a Dario Argento horror movie, as ghostly and uncanny as the song itself.

This song doesn’t come fully into its own as a performance piece until 2007. This early attempt is from New York City (20th of Nov).

Ain’t Talkin

There is a deep vein of prophecy that runs through this. ‘Walkin through the cities of the plague’? That line brings us from Antiquity to our own modern times.

‘Ain’t talkin’ is a walking song, and so is ‘Lovesick’ from Time Out of Mind. The narrator is also walking to his emotional exile, walking through a shadow world, through ‘streets that are dead.’ Through haunting images of love and a lost paradise. If any song anticipates ‘Aint’ Talkin’ it’s this one. A subdued, anguished performance. 7th April Los Vegas.


And since we are in this dark and spooky mood, why not go to ‘Cold Irons Bound,’ another concentrated dose of alienation from an emotional exile. It’s not overtly a walking song, but the imagery suggests a journey through the Apocalypse:

Well, the road is rocky and the hillside's mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

It begins with a descent into madness (‘I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around’) and ends in abject surrender (‘I’m on my bended knee’). This performance, also from Los Vegas, marks a break from previous approaches to the song. The shrieking guitar opening is gone and the descending riff carries us through the song which has become softer, slower and more threatening.

Cold Irons Bound

‘Lonesome Day Blues’ gets us off our feet and into a vehicle but the flight, or the pilgrimage, is never-ending:

Well, I'm forty miles from the mill, I'm dropping it into overdrive
I'm forty miles from the mill, I'm dropping it into overdrive
Set my dial on the radio I wish my mother was still alive

And despite the swinging blues rhythm, the mood is still dark and some of the imagery spooky.

Last night the wind was whispering, 
   I was trying to make out what it was
Last night the wind was whispering something, 
   I was trying to make out what it was
Yeah I tell myself something's coming, but it never does

This one’s from Madison (31st Oct)

Lonesome Day blues

Dylan had the good sense never to play  ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ and ‘Till I Fell In Love With You’ one after the other, because when put together, as I am doing now, we can see how similar they are. Dylan was accused of lack of invention by writing these generic-sounding urban blues songs, which showed how little the critics understand the blues, the repetitive and generic nature of it. Even the subject matter, the woes of love and poverty, doesn’t change much. The differences are in tempo and style.

‘Till I Fell In Love With You’ is not a strict twelve-bar, three-chord blues but close enough for us to feel the blues roots of the song. In terms of mood, ‘Till I Fell’ takes us back to the soul-shredding anguish we find in ‘Cold Irons Bound.’ (Boston, 12th Nov)

Till I Fell in love with you (A)

Good as that recording, and performance, is, it is rivalled by this one from Stockton (3rd April)

Till I Fell in love with you (B)

We can make that three in a row from the same bag by adding ‘Honest With Me.’ The lyrical territory is familiar, but what fascinate me are these hints of narrative, of a journey, the discovery of things ‘too terrible to be true.’

Well, I came ashore in the dead of the night
Lot of things can get in the way 
     when you're tryin' to do what's right

The intriguing ‘I’.

I’m glad Dylan got rid of the distracting guitar riff from the album and early performances, to this leaner, darker arrangement. Another excellent recording from Stockton.

Honest With Me

‘Blind Willie McTell’ finds that darkness in fragments of American history.

Seen them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghost of slavery ships

We despair of a world in which ‘power and greed and corruptible seed’ are all we can see. It’s a solid performance (Madison) but I must once more complain about the missing verses. I would happily forgo the instrumental breaks, which don’t do much, to have those verses back. The one quoted above, and this unforgettable portrait:

There's a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He's dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand

He just goes on bowdlerising this magnificent song. You have to go back to the original 1984 recordings to hear the song in its entirety.

Blind Willie

‘High Water’ sustains the apocalyptic mood, the sense of environmental and moral chaos. This Stockton performance has slowly become my favourite, maybe because of that instrumental ascending riff, maybe the slowed tempo, maybe Dylan’s committed vocal performance. The whole thing comes together very sweetly.

High Water

Surely ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ must be one of Dylan’s most melancholy love songs (‘Born in Time’?). The weariness of the long-distance lover. It’s the melody that carries the melancholy. And yet, we’d do anything for love, go to any extreme.

I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue
I'd go crawling down the avenue
No, there's nothing that I wouldn't do
To make you feel my love

We’re back in Stockton again for this wonderful tear-jerking performance. The gentle, minimal background brings Dylan’s inventive vocal to the fore. The way he drops in the odd talky line makes it sound very down-home.

To make you feel my love.

Things change, moods shift. Suddenly we don’t care about things we once felt deeply about. Despair may be replaced by a devil-may-care abandon. That’s what seems to be happening in ‘Things have Changed.’ Things have not changed but we have, our attitude to things has. But I remain suspicious of what Dylan espouses here, since his passion for singing out his feelings hasn’t changed one bit. (Los Vegas)

Things have changed

I’ve never particularly liked ‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum’ but I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because I can’t feel its affective centre. Dylan songs make us feel things, ever since he asked ‘How does it feeeeel?’ rather than ‘what do you think?’ Still, my own indifference to the song is not a good reason for not including this excellent Los Vegas performance. Admirers of the song will delight in this one.

Tweedle Dee.

For a complete shift of mood, well away from ‘cities of the plague’ we’ll finish with two performances of ‘Summer Days.’ Despite the fact that ‘Summer days and summer nights are gone,’ this is a celebratory song:

Everybody get ready, lift up your glasses and sing
Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing
Well, I'm standin' on the table, I'm proposing a toast to the king

Always remembering that the same old bullshit, political and personal, has not gone away.

Politician got on his jogging shoes
He must be running for office, got no time to lose
He been suckin' the blood out of the genius of generosity
You been rolling your eyes, you been teasing me

Here’s the Stockton performance. The song sounds as antique and jazzy as ever. Makes us think of big band music from the late 1940s, post-war reverie.

Summer Days (A)

I rather like this version from Foggia (Italy), 19th July.

Summer Days (B)

That’s it for this part of the journey. I’ll be back soon with some more strange brews from 2006.

Until then

Kia Ora

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *