Comparing recordings of Dylan performing his own compositions, across the years.
In this series we look back at recordings presented by Mike Johnson in the Never Ending Tour series of articles (there is an index to that series here). Links to previous articles in this “Extended” series are given at the end.
The selections and comments are by Tony Attwood.
We first come across “Simple Twist of Fate” in the Never Ending Tour series of articles in 1989 when the song was already 15 years old, and we find it with an accompaniment that makes it utterly clear what the song is, but with Bob varying the melody in order to maximise the sense of tragedy.
Hearing this today, I am not sure what the rush of the lyrics actually convey to me. Is it the hopelessness of lives in which we are forever chasing the next objective, or perhaps that for all of the semblance of control that we like to feel we have, is it the realisation that fate is still the dominant factor in our lives?
1989: Blown out on the trail
In fact I found myself so wrapped up in this transition of the song, I felt the need to go back and play the original; I think this is the first-ever recording, and so a reflection of how Bob first perceived the song having recently written it.
So the song has already travelled a long way from that starting point. But was it to go any further?
Well, yes, for within two years of that 1989 recording the piece really had moved on as the introduction in the 1991 version sets a new scene. I must admit I find this version much more enjoyable; not to say that sadness is enjoyable, but as I can enjoy a movie or novel with a sad theme if it is well constructed so I can enjoy this. The pictures that occur in my head as I listen as much more in keeping with the lyrics. Just listen to “the blind man at the gate” – I’ve never felt so much from that simple line before.
It is also interesting how the instrumental sections are extended, and yet still can retain the interest, and after the instrumental break Bob retains the feel of the song completely, in the way he sings the lyrics.
It is also fascinating how such a simple song can become an eight and a half minute performance, extended of course by the interestingly growing but still somehow restrained harmonica performance. This extension in time and the slow coda adds more and more, and we are left wondering where it ends…. which it does without returning to the tonic chord – musically we are utterly left hanging the air. For a moment I can’t think of any other time Bob does that – but maybe as I work through this series there might be another.
Wow, is all I am left saying along with a feeling that maybe I’ve already reached the end after just one example from the Tour. But I’m committed to writing this, so onwards…
1991 part 3: King of the unsteady
The following year the format and length is similar, but those small nuances and changes within the melody that Bob so loves are there. as the accompaniment takes further small steps into the song itself, filling out more and more of the openness that was present the year before.
I get the feeling these changes have come not from re-thinking in rehearsal but what has simply happened in each performance. Certainly, one way or another the percussionist has taken it upon himself to have a greater input and I am not happy with that; it is as if the percussion is leading the show, which is not what I wanted from this song. Nor indeed as an accompaniment to a gentle harmonica solo. Harmonica and percussion? No, not for me, but it is an interesting experiment. Whoever else has tried this?
Mind you I could also do without that person (probably the same one as we have come across elsewhere who seems to go to Dylan concerts in order to shout “Yeah” repeatedly) near the microphone. He’s at it around 7’25” but block it out if you can – there’s some very interesting musical entwining going on here.
1992 part 2 What good am I
Bob continued to experiment with the piece in the coming years and continued to extend the performance – by 1993 it was approaching 11 minutes; two and half times the length of the original arrangement.
This year Bob seems to have decided to extend his vocal range, as if to make the lyrics more central to the song, and while the percussion continues to have an important role, the drums have in fact been taken back just a little. Of course these recordings are made by those attending the concerts without the opportunities to balance and modify how the tracks sound. Which means that the quality of the recordings is variable, but we do get it as it sounds to the punter in the concert.
I do get the feeling in considering songs in this way, year by year, as if Bob himself simply lets it happen during the rehearsals and then on stage, or if there was any planning and discussion. Either way, I have the feeling here that he felt that 1992 had gone as far as it could with the song, and it was time to reign things in somewhat but isn’t quite sure how. As a result the instrumental coda from around ten minutes to the end is interesting, and more in keeping with the whole song I think.
1993 part 4: The Supper Club and beyond.
One year on, and Bob now has found that even deeper sense of calm regret in the song, and has resisted the notion of letting it grow anymore. Now we have a slightly shorter version of something which was in danger of taking over half the show. And Bob’s voice shows signs of expressing his depression at losing her. It’s not sorrow anymore; this is pure unadulterated anguish.
There is also just before the seven minute mark a moment of music which almost sounds like the first ever run through “Someone’s got it in for me…” but maybe I’ve been listening too much. Certainly we are now hearing the song taken down and down and down so far that approach eight minutes it is almost vanishing, before recovering. There is indeed a sense that this is as far as it goes; everything that could be done has been done.
1994 part 4: I’d give you the sky high above
So where else could this song go? It could retreat into its original form, it could become shorter, it could become more mainstream… and indeed that is what Bob did. Not exactly the original melody but four years later we have a variation on earlier versions of the melody, and a feeling of gentleness rather than any sense of despair. A sort of sense of retrospection that wasn’t there when the song was first being performed.
And this is interesting because it is not just retrospection within the story in the song, but also I feel, a looking back by Bob on his own earlier performances. As if he is saying, well, yes this is interesting, but maybe I took it just a little too far before. These lyrics… they are rather good, let’s keep the focus there.
And you might also notice how restrained the harmonica part is. Or if you prefer, just how Bob treats “I was born… I was born too late.” To me this is a performer who has just re-discovered one of his masterpieces.
1998 part 4: You won’t regret it
OK it’s been a long journey, and when I started writing this I didn’t mean to take us quite so far in one go, but I did want to move on one more step, to 2003.
For what I hear now is a complete retrospective – a pulling together of the different approaches taken, gentle and modest though some of those variations might be.
So what I have just done having finished listening to these seven versions of the song spread across 14 years is played the Take 1 version near the top of the article. We’ve been on a long old journey since then, and I really feel it was worth it, because it led to this 2003 version (below).
Could Bob have got to this, without going through the journey revealed above? Maybe, but probably not. The changes are not always that overt, and much of the time it is the overall sound and the approach that we feel as being different. Even if you have had enough and are skipping some of the music, do listen to 5’20” in this version.
I’ve been listening to these recordings all morning, and this is the one that brings forth the tears. Of course I have no idea what Bob thinks about the song and his various versions, but for me, in 2003, he finally knew where he all these previous outings were heading and he got there. And so did I as the listener. I hope you did too, or at least I hope you enjoyed some of the journey.
2003 part 6: The Ragged Clown
Other articles in this series…
- Absolutely Sweet Marie
- Blind Willie McTell. 1997-2006
- Blowing in the Wind. 1991-2001
- Don’t think twice it’s alright 1993-1997
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- Highway 61 1989-2003
- It Ain’t me Babe from 1994-1998.
- It’s all over now baby blue
- Like a Rolling Stone 1988 to 2002
- Love sick from the very start to 2000
- Masters of War 1978 to 2000.
- One too many mornings.
- Rainy day women, from push to stroke
- Summer Days
- Tambourine Man 1964-1995
- Tangled up in Blue 1988 to 1993
- The Drifters’ Escape. 1996-2005.
- The Hard Rain of 1988, 2003 and 2015
- Things have changed 2000-2007
- Visions of Johanna