“I definitely needed a new audience because my audience at that time had more or less grown up on my records and was past the point of accepting me as a new artist and this was understandable. In many ways, this audience was past its prime and its reflexes were shot.”
That’s one of the most interesting things that Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles v1. He’s talking about his transformation as a live performer in 1987 on the second leg of his tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dylan is especially hard on the concerts from this period: “It had become monotonous. My performances were an act, and the rituals were boring me. Even at the Petty shows I’d see the people in the crowd and they’d look like cutouts from a shooting gallery, there was no connection to them — just subjects at random. I was sick of it — sick of living in a mirage. It was time to break it off. The thought of retirement didn’t bother me at all. I’d shaken hands with the idea and had gotten comfortable with it. The only thing that had changed from then ’til now was that performing now wasn’t taking anything out of me. I was sailing along.”
He then writes about a sudden transformation in Locarno, Switzerland (October 5, 1987). I’ll let him tell it:
“For an instant I fell into a black hole. The stage was outdoors and the wind was blowing gales, the kind of night that can blow everything away. I opened my mouth to sing and the air tightened up — vocal presence was extinguished and nothing came out. The techniques weren’t working. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I had it down so well, yet it was just another trick. There’s no pleasure in getting caught in a situation like this. You can get a panic attack. You’re in front of thirty thousand people and they’re staring at you and nothing is coming out. Things can really get stupid. Figuring I had nothing to lose and not needing to take any precautions, I conjured up some different type of mechanism to jump-start the other techniques that weren’t working. I just did it automatically out of thin air, cast my own spell to drive out the devil. Instantly, it was like a thoroughbred had charged through the gates. Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension. Even I was surprised. It left me kind of shaky. Immediately, I was flying high. This new thing had taken place right in front of everybody’s eyes. A difference in energy might have been perceived, but that was about all. Nobody would have noticed that a metamorphosis had taken place.”
He’s not kidding that nobody would have noticed. I’ve now listened to that show a few times, and I sure can’t hear him losing his way nor can I hear the change that he is so certain about. Maybe he’s putting us on. Regardless, he decided to rededicate himself to the craft of live performance. He restructured the way that he approached songs, the way that he sang, where he channeled his voice from, and he put together a touring band that was meant to be permanent. Bob Dylan was going on the road. Forever.
In 1988 Bob Dylan performed 71 shows. In 1989 he did 99. On those tours he performed 122 different songs. Think about that for a moment – 122 different songs on the same tour. Few performers, of course, have ever had the range of song-writing to even attempt what Dylan was attempting in 1989. By most accounts he would decide on the set list only shortly before the band went on stage, and he would often switch the list while on stage.
The Never-Ending Tour (NET), which began in 1988, and which really kicked into gear in 1989, is probably the dividing point for early and late career Bob Dylan. He was looking for a new audience – he wasn’t going to play just the hits any longer. He would do new songs. He would do covers. He would become a new artist, and not just a relic from the 1960s. He wasn’t going to coast any longer.
It seems to me that the really hardcore Dylan fans, the really, really hardcore ones, are the ones who love the NET (of course, Dylan never calls it that – each mini-tour within the tour has a proper title). They are the ones with all 99 bootlegs from this year, and the ones who compile best of collections for the rest of us. Today, I’m not with them.
Just because Dylan was rededicated, it doesn’t mean that the shows were that much better. He even writes about his struggle to come up with the new approach and how he felt it could take years. He talks at length in Chronicles about the mathematics and architecture of his new approach, in which he plays guitar in a different scale: thematic triplets. I have to admit, I don’t know enough about music to really be able to hear the differences that he’s talking about. Yes, Dylan started playing some of his songs radically differently than he had written them, but I would not have been able to sort through this difference myself (and even with him writing about it for five pages I’m not sure that I get what he’s saying). The new approach took time, and, frankly, his band needed some time to gel.
I have a five CD bootleg that is a best of the 1989 tour – six and a half hours long. I annoyed my fellow vacationers in London with it all week. There are songs from all over – seventy-seven in total – but not even one copy of everything from the tour. It’s an epic wandering, but too unfocussed to make much sense of.
I attended one of the 1989 shows, the one at the Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada’s Wonderland (an amusement park north of Toronto) at the end of July with my then girlfriend. We had excellent seats – maybe six rows deep, dead centre. It was the closest that I ever sat to Dylan, but I always recalled that I didn’t think very much of the show. Partly, I was fading on my enthusiasm for the man. Mostly it was that I wasn’t part of his new audience.
I have a bootleg of that show, and I can tell why I didn’t like it. He opened with, of all things, “Trouble” from Shot of Love. That alone is an indicator of how wide-ranging Dylan was going with his song selection (his website indicates that this was the third of only seven times he ever played that live). I had never heard that album, and had definitely not heard the song. He followed that with a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, which was unexpected, to say the least, and then did “Tears of Rage” from The Basement Tapes. This was a bizarre (to me) way to start a show.
Dylan segued into his hits after that (“I Don’t Believe You”, “Just Like a Woman”, and “Simple Twist of Fate”) before the acoustic set (“It’s Alright, Ma”, “Don’t Think Twice”, and “Gates of Eden”). When the band returned it was more mystery city for me: the Leon McBride song “Hey La La” (the last time he ever played that live, according to Bjorner), “In the Garden” (which I didn’t know), “Silvio” (which I didn’t like; also, an EXTREMELY different take than is on the album) and finishing up with “Like a Rolling Stone”. The encore was “Times They Are A-Changin’” and “All Along the Watchtower”.
Listening to the show now, I think it is the best Dylan show that I had seen live, but at the time I was hugely disappointed because a third of the songs were ones that I didn’t know at all. Now that I do, I hear it all completely differently, though there are flaws (some songs take G.E. Smith and Co. almost a full minute to wrap up; rock star ending just drawing things out).
The one thing that I clearly recall from the show was that Dylan audibled one of the songs to Smith. He turned from the mic, walked towards the band and changed the song. I remember Smith then yelled it to the band. I have a vague (possibly apocryphal) memory of someone asking what key they were going to do it in, and then Dylan starting. It would have to be “Hey La La” – that is the only song that has a significant gap between it and the preceding song, but Dylan doesn’t start before the rest of the band, they all start together. Still, I do think he might have switched that on the band from the stage based on the long pause. Listening to the pause, I had actually thought at first that Dylan was responding to a request, but re-listening it is clear that someone yelled “Ramona”. Oh well. Close. They hadn’t played that song in six weeks when they did it that night, so it was possible that it was unexpected.
A brief postscript: Dylan’s version of “Early Morning Rain” is a highlight of that show, partly because it’s such a great song. My friend Keith wrote me today to ask why I hadn’t written anything about Dylan inducting Gordon Lightfoot into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986. The truth is, I didn’t know he did it. I just watched that video here. This is one of the worst public appearances Dylan ever made. It’s hard to imagine how he could have been more obnoxious on an important night for one of his friends. It must suck to be friends with Bob Dylan if he acts like this. Check it out for yourself:
To make up for that, here’s the brilliant Gordon Lightfoot – no one does this song better than this.