Thursday, August 9, 2018

Historic Rendition of My Back Pages and a Bit of Backstory on the Song

The song "My Back Pages" originally appeared on the early acoustic album Another Side of Bob Dylan. It's interesting that Dylan never played the song in concert until the summer of 1978. Could it be that he now had enough back pages to put authenticity into the performance? He continued to include the song in his playlists on and off till the summer of 2012, performing it 260 times over that period of time.

One of those performances was the 30th Anniversary Concert, 16 October 1992, celebrating a milestone in Dylan's recording career. (Who will be in the 60th anniversary event in 2022?) The concert featured various artists performing over 30 great Dylan songs from his expansive catalog, mostly from the Sicties, though Willy Nelson pulled "What Was It You Wanted" from Oh Mercy, and the O Jays covered "Emotionally Yours" from Empire Burlesque. (You can see the playlist and details about everyone who performed here on Wikipedia.) It was an amazing line-up, and near the end of the night Dylan played two selections --"It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and the one featured here, "My Back Pages."

Certain details seem to stick with you no matter how long you live, and one that stuck with me (regarding this song) was how Dylan recorded the entire album in one evening. The studio session took place on June 9, 1964. Fourteen songs were recorded, eleven of which appeared on the album Another Side of Bob Dylan. (Contrast this with the weeks and months The Beatles spent on their later albums once relieved from deadlines imposed by touring and the record company.)

There were a number of people in the studio that night including the journalist Nat Hentoff who was working on a piece for The New Yorker. It's a great read as we see first hand how quickly the young Dylan had matured as an artist. Please make time to follow the link at the end of this blog post. Hentoff sets up his piece like this:

From mural in Minneapolis.
A few weeks ago, Dylan invited me to a recording session that was to begin at seven in the evening in a Columbia studio on Seventh Avenue near Fifty-second Street. Before he arrived, a tall, lean, relaxed man in his early thirties came in and introduced himself to me as Tom Wilson, Dylan’s recording producer. He was joined by two engineers, and we all went into the control room. Wilson took up a post at a long, broad table, between the engineers, from which he looked out into a spacious studio with a tall thicket of microphones to the left and, directly in front, an enclave containing a music stand, two microphones, and an upright piano, and set off by a large screen, which would partly shield Dylan as he sang, for the purpose of improving the quality of the sound. “I have no idea what he’s going to record tonight,” Wilson told me. “It’s all to be stuff he’s written in the last couple of months.”

Mural in Haight-Ashbury
Wilson goes on to confide, “I’m somewhat concerned about tonight. We’re going to do a whole album in one session."

Having read a lot of Hentoff's essays and stories over the years, including his autobiography, this article was a special pleasure to read.

Dylan came into the control room, smiling. Although he is fiercely accusatory toward society at large while he is performing, his most marked offstage characteristic is gentleness. He speaks swiftly but softly, and appears persistently anxious to make himself clear. “We’re going to make a good one tonight,” he said to Wilson. “I promise.”

And it was a good one. The album was a summing up of his acoustic stage and a preview, lyrics-wise, of what was to come.

The six legendary performers who sang "My Back Pages" were Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dylan and George Harrison. In moments like this I can't help but have this thought: When each of these performers was a teen, do you think they imagined being on a stage someday in Madison Square Garden with some of the most famous performers of their generation? For each, though, it all started with a love of making music. Each one is a reflection of the saying, "Follow Your Bliss."

Here are the lyrics, with the performers of each verse inserted.

My Back Pages

Roger McGuinn
Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Tom Petty
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Neil Young
Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Eric Clapton
A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Bob Dylan
In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

George Harrison
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

Here's the performance on YouTube.

What's interesting to me is how Dylan, in the Hentoff interview, appears to have no clue how far his fame would carry him. He claimed to be only concerned with the now, and not focused on where the future would take him. “Now there’s this fame business. I know it’s going to go away. It has to. This so-called mass fame comes from people who get caught up in a thing for a while and buy the records. Then they stop. And when they stop, I won’t be famous anymore.”

Now that he's garnered a Nobel Prize, he's compared with Shakespeare along with the suggestion that in 100 years we will still be studying his songs.

The latter part of the interview includes some hilarious myth-making on Dylan's part, but that's another story for another time.... READ IT HERE: Bob Dylan, The Wanderer by Nat Hentoff.

MEANTIME, life goes on all around you. Get into it.

1 comment:

Zack Coffman said...

What a lovely article. My father used to quote Dylan alongside Shakespeare at the dinner table. As I settle in to middle-age this song continues to break my heart, if only we could all feel a bit younger than that now.