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, where it can be taken next, and even on occasion how he can reinterpret the past.
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 from the very start to 2000
- The Drifters’ Escape. 1996-2005.
After some of the articles in this series I have received emails asking where exactly each recording came from. In writing these pieces, and listening to the same song each time, I’m sorry to say my focus is on Bob’s reinterpretation, rather than the details of where that particular event was.
But to try and help out I have put a link back to the original edition of the NET article on this site in which the recording first appeared, and if Mike noted the details of exactly where and when the recordings were made, you will find them in that original article. I hope you can understand my focus as I write, and that link back helps trace the location and exact date of the recording.
Now onto “Like a Rolling Stone”. This song started to appear on Bob’s set list in 1965 and it stayed as a regular feature in his concerts for about nine months before taking a final (for the moment) bow in that stage of its developments the following year at the Royal Albert Hall.
It returned three years later for the Isle of Wight concert, but then had another four and a half years rest, until it was involved in every concert in 1974…. and so it goes on. It’s a song that can appear in every show night after night, and then vanish, although since about 1988 it’s been there much of the time, which is how it has as I write this in November 2023, racked up 2075 performances, according to the official site.
It is of course part of the Highway 61 collection, and indeed, half of the six most performed songs on the Never Ending Tour are from that one album.
We can pick it up in 1988, a recording of which Mike Johnson, in introducing it said, “These 1988 performances create an ambivalent effect. On one hand Dylan’s voice is as powerful and expressive as ever, on the other hand he seems to want to tear the heart out of the songs. His voice is a shock, too, for those used to his clear high mercurial tones; he grunts and snarls and vocalises in a hoarse, breathless, broken style like a man at the end of his tether. His frustration is palpable. You wanna hear this old song again? Well here it is, watch me rip it pieces.”
Well, yes, I agree with Mike, but only up to a point (and that’s really a key thing about Untold Dylan – we all write independently, there is no “Untold Dylan viewpoint”. And certainly for me, hearing it today out of the blue, and without the context of the whole show yes, this is a shock.
But let’s not forget, the lyrics are nasty, and I think we often tend to forget just how nasty they are. I mean, we know the lines
Now you don't seem so proudAbout having to be scrounging your next meal
so well, that it is easy to ignore how horrible that is. This is saying, ok you are in the gutter, but instead of giving you a hand up I’m going to kick you – because that is what you did to me and all my friends in the past when we were struggling and you were not.
But stay with this recording, because suddenly about halfway through we have the most amazing musical interlude which has nothing to do with the song itself, except to emphasise the fact that the singer is not just kicking her down he is dancing on her (I always feel it is “her”) in the gutter.
This is in fact a very nasty song, but (in my estimation) it is so nasty that it is hard to take, at least in this format. After all rock music is primarily love, lost love and dance. It is not normally about anger, revenge, disgust, and utter dislike and distaste.
But here’s another reason to stay to the very end – listen to that instrumental coda. It really is about dancing on the body in the gutter and laughing. So I must admit I may not like the images it brings forth, but no one ever said rock music had to be about what we like.
By 2000 we had a new lyrical version, a gentler vision, in which the singer is now sad about the fall. He does of course still ask “How does it feel?” but now he is asking because he genuinely wants to know. He’s puzzled at how it could all have come to this. He’s not going to do anything to help, but he really wants to know what the whole experience was like.
And this raises the question: how should we behave to absolute bastards who have never done anything for anyone else, but have now got their comeuppance? So when Bob sings How DOES it feel, he really is asking. It’s become a different song, and that slow down at the end shows the exhaustion of both sides. He’s saying over and over “How DOES it feel” and she’s not answering… How often can you ask?
In 2001 we have moved on again. He’s told us the story before, she’s heard it all before, he’s getting tired of saying it over and over, but even so, yes he does want to tell us again, and tell her again, just one more time, that is how it was, that is what happened, this is why it happened, and say “yes I can feel a bit sorry for you that he has taken everything he could steal, but still, I am not going to let up with that ceaseless taunt. How DOES it feel?” Yes he wants to say it, but really, the person to whom the song is aimed, really now is that complete unknown, and in the context of the song, such people are simply not so important.
And do listen to the instrumental coda that slows the whole pace down at the end… there now is a tiredness here. He’s saying, “oh come on, we’ve been through this before… that’s enough.”
Finally 2002 This last version for this article comes from Accidentally friends and other strangers
In listening to this final recording today we have now reached a totally different place. Quieter, calmer… the old timer is looking back, secure now in his place in the world, and recognising that the person who did nothing for him in the past is now down and out. But actually, he (Bob) doesn’t really care anymore. He’s explained himself so many times, he’s put every possible point of view, he’s just weary of the whole thing. “Look” he is saying, “it is over and done. It was a long time ago. You lost, I won. I can’t change the past. And I’m not here to pick you up or say sorry, because I have nothing to say sorry for. OK, I’m going to tone it down a bit, but really you still ought to take what you have got left to the pawn brokers. Because there really is nothing else.
And this is part of what is, for me, the genius of Bob Dylan. It is not just the 600+ songs that he has written, but his ability to reinterpret them and through the reinterpretations give us new insights and new meanings.
I think in the past I have had an awareness of this, but it is only through Mike’s work in presenting the NET series that I find I can now finally appreciate just what Bob Dylan is doing with these reinterpretations. For me this is allowing me to gain totally new insights into the songs, and into what Bob is doing and has done on the Tour. I do hope a little of what I am discovering for myself, is coming across in these articles.