Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Special Guest Post #2: Justin Shapiro on the 1966 World Tour

Author's note: When I originally conceived this site nearly a year ago, I envisioned the occasional guest post as part of the overall tapestry - partially because I wanted voices other than mine to be heard, and partially out of my abject laziness. Well, the laziness is still there (although I'm working on it), and now I finally get a chance to have that voice speak. Justin Shapiro, commenter extraordinare, the man who convinced me to make this blog a reality, and easily the biggest Dylan fan I know, has been kind enough to offer some thoughts about Dylan on stage, in 1966 and beyond, as part of this special week. I hope you enjoy what he's written - it's as sharp, erudite, and hilarious as his comments are, only there's more of it. This is the first of what I hope will be more contributions to EBDS.

When Tony Ling asked me if I would contribute to 1966 week on his website, I said, “Eh? No. It’s not 1966 this week.” Then he explained his concept, and I said, “Oh, I see. Still, no.” Then he asked again and I said, “let me answer your question with a question: yes.” “Good.” “Wait, it has to be good?” “Of course not.” “Okay then.”

***

“This is about a painter down in Mexico City, who traveled from North Mexico up to Del Rio, Texas all the time; his name’s Tom Thumb, and uh, right now he’s about 125 years old but he’s still going, and uh, everybody likes him a lot down there, he’s got lots of friends, and uh, this is when he was going through his BLUE period, of painting, and uh, he’s made COUNTLESS amount of paintings, you couldn't think of ’em all. This is his blue period painting, I just dedicate this song to him, it’s called ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s BLUES.’

[A scream!]

You know Tom Thumb?”

I like how the above monologue about Mr. Thumb, spoken as an introduction to the song by Bob [Dylan] in Melbourne in April 1966, becomes more and more of a portentous parable about its speaker with each passing year, leg of the Never Ending Tour, and album (he’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about).

The countless amount of Bob Dylan paintings we’ve been made privy to has become even moreso with the (gradual, sporadic) advent of the Bootleg Series; in this new generous age of increased 1) reverence for and 2) output of material from Dylan’s musical career, it can be easy to forget that the three likely most-celebrated live albums by Bob Dylan have all only come out, belatedly, over the last ten years. Bob’s longstanding inability to compile a truly successful, representative live album for a tour has made for one of the great sources of Dylan- related consternation for Clinton Heylin, along with everything else he’s ever done, ever. There’s little question that, the compellingness of the Hard Rain album as a standalone document notwithstanding, the matter of assembling a record, via record, of Bob Dylan in concert (and probably Live 1963: Bob Dylan In Concert, in due time) is far better left to Jeff Rosen many years after the fact than Bob Dylan in that moment.

But not every call that Dylan made with regard to releasing his live material was a misfire in the vein of Real Live or Dylan and the Dead. Paul Williams mentions in Performing Artist that “the first live Dylan recording ever released to the public, and the only one until 1970 (nine years into his career)” was the 5/14/66 “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from Liverpool. It was the B-side to the single for “I Want You” and, twenty years before three songs from’66 appeared on Biograph and thirty years before the Bootleg Series Vol. 4, this “Tom Thumb” stood as the only ‘official’ documentation of that tour.

In the second volume of Performing Artist, while discussing an artist performance of “Dead Man, Dead Man” from New Orleans in 1981, Williams notes that this marked “the third time in [Dylan’s] career that he had chosen to share an otherwise unavailable live recording with his listeners via the b-side of a single” (1989’s “Everything is Broken”), along with the above-mentioned “Tom Thumb” and the legendary “for Leonard if he’s still here” version of “Isis” from Montreal in ’75 (best-known from Biograph but first the b-side of “Jokerman” in 1984). “If one were to consciously select one live track to per decade to sum up what Dylan was reaching for as a performer in that era,” writes Williams, “one could hardly improve on this short list.” This observation always stuck with me, and today I wondered if it still applied to Bob Dylan in the next two decades, if there was still an unconscious correlation between live cut b-sides and Dylan-decade-definitive performances.

The ’00ughts were a no-brainer: “High Water” from 8/23/03 in Niagara Falls was released as an iTunes bonus download, the contemporary equivalent of the b-side, for the single of that “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way” remix thing, was subsequently released on Tell Tale Signs and described in essentially every review of the album as ‘smoking,’ ‘scorching,’ ‘torrid,’ ‘incendiary,’ ‘the work of a serial arsonist,’ or any of many adjectival variations of ‘hot.’ As a High Water mark of the keyboard-catalyzed sound of live Dylan from ’02-05, it definitely fulfills Williams’ criteria as “the work of a brilliant rock and roll singer performing with a band that is right out there on the edge trying to push him over at every moment.”

The Nineties are less of a layup, but Sony/Columbia/Dylan did put out a handful of Never Ending Tour recordings as extra tracks on the CD single of “Love Sick,” the then-contemporary, already-antiquated equivalent of the b-side. These are all performed with the Larry Campbell-Charlie Sexton edition of Bob Dylan & His Band (my personal favorite). I’ll take, then, the notorious Grammys performance of “Love Sick,” which forebodes its way through streets that are dead (to tritely literalize the lyrics) and even features Dylan himself – not Sexton or Freddie Koella or Robert Robertson or Scarlett Rivera’s violin – uniquely ‘shredding’ a guitar solo.

There you go, then. Five performances from five decades of five songs from five decades. Dylan’s still going and everybody likes him a lot. The first one is from his blue period, but he’s made countless of these such paintings and I couldn’t think of ’em all.

But I know Tom Thumb.

“Some people preferred my first-period songs. Some, the second. Some, the Christian period. Some, the post-Columbian. Some, the Pre-Raphaelite. Some people prefer my songs from the nineties.”
- Bob, interview with Bill Flanagan re: Together Through Life, 3/18/09

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues - 1966
Isis - 1975
Dead Man, Dead Man -1981
Love Sick - 1998
High Water (For Charley Patton) - 2003

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2 comments:

Abe Hawari said...

No offense, but i actually expected to hear something about the actual tour itself during this post, rather than a summary of Columbia's history of releasing live Dylan recordings.

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