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.
“Honest with Me” was played 739 times between 2001 and 2019. We picked it up for the first time in 2001 in More power, wealth, knowledge and salvation. it is a real bouncy rocker to the format of the old 12 bar blues – although of course very much extended. And in the opening versions it does sound very much like the recording from “Love and Theft”. Although it does also feel to me that Bob is looking for ways to make something more of it as he goes along. He clearly loves the piece (739 performances after all) and he is extending it somewhat: its a minute longer than the original recording, and that is accounted for by the additional instrumental break.
So off we go, and I would urge you please to dip into these recordings even if you don’t play them all, because this really is a journey worth contemplating.
OK, this is fairly straightforward reworking of the song for the live performance with a touch of extra emphasis on certain words. But it is the song that we know.
So let us take a leap forward to 2006 – and wow what a difference the years have made. It is still the old 12 bar blues of course, but the signature guitar part has gone, except for the link between the verses. Now the lyrics are a growl – and that seems to me to be a really good re-consideration of the song by Bob. Just look at the opening lines (if you don’t already know them by heart)…
Well, I’m stranded in the city that never sleeps Some of these women they just give me the creeps I’m avoidin’ the Southside the best I can These memories I got, they can strangle a man
And then while you are listening, please do focus on the instrumental break which starts around 4’15” – that really emphasises that we are now into a totally different interpretation of the piece.
All of which raises the issue of where would Bob go next? Would he be satisfied with this major re-working of the song, while retaining its essence as an extended 12 bar blues? (Incidentally, I would urge listening to this recording all the way through – the ending in which the familiar descending chord line is reversed is unexpected and very interesting).
So let us leap forward to 2011: I lit the torch and looked to the east
There are changes to the way Bob sings this time, with occasional extra emphasis on the last word of some lines. For me the instrumentation has now lost its edge – there is a clear attempt to do something different with the song, but it’s not quite there. Sometimes this does work as the break between the verses shows, but the lack of a clear lead guitar contrast with the vocal lines leaves me feeling that an old favourite has lost its edge. There are occasional extra chord changes too, but I get the impression of it being a bit of a mess, due to uncertainty of exactly what else can be done….
Except that at 3’30” we get a total diversion from what has gone before with a different sort of instrumentatal break. However then it is back to more of the same – although there is another instrumental variation at around 4’45”. It’s interesting, but is it enough to sustain our interest in a song we’ve heard so many times before? Or is there a shortage of ideas? Or indeed are there more ideas to come?
Yes, softly softly indeed as Mike called the whole episode. The piece is shorter, the band’s part is reduced, and Bob is almost talking to the audience – telling them the song. Suddenly my faith in the piece is refreshed; there is something so interesting in the way Bob delivers the line, with the band keeping the “temperature” of the piece right down, although the speed is there.
Now I have been commenting on the instrumental breaks as I go, but just listen to what has happened now at 2’40”. The whole piece is taken down; there is no shrieking guitar solo but a gentle reconsideration of the piece. There’s another one at the four minute mark.
This is one of those re-workings that always reaffirms my faith in Bob Dylan, musical arranger. He knows the song inside out; he has performed it so many times… and yet he can still transform it into something quite new. I am so glad this transformation has been preserved; to me it is an important musical document, for without this, and the other recordings we’d just have a few comments as to how Bob changed the songs as he went. Now we can hear just how much.
2017: Songs on the rebound
This is the final recording we have of the song – and the sharp and fresh opening tells us Bob really has done a further reworking of it, perhaps reconsidering the whole journey the piece has been on. Still a 12 bar blues – but with so many changes, it really is refreshing – it is almost like a new song. Certainly, the addition of the unexpected non-blues chord in the chorus really works. Even the elements of Little Richard style performance on the piano are an interesting surprise!
For me I am back to a Dylan recording that I really want to listen to, and this is one of those occasions where I am so, so glad we can trace the changes that Dylan has been able to put into a song that he obviously knows inside out.
It is a much shorter and sharper song as well: cut down to four minutes to make the strongest possible impact.
A great journey, and great fun.
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
- It’s all right ma – at least it was by 2001
- 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