Tuesday, July 28, 1998

Born in Time

Not too long ago I resolved not to write about Mr. Dylan in these pages for awhile. My admiration for the man and his work was even starting to annoy me. But after hearing two more must hear performances that are breathtaking I feel not to share would be shirking my duties.

The first is a live performance of the song One of Us Most Know (Sooner or Later) from an August 12, 1997 concert in Scranton PA. This is the one and only live performance of this classic Blonde on Blonde song since 1977's Street Legal tour. And what a performance it is. Dylan flubs the opening line, "I didn't know... to hurt you so bad" instead of "I didn't mean to hurt you so bad." But all the lines are sung with passion and regret. "I didn't know you were saying good-bye for good." "Sooner or later one of us most know that I really did try to get close to you." The lilting version (which reminds me of this band's arrangement of Simple Twist of Fate) featuring Bucky Baxter's tender country slide guitar fills fits the mood of the song perfectly. It is a moving and rare performance in what unfortunately was a one off effort. The song fizzles out in the end as the band struggles to finish an unfamiliar song. But Dylan's vocals occupy the lyrics in such an effectively wistful way that what is said is as important as is what is left unsaid. "I didn't mean to make you so sad, you just happened to be there that's all... I didn't know how you could know me, but you said you knew me and I believed you did..."

The other inspiring performance is an outtake from the Oh Mercy sessions of Born in Time (which was later released on 1990's Under the Red Sky and more recently covered on Eric Clapton's new CD). The Red Sky version is a song captured beyond its prime. Dylan reworked the song and the rewritten lines without exception serve to conceal the heart of the lyrics. ( "You came and saw, just like the law..." indeed.) The earlier unreleased version showcases a perfect Dylan vocal with a writer who has much to say but is struggling to find the right words. "Just when I knew you were gone you came back... You were high, you were low. You were so easy to know" sounds a bit trite on paper but the soft sad expression of his voice in this take captures the very essence of some very important relationships in my own life.

"Just when I knew who to thank, you went blank." The words don't convey what the voice does. This version makes it ambiguous as to what the state of the relationship is. Does it still exist? Did it ever exist? Will it exist in the future? The singer is singing directly to his heart's inspiration who may or may not still be around. In the Red Sky version it's clear the person the song is directed at is long gone. In that version the way Dylan sings, "It's too revealing..." and "In the hills of mystery, you can have what's left of me," is chilling. It's as if he realizes the person he has lost has taken an irreplaceable part of him with her. It's difficult to survive when what is causing so much sadness is the same thing bringing relief from that sadness.

The hesitancy of his vocals in the unreleased outtake is an example of Dylan's finest singing. The timbre of the voice is so expressive and the seeking of just the way to express the sentiment is perfect. In the earlier version he sings, "In the hills of mystery, in the foggy ruins of destiny, I think of you from deep inside of me..." and the mood of the moment conveys the title of the song in absolute honesty and unique perfection.

These two lost relationship songs written over twenty years apart are examples of why Dylan is such a vital and important artist. It's difficult to think of any other artist in any other medium who could so eloquently express such universal feelings so effectively. Both songs are about a singer struggling with his place in time. His ability to write in a way that seems to exist outside of time and to share his heart (too late) with his audience in such a universally felt way- in these two examples is absolutely stunning.

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