By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
- Never Ending Tour 2009 part 1 Contending forces: Courting Disaster
- NET 2009 part 2: contending forces: through the tears and the laughter
- Never Ending Tour: the full index of articles
Publisher’s Note: This is article number 100 in the Never Ending Tour series. I’m sure everyone who has read even just one or two articles from this series, as well as those who have taken in everything will want to join me in thanking Mike for the astounding level of commitment and dedication he has shown in putting this series together. And it’s not over yet! Personally, all I can say is, I’ve loved every second of it.
‘There are reasons for that, and reasons for this I can’t think of any right now but I know they exist’ (My Wife’s Home Town)
While flicking through some of the reviews for Dylan’s thirty-third studio album Together Through Life, released in April 2009, I found in the reviewer’s responses an echo of what I have been feeling about the whole year.
“Dylan, who turns 68 in May, has never sounded as ravaged, pissed off and lusty,” Rolling Stone magazine declared. That applies to Dylan’s NET performances perfectly.
“Dylan, with his crinkly, corpselike skin and croaky grumblings, both looks and sounds like a ghost,” said Slant magazine. Right on.
“And yet if the aptly titled Together Through Life turns out to be the last album that America’s most important song poet records, its mix of inscrutability, flashed teeth, existential angst, deep sorrow, deadpan humour and dead-on takedowns would make it a perfectly satisfactory coda to a remarkable half-century of music-making.” So sayeth the Washington Post.
The album’s title doesn’t tell us much about the songs, except maybe give them an ironical slant. Come to think of it, a good title for the album would have been Rough and Rowdy Ways for it’s a lot rougher and rowdier than the album of that name. The songs have a rough-cut, almost throw-away feel. The story I like about the making of the album is that Dylan and co-writer Robert Hunter went into the studio to record one song ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ for a film and kept on writing and recording until the album was done.
‘One consolation Together offers is the fact these songs are going to absolutely kill when played live,’ says Slant magazine, after characterising the songs as ‘slight.’ And maybe they were slight compared to the range and complexity of the previous three albums, but they’re blues club, midnight specials, and it’s misdirected to look for more in them than is there.
The big difference between the album versions and the live performances is the absence, on stage, of David Hildalgo’s accordion, which gave some of the songs a ‘south of the border’ feel. Without the accordion, the sound is squarely Chicago, home of urban blues singers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon; guitar players such as Elmore James, Luther Allison and Buddy Guy; and harp players such as Little Walter, Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite.
You could drop in off the street and hear a performance like this one, ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ (15th October, Los Angeles).
Beyond Here Lies Nothing (A)
That has to be a best-ever, on the strength of Dylan’s harp work if nothing else. I wrote about this song in Master Harpist 5 but will refrain from quoting myself this time (vile habit), but I have to note that I misheard Donnie Herron’s trumpet for an alto sax in that comment (my bad).
The broken urban landscape suggested by these lyrics Well, I'm movin' after midnight Down boulevards of broken cars Don't know what I'd do without it Without this love that we call ours
… which makes it a perfect fit for The Walking Dead series, where it ended up.
The Los Angeles performance was centre stage, Dylan alone with harp, but when he performed the song in Boston (15th Nov) he put the harp aside and moved behind the organ. I personally miss the harp, but it’s a strong vocal, and Dylan swings and swirls that keyboard.
Beyond Here Lies Nothing (B)
‘Beyond’ is a song that grows on me the more I hear it. Let’s give it one more fling, this one fittingly enough from Chicago 31st October. Another organ-backed version.
Beyond Here Lies Nothing (C)
‘My Wife’s Home Town,’ a take-off of Willie Dixon’s ‘I Just Wanna Make Love to You,’ continues the pissed-off apocalyptic feel of ‘Beyond.’ It’s the same bleak picture.
State gone broke, the county's dry Don't be looking at me, with that evil eye Keep on walking don't be hanging around I'm telling you again that Hell's my wife's home town
Paste magazine describes the song as ‘a bluesy jaunt that surveys the current economic wreckage as if from the passenger-side window of a car up on blocks without forsaking the idea that love—and the comfort we find in shared misery—is essentially all we have left when a lifetime of ambition and achievement are swept away by the winds of change.’
For me, this performance (14th Nov Boston) has more vitality than the album version. It rocks. The Slant reviewer was right. These songs, blues club songs, come into their own when played live.
My Wife’s Home Town.
‘Jolene’ is another in the same spirit, but this time a bluesy fast-step. This one gets your club crowd up and dancing. It’s a love song, all right, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If I were Jolene I wouldn’t trust a word this man says. He’s only passing through, remember?
Well it's a long old highway that don't ever end I got a Saturday Night Special, I'm back again I'll sleep by your door, lay my life on the line You probably don't know but I'm gonna make you mine
Deadpan humour driven by a grim good-cheer. (Boston 15th Nov) It’s worth tuning into the performance from the night before, also in Boston, for this more stripped-down version. It might be the recording, but this one has a cleaner feel.
The album produced at least one gem: ‘Forgetful Heart.’ I would argue that we don’t get our ‘best ever’ performances until 2011, but right from the start the song, with its heart-rending melancholy, stood out. In this song the singer addresses his heart, chiding it for its forgetfulness. At first it seems as if he is addressing someone else, as in your forgetful heart, but on closer listening, it makes as much sense to see it as his own heart. You can take it either way or both ways.
Forgetful heart Lost your power of recall Every little detail You don't remember at all The times we knew Who would remember better than you?
Whichever way you take it, it builds to a devastating end:
Forgetful heart Like a walking shadow in my brain All night long I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain The door has closed forevermore If indeed there ever was a door
Forgetful Heart (A)
That one was from Boston, 15th Nov, beautifully subdued. Same with this one from Chicago, sweet misery. Heart-piercing harp.
Forgetful Heart (B)
But you might prefer this more rowdy, upfront Crystal Cat recording from 31st July, Orange Beach, AL.
Forgetful Heart (C)
‘This Dream Of You’ is the only song on the album not co-written with Robert Hunter, and could be considered another gem, even though it was only played twelve times, and not played after 2009.
Exquisite melancholy, a wistful gloom, lights the song which is all about the brevity of our hopes and desires.
There's a moment when all old things Become new again But that moment might have been here and gone
Like the shooting star in the song by that name, the good moments, all our hopes and aspirations, flash briefly and are gone before we know it.
From a cheerless room in a curtained gloom I saw a star from heaven fall I turned and looked again but it was gone All I have and all I know Is this dream of you Which keeps me living on
The two performances I’ve chosen for this song are both centre stage. At first my favourite was this one from Los Angeles, because of the mournful, sombre harp break. It’s the master harpist at work here, sounding almost but not quite off key, just enough for that doleful edge.
This Dream of You (A)
But then I heard this one from that wonderful Chicago concert, also centre stage, but in this case Dylan plays a faintly ‘Mexican’ sounding guitar, giving the song a south-of-the-border feel, and he does some of the sweetest lead guitar work I remember hearing from him. Wonderful to hear him on the guitar and in such good form. There’s no choosing between this and the Los Angeles performance. They’re both absolutely necessary.
This Dream of you (B)
Those two songs, ‘Forgetful Heart’ and ‘This Dream of You’ make up the soft centre of the otherwise hard-bitten ‘deadpan humour and dead-on takedowns’ that mark the album. But there’s another more subdued song that we can’t overlook, ‘I Feel A Change Coming On.’ As ever, the hour is getting late, but change is always coming on. There seems to be a personal moment in the song, but it’s hard to tell with Dylan:
I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver And I'm reading James Joyce Some people they tell me I've got the blood of the land in my voice
Our moments of wistfulness and nostalgia avail us not:
Well now what's the use in dreaming? You got better things to do Dreams never did work for me anyway Even when they did come true
This song was only played twenty-two times and didn’t make it beyond 2010. This one is from the first Chicago concert (29th October. All the other Chicago performances I’ve covered are from the last of a three-night gig, 31st Oct). It’s dominated by some solid rinky-dink organ but the vocal is a wry jest. That organ gives the song a cheeky levity; “isn’t all this desire and despair one hell of a joke?” Of course, as always, the joke’s on us.
I Feel a Change Coming On
You can call these songs slight if you like, but within the unobtrusive universality of vintage popular songs, Dylan has achieved a focus we don’t find in the two previous great albums. The phrase, ‘beyond here lies nothing’ sums up the themes and spirit of all the songs. It only seems like a throw-away album.
‘If You Ever Go to Houston’ comes from the point of view of a desperado of the cowboy era. It’s about gun violence, murder and booze. Living on the lam:
If you ever go to Austin Fort Worth or San Antone Find the bar rooms I got lost in And send my memories home Put my tears in a bottle Screw the top on tight If you ever go to Houston You better walk right
We are in familiar Dylan territory here:
I got a restless fever Burnin' in my brain Got to keep ridin' forward Can't spoil the game The same way I leave here Will be the way that I came
This performance, the 9th August, Albuquerque, is driven by a jazzy swing.
If You Ever Go to Houston
The biting ‘It’s All Good,’ the last song on the album, was only played three times. It’s the most cutting of all the songs on the album, and has the making of a ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ for the 21st Century. The opening bars suggest that song. The lyrics too, half-sung half-rapped, are in that same ballpark.
Big politician telling lies Restaurant kitchen all full of flies Don't make a bit of difference, don't see why it should But it's all right, 'cause it's all good It's all good It's all good
It mocks that popular phrase, asserting it and denying it at the same time. Moral chaos rules the land. You struggle to survive it:
Brick by brick, they tear you down A teacup of water is enough to drown.
Another Chicago 31st Oct performance.
It’s All Good
It’s all good from me too, now, but we’re not finished with this multitudinous year, 2009. See you soon for some more.