NET 2008 Part 4 Drowning in the honky-tonk lagoon

NET 2008 Part 4 Drowning in the honky-tonk lagoon

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

I come to the end of 2008 with mixed impressions. The naysayers, like Andrew Muir, who ‘fell out of love’ with the NET after 2004, suggest that Dylan not only lost his mojo during these years, but his authenticity too; that he was faking it.

In 2011 he would miraculously recover his mojo and his authenticity. However, if you listen to Dylan’s vocals, and his harmonica playing, you find him as passionately engaged with his material as ever, but what you do find is that he was increasingly falling victim to stilted tempos and rinky-dink backings. His keyboard playing gets most of the blame for these peculiar arrangements. That circus-like organ is just too much for many fans.

This version of ‘Desolation Row’ from Oeiras (July 11th) illustrates the point. It starts off well enough but soon falls into the dumpty-dum. When Dylan sings across the stilted tempo it doesn’t sound so bad, but by the time we get to the instrumental break, around 4.45 minutes, the staccato rhythm has taken over, and in the subsequent verses, when his voice falls into that rhythm, the effect is bizarre and unsettling.

Unless you have a particularly jerky foot, you’re not going to get with this sound. That beautiful melodic backing, which has always been a part of the song’s charm, gets cut up into little pieces that bounce and jump, as does the vocal line.

Desolation Row (A)

It’s worth tuning into the Vancouver concert for another version of the song. Dylan does some great singing in this performance, that is until we get to ‘At midnight all the agents’ at 7.20 mins when once again his voice falls victim to the dumpty-dum.

Desolation Row (B)

We find the same problem with ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’ Though the tempo is slowed right down, it still falls into the dumpty-dum, just a slower, more painful variety. The vocal line has to be gabbled, although we have previously seen that Dylan’s hushed, half-spoken vocal can be quite effective with this song. This tale of the wanton murder of a poor black cleaning woman by a rich white man barely survives this treatment. (2nd Feb, Dallas)

Hattie Carroll

Listening to that, you can see why audiences might have been heading for the door before the last number.

The effect is not quite so severe with ‘Just Like A Woman,’ which is given a lilt which almost hides the dumpty-dum. It’s still there, however, and you can hear it in Dylan’s vocal delivery, that tendency to cut the line up into emphatic syllables. Listen to the way he handles the ‘it’s time for us to quit’ verse at around 4.50 mins. It’s hard to feel comfortable with that. (Calgary, 27th Oct).

Just Like A Woman

The same thing happens with ‘My Back Pages.’ Once more, the lilt can’t save it from the dumpty-dum. Listen to the way his voice falls into the stilted tempo at 4.50 mins, with the organ providing the rinky-dink vamping that accentuates the effect. It sounds very weird and, to my mind, distracts from the message of the lyric. And with regard to that, the effect of the repeated line ‘But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ has a different impact when sung by an old voice rather than a young man. The young voice can claim to have once been old, but can the old voice now proclaim to be young?

Perhaps because the song represents a turning point in Dylan’s evolution, he hasn’t dropped it, but I can’t help thinking it might have been better if he’d left this one behind. (Calgary).

My Back Pages

Dylan finds it hard to resist the lure of falling into the dumpty-dum on this subdued interpretation of ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.’ The tempo is very close to the original album version. This is a much more interesting performance as it eschews the spookiness of the song for a more intimate, suggestive vocal. The circus-like organ vamping is still there, but in this case, it fits the circus-like atmosphere of the song, a song full of circus performers. The harmonica break too helps keep it interesting. You can hear Dylan playfully exploring the dumpty-dum, accentuating it and cutting across it, even finding some humour in it. This performance is heading towards the even stranger version we’ll find in 2009. (Incidentally, the song finishes at 6.10 mins, the rest being audience noise. The Oeiras concert was nearing its end.)

Thin Man

I get the feeling that Dylan might be consciously playing with the effects of these stilted rhythms in this, also subdued, version of ‘Tangled Up In Blue.’ This song has changed markedly since its glory days as an ecstatic stadium rocker. Here it is quiet and thoughtful, the dumpty-dum getting a nice lilt, a bit of swing. Like ‘Thin Man’ this is an interesting take, and also like that song, is heading towards an even stranger fate in 2009. The sweet harp break after the last verse both swings with the rhythm and cuts across it with longer sustained notes or syncopated tooting. I got to like this one after a while. It suggests a less painful response to life’s experiences. You gotta roll with the punches, you gotta bounce back. You gotta swing a little.

Curiously, this swinging version from the Oeiras concert prefigures what Dylan will do with the song, much further down the line in 2019.

Tangled up in Blue

The faster songs, like ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ seem more resistant to the dumpty-dum than the slower ones. After honky-tonk came boogie-woogie, which is the upside of the dumpty-dum and the basis of rock ‘n roll, having its origins in the early jazz keyboard masters of the 1920s and 30s. You can hear boogie-woogie in the thrumming beat of this performance. It’s retro, and it works with these swirling lyrics, all about the madness and fucked-upness of modern life.

In the last two songs we’ve noticed the backing cut to a minimum. The backing quiet and discreet, the voice brought forward. That worked well for ‘Tangled’ and ‘Thin Man’ and it works well here in this potentially rowdy song, despite building up to some guitar work at the end. (Oeiras)

Highway 61 Revisited

It’s pretty much the same story with ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile’ which, in this performance from Calgary, sticks to the same tempo as the album, or close to it. All goes well until, at 3.28 mins, his voice succumbs to the emphatic and falls heavily into dumpty-dum, cutting up the lines like this, as far as I can get it:

And me
ed it to happen
I knew

Who’s lost control?

 Stuck inside of Mobile

‘Tears of Rage’ always did have something of a slow, lumbering beat, but this performance from Odense (28th May) is gentle and moving. And it would be hard to find a more suggestive vocal. Dylan largely avoids the dumpty-dum by interspersing his organ vamping with long, chord spanning sustained notes. A very cool guitar break plus a mellow harp break make this a stand-out performance. There is a bit of bounce in it, but that doesn’t do this song any great harm. What can sound mournful, here sounds reflective and probing.

Tears of Rage

‘Like A Rolling Stone’ also escapes pretty much unscathed. The vocal is subdued with a talking edge to it. And, as with ‘Tears of Rage,’ we get a soft, in this case sombre harp break. Dylan rarely plays the harp on this song, so it’s great to hear it here (Calgary). The vocal lines are not quite as sustained as when he was young and could draw out those notes, but the passion is there. Those incomparable lyrics come across loud and clear. It’s not exactly a ‘wild mercury sound’ and does lumber a tad with the tempo slowed down. The song’s old magic, however, is still there.

Like a Rolling Stone

Where else to finish but with ‘All Along The Watchtower,’ still Dylan’s signature, his signing-off song. Here the rigid tempo gets speeded up to a demented march. That suits the song. The apocalyptic warnings come to the sound of marching armies. I have previously called this a ‘goose-stepping’ version. This one from Calgary is a good example. Dylan has fair crack at actually singing, his voice at full strength.

Watchtower (A)

For those who can’t get enough of this ominous song, this performance from Salzburg might be welcome. The recording is superior to Calgary, and Dylan’s more hushed vocal creates a different ambience altogether from Calgary.

Watchtower (B)

That was a great way to finish this visit to 2008, a difficult and contentious year for the NET, but not as difficult and contentious as 2009 will prove to be. Stay tuned for the next post.

Until then,

Kia Ora




  1. Succumbs?

    Dylan varies from the canon a bit:

    “Me, I expected it to happen
    I think he lost control …”

    In this performance, he deliberately varies the song with a humpty dumpty voice to bring out the existential madness and monotony of being …his own included.

  2. That is in both the original and rendition above it’s “I knew” ~ not ” I think” that I accidently put down…,good grief!

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