Hard to Handle

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Like all Dylan tours after 1974, the True Confessions tour of 1986 is well bootlegged, and you can probably get at least a halfway decent copy of every single show. The first leg of that tour, which included shows in New Zealand, Australia and Japan, was the subject of an early HBO concert documentary, Hard to Handle. Filmed on February 24 and 25 in Sydney (the fifth and sixth of six shows in that city that month), the film seems to me to be fairly representative of the way that those shows sounded.

The True Confessions tours (the second one took place in summer 1986) used Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers as the supporting band, as well as the now obligatory back-up singers (the Queens of Rhythm). Dylan played with the band, did a few songs solo each night, and also left the stage usually twice during the show so that Tom Petty could perform songs like “Refugee” and “American Girl”. There seems to be a division among bootleggers about how to deal with this:

  1. Present the show in its entirety, including the Tom Petty songs. This pushes most of the bootlegs into a third CD as the shows run close to three hours
  2. Chop the songs by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, often bringing the show back onto two CDs
  3. Passive-aggressivly note on the liner notes “Tom Petty song” without even bothering to give a title, even if the song was a huge hit. Dylan fans can be, er, petty.

Hard to Handle falls into the second category. You know that it’s The Heartbreakers up there, but you would never guess that they performed four songs on each of these evenings. It’s a Bob Dylan special, after all. It’s also short, at an hour. Dylan does ten songs, which is just under half of a typical set on this leg of this tour (he actually did 25 and 27 songs at these two shows, which is quite extensive by his standards – I’m sure that there was some talk about getting significant material to work with). About half the songs are taken from each of the shows, and, somewhat bizarrely, the spoken introduction to “In the Garden” is taken from the show on the 25th but the song itself comes from the previous evening.

“In the Garden” is the most striking song on the bootlegs. While riding my bike yesterday I was listening to one of the earlier Sydney shows (very much like this one) and actually pulled over to make a note about Dylan’s spiel before this song, where he talked about heroes (Muhammed Ali, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson (boy, would no one say that now…)), all of whom he disavows before singing a song about his hero, Jesus Christ. Many Dylan sources (i.e. Wikipedia) suggest that Dylan was post-Christian at this point in his career, but as this set piece makes clear, nothing could be further from the truth.

Watching this video is a bit trying for me. In stark contrast to the Newport material from the mid-1960s or the Rolling Thunder video in Renaldo and Clara, there is not much to hold my visual interest here (this is inapt comparison, but we just watched the Katy Perry concert video with our eight year old and I realized how much the idea of a band on a stage performing songs is an antiquated idea now). The show is not that well shot – too much from the same side with the keyboardist – but I’m not sure how visually appealing you could likely make this anyway.

I do think that it is a good representation of the tour as it was in Australia, which is not yet all the way there. The version of “Like a Rolling Stone” is incredibly limp, for example, and the band isn’t adding a great deal to the material. The versions here are less changed than they have been in the past (with The Band) or will be again in the future. It is a bit of a conservative sound. One big advantage of the tour is that they did a lot of material. While the shows often opened in similar ways, a lot of songs got done (Bjorner lists 48, with many of them, from “Mr. Tambourine Man” to “Heart of Mine”, sung only once on the tour). There are compilations of this material out there, and those seem better to me than any of the individual shows – but I certainly haven’t listened to all of the shows, far from it.

Hard to Handle is available with some subtitles here until Dylan and/or HBO’s lawyers get a hold of it. You can probably also get every single song individually on YouTube and piece the whole thing together yourself. Enjoy!

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