By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Every now and then Dylan likes to throw in a rarity – a song he has never before, or only rarely, performed. When he performed ‘What Good Am I?’ at Lintz on the 12th of June 2010, he hadn’t performed the song since 1999, and would perform it only four times in 2010. It’s a song about how we shut ourselves off from the injustices and tragedies of the world, and how our denial adds to those injustices:
What good am I if I’m like all the rest If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry What good am I?
We can feel that we’re not good for much in this world when we shut out the pain of those who love us. It’s not just a political thing; it’s very personal:
What good am I then to others and me If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see If my hands are tied must I not wonder within Who tied them and why and where must I have been?
This is a fine performance by Dylan, driven by a slow, heavy thudding drum.
What Good Am I?
‘I Feel A Change Coming On,’ co-written with Robert Hunter from Together Through Life, was only performed twenty-two times, and not after 2010. This is the second to last performance, Kansas City, 7th August. In his article on the song, Tony Attwood recommends that we don’t read too much into these lyrics and I agree with that. In hindsight, the title is provocative, however, as 2010 was the beginning of some big changes for the NET, changes we’ll see playing out in 2011 and 2012.
I Feel a Change Coming On
In 2009 Dylan introduced a new version of this gospel tub-thumper ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’ which steers away from a lot of the Pentecostal posturing of the original,
I’m sittin’ at the welcome table, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse I’m sittin’ at the welcome table, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse I’m gonna revitalize my thinking, I’m gonna let the law take its course
without totally losing the religious implications, although arguably with a touch of cynicism:
Jesus is calling, He’s coming back to gather up his jewels Jesus is calling, He’s coming back to gather up his jewels We living by the golden rule, whoever got the gold rules
There were a handful of performances in 2010, and the song would disappear after 2011. It’s a good bouncy number to kick off a concert. Here it’s the first song from Mashantucket, 27th Nov.
Gonna Change My Way of Thinking
Putting the two songs together like that, both heralding change, I can’t help but wonder if Dylan had some inkling or intimation that in fact there would be big changes coming up in the next couple of years. There is some evidence that Dylan was incubating his next album, Tempest, in 2010. ‘Classics Professor Richard F Thomas discovered that Dylan began writing the first draft of the title song on hotel stationery during the European leg of the NET in summer 2010 and that the song progressed from “alphabetical wordlists” written in Istanbul in late May to “the almost-finished song” in Spain one month later.’ (Wikipedia)
Tempest would turn out to be a very different album from Together Through Life, both in spirit and execution, and would usher in a new phase of Dylan’s career. The shift that made Tempest possible was taking place between 2009 and 2011. A change was coming on and he was indeed changing his way of thinking.
Another song that was only passing through is ‘If You Ever Go To Houston,’ also from Together Through Life. This may be a minor song but it swings along in fine style and contains some classic Dylan sentiments:
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 one’s from Dornbirn 19th June, and features Dylan centre stage on the guitar.
If You Ever Go To Houston
‘Simple Twist of Fate,’ inescapably one of Dylan’s greatest songs, and one of his clearest expressions of how we are but playthings of the gods (the fates), was only played once in 2009, looked as if it was on the way out, only to begin a resurgence in 2010 that would continue through to 2021. I know of no other song that so clearly expresses the pathos of one night stands.
This might not match the magnificent 2005 performance at Brixton (See NET, 2005, Part 1) but this rather bouncy performance from New York, 23rd December, keeps up the tradition of fine performances of this song. This is Dylan once more on the guitar, centre stage.
Simple Twist of Fate
Staying with Blood On the Tracks for the moment, we move to Billings (11th August) for this also bouncy ‘Shelter From the Storm’ – that’s almost a Rasta beat jumping it along, quite a different arrangement from previous versions. Probably because the hard-edged 1976 live version is etched into my brain this one doesn’t get to me the way it might. I love Dylan’s description of himself as ‘a creature void of form.’ I know just how that feels.
Shelter from the Storm
I’m glad Dylan didn’t lose sight of ‘Spirit on the Water’ one of those deceptively gentle songs from Modern Times. The song would last through to 2018. By 2006, when the song was written, Dylan could wear his profundity lightly. I don’t know about ‘best ever’ but this is the performance I keep returning to; there’s a defiant joyousness in it that’s hard to match. (Parma. 18th June)
Spirit On the Water
That same joyousness seems to infect ‘High Water (for Charlie Patton),’ although it’s a much darker song, a vision of the chaos and anarchy let loose by a natural disaster. It’s more about moral chaos than extreme weather. Over the years we’ve heard some wonderful versions of the song, often featuring Donnie Herron on mandolin who provides the country, ‘square dance’ sounding accompaniment and Dylan at his growly best. (My favourite performance is from 2006, see NET 2006, part 3, while editor Tony Attwood has yet another favourite: https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/24795)
This one’s from Mashantucket, a performance to rival both Tony’s and my favourites, especially with those sharp little harp interjections.
Perhaps with ‘Summer Days’ the apparent joyousness is matched by an underlying scepticism: ‘What looks good in the day, at night is another thing.’ Always, it’s the reality behind the appearance that counts. We have heard harder, louder, faster versions than this one (also from Mashantucket), but the sharpness of Dylan’s vocal brings that disjunction between appearance and reality into focus.
The brisk pace of ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’ shouldn’t fool us into thinking that there’s any kind of joyousness in this song, as the lyrics are pure hard-edged blues – ‘sooner or later you too shall burn.’ Arguably there’s an underlying joyousness in all blues, as it was originally sung to relieve the singer of his troubles, rather than be depressing.
The hard bounce here is cathartic. There is a bitter defiance in this song which goes to the very foundations of the blues. (Kansas, 7th August) Nice slide guitar from Herron.
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
That same spirit of bitter defiance permeates ‘Cry a While,’ only played once in 2010, at Kansas City, but revived in 2012 and played through to 2019. With its tempo switch from blues to jazz, which Dylan sometimes abandons, this is a tricky song to perform. It evokes a world of deceit and betrayal and ends with the threat of litigation and death. The bluesy segments take us down into the underworld of dark feelings while the jazzy segments lift us up onto rebellion and provocation.
Another top notch performance, broodingly introduced by Herron’s violin. Note how the slide guitar backing echoes the sound of the big band era, which the song evokes in both the lyrics and the music.
Cry a While
There’s a similar mixture of despair and defiance in Dylan’s melancholy masterpiece, ‘Trying to Get to Heaven.’ I may have quoted them before, but in the last verse I find some of Dylan’s finest writing, and can’t resist sharing again.
Gonna sleep down in the parlor And relive my dreams I'll close my eyes and I wonder If everything is as hollow as it seems Some trains don't pull no gamblers No midnight ramblers, like they did before I been to Sugar Town, I shook the sugar down Now I'm trying to get to heaven before they close the door
I think this recording is from New York, but I’ve lost the exact date. A vigorous performance from Bob.
Trying to Get to Heaven
Perhaps it’s not so much despair as fatalism that drives ‘Not Dark Yet.’ I don’t know any other song of Dylan’s that so clearly articulates his sense of mortality, the inevitability of approaching death. As I’ve suggested before, the older Dylan gets, the more real this song sounds. A bleak and bluesy harp break punctuates this performance from Clemson (17th October). I only wish the recording was a little better, and that Dylan had not fallen into the rhythm of the song quite so emphatically. He usually sounds better when he sings across the beat.
Not Dark Yet
We return to Mashantucket to catch ‘Lovesick,’ a song in which melancholy merges grandly into despair. Some nice guitar work here from Sexton and a convincing vocal by Bob. Lovers of this song, however, will find a much energised performance in 2011.
In 2010 Dylan began, for some concerts, replacing ‘All Along the Watchtower’ with ‘Forever Young’ as the last song of the night. If for a moment, and whimsically, we imagine that the ‘monkey’ referred to in the later version of ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’ as this overriding sense of mortality and approaching death, then we can imagine that Dylan, on the verge of seventy, might find some humour in finishing with this anthem to youth. By performing it last he ends up jumping on the monkey’s back to win another year on the road.
This recording is from Lintz, and continues Dylan’s recent practice of singing the song unaided, with no chorus of voices for the chorus, leaving the song feeling kind of naked, but more real for all of that. The old, and fading dumpty-dum creeps into this one however, and I think I prefer the smoother, less jerky versions.
That’s it for this time around. We shall meet again – next time for the last round of performances from 2010.
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