“The concert is a polite form of self induced torture.” - Henry Miller
For the longest time one of the attractions of seeing Bob Dylan in concert has been the opportunity to hear him stretch his most recognizable songs into new, and sometimes nearly unrecognizable, arrangements. Unlike most of his peers, Dylan’s refusal to treat his songs as if they were sacred texts, for which radical reinterpretation would border on blasphemy, began as something commendable. In his lengthy career as a live performer, however, these reinterpretations have gradually turned to parody.
Dylan’s early performing career was as a solo acoustic “folk” performer. His first four albums (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, and Another Side of Bob Dylan) are, with the exception of Freewheelin’s “Corrina, Corrina,” entirely solo acoustic. His live performances during the same period were made up of mostly straight readings of the album songs. At times you can hear some of the more “protest” (read: self-righteous) oriented songs, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” for example, begin to take on sacred song characteristics.
1965 of course marks the single most famous insertion of a plug into an electrical outlet in pop music history and triggered the burst of creativity that produced three brilliant albums Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde (a run of creative energy that remained unequaled until the 1998-2007 arrival of Time Out Of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times).
Almost immediately Dylan began to use the massive influx of energy the new rock 'n' roll arrangements afforded him to open up and, in some cases, explode the meaning of his acoustic material (listen to 1966 live recordings of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” in particular). In these performances Dylan, it seems to me, plays with the ecstasy of electric music, the excess of volume, the simple joys of noise.
But 1966 is the end of the second Dylan, the “electric Dylan” (who followed the debut “Woody” Dylan) and the beginning of the “Recluse” Dylan. Following a (1) serious or (2) trivial motorcycle accident, Dylan retreats and, with the exception of the odd sighting (Isle of Wight, Concert for Bangladesh, Johnny Cash TV Show) Dylan withdrew from live performance, choosing to make unusual and unexpected music (The Basement Tapes, Self Portrait) designed to rip down the “Voice of His Generation” banner by frustrating every expectation.
When Dylan took the stage again in 1974 with The Band on a record-breaking cross country tour he once again returned to altering the arrangements of his material. This time, however, was a bit different. I saw that tour in Philadelphia and I remember that there was an opening set by Dylan and The Band, a set by The Band, a solo acoustic set by Dylan, and a closing set by Dylan and The Band. Oddly, I also remember a small line of protestors outside The Spectrum (where 3 shows had sold out) picketing the concert because ticket prices had been raised. I had my ticket stub for years after that show and I remember the ticket was $7.50.
But I digress….
This time it wasn’t his acoustic material being reshaped by an electric band (like it had been in 1965 and 1966). This time the material from his electric albums was redone. In part, the new arrangements were designed to take advantage of his backing band, but some of the revisions resulted in a radical alteration of the song’s meaning; the most explicit example is the 1974 live version “Lay, Lady, Lay.”
The original version is on the 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s sudden turn to country music, which was at that time, competing with Big Band and Show Tunes for “most unhip” music, ever. In hindsight, Nashville Skyline was an extension of the brilliant John Wesley Harding, but both albums were decidedly ahead of the learning curve of the late 1960s. While there is clearly an ongoing and important conversation regarding just what it means, Nashville Skyline (and JWH especially when read as Dylan’s answer record to Sgt. Pepper) was a clear return to “traditional American family values.” A short time later the rest of us would wake up after the acid had worn off, at ten in the nmorning the day-glo paisley wouldn’t look as good on the mailbox, and somebody still had to do the laundry and the dishes and change the litter box. Maybe the best explanation is the one offered by Leonard Cohen’s Zen teacher (whose name escapes me at the moment) who said, “You can’t live in God’s world too long; there are no restaurants or toilets.”
But I digress….
On Nashville Skyline “Lay, Lady, Lay” had seemed a very tender song, almost as if the singer were saying “You look tired. Here, lay across my big brass bed for a bit. It’s comfy; you take a nap and, when you wake up, I’ll make us some tea.” Backed by Robbie Robertson’s biting guitar fills the song was suddenly eroticized. “Get on the bed; here, slip these handcuffs on….”
The following year Dylan cobbled together his Rolling Thunder Review and took to the road for big chunks of 1975 and 1976. The traveling gypsy caravan character of the tour made the loud and, at times, almost unrecognizable arrangements of his classic material seem natural; like just what a traveling gypsy caravan might do. On You Tube you can find performances for songs like his duet with Joan Baez on “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” or his reworking of “Idiot Wind” or “Shelter From the Storm” off 1975’s Blood On the Tracks that seem to both wipe away whatever meaning the songs had, but have so much fun doing it that it isn’t immediately noticeable.
Not so for 1978.
If you look in the links section and click on Expecting Rain and then click on “Discussions” and then click on “Rare Recordings” you’ll find an indexed archive of a huge array of downloadable live Dylan ranging from the very early 1960s right on through to last week. If you’re interested in hearing any of the performances referenced in this blog you will almost certainly find them there. Border Beneath the Sun is a 2 disc set from a 1978 performance in Paris that most people think is superior to the official live album, Bob Dylan at Budokan, recorded at the start of the tour in Japan. For the first time Dylan puts together a full show band, complete with horns and female backup singers and presents a “Greatest Hits” program in which all the songs are reworked into what has always struck me as a Neil Diamond-meets-Elton-John-at-Graceland form. Here’s one example from Nashville in December 1978 of “Changing of the Guard” and some samples from a number of songs from London in June 1978.
From this point on the story takes some strange turns and most of those are easy to watch for yourself thanks to the miracle that is You Tube. Just search under “Dylan 1982” “Dylan 1983” and so on. Here’s what you’ll find.
Dylan’s reworking of songs is no longer offering a new arrangement as much as it is simply a rather thudding blues-based chanting of lyrics in an idiosyncratic-for-idiosyncrasy’s sake manner that renders the original song on the terms of little more than novelty.
I wish pianist Glenn Gould were still alive and I could arrange a meeting between him and Dylan to talk about live performance. At the height of his popularity Gould walked away from live performing. In one recorded interview, Gould tells a very interesting story about a particular piece of music he had developed an affection for on a European tour. He played it at almost ever concert, if not part of the program then as an encore. At the end of the tour he went into the studio and recorded the piece. When he played it back he was shocked. “It was perhaps the single worst thing I had ever played.” he said. The piece, in the interaction between the artist and audience, had become a caricature of itself; it had been rendered at best a novelty, at worst, grotesque.
In case you were wondering, my attitude toward Dylan is not a matter of being trapped in the past. I think his last two albums have been equal to the best of his entire career. But I find I agree more and more with Gould who said, “A record is a concert without halls and a museum whose curator is the owner.”