- NET 2007 Part 1: The light is never dying.
- Never Ending Tour, 2007, part 2: Your servant both night and day.
- Part 3: One foot on the platform
‘Over and out, under and in’ (Bob Dylan: ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, 2008 version)
In his thirteen song collection covering the years 2006-2009, known as Pool of Tears, Dylan compiler CS, at A Thousand Highways, includes only one song from 2008, ‘Love Minus Zero No Limit,’ and in his fifteen song collection covering 2008-2012, known as Center Stage, again only one song from 2008 is included, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody.’
We’ll get to those songs in due course, but what this shows is that it’s easy to pass over 2008 as if not much was going on in that year. 2008, it seems, has been largely cancelled.
The reasons are not hard to find. 2008 can be seen as an extension of 2007, only not quite as good, with Dylan’s voice thickening further, some tired, wooden and stilted performances, and no great innovation. If there is any year in which we might feel that Dylan is standing still, it would be this one.
To demonstrate this, I’ll kick off with a performance of ‘Till I Fell in Love with You.’ I suggest that readers flick back to the first performance in NET, 2007, Part 1 to catch a scintillating version of that song, then listen to this one from Vancouver, (24th Oct)
Till I Fell in Love with You (A)
Same song, same arrangement, same tempo, similar harp break, and yet the 2008 performance sounds like a pale, messy imitation of 2007. (The poorer Vancouver recording doesn’t help, admittedly.) The Vancouver performance meets industry standards, but that’s about it.
This version from Dallas (28th Feb), without harp break, is much better than Vancouver, both better recorded and more enthusiastically performed, but still doesn’t touch 2007. That’s the problem with ‘best ever’ performances; they cast a shadow over all the others.
NET 2008 part 1 ins 2 Till I Fell in Love with You (B)
2008 was not without some interesting developments, however. When considering 2007, I pointed out that when Dylan took to his little keyboard, he abdicated center stage. Since the band were arranged in a semi-circle, there was nobody to front the band and center stage remained symbolically empty. Perhaps Dylan became aware of the unsettling effect of this on his audiences for, in 2008, he began to move into center stage with his guitar, or just his harmonica, for the first two or three songs. You want to see your Bob Dylan, with guitar and harp, just like the old days, well here he is. Once he had established himself in this way, he would retreat to his keyboard and hide under his hat for the rest of the concert. Now you see him, now you don’t.
He kicked off the Dallas concert this way with ‘Rainy Day Woman,’ a playful performance with new lines being made up on the spot, it sounds like, and a taste of Mr Guitar Man.
Rainy Day Woman
He may sing with a face like a graven image, his Easter Island statue face, but we are never far from a glint of humour. Dylan is having fun.
He sounds like he’s having fun too with this upbeat Dallas performance of ‘Spirit on the Water,’ a disarmingly charming song with hidden depths. This is one you can confidently sit back and enjoy.
Spirit on the Water
I’m not sure why CS choose this ‘Love Minus Zero’ to represent the whole of 2008. On the face of it, there are much better performances.
What is of interest here is that Dylan has abandoned the previous baroque, madrigal style arrangement for a free-swinging, jazzy style. Dumpty-dum has turned quite catchy, like a dance hall number, and it’s fun to listen to, but is the music at variance with the gentle and mysterious lyrics? Has the atmosphere of the song been lost? It takes a bit of getting used to, that’s for sure. Fine if you want to get up and dance, but maybe not so fine if you want to plumb the mysteries and paradoxes of love. Easy to understand how such reconfigurations divided followers of the NET. (6th July, Madrid)
Love Minus Zero
It’s easy to see why CS chose ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ to represent Dylan’s move to center stage for some numbers in 2008. At first I thought it was a bit thumpy, a touch ponderous, but as soon as Dylan hit the harp I got right with it. That bluesy harp lifts the song into something quite special. Behind the thump there’s a swing and a solid groove. Dylan’s voice is full-throated circus barker, perhaps the perfect song for it. You don’t croon this one. You croak it from the rooftops. In this case Dylan without guitar, just the harp.
And the lyrics? If you can follow them, most are completely new. I don’t know if they’re made up on the spot or not. I can only catch fragments of them. It’s not the first time Dylan has come up with new lyrics for this song. It’s that kind of song. You could be lots and lots of things and still have to serve somebody. (21st Nov, New York City)
Gotta Serve Somebody
If I were to put up a contender for best center stage performance for 2008, I would be tempted to choose ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ from Dallas. Like ‘Love Minus Zero’ it’s been given an upbeat tempo with a bit of a swing. Again, the happy beat might be at variance with the angst of the lyrics, but it does give them a devil-may-care feeling. Lovers of the desperate original might be put off by the flippancy of this performance, but anguish can take a frivolous form. Things are just so bad we have to make fun of them. That works around the song’s potential to be weary and dreary.
Tom Thumb’s blues
Or, I might go for the lush textures of ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ also from Dallas, number 2 on the setlist, with Dylan on the guitar. We can hardly find fault here with Dylan’s enticing vocal, or the clarity of the recording. The unwearying lover never gives up; he’s always hopeful. There is an underlying humour here; he’s being flirtatious and he knows it. Take him or leave him.
Lay Lady Lay
Staying with Dallas, I was pleased to find this excellent recording of ‘Senor.’ It was only performed four times in 2008, is gradually disappearing from the setlists and will finally vanish in 2011. Now here’s a song to match ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’ in desperation, the desperation of suppressed ennui, the desire to ‘overturn these tables,’ make a clean break, get the hell out of Dodge – ‘Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, Senor?’
Some are quick to identify the senor as Jesus but that doesn’t work for me. To see the senor as any authority figure, a true one or false, leaves the image more open-ended and potent. And what if Senor doesn’t have the answers?
Dylan doesn’t try to give this one a frivolous makeover. Those lyrics are just too heavy I guess for anything other than this funereal beat. Dylan’s vocal is wonderfully emphatic, but there’s a curiously stilted riff behind it, courtesy of the organ (that lurking dumpty-dum), and the final harp break is quite sedate compared to the wild excesses of 2003. (See NET 2003 part 2)
(By the way, the official Dylan website does not list this Dallas concert for this song.)
In my first article for 2007 (See NET, 2007 Part 1) I included three recordings of ‘Ain’t Talkin,’ the masterpiece from Modern Times, with the comment that it was in that year the song fully came into its own. Dylan continued to deliver the song in 2008, playing it some forty times, but to my mind these performances don’t match 2007. The song is a journey from the ‘mystic garden’ to Ovid’s ‘last outback at the world’s end.’ It’s one of my top five Dylan songs, up there with ‘Desolation Row,’ ‘Visions of Johanna,’ ‘Tell ol Bill’ and ‘Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).’
‘Ain’t Talkin’’ is one of those Dylan songs that seems to cast a spell over the listener, the walking beat carrying us along through dark emotional landscapes. This is a fine performance from Vigo, Spain, although the background audience noise is louder than we would like. I’m still searching for a better version and may come back to the song in later posts, if I can find one.
Staying with Modern Times, and slipping back to Dallas, we find an energetic performance of ‘Thunder on the Mountain.’ The spirit of freedom that pervades this song is hard to describe. It feels like he could take it anywhere he wants, recalling old blues songs and classical literature, all kinds of things thrown into the pot.
Sometimes I think of Dylan songs as tapestries. Strands of different colours and textures are woven in to create the overall texture. The boundaries are loose; the song is held together by a buoyant rhythm and sense of celebration. This is creativity at its most open-ended. ‘I feel like my soul is beginning to expand,’ he sings, and as his soul expands, it takes in more and more of the world. I am reminded of these lines from ‘False Prophet’ in a somewhat darker context: ‘I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.’
(I recommend Wanda Jackson’s ebullient ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ found on YouTube here.)
Thunder on the Mountain
As with 2007, the most exciting performances are of more recent songs, songs from Modern Times and Love and Theft. It’s the older songs that can sound a bit tired. At Dallas, Dylan also performed a moving version of ‘Working Man’s Blues # 2,’ a sombre, ambitious, atmospheric song. A melancholy call for revolution, to ‘join the front line.’ It’s a very American song, but the malaise he’s describing echoes through our western culture.
Working Man’s Blues
I’ll finish with another Modern Times song, ‘When the Deal Goes Down,’ another melancholic song steeped in the music of the 1930s/40s. I think the idea here is that beyond the passion of the senses and the flesh, there is a love which will not fade or fail. When the deal goes down, when the big changes happen, that’s the kind of love you want, steady and unconditional. This is not a Christian song as such, but the feeling behind it reminds me of ‘What Can I Do For You?’ from Saved (1980). There is a dogged devotion in it, a vow to stay the course whatever may come.
This Dallas performance sounds like a cross between a song and a poetry recitation, half-spoken, half-sung.
When the Deal Goes Down
That’s it for this time around. Catch you later with more from 2008.
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