With no new album and only a few guest spots in 1998, I spent a lot of time listening to Dylan bootlegs this week. In 1998 Dylan kept on touring – performing the 1,000th show of the Never Ending Tour in Montreux at the Jazz Festival. I didn’t listen to that specific show as it didn’t earn any special praise anywhere that I saw. What I did listen to was a couple of compilations that I found really useful. One of the, Les Bons Moments, collects highlights from Dylan’s European tour. This is one of my favourite bootleg titles (for 1999 I have one titled Boots of Spanish Leather, which is highlights from his Spanish tour, that is even better). Another is a collection of better performances from Dylan’s New York City shows in 1998. Both of these are single CDs, and neither of them is totally awesome – there are some moments that left me thinking “if this is bon, what was mauvais?” At the same time, there is a great deal that I still like on these 1998 performances.
One thing that struck me about the New York disc is how poor the crowd behaves at Dylan shows by this point in time. Just awful. When Dylan does an interesting, but little known song, like “John Brown” or “Tomorrow is a Long Time” they essentially chat through it. When he plays a hit like “Desolation Row” they cheer when they hear the first line, and then go back to chit chatting. Plus there is always at least one guy “whoooing” away like Ric Flair. I am really starting to become intolerant of late era Dylan crowds.
One of the striking things about Dylan playing his hits thirty years later is that it always takes the crowd a few moments to pick up on the fact that he’s playing a song that they actually know. The version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” on the New York set, for example, begins with some frantic mandolin playing that segues into a Mexican guitar sound. It is impossible to imagine what song is coming until the lyrics finally arrive. This version is just completely different than any version that I had ever heard. Dylan and his band make even the most familiar of songs totally unpredictable, which is what makes these bootlegs worth listening to. Even when his voice fails him (increasing at this point) the musical creativity is still there.
“It used to be like that, and now it goes like this”. One of the best ever Dylan lines from the stage, spoken during the “Royal Albert Hall” show in 1966 as a way of introducing “I Don’t Believe You”. The crowd in Manchester that night was having none of those changes – they boo, they stomp, they clap off rhythm trying to throw off Dylan and the Hawks. The English fans were furious at the rhythmic changes that Dylan introduced to his music, something that will be his hallmark for the rest of his career.
The only “new” Dylan material in 1998 was the Bootleg Series 4: Live 1966, The Royal Albert Hall Concert. I didn’t buy this when it came out, because I had the concert on vinyl as part of Zimmerman: Ten of Swords, but I remember that I was thrilled that it had an official release because it seemed to signal that the Bootleg Series was going to be a potentially ongoing and huge series (which it is – the eleventh volume is due later this year) rather than just the one off triple CD. I wrote about this show in the 1966 week, but listened to the show again this week. It’s fascinating to return to the scene of the crime this many weeks later. In January I thought that this was one of the best shows Dylan would ever do. I still think it’s great, but it has also fallen a great deal for me. There are so many shows now that seem much more interesting and alive to me now. I’m not knocking this – and the sound quality here is really top notch – just realizing how much I over-estimated it in retrospect.
As I say, still a great show. The only song that I don’t much care for today is “Mr. Tambourine Man”, where Dylan sort of spits the word “to” into the microphone, popping it. This is far from my favourite Dylan song, and this version sort of irks me, but not nearly as much as the whole show irked his audience.
In 1998, Bootleg Series v4 may have served for a lot of people as a reminder of the young, dynamic, vibrant, outrage-inducing Dylan that they once knew and loved (or knew and hated). For a lot of those people – including me – the contemporary Dylan would’ve seemed second or third rate. Today I’m finding more and more that I’m excited about the Dylan that is still to come, rather than nostalgic at looking back to the Dylan from early in his career.
Can I give two strong examples of that? On a Dylan tour anthology that I have for 1999 he does “Highlands”. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning to listen to both of those tracks. Does he change the lyrics for “Highlands”? If he doesn’t, can he remember them all? It’s sixteen minutes long! More fascinatingly, in 2000 he’s going to start performing his worst song, “If Dogs Run Free”, for the first time (first ever: October 1, 2000 in Münster). I am so excited to see if he can turn this New Morning monstrosity into something worth hearing. With Dylan you have to keep moving forward into the past. So while it was nice to revisit 1966 briefly, there’s still a lot of future left to explore.
Here’s “Cold Irons Bound” from Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, October 29: