NET 2009 Part 4 – foundations: the raw and the real (The real episode 100!)

Publisher’s note:

Upon publishing the previous episode of this series I excitedly announced it as episode 100, and it was not until Mike duly looked at my ramblings that it was pointed out to me that I couldn’t count, and it was actually number 99.  So now we do have the real episode 100.  My apologies to all for my previous error.     The most recent episodes cover 2009

This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid
(Dylan, ‘Union Sundown’)

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

What strikes me about Dylan’s 2009 performances is how stripped down they are: minimal backing, voice and harp to the fore, basic tempos and ‘primitive’ bluesy arrangements. Later Dylan would characterise his Sinatra covers as ‘uncovers’ and that’s what he’s doing with his own songs in 2009, uncovering their most fundamental forms, their unadorned selves; the foundations laid bare. The effect can be startling and disconcerting. Compare this beauty, ‘Till I Fell In Love With You’ to the swirling, more complex arrangement of 2007 (See NET 2007 Part 1: The light is never dying)

Till I Fell In Love With You

Same song, same tempo with simpler backing. (Rothbury, 5th July)

Dylan was fascinated with the sound produced by the old Chess and Race records of the 1940s and 50s. The black blues singers and country singers who recorded in those early studios were not trying to make pretty sounds but essential sounds, raw and real, rough and rowdy, songs infused with the blood of the land, songs about love and betrayal (or sex and murder as Jochen Markhorst would have it in his wonderful book Crossing the Rubicon) – and songs about natural disasters.

In this ‘High Water’ (Rothbury), gone are Donnie Herron’s marvelous banjo elaborations and even the harp goes for down-home blues, no fancy stuff, just the basic beat and the hard reality of the lyrics.

High Water

With regard to ‘Million Miles’ Jochen Markhorst, in his aforementioned book, says, ‘the narrator alarms us through small, ambiguous hints’ of violence that simmer underneath this song, and others from Dylan’s 21st Century output.

I'm drifting in and out of dreamless sleep
Throwing all my memories in a ditch so deep
Did so many things I never did intend to do

Gone are the distant, echoey effects of earlier performances with Dylan’s ‘muted trumpet’ style harp. Easy to add jazzy elaborations to this song. Not here – 12th April Amsterdam. Just a bit of Chicago Blues style guitar.

Million Miles

‘Rollin and Tumblin’ was always meant to be a rough and rowdy, hard-edged basic blues. Another night of sweaty insomnia and anger, that hint of violence again. (Rothbury)

I got up this mornin', saw the rising sun return
Well, I got up this mornin', saw the rising sun return
Sooner or later, you too shall burn

Rollin and Tumblin

‘My suffering heart is always on the line.’ And that slide-guitar brings it all back home.

‘The term slide guitar is most strongly associated with blues music. In the American South, the technique emerged among blues musicians around the turn of the 20th century, likely tracing its origin to that of the diddley-bow, an instrument of African derivation.’ (Britannica). This song could have been written by Leadbelly.

Even this apparently gentle ‘Spirit on the Water’ (12th April Amsterdam), with its hints of possible peace and reconciliation, has a bleak underside. Murderers are forever banned from paradise:

I wanna be with you in paradise
And it seems so unfair
I can't go to paradise no more
I killed a man back there

Spirit on the Water

‘Ain’t Talkin’ seethes with violence and death, from ‘something hit me from behind’ to:

Now I'm all worn down by weeping
My eyes are filled with tears, my lips are dry
If I catch my opponents ever sleeping
I'll just slaughter 'em where they lie


They will crush you with wealth and power
Every waking moment you could crack
I'll make the most of one last extra hour
I'll avenge my father's death then I'll step back

This reminds us that the classical literature which Dylan evokes here is replete with murder and betrayal.

In this performance (12th Nov, Boston) Dylan forsakes the eerie, spooky sounds that characterised his earlier performances. It’s all upfront with a wonderfully snarling vocal.

Ain’t Talkin (A)

This performance from 12th April, Amsterdam is even more in your face and very immediate. This ain’t no ghost walkin and singin.

Ain’t Talkin (B)

Also from that Amsterdam concert we find ‘Sugar Baby,’ another song with ‘small, ambiguous hints.’

Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff
Plenty of places to hide things here 
   if you want to hide 'em bad enough
I'm staying with Aunt Sally, but you know, she's not really my aunt
Some of these memories you can learn to live with 
   and some of them you can't

That dumpty-dum I have been on about in recent posts is revealed as the most basic architecture of the song.

Sugar Baby

‘Cry A While’ gets stripped of its tempo, switching from fast to slow, and gets a basic riff that sounds a bit like ‘If You Ever Go to Houston.’  (27th March, Stockholm)

Again the hint of violence and betrayal, not just the ‘dirty back-stabbing phony’ of the first line but this suggestion that the day of reckoning is at hand and it won’t be pretty:

Well, you bet on a horse and it ran on the wrong way
I always said you'd be sorry and today could be the day
I might need a good lawyer
Could be your funeral, my trial

Sex and murder anyone?

Cry a While

Also from Stockholm ‘Summer Days’ gets a simple arrangement reliant on drums, bass and organ riffs. This jump jazz classic also gets the no frills treatment; gone is the fat, big band sound of 2005.

There’s no overt reference to sex and murder in this largely celebratory song, but there is a hint of the violent death Jesus met on the cross, and sexual innuendo, while those barking dogs are suggestive of betrayal:

My dogs are barking, there must be someone around
My dogs are barking, there must be someone around
I got my hammer ringin', pretty baby, but the nails ain't goin' down

Summer Days

‘Honest With Me’ is another song which bubbles out of the sexual cauldron. ‘These memories I got they can strangle a man’ and violence becomes political.

I’m here to create a new Imperial Empire
I’m gonna do whatever circumstances require

Dylan has been stripping this song of its guitar embellishments for some time, honing it down to this lean mean machine.

Honest With Me

‘Beyond the Horizon’ is one of the sweetest of Dylan’s 21st Century output, yet at times seems to deal with the aftermath of crime or violence, alluded to but never stated.

There’s always a reason
someone’s life has been spared

he sings with disarming mildness. And

It's dark and it's dreary
I been pleading in vain
I'm old and I'm weary
My repentance is plain

But just what he has to repent is not made plain. It’s harder now to think of this as just a love song with a few tints. The ‘horizon’ after all lies ‘o’er the treacherous seas,’ where ‘night winds blow.’

This song gets the most radical makeover we’ve yet heard. The lushness, the lilt and swing of previous performances have gone; it’s not so comfortably melancholy. A single, simple series of picked notes provides the antique backing. It’s a lot starker, voice to the fore. This has slowly insinuated itself as my favourite performance. (Amsterdam 12th April.)

Beyond the Horizon

In ‘Trying to Get to Heaven’ the singer makes a final sinner’s run for salvation. There is grief and nostalgia here, but also a lurking terror:

People on the platforms
Waiting for the trains
I can hear their hearts a-beatin'
Like pendulums swinging on chains
When you think that you lost everything
You find out you can always lose a little more
I'm just going down the road feeling bad
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door

The word ‘pendulum’ suggests not only the clock-driven doom of time, but Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, that huge blade swingin’ ever closer to the heart. How come I get the feeling the old Pearly Gates will be closed by the time the sinner arrives? (Boston, 15th Nov)

No radical revamp of this song, but the emphasis is on the voice. It’s raw and ragged; the voice suggests that hearts that are broken may not be mended. You just ‘seal up the book and not write anymore.’

Trying to Get to Heaven (A)

This performance from Stockholm is gentler, a little softer, although that might be the recording. Another wonderful vocal from Mr D.

Trying to Get to Heaven (B)

Violence and mayhem run loose in ‘Thunder On the Mountain’
The pistols are poppin’ and the power is down
I’d like to try something but I’m so far from town

Try what exactly? Conscience has us on the run. ‘I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again,’ he sings. Confess what? We can only guess.

The arrangement hasn’t changed much here at all. The same old bark and bounce. (Rothbury)

Thunder On the Mountain

In ‘Working Man’s Blues # 2’ he sings ‘My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf,’ but ‘the place is ringed with countless foes,’ who will ‘break your horns and slash you with steel.’  However, he won’t go passively:

I’ll drag ‘em all down to hell and stand ‘em at the wall

I’ll sell them to their enemies.

The emphasis here is on the struggle rather than the nostalgia; there’s no sweetening the bitter pill with soft seductive sounds. (Chicago 31st October)

Working Man’s Blues

Murder, however, lies at the very heart of ‘Tweedle-Dum & Tweedle Dee.’ The song ends with a Cain versus Abel style fratricide.

Tweedle-Dee Dee is a lowdown, sorry old man
Tweedle-Dee Dum, he'll stab you where you stand
"I've had too much of your company, "
Said, Tweedle-dee dum to Tweedle-dee Dee

From all this we might gather that murder is as American as apple pie. A manic performance from Dylan – hear his sarcastic laugh after the first verse. (Chicago) This performance is a lot more engaging than the album version, even if it is shortened a little. Dylan’s tendency, becoming evident in 2009, to break into falsetto is used to great effect here.

 Tweedle-Dum & Tweedle Dee

Raw and ragged certainly describes this brooding ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ (15th Nov Boston). There’s no mayhem and murder here, but the scars show, scars that the sun (the Son?) didn’t heal.

My sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there is some kind of pain

Gone is the swampy ghostliness of Lanois’ studio sound. Dylan’s voice, the midnight circus barker, is sharp and upfront. The older his voice gets the better it suits the song. And the harp! Both lyrical and trenchant, wistful and despairing. Hard to find a better performance than this one.

Not Dark Yet

From the opening line ‘See the arrow on the doorpost’ to the closing vision of a world run by ‘power and greed and corruptible seed,’ in ‘Blind Willie McTell’ we are within the murderous violence of American history. From ‘them big plantations burning’ to ‘them tribes moaning’ and ‘the chain gang on the highway’ we are in a brutal, threatening world in which only the blues, in the voice of a blind blues singer, offers any consolation or relief.

Here the emphasis is on the rinky-dink organ. Within a year or so Dylan will put a big band swing to this song, and transform it, but here we get the most basic form of the melody, the stiff, jagged, up and down circus of the dumpty-dum. The ferris wheel of time and history – you can hear them in the organ – go on turning. (Amsterdam, 20th April)

Blind Willie McTell

We’re not quite done with 2009. I’ll be back soon with a wrap-up. And some rarities.

Kia Ora

One comment

  1. Congratulations on 100 NET episodes. A labour of love no doubt but still a remarkable achievement.

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