Never Ending Tour – the absolute highlights. 1: John Brown 1987


By Tony Attwood, based on the research of Mike Johnson

The aim of this series is to go back over the vast monument to Dylan’s work that is the “Never Ending Tour” series created and written by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet), and pick out a few moments that strike me as being special in some way, perhaps in terms of musical originality, or perhaps beauty or indeed insight from Dylan into where his work could be taken.

Throughout the creation of the NET series, I have had the good fortune to be the first to read and hear each of the 100+ episodes that Mike has created for this site, and I have constantly marveled at both Dylan’s ability to rework his own material, and at Mike’s ability to collect all these recordings and present them to us in a coherent fashion.  Two quite different achievements, but one without the other would mean that we would not today have the pleasure of listening to all these reworkings of Dylan’s catalogue by the man himself.

With over 100 editions of the series now published (at the time of writing we are in 2009 – the latest piece is here) Mike and I have begun to talk (via email, we live just about as far apart from each other as it is possible to get) about what else (if anything) could be written concerning Dylan’s live performances, once Mike’s series is complete.

In one sense the answer is nothing, the Never Ending Tour series that Mike has created and is still creating, is a monument that cannot be surpassed, but Mike had the idea that maybe there is something more that could be done.  And this was that I could work my way through the series once again and pick out various recordings from the 1000+ that have been included, that stood out to me when I first listened to them and still have that impact today.

And I would stress that this is not with the idea of comparing different versions of the same song, for I fear that could become rather technical and for non-musicians extraordinarily boring, but rather simply picking out one song from one show and saying “Wow”.  And then perhaps a few more words as well.

So here we go.

John Brown; 1987.   NET review: “Farewell to all that”

We all know the awful, tragic story, that is told within this song, and so appalling is it in the recognition of how many millions of men and women have returned home from war destroyed either physically and mentally by the experience, that if it didn’t affect you the first time round, I’m sure nothing I can say will make it affect you this time around.

But I do find myself deeply fascinated by this musical performance as well as moved emotionally.  Perhaps it is because of its speed and its unrelenting drive, perhaps because of the assuredness of the delivery by Bob, and also perhaps by the instrumentation.

Of course I’ve no idea how they stumbled on this musical arrangement.  Quite possibly Bob sat alone trying the song in different ways and then realised just how much power he could get from the piece when performed at this speed.  Then it would have been taken to the band; although I think it is also possible that this version just emerged in rehearsal.

Certainly the song has changed over time.  There is a version on the internet of Bob performing this song in April 1963 and it has none of the impact on me.  The 1987 version brings the horror of the situation full-on into me in a way that the version below does not approach.

But of course I am listening to these recordings now knowing exactly what the story is – yet the 1987 recording above still sends shivers all through me and leaves me wanting “something strong to distract my mind”.  (Fortunately, I am not seriously tempted to succumb to such a wish, but I can recognise it when I feel it).

At the start of this live rendition, there is a technique that Dylan has sometimes used elsewhere of the instrumentation seemingly randomly playing against each other with odd musical phrases that take a few moments to coalesce into the song itself.  But coalesce the music quickly does to become unrelenting – and that is the key to the impact this version the song has on me.  No matter what instrument comes in (the piano for example, then the percussion), that drive forward never stops.  It is utterly relentless, just as war is.  Once it is running, there is no escape.

But Bob and the band don’t just let the music rip.  What Bob does is resist any temptation to change the speed or passion in order to reflect the realisation of the mother as to what has happened.  We can’t catch each word – but that doesn’t matter, we know the lyrics anyway.  It is the sound and the horror and the unrelenting consistency of the music that holds us.

And what is so extraordinary here is that really this should not work – it goes against all the logic of writing and performing a horror story.  Just think of the music that accompanies the revelations of a horribly mutilated body in a movie – this performance is nothing like this at all.  Any musician worth his/her salt can parody the music accompanying a black-and-white 1950s horror film.  Few can hold the intensity that Bob and the band create here.

But then, I would ask that you don’t always focus on the magnificent guitar playing – listen to the way the piano keeps up relenting accompaniment often being nothing more than four notes repeating over and over and over…   It would have been so easy to hammer out chords to signify horror and aggression, but those notes are almost delicate – and yet they are once again utterly unrelenting.  Like a tiny drop of water, which is gentle when just one falls, but add them all together and it becomes part of an overwhelming destructive horror.

Of course not everyone will feel overwhelmed – emotions are personal and based on who and what we are.   Equally not everyone in the audience will know all the lyrics, but eventually, surely most fans will find them and read

And I couldn't help but think, 
through the thunder rolling and stink,That I was just a puppet in a play.

And then at that moment, if one has any feeling for the way the accompaniment is created, that piano part, going on and on and on, seemingly unresponsive to the horrors of the lyrics, makes absolute and total sense.  Nothing, but nothing is ever stopping this horror.  They’ll probably write nursery rhymes about it.

Beautiful Obscurity: John Brown

John Brown and Tomorrow as Never Before

Not just the song but the staggering performance


  1. The Ballad Of John Brown accompanied by guitar only (released to the public by TMQ vinyl bootleg in 1972, entitled ‘Blind Boy Grunt’, has an emotional and lasting impact that far out does the 1987 rendition in which the upbeat music is divorced from and almost overwhelms the feeling of horror expressed in the lyrics.

    It’s hardly a narrative that is to be clapped and danced to though the Post Modern use of ‘irony’ created by the contrast between the rather thumping music and the ad lyrics is an interesting approach if indeed the tale of the words is also paid attention to.

    Not likely though for those interested in the sound of the band regardless of the content of the story.

  2. Nice would be an accompanying video in which blind-folded and bandaged-up people dance around the floor on crutches.

  3. I saw / heard him perform this at Madison Square Garden in the fall of 2001, when the war in Afghanistan had just begun. It was mesmerizing. 19,000+ people and you could have heard a pin drop. One of my most memorable, sublime concert moments.

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