T for Tom

Day 33 – MTV Unplugged – 1995

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 24, 2016

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Bob Dylan didn’t want to play his own music, but there appears to be a lot of renewed energy in the concert. Playing on MTV’s Unplugged, he had set out to perform only folk traditionals, but it appears was convinced by MTV to do his own originals instead. I’m not what to take from that.

It could be that he had been doing traditional covers for the last two albums, going on record as saying he was just trying to finish two albums and get out of a contract fast. But it could also be that he thought there was something to be said in those old folk songs, the same way he saw something when he got started.

What was going on in 1995? O.J. was acquitted, we were about to enter a second conflict with Iraq, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Thirty-five years after he first started performing folk tunes to make sense of the world, it appeared that the time to do so never ended. Ironically, this is hero turn in his own originals – when he flipped to pop in the middle-60s, it was to betray the idea he was a protestor, but now in the new millennium we look to those songs of love, losing, and loss as the more clear picture of hope in a hopeless world.

And so Unplugged becomes a master class in the Bob Dylan discography, not in an of itself the best performances ever, but a skillfully selected group of songs to please fans of any Dylan era. Filled with “Tombstone Blues,” “All Along The Watchtower,” Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35,” there’s a big hit from ever turn in his career. Even on “Rolling Stone” there’s the same energetic yowl of each word at the end of a phrase, carried further than his vocals allow but stressing the importance of our greatest American song. It’s near to the same way he sang in ’66 when he first performed in London to a chorus of boos, telling the crowd at MTV that he’s doing it his way, just as he had 29 years earlier. And just like those vocals, the band keeps the spirit high, the melodies, sweet, and there’s a genuine sense of appreciation and warmth, rather than eulogy, for each tune unlike we’ve seen in a long time.

The true gems are the appearances of two of his most ambitious epics, “Desolation Row” and “With God On Our Side.” It’s important as the first appearance on either song on a live album (though he’d of course performed them before), and also signifies what might lie closest to his own heart. Remember, he had to be pushed to play original tunes, and among a catalog of hundreds he chose these two.

“With God On Our Side” closes out the record, and would seem a poignant end to a rhapsodic performance. But for whatever reason, and he’s never given any, Dylan omitted the verses about the Germans and the Russians. The easy reading of this could be that he didn’t want to be seen as political at all, or anymore.

But if I had to take a guess, Bob Dylan was still a passionate man with hope for the world. But for the mystery of his life, he couldn’t make it so easy for us to figure out.


Song: “Desolation Row”

I’ve never really appreciated this song, near the longest of his career, even as it closed Highway 61 Revisited. But after hearing it a number of times, on the albums and in the performance videos, I can see why it’s among those that will live forever. This acoustic version cements that.

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