The Never Ending Tour Extended: Absolutely Sweet Marie

The Never Ending Tour Extended: Comparing recordings of Dylan performing his own compositions across the years.  By Tony Attwood returning to 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

Absolutely Sweet Marie was performed by Bob 181 times between June 1988 and July 2012 – a period of 24 years – after which it was dropped completely, never to return (or at least not until December 2023 when this review was written).

It’s a straight song in one of the classic popular music styles in which there is a verse and an occasional “B” section (often known as the “middle 8” in rock musical circles).   The first example of this “middle 8” appears after the first two verses, with the lyrics “Well anybody can be just like me.”

Now this is interesting when we come to Bob’s live performances in that we know from previous articles in this series that when Bob sings a song in strophic form (that is a song that has a structure of verse, verse, verse without variation) he does sometimes drop verses, re-write verses, or perform an instrumental verse instead of a lyrical verse.  But that’s not the key issue here as we can see through the three examples the “Never Ending Tour” series have offered up…

1988 part 1 insert 9

Obviously, the first variation is that we get an instrumental introduction, and we have a solid beat throughout, and much of the melody has vanished.  And we’ve got an instrumental verse to help pad the whole performance out.

But I am left thinking – if this the only change Bob can make is it worth it with a song that we already know so well.   If so, why perform it on stage?   After all, everyone at the gig is going to know the song inside out, and aside from the introduction and the end, there isn’t much new here.

Indeed I am left thinking, if this is as far as it goes, why bother to take the piece on tour at all?

1998 insert 1  part 7

But then years later, immediately we know that this is a totally different version of the song.   There’s more verve, more enthusiasm, and more contact between Bob and the music.   There are changes from the album version, but not too many – so we can recognise a song from the album, and Bob can get himself in full working order in a performance that doesn’t take too many risks.

Plus those annoying latecomers can come in and get their places while those who are disturbed don’t feel we’ve missed too much – and what we have missed is not too important.

There is a slightly more languid style in the piece as if yes he is asking where she is, but this has happened so many times before he’s really quite used to it and isn’t really expecting an answer.

The instrumental verse at the end with two guitars fighting each other musically does come across as a bit of a muddle, and overall it still does feel like a song just thrown in at number 1 to get everyone in the mood before the real business starts.

But finally, from 2006 (part 1)we have the most polished of the versions we’ve noted in the Never Ending Tour series.   And indeed listening to this straight after the two previous versions makes me think that Bob really has gone back and read and listened to his own work once more, and thought about why he wrote it.   It’s no longer a throw-away piece allowing latecomers to take their seats.

As a result, for me this is by far the best of the versions that we have here.   The changes are not dramatic and it would be easy to dismiss them, but the instrumental verse half-way through this performance really does give us an extra insight into the relationship between the singer and Marie – and that is something that I don’t think was there previously.

Also, it is an extended instrumental break going through three verses in different ways and this leads us into the “middle 8” perfectly, allowing for the reflective “forgot to leave me with the key” verse, and then another instrumental verse.

Suddenly I do feel that the re-scripting of the song was completely worthwhile – that last, protracted instrumental break, does give extra thoughts and insights into what the singer and Marie have been up to all these years.   And suddenly the sudden end makes sense – they re-wrote the song, and re-wrote the end.   “Yeah! Yeah!” as the gentleman in the audience says.  And we can see why after this Bob dropped the song.  There really was nowhere else to go.

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