By Tony Attwood, with recordings presented by Mike Johnson in the Never Ending Tour Series.
In this series we look at the way Bob has transformed certain songs over time in his live performances, in particular looking for the progression in his feelings about, and his understanding of, what the song offers, what the song says, and where it can be taken next.
So far we’ve looked at
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- Visions of Johanna
- The Hard Rain of 1988, 2003 and 2015
- Tangled up in Blue 1988 to 1993
- Blowing in the Wind. 1991-2001
- Blind Willie McTell. 1997-2006
- It Ain’t me Babe from 1994-1998.
- Things have changed 2000-2007
Love Sick is, according to the official site, the 12th most performed song that Dylan has offered us, with 916 performances between October 1997 and November 2021.
And we can go back to near the beginning of this series, and quite possibly the very first performance, for we can start off with what must be the very first performance of “Love Sick”, taken from the concert at Bournemouth in England on 1 October 1997.
There is a particular gentleness about the rendition, particularly in the vocal part that Bob delivers. The solid pounding beat through the verse which is the hallmark of the piece is there, but the feeling is nevertheless one of deep sadness and regret – something which was lost in some later performances I feel.
There is also an exquisite entangled feeling that arises from the way the instruments weave their way around that endless beat. If you want two words to describe this, I’d offer “desperate” and “resigned”. There’s no anger – just acceptance. For it is not him that is dead, it is the streets, the area, the neighbourhood, everything around him that is dead.
I would also say that I like the way the constant beat throughout is restrained. It became much heavier in later performances but here, it seems exactly right. In fact, everything in this performance is for me, “exactly right”.
This second performance of which we have a recording is from the same year but already that same level of control has started to disappear and the temptation to go for greater and greater emotion cannot be totally resisted but it is not as dominant as it would become later on the tour. Now Bob is starting to emphasise the desperation in the lyrics through the way he sings, whereas before he was as if a man standing in shock unable to take it all in.
At this stage in the song’s evolution, Bob’s voice begins as a gentle contrast to the pounding guitar chord. Indeed this version has a real balance between the voice and accompaniment, but we can also hear the first moves towards the vocals reflecting that the singer has been so mistreated.
This version, for me, has a real balance between the entanglement of the instruments portraying the internal chaos of the singer, with the depth of despair that the vocals project. And that surely is right for this song – “the silence can feel like thunder” doesn’t mean the percussion has to thump away; there are many far better ways of portraying what is being said here, and I feel Bob is totally within the song, rather than simply performing it, which inevitably can sometimes happen.
There is a more withdrawn approach in this version as if the singer has been so battered by the experiences he’s been through he just can’t even raise his voice. All he can do is talk softly and tell us he’s sick of love, and that’s it. The instrumental backing responds to this approach too, holding back and letting the totally lost and torn vocals reflect on everything that has utterly fallen apart.
This is the sort of approach I like; the performance here seems to be in keeping with the lyrics – and in fact this is emphasised by the instrumental break. Everything takes off and becomes utterly entwined as does happen with love sickness.
And what works so well is that after the instrumental break the vocals return in that same lost and hopeless way. For me there is no one perfect rendition of the song, but this is surely one of the best.
This second version from 2000 (below) shows that Bob was clearly happy with the general approach to the song, but it has within it subtle changes, which of course is what he offers us regularly, as over time he totally re-writes the song. There are fractional changes to the melody, and he manages to add moments of surprise – just consider how he sings “while I was sleeping” or “thick of it”. As a vocalist he’s reflecting on the lyrics by changing the emphasis slightly, without ever losing the essence of the song.
Indeed even in the treatment of two words such as “clock tick” Bob manages to find something else to offer – those lyrics have not changed but suddenly another tiny element within the song is given an extra importance; there is something else for us to consider.
And what is interesting in this version is how the instrumental break is also starting to explore new elements within the song we’ve not really ventured into before. Indeed, just consider how he is on occasion saying/singing “I’m sick of love” near the end of the song.
I get the impression that the ending of this version of the song sounds as it it were written to be the end of a review. It wasn’t of course – obviously – but that’s just how it sounds to me, as I stop listening, knowing that I will in due course come back to this song again, for there are many more versions to hear…