Friday, January 4, 2019

Another Look Back at the Never Ending Tour: Interview with Andrew Muir

Grammy's Nov 2011. Photo courtesy William Pagel Archives
Bob Dylan books come in all stripes. Some focus on the music, some break down the lyrics, some strive to explain who he is, and still others focus on his performances. As the saying goes, if a man is worth knowing at all he is worth knowing well, and each author sheds a little more light on the man from a different angle, through the filter of his or her own experience. For this reason the catalog continues to expand.

Like author Paul Williams, Andrew Muir writes from a fan point of view. He doesn't conceal this in an effort to be full objective like a New York Post journalist investigating a crime scene. He just calls it as he sees it, writing in a manner both accessible and insightful.

It's hard to believe the pace Dylan has maintained these past three decades. Once he got into his stride, he just kept going. The image that comes to mind for me is the music video for Duquesne Whistle in which we cut back and forth between this drama taking place and Dylan strolling at a fairly good clip with his entourage. Occasionally the drama and Dylan intersect, but Dylan doesn't alter his pace. He's a man on the move.

EN: What prompted you to write One More Night? Was there a trigger event? Did you have an insight not being addressed in other Dylan books?

Andrew Muir: The first book, Razor’s Edge, was the idea of Sean Body, and probably Michael O’Connell, of Helter Skelter. This was a bookshop in central London which stocked a large array of Dylan items. It was a wonderful place and was a centre for Dylan fans to meet when in London. I lived in London and worked nearby and so I was often there. I helped with their computer and website; they sold my first fanzine Homer, the slut. Anyway, they also published books and had read and heard many a concert review from me and so they suggested it. I was more used to writing analytical pieces on Dylan's lyrics (a collection came out two years after Razor’s Edge) but it struck me right away that they were correct in that this hugely important and unfolding area had not been covered in any Dylan book.

Sean Body was also the initial impetus behind what became One More Night, as he wanted an update to Razor’s Edge in 2003 or ’04. I felt that this was too early but he was pretty insistent and so I started writing an update but I was not fully behind the idea. Tragically, Sean was a victim of leukemia. He fought the illness and partially recovered to the extent that he’d even go back to work. I don’t know how he did it, but he did, and in 2006 or so said he still wanted an update. We aimed for 2008 as it would be the 20th anniversary of the NET starting.

Then Sean began suffering setbacks and although we remained in touch we dropped all talk of work and just tried to have a laugh. Sean lost his brave battle and by this time I had lost interest and enjoyment in the NET (as the book details) so there seemed little or no point in finishing an update in such a downbeat mode as it would not be interesting or entertaining for anyone to read the same comments on year after year, particularly if they had enjoyed those years.

Still, I had chapters written and the NET as a whole was still not only not receiving due attention but continued to be scorned even when being talked about in its entirety. This is still going on, actually, it has never stopped. Ian Bell’s biography, and comments at his talk in London, appeared to pour scorn on the NET and the fans who follow and report on it. This, despite relying on said reports for his information. It is an astonishing situation when a biographer of a musician plays down the major part his subject’s music and life and calls it strange that fans would be excited by new tour dates being announced. Not only that, but in a self-congratulatory way too, by putting himself above mere fans who actually take an interest in the live music that the artist himself time after time had said was the essence of his life and art.

Anyway, before that, 2011 came around and I caught and really enjoyed shows in the UK leg, even though I only attended the first Glasgow show and the last London one. It was exciting for me again and the tour seemed dramatically different to what were, for me – and I stress that “for me” – the comparatively unappealing years. As the publication process went on I could slip in bits of 2012 and even the beginning of 2013. Alas for me 2013 turned out to be a storming year of shows, and one of my favourites of this century, but my book was already finished by the time I saw it.

EN: Dylan has had a reputation for being very “on” and sometimes less than great. During the NET were there weaker segments and stronger ones, or are there just occasional off-nights?

AM: I think there are all these things in different periods, we are talking of over thirty years now, and so that is pretty inevitable. However, off nights become very relative, as a so-called off night in the middle of a run of stellar shows might, if transposed into a less successful run, be the standout. There is also a lot of subjectivity involved in all of this, of course. Personal circumstances also colour one’s judgement. You can pick out certain times such as the February shows in 1991 with an unrehearsed band and Dylan, erm, how can one put it… not quite fully together and compare it to the Fall shows from the same year with their frequent high spots and gorgeous ‘acoustic-ish’ segments. From the sublime to the ridiculous in reverse order, that year.

Or compare Spring 1995 to the last leg of that year. A year when Dylan started at one of the peaks of the forty plus years of touring I’ve seen but whose power gradually diminished as the year went on. It is an example of the above comments, though, in that if you had no experience about the earlier 1995 triumphs and saw him that year in the States then you’d be highly likely compare it favourably to the previous time you had seen him there.

EN: The band these past 20 years has been masterful and tight. Donnie, Stu, Charlie and George, anchored by Tony Garnier, seem not to get the recognition they deserve. Or is that not necessary? These guys have been an instrumental part of the NET. What’s your take?

AM: It’s very true that they do not get the recognition that they deserve. I’ve been guilty of this, no question. I was always too wrapped up in Bob. I did mention that Tony deserved a statue for his service.

You add “or is that not necessary.” Perhaps not, despite what I’ve just said, as think for a moment about the wonderful life that they have. Playing with Dylan, traveling the world, figures of adulation albeit in the shadow of the main attraction. The best band for me goes back further than your twenty years though. 1988 is my favourite NET year even though I never saw a single show from it. When I was following the tour more closely, or perhaps obsessively would be a better word, I found all the band members I met very open and friendly whenever I interacted with them. as I chronicle in the book.

EN: More than 20 different musicians have been part of the NET. A number of these didn’t stay on for very long. Did they not “fit” the program or the lifestyle? Or were they fillers till a key player was inserted in the line-up?

AM: Both are true at different times. You would need to look at each case individually. Some might seem obvious, Duke Robillard, say, as an example of the latter. As ever with Dylan, however, a lot of our understanding is based on rumours and semi-truths and so I would be hesitant in making out too long a list of ones we definitely know that fall into one or the other camp.

EN: BobDylan.com lists every song he has recorded as well as the number of times performed. Is there a resource for identifying the number of times he’s performed various covers, such as Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away etc.

AM: It does the same for covers. https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/not-fade-away/ gives you the total number of times it has been performed and when it was last done. If you click on "View All" then that gives you dates and locations for all of the performances and links to the full set lists in which they appeared. Expecting Rain forums have something similar, I think, and I would be very surprised if ‘EDLIS’ did not somewhere on or linked from ‘Edlis Café’ on Facebook. Individual fans often maintain and share spreadsheets and databases with such information, too; or, at least, they certainly used to do so.

EN: You’re not just a Dylan fan but also a writer. What project are you working on now?

AM: Having written three books on Dylan and one on Shakespeare, I have now done one on the two of them together, called The True Performing Of It. It’s going through the publication process, which is somewhat lengthy in any case, slowly, because it straddles two markets -- academic and general.

Delays inevitably mean that I go back and change things or have to add new commentary as Dylan continues to work and release variant lyrics. Both the Mondo Scripto exhibition and More Blood, More Tracks gratifyingly provided further vindication of points I had already made and so I felt I should include them. Things, like these two, that I had referred to in the future tense are now in the past and that necessitates rewording, and so forth.

I am also writing an article for inclusion in a forthcoming Dylan anthology that involves an enormous amount of background reading. I can’t really say anything more about this as it has not been announced yet, as far as I am aware.

EN: Are you planning another NET update?

AM: No, I do not go to enough shows anymore. I think it would be great if someone else did, though. A younger writer, say like, James Adams who reviewed some shows in the last ISIS. I’ve read a few of his articles on Dylan and they are all very good. I don’t know if he’d be interested in writing a NET update, though I'm sure he could. There’s also a writer called Zac who produced excellent pieces on the 1966 and 1978 tours but again I don’t know if he’d be interested and, being from Australia, the distance may have curtailed his NET experiences. It would be interesting to have someone tackle the change from ever-fluid to rigid set-lists.

EN: For fans like us, the Nobel Prize was something of a verification that our high regard for Dylan’s significance was not misplaced. From your perspective what is it that makes Bob Dylan important?

AM: The Nobel Prize is, I think, a highly complex affair. I go into considerable depth and background on that in The True Performing Of It so I’ll leave it for now. The whole package is the proper answer to the last question. Picking a specific thing is not the best approach -- but it is fun to try, I'll admit. In that spirit, his voice is always central to everything. Despite my love of his writing gifts and his mastery of words, I agree with John Lennon that you don’t actually need to hear what he is saying, because hearing the way he says it is enough. More than eloquent enough, in fact.

We are blessed with the whole lot though, music, lyrics, vocals and prose and films. Some may wish to add art to that list. Dylan speaks from inside all of us, and he puts things in ways that once we hear them we feel they articulate something we’ve always felt. Or maybe even we think we have said. It is, though, Dylan who captures these essential utterances and first voices them for us. A near magical way of capturing the exact essence; the perfect utterance at the perfect time. Richard Farina noted this central quality of his work very early. David Bowie sang about it and numerous commentators have acknowledged it. It’s a gift that only the finest of artists possess and we live in gratitude for the works they have produced that display it.

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Related Links
Dylan's Never Ending Tour as Presented by Andrew Muir
Andrew Muir Interview with L4LM
List of Performers graphic can be found Here on Wikipedia
Andrew Muir books on Amazon

Meantime life goes on all around you. Engage it.

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