MUSICAL VARIATIONS

Standing on assembly in senior school I struck up a conversation with a young teacher who I knew was interested in music. We shouldn't have been talking. He should have been patrolling the class groups telling us to be quiet. But, with over 1,000 students standing in the hot sun, our brief chat didn’t attract any attention. That he would talk when meant to be acting out an adult role silencing us boys was what we all liked about him.

And he liked Bob. He was telling me about a Dylan single B side that had a different version to the album version and I was intrigued. I’d already latched on to the full album version of “Just Like A Woman” with it’s long, affectionate and pained harmonica outro that was cut to a few seconds for the single. The song he told me about was a live variation, and Bob’s always said that’s how his songs should be heard, how he hears them.

Variations on a musical theme have been at the core of composition since the Stone Age — either variations throughout a single piece, or variations in the way different people play it, at different times, variations in the instruments used, or variations in how the same person plays it depending on the location, their mood, or a zillion other variables.

We can all cite hundreds of examples of great re-readings of major hits, e.g., by Joni Mitchell (whose songs were never bedded down into a single thing anyway), impressively by Joe Cocker and, my favourite, Bruce Springsteen’s transformation of the (misunderstood as nationalistic) stadium rock anthem “Born In The USA” into a chilling acoustic accusation against those who forget what the values are that made America “great”, values that bound millions of migrants (poor and dispossessed) together on to common ground, symbolised in The Boss’s story of the treatment of a Vietnam veteran.

I’m not sure how to move into this paragraph, because I don’t want to give even a hint of an impression I think I’m in the same galaxy, let alone universe, as the examples above, but I want to give my own example, via “If I Give My Heart To You?”. Quite by surprise, this is (by a long shot) the most listened to of the “Midnight Rain” tracks on my Soundcloud site. This song actually has a long bridge in the middle that you won’t hear on “Midnight Rain” or anywhere else, yet. When I did a run through of this for Heath at Night Train Studios I was worried the bridge made it a bit too long and boring so I didn’t play it. When we sat down and listened to the take he had, we both looked at each other and said “That’s it!” — straight, clear, uncluttered, notes ringing out my declaration of love.

Not long after recording that version I sat at my piano at home in a very different mood, this time much more pensive, not even starting out to play this song at all, as you can hear from “new” intro on the sound file attached; this variation only recorded because I must have been hopeing a new song might happen. The sound quality could be a lot better but this is one variation I don’t want to try to, don’t think I could, repeat — reaching, fumbling, hesitant, then gentle, affirming and calm, in hope and trust that the unspoken heart’s answer is also affirmative.

The sheet music for “If I Give My Heart To You?” is now up on my music web page. What variations can you play?

Stay with Bob

When Dylan released “Shadows In The Night” a lot of Dylan fans I know swore they’d never buy it and, going on the poor sales in Australia (compared to #1 in the UK), that’s exactly what happened - people rejected this take on Robert Zimmerman.

Some saw it as a strange way for Bob to spend the twilight years of his career; others saw it as a cop-out, the thing burnt-out stars do when they don’t have any of their own material or when the muse has dried up. Even more saw it as a travesty of the Sinatra legend, Bob’s gravelly voice - they claimed - not up to the textures, cadences and vocal range needed for material that historically was carried by a ‘big band’.

But, as Bob told us himself, he “can’t unring the bell” and for those who have been listening to him anytime since he started, this remarkable collection of so-called “Sinatra” songs was nothing more than a natural extension of Bob’s musicality, another in a long list of statements about his musical heritage, just as much as it was on his very 1st album, just as much as it was on ”Self-Portrait”, just as much as it was on his ‘gospel albums’, and so on; all there for anyone to hear, acknowledging these types of songs have always been in Bob’s repertoire.

Some of them, like “That Lucky Ol’ Sun”, had been performed live over decades. As the closing song on “Shadows”, the final chorus is a revelation and the band - so tuned in and long-serving - sound like they could do it standing on their heads, so effortlessly guiding the melody along to Bob’s heartfelt and aching performance.

This blog is about Bob, but we can be just as thankful that he has had this band at his back for so many years now. I had the huge privilege and pleasure to bump into them at various airports during an Australian tour a few years back. By the 3rd time I got chatting with most of the band, not about Bob but about the music, so that I ended up sitting with them in an airport lounge and getting warm personal signatures. Thanks, thanks.

“The Night We called it a Day”, performed live for David Letterman the night he called it a day, was something for the history books, not only because of Letterman’s influence on shaping public perceptions of so many artists at crucial times of their career [Bob doing “Jokerman”, and the final Warren Zevon performance just before he died - one of the most poignant moments of TV for that decade] but also, for Dylan, a bookend to an era not only of TV but of stars they just don’t make anymore, Bob himself included. 

That Bob performed “Mutineer” live for months after Zevon’s passing, as well as a few others from Warren’s catalogue, just added to the links Bob always makes with the universality, not just American, of the human spirit expressed through song - something that Mavis Staples is again part of in Bob’s orbit for the current tour.

“Stay With Me”, the subject of this YouTube clip, is one of the best examples of what Dylan has done from the word ‘go’ - pick up a standard and make it his own. Is this a love song? Is it a religious song? Is it a supplication? Is it a boast? If a love song who to? If a prayer, which god? I don’t know and don’t care about the answers. The thing for me is that Bob cares, just like he did so tangibly in his gentle and yet searing rendition of “Restless Farewell”, sung to Sinatra himself at his 80th birthday “My Way” celebration concert.

“Fallen Angels” only accentuates all the above, in spades. The early view was that these are outtakes from “Shadows”, a filler album, filling in time before whatever’s to come next. But it didn’t take long before “Fallen Angels” came to be seen as even better than “Shadows”, Bob cantering with joy through “That Old Black Magic” and bowing in reverence through “All The Way”.

Watch this video of “Stay With Me”, listen to his voice, look at his face, stay tuned for the applause and see him still shy and slightly embarrassed about all the attention, a 5 minute standing ovation according to a witness.

If you haven’t stayed with Bob, think again - unring that bell.