‘I’ve paid my time and now I’m as good as new’ (The Levee’s Gonna Break)
By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
This is the final post for 2013, a richly rewarding year to explore, and what I need to do here is catch up with some performances that didn’t get included in the four previous posts, mostly Dylan’s 21st Century work.
But first, let’s get ourselves tangled up in blue, another song, like ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ that has become an institution, its performance a ritual. It is a mercurial song which has no final form, musically or lyrically, and that may be the whole point. Memories come and go; the journey changes as we look back on it, as we see it from different points of view. New things keep cropping up. What might have really happened is no longer the point. This is not one journey but many; almost every time it’s performed it’s a new journey. Maybe that’s why the song has stayed so alive.
In 2013 Dylan was mixing lyrics from previous versions and adding some new ones. As ever, the song was evolving.
She lit a burner on the stove
and then she swept away the dust.
“You look like someone that I used to know,” she said, “You look like someone that I used to trust.”
Then she opened up a book of poems and she said,
“take that, just so you know.” “Memorize these lines, and remember these rhymes, when you’re up there, walking to and fro.”
And the last verse comes out like this:
I’m going back again I got to get to them somehow Yesterday is dead and gone and tomorrow might as well be now. Some of them, they went to live upon the mount And some of them went down to the ground. Some of the names were written in flames And some of them, well, they just left town. And me I’m still on the road trying to stay away from the joint. We always felt the same depending on your point of view. Tangled up in blue.
‘Tangled’ has grown statelier and more dignified since the ecstatic performances of the early 2000s, or the epic jazzy versions of 1993. Now it thumps along with a certain dignified grandeur. In 2013 Dylan stuck with the piano and didn’t pick up the harmonica, which had become a feature of previous versions. In 2014 he will reinstate the harp break. He didn’t sing it in Rome, but we can’t do better than this performance from the impeccable Stockholm concert.
Tangled Up in Blue (A)
Or can we? This one from Hamburg (20th Oct) is pretty solid too. A bit faster and rougher.
Tangled Up in Blue (B)
In ‘Love Sick’ there’s no energetic bounce, the journey has become a lurching plod, weary but wired. A tread of doom. The process of alienation is complete, we have become ghostly voyeurs of worlds that can never be ours:
I see lovers in the meadow I see silhouettes in the window I watch them 'til they're gone, and it leaves me hanging on To a shadow
Unlike ‘Tangled’ ‘Lovesick’ doesn’t change much, either lyrically or musically. It’s not a song perpetually in the making, although Dylan did change a couple of lines. I confess to finding ‘Sometimes I want to take to the road and plunder’ a more powerful utterance than ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m being ploughed under’ although I’m hard-pressed to say why; maybe because the first is more active, anger expressed, while the second is annihilation.
It does now, however, have a final, settled form. I tend to hark back to the driving version of 2011, my best ever This one from Stockholm is certainly a little softer, and the harp solo is not as sharp, but it still has that unnerving edge.
Although I know that Dylan never gets stuck in a mood or mode, that he is the ultimate shape-shifter, it still amazes me how he was able to move from the dark pilgrimage of Time out of Mind to the often breezy, bouncy territory of Love and Theft. Of course it’s far from being all sweetness and light despite the fast rhythms and busy music. Take ‘Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,’ a lengthy song which bustles along but portrays a somewhat sordid situation that ends with homicidal sentiments.
Tweedle-Dee Dee is a lowdown, sorry old man Tweedle-Dee Dum, he'll stab you where you stand "I've had too much of your company, " Said, Tweedle-dee dumb to Tweedle-dee Dee
Dylan would perfect this technique of hiding grim realities behind happy or sweet-sounding music in Tempest (‘Soon After Midnight’). We’re in Rome again for this one.
‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ is another bustling song from the boogie-woogie, jazzy end of the blues. The band is really cooking. It’s a lot of fun as long as you don’t take the images of disaster too much to heart. The levee might break but in the meantime you’d better get dancing. Note how spare Dylan’s piano playing is, and how foundational Garnier’s bass playing is. This Rome performance is a beauty.
Levee’s Gonna Break.
‘Thunder On the Mountain’ is another long, bustling song. But in this case there is a genuine upbeat feel: we can change, we can grow, we can enjoy (just don’t worry too much about that ‘mean old twister.’)
Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down Some sweet day I'll stand beside my king I wouldn't betray your love or any other thing
Oh yes, there are plenty of edges here, and dark hints, but the effect is basically affirmative. Rome again:
Thunder On the Mountain
‘Honest with Me’ hardly lets up the pace. We are still ripping along, still tangled up in love and desire. However, there is no nostalgic indulgence in images from the past, it’s a bit more desperate than that – ‘these memories I got, they can strangle a man.’
Desperate enough for some bad jokes: I'm stark naked but I don't care I'm goin' off into the woods, I'm huntin' bare
Cynicism seems to have taken over:
They say that my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice Well, I'd sell it to ya at a reduced price
Here’s a place where heartbreak rules and smiles are cheap. We get the feeling that the plea to ‘be honest with me’ is going to fall on deaf ears. We’re still in Rome.
Honest With Me
We slow right down for ‘Workingman’s Blues #2.’ It’s an elegy for a lost prosperity and is the most openly political song of Dylan’s 21st Century output. “At a time when the poor and working classes are as diverse as they’ve ever been in this country – and perhaps as powerless as they’ve ever been – the song’s powerful closing lines do something more effective than asking us to listen for an answer blowing in the wind, they point to our common enemy”. (Spectrum Culture.)
I’m not convinced that the last lines do ‘point to our common enemy’ whoever or whatever that is, but the fifth verse comes close to identifying financial institutions and their economic oppression:
They burned my barn and they stole my horse I can’t save a dime It’s a long way down and I don’t want to be forced Into a life of continual crime
This one’s from Dusseldorf. Great bowing of the double bass from Garnier here.
Workingman’s Blues #2
We return to Rome to pick up another slow number, ‘To Make You Feel My Love,’ a world-weary love song if ever there was one. There’s nothing quite like it, although the sentiment reminds me a little of ‘Born in Time.’ With over 450 cover versions, this song has entered the realm of the ‘standards’ – songs from what is known as The Great American Songbook or American Standards, the popular music canon into which Dylan will be soon be diving to produce his ‘Frank Sinatra’ albums. It has a classic feel to it as if it were written in the 1950s.
This performance comes close to being a ‘best ever’ surely. As I’ve said, these Rome recordings are hard to resist. A strong, loving treatment from Bob. It’s interesting how he has managed to integrate some upsinging into his style without making a fetish of it. The harp break is a welcome, novel addition to his performance of the song. Those heart-rending blasts are just right.
To Make You Feel My Love
Speaking of American Standards, I don’t know if Bobby Vee’s ‘Suzie Baby’ qualifies as one, but it is the 1950s pop song par excellence. There were lots of Bobbys in the late 1950s pop scene just as there were lots of Hanks in the cowboy/country scene. We have Bobby Vinton and Bobby Darin, but Dylan has always had a special place in his heart for Bobby Vee, maybe because Dylan briefly played piano for Vee under the name Elston Gunn. But his unexpected performance of the song, a one off, at St Paul, Minnesota (July 10th), was doubtless because Vee was in the audience. Dylan gave him a heartfelt plug before singing the song. This one needs a video:
And here’s the audio in case the vid vanishes.
So that’s 2013, the year in which Dylan’s ‘new’ voice, the mellifluous, soft voice with which he would tackle the Sinatra corpus, began to emerge. Now, we sense, he can turn it off and on. He can make his voice throaty and rough, or soft and croony, at will. He’s starting to claw back his vocal range. Compare this with 2009/10 and you’ll see what I mean. This turnaround in Dylan’s voice is astonishing.
It’s also the year the songs from Tempest came into their own. ‘Scarlet Town’ and ‘Pay in Blood’ particularly enriched Dylan’s setlist even as he was busy shedding other songs.
Lastly, we have two remarkable concerts, Rome and Stockholm, very different in atmosphere but both superlative.
Next, I’ll be turning to 2014 where the revival continues and Dylan’s performances hit some new heights. We’re on a rising curve.
An index to the entire series can be found here.
The earlier episodes for 2013 are
- NET 2013 Part 1: Shedding old Favourites: A Roman Farewell.
- NET 2013 part 2: The art of the Dramatic Monologue
- Never Ending Tour 2013 Part 3: A Date with The Faerie Queene?
- NET 2013 Part 4: Softly softly golden oldies