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Thursday, 22 May 2008

Bob changes show opener, but still overlooks perfect choice

The three shows that circulate from Dylan's latest tour in this, the 20th year of the Never-Ending Tour, confirm the reports of those attending them that the man is back in very strong voice for the first time in at least a year. When that happens, even his current mediocre band can't hold him back.

The one disappointment is the continuing static nature of the setlists. Although no one could possibly obejct to a setlist like the first night of the Canadian tour in Saint John, New Brunswick, an excellent selection of vintage classics plus the best of the more recent Dylan songs, Bob still neglects large parts of his repertoire, particularly from the 70s and 80s.

At least he has started shaking up the opening slot. having opened with a different song on every night of the tour so far. But he continues to ignore, in my view, the perfect show opener....

The never-played opening song from his 1974 album Planet Waves, On A Night Like This has, in my view, all the ingredients of a perfect opening number. It even has some of the characteristics of the songs by which Dylan typically chooses to announce himself to the audience, which often make some kind of comment (usually ironic) about his relationship to the audience. Maggie's Farm is Bob's favourite song in this regard: it tells us right up front that, although we may technically be the boss and Dylan the hired worker, it doesn't mean he has to like it: "They say 'sing while you slave'/I get bored". So don't go complaining if his performance is merely workmanlike or if he actually falls asleep on the job. Others in this category are Hero Blues, that most unlikely obscure number with which Bob kicked off his eagerly awaited return to touring in 1974; and Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine, which was his calling card after "Hero Blues" was dropped after the first two shows in 1974 and again in 1989 and at other times.

There is another category of opener in which Bob makes a big statement, announcing mock-heroically that he's ready for the challenge of facing the audience. Examples are I'm Ready - the Muddy Waters number used on the U.S. leg of the 1978 tour, and Hallelujah, I'm Ready To Go, the bluegrass opener earlier this century. And still another category in which Bob makes us a pledge, as in To Be Alone With You or Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You (that one usually comes second rather than first, it is true). On A Night Like This incorporates elements of all three of these categories (though there are still other categories, which I pass over here). First of all, the night is special to us, if not to Dylan: we are seeing him perhaps for the first time; or it may be the 200th time, but even so, in terms of the number of shows he gives, that is a mere drop in the ocean. So for us the night is quite special, and the way the line builds up to a climax - On a night like THIS - emphasises that specialness; but the same emphasis is double-edged, because as the song goes on, a note of recrimination sets in. "If I'm not too far out, I think we did this once before"—in the context of the song, this sounds barbed. This special evening he's spending with his old lover, reminiscing on old times.... not only are some of those memories not so sweet, but they've even done the nostalgia trip itself before. But as an address to the audience, the song would work as a sly nod of the head to the long-time Dylan fans seeing Dylan for the 10th, 20th, or perhaps even 100th time. And a gentle reminder to the first-timer that while this may be special for him/her,. it's not so special for Dylan, whose been through it all thousands of times....

On A Night Like This is such a perfect opener perfect, you can even hear it in your head: Dylan striding to the microphone, singing the first three words unaccompanied into the microphone (or maybe just strumming an acoustic energetically) and then the band crashing in, with perfect timing, on the word 'TH -I-I- I - I- S !!!'

This could even be why he doesn't do this number - the arrangement I've just suggested, which seems to me the obvious one, would require just the sort of showmanship that he only occasionally goes in for. He normally likes to start a show very loose and relaxed, so that the first song is often little more than a warm-up number. Starting with On A Night Like This would require him to hit the ground running every time. What a great concert would follow if he started off with this tight an arrangement.

However, the real reason could be that Dylan just doesn't like the song. In the Biograph booklet he tells Cameron Crowe:

"I wrote this in New York... Sometimes you are affected by people thinking you're too heavy. You know? They see you and pretend they don't, if you do something that's extreme on the one hand, then you've got to hurry and turn it around so people aren't so sure that they saw what they know, I think this comes off as sort of like a drunk man who's temporarily sober. This is not my type of song, I think I just did it to do it."

A very intriguing comment. Since prior to Planet Waves Bob had done nothing that could be regarded as 'heavy' or 'extreme' since, say, All Along the Watchtower, he can only be referring to songs on Planet Waves itself. He seems to be suggesting he wrote "On A Night Like This" as a counterfoil to 'heavy' numbers such as Dirge, Going Going Gone, and Wedding Song . And certainly without this song and You Angel You (which definitely sounds written just for the sake of having an uptempo, happy-sounding number and to exorcise the demons of Dirge), Planet Waves wouldn't have much variation.

(And though he may have disliked the song in 1985, he included Los Lobos's version of it for his 2002 movie Masked and Anonymous.

However, although it may have been written specifically to fulfil the role of the uptempo opener, the song nevertheless beautifully prefigures and encapsulates Planet Waves both thematically and in terms of mood. The themes of the album are to be reminiscence and nostalgia - but the mood is to be bitter-sweet. Some of the memories are going to be romantic, others painful or downright venomous. The situation in the song seems to be a former lover returning for the evening: and not just for coffee and to share a few old memories. She is going to stay the night - but this has the air of a one-night-stand for old times' sake or for the sake of sex; not a long-term reunion. Therefore "say you'll never go away to stray" is more about the excitement of the moment than a realistic hope. The song is one of Dylan's most sexually charged:

Hold on to me so tight...
Hold on to me, pretty miss...

Run your fingers down my spine
Bring me a touch of bliss

Put your body next to mine
And keep me company

The last lines have humorous pay-off: "There is plenty of room for all so please don't elbow me". Given Dylan's reputation, we cannot dismiss the idea that more than one person is sharing his bed, but these lines are better seen as humour: "Can you stay the night? Sure, I don't think there's anyone in my bed right now, let me check - oh yeah, room for one more!" This is curiously echoed in Tough Mama - "Won't you move over and give me some room?"

Those lines of explicit sexuality are reinforced by the sensuousness and vividness of other details: the coffee roasting on the fire while they reminisce, the hissing of the log fire; the contrast between the warmth within - "let it burn burn burn" - and the frosty cold, snow, and stormy wind outside; and the hint of vulnerability but cosiness in "cabin door". The snow lies deep on the pathway outside, frost piles up high at the window, and the four winds howl around the door, but the couple go on reminiscing... and kissing. It's a wonderfully vivid picture, painted in a few lines. The album as a whole will be replete with allusions to nature - a frozen lake and footprints in the snow in Never Say Goodbye, "rainy days on the great lakes" in Something There Is About You - and with sensual details in the description of women: "Tough mama, meat shaking on your bones..." "Hazel, dirty blonde hair".. "Is it the way your body moves, or the way your hair blows free?" "Something there is about you that moves with style and grace". "The way you walk and the way you talk/I feel I could almost sing"... "You're beautiful beyond words". "You've turned your hair to brown/Love to see it hangin' down."

A second source of imagery on the album - heat, fire, smoke - is also prefigured in this song, with the hissing log on the fire and the threefold repetition of "let it burn, burn, burn" - which sounds like it was inspired by June Carter's Ring of Fire: "it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire". The imagery is repeated in:

Can I blow a little smoke on you?

Ashes in the furnace, dust on the rise...

Today on the countryside it was hotter than a crotch...

Something there is about you that strikes a match in me...

I love you more than ever and it burns me to the soul

Every time we meet you know, I feel like I'm on fire (from Nobody 'Cept You, which comes from the PW sessions, if not on the album).

The heat and flame that burns throughout the album - these are torch ballads, remember - is prefigured in On A Night Like This in those wonderful lines:

Build a fire, throw on logs, and listen to it hiss
And let it burn burn burn on a night like this.

You can hear those hissing logs in the rhyme of listen and hiss and then again in this...

"We've got much to talk about and much to reminisce." The theme of reminiscence and nostalgia is to dominate songs like Hazel, Something There Is About You, Never Say Goodbye, and Nobody 'Cept You. A final theme is the desperate longing for love - these memories build up at times into almost painful yearning for physical contact with a former lover (even if it is not always the same woman, all the women are blended into one):

Nothing matters to me
And there's nothing I desire
'Cept you, yeah you

You've got something I want plenty of
Ooh, a little touch of your love.

Never did feel this way before.
Never did get up and walk the floor
If this is love then gimme more
And more and more and more and more

No I don't need any reminder
To know how much I really care

You're beautiful beyond words
You're beautiful to me...

At times, this longing is satisfied:

Suddenly I found you and the spirit in me sings
Don't have to look no further, you're the soul of many things

You've got me under your wing

Sweet Goddess
Your perfect stranger's comin' in at last

At others, the feelings are so intense that they actually give rise to self-hatred:

I hate myself for loving you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down suicide road

My thoughts of you don't ever rest, they'd kill me if I lie,
I'd sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die

or to a desire to take the record of all these memories and burn them on the blazing log-fire:

I'm closin' the book
On the pages and the text
And I don't really care
What happens next.
I'm just going,
I'm going,
I'm gone.

I've paid the price of solitude but at least I'm out of debt.

All of these feelings climax in Wedding Song, in which longing, desperation, self-hatred, and the desire both to hang on to memories and to blot them out all come together:

I love you more than ever, more than time and more than love
I love you more than madness
Love you more than life itself
...your love cuts like a knife
I love you more than blood
I'd sacrifice the world for you and watch my senses die.
I love you more than all of that with a love that doesn't bend
Oh, can't you see that you were born to stand by my side
And I was born to be with you, you were born to be my bride,
You're the other half of what I am, you're the missing piece
And I love you more than ever with that love that doesn't cease.

and finally

I love you more than ever now that the past has gone.

Most of this is anticipated in the album's brilliant opener - the despair and self-hatred are not present in this song, but are prefigured in the manic air of the whole piece (perhaps this is what Dylan means by saying it sounds like the song of a drunk who has temporarily sobered up). All of the following songs can be seen as part of the lovers' fireside chat: the tender memories, the sexuality, the bitter recriminations... Planet Waves is an album that burns, burns, burns. All of its songs are within that ring of fire. (Note also the link between the blazing hearth and memory in Tangled Up in Blue, where the words of an old poem "glowed like burning coal", triggering memories of a former lover).

So then, On A Night Like This is an underrated song from an underrated album that I suggest would make a perfect opener for Dylan's show. It will probably never happen.

Stay tuned for a special blog to mark Bob's 67th birthday on Saturday. It'll be largely about another Planet Waves song. "See if you can guess which one that is."


jackohamlet said...

student of ricks perchance?

67 and forever young.

mikesnyc said...

well written encapsulation of planet waves seen thru the prism of the many years of his bobness...

I('ve often thought that 'on a night like this' was the perfect opener as well... I actually saw him open with a much more minor example of a up-to-that point unplayed (?) song in 1991- "New Morning"- problem was, it was unreognizable. I think Bob's in a much better place now then in '91, and with a much more sympathetic band (static as they are sometimes). Excellent article!

Anonymous said...

I've always loved this song as well, it sounds so casual and breezy, and the Band is just rocking. Now some one just tell me who Danny Lopez is in Something there is about you.

raggedclown said...

I'm not in Professor Ricks class as a critic. On the other hand, I don't think you would find a reference to June Carter Cash in Ricks. He only has eyes for Bob!

Thanks for the comments, guys.

stewART said...

Yes, always liked the song

The fact that the Los Lobos version was included in the M&A film (and the official soundtrack CD) made me think it might appear in concert at last ! (Someday baby...(oh, there goes another one ...!))

Anonymous said...

I love Planet Waves, despite it's poor production and sound quality. However, On a Night Like This is zydeco music. A versatile and gifter band like The Band can pull it off. Los Lobos, with roots in zydeco, masters it. But, Dylan's current assortment of wankers couldn't do it. We'd hear a totally different genre if they covered it. It might be an interesting number, but it could also be disastrous.

Stan Denski said...

Like most Dylan fans you refuse to acknowledge the presense of the elephant in the room... he can't sing, not that song, not any song, not any more. His voice is damaged beyond repair and he sounds like someone with stage 4 throat cancer. He hasn't had a voice since 1980-1981. His recent records are fine because the controlled environs of the recording studio allow him to use the wee little bit of what's left. But live.... oh Jesus is he awful.

raggedclown said...

Stan, you obviously haven't heard anything from the current tour. His voice is better than for quite a few years.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you're right - it would be great if he'd mix it up a bit more. I know it's already generous of him to play in region of 100 different songs over the course of a year, but on the whole he's been rotating alot of the same songs for over 40 years! A new album brings forth a sprinkling of new material, but he must be sick to death of singing Like A Rolling Stone etc! How about a show performing an entire album - like Shot of Love or Oh Mercy, or at least a a variety of songs from Street Legal, Desire, Infidels (the out-takes!) etc. He cranks some of these out at non-arena shows (Shepherds Bush in London 2003 is a case in point). I suppose it's a case of forgetting the words to songs which are not easy crowd-pleasing Greatest Hits. Get Jack White back on stage with him immediately!

Burns said...

I agree that On a night like this would be a perfect opener and have often wondered why he has 'denied' himself this particular album. I suppose it might be more painful to him than say Blood on The Tracks.
As for the comment that he 'couldn't' sing this song because his voice is shot.I simply don't believe that. Of course voices change as we age and of course we will never hear that famous 'AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH' in like a Rolling Stone again.but he can still sing blissfully as and when it is required.