What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Tears of Rage
2007-10-22, Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO
Fifteen years ago today, Bob Dylan was nearing the end of his Fall 2007 tour with Elvis Costello as the opener. To some fans’ surprise, in the month they’d been on the road together, Dylan hadn’t invited his longtime friend to join him on stage. Until, that is, the seventh-to-last show at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. For the only time ever, they did a duet on “Tears of Rage.” No band, just the two of them. I believe it marks the last time Dylan played acoustic guitar on the concert stage too.
There’s no one more qualified to write about the occasion than Matt Springer, a Dylan and Costello superfan. He even writes his own newsletter on the latter, That Fatal Mailing List, where he’s exploring the voluminous Costello catalog track-by-track. So I’ll turn it over to Matt to explore this one-off “Tears of Rage” duet.
Like many fans of Bob Dylan’s music, I live in sheer terror of ever meeting him in person. It’s hard for me to imagine being in conversation with the man.
So when I was contemplating Elvis Costello’s live duet with Dylan on “Tears of Rage,” from a St. Louis show in October 2007 while Costello was opening for Dylan on tour, it was those interpersonal interactions that first captured my imagination. They only performed together that one time, but every night, it was EC and his guitar starting the evening, followed by Dylan and his band. Surely, there must have been plentiful small talk over the room-temperature dips and chips that I’m sure are standard in Dylan’s rider?
As Costello chronicles (har, har) in his 2015 book Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, he and Dylan have had an ongoing dialogue for decades, caught in stray moments after concerts and during parties.
After playing a Minneapolis show in 1982 with the Attractions, EC met up with Dylan, who was in town at the time. Costello writes:
Bob quickly took care of my being ill-at-ease by asking in a voice that sounded absurdly like that of Bob Dylan:
“So, is that ‘Watching the Detectives’ a real show?”
My mind was racing now.
Surely this was all the wrong way around. Wasn’t I supposed to be doing the asking?
Something along the lines of “So, Bob, where are the ‘Gates of Eden’?”
I can’t recall what I said in answer to the question, but the conversation quickly turned to guitar players we both liked.
Later in that story, Dylan and Costello meet up to attend a party, and they have time for private conversation, the contents of which Costello keeps to himself. If you do get some alone time with Dylan, it must feel like conferring with a priest in the confessional.
Bob Dylan emerges as a touchstone throughout the entire book, which I can’t recommend enough, not just to fans of Dylan or Costello, but to anyone interested in a cagey, insightful memoir that reveals more through artful dodges than through shocking admissions.
At one point, Costello describes exactly what it was like to duet with Dylan on “Tears of Rage” in St. Louis 15 years ago today:
Every time I’ve sung with Dylan has been great, because he absolutely commits to a note and doesn’t yield for anything, but I also know that it’s unwise to look away for a moment or he will throw you like an unwilling mount.
When we hit the last verse, I could see that he was finally going to take the lead—only, the line he sang was not, to my knowledge, even in the song.
Maybe it was something he’d just made up on the spot.
Maybe it was a line from an earlier draft.
I suppose it was his song to change if he wanted to, but it certainly didn’t rhyme with the next line that I knew to sing. Everything went into slow motion, but I somehow made the line work, hitting the guitar so hard in my relief that it made a huge clang, at which Bob cracked up and turned away from the microphone.
That is my favorite memory of that night.
People who are looking for profundity in every gesture often miss the sense of humor that keeps the working day alive.
Fair enough, although there is plenty of profundity to find in “Tears of Rage,” the song and this performance. Costello has said that after Dylan suggested they find a way to “get him into the act,” Dylan first proposed a duet on “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Instead, Costello brought Dylan a handful of options from Dylan’s catalog, one of which was “Tears of Rage.”
By 2007, Costello had taken his vocal instrument far beyond the thin sharp blade that he wielded on his albums of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He could still achieve that effect, but with age and timbre came new colors and shades. Costello sings lead; Dylan appears on harmony like an apparition at the fringe of the performance.
Here Costello’s vocal is impassioned but almost austere, world-weary and resigned, in a way that suits the lyric perfectly. When you’re asked to cover a tune originally sung by Richard Manuel, in what’s rightly considered one of the great vocal performances in The Band’s history, then it’s probably wise to pull back rather than push in and try to match Manuel’s agonized wail. Costello’s vocal strikes a balance between Manuel’s performance and Dylan’s take from The Basement Tapes.
As you listen for the “alternate lyric” that Costello mentions, it’s a challenge to make out. My best guess is that it happens in the third verse of the song. (Costello sings the Band’s version which transposes the second and third verses from Dylan’s Basement Tapes version.) You can make out a moment of hesitation on the bootleg, and Costello skips a line as he’s likely trying to cook up his next move, but it’s almost impossible to hear what Dylan changed. It also doesn’t sound like Dylan was taking lead, more like he sang an alternate line in harmony to Costello’s lead vocal. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, I guess.
Available on an audience recording (sadly no one took a video or even a photo), their October 22, 2007 duet has that ghostly, distant effect that most audience recordings share. It makes Dylan’s contributions all the more ethereal, like a pang of regret, or an unfinished conversation.
BONUS: EC shares the anecdote with Canadian DJ George Stroumboulopoulos: