By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
The Never Ending Tour index to 116 previous articles can be found here.
Moving from 2012 to 2013 it’s hard not to be struck by how much better Dylan sounds. Everything is better, even the recordings sound better; what seemed blurred is now more sharply in focus. For a start, Dylan is really using his voice, really singing. The Frank Sinatra era is still a year or two away, but Dylan must have been listening to Old Blue Eyes because you can hear it in his voice. Dylan, the great mimic, is flexing his vocal chords, trying out extended notes, vibrato, lifting and lowering his voice and beginning to leave the old bark behind. Or turn it into something else.
You can hear it on this performance of ‘She Belongs to Me.’ now fully matured into that pounding beat and rising intensity that is the final arrangement of this song, and the way it would be played for the next few years. Listening to it, you can’t help but think that all the previous arrangements of the song, and there have been many, have inevitably lead to this final form in which the obsessiveness of the lyrics is perfectly reflected in that obsessive beat.
Despite flubbing a line at the beginning – ‘everything she sees’ becomes something else – it’s a powerful vocal performance, with the blues-honed harp clear and insistent. Beautifully staged rising action. (I’m still hunting for the date of this one.)
She belongs to me
Not a loose end anywhere, the whole band sounds tight and in focus. That may be a result of their precision work on Tempest. The setlists in 2013 will feature songs from that album, sometimes three or four songs per concert, pushing other songs off the setlists. Then we have those remarkable two concerts in Rome in which he plays a remarkable ten songs for the last time. Ten songs farewelled over two concerts, there has to be conscious intention here; Dylan was using these Rome concerts for a final performance of these songs, songs that were not peripheral, but bedrock songs and some that have with us from the beginning: ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,’ ‘Every Grain Of Sand,’ ‘Man In The Long Black Coat,’ ‘Positively 4th Street,’ Rollin’ And Tumblin’, ‘When The Deal Goes Down,’ ‘Under the Red Sky,’ ‘Ain’t Talkin’’, ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ and ‘I Don’t Believe You.’
I want to cover most of those performances, because I think they are historic and a vocal Rome audience seems to think so too. This makes these two Rome concerts (6th and 7th Nov) among the most moving of the whole NET. We have to go back to Glasgow, 2004, to encounter this performer-audience rapport. But these were not the only songs dropped in 2013. We have ‘Shooting Star’ (Denver, July 31st), ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ (Stockholm, October 12th) and an outlier, ‘Roll On John’ from Tempest only played twice, both in London at the end of the year.
So let’s settle into the two Rome concerts and bid farewell to some of our old favourites. ‘Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat’ is a good one to start with, as Dylan often opened concerts with this rollicking, irreverent rock song from Blonde on Blonde. Indeed, here it kicks the first Rome concert (6th July).
It’s a piss-take if ever there was one. It’s fun to make fun of fashions, and the people who adopt them. At the same time, we can make fun of those moments when romance fails to flower and absurdity sets in. They say sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but not where Dylan is concerned; hilarity is never far away:
Well if you, wanna see the sun rise Honey, I know where We'll go out and see it sometime We'll both just sit there and stare Me with my belt wrapped around my head And you just sittin' there In your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
This song hasn’t changed that much over the years. It’s an unashamed rocker and has always come with tight jeans and an attitude. And doesn’t the audience love it. Another, tight, uncluttered performance with some very tasteful 1950’s style guitar from Charlie Sexton. Let’s hear it one last time!
Pill box hat
‘I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)’ predates ‘Pillbox Hat’ by two years and has been a survivor from Dylan’s early acoustic years, although he’s played it as a rock song since 1966. It was first performed in 1964.
‘ I Don’t Believe You’ illustrates Dylan’s wonderful ability to turn common experiences into songs. Imagine you meet someone one night, you hit it off, romance flowers, you begin to dream things, then next day that same person ghosts you, walks right past you as if you didn’t exist. It’s okay to feel outraged; being slighted is hard to deal with. Maybe this is what kept Dylan singing this song for so long – it has that universality.
This performance kicks along at a good pace. It might be the last performance, but the song feels very much alive.
I don’t believe you
Over the years we have had some powerful, even extraordinary renditions of ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’ It was played only 76 time during the NET, but the song excels in expressing that world-weariness we can feel in the face of the world’s demand on us, and how, beyond romance, there is a feeling of commonality we can call friendship. There are details in the song which suggest it was written for Joan Baez, but I don’t think it matters. It’s an invitation to an old lover, and that’s what matters.
Now when all the clowns that you have commissioned Have died in battle or in vain And you’re sick of all this repetition Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?
Another superlative Rome performance to an appreciative audience. The sentiment suits an older, more tired voice.
We now have to leave the Sixties and jump to 1981, Shot Of Love,’ Dylan’s final gospel album and a song in which faith and doubt hang in the balance – ‘Every Grain of Sand,’ and I’m sure like me you will regret seeing it go. There is a magic to the song hard to pin down. Maybe it’s the way the lyrics work with the sweet melodic line. The lyrics don’t look that marvellous on paper, and yet sung it all works, especially that last verse.
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand
Some time back he changed that second to last line into: ‘I am hanging in the balance of a perfect finished plan’ which I don’t think is much of an improvement.
I’m not surprised to see the re-appearing eight years later to feature in the Rough and Rowdy Way tour that started in 2021 and is still going. The song has featured prominently in the 2023 setlists, but for our purposes it disappears after this performance.
Every Grain of Sand
We jump almost another decade to ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ from Oh Mercy. There’s no song quite like it for sinister subtly. Based on the ‘Devil at the Dance’ urban myth or folktale which was designed to be a warning to heedless young women, the song becomes an exploration of seduction and fascination, how desire can act like a magic spell. Note that she’s the one who asks him to dance, thus courting her death.
It’s a masterpiece, and was originally spookily atmospheric. These later swing versions may have lost the spookiness somewhat, but not its grip. I’m sad to see this one go.
Man in the Long Black Coat
We now jump forward a couple of years to ‘Under the Red Sky’ from the album with the same name. An underestimated song this one. I have previously explored how the song seems to be about the loss of creativity, which fits as we would wait until 1997 for Time Out of Mind.
This is the key to the kingdom and this is the town This is the blind horse that leads you around Let the bird sing, let the bird fly One day the man in the moon went home and the river went dry
The song has also been the occasion for some memorably melancholic harp playing. Here we only get a taste of that at the beginning; Dylan’s more interested in working with the piano.
‘When The Deal Goes Down’ celebrates the power of love. You want to stick with the one you love right to the very end, to death itself.
Under the Red Sky
‘When The Deal Goes Down’ celebrates the power of love. You want to stick with the one you love right to the very end, to death itself. Love has that time-defying aspect to it. This is a gentle, loving last performance of the song.
When the deal goes down.
Finally from Rome, we have ‘Ain’t Talkin’’ from Modern Times. A relative newcomer first played at the end of 2006 and played only 118 times. We saw some marvellous performances in 2007. It’s an extended masterpiece which expresses the spiritual desolation of modern life. It’s one of my favourite songs from Dylan’s 21st Century output, and while I don’t think later performances touch those 2007 versions, this one comes very close. A grievous loss to the NET.
We now leave Rome and skip to Denver (July 31st) to catch the last performance of ‘Shooting Star’ from Oh Mercy. With the loss this one and ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ that leaves the tour with no surviving songs from that album. More’s the pity, I say.
That shooting star was never just about the brief prospect of earthly love but our equally brief chance of spiritual salvation; as so often in Dylan love and spiritual salvation go hand-in-hand. Like love, we only get one go at it, every moment is the last moment, ‘the last radio playing.’ This song has had some intense performances over the years, with some sustained harp playing, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Dylan doesn’t try to swing it or compromise its intensity. Another sad farewell.
We’ve got room for one more. A final final, ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m only bleeding),’ Dylan’s 1964 protest classic, his summation of the spirit of protest, pushing beyond topical songs like ‘Hollis Brown’ to the massive broadside against everything that’s false, phoney and profane in the world, which is just about everything.
Old lady judges watch people in pairs Limited in sex, they dare To push fake morals, insult and stare While money doesn’t talk, it swears Obscenity, who really cares Propaganda, all is phoney
Hell, that sounds like 2023, a world riven by false news stories and moral busy-bodies who want to tell us how to live and love. Nothing has changed, it seems, except got worse.
The song is studded with epigrammatic one-liners that have become part of our language: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying,’ ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears,’ ‘While others say don’t hate nothin’ at all / except hatred.’
Dylan never messed with the lyrics, but the arrangements changed over the years and the song slowed up a bit as Dylan moved away from the rapid-fire delivery of 1964 (You can find a classic early performance of it on YouTube.) This one skips along at a fair pace, the images flashing by as they should, with an interesting descending riff to drive it. Oh no, Bob – how could we possibly lose this one?
It’s all right Ma
But lose it we do. I’ll be back soon to see we’ve gained, and a hello-goodbye to ‘Roll on John’ from Tempest.