The Never Ending Tour Extended: “Forever Young” 1987 to 2011

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.

The Never Ending Tour Extended: This series uses recordings selected by Mike Johnson in his inestimable masterpiece The Never Ending Tour, and looks at how those performances change as time goes by.   The selection of songs from the series, and the commentary, are by Tony Attwood.


Bob Dylan first performed “Forever Young” in 1974, four years before it was released on record, and went on to perform it 493 times, concluding in November 2011.

In the Never Ending Tour series we first picked up on the song in 1987, indeed in the very first of the 144 articles that Mike provided us within in his comprehensive review of the Tour.

This first performance that we have on record is indeed most curious.  There is one of the longest instrumental introductions I can remember to a song on tour, followed by Bob destroying the melody by calling out the lyrics in two word bursts with only a cursory relationship with the melody.   The chorus still retains the melody but otherwise… what on earth was he thinking about?   I have no idea, except that maybe people had been begging him to perform it, and he didn’t like the song, so decided to make it sound awful.

But of course maybe I just don’t like this rendition – and I’ll add a little personal context at the end to explain why that might be.  Or maybe I don’t realise that songs don’t need melodies – although I don’t think that’s right.  I do think that is a horrible treatment.

1987 – Farewell to all that

But whatever it was that was bugging him, Bob got it out of his system, and two years later was showing us that he realised that this was a complicated song: a love piece, and a song of devotion, plus a song of impossible wishes.

So here Bob goes out of his way to point out that it is not just the melody but also the chord structure which adds to the piece.  But he’s still being perverse: for half the song it is a guitar and vocal piece just like the early days, and then he brings in…. the percussion, with the guitar just constantly repeating the chords!!!   And all I can say is “what????”

We get a spot of relief from the constant strumming when the percussion joins – but really; an arrangement of acoustic guitar, harmonica and thumping drum, for a song with the chorus line, “May you stay forever young”?????

And what of those last few seconds?   Mind you there is a guy shouting “Bravo bravo” over and over at the end, so he obviously gets it.  If I could find who that was, I’d love to have him review this performance rather than me.

1989 – Blown out on the trail

After hearing those early performances I really did begin to wonder if Bob hated the song.

But of course I am wrong, as I always am if I try to predict anything to do with Bob.   In 1993 he delivered of the song a version that finally did it absolute justice in my view.   It is a beautiful love song whether it is aimed at a child by a father or at an 18 year old by a lover of the same age.

Now we have a version that I can listen to.  There is a touch of that incessant repetition just for a few seconds in the instrumental break but that only sets me on edge because of listening to the earlier versions.   This time Bob doesn’t descend.  He stays in the ethereal.

And I wonder, was this his decision, or did someone point out to him that those earlier performances were destroying something of beauty?   We won’t know of course, but there is a lovely ending too.

1993: The Supper Club and beyond.

So the question then became, which of these approaches would Bob retain?  Would he go back to destroying a work of beauty (and of course this is just my opinion – and as ever it is perfectly reasonable to reply “what do you know?”).

Well, what Bob actually added was more beat, and gave the percussion a more prominent part generally, but much of the beauty of the song remained – although, although…. that highly repetitive nature of the instrumental break at 3 minutes worries me.     And indeed it comes again later.

Is Bob really thinking “Let’s emphasise the ‘forever’ nature of the piece by playing the same notes over and over and over again?”   He might be, although I’d love to think that’s not it.  There must be something else.

1998 Friends and other strangers

So where did it all end up?   Below is the last recording we have from the Never Ending Tour of this song, and now he almost sounds like a grandfather giving his love to a grandchild.   He loses some of the melody again and the temptation to have those double beats in the rhyme is still there, but the feeling of genuine concern comes across.

However, here’s the thing: all reviews like this are based on our own lives and world experiences.  And there’s a very strong element of that here, as one of my grand daughters now in her teenage years is revealing an extraordinary talent as an actor.  I watch her in amazement and see her taking on more and more complex parts, but most of all I want to say, “Of course I won’t be alive to watch all your career blossom, but whatever happens, ‘stay forever young’.”   Remember these early years wherever your talent takes you.

2011 I  lit the torch and looked to the east


Other articles in this series…


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