At Budokan

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Bob Dylan’s At Budokan, released in April 1979, is a bit of a strange album. Dylan performed 114 live shows on his four-part world tour in 1978. By the time the album came out, it was memorializing a Dylan that didn’t really exist any longer. In a lot of ways, it is the coda to the first part of his career.

The album was recorded at two different shows – February 28 and March 1 – at the famed Budokan Hall in Tokyo, a home for martial and professional wrestling events that became a concert venue as well in 1966 when The Beatles played there. These were the fourth and fifth shows at Budokan (the seventh and eighth of the tour, as Dylan opened his world tour in Tokyo before doing three shows in Hirakata City and then returning to Budokan), and, as almost every critic is obliged to note, the band had not really gelled yet in terms of what they were trying to accomplish on this tour. If Hard Rain, his previous live album, seemed listless because it was recorded at the end of the tour, this one sounds a little spotty because it was recorded too early. You can’t win.

Actually, the album is pretty good – it’s just not as good as some of the better shows from the tour. The sound quality is excellent. When you spend a lot of time listening to audience recordings, it can be surprising to suddenly hear professionally recorded and mixed material (I had the same reaction to the Montreal footage from Renaldo and Clara – the bootleg sounds great, the official recording sounds awesome). Dylan started the tour in Japan and had been told by the promoters that he had to play a large number of his hits. This is what he does, but he provides new arrangements for almost everything. It’s a revisiting of the Dylan catalogue, but in an entirely new way. The songs that carry over from Rolling Thunder, or from the 1974 tour with The Band, are, once again, completely redone.

Many people hated this tour. Dylan was out there with a very large band, and three back-up singers, and a saxophone player. This seemed to be the sound – or one of the sounds – that Dylan had always been going for, but he was roundly knocked for it. With the then-recent passing of Elvis, many people felt that Dylan was seeking to occupy his spot, and the tour was condemned as too “Vegas”. Some of the shows in the US didn’t sell out and were met with mixed reactions.

I like a lot of the material here, but I generally don’t like any of it as much as I like Rolling Thunder or The Band tour, so I can definitely see the argument that there is a decline happening at this point. There were better options for live albums if they had been recorded. The Paris shows from July 1978 are generally held to be vastly superior to the Japanese shows, and the show at Blackbushe Aerodome, one of Dylan’s longest (33 songs), is really fantastic, despite an audience recording where you get to hear every moron in the crowd complain about people standing up in front of them.

The 1978 tour is well worth listening to – there’s a nice six CD bootleg that is very comprehensive and shows off what Dylan was doing better than this does. One of the things that I found most interesting about it was that near the end of the tour Dylan got chatty with the audiences. For more than a decade he hadn’t been one for stage banter, and even in the summer shows in Paris he doesn’t say much more than “Merci!” between songs. Then suddenly in November, everything changed.

On November 13, in Oakland, he introduced “Ballad of a Thin Man” with this spiel (credit to Bjorner for transcribing all of this):

In the Midwest in the fifties, during the fifties in the Midwest, they used to have these carnivals go by. And there always used to be someone in the carnival called a geek. A geek is a man who bit the head off a chicken and ate it, live. Anyway, everybody used to think of him as a freak. I mean if you think you’re funky, this guy was low-down all the way. And he used to think about other people as being freaks. I just wanted to tell you that.”

At the same show, before “One More Cup of Coffee”, he talked about the king of gypsies:

One year on my birthday I went to France where they have a big gypsy festival. All the gypsies from all over the world go there, and they party for a week. It just happens to be on my birthday. Anyway, I met the king of the gypsies a little ways away from there. He had 16 wives and 100 children and he still wasn’t faithful and true. Anyway I did get mixed up with someone over there. I don’t remember what was happening but in the morning they said, “Would you like anything for the road?” And without thinking I just said “one more cup of coffee.” I wasn’t sure if I could say anything else, but it was dangerous territory. 

 He told variants of these two anecdotes pretty much through the rest of the tour (Bjorner has them all transcribed), and on November 17 in San Diego (the same show at which someone threw him a crucifix), he said this before “Señor” (my favourite of the three):

Thank you. I took a train once from Monterey, Chihuahua, up to San Diego. Anyway, this guys was sitting next to me on this train, a man wearing a blanket. He (…..) to know everything. One of them (…..) guys. His eyes were burning up, smoke was coming out of his nostrils. I though I’d talk to him. When I turned around to look at him, he was gone. He’d either got off when the train stopped. (…..) I was hallucinating which I could have been doing too.

For better or for worse, Dylan will keep talking all the way through his 1979 tour, the First Gospel Tour, but there it is almost exclusively proselytizing. For about a month there, at the end of 1978, the crowds got weird chatty Bob up on stage. None of that part of the tour is captured on At Budokan, another reason why it’s only a so-so representation of Dylan’t grandest tour – up until that point in time.

I can’t find anything from this album online to post here, except this utterly bizarre thought experiment which I am sharing because I’m not sure why someone would do it, but it is great. All four bridges from “Simple Twist of Fate” overlaid on top of each other:

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