1995 Tour

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As I’ve already mentioned, 1995 was an epic year for the touring Bob Dylan – 116 shows in five distinct tours. I have absolutely no ability to sort out that sort of volume of material (though every single show is out there as a bootleg if you actually wanted to try to bring order to it all). There are certain sites that I use as signposts – Bjorner and Bob’s Boots are both very opinionated and will signal some excellent material – but, of course, that requires a certain outsourcing of my own critical judgments. I wish this wasn’t so, but the fact remains that there aren’t enough hours in the day to do this kind of thing in a single week.

Dylan fans have done remarkable work in terms of making his tours available. Probably every single show after 1974 is available in full somewhere. Better, are some of the curated bootlegs. One of the greatest, for example, is Jewels and Binoculars, which lovingly collects every single recording from 1966 – radio interviews, the Denver Hotel tapes, and live performances from the US, Australia, and Europe (including the fateful UK tour) – into a single 26 CD box set. The thing is astonishing, and you can listen to the entire output of a year like 1966 in a single week.

A similar 1995 set would probably run to about 180 CDs as a guess – a lot of his concerts ran about a CD and a half in length. Thankfully some kind souls have gathered greatest hits packages. One that I benefited from this week was the 5 CD European Tour Anthology. This offers a single complete show (Prague) and then fills it in with the best versions of a lot of songs from that tour, or with the one-offs. Even this captures only the best parts of one of his five tours that year, but it is still a huge headstart.

I have to say, I quite love this 5 CD set. I enjoyed live Dylan in 1995 more than I’ve liked live Dylan since about 1980. I know that this isn’t widely regarded as the peak of the Never Ending Tour, but I thought that there were a ton of great performances throughout the year. That said, I’m less attracted to entire shows. Bjorner particularly singles out the Philadelphia shows of June 21 and 22 as among the best ever from the NET, but I don’t hear it. Yes, they’re good, but, for me, no better than the London shows, or the Prague show. It is true that Dylan works a lot better in 1995 in smaller venues (Philadelphia was in the Theater of the Living Arts – an 800 person venue; London was at the Brixton Academy). Venues that don’t require the band to try to fill in all that space. Basically, I like the 1995 Dylan when you can follow the slide guitar playing of Bucky Baxter.

The other way to approach such a major body of touring material is to highlight the one-offs. Dueting with the Rolling Stones, for example, even when it’s not good. On the first European tour Elvis Costello opened for Dylan on a number of nights, and he also joined him onstage during a few encores (March 30, and March 31 with Carole King and Chrissie Hynde). These break up the routine of the shows, and give something new to focus on. Here’s Dylan and Costello doing “I Shall Be Released”.

To my ear the even better collaboration came at the end of the year. Dylan normally ended his touring year at Thanksgiving, but for whatever reason in 1995 he did a ten date tour in December with Patti Smith as the opening act. Dylan requested that Smith tour with him, then didn’t even bother to meet her for the first three shows. The last seven, however, contain duets during the acoustic portion of the Dylan set, with Smith joining him on “Dark Eyes”, a completely under-rated mid-1980s song from Empire Burlesque. Here they are from the Beacon Theatre in New York. I would’ve loved to have been at this show.

Dylan will “only” do three tours and 83 shows in 1996 (US, Europe, US). Same band for most of the tour (they change drummers after the European leg). I’ll probably write mostly the same post again next week, but instead of Elvis and Patti you get guest stars like Jewel and Aimee Mann. Times change.

Dylan and the Stones

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In 1995 Bob Dylan played a remarkable, astounding 116 concerts. This topped even 1978 for his most prolific year on the road. He did five distinct tours, and even a couple of, I don’t know, sub-tours? within them. For instance, in June he played as the opening act for five Grateful Dead shows at big arenas on the east coast. He didn’t appear onstage with them – I guess everyone had already figured out that that was a bad idea. More interestingly, on July 27 Dylan opened for The Rolling Stones in Montpellier, France.

This was Dylan’s shortest concert of the year – just nine songs and about an hour long. It is more rock and roll than many of his other shows of the year. I haven’t listened to enough of his shows to say that it was among his worst, but it is certainly not among his best (about which more in a couple of days). I think my enjoyment is at least somewhat hampered by a bootleg where the audience never shuts up – they were clearly there to see the Stones.

About whom. Dylan has interacted with the members of the Stones frequently during the course of this blog. Ron Wood, obviously the most, but also Keith Richards (Live Aid most memorably) and Mick Taylor for an extended period of time as his lead guitarist in the 1980s. Dylan had far less (public) contact with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, at least as far as I have noted.

The public collision of the two-1960s forces was, of course, inevitable. The Stones, well known for their covers, probably had to eventually cover “Like A Rolling Stone”, even if it wouldn’t be good. In 1995 they were on one of their many comeback tours, the Voodoo Lounge Tour (which actually began in 1994 but was still going by summer 1995). At the time it was the highest grossing tour in music history (it has subsequently lost that record many times over, including once to themselves). They did 129 shows in 13 months, which is a Dylan-esque pace!

So, in Montpellier the two acts came together. Partly this seems to have been so that they could record a music video. The Stones released an album, Stripped, that included live songs from the tour as well as some new versions of their back catalogue. The album included a cover of Dylan’s song. This was mostly a waste of time. It seems like it is going to be a good idea, but the version is almost totally forgettable. The best thing about it, by far, was the (at the time) highly unusual camera work in the music video (starring Patricia Arquette!), although even that falls into the “seen it once, seen it a thousand times” category.

At the show in Montpellier, Dylan returned to the stage after his short opening set to perform “Like A Rolling Stone” with Jagger and the boys. Jagger and Dylan alternate verses on the song. As is so often the case whenever anyone sings with Dylan, it just doesn’t work out. It is all a bit of a muddle. The best part is Jagger’s French in the introduction, after that it is all downhill.

I don’t have any video of this performance. You can wait a couple of weeks – in 1998 Dylan will open for the Stones again during their tour of South America and there’s video of this duet at that time. Warning: Do not get your hopes up.

To give the Stones some credit, they do the aging rock star thing better than Dylan does. Dylan’s best 1995 shows are the ones where he’s in a smaller venue, and where he is doing the country thing. I think he has some unbelievably great shows in 1995.  But the big stadiums, and the full rock and roll sound generally eludes him. The Stones might have been a fraction of what they were at their peak, but in some moments they can still go.

Dylan and Sinatra

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This one is incredible.

“Happy Birthday, Mr. Frank”, Bob Dylan says to Sinatra on the occasion of the older man’s 80th birthday.

At a star-studded evening superstars like Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett and Bono came to serenade the great one with a selection of the songs that he made famous. Dylan was supposed to play “That’s Life”, which might have been great, but when he got there, the story goes, Sinatra himself requested “Restless Farewell”, the closing track from The Times The Are A-Changin’. Dylan had never performed this song in concert before (the only other known performance of it other than the album take was on the Canadian TV show Quest thirty-two years earlier). Backed by his touring band and a string quartet, Dylan absolutely crushes this one. It’s a beautiful version, and the only non-Sinatra song performed that night. Watch it here.

Dylan has a persona that seems like it could hardly be more removed from that of Sinatra. They are polar opposites in so many important ways: voice, repertoire, compositionally. The quarter century that separates them in age seems particularly enormous given the rapid transformation of popular music in the 1960s. Nonetheless, Dylan is clearly a fan. So much of Sinatra’s appeal lies not in his voice, but in his phrasing, and so too with Dylan. When Dylan released a Sinatra cover on his website earlier this year (rumoured to be a tease for his new album), some people were surprised, but they need not be. Dylan grew up listening to an enormous range of music, and Sinatra was obviously a key part of that. Bjorner notes that only four singers were invited by Sinatra to his house after the show: Stever Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Springsteen and Dylan. What a group that must have been.

At the end of the show, the entire ensemble sang “New York, New York”, with Sinatra joining for the final few notes. It was his last performance on stage, and he passed away a few years later in 1998. I’ve always been fascinated by Sinatra, and I find him all the more fascinating for the fact that of all the singers in the world to request a song from, he’d choose Dylan, and of all the songs, he’d choose one of the most obscure of his entire oeuvre. But, after all, the final phrase:

So I’ll make my stand

And remain as I am

And bid farewell and not give a damn

is probably as close as folk ever came to “My Way”.

Almost Caught a Bootlegger

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This week probably won’t have a lot of Dylan posts, because, although he was quite busy with touring (five distinct tours: Europe in March and April; US in May and June; Europe in July; US from September to November; and a tour with Patti Smith in December), there isn’t as much material that I can share with readers, since a lot of this isn’t online. I’m sure I can dig up something.

A quick note, though, that I am listening to Dylan’s March 31 show at the Brixton Academy in London (part of a three night residency, and good shows they are) when, during “I Don’t Believe You” there is the intrusion of crowd noise. That’s par for the course on bootlegs, but this was really clear dialogue. As I paid attention to it, I was amused by the fact that it was an usher or security guard yelling at the bootlegger, or someone close to him, that he had to take the camera away and put it in his car. There is a long discussion about this, and the security person assures the camera owner that he can come back in, but he must get the camera out of there. It’s all quite hilarious knowing that they’ve missed out on the larger infraction that is happening right in that very spot.

Takes away from a nice version of the song, though.

Oops! Here’s another camera, capturing “Joey” from that same show!

MTV Unplugged

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I pushed this one on to Sunday, which is technically the beginning of our study of 1995, because it is a borderline case. Bob Dylan performed the MTV Unplugged shows in November 1994, but the album itself was released in May 1995 (April in Europe), so it is a true in-betweener that could have gone in either week.

Regardless, this is my favourite Bob Dylan in weeks and weeks and weeks (or years and years and years, I guess). I have listened to this album relentlessly this past week and, even more so, to the bootleg that includes the complete performances from November 17 and 18 (widely available under a lot of different names – the one I have is Bob Dylan Completely Unplugged, whose sound quality is very good (though it is always interesting to compare the exact same versions from the unremixed bootlegs and the fully polished official release – give Columbia’s engineers some credit here).

The MTV Unplugged show – which you can watch in its entirety here – was another one of those important Dylan rebuilding moments. This one presented him to a younger audience who might only have heard of him as that guy in their parents’s CD collection. In many ways, the MTV Unplugged show was the replacement for the Supper Club shows that were filmed but never developed into anything, but with a very different set list.

The word is that Dylan wanted to do the show as a series of covers and traditional songs, which is what he had done on his two most recent albums. MTV, probably very understandably, balked at that suggestion – they requested a greatest hits show. They settled somewhere in the middle with quite a few hits, but not entirely.

The first thing to note here is that this was Dylan’s touring band accompanying him. It is the same band that played with him at the Supper Club the year before:  Bucky Baxter (pedal steel guitar & electric slide guitar), John Jackson (guitar), Tony Garnier (bass), and Winston Watson (drums & percussion), with the addition of Brendan O’Brien on keyboards. This band played about three hundred concerts with Dylan over three years, and are arguably his best ever backing band – there doesn’t seem to be anything that they couldn’t do. A huge part of the appeal of this shows is Baxter on slide guitar. Slide guitar makes so many Dylan songs so much better. This is the same group who played the Woodstock show with him. The can rock and roll, but they – and Dylan – are just so much better in this country mode. This show is miles better than the Woodstock show from just a couple of months earlier.

The special itself was taped over consecutive evenings in New York. The first show was 65 minutes long, and the second was 85. Only four songs were repeated from night to night: “The Times They Are a-Changin””, “Desolation Row”, “I Want You” (which was left off) and “Dignity”. As I’ve already noted, “Dignity” was one of the odd additions to this show, since it was a virtually unreleased song at this point. I think that all three of the album versions of these songs are great, and I actually don’t think that the alternate versions are better – generally they are pretty much the same. “I Want You” was one of the few songs that they did that really didn’t work that well, and it was probably a good choice to skip it.

For the most part, with the obvious exception of “Dignity”, everything on the album is a 1960s hit (“Knockin’” is an early-1970s hit), except “Shooting Star” (from Oh Mercy, also well done here) and “John Brown”. “John Brown” is a real outlier here. One of Dylan’s best anti-war songs, it was never officially released in the 1960s and only showed up legitimately on Bootleg Series v1. It’s a harsh song to be getting an airing on MTV. Similarly, Dylan returns to “With God On Our Side” (though skipping the verses about World War 2, which is telling about how much the image of that war – and the greatest generation – had changed over the course of thirty years). This is a song that he’s still only performed thirty times, and this was the most recent since 1988. He’s only done it once since this show. The presence of these two songs and the absence of notable hits like “Blowin’ in the Wind” make the album all the more interesting and essential.

The bootlegs, however, are the real deal. They just take a the seventy-two minute special and make it that much longer, and that much better. Left off the special were good versions of “Don’t Think Twice”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (climbing the ranks to become one of my absolute favourite Dylan songs over the past few weeks), “My Back Pages” (the same – my esteem for this song has grown immensely), and “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, which is the most upbeat thing from the two nights (the rousing opener for night two). He also did “Everything is Broken” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, both of which are just sort of fine, but well worth having.

By far the oddest song selection of the two evenings was “Hazel” from Planet Waves. For whatever reason, Dylan chose this special to be the first time he ever performed this song in front of an audience – an almost forgotten track from an almost forgotten album. The band completely nails it – it’s a revelation. Sadly, it doesn’t make it onto the special or the album. Dylan has performed it subsequently only six more times – all a decade later in 2004 and 2005. Bizarre.

In many ways, the near inclusion of “Hazel” is the most fascinating thing here. It’s not like the band had made this a staple of recent touring or anything. Dylan just pulled out an old, forgotten song and they tried it out. This was indicative of the way that he approached touring at this time – the tours around 1994 used hundreds of songs – and the faith that he had that this band could pull it off with little rehearsal  (they did the song one time on each of the two rehearsal nights, which seems to indicate that Dylan had played it twice in twenty years when he thought of including it on the album). He was clearly still a man who was pushing himself in new directions.

I never heard this special back when it aired. In fall 1994 I lived in a part of Montreal that didn’t receive MuchMusic (which is the channel that aired MTV material) – you couldn’t buy it where I lived for any amount of money; you had to move to the west end of the city to get it (which I did in July 1995). I think I was aware of it, and probably would have watched if I could have. I know that I never bought the album (something about that shirt and those sunglasses and the word “MTV” put me off). Big mistake. I missed out on listening to this great album for twenty years. I do hope that they will give an official release to the rest of the material from the show – it’s really good.

Two final minor notes. First, there is aborted version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that preceded the version that is on the album. Dylan stops after a verse and a chorus and tells the audience that “the band got ahead of me” and the band responds that it was his fault for falling behind. It’s a charming moment, and the only one where Dylan talks to the audience. It is notable how different the two versions are because of the pace. Dylan seems to have about seventy different ways of singing this song by this point. Second, it is funny to listen to the bootleg and then watch the special to note just how much MTV sweetened the applause. Dylan got a great response – this must have been a ridiculously tough ticket to get – but MTV bumps it all up so noticeably. I’m sure that they do that for everything that they produce, but it reminds me of when the WWE pumps in crowd noise to make John Cena seem like he is more popular than he is – you can hear the crowd going wild while you can see people standing around not cheering. It always makes me laugh.

Here’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, the last song recorded on the second night, from the bootlegs.

Dylan vs the 1960s

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It was the first week of 1994 when Bob Dylan killed the spirit of the 1960s. The scene of the crime was the college bowl games. The instrument of death? An ad for Cooper-Lybrand, one of the world’s largest accounting firms, featuring a soundtrack in which the great Richie Havens sings “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. The reaction was swift and immediate, with papers like The Orlando Sentinel writing about Dylan “selling out” and Time magazine declaring with their headline “Just In Case You Hadn’t Heard – the 60s Are Over”.

It’s a familiar refrain. You heard this past February when Dylan appeared in a Chrysler ad, and I’ll write about it again in a few weeks when Dylan works with Victoria’s Secret and then again with Starbucks. In February I noted to people that Dylan had a two decade tradition of leasing his work to advertisers, so all the hand-wringing jeremiads from the chattering classes at Salon.com were a huge waste of bandwidth. It doesn’t matter though, these stories are relentless.

This week’s example is a new ad from luxury car manufacturer Acura, who are using Sid Vicious’s cover of “My Way” to . Now it is the moment for the children of the 1970s to say “But it was supposed to be about the music, man!”, even though that Vicious cover never seemed to be a cynically calculated effort to cash in in the first place (it’s one of the things that made it great).

I can’t write about the actual ad, though I do have the vaguest recollection of it, because I cannot find a copy on the internet anywhere. It seems like it might have just been a touch too early for permanent internet archiving. Here’s Richie Havens doing the song, you can imagine your own accounting ad if you want to.

Later in the year, Dylan was called upon to save the spirit of the 1960s from lame acts like Green Day. On August 14 he was one of the headliners for Woodstock ’94, another event that was killing the spirit of the 1960s. I do remember this one. I recall that there was a certain sense of outrage about the prices of food, water, beer and all that kind of stuff. It was also broadcast on pay-per-view, which everyone I knew found repellent, because they all conveniently forgot that the first show was a capitalist enterprise by a bunch of hippies looking to make a big score, so the fact that the second one was exactly the same seems entirely apropos to me. In both cases, I think, the organizers lost money when the crowd tore the fences down, so there was a certain parallelism there. Most of the reviews were lousy. The New York Times ran an article featuring people who won free tickets to the show complaining about how bad it was.

Dylan, of course, famously skipped the first concert in 1969, which was held a few miles from his home. He went to the Isle of Wight with The Band instead (taking an enormous pay day – seriously, at what point was the 1960s not about making money?) and played a pretty good show that disappointed some people. Now here he was twenty-five years later, making the appearance that the world had been waiting for. It was a good, short show that is keenly typical of the extensive 1994 tour. At this point his supporting band had played about 250 shows with him, so they are tight, tight, tight if a bit the same every night if you listen to a lot of them. The set is described as one of the highlights of the mud-soaked show, which seems a bit hard to comprehend – it’s not that good. Solid though. Most of the other acts were Lollapalooza standards (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Porno for Pyros) or stadium rockers (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Aerosmith) doing their big venue thing.

To my mind, Dylan missed two huge possibilities that would have made this the greatest Dylan show ever. Had he done either of these things, I’d have been tickled.

First, he should have played the same songs that he played at Isle of Wight. Perhaps, though, he didn’t have the time. That show was longer than his Woodstock 94 set, where he played third from the top on the Saturday night (before the Chili Peppers and, inexplicably, Peter Gabriel), so maybe it wasn’t possible.

Failing that, I feel like he should have played a set that he might have played at the original. He comes pretty close. Of the twelve songs that he did that night, nine were from his 1960s albums and one was from the Basement Tapes, so would have been written before Woodstock. The only exceptions were the opener (“Jokerman” from Infidels) and “God Knows” (from Under the Red Sky), neither of which seemed essential here. I think it would have been funnier if he had done a total nostalgia set for the nostalgia show.

Ah, but who am I to dictate song choices to the man who killed the 1960s? Like Sid Vicious, Dylan did it his way.

Here’s a video of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” from that show. The phrasing of the lyrics is just the weirdest thing ever.

Greatest Hits volume 3

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For something that should have been quite simple, Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits v3 has really frustrated me. As you may have noted, I haven’t paid great attention to the previous two Greatest Hits albums because, well, they cover material that I’ve already written about. I thought that would be the same thing here, and that when v3 (which I don’t own) rolled around I would note that it contained the single version of “Series of Dreams” and one unreleased track, “Dignity”. It is that last that has been a thorn in my side.

“Dignity” is, I am starting to think, one of the better late-Dylan era songs. It was recorded during the sessions for Oh Mercy with Daniel Lanois, and Dylan uber-critic Michael Gray argues that it should have been the lead song (instead of “Political World”). I agree with this argument. However, Dylan and Lanois could never come to grips with the song and how it should be performed and recorded. Here’s Dylan from Chronicles:

“We started “recording “Dignity” about nine o’clock. I knew what Lanois had in mind and thought that there might be something to it. The dichotomy of cutting this lyrically driven song with melodic changes, with a rockin’ Cajun band, might be interesting…but the only way to find out, is to find out. Once we started trying to capture it, the song seemed to get caught in a stranglehold. All the chugging rhythms began imprisoning the lyrics. This style seemed to be oblivious to their existence. Both Dan and I became plainly perplexed. Every performance was stealing more energy. We recorded it a lot, varying the tempos and even the keys, but it was like being cast into sudden hell. The demo with just me and Willie and Brian had sounded effortless and it flowed smooth. Certainly, as Danny said, it didn’t sound finished, but what recording ever does? Dopsie got almost as frustrated as me. It was a strange bull we were riding. He and his band never lost their composure, though. This song is not exactly a twelve-bar song and needed to project the perception of intimacy to be effective. It was becoming way too complicated and convoluted. An ambiance of texture and atmosphere is what the song called for and what Lanois is so good at. I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t getting it. You work hours on something and you get dizzy. After a while you lose your judgment.”

I have a copy of that original demo (‘just me and Willie and Brian’) and it is terrific. They should have just used that and left the Lanois material alone. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t, and the album became what it became.

Apparently when Greatest Hits v3 rolled around in 1994, there must have been some sense of needing to put a new song onto the album to get the hardcore fans to buy it (a basic record company scam) and “Dignity” was selected. The song was remixed by Brendan O’Brien from Dylan’s band (he played organ on the MTV Unplugged special, about which more on Saturday). Michael Gray writes: “All he did for “Dignity” was ruin it”.

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While it is true that the O’Brien version of the song is not as good as the spare demo, I’m not sure that I would say it is “ruined”. I mean, compared to some of the things that happened on Empire Burlesque, it’s hard to use the term ‘ruined’. Nonetheless, this version is insanely hard to find. It is not included on Complete Album Collection, but rather a different version of the same song (from Best of Bob Dylan v2 in 2000) is used. That version is closer to the original demo.

So, not having Greatest Hits v3 nor the song from Complete Album Collection (which is beginning to look less complete with each passing day!), I started looking around on the internet for this version with no success – links to YouTube versions of it have been copyright enforced out of existence and I couldn’t find the album on streaming services. I finally cracked and paid $1.29 for it on iTunes just so that I could say I have it. As I say, not completely ruined, but it is the worst version of the song that I have.

The song itself will begin to take on a life of its own following its release on Greatest Hits v3. Dylan had never played it live before that release, but then, for some reason, performed it both nights of the MTV Unplugged sessions and the version from the second night made it onto the special and the subsequent album, giving it a second release. The Unplugged version is quite good.

From there it was picked up on the soundtrack of the tv show Touched By an Angel (yes!), but in a different version. That version was the one that was included on Best of Bob Dylan v2 and which is on the Complete Album Collection). Finally, two versions (one very partial – only two minutes long) can be found on Bootleg Series v8, including a spare demo version that is very close to the one I have on an Oh Mercy outtakes bootleg. Whew. That’s a lot of effort for a mostly forgotten song. Dylan has gone on to perform the song 53 times in the past twenty years – that makes it a semi-regular for him.

As for the album itself, it covers material dating back to the early-1970s (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, from the Pat Garrett soundtrack, being the oldest song included). It has a number of great songs (“Tangled Up in Blue”, “Forever Young”) but really doesn’t seem to include what I would have thought were his best songs from this period. It doesn’t include all of his singles (which is fine, most of them were not “hits”) and is more idiosyncratic. It does include the tremendous “Brownsville Girl”, which probably makes it worthwhile on its own.

Here’s a video of Dylan and his band rehearsing for the MTV Unplugged show and performing “Dignity” from either November 15 or 16, 1994 – they did the song five times on the 16th, but since he forgets the words it is possible that this is the version from the 15th.