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.

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