This is Episode 144 of the Never Ending Tour series by Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet).
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, we have the Roman poet Virgil as our guide through the various levels of Hell and Purgatory as envisaged by the poet. I have done my best to play Virgil to your Dante and take you on a journey through Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, a thirty-one year musical odyssey, Dylan’s own Dantesque journey, but now in 2019 we have reached the end of the line, the last station. Along came Covid in the first months of 2020, the venues shut down, Dylan quit the road until 2021, and the tour he began after that was clearly branded the Rough and Rowdy Ways tour. He seemed eager to rebrand and leave the NET behind him.
Having followed the tour since the year before it began, 1987, to 2019, across 143 articles, some 214,000 words and around 1,500 live recordings, we have to now face the fact that the Never Ending Tour never existed. It was nothing but a media construct. Dylan himself was sarcastic about it. On liner notes for World Gone Wrong, 1993, he wrote:
‘Don’t be bewildered by the Never Ending Tour chatter. There was a Never Ending Tour but it ended in 1991 with the departure of guitarist G. E. Smith. That one’s long gone but there have been many others since then: “The Money Never Runs Out Tour” (Fall of 1991) “Southern Sympathizer Tour” (Early 1992) “Why Do You Look At Me So Strangely Tour” (European Tour 1992) “The One Sad Cry Of Pity Tour” (Australia & West Coast American Tour 1992) “Outburst Of Consciousness Tour” (1992) “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Tour” (1993) and others, too many to mention each with their own character & design.’
A perfectly reasonable desire that the NET should not be mythologised might lie behind this attack. We shouldn’t make too much of it. Dylan was not the only artist to hit the road permanently. BB King spent forty-seven years on the road, performing through to his late eighties, doing up to three hundred gigs a year. Constant touring and performing is the life of the blues journeyman, and Dylan was acting squarely within that tradition. Those old blues cats never put their suitcases down.
My editor Tony Attwood has kindly described this series as a ‘definitive’ account of the NET, and I thank him for his enthusiasm, but with some 3066 concerts in all (the concert on April 19th, 2019, in Innsbruck was the 3,000th show), and with an average of nineteen songs per concert we have over 58,000 performances, more Dylan than anyone can decently listen to in one lifetime, and another Virgil would surely plot a different course through that mass of material, discovering wonders that I overlooked, illuminating corners that I blundered past. What I do acknowledge is that this is the most complete account, with performances, that I know of.
In the very first article of this series The Never-Ending Tour: 1987 – Farewell to all that, I outlined how unfit I was for the task. I don’t have the astonishing depth of scholarship of Jochen Markhorst, who writes for Untold Dylan, or the breadth of knowledge of Tony Attwood, both of whom might be justly called Dylan scholars. A big thanks to both those men for helping me on my way. But, as I said at the beginning, I don’t have many Dylan books on my shelf; my primary love for Dylan lies in listening to the performances.
So I did bring to the table a certain ear for Dylan’s live performances, having been an avid Dylan listener from 1964 when The Freewheelin first hit New Zealand – and I had a growing collection of recordings.
When I first started informally collecting Dylan performances there was nothing on You Tube but a bunch of imitators (circa 2010). Real Dylan uploads would fall foul of the Web Sheriff who looked like a character out of a Dylan song – the man with the shining star. Then uploads began to appear faster than they were taken down. Masses of material got uploaded, much vanished but some survived. Now we have the opposite problem. There is too much on You Tube, some gems but a lot of dross, inferior recordings. It’s an undifferentiated mess. The best of them is probably Elston Gunn, whose videos are fake but have good sound quality. And try Bennyboy.
But it wasn’t You Tube where I found my first ‘best evers’ collection. Before discovering the concerts section on ‘Expecting Rain’ I found material in Doom And Gloom in the Tomb, and the best of them all, Midnight Café, where dozens of concerts were uploaded before it disappeared a few years ago. A Thousand Highways also did downloadable compilations, and this began to alert me to the better concerts of any year, as all the songs were dated. I thank CS of A Thousand Highways for his contribution to this series.
I was able to further track down the best concerts by consulting Music this Day. Their yearly entries were helpful but not infallible. Tracking down the best concerts and the best performances at those concerts became an art form in itself.
When I started collecting these recordings I had no idea that I would undertake a study of the NET. I was just creating my own play list, but when that play list reached a thousand, I began to get a feel for Dylan’s musical development and conceived the urge to share that collection with others. I had some damn fine recordings which other Bobcats would love to hear!
The reason I quite often couldn’t supply the concert date for a particular recording is because it came from that original overblown play list, and I’d kept only the year, not the place or time if I knew it – I’m glad I did that much.
My series ‘Bob Dylan Master Harpist’ was like a practice run for the NET series. I had a lot more material, and was gathering more all the time. I discovered an enjoyment not just in listening to the songs but writing about them with care and enthusiasm. Once I got going I started to have fun, and it gave me the best ever excuse for listening to heaps of Dylan!
The writing became a journey of discovery. The NET is a remarkable musical odyssey, and following it gives us the chance to see Dylan in the act of creating and re-creating his music. That in turn inspired me in my own writing. I discovered that the reason I listen to so much Dylan is that I find him inspirational. There is something fundamentally uplifting in Dylan’s music quite apart from the mood of any particular song. Blasting Dylan at full volume is a guaranteed mood changer. It’s cathartic.
Even the dark songs are uplifting because Dylan, like the greatest of the blues singers, sings out the feeling. His performances might be seen as exorcisms of the shadow self, the anger, bitterness, remorse, yearning, disappointment, revelation – all given voice through a psyche splintered through dozens of narrative voices, points of view, masks and personas. Dylan’s genius lies in his divestment of self.
Along the way I discovered that for Dylan, a song is never finished, never finalized, flexible by nature and responsive to different musical styles and interpretations. There is no definitive written form, there can’t be since the lyrics keep changing to keep up with the changing times, and Dylan’s changing attitude to his songs. At first I thought that this was a Post-modernist approach to the creative. It recognises the flux. Fixed form is a Modernist illusion. As the American poet Lyn Hejinnian said, ‘language is never at rest.’ That may be true, but there might be a simpler explanation – he was just trying to make it better, but nothing can be perfected in this fallen world. The search for perfection is alluded to in the alternate version of ‘Lovesick’ in Fragments,
Below me Desolation in every direction Below me Nothing’s making any connection I’m driving…struggle and striving For perfection
Always striving to paint that masterpiece, the restless artist can never be wholly satisfied. My search for the ‘best ever’ performances became a bit of joke, as one ‘best ever’ seemed to be overtaken by another, and I found myself disagreeing with the mighty Christopher Ricks (another outstanding Dylan scholar) in his contention that a perfect song meets its perfect performance once and once only. Maybe in my search for the ‘best ever’ I was mirroring Dylan’s own search for that definitive performance, a search that was the driver for his constant innovation over those thirty-one years. Each year had its distinctive flavour.
When it comes to 2019, a powerhouse of a year for the seventy-eight year old Dylan, I have left the best until last.
‘It’s Not Dark Yet,’ from Time Out of Mind, is a song that just keeps getting better over the years. I have suggested that the older Dylan got, the more convincing the song became. The song offers no religious or emotional comforts. There is no Jesus or God to step in and make it all right. It is a cry from the dark night of the soul as the illusions of the world are laid bare:
It might look like I’m moving But I’m standing still
We have heard many powerful performances over the years but surely nothing to match these 2019 recordings. He only performed the song a dozen times over the year, but the best of these performances, especially those recorded from Oct 11th to the 14th, must rank as some of his finest, most moving moments on stage. He starts quietly and then builds to a soaring conclusion. It’s spine-tinglingly good. His voice has a spooky, ghostly quality, as if he is already speaking to us ‘from the other side.’ It feels like a grand and fitting way to end 2019, and this series as a whole – three triumphant renditions.
Let’s start where we have often started in 2019, at the wonderful Palo Alto concert (Oct 14th) for a sensitive and softly delivered gem. It’s beautiful the way he unfolds the drama of the song in a soft, hushed voice.
Not Dark Yet (A)
But is it the best (that crazy quest for perfection again)? Could it be more perfect? Well, as we have done before, let’s go to Santa Barbara (Oct 12th) for a different quality of sound. A bit rougher, a bit more upfront. There’s an excitement in the air at Santa Barbara, and the song’s unfolding drama gets a more desperate edge. The last lines, the song’s climax, become a howl hurled into the void. A final, soul-stripped cry of bewilderment. What happened to salvation? ‘Can’t even hear the murmur of a prayer.’
Not Dark Yet (B)
An unmatched performance for sheer raw power. Just listen to how Dylan sings ‘there’ at the end of each verse.
So is the Santa Barbara version definitive? How could it get any better? Before you make up your mind, best listen to this one first, from Irvine (Oct 11th)
Not Dark Yet (C)
It’s the way this Irvine performance lifts that last verse into the stratosphere that gets me, a soaring despair beautifully orchestrated, and a vocal as good as anything in Dylan’s whole history. This one gets my vote.
If anything, these three recordings mock our search for perfection: it’s right there in front of us. All you gotta do is listen to them again.
So that’s it for 2019 and the Never Ending Tour (that never was). A big thanks to Tony Attwood for hosting this series on Untold Dylan, to my proof-reader, Janscie Sharplin, who saved me many embarrassments, my son-in-law Chris Griffen who could magically produce any concert I asked or, and to my wife, Leila Lees, who so many times patiently heard me out while I raved about this or that.
But my biggest thanks must go to Bob Dylan for all those years of uncompromising performances. He never wanted to be a spokesman for his generation, but he was for me, pushing back the boundaries of my imagination and enriching my emotional being. An ongoing process.
I may return at some point, perhaps we’ll meet again someday on the Avenue…
Until such time, live well