by Robert Ford
Bob Dylan has always said that “if you want to know anything about me then listen to my songs.” He prefers not to speak in public, he intensely dislikes TV and he tends to see himself as a craftsman who should get on with his work. It is easy to see though that he does acknowledge that he is primarily a performer, and a constant opinion throughout his career has been that his songs do not mean the same when sung by someone else. Another perhaps more recent opinion is that many of his recordings were first drafts of songs which he has since developed on stage (he has also said that some recordings have nailed the song ).
The Never Ending Tour’s origins are very interesting. Dylan observed in Chronicles that he was struggling as a performer in 1986-87 when he toured the world with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He claimed that he could not recognise his own songs when performing them and seemed to suggest that this feeling was even worse when trying to perform his songs with the Grateful Dead during this same period.
I believe that this disconnect is easy to hear when listening to his performances with Jerry Garcia’s band but not easy to detect when listening to both the 1986 and 1987 tours with Tom Petty.
Indeed, I would argue that both these tours are very different. The first year contains long shows with many marvellous cover songs adding a distinctive identity. The second year’s shows are shorter shows with no cover songs other than ‘Go Down Moses’ and the setlist virtually changing from one show to the next; these are among his greatest-ever tours. Some people however may consider that performing with a ready-made, established band, is a sign of fatigue. Who really knows?
The other major factor during this period is that Bob did not write many songs and the songs that he did write were mostly co-written such as ‘Got My Mind Made Up’ with Tom Petty or R&B performance pieces like ‘Shake’. The other factors which seem to support Dylan’s own view that he was almost finished were the “Hearts of Fire” film role (playing a washed-up has-been) and deliberately making the “Down in the Groove” album as inconsequential as he possibly could.
Bob Dylan suggests in Chronicles that he had an enlightening experience when performing in Europe in late 1987 which was a major turning point for him together with the discovery of a different musical theory which enabled him to rediscover his songs, and it is interesting to see that he did not waste any time in resuming touring.
However, with the NET he made a number of very significant changes. Probably the most relevant was the decision to omit a keyboard player from the band. The piano/organ sound had been a vital component of his live band for many years and although the 1984 European tour had a stripped-down band it still had the long-standing keyboard sound. The other major omission was the Queens of Rhythm. The brilliant female backing singers had been a terrific addition to his music since 1978 and although he rested them from time to time such as the 1984 tour, they had been an integral part of his music for nearly 10 years.
When the 4-piece NET band performed their first concert on the 7th June 1988 other changes were clear to hear. The band drenched in darkness came out all guns blazing and did not divert from a high-octane, take no prisoners performance during both the electric and acoustic segments. These early concerts also began to introduce more traditional songs into the mid-concert acoustic set.
Another innovation was G E Smith accompanying Dylan on the acoustic songs and their duelling guitar’s adding another dimension to the songs. This developed into the later sublime performances in which an acoustic performance would change midway, to a full band performance such as’ Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door ‘. This first US tour also had the unusual, unannounced added band member Neil Young trading guitar licks with Dylan and Smith.
The electric ‘Gates of Eden’ is an early highlight of the first few shows. I remember seeing video footage of these first NET concerts at a UK Dylan Convention in 1989. I must admit that the performances were initially disconcerting and the powerhouse, no-frills sound took some getting used to. However, looking back this was the release he needed from his earlier performing self and was the beginning of his attempt to develop a new audience.
Prior to the NET’s first tour in June 1988, Dylan had in the May recorded the superb Traveling Wilbury’s album, and co-wrote the songs including’ Dirty World’, ‘Congratulations’ and ‘ Tweeter and the Monkey Man.’ And despite the presence of Roy Orbison, Dylan also contributed the majority of the lead vocals.
During this period he may also have begun to write the songs for his first album of all new and original songs in four years: “Oh Mercy”. The album was recorded the following Winter but the seeds were planted during this first year of the NET.
The album was one of his most important especially given his writer’s block and the fact that there were great songs such as’ Dignity’, ‘Born in Time’ and ‘Series of Dreams’ left off the album demonstrates what a truly brilliant album it was (interesting to note that Daniel Lanois has recently said how highly he values the album and how feels it is a greater album than the much-heralded “Time Out Of Mind” which has the honour of its own Bootleg Series now being released).
This is the background to the beginning of the NET and I would like to explore some of the tour’s history. The numbers are amazing. The NET has lasted for 35 years. There have been 3165 concerts. The tour has been performed in six of the 7 continents of the world. The range of songs performed is dazzling; both his own songs and an enormous variety of cover songs. There have been 26 NET bands during this period and over 30 backing musicians have been in the band during the years.
Dylan has also preferred to have a muli-instrumentalist in his band since 1992 which has enabled him to cover more musical ground. Tony Garnier, the bass player, has remarkably been with the band for 34 years. Since 2001 he has preferred to have his current NET band as his studio band when recording the great albums he has recorded since this time (usually with a couple of other musicians such as David Hidalgo augmenting the NET musicians ).
It is clear to see that since 1986, the actual year that he began the constant touring, Dylan’s primary consideration in relation to his art is live performance. He has continued to record great albums, but whereas in the 1960s and 1970s he recorded more albums and toured less (no touring between 1966 and 1974 … 8 long years ) since 1988 he has recorded far fewer albums, especially albums of his own songs, but has been on the almost non-stop (in lockdown tours were cancelled in the Far East and the USA ) Never Ending Tour.
Yet the NET has been criticised by older critics and older fans because of the constant reworkings of his songs both musically and lyrically. However, these people completely misunderstand the ethos of Bob Dylan. Dylan has never been a nostalgia act and he has always rebelled against people’s expectations of him. He expects his audience to have an open mind and allow him to challenge himself, and his band. Bob Dylan knows that not every new arrangement or lyric change is going to be successful but this does not deter him from trying. The key point is that as a performing artist, he needs to try.
The NET has also led to an expanding of the musical canvas. The Love & Theft and Modern Times albums extended the folk, rock and blues music with country swing, rockabilly, jazz, big band etc. This unrestricted musical framework also involved a widening of the cover songs performed live and so a run of songs could be 1930’s cover song, mid-sixties classic and that of a Tin Pan Alley crooner. The great traditional cover song albums in 1992 and 1993 and the terrific Sinatra-inspired cover albums released between 2015 and 2017 also contributed to further extending the musical palette.
There have been further musical explorations along the way including the superb Great Musical Experience in Nara with the Tokyo New Philharmonic Orchestra, the Wynton Marsalis Septet jazz performance, the Christmas in the Heart album, The Bromberg Sessions and The Supper Club concerts. I would include the Rough and Rowdy Ways album (and tour) together with the recent Shadow Kingdom concert within these musical explorations.
Mike Johnson’s current great series on the NET includes many great performances from this groundbreaking tour. Mike’s emphasis has been on Dylan’s own compositions and the myriad performances of classic songs from all stages of the tour. It is a mighty achievement which currently has 105 episodes up to 2010. There is another series covering the rich oeuvre of cover songs performed throughout the tour waiting to be written.
There has been a deterioration in his voice over the course of the NET, probably a natural progression allied to not allowing sufficient rest between the various legs of the tour. However, it is remarkable how well his voice has held up despite the fluctuations in the vocal cords and it is amazing how the recording of the classic Shadows in the Night album in 2014 resulted in another transformation leading to his finest singing in over 20 years. Many people including his right-hand man Tony Garnier feel that his 2019 US tour was his greatest tour – if not ever, certainly of the NET.
Dylan has said that the only place you can be yourself is on stage. Obviously, his motivation for performing on stage and his relentless touring is connecting with an audience (or as he referred to the audience during last year’s London concerts “music lovers”).
It is also most obvious that Bob Dylan’s idea of connecting with an audience is not getting the audience to sing his songs, or playing his most popular songs or telling them how wonderful they are or flashing light shows,etc. He has never played the game. It was reported that he left George Harrison standing in the wings with his guitar in hand at Wembley Arena in 1987 preferring to end the concert with ‘Go Down Moses’.
The other part of this motivation is connecting with his songs both his own and also cover songs which he admires and makes his own (as in the case of the Sinatra-inspired albums). I also believe that he has further motivation because, as his songs demonstrate, he is a student of history. We have all heard the stories of him on tour seeking out the childhood homes of some of the musicians he holds in high regard. I also feel he has a strong attachment to the historic venues he performs in. It has been speculated that he owns a historic theatre or two in the USA. In Blackpool in 2013, I watched as he left the Imperial hotel during the afternoon of the 8pm concert. I believe he was on his way to the Opera House for a private tour of the venue and to take in the history of the largest theatre in Europe.
The excellent Scorsese Rolling Thunder Revue film released in 2019 has a most wonderful ending with a dynamic performance of ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ leading into an audio of ‘The Water is Wide’ and then a magnificent rolling list of all the Dylan tours from 1975 to 2019. Bob Dylan may be emulating the great blues giants who have always been at his side…constantly playing another joint. The great B B King was driven to play over 200 shows a year. However, the NET is of a different order. The ever-changing 35-year tour has constantly toured the world and the emotional connection Dylan has made with people of all ages in countries with different languages, different cultures is unique.