This is article 98 in the Never Ending Tour series. The full index of past articles is available here. The articles for 2008 are
- NET 2008, part 1, Industry Standards and Dallas Delights
- NET 2008 Part 2 Something’s out of whack: Salzburg and Odense
- NET 2008 part 3: Controversy Surrounds Him
- NET 2008 Part 4 Drowning in the honky-tonk lagoon
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
We now arrive at what must be the most frustratingly brilliant, difficult, disastrous and contentious year of the NET – 2009. In this year we find some of the strangest, most remarkable – and most wretched – performances Dylan ever delivered. It is a year full of contradictions. On one hand, his love affair with rigid, jerky rhythms, what I have called the dumpty-dum, intensifies to the point of absurdity. On the other hand, Dylan plays some of the sweetest and most subtle harmonica we’ve ever heard from him, and his hoarse voice has never been more expressive. The recordings themselves, the good ones, are clean and clear, bringing into sharp relief these contending forces.
It is often said that there is a fine line between genius and madness, between brilliance and disaster, and if Dylan ever walked that line it was in 2009. There ain’t no neutral ground here, folks. You can love and hate a performance at the same time and for different reasons.
For simplicity’s sake, I have identified two contrary forces or musical influences at work here. On one hand we have that tendency that comes to the fore in 2008 towards a rigidity of musical form, what I have called the dumpty-dum. On the other hand, we have the more fluid, free flowing, complex rhythms of modern jazz and synthesized pop. All music is built on repetition, it’s just where, and how the balance is struck.
As I suggested in my last post for 2008, the dumpty-dum tendency has its roots in early jazz. It’s inherent in rock music, which comes out of the more ‘primitive’ thumpier rhythms of rock ‘n roll; try listening to Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ sometime and you’ll hear the dumpty-dum all right. This sound in turn emerges from the rigid tempos of jump jazz, boogie-woogie and honky-tonk. Those ragtime rhythms are underpinned by, on the piano, a ‘striding’ left hand bass in which the little finger and the thumb play just two notes an octave apart, usually in rapid succession. It’s the cleverness of the right hand which relieves the monotony of the striding bass by playing across the rhythm.
Blues is very repetitive because of its three-chord, twelve-bar structure. It’s a compelling structure but it’s unvarying. As anyone who’s been to a blues club can testify, one song can last half a night and it doesn’t really matter. Folk music, particularly the ballad form used by Dylan for ‘Hard Rain,’ is a set musical structure that can sound pretty dumpty-dum with no end to the number of verses that can be added. The bluegrass and country influences on folk can be equally constricting. And those maudlin old cowboy songs all sound pretty much the same after the third drink.
Running counter to that set-in-concrete musical form are the devices of modern jazz, classical and pop; varying tempos, free flowing rhythms, improvisations. Consider how Dylan dealt with the rigid, dumpty-dum rhythms of his original ‘Hard Rain,’ first in the swirling rock versions of the Rolling Thunder tour and later in the smooth, bluesy, gospel performances of his 1979-81 tours. This aspect of Dylan’s music we can call his ‘thin, wild, mercury’ sound.
In 2009, ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ verges on disaster. In this Rotherbury (5th July) performance the two contending forces in Dylan’s music are at their most intense. A restricted, mechanical riff, a variety of the dumpty-dum, and a soaring, free floating harmonica, reaching for that ‘thin wild mercury sound’ Dylan spoke of in the 1960s.
I wrote about this performance in part 5 of my Master Harpist series and while I agree with my editor that quoting yourself is generally not good form, this is what I said in that article:
‘We’re on the treadmill of memory, a constricted, mechanical beat from which the song struggles to escape. It’s not just the rigid bass riff, but Dylan rinky-dinks it on the organ, emphasizing the rigidity rather than fighting it. You can hear Dylan struggling to cut across it with a hoarse, exhausted voice. But he can’t quite make it work, or just makes it – your call! When his voice falls into the beat, matching it, the result borders on the burlesque. Only the harmonica can cut loose from this cage and it sure does, sailing serenely above the mechanical beat, above the intractable struggle with memory, free as flight. At least one hand’s waving free! Dylan must have liked it too, because he comes back for a second flight before the last verse, and once more we are gliding through time, pushing higher into the stratosphere.’
Tangled Up In Blue
For my ear, it’s the harp breaks that redeem this performance, save it from disaster. However, the other way to go is not to cut across the mechanical beat with a thin, wild harp, but emphasize it, exaggerate it, turn it into something strange and obsessive. That’s what Dylan does with this performance of ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ (Rothbury). I also wrote about this performance in part 5 of Master Harpist, so I’m going to lapse into bad form for a second time to quote myself:
‘Perhaps the song itself, which is about an encounter with strangeness, is outlandish enough to sustain a performance like this. The circus really has come to town! And, by emphasizing the rigidity of the dumpty-dum, the harmonica break at end of the song just pushes the performance from the weird to the bizarre. Oh my God, am I here all alone?’
Thin Man (A)
Laughter is an appropriate response to this weirdness. It is funny, this pushing the dumpty-dum to its limits, turning it into something else, a burlesque, a travesty even, but something which makes us laugh. Because of Dylan’s seriousness of intent, we forget his humour sometimes. Genius or madness? Over to you, dear reader.
Without that thin, wild mercury of the harmonica, however, a performance can just fall deep into the rut of the dumpty-dum and never escape. This ‘Dignity’ (München,) doesn’t just court disaster but turns into one. Slowing it down only makes things worse. How many verses of this can you take before you quietly slip out of the auditorium one step ahead of dignity?
Just to rub salt into the wound, this is what the song sounded like when first played at the Oh Mercy studio sessions in 1989. This is an outtake. Arguably, it’s better than the version eventually appearing on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol 3 in 1994 as it’s less cluttered with Lanois’ accretions. Compare this smooth, cantering performance with the awful lumbering beast from 2009 – and weep.
And yet, genius will show its face. Take this Munich (4th April) performance of ‘One More Cup of Coffee,’ a song rarely performed after the 1970s. I believe this is the last time Dylan performed the song live. He sticks pretty much to the slow tempo of the original, sings it with passion and lifts it, as the violin would lift the 1970’s performances, with the lyrical force of the harp.
It’s heartbreakingly good. For me, this confirms the impression that it is the harmonica that is the real hero of 2009, the redeeming force of the performances.
One More Cup Of Coffee
The brilliance of the harp however cannot always overcome the omnipresent power of the dumpty-dum, established and sustained by Dylan’s vamping on the organ. ‘Forever Young’ cannot escape the rut, and the soaring pathos of the harp break at the end cannot redeem the performance but gives it interest. The older Dylan’s voice gets, the more pathos this song carries, the sharper our awareness becomes that nobody, even Dylan, can stay forever young. Here there is more a yearning for youth than a celebration of it. (Stockholm, 22nd March)
In ‘Desolation Row’ the harp both cuts across the staccato rhythm and reinforces it. The vocal is sharp and clear, the backing minimal, and the jerkiness inescapable. What makes the dumpty-dum more in-your-face is the stripped-down nature of these 2009 performances. There’s not a lot going on with the instrumentals, it’s all very naked, and we walk that fine line between triumph and disaster with every verse. It’s both terrible and wonderful. It’s harrowing, listening to this stuff, hating and admiring at the same time.
The question perhaps is, does this treatment bring across the dark beauty of the song, of the lyrics? Does it take us to Desolation Row? Does it bring the circus to town? Once more, I have to abdicate in favour of your response to this, dear reader. (12th April, Amsterdam.)
When looking at the 2008 performances, I observed that the more recent songs, those written after 1997 (Time Out Of Mind) largely escaped the musical rigidity that we’re facing here, but by 2009, the dumpty-dum had begun to creep into even those more recent compositions. There’s just no escaping that vamping organ, no longer in the background as it was in 2006 and 2007 but full on, dominant even.
You can hear it on this ‘When the Deal Goes Down’ from Amsterdam, 11th April. It’s a marvellous, broken-voiced performance by Dylan, but it’s that childlike, jerky, obsessively repetitive organ that eventually calls the tune, and there’s no harmonica here to lift us into the thin, wild mercury.
When the Deal Goes Down
It’s the same story with ‘Things Have Changed’ (Amsterdam, 11th April). It starts off okay but Dylan’s vocal tends to fall into the dumpty-dum as it goes along, and the guitar break follows his lead. By halfway through the song, we’re twitching along with it like a marionette. It’s when you try dancing to this that it really shows. You jerk around like a malfunctioning android. Where has that beautiful continuity gone? What kind of travesty is this? What kind of song that goes from bad to worse? Not even its weirdness can save it.
Things Have Changed
‘Can’t Wait’ takes us down the same track. As with ‘Tangled’ we find ourselves trapped in a mechanical staccato riff which jerks us through the whole song with no harp to relieve it. The problem is, that jerkiness draws attention to itself, distracts us from the message, from the feeling of the song. It’s very strange, and yet not so strangely unpalatable. I can’t help comparing this to the slinky riff that drove the 2003/4 performances, and how much better that was. (Date not known)
I want to finish with the iconic ‘Blowin in the Wind,’ a song I also covered in Master Harpist, part 4. One way of transforming the dumpty-dum is to turn it into a waltz. To quote myself again:
‘What can you do with an iconic song like this after forty-five years, other than mess the words up a little? You swing it, give it a cheeky riff on the organ, throw in a few even cheekier, taunting harmonica blasts. Use the organ to give it bounce. A circus-barker voice rich with the irony of it all. Once around the dance floor with the same old, eternal and unanswerable questions.’
Blowin in the Wind
What more can I say, other than this has become my favourite performance of this song. It gleams with Dylan’s humour. It’s irresistible.
That’s it for this part of the journey. I’ll be back soon to further explore these contending forces in Dylan’s music, 2009.