Dylan Live (1991)

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Bob Dylan performed 101 shows in 1991. I don’t think that many of them were particularly acclaimed. He did tours of Europe twice, of the US three times, and of South America (his second trip to that continent). I didn’t listen to an awful lot of this music but I did want to highlight two things.

First, on 17 October he played at the “Leyendas de la Guitarra” shows in Seville, Spain. These were a series of five shows intended to hype Seville’s Expo 1992 the next year. The shows were held over five consecutive nights, and featured the talents of BB King, Les Paul, Robbie Robertson, Steve Jones and many others. The idea of Bob Dylan playing this show, particularly after that performance with Kinky Friedman, is utterly bizarre. Dylan was always a competent to good guitarist. He can get things done, but he clearly knows his own limitations. If you watch him play live, he doesn’t do an awful lot, and he leaves things to Mick Taylor or Robertson or GE Smith to carry the heavy load on guitar. By 1991, it seems, his skills seemed to be in decline.

It is clear that Dylan was actually invited note as a guitar legend, which he is not, but to play with those legends. Joe Cocker and Rickie Lee Jones also appeared as vocalists. I guess most people can’t handle all that guitar without some singing.

The show itself was odd. It was done in a relay fashion, with people moving on and off the stage. Dylan played “All Along the Watchtower” with Phil Manzanera and Richard Thompson, then Manzanera left. Dylan and Thompson played “Boots of Spanish Leather” (terrible), “Across the Borderline”, and “Answer Me” (none too good), before Thompson left the stage and was replaced by Keith Richards. They did “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” (you don’t want to know) and then Dylan left and Richards continued.

It’s not a show worth catching (for the Dylan part, at least). Apparently it was broadcast in hundreds of countries, but I don’t think that I ever heard anything about it.

Second, Dylan performed eight shows at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in February. This was the second year in a row that Dylan had done a residency in London, and it was one time too many. He had a new band this year, and the shows were not well received. I have an interesting single CD bootleg that contains a selection of the songs that Dylan performed acoustically during those shows (mostly not solo, acoustic with a backing band). These aren’t so bad, for the most part – there are a couple of real clangers. Listening to it I found myself wishing that Dylan would just have gone in this direction. It is the acoustic material that gets the best reaction, and, to my ears, they were the strongest performances. He never did that, really, though. There will be some gestures in that direction to come – including MTV Unplugged – that will win him some acclaim, but he never gives up the idea that he should be leading a big, raucous rock band. Too bad.

Here’s a live acoustic “It Ain’t Me, Babe” from Linz in 1991. It’s pretty good.

Chabad Telethon (again)

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This video represents the nadir of this blogging project, so far. Click play to see what I think is the single worst Bob Dylan appearance to date, his guitar accompaniment to Kinky Friedman’s performance of “Sold American”.

The place was the 1991 telethon for Chabad. Two years earlier Dylan had shown up on this event with Harry Dean Stanton and Peter Himmelman to perform three songs on the flute. I called it “Dylan’s most bizarre concert appearance (so far)”. This one doesn’t top that in terms of bizarreness, but does blow it out of the water in terms of sheer incompetence.

Ok, hit play on this YouTube video:

To my ears, this is almost completely unlistenable. It causes me stress and anxiety. I had trouble making it all the way to the end one time. If you focus on Dylan’s electric guitar noodling, it is even worse (go to about 52 seconds in and try to listen for the next twenty seconds). Not only does it seem like Dylan doesn’t know the chords to the (simple) song, but he occasionally looks at his fret board of his guitar as if he doesn’t know what it is. He picks out some random chords, and often slides down to other chords. There are a number of just plain bum notes (“jazz notes”, in the words of my banjo teacher, “It’s never a mistake! It’s just jazz!”). Dylan just sort of frowns and seems lost. Friedman, for his part, just ignores Dylan, bravely trying to get through the song.

Kinky Friedman is a great minor character in Larry Sloman’s book about the Rolling Thunder Revue. Sloman and Freidman are friends, and Sloman was always trying to get Friedman involved with the tour. Friedman seemed to think – according to Sloman – that Dylan didn’t like him, so he was reluctant. He does show up in a very memorable scene, but it doesn’t really work out for the best (Sloman seemed to have been losing his mind and drifting into Hunter S. Thompson territory around that time, which didn’t help matters). So I was kind of thrilled to learn that the two teamed up a decade and a half later. Not anymore.

There is something about this telethon that seems to push Dylan to do as much damage to his image as he possibly can. The flute was certainly a misstep, but this is just sort of a tragic image. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought that this was a formerly great musician lost to the temptations of drugs. I think, though, he was simply lost.

This is a highly ironic performance given the topic of my next blog entry…

“Series of Dreams”

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Here’s one that leaves me a bit befuddled, largely because Dylan and Columbia can be so comprehensive about wiping the web of Dylan videos.

The major Dylan output of 1991 was the triple-CD, Bootleg Series 1-3: 1961-1991, a major opening of the vaults that led to a re-examination of Dylan’s legacy. I’m going to write more on that album later this week. To promote the album, a single was released: “Series of Dreams”. This was a song recorded in New Orleans for Oh Mercy, but which was left off the final album. It’s difficult to see why that was, since it was better than a lot of the material on that album. Apparently producer Daniel Lanois thought that it should be the lead track, but Dylan overruled (Lanois’s support may stem from the fact that the song has more Lanois-ish touches than most of the rest of the album). I think that this is a really strong song. It also appears on Greatest Hits v3 and Bootleg Series 8. Not too shabby for an almost unreleased song!

In support of the single and the album, a video was made. I never saw it when it came out, and now I’m not 100% certain that this link (Vimeo and WordPress don’t get along – click through) is the actual video I think it is, and I’m going to write under the presumption that it is.

Anyway, it’s the best Bob Dylan music video to date. It’s a pretty simple concept – they simply edited a whole bunch of old footage from Dont Look Back, Eat the Document, Renaldo and Clara and elsewhere and then process it with a whole bunch of effects. It sounds awful, but it’s not.

You can see the video without any effects here, so this is what they started with:

That’s all fine and well, but the effects add a great deal. The insertion of old photos makes it a lot more visually interesting and dynamic. There are nice little touches – my favourite comes at 3:43 when Dylan is in a cab and they superimpose the face of Lenny Bruce on the other passenger, a nice nod to this piece of lyrics from the song “Lenny Bruce”:

I rode with him in a taxi once

Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months

Anyway, this was the first Dylan video to completely capture my attention and imagination. It is both a good song and an interesting video. Recommended!

“This Old Man”

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Did I mention that 1991, the Dylan week that we’re doing right now, happens to have included his fiftieth birthday? Well, it did!

How did Dylan celebrate that occasion? I have no idea. Not with a public event of any kind. He didn’t play a concert – his second 1991 tour ended on May 12, and his third tour of the year opened in Rome on June 6. Maybe he was on a tropical island somewhere?

Dylan did release a song that would allow writers to piggy-back onto his half-century birthday though, and it was a good one! He contributed a version of “This Old Man” to the For Our Children benefit album in support of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation (others lending a hand included Sting, Paul McCartney (“Mary Had a Little Lamb”!), Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Elton John, and Barbra Streisand). Despite its all-star cast of artists, I have absolutely no memory of this album being released, probably because it is a collection of songs for children, and I didn’t have any at that point.

Here’s the Dylan song:

This is a good version of this, and makes good use of middle-aged Dylan. The harmonica playing is nice, and musically it is quite minimal. I wish he would do more things along these lines (I am currently listening to a compilation of acoustic songs from his 1991 London concerts and loving it in all the ways that I am hating his current live work when he is backed by a full band).

One other video worth sharing at lunch is this one by Loudon Wainwright III, which celebrates Dylan’s fiftieth by noting the large shadow that he cast on singer-songwriters like Wainwright and Springsteen. I went a little Wainwright nuts a couple of years back when I was building a deck – just put him on endless repeat until I couldn’t take him any longer. This is a cute song, as many of his are:

Spy Magazine Interview

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Sometimes in life you spend seven months writing about a blog about Bob Dylan, and then you read a single magazine article and think “Well, damn, that was exactly what I was hoping to say, only better”. It’s a despairing moment.

In 1991 columnist and essayist Joe Queenan set out to do an interview with Bob Dylan on the occasion of the singer’s fiftieth birthday. After jumping through a number of hoops (hilariously detailed in the piece itself), he gets a ludicrously mono-syllabic interview with Dylan. When he writes it up for The New York Times, the paper of record rejects it (probably with good reason), and the piece winds up running in the late, great Spy Magazine.

A quick word about Spy: I adored this magazine for a few years at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. There eventually came a moment when they completely lost their way editorially and became a pale shadow of what they once had been, but until that time they were an astonishing culture industry wrecking ball, spewing bile on celebrity culture of all kinds. There are pieces from that magazine that I still recall with total clarity a quarter of a century later (on David Mamet as a playwright for wealthy Americans with short attention spans; the pieces on Donald Trump; an astonishingly great piece covering the rescue of those whales that were trapped in ice that still causes me to laugh years later just thinking about it). At its height, Spy was awesome.

Queenan fits the Spy mold pretty darn well. There are passages in the piece that are just brilliant, and I can’t recommend it to you enough. You should wander over to Google, which has now archived all of Spy, and read it yourself (hopefully this link works, if not it is in the August 1991 issue, beginning on page 54).

Queenan’s take on Dylan is remarkably simpatico with mine, right down to this list of albums post-motorcycle crash: One that is equal to Blonde on Blonde (Blood on the Tracks), three worth buying (John Wesley Harding, Desire, Slow Train Coming), and three worth thinking about buying (Shot of Love, Infidels, Oh Mercy). That final phrase, I wish I had written that. (Although, he underrates Desire).

I don’t want to just plagiarize all of his good bits – seriously, you should go read the piece. But I will note that it sheds some light on a couple of posts from last week.

First, on the West Point show: Dylan is hilarious here. Queenan opens the piece with that show, and all of its incongruities. He makes a huge deal out of it. Then, when he talks to Dylan, the singer actually says “Uh, the West Point show … was that before New York?”. He can’t be nailed down on the oddness of playing that venue, and he just keeps insisting that his recollection was that it was an enthusiastic crowd and there were problems with the set-up. He completely no sells the collective trauma that a certain generation of fans, including Queenan, seemed to have had with that show.

Second, on the Grammys. Dylan simply explains away the performance by suggesting “the flu greeted me that morning in a big way. All my drainpipes were stopped up. Those kinds of things just happen to me….”. And why that particular song, “Masters of War”? Dylan: “We just did that one… You know, war going on and all that”. Sure. And all that.

As an interview, it is one of Dylan’s worst. As a piece of snark, it is nearly unparalleled. Check it out!

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Lifetime Achievement Grammy

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Despite it all, I still think it’s the best award acceptance speech I’ve ever seen. I’m not kidding.

Bob Dylan received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy’s on February 20, 1991. I remember that my university was on spring break, and that I was at the home of parents for the week (possibly working for my father to cover a vacationing employee?) and that we watched this show, or at least the Dylan portion, together. I never watch the Grammys at all – there’s barely an award that I care less about – so I must have been specifically watching to see Dylan. It was a memorable night. You can watch the entire segment here, transferred from a VHS tape that pops a couple of times:

A few thoughts. First: Jack Nicholson is awesome. That’s a great tuxedo, and he gives a great speech. While I doubt that he wrote it, whomever did deserves all kinds of credit. The paradox part is as good a description of Dylan as you could imagine for an award show, and will be demonstrated just a few minutes down the line. Nicholson is just the best at these sorts of things. Compare his performance here to Bruce Springsteen’s at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for example. Total pro.

Second: We certainly have moved forward in the editing of retrospective career videos. These are a staple of these shows, but this one is really quite bad. It leaps around, mixing sound and images from different sources, jumping out of historical order and just generally making a hash of it. This is one of the worst examples of the tribute genre that I’ve ever seen.

Third: “Masters of War”. As a song selection, it was incredible. Not long after having played the song for the cadets at West Point, here he is playing it for a national audience in the middle of Operation Desert Storm. I don’t recall anyone else on that show voicing much or any anti-war sentiment, so this was a thrilling selection for me.

Fourth: “Masters of War”. I remember my father asking “What the hell was that?”. Ok, Dylan’s strident anti-war message was perhaps a bit lost by the fact that he mumbled a lot of the words, and the band was pretty terrible. This was a loose, almost aimless version of the song that has been pilloried over the years. Rewatching it now, it wasn’t as bad as I recalled. That said, my tolerance level for mumbled Dylan is way up because I’ve been listening to a lot of bootlegs. I’m here to tell you: it wasn’t that bad. Still, another great example of Dylan on a national or international stage (like LiveAid) failing to live up to the legend that is Bob Dylan.

Fifth: The speech. I like it, partly because I dislike the Grammys, so anyone who moreorless craps on them while receiving their highest honour is alright in my book. Here’s the speech:

Thank You … well … alright … yeah, well, my daddy he didn’t leave me too much … you know he was a very simple man and he didn’t leave me a lot but what he told me was this … what he did say was … son … he said uh …. (long pause) … he said so many things ya know ….. he said you know it’s possible to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you, and if that happen God will always believe in your own ability to mend your ways. Thank you.

When he finally gets right down to it, his statement on defilement and faith in God seems very significant, if a bit paradoxical. I recall that I used to quote this a lot in the early-1990s, just to be annoying.

And that’s it.

Dylan’s performance as not well received at all – another one of the endless numbers of nails in his coffin. On that week’s Saturday Night Live, Dana Carvey absolutely nailed him – the costume, the twitching, the nasal whine. You can watch that here (WordPress doesn’t want to embed it for some reason).

So, another memorable miss.

Toad’s Place (1990)

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Sometimes my wife thinks I’m deliberately torturing her with this project. That was the case this morning when I played, for the second time this week, a single Bob Dylan bootleg from 1990. It wasn’t that the show wasn’t good (actually, it was quite good), but that it was long. How long? More than four hours long. Some people have limits.

Dylan’s first concert of 1990 took place at Toad’s Place, a nightclub in New Haven, CT with a capacity of about 750 people (according to Wikipedia). Dylan and his band, who would do 92 more shows in 1990, were, as Dylan twice told the crowd “just working on the song endings” that night. Essentially, it was a live rehearsal in a bar with a very enthusiastic crowd. The show consisted of four sets totalling almost exactly four hours and fifty songs (the four CD bootleg that I have runs four hours and four minutes). I’m not sure how long the breaks were, but I’m sure that the audience was probably there around five hours or so. They were energetic all the way through.

It’s an interesting show. For one thing, Dylan takes requests. For another, the crowd is super amped (I’m sure the beer helped). When he plays “Stuck Inside of Mobile”, for example, the crowd enthusiastically sings along, even before he himself has started singing the words. He does a large number of traditional songs and covers of Leadbelly and Hank Williams and Kris Kristofferson. It just seemed like a really fun evening, and the type of show that, if you had been there, you would have talked about for a long time.

Dylan isn’t really known for his long shows. He certainly has done some back in the 1970s, but by this time he was also consistently running shows around ninety minutes long, so this was quite the exception. I remember back around this time, and earlier, my non-Dylan friends who were into Bruce Springsteen (someone who I never listened to at all) preaching the gospel of Bruce because his shows were so long and epic. I googled “Longest Springsteen Show” and it turns out that they seem to be citing his effort from Helsinki in 2012, which ran four hours and six minutes (33 songs). I would have guessed that he’d gone longer than that, and it seems like Dylan had him beat for almost twenty-two years. Not sure what to make of that.

Interestingly, Dylan actually covered Springsteen at the Toad’s Place show. If you’re going to go more than three hours, it’s probably obligatory to do Springsteen. He did a not very convincing version of “Dancing in the Dark”, which I’ve included below for its novelty value. There is something more substantial to be written about Dylan and Springsteen. Dylan is clearly a hero to Springsteen, but I’ve always sort of wondered about the relationship in the other direction. You could probably read way too much into Dylan’s half-hearted “Thanks, Bruce” after the man from Jersey inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and there are great anecdotes of Springsteen overwhelmed at meeting Dylan for the first time on the Rolling Thunder Revue. I dunno. I don’t think I’m the one with the knowledge or interest in Springsteen to write that piece.

Anyway, great show. Very loose and with a chatty version of Dylan. They sound just like a bar band, which was a good thing on this night.