Why is the live version of “We better talk it over” so magical and superior to the album recording?

Dylan re-writes Dylan: the start, perhaps, of a new series

By Tony Attwood

Of course having an idea for a new series of articles, and then actually making it happen are two different things.  But I have contemplated doing a series of how Dylan has changed his songs on stage, several times, although with the caveat we obviously can only talk about performances for which we have a video or audio.

If you are a regular reader here you may recall my wild ravings over the live version of “When He Returns” which to my mind utterly transforms the album version into something so far superior that the live version has had about 500 plays in my house, while the LP version got one play when I bought it and maybe half a dozen when I was writing the review.

There are also several remarkable reworkings of Visions of Johanna which take us to a new level which one might consider – and I am sure many more when one starts looking.

But this is not to say that every rewrite is an improvement.  To my mind, the live version of The Drifter’s Escape, to me, totally removes every ounce of meaning and depth that can be found in the original LP version.  It was down to other artists to uncover the route to the perfect recording of that song.

So, I have opinions as to where Bob improves and where he doesn’t; as indeed does everyone who talks about or writes commentaries on Bob Dylan.  But just expressing the view itself is neither entertaining nor helpful, so I thought what I would do is start with “We’d better talk it over” which Jochen reviewed recently  and which I had a (very unsatisfactory) bash at way back in 2008 to see if I could express why I so adore the ultimate (but not the earlier) live version of the song.

And this one fascinates me because like “When He Returns” I really had no liking for the album version.  Indeed I wrote at the start of the 2008 piece, “We better talk this over is hardly a great song, but it does have a way with words that is unusual even for Dylan.”

Now I think, (in my usual arrogant manner of believing I can interpret what Bob is up to), that having listened to the live version, Bob realised this too.  He had a very unusual set of lyrics, but wasn’t doing them justice in the music.

“We better talk this over” is in the file that Heylin marks “recriminations and regrets” and the early drafts that Heylin has found certainly have an awful lot of recriminations and often go light on the regrets.  Indeed the detailed analysis of how the song changes over time does make interesting reading, if the evolution of the song interests you. (pages 133 to 136 of “Still on the Road”).

In the album version, which is available on Spotify (no subscription is needed to play individual tracks like this) Dylan has some interesting extemporisation by the piano but what comes across is the solidity of the beat – there is nothing disrupting that solid 1 2 1 2 throughout the song.

In the 1978 tour Bob played with the song in different ways and fortunately we have two recordings of these experiments.

I think this version came first

And then was followed up by

He’s still got the ladies singing in the background, which keeps a strict control on the rhythm, although you can hear that on occasion he’s giving them a freer reign than to the original.

But then the world changed…

Finally Bob returned to the song in 2000 and transformed it.  You don’t have to get very far to realise what he has done here.  Just listen to how he stretches the words I’ve highlighted and see how the words have changed from the album

I think we better talk this over
Maybe when we both get sober
You’ll understand I’m only a man
Doin’ the best that I can

This situation can only get rougher
Why should we needlessly suffer?
Let’s call it a day, go our own different ways
Before we decay

You don’t have to be afraid to go looking into my face
We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase

I feel displaced, I got a low-down feeling
You been two-faced, you been double-dealing
The vows that we kept are now broken and swept
’Neath the bed where we slept

Instrumental

Babe, why you wanna hurt me?
I’m exiled, and you’ll  never convert me
I’m alone in the….
new lyrics

You don’t have to yearn for love, you don’t have to be alone
Somewheres in this universe there’s a place that you can call home

Pause

Oh babes I’ll be leaving tomorrow
If I have to beg, steal or borrow
New lyrics
That goes on beyond

Instrumental

I think we better talk this over

The last three verses are dropped and the song ends.  You’ll see that I’ve opted out of trying to guess what Bob’s new lyrics are.  All suggestions welcome as always.

So why does this stretching of words and rhythms make such a huge difference?  To me it works because it truly reflects the meaning of the song – the expansion and contraction of time during a painful breakup.  When one is desperately trying to understand, trying to make it all ok again, and then accepting it is over.   And here we have the point of the song which is that it is called “We better talk this over”.

In the context of that title the extended words and paying with the rhythm, plus the stretching of the sound makes much more sense than having the female singers emphasising the word at the end of each line.

Thus Dylan has retained the notion of the word emphasis – which is absolutely at the heart of such break ups.  (In this regard all I can say is that if you have never had a lover’s argument in which one side says, “But you said…” throwing back a chance remark out of context, then you’re much luckier than I am.  Stretching words is a perfect symbolism of that sort of row.   In short the whole song now becomes not only a tale of a break up, but a symbolic representation in music of the break up).

Thus the women singing the last word of each line are at last seen to be irrelevant to the overall composition.  They might sound ok, but they don’t take the feel of the song anywhere.  In fact they just send it off track.  Getting rid of them is a significant step towards unifying the meaning of the music and the song.

In my original review ten years ago (at which time I’d had far less practice at writing Dylan reviews – it was somewhere around the 20th review, and I’ve now written well over 500 – so I have had a chance to refine the technique a little) I opened like this


The start does not auger well with the opening lines still jarring after all these years

I think we better talk this over
Maybe when we both get sober

I can still hear myself shouting, “Oh no,” as I heard that for the first time. It is just so naff. And worse the opening is followed by two throw away lines which make one think that the great lyricist has lost it

You’ll understand I’m only a man
Doing the best that I can.

But then in the next verse we suddenly get a surprise…

Let’s call it a day go our own different way
Before we decay.

Decay? Now that is odd. Love songs – lost love songs indeed – normally speak about “getting older” not decay. This is indeed something new.


In short I had a feeling this wasn’t working, but I couldn’t quite understand or express why.  But being infinitely better as this sort of work than I am, upon revisiting the song Bob did indeed discover what was wrong, which to me makes this whole archive of his live recordings so incredibly valuable.

Yes, of course it is interesting to hear the various versions of a song that the band played in the studio before Bob chose which one was his favourite and suitable for the album, but this return to a song 22 years after it was first recorded to give the lyrics a new meaning, is indeed something particular and special.

If you can decode the new lyrics I’d be grateful and I’ll then slot them into this little commentary.  With full acknowledgements to you of course.

And at some stage I also might have a go at trying to describe exactly why the live version of “When He Returns” is so much better than the album original.

If you have been, thanks for reading.

What else is on the site

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8 Responses to Why is the live version of “We better talk it over” so magical and superior to the album recording?

  1. L FYFFE says:

    Tony, in this response to the Stones’ “Two Thousand Light Years Fom Home”, Dylan, as he often does, changes perspective, and looks through the glass darker:

    I think we, we better talk this over
    Maybe when we both get sober
    You’ll understand I’m only a man
    Doin’ the best that I can

    The situation’s just gonna get rougher
    Why do we needlessly suffer
    Let’s call it a day, go on our separate way
    Before we decay

    You don’t have to be afraid, you know, bend into my face
    We’ve done nothin’ to each other time will not erase

    You say you’re displaced, I got a low-down feeling
    I’ve been rough, babe, maybe even double-dealin’
    When the vows that we kept are now broken and swept
    In the bed where we slept

    Oh, baby, why you wanna hurt me? I’m being exiled, and you’ll never convert me
    I’m alone in trance, and you’ll never get a chance
    to pass pleasantly
    Don’t ask you for love, you don’t have to be in love
    Somewheres in the universe, there’s a place you
    can call home

    Oh, babe I’ve nailed up a curtain
    If I have to beg, steal, or borrow
    But I wish I was goin’ in a belt beyond
    That goes on beyond

    I think we better talk this over

    (Or words to that effect)

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    *Situation just gonna get rougher

    *I’m being rough, babe

    *pass pleasantly ????

    *On babe climb a little up closer
    If I have to, etc

    *And I wish was going in ?
    We’ve both gone beyond

  3. Very interesting, thank you.
    But if this 2000 version is so good, how come Dylan never sang again this song?

  4. Robert Ford says:

    ‘ Street-Legal’ is one of my top 6 Dylan albums and the album version of this song is the one that speaks to me. I agree that this live version is excellent but it is a pity he forgets the words ( though he does remember the beautiful ” ‘neath the bed where we slept” ). I also hear ” I’m alone in your trance, of your delicate dance”. I like the emphasis Tony gives here to Dylan’s vocal performance as many people ignore the most important aspect of a song which is the performance. Many of Dylan’s finest songs are about feelings, and defy interpretation, and surely the purpose of a song is how it makes you feel. I guess Dylan’s ambiguity with his Nobel Prize was born out of the fact that he considers himself primarily a performer ( and the motivation to have been on the road since 1986 ) and this is the reason he has throughout the years covered so many songs from every genre of music ( and his last 3 albums have been his very wonderful interpretation of songs associated with one of the great singers ). I would suggest that people who enjoy Tony’s reviews seek out the incomparable Paul Williams books as they concentrate primarily on Dylan’s performances especially his vocals and the interplay between his vocals and the music. As Dylan said many years ago, most of his songs loose their uniqueness and power when sung by others….” no one breathes like me “.

  5. Jonathan Smith says:

    It always struck a chord with me as a self -lacerating exegesis of relationship sour a plea for civility based on how it used to be. So it lays the ugliness out quite directly: the drunkeness, the arguments, the infidelity, the deliberate infliction of pain and the emotional manipulation which the song itself may even play a part in. I don’t know the variations Heylin outlines but there is that line in the rundown rehearsal version:

    …nothing’s ever right,
    Even when we’re making love
    It winds up in fight.”

    Ouch!

    I’d be interested to see variations in earlier incarnations. I wonder if this isn’t a hangover from the batch of songs he wrote and played to friends in 1977 but felt were too personal. I also wondered if the song “Her Version of Jealousy” he referred to in the Craig McGregor interview from Spring 1978 isn’t just an alternative title for “We Better Talk This Over”…?

  6. José says:

    I don´t certainly agree with you on this song. I consider the studio version the “final one” precisely because of the female chorus- though the 2000 live is -surprisingly- very good. I have to add that “Street Legal” is one of my favorites album and “we better…” is the one that I play over and over…

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Francois That is so often the question. It is the same as with the songs of which we have sketches but which he never finished. Perhaps the best one can say is that as with other artists, he is too close to the work sometimes to be able to see just how wonderful some of his compositions and re-workings are.

  8. L FYFFE says:

    “Decay”

    A word favoured by Shakespeare in his Sonnets.

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