Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Dylan shows of yesteryear. If you’ve found this article online or someone forwarded you the email, subscribe here to get a new entry delivered to your inbox every week:
Today’s guest newsletter comes from Adam Selzer, who previously wrote about a 1999 show and a 2001 show. An author and historian, Adam’s been hosting weekly “Time Travel Pub Crawls” - historical tours of cool places (the Gaslight Cafe last week) with themed cocktails and live musical performances - on Facebook Live.
Dylan never seems to have finished “Enough Is Enough,” the song he premiered in Rome on June 21, 1984. The song kept coming up on the ‘84 tour, but the lyrics changed nightly and sound half-formed. But one line sticks out in every version I’ve heard: “I’d rather be lucky than rich.”
That’s a good line - reminds me of “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose,” in that both of them sound like something a character in an Indiana Jones movie might say.
But as Bob just noted in his New York Times interview, without John Williams’ score, Indiana Jones wouldn’t be much of a movie. And without the right music, “Enough Is Enough” wouldn’t be much of a song, no matter how the rest of the lyrics panned out. In the live ‘84 outings, it’s a pretty generic ‘80s update on ‘50s rock n roll structures.
This Rome ‘84 show was probably great fun to attend. A live premiere of a new song, first “Desolation Row” in a decade, and a howling “Every Grain of Sand.” But the band on this tour was described by Paul Williams as “acceptable generic stadium rock,” which is just about right. Dylan sings with a lot of energy, but the songs all bleed into each other and never seem to acquire an identity of their own.
One interesting thing about Dylan’s first tours after a new album is recorded is that we get to see how older songs might have sounded on it. In 1966 shows, we get a glimpse of how “One Too Many Mornings” would have sounded on Blonde on Blonde. In 1975, we see how “Hard Rain” would work as a Desire track. In 2001, I heard a “Visions of Johanna” that sounded like it might have fit on Love and Theft. Here, we get to see what all of the old chestnuts would sound like as ‘80s stadium rock.
And they generally sound fine, really, but “Just Like a Woman” feels no different, stylistically, from “Highway 61” or “Jokerman.” There’s little connection between the lyrics and the music.
The arena rock take on “Every Grain of Sand” could just about work if the band was doing anything more interesting behind it, or interacting with Dylan at all. Vocally, I’m reminded of ‘66. But this group was not The Band by any stretch, and Dylan’s howling might be less about inspiration and more about trying to project himself to the back row of an enormous arena. It’s hard not to think that it would be an ideal song to slow things down a bit, something the ‘84 shows often desperately needed.
On this tour, even the acoustic set feels shouted out and high-octane. Sometimes he managed to find a balance on this tour - that Paris take on “Tangled” - but that never quite happens on the Rome tape.
I’d say that the songs simply lack atmosphere, but that’s probably unfair; they just lack an atmosphere that translates outside of the venue at which they were played. All in all, I’m sure it was a great show to see, but it was performed for a large arena audience, not for a guy in his living room or driving in his car.
But there’s no need for me to be pushing it. Even if it was one of those “You’ve got to hear this tape” shows — surely you’re not done with Rough and Rowdy Ways this week, right?