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Daily Record 1/16/11: Real Live-Bob Dylan (1984)

In 1980s, 1984, Bob Dylan, concerts, live albums, Rich's House of Vinyl, rock on January 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm

By the standards of 2011, when music fans are able to tap into vast archives of live concert recordings online, the idea of a single disc, 10-song live album must seem like a quaint idea indeed. Back in 1984, when Bob Dylan released just such an album, Real Live, there might have been some justification for the record but even then most people would have dismissed the album as an perfunctory offering, a contractual obligation.

From my perspective, Real Live was an ideal 1984 Christmas present for my dad, who was never the easiest person to buy for on my Christmas list. I’m not sure how often Dad spun Real Live on the stereo record player that still sits in my parents’ living room, though I seem to remember that we broke it out and threw it on the turntable at some point that Christmas afternoon.

Dad’s copy of Real Live is now part of my record collection and I haven’t listened to it much either. Which is a bit of a shame, because, listening to it at 8:50 this Sunday morning, more than 25 years after its release, I can state that it’s a not-half-bad live album.

Contractual obligations aside, I think Dylan had two purposes in releasing Real Live: he wanted to have a public document of his touring band for this particular tour, which happened in the wake of one of his many “career-reviving” albums, 1983’s Infidels. This was a worthwhile goal, as the band, including ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, offers up some nicely rocking versions of Dylan classics like “Masters of War,” “Maggie’s Farm” (a favorite of my dad’s) and others.

Dylan’s second purpose for Real Live: he wanted to have a more “definitive” version of his classic song, “Tangled Up in Blue,” on record.

Serious Dylan fans know that Bob has never really finished writing “Tangled Up in Blue,” which was originally on his 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. The Real Live version of the song is longer than the original and the lyrics are considerably different, though the differences are such that you’d really have to run a “track changes” program through the printed lyrics to catch the subtle but pervasive changes between the two versions. And that would be kind of a weird thing to do, right? (For the record, I haven’t run any printed Bob Dylan lyrics through Track Changes. Yet.)

Dylan actually acknowledged this purpose in the liner notes to his Biograph box set. Said Dylan:

“On Real Live it’s more like it should have been. I was never really happy with it. I guess I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do…with the the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn’t matter. On Real Live, the imagery is better and more the ay I would have liked it than on the original recording.”

I don’t think the Real Live version of “Tangled Up in Blue” is going to make anyone forget the original, but for serious Dylan fans, it is certainly interesting to hear.

For me, listening to Real Live leads to a mental inventory of my own live encounters with Bob Dylan. So here they are, in bulleted list form:

  • July 13, 1985. This is one of Dylan’s briefest and most controversial performances. It was at Live Aid, with Ron Wood and Keith Richards. Dylan got things rolling by mentioning that perhaps some of the money raised could go to help out American farmers, royally pissing off Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof, but inspiring John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young to start Farm Aid which, 25 years down the road, is still helping American farmers. Then Bob played ramshackle versions of three of his early classics and slunk off the stage during the huge “We Are The World” finale, without bothering to chip in his “…just you and me” line from that song.
  • Summer 1986. Dad, my friend Joe and I went to see Dylan with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Spectrum. I think it was ’86. Though Dad had been a fan for years, this was the first time he saw Dylan live (Dad wasn’t a big concertgoer) and also the first full live Dylan concert I saw (though Petty and the Heartbreakers played several of their classics as well). I’m sure Dylan hit on several of his milestone tunes at this show but, interestingly, the song that left the greatest impression on me was Dylan’s impassioned reading of “In The Garden,” which was from one of his notorious (at the time) “Christian” albums, Saved
  • November 2001. Dad and I saw Dylan again in 2001. I remember Dad saying “Yeah, I like to catch up with Dylan every 10 years or so.” By this time, Dylan’s latest career revival was well underway, with both the Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind and the just-as-good-as-that-album, Love and Theft, notches on Bob’s metaphorical musical bedpost. Dylan was “on” that night, at least as far as I could tell, offering up an excellent set list (the man has not played exactly the same show in at least two decades, probably longer) that included a stellar version of “Tangled Up in Blue,” I’ll remember the rest of my life. This was the last concert Dad and I saw together and it was a worthy one.
  • Summer 2004, Aberdeen, Maryland. I think it was ’04. This was one of Dylan’s summertime minor league baseball park shows and it was my mom, Jimmy and me, down in Maryland. Willie Nelson and Dylan were touring together. It rained like hell that day and when I got home that night, the paper money in my wallet was sopping wet. Willie was great, though recovering from an operation on his hand, so he wasn’t playing as much guitar as usual. I thought Dylan was great as well, though by the 200os, we’ve clearly entered the era where a Dylan concert is a love-it-or-hate it proposition. But watching Dylan perform “All Along the Watchtower,” with lightening flashing behind him and sitting with Jimmy on my lap while Dylan played “Like a Rolling Stone” are musical memories I’ll be hanging onto for a while.
  • Summer 2005, Camden, New Jersey. Another Bob/Willie affair that Mom and I enjoyed at a minor league ballpark. Willie was playing more guitar this time around, always a good thing. I enjoyed Dylan as well, though it’s more the carnival-like atmosphere in the audience that sticks with me about this show: the Bob fan walking around with a puppet that was providing commentary on the whole affair (that is, the puppet was providing the commentary, not the guy); the guy who shouted “Play something we know” halfway through Dylan’s set; the woman sitting next to me who informed me that her name was Britain, “because that’s where I was conceived.” It was Fellini crossed with Hee Haw in Camden,  with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge serving as the picturesque backdrop.    

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal questioned whether Dylan should continue performing live, noting that his voice appears to be totally blown out at this point. Readers of that story could probably be divided pretty neatly into two categories: those who say, “I’ve always hated his voice and I don’t see why he ever should have been appearing onstage, especially when Peter, Paul and Mary, the Byrds and Joan Baez do such pretty versions of his songs;” and those who say, “Bob can never stop touring, at least not until I see him perform “Country Pie,” “Wigwam” and “Got My Mind Made Up,” in that order, at the same show.”

I don’t know whether I’ll see another Bob Dylan concert, and I’d honestly be happy if he took some time off to write the projected second volume of his Chronicles memoirs, but I am firmly in the camp that would encourage Bob to keep on rocking, no matter what the Wall Street Journal says.

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