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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Master Blueprints # 7: “You Know What They Say About Bein' Nice to the Right People on the Way Up, Sooner or Later You Gonna Meet Them Comin' Down”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Foot of Pride”
Album: Unreleased from the Infidels sessions
Release Date: October, 1983

Out of the gate for this series, I mentioned an early breakthrough I made with Bob Dylan’s music, listening to the Rolling Thunder Review version of “Shelter from the Storm” off of the live Hard Rain album.  That was back in the mid-80s.  There were a number of leaps forward not long after that, a significant one being the release of Oh Mercy in 1989 (I’ve yet to tackle a song from that album, but this is imminent).  One particularly large leap was made several years later while watching a live simulcast of Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at my good friend Jeff’s apartment.  The actual event, a tribute show, took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City that same evening; October 16, 1992. 

As I’ve mentioned before, Bob Dylan gets covered more than any other musician I know…. by a country mile.  I’ve also mentioned that the best Bob Dylan covers are those where a musician finds a song that suits his/her style.  There is something in his vast catalog for everyone, and I’ve always believed this availability of his music to be intentional on his part (again, it’s why I call the series Master Blueprints).  This all played out brilliantly in the 30th Anniversary Concert.  Virtually every musician who performed that night played a song suitable for them. 

What an incredible night of music and gathering of musicians that was (I could even feel the vibes via simulcast, and I’ve been to many concerts in my lifetime - where the real vibes preside).  If you ask me it was right up there with Woodstock, Monterey, Live Aid and the 2016 “Desert Trip” concert for star power and talent.  I recall Eddie Vedder stating in a pre-concert interview that he felt as if he were hanging with seven of the twelve apostles.   The set list was pretty incredible too:  A perfect cross section of songs from every phase of Bob Dylan’s songwriting career; the choices of deep cuts and hits balancing out nicely.  What an honor it must have been for Dylan to get such a profound tribute, and at a relatively young age (51).

There were a few marquee performers that night who got to perform 2 songs including Neil Young, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty and the man of honor himself.  All were memorable, but it was primarily a handful of the one-off acts who stole the show (as well as Petty, a marquee performer who truly rose to the occasion).  As I watched and listened for the umpteenth time this week (but the first time in over a decade), I was glad to see my sense of wonder still persists (although it was tough to take in how many of these performers are no longer with us).

I’ve put together a personal top 10 list of the most stirring performances from this event below.  I’ll be working my way from # 10 up to # 1, with commentary on each, including how the song worked so well for the musician who covered it.  # 10 up to # 6 are in this entry.  The top 5 are in the next.

# 10.  The Times They Are A-Changin’, sung by Tracy Chapman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCZWv5U5wJ4 ).  Several young bucks covered Bob Dylan’s early protest songs in this show (including Vedder, who performed “Masters of War” quite admirably).  Chapman gets the nod though.  She sounds sincere and earnest here, not having the appearance of being starry eyed in the least.  Politics was in the air on this evening, only 2 weeks away from a presidential election (Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush).  I had just turned 30 years old two months earlier and I remember the build-up to that election well (it was the first time in four attempts that I would end up voting for the winner, and unlike prior elections, I could feel victory in the air).  The protest songs were fitting in my mind, and Chapman was classy in her delivery (alternatively, I felt Stevie Wonder was a bit over the top with his drawn-out, politically-charged introduction comments and subsequent rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind”… one of the only energy drains of the evening).  “The Times They Are A-Changin” has and will continue to endure the test of time. 

# 9. “It Ain’t Me Babe”, sung by June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=253pRcqSl1M ).  Admittedly past their prime, but there is some beautiful passion and sincerity here, particularly in June Carter Cash’s singing the refrain. Today when I watch it, I think of Walk the Line, a fantastic movie that I have sat through on at least three occasions (more often I have just fast-forwarded to the classic Folsom State Prison scene at the end, one of my favorite movie moments of all time).  After getting that insight into their life together (the movie coming out 13 years after the Dylan 30th event), the passion in June Carter Cash’s vocals now makes more sense. 

In Walk the Line, the character of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) comes across as doting in his endless advances toward June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), which was understandable:  Cash was smitten.  With all the issues Johnny Cash was dealing with (substance abuse, marriage break up) - which was not sugar coated in the movie – June Carter was rather measured in her response.  So now when I listen to this performance, I get out of Johnny Cash’s singing the sense that he is respecting June Carter Cash’s rather stoic (albeit door ajar) reaction to his advances during their long courtship, and June Carter Cash is belting out how she dealt with him in reply.  Yes, the lyrics to “It Ain’t Me Babe” reflects June Carter Cash’s approach to their relationship to a tee. 

# 8 “Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35”, sung by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8NocHFec8I ).  It’s too bad I could only track down the audio here, because if there is any performance in this top 10 list where you get the full effect with the visual, it is this one. Here we see Tom Petty (a shocker of a passing this past year) and crew add a little fun to the mix (although virtually the entire event was exhilarating).  Prior to watching Petty’s rendition, I’d been pretty ambivalent with this song.  Now I get a big kick out of it, which I believe was Bob Dylan’s intention all along.  Having toured with Dylan in 1986 - a rabble-rousing tour from the accounts I’ve read - Petty knew this as well as anybody.  And boy does it come out on that Madison Square Garden stage.  Indeed, no matter which way Bob Dylan turned when he wrote the song back in 1966 he likely had some form of mind altering substance shoved in his face.  I envision an animated music video being dreamed up for this song someday.  It will be a hoot. 

# 7 “Highway 61 Revisited”, covered here by Johnny Winter ( http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xpdsck ).  When Johnny Winter walked out on the stage I was transfixed.  For a split second, I thought I was looking at Freddy Krueger!  Was this guy going to start shooting lightning bolts out of his fingers at the crowd and bring the house down in a big ball of flame?  I soon recovered my senses, with a bit of help from Johnny Winter’s Texan brother, Jeff, sitting in the chair next to me, who’d seen Winter on numerous occasions.  But then Johnny Winter preceded to do just that!  His performance, particularly his guitar playing, was the most on-the-edge, high flying moment in the show that evening.  The fast pace of his playing and singing did such a great honor to “Highway 61 Revisited”, a truly bizarre tale of that middle of America Blues Highway, which generally winds along the Mississippi River from Dylan’s home State of Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana (I’ll have much more to say about this North/South blues linkage for Bob Dylan when I review some of the more conceptual elements from Time Out of Mind).  The euphoric instrumental wrap up alone would have been worth the price of admission.  This song is going to have to get its own Master Blueprint at some point, if only for the opening verse (I’ll leave those not in the know to either try to interpret Mr. Winter or find the lyrics).    

# 6 “Foot of Pride”, covered here by Lou Reed ( https://ok.ru/video/96938101297 ).   Probably the closest-to-perfection of the alignment of a Bob Dylan song and a musician covering it that I have ever heard (ok, I’ll grant that Jimi Hendrix cover of “All Along the Watchtower” is right up there too).  Dylan has never performed this song live, despite having been on that truly never-ending ‘Never Ending’ tour for decades now, where he is always rolling out nuggets.  This avoidance is understandable, however.  “Foot of Pride” is HEAVY (even by Dylan standards), extremely complex in vocabulary (including the exclamations), and to date no one has aptly explained the meaning other than in the generality that the song is an indictment on significant chunks of humanity, personified in the lyrics by a handful of well justified character attacks (whether these seriously flawed characters be real or fictitious is of little consequence).

Regardless of all this, Lou Reed pulls the song off masterfully here, despite the use of teleprompters.  In fact, I think his use of teleprompters actually adds to my fascination in how he nails it, seeing as Reed’s phrasing and his raw emotions are absolutely tuned in to the spirit of the original recording.  In other words, Sweet Lou is nowhere near auto pilot.  There are numerous examples of the unbridled force in this very rare live rendition of “Foot of Pride” including Reed’s delivery of one of my all-time favorite Bob Dylan lines: “You know what they say about bein’ nice to the right people on the way up.  Sooner or later you gonna meet them comin’ down”.  To this day I still recall the chilling feeling of hearing those lyrics for the first time at Jeff’s apartment that night (which was the first time I heard this at-the-time unreleased gem of a song from the 1983 Infidels sessions). 

One other note about Lou Reed in relation to Dylan’s 30th: Before the show Reed was interviewed and he prophetically stated that Bob Dylan had not even done his best stuff yet.  It was quite a statement, considering that so many contemporary musicians prove to be well past their prime by the time they hit middle age.  What was to come for Bob Dylan over the next 20 years was much more in line with Lou Reed’s vision.

It’s a wrap.  See you next entry for the top 5.

Pete

2 comments:

  1. You have me excited for the next 5. Thanks Pete. I remember you advocating that show, and it lived up to its advanced billing. Tambourine Man....(oops did I give next week away?)

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