By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
The two Rome concerts I drew on in Part 1 for this year, in which Dylan sang ten songs for the last time, were notable in another respect – Dylan didn’t play any songs from Tempest, and dedicated both concerts to golden oldies. I like the concerts for the evident warmth of the performances and the enthusiastic audience response. We’ll drop in to Rome again to pick up on some songs he did there but nowhere else, at least that I’ve heard. Sole performances.
You won’t find a more golden oldie than ‘Boots of Spanish Leather,’ Dylan’s great dialogue song from his acoustic period and a genuine tear-jerker. The whole situation, a final conversation between someone going away and their lover soon to be left behind, is drenched in pathos – the violin is a nice touch. Dylan gives it the soft, gentle treatment it deserves.
Boots of Spanish Leather
‘Girl From the North Country’ is from the same era. In it you find the distilled essence of nostalgia. Another tear-jerker, but Dylan doesn’t play it that way. The intensity generated by thoughts of the lost love is mediated by distance and time. It could easily be an old person’s song; we can feel comfortable with the reflective wisdom evident in Dylan’s aged voice. Marinated in sorrow.
Girl from the North Country
‘Don’t Think Twice’ is another from the same era, but this time the perspective is from the lover who is leaving. One of those ‘almost was’ relationships, painful in their own way; best not give them too much thought. There is a sting in the tail here, for while the singer exhorts his now ex-lover to ‘don’t think twice’ he keeps reminding her of what they were, and failed to be. I wish I had more space to consider the line ‘I’m on the dark side of the road’ because it seems in retrospect to be prophetic, and sets the scene for the emotional/spiritual valency of many Dylan songs. Here’s ‘I and I’ from 1984:
‘Noontime and I’m still pushing myself along the road The darkest part, I can’t stumble or stay put Someone is speaking with my mouth, but I’m listening only to my heart
Don’t Think Twice
We come forward a year or so for ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe.’ Dylan is on the cusp of his electric revolution which will change his music forever. ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ has been seen as a renunciation of his old ‘protest singer’ self, and maybe you can read it that way. For me it’s another farewell to love song, a step along from ‘Don’t Think Twice.’ There’s a beauty in these images that belies the message, maybe in an attempt to soften the blow.
Go lightly from the ledge, babe, leave at your own chosen speed
It Ain’t Me Babe
Before we hit the electric revolution, however, we’d better slip over to Milan (3rd Nov) to catch Dylan’s early great masterpiece ‘Hard Rain.’
‘Hard Rain’ is one of those Dylan songs that never ages. It could have been written today, for today’s messed up world. It’s as prophetic as Nostradamus (and at times as mysterious) and as radical as any song ever written. It’s political in the best sense, not taking sides with this party or that, but cutting through the rhetoric of war, racism and injustice to the hard truth behind it all.
Like ‘John Brown,’ it takes the form of a conversation between a mother and her son, in this case a question-and-answer form. The ‘blue-eyed son’ has been out in the world and has seen horrors that would make even Dante’s toes curl.
After listening to this, I wound the clock back sixty-one years and listened to the earliest known live performance in 1962.
Yes, there is a certain pathos in the purity of that defiant young voice, yet a different kind of pathos altogether hearing a cracked-voiced seventy-two year old sing it. Now there is a world of experience behind those apocalyptic lyrics, but the vision, and the passion behind it, haven’t changed.
I have some problems with Dylan’s vocal here, the way his voice sometimes descends from high to low, rigidly hitting the beat. We’ve noticed it before. It doesn’t work for me.
Now for the electric revolution. It’s a pity we don’t have ‘Maggie’s Farm’ but we can’t do better than his most famous rock song of all – ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ It’s more of an institution than a song by now, its performance a ritual heavy with history. I remember first hearing the song when it came out as a single in 1965. I was sitting with a group of friends. Everybody looked at each other in bewilderment. What the hell was this? One or two didn’t like it at all; something in Dylan’s tone got right under their skin. Now, too many decades later, I wonder if we can even hear the song anymore, feel the force of its attack on self-pretense and false appearances.
We’re back in Rome to catch this celebratory performance. We have another singing audience here, bellowing out the chorus. Again I’m reminded of Glasgow 2004. And while Dylan’s voice doesn’t soar the way it did when he was young, this is a powerful vocal performance; there can be no mistaking the intention or the message.
‘Highway 61 Revisited’ has all the youthful brashness and iconoclastic impulses that drive Dylan’s early electric music. There’s some strange stuff going on in this song, and it doesn’t need youthfulness to carry the satire. Get ready to rock. This one thrums along. Dylan tries out some lead piano trills at the end. There’s a problem with over enthusiastic audience clapping. That Rome audience sure gets carried away. Audience clapping can kill a song.
Highway 61 Revisited
‘Rainy Day Woman’ carries forward this gleeful attack on all the deadening forces of the world, those same forces that would knock you silly or stone you to death. Whatever you’re doing, they’ll come for you. From those sardonic opening chords, jeering and circuslike, the song opens out, and this Rome audience is right with it, delighting in every stoning. By some odd alchemy, it becomes a happy, stomping song.
Rainy Day Woman
Also from Blonde on Blonde, and also a rocker, is ‘Mostly Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine).’ The undulating voice Dylan uses on that album has morphed with age into something much rougher, but just as full of implication. Consider the games, truth and falsehood play in these deceptively simple lines:
You say you're sorry for tellin' stories That you know I believe are true You say you got some other kind of lover And yes, I believe you do
This is a great vocal performance.
You Go Your Way
Perhaps I should have included that song among the farewell songs I covered in Part 1 of 2013, as it would not be played after 2014 until 2021, the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour. It’s still being played in 2023.
‘Just Like Tom Thumb Blues’ demonstrated that the electric Dylan didn’t have to be loud and fast and rock and roll, and it didn’t have to be about disappointed love; it could be about feeling strung out. Doc Pomus’ ‘Lonely Avenue’ did it for the 1950s, ‘Tom Thumb’ does it for the sixties. It’s never fun coming down. Your buddies melt away and the local prostitutes ‘take your voice and leave you howling at the moon.’ A broken grandeur.
Dylan no longer plays the harp on this one, sad since the thin, pitiless harp added a sharp edge to the song. Nevertheless, this is a richly textured sound we have here, and a pace to carry the song, faster than it has been but solid. It’s hard to resist these Rome performances.
Tom Thumb Blues
It’s a natural movement to go from ‘Tom Thumb Blues’ to ‘Visions of Johanna’ which swirls at a deeper darker level than the upfront anguish of the former song. The last verse of ‘Visions’ might see us coming down, heading for the crash, but for most of the song we’re swimming in a queasy murk full of strange apparitions and visual effects. This song was not performed in Rome, we have to go to Milan to catch it.
If you are a regular reader of my series you will know that I usually find the NET versions of ‘Visions’ lacking the qualities of the 1966 performances, but this Milan performance must rank as one of the better attempts to render the song. He’s in such good voice and there are interesting sounds from the guitar. The piano riffs give the song a strong underpinning.
Visions of Johanna
‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions’ are the great larger canvasses of the mid-sixties rock period. Originally, when Dylan played ‘Desolation Row’ solo, acoustically, its roots in folk music were very evident. There is the hint of a narrative, the ‘I’ – Lady and I – wanders from scene to scene, circus character to circus character, until returning, in the last verse, to the sick spiritual/emotional state of the ‘I’. ‘Visions’ does something similar. We float from hallucination to hallucination, through a lot of weird stuff, before returning to the ‘I’ who sees all these things ‘while my conscience explodes.’
‘Desolation Row’ seems better suited to performance, and we’ve heard some masterful versions over the years. This one from Milan joins them. I miss the harp break at the end but the rich piano chords lend this song their gravitas.
Another rocker that started life as a folk song is of course ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ This song is more or less a fixture in the final stages of a concert. In 2012/2013 he often relegated it to the second to last slot, keeping ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ till last. The song, however, was on its way out. It would only be performed half a dozen times in 2015 and would drop out of sight until 2018. It had to make way for Frank Sinatra.
‘Watchtower’ too has evolved from deliberately raucous apocalyptic blasts to thrumming ominously, the band dropping back during the verses. This Rome performance is restrained but no less effective. Indeed, rather than going out in a blaze of glory, the band dampens the song right down, the piano plays deftly but softly around the chords. A wonderful way to go out!
We’ll finish with ‘Watching the River Flow,’ another golden-oldie, a good old rock song post-mid-sixties. Dylan is not exactly celebrating indolence. ‘What’s the matter with me?’ he asks in the first line. He has a rueful attitude to sitting ‘on this old bank of sand’ to ‘watch the river flow.’ After all, he’s on the road, a pilgrim through life, he can’t linger too long even if you can sit back and watch it all, watch how it all just keeps moving.
Oh, this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow…
Watching the River Flow
That leaves me with a few from Dylan’s later albums to catch up on, songs like ‘Lovesick’ and ‘To Make You Feel My Love.’ Oh, and let’s not forget ‘Tangled Up in Blue.’ We can’t miss out there, so I’ll be back for them in a final post for 2013 shortly.