Please note, a list of past articles in this series appears here. The previous articles on 2012 are…
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
Although as the year rolled out problems emerged with his voice, there were criticisms of his piano playing and tales of audiences deserting his concerts, Dylan looked suave and on top of his game in January, 2012, performing ‘Blind Willie McTell’ to a celebrity-studded audience at the Hollywood Palladium in honour of film director Martin Scorsese. This is a centre stage performance in which Dylan is clearly enjoying himself. Fascinating to watch the response of these celebs to his performance.
This arrangement of the song dates back to 2011, when Dylan started putting a swing beat into a number of his songs. (See https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/25202)
‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ gets the same swinging treatment in 2012 as it did in 2011. Fans of Mark Knopfler’s guitar style will be happy to hear him backing Dylan on this one from Toronto:
Man in the Long Black Coat
The question I asked in the 2011 post was, “does this dark song survive the bouncy swing arrangement”, and remarkably, it seems to do so.
Dylan began putting a swing into his songs in 2009, in particular his jaunty ‘Blowing In the Wind.’ In this gentle performance (sorry, lost the date of this one), he adds the piano to the mix to give the song a lilt. Not quite as cheeky as the 2009 version, but very much in keeping with the spirit of the song, and all those unanswerable questions it poses. Some tooting from the harp to finish it off.
Blowing in the Wind (A)
In Washington at the end of the year (20th Nov), he puts his harp aside and brings Donnie Herron in on the violin which adds a touch of pathos to the song.
Blowing in the Wind (B)
Not wanting to push this too far, but you can hear Dylan experimenting with piano sounds in this Winnipeg (Oct 5th) version. He loves to find two or three notes he can repeat with a childlike simplicity.
Blowing in the Wind (C)
These three samples of that most famous song show that Dylan has not yet settled on a particular arrangement but is experimenting with it, trying out styles and arrangements.
Let’s slip back to Toronto to hear Mark Knopfler accompany Dylan on ‘Things Have Changed.’ It’s a beautifully smooth version and, at least at Toronto, Dylan seems to be able to work with his voice. Of this song Brian Hiatt of Rolling Stone commented: ‘”The effortless feel of the playful-yet-ominous, hard-grooving, utterly dazzling ‘Things Have Changed’ was an early indication of the renewed friskiness of Dylan’s 21st-century work.’ The song contemplates the apocalypse with a cynical shrug of the shoulders: ‘I used to care but things have changed.’ It’s worth remembering that this song won both the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Golden Glow Award for Best Original Song.
Things Have Changed
Dylan’s original vision of the apocalypse was of course in ‘Hard Rain,’ dating back to 1962, which was played 24 times in 2012, but would fade quickly in the years to follow. More’s the pity, as it is one of Dylan’s best and most enduring songs. This one’s from Washington, 20th Nov, and his second to last concert for the year.
‘High Water (For Charlie Patton)’ offers us another view of the apocalypse, when everything goes down in a flood. I thought of this song recently when, here in New Zealand, we faced severe flooding in a cyclone and then another big flooding event a week later. ‘Don’t reach out for me, she said, can’t you see I’m drowning too,’ seemed very apposite. As with Shakespeare, in Dylan physical chaos always reflects and accompanies moral chaos in the human sphere. This one, with Donnie Herron once more on banjo giving it a country feel, is from Sao Paulo, 22nd April.
High Water (A)
This second ‘High Water’ is a remarkable performance, ending with Dylan goading the audience with cheeky blasts of the harp. The audience responds by whooping. At one point he seems to crack up with laughter, then recovers quickly. A very minimal backing thrusts Dylan’s cracked voice to the fore. A striking performance all round, and a fun one to listen to. (Sorry, lost the date of this one.)
High Water (B)
Of course the apocalypse can appear in a very personal way, as an awareness of one’s mortality. In the end twilight will succumb to night, no matter what we do. ‘It’s Not Dark Yet’ is the starkest expression of that awareness. Dylan wrote it in 1997 and twenty-six years later he’s still going, but eventually the dark will fall. We have heard some marvellous versions of this song over the years, and can add this one from Sao Paulo to that collection.
It’s Not Dark Yet
‘When the Deal Goes Down’ also confronts the inevitability of death, but with quite a different spirit from ‘Not Dark Yet.’ Rather it gleams with the possibility of redemption.
‘Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air Tomorrow keeps turning around.’
‘In a five-star review of Modern Times, The Guardian‘s Sean O’Hagan saw the song as an example of Dylan “waking with God”: “‘When the Deal Goes Down’ is a distant cousin of ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps‘, youthful defiance replaced by gritty stoicism. It is also a divine love song. Literally: ‘You come to my eyes/ Like a vision from the skies/ I’ll be with you when the deal goes down’. You have to go way back beyond Verlaine and Rimbaud, to the likes of Marvell and Donne to hear voices that echo with such metaphysical intimacy.”
We will not die alone, the song suggests, as an invisible presence, the “I” of the song, will be with us when we go.
This powerful song was played only once in 2012, at Madison (5th Nov) and would be played once more in 2013 before disappearing from Dylan’s setlists.
When the Deal Goes Down
‘Tryin to Get To Heaven’ tackles the same subject although this time with a streak of humour. That door could well close just before we get there!
The Wikipedia entry gives our own Jochen Markhorst an honourable mention, “Dylan scholar Jochen Markhorst ranks the song among the author’s “most beautiful works,” noting that it’s similar to but “more accessible” than the celebrated “Not Dark Yet” because it offers the “prospect of redemption in an afterlife”.
Jochen’s excellent article can be found here:
My favourite lines from the song evoke the Edgar Allen Poe story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ in which a razor sharp blade swings back and forth, coming ever closer to the hapless prisoner chained to a stone slab. There is both pathos and danger here:
People on the platforms Waiting for the trains I can hear their hearts a-beatin' Like pendulums swinging on chains
This performance is from Sao Paulo
Tryin to Get to Heaven
I’m going to pause at this point as I’ve still got nine songs to cover, and I’m not going to get through them all in one post. I’ll break the post here and resume with a continuation shortly.
In the meantime