By Tony Attwood, delving a little further and comparing some of the recordings from the Never Ending Tour, based on the comprehensive NET series by Mike Johnson (for which there is an index here).
In what might be the first “compare and contrast” article of a new and exciting series, or maybe a one-off (I don’t know yet) I picked “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” as a song of which I could compare and contrast the performances on the Never Ending Tour. And I picked it not because it leaped out as THE song to investigate, but rather because of the opposite: simply because it is not one of the most obvious songs from the Never Ending Tour to pick.
The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest (composed in 1967) has been performed 20 times by Bob Dylan – the first was in 1987 and the last in 2000. For his series of over 100 articles on the “Never Ending Tour”, Mike Johnson has delivered two live recordings of the song out of these 20.
Now of course which songs are selected might in part be because recordings are not to be found, or indeed are of poor quality, but it might well also be because Mike has not found much of interest in them – which of course is fair enough. He’s the expert and he makes the selections. The series doesn’t aim to offer up each and every recording – that would be quite ludicrous, because many of the recordings would be near identical, and for others there might just be poor quality.
But the two recordings of Frankie Lee that we have on this site, really are of interest.
Of this 1988 recording Mike says, “Dylan tried a few talking songs during the Basement Tapes era that preceded the album, but this is one of the few to make it onto an album. I’ve never quite worked the song out, despite being apparently told the moral at the end. The so-called moral just increases our puzzlement. It’s all about temptation and falling into illusion, but it’s a lot less straightforward than it seems: nothing is revealed.
‘No one tried to say a thing When they took him out in jest Except, of course, the little neighbour boy Who carried him to rest And he just walked along, alone With his guilt so well concealed And muttered underneath his breath Nothing is revealed’
“It bounces along very nicely, however. GE Smith behaves himself and it makes for a lighter moment among some intense performances.”
So let’s start with George Edward Smith who Mike mentions. While working with “Saturday Night Live“, Smith toured with Dylan for 281 concerts from June 1988 to October 1990 having previously been the lead guitarist for the Hall & Oates band (including playing on several number one hits.)
He also played with David Bowie, Roger Waters, Tina Turner… and was in the band for the 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992, and his contribution here is clear from the very opening. He knows exactly when to be there, and when not, finding spaces between Bob’s declamation of the lyrics; each space being a matter of a second, and yet still giving us a moment’s break from the recitation of the lyrics by Dylan, and the straightforward playing of the bass.
And then suddenly we get to the instrumental verse and again he’s right there with a reinterpretation of the whole piece, adding to the country feel that the song has as a background. By the time of the second instrumental break we’ve got the total feel of what the music is doing, and the ending is a classic of a pop band of the era.
For the 2000 appearance, Mike wrote, “We have to wonder why Dylan chose to revive this song at this time, and give it such prominence. I can only speculate that the song’s moral obscurity fits well with the compromised faith evident on Time out of Mind. From our present perspective, this 2000 version offers yet another side of Dylan’s vocal dexterity. It has a talky, preachy tone, but is sung as the album version is not. Half talking, half singing, bending words where he wants to, it’s a remarkable performance.”
Dylan’s vocal approach is quite different here choosing the monotone singing emphasising an ever more frantic expression of morality as we get toward the end – contrasting with the much more melodic approach of two years earlier. There’s no lead guitar either to give us an additional input.
Listening to the piece now we are this time pushed toward the lyrics much more than in the version of two years earlier. And somehow, that and the variations in the way the song is sung, with the occasional declamations.
Then when the instrumental verse comes along we basically have the band playing alone with just a small instrumental extra from time to time. Until we get into the last verse (the moral verse) we have that effect Bob uses from time to time in which every word is sung is the same note, except for a descent on the last word of the line.
It is a really interesting development and change – this song so rarely performed, and which is incredibly simple in its musical structure (the same four chords over and over throughout) having two such utterly different interpretations, and then being dropped once more from the repertoire.