Paradise Lost: A Bob & Patti Miniseries
1995-12-07, O'Neill Center, Danbury, CT
Flagging Down the Double E’s is an email newsletter exploring Bob Dylan shows of yesteryear. Some installments are free, some for paid subscribers only.
In 1978, Bob Dylan set a touring record for himself, playing 115 concerts during the year. That personal best would hold for almost two decades. In 1995, he topped it by one show, pushed over the top by a strange ten-date, six-city tour in December, a month where he usually takes it easy. He dubbed the tour Paradise Lost - yes, Rough and Rowdy Ways wasn't the first tour to get an official name - and dragged Patti Smith out of semi-retirement for the occasion.
So, to conclude our newsletter year, I'm going to do a mini-series on this mini-tour. Ten shows, ten newsletters, then we hibernate until 2022. This one and the last will be free; the other eight for paying subscribers only. If you want to join their ranks, I've created a small discount in honor of this rare 12th-month tour:
I'm a huge Patti Smith fan, so, fair warning, I'm going to use this as a chance to write about Patti almost much as I will Bob (and I've found recordings of eight of her ten opening sets to share too). But we'll start with the man whose name’s higher up on the poster.
1995 may have been prolific on the touring front for Dylan, but it came during a long drought of new songs. He’d moved on from his folk-covers phase of the early ‘90s; the traditional numbers that dotted those sets (not to mention two albums) were largely gone by '95. He hadn't released a new album of his own material in five years, but reports leaked of him writing new songs at the top of the year. One wonders if his camp deliberately put this out to assuage those worried the well had dried up; how else would a rumor about him writing songs, a generally private activity, leak?
The MTV Unplugged album did come out in May of ‘95 though. Dylan really went out of his way to sell it:
How did you plan this Unplugged project?
I wasn’t quite sure how to do it and what material to use. I would have liked to do old folk songs with acoustic instruments, but there was a lot of input from other sources as to what would be right for the MTV audience. The record company said, “You can’t do that, it’s too obscure.” At one time, I would have argued, but there’s no point. OK, so what’s not obscure? They said “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
And “Like a Rolling Stone,” your signature.
I was hearing a lot about how Eric Clapton did “Layla” acoustically for Unplugged. That influenced me to do the same for “Like a Rolling Stone,” but it would never get played that way normally.
Would you consider an Unplugged sequel?
I’d consider doing Unplugged again in a relaxed setting where I didn’t feel like I was on the spot. I felt like I had to deliver, and I delivered something that was preconceived for me. That wasn’t a problem, but it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do.
Do you prefer playing acoustic over electric?
They’re pretty much equal to me. I try not to deface the song with electricity or non- electricity. I’d rather get something out of the song verbally and phonetically than depend on tonality of instruments.
Was performing before TV cameras difficult?
It’s hard to rise above some lukewarm attitude toward TV. I’ve never catered to that medium. It doesn’t really pay off for me.
Was the studio audience a typical Dylan crowd?
I’d never seen them before. (Laughs) As I recall, they were in the polite category.
Did you approve of the finished show?
I can’t say. I didn’t see it.
I'm sure the powers that be were thrilled to have Dylan out there “promoting” his product like that.
On the live front, the year opened with a few guitar-free Prague shows that became fan favorites (I wrote about them here) and featured a host of special guests throughout, including, most notably, Jerry Garcia when Bob opened for the Grateful Dead in the summer. Garcia would be gone weeks later, and Bob played a number of Dead songs on his fall tour in tribute. He performed at the concert opening the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, dueting with Bruce Springsteen (wrote about that one too). And his last live performance before this Paradise Lost tour was a stunning "Restless Farewell," performed by personal request from Frank Sinatra at Ol' Blue Eyes’ 80th birthday concert:
And here's a bit of trivia I'd never known, from Olof's Files:
June 24 - The band plays about 4 minutes of an instrumental run-through of "Brownsville Girl" during the sound check.
Which brings us to December. Ten shows with Patti Smith (but without, sadly, "Brownsville Girl"). He played 61 different songs over the course of the shows, a few many times - "Watchtower," "Silvio," and "Rainy Day Women" were the three nightly staples - and many just once.
Oh, "The Wicked Messenger" was played every night too. But not by Bob. We'll get there tomorrow.
On opening night in Danbury, Connecticut, 26 years ago today, you can already hear why 1995 is regarded by many fans as among Dylan's best years. A few places to begin:
Listen to how he extends the notes on the "And though our separation…" verse on "If You See Her, Say Hello." It’s him at the height of his vocal powers, and reminds me a bit of the way he sang "I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You" on his just-finished tour.
Marinate in the extended harmonica solo closing "Mr. Tambourine Man." Bob builds from near silence to an explosive burst of notes, while guitarist J.J. Jackson adds little flamenco filigrees behind him. "I like that song," someone near the taper says afterwards. Yeah, no kidding.
Linger on the killer closing guitar jam of, yes, "Silvio" to hear a rough and rowdy band uninhibited by the legend next to them, ready to cut loose.
Or skip to the night’s biggest rarity, "Never Gonna Be the Same Again," which veteran Dylan chronicler Paul Williams cites as among the best performances of the whole tour. (So it figures Bob didn't play it again.)
At the end of the night, Bob takes three encore breaks. He’s earned every one.
If you want to follow along the tour, sign up for a paid subscription. It also gets you access to our lively Discord chat room, and, if you select the Annual option, you can pick any Dylan show for me to tackle in 2022 (just email me with your pick).
PS. Are you a Tom Waits fan? Today happens to be his birthday, so I’ve launched a new newsletter! It’s called Every Tom Waits Song and it will explore just that, in alphabetical order.
Bob first introduced me to Tom’s music when he played “On the Nickel” on Theme Time Radio Hour, so it feels like synchronicity that the Waits newsletter launches the same day as this mini-series (and Tom’s hung with Patti too).
Every Tom Waits Song is free. You can find more info and subscribe here.
Here’s a compilation of Tom’s own appearances on Theme Time Radio Hour: