By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Please note, a list of past articles in this series appears here.
As we saw in the last post, the songs from Dylan’s new album, Tempest, hardly impacted Dylan’s setlists in 2012. Songs that would make a major impact, ‘Duquesne Whistle’ and ‘Long and Wasted Years’ didn’t appear until 2013. I covered ‘Early Roman Kings’ and a sole performance of ‘Scarlet Town’ in the previous post, but one more song from Tempest, that deadly little ballad ‘Soon After Midnight,’ was performed twice in 2012, and ‘Pay in Blood’ was performed once only, in Detroit, Nov 13th, but there is no known recording of that concert.
We can’t approach ‘Soon After Midnight’ without understanding the role that dramatic monologues play in Dylan’s work, especially his 21st Century songs. This needs a whole article to itself, which I have on my list to write after this NET series has finished, but in the meantime, if you have enjoyed, ‘My Own Version of You’ from Rough and Rowdy Ways, you will know what I mean when I talk of a scurrilous, creepy narrator who tries to inveigle us into his point of view in that song. ‘Soon After Midnight’ is something of a forerunner to that later song, featuring another creepy narrator.
There are various types of unreliable narrators from the honestly deluded to the deliberately deceptive. In ‘Soon After Midnight’ we have a narrator who can barely hide his murderous intent. The apparent sweetness and gentleness of the melody and sweetness of some of the lyrics fail to hide the homicidal nature of the narrator.
I am reminded here of the poem, ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning, a master of the dramatic monologue. In the poem the narrator is showing somebody a portrait of his now deceased wife.
She had A heart -- how shall I say? -- too soon made glad, Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er She looked on, and her looks went everywhere
There’s a nasty edge to the comment that reveals the man’s jealousy and secret rage. The woman was, he is suggesting, unfaithful and promiscuous. Murder is his solution:
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.
A chilling comment. We get the same kind of chill from ‘Soon After Midnight’ as it slowly dawns on us that the narrator has murdered these women he speaks of. Here are the give-away lines:
They chirp and they chatter, what does it matter They’re lying there dying in their blood
I am indebted to Jochen Markhorst for a fuller understanding of the evil that lies behind this song:
‘By the time the killing floors occur, in the third verse, the attentive listener begins to realize that this is not just a love song, that this is not some desolate whiny bigot, outside pining lonely between dusk and dawn, but that something else is going on… It is, in short, a real murder ballad. Not a love song, not a song that, as the reviewer of Pitchfork thinks, belongs to “Blood On The Tracks”, because of some bitter, vicious heartbreak, but a song like “Mac The Knife”, or “Where The Wild Roses Grow”, or “Little Sadie”, songs in which the protagonist is a murderous psychopath… The upcoming murder remains, however, as in the more subtle thrillers, beyond the reach of the cameras. The contrast is reinforced by the misleading musical decoration; it is sweet, seductive and slightly melancholy, just like Dylan’s delivery.’
There’s a nasty kick in the last verse as we realize he’s not talking about some new romantic adventure, but his next victim:
It's now or never More than ever When I met you I didn't think you would do It's soon after midnight And I don't want nobody but you
This performance is from the second to last concert of the year, Washington, Nov 20th, and without any tricks, projects our vicious narrator in all his gentle deceptiveness.
Soon After Midnight
While on the subject of murder ballads, ‘Delia,’ not performed since 2000, gets a single playing in 2012. Although listed on the Bob Dylan official website as a Dylan song, it was in fact written by Karl Silbersdorf and Dick Toops, originally recorded by Johnny Cash in 1962 for his The Sound of Johnny Cash album. The country legend re-recorded it in 1994, a year after Dylan included it on his album of cover songs, World Gone Wrong.
We’ll never know why Dylan revisited this song after twelve years, perhaps because it does deal with murder and fits neatly with the violence of the songs on Tempest. Here it is performed in Las Vegas, 27th October.
Another rarity for 2012 is a one-off performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Shadows,’ off his 1982 album of the same name. Again, we can’t know what drew Dylan to this song. It’s no murder ballad, no shadow of death lies over it. In fact it’s a sweet, lyrical love song. Rather refreshing, and Dylan does a loving cover version. (12th Oct)
We now switch focus from rarities to the songs Dylan most often played in 2012. ‘Ballad of a Thin Man,’ ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ and ‘Thunder On The Mountain’ were all played a whopping eighty-five times during the year, which saw eighty-six concerts in all. It’s curious that three of these songs are from his classic 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited.
His main interest in these songs, it seems to me, is adapting them with fresh arrangements for his new love – the grand piano. In 2009/10 we saw ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and some other hard rockers stripped down to their rock ‘n roll essentials, and the rendition is similarly minimal in these two performances of the song. The song is no longer guitar-heavy but thumps along with bass and drums, some light guitar work, and of course Dylan’s strange piano interjections. Sometimes he sounds like a child who’s just learned how to play boogie, hammering individual notes or odd little riffs, obsessive and repetitive; it’s a completely unique style, both primitive and sophisticated at the same time.
This first one’s from Toronto:
Highway 61 Revisited (A)
This one from Barlo (16th July) is even more stripped down. Odd vocal phrasing which hits the rhythm rather than arcing across it. You need to know the lyrics to pick them up when sung in this rushed, jerky way.
Highway 61 Revisited (B)
Dylan’s voice is very rough and full of bark in 2012. If I were looking for the best vocal outreach in these years I’d go back to 2011, where you get the feeling that Dylan is really working his voice. In 2012 the sweet, mellifluous tones with which he would soon negotiate the Frank Sinatra songs, able to soar up into the high notes, had not yet emerged and his vocal range feels severely constrained. 2013 will see an improvement, 2012 seems to me a low point in Dylan’s vocalisation.
I notice it in this performance of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ from Dresden (3rd July). He screeches a few high notes but it feels like a struggle.
Like A Rolling Stone (A)
By the time we get to Edmonton three months later (Oct 9th), his voice seems to have improved somewhat. Here, he slows the pace of the song, and seems more in tune with the spirit of it. To my mind, a better performance all round.
Like A Rolling Stone (B)
Dylan’s still using the echo effect for ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.’ This Toronto performance is centre stage (I don’t hear any piano) with an edgy harp break. His broken voice seems to suit the song. Not so much spooky as accusative and triumphant. Best not to stray into strange and unlikely places where weird shit is happening!
Ballad of a Thin Man
In a somewhat quieter, more reflective vein we have this one from Sao Paulo (22nd April). I prefer this one as the harp break is jazzier and more whimsical and there is a more understated feel to the performance.
Ballad of a Thin Man (B)
Over the next couple of years, Dylan would develop a pattern for delivering ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ He would begin centre stage, sing the first verses, blast out a chorus on the harp, then do his odd, rubbery walk to the grand where he would finish the song off. In 2012, however, he was still trying out different approaches.
In this one from Winnepeg, he doesn’t play the harp at all, and concentrates on developing the piano accompaniment. Once more this indefatigable song works its magic. Lyrically, it mixes the regular verses with the 1984 version. You can hear the switch in the last verse:
Now I’m going back again I’ve got to get to her somehow All the people we used to know Are an illusion to me now Some are masters of illusion Some are ministers of the trade All of the strong delusion All of their beds are unmade Me I'm still heading towards the sun Trying to stay out of the joint We always did love the very same one We just saw her from a different point of view Tangled up in blue
(For some further lyrical variations of this song see the Bob Dylan Lyric Archive)
Tangled up in Blue (A)
This one, from Toronto, is introduced by the harp and has a harp break before the last verse, but Dylan does move to the piano before the last verse. And that is Mark Knopfler on the guitar. As in 2011 Knopfler travelled with Dylan during the fourth, North American leg of the tour, often playing on the first few songs. Of this leg of the tour Wikipedia comments: “The tour was met with a mixed to negative response. Many reviews complained about Dylan’s decreasing vocal abilities and his lack of piano playing skills. As usual with Dylan reviews the press complained about Dylan’s changing of song, beyond recognition sometimes. The tour’s attendance was fairly poor with many reviews reporting fans leaving long before the concert was over.”
Tangled up in Blue (B)
While I have already commented on Dylan’s restricted vocal range in 2012, I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to make your own judgement on Dylan’s piano playing. I find it strange and intriguing, if not ‘good’ in the conventional sense. Who other than Dylan would dare play in this odd, elliptical way? One way or the other, he gives it a fair go in this ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ (Toronto) aiming for a jazzy effect. Again the musical backing is minimal, with bass and drums holding it together. You can see where he’s going with this, it’s just a pity that his voice hardly seems up to it.
Thunder on the Mountain (A)
Same with this version from Madison (Nov 5th), although the vocal seems marginally better than Toronto. Another jazzy ending. Interesting the way the band picks up on Dylan’s piano riffs and feeds them back to him. This is my preferred version.
Thunder on the Mountain (B)
That’s all for now. Be back soon with more from 2012.