Never Ending Tour: the absolute classics. When He Returns

by Tony Attwood

Untold Dylan started in 2008 – so we have been at it for approaching 15 years.  Indeed in a short while we’ll publish our 3000th article.  I’ve no idea how many of these articles I have written, but it is quite a few, since it took a year or two of publication for Untold Dylan to get known widely enough for others kindly to offer articles for publication on the site.  (Details of some of those who have written for the site are published here, and I’m still always keen to receive pieces from anyone who has something to say on Dylan that has not been said before.  Just email

Anyway, across the decade and a half of the site I’ve noted a few Dylan performances that stay in my mind as absolute gems, and I thought I would dig one out for today’s piece in the “Absolute Highlights” series.

It is a 1980 performance of When He Returns, and I have remembered it particularly, not just for its re-invention of the song and the power of its delivery, but because it is quite unusual for myself as an atheist, to enjoy music which celebrates a religion.  It happens, but when it does it tends to be in relation to the less overt religious pieces than this.

I guess there is nothing unusual in this.  Few of my friends who hold a religious belief are particularly attracted to songs which deny the existence of the Almighty, any more than I am drawn toward pieces of music that express in their lyrics an approval of any aspect of, for example, right-wing politics.

It was these thoughts that led me, just for this article, to jump away from the recordings that Mike Johnson has given us in his series reviewing the tour and turn back to the 1980 recording of When He Returns

In my original review which I wrote six years ago, I said, “If there were a Dylan Christian song that could convert me I guess it could only be “When He Returns”.  But it is not the album version that moves me, for there I find the piano part horribly overdone – so much so that all the twiddles, the quick arpeggios, the sudden introduction of bass notes, then scampering away to the high trebles – it is all the work of Beckett showing off, and of the producers saying, ‘hey look Bob can write a piece like THIS!!!’

“But fortunately there exists a totally different live version – and this is the piece which if I were convertible to Christianity could be used to convert me.”

And yet playing it again today, for perhaps the first time in maybe four years I didn’t hear it like this.  Indeed I found myself sitting here and wondering what all the fuss was about – which is pretty alarming since I was the one making all the fuss.

Maybe it was the sheer surprise of the musical arrangement of piano and organ duet – which is fairly unusual, maybe it was the power of Bob’s singing and his absolute commitment to the piece which influenced me.   But hearing it again, I had doubts.

And yet, and yet, now playing it for the fourth time (which of course is what those of us who listen to Dylan rarely do – we mostly play one song after another, but which I find necessary when writing an article like this) I begin to see again what made me so excited about this recording.

Now, this is odd, or at least unusual, for me.  My feelings about a recording tend not to meander around very much.  And yet now as I start playing it for the fifth consecutive time, I am again hearing what I heard when I first found this recording and thus wrote the “song that could convert me” piece.

As to what it is that draws me to this piece, I think I can get a little closer.   The balance of the piano and organ both in terms of volume and musical interaction is perfect, as is Bob’s verse over the top.   Vocally his conviction of the truth of the lyrics shines through in every line.  I don’t care that I don’t believe a word of it – it is the musical integrity which overwhelms me.

But there is one more thing – coming back to this version of this song yet again I also find myself once more noting what appear to be contradictions in the words – or perhaps simply lyrics that are constructed to fit the rhyme and the beat.

In the official lyrics we find

Can I cast it aside, all this loyalty and this pride?
Will I ever learn that there’ll be no peace, that the war won’t cease
Until He returns?

But in fact what we really ought to have and what is delivered in musical terms is

Can I cast it aside, 
all this loyalty and this pride?
Will I ever learn... 
That there’ll be no peace, 
that the war won’t cease
Until He returns?

It makes much more sense when the lyrics are re-written according to the rhyme and rhythm of the song.

And so now having played this version through multiple times as I have contemplated and then written this little piece, I am back to loving the performance.

I’m rather pleased I took the time.

The Absolute Highlights series

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