"I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play"
1965-05-01, Odeon, Liverpool, UK
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In fall of 1965, Bob Dylan told Nat Hentoff of Playboy:
Last spring I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained and the way things were going it was a very draggy situation… I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing. I don’t mean words like “God” and “mother” and “president” and “suicide” and “meat cleaver”. I mean simple little words like “if” and “hope” and “you”.
That spring 1965 tour he’s referring to is the one immortalized in Don’t Look Back. The general vibe is clear in the movie, with Bob alternately wired and weary, raw and restless and ready for the next thing. The movie’s been written about to death. But that quote about playing songs he didn’t want to play struck me. So I thought I’d give a close listen to one show from the tour—57 years ago today in Liverpool—and see if, listening now, you can hear the difference between the songs Bob did want to play (assuming there were some) and the songs he didn’t.
How do we know what songs he didn’t want to play? We don’t. But I think it’s a reasonable guess that he would be more stoked to play new songs from the Bringing It All Back Home sessions than the older folk songs from the first few albums.
In Liverpool (and indeed every other show on this tour of static setlists), he played six Bringing songs: “She Belongs To Me,” “Love Minus Zero,” the entire acoustic side (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue),” and the outtake “If You Gotta Go, Go Now.”
That leaves seven songs in the 15-song set that were older, and he likely didn’t want to play: “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “To Ramona,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “With God On Our Side,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll,” and “All I Really Want to Do.”
If you were counting, you’d notice I promised seven songs and only listed six there. That’s because the remaining song I think of as a wildcard: “Talkin’ World War III Blues.” It’s an old song (it’s from Freewheelin’, if you get your “Talkin’ [Fill in the Blank] Blues” numbers confused). But unlike every other old song he played, it wasn’t, even by the most generous definition of the term, a hit or fan favorite.
Did he really feel obligated to play “Talkin’ World War III Blues”? Would even the most die-hard folk fan have been mad if he hadn’t? Any of those other six songs, sure, maybe you’d get some grumpy folkies if you skipped ‘em. But “Talkin’ World War III Blues”? Who would have cared?
Even if for whatever reason he felt like he had to do a talking blues for the folk crowd, he had more recent ones to choose from. Hell, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” seems close enough to count stylistically, and that was brand-new. So, though it strains common sense a bit, I’m putting “Talkin’ World War III Blues” in the ‘maybe for whatever reason he actually wanted to play this’ camp.
One possible reason: He enjoyed delivering the little Donovan burn he’d added to one of the lyrics: “I turned on my record player. It was Donovan…[crowd cheers, then a long pause]…whoever Donovan is.”
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Listening to this tape now to figure out if you can hear him enjoying the newer songs more than the old, a funny word comes to mind: “professional.” If Bob was unhappy playing at least half of these songs — and by his own admission he was — he doesn’t sound like it. Compare that to spring of 1966, when, if Bob wasn’t feeling it one night (see: Paris), by god he let the audience know. Here, he may be playing songs he doesn’t want to play, but he’s not holding that against the crowd. If people wanna hear “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” he’ll give them a good version whether he’s personally invested or not. It doesn’t quite have the pop of say the Halloween 1964 show (the fact that all the between-song banter has been removed from this Liverpool tape doesn’t help), but it’s a close enough facsimile.
Which leads me to a surprising conclusion: You can’t tell the difference between the old songs and the new ones, between the songs Bob wanted to play and the ones he didn’t. If you played someone the tape and told them “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” was some old folkie hit he was sick of, but he was excited to debut the brand-new “With God On Our Side,” they’d have no reason not to believe you. I thought a mid-song coughing fit in “All I Really Wanna Do” might be some kinda protest, but no, he recovers and goes onto deliver a faux-heartfelt version. This show seems to fall at an interesting inflection point for Bob: He’s been around long enough to have old songs he’s sick of, but is still new enough in his career that he’s gonna do his best to give the people what they want.
Two video clips from the show here (there’s a third, “The Times,” over on the un-embeddable site Dailymotion)