It struck me the other day, when arguing with a friend who reckons Bob Dylan
's studio cuts are better than his live performances that, to a greater extent than anyone else, Dylan's art
, his real craft, is on the stage, summoning the fermented emotions for the right phrasing of each word.
He has been on his breathless 'Never Ending Tour
' since the early nineties, invoking agony and ecstasy in Dylan obsessives such as myself. The 1991 opening of a show in Stuttgart was allegedly 'New Morning
', but the original joy and freshness of this title track is hard to salvage from the train wreck
. It opens with energetic guitar from the backing band, and some pleasantries from some guy on the piano. There are yelps of delight as Dylan emits as note from his trusty harmonica, but this turns out to be a splutter, the musical equivalent of a smoker
clearing his sore throat of phlegm
. The instrumental continues...did he just sing something? Or was that just feedback? Fully five minutes in, he tries again to execute a single verse, but he sounds untimid, unsure of the words. A vague mumbling, with few decipherable phrases. This gang rape of a pretty song comes to an end, leaving the previously rapturous crowd bemused.
However, four years later there is a polar opposite to this travesty in Prague 1995. After a hearty 'Peggy-O' and many other delights, a new, utterly revised version of 'Shelter from the Storm' begins. Amazingly, the show the night before had been cancelled due to Bob and his band having flu, and the likelihood of this show coming to pass seemed slim. So nothing would prepare the audience for the virtuoso singing...real singing...that Dylan pulls off here. It starts off quietly, like a beautiful but tentative adolescent relationship, and with a placating almost reggae rhythm. Suddenly, astonishingly, Bob goes up an octave and hollers, in perfect tune: 'In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes'. His nerve endings exposed, all his spleen exorcised, Bob has never sung like this before-lusty, with the conviction of Pavarotti singing 'Vincero...Vinceeeeeerrrrrrrooooo!' in Nessun Dorma.
Aside from this oscillating between genius and ineptitude, Bob also changes lyrics and settings so that songs mutate beyond all recognition. Compare the versions of 'Simple Twist of Fate' on the album 'Blood on the Tracks' and 'Live 1975'. The former is placid, vaguely poignant. The latter is deeply, intensely moving. Whole new verses appear, such as
'People tell me it's a crime
To know too much for too long a time
She shoulda caught me in amy prime
She would have stayed with me instead of going off to sea
And leaving me to meditate on a simple twist of fate'.
Further variations are 'He woke up..the room was thick' in the place of 'He woke up...she was gone' and a 'desk clerk dressed in white' who says 'check-out time's at eight'. The whole nuance and implications of a song can be changed by minor alterations, affording Dylan's songs the subtlety and mutability of oil paint. On 'Bye and Bye', a track from last year's album Love and Theft, the lyrics have changed from
'My tears keep flowing to the sea...who knows for whom the bell tolls love?It tolls for you and me' to
'My tears keep flowing without end..it tolls for you, my friend',
lending it a heightened sense of wistfulness and compassion.
'Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You'features on More Greatest Hits as a sweet, charming, vaguely humourous little country song: Bob sings, somewhat mawkishly, but endearingly
'Throw my ticket out the window/throw my suitcase out their too...thrown my troubles out the door, I don't need them anymore cos tonight I'll be staying here with you'
But on Live 75, it becomes very different.
'Throw my ticket in the WIIINNNDD!
Throw my mattress out there too!
Throw my letters in the sand, cause you got to understand that tonight I'll be staying here with YOOOOUUU'.
Coupled with aggressive, nicotine-stained singing, it sounds like a threat rather than a romantic proposition.
Dylan's harmonica represents a whole other language with which he can convey the sentiments that are particularized in his lyrics in a more abstract, suggestive way. Just listen to the solo on 'It Ain't Me, Babe' from Real Live. He repeats the same simple riff, but as his guitar chords progression changes, this riff becomes more urgent, like a melancholic, desperate pleading. Its insistence and reiterated meaning is picked up by the audience and they respond with rapture.
I can only compare Dylan's unique craft to the practice of the bards of ancient greece, where stories in epic verse form were passed down by words of mouth, memorized by their apprentices. The new bards add their own personal inflections, accents and nuances. Particular implications and even events in these epics would change as gnerations passed. This practice still takes place: men gather in rooms, smoke and listen to three to eight hour versions. Dylan, in his different moods, romantic situations and stages of his life, manages to evolve his own songs so radically that they can be infused with new life. They are special artistic entities that will remain in a state of flux as long as he continues performing. Studio versions are but the narrowest glimpse into their potential.
Peace Love Harmony Discipline