April 16, 2014
Dylan on Letterman
I have said before that I am not a Dylan fan, but that I have tried over the years to “get” him, yet failed. There is a reason I keep coming back, though, and this clip illustrates it.
First, there is his willingness to always examine his own work, and how it relates to a given moment. This is so much more than the “re-invention” that many pop stars are lauded for going through, which essentially is nothing more than re-branding. Dylan seems to evaluate and reinterpret his work constantly, such as here: “Jokerman” was the opening track on Infidels, which was released only a few short months before this set. He was theoretically touring to promote the album; and yet, already, the material was getting radically transformed. On the album, “Jokerman” was a MOR snooze-fest produced by Mark Knopfler, with a by then cliche reggae beat (at least they hired Sly and Robbie for the rhythm section … paying white boys to rip off Jamaica would have been adding insult to injury), which was only lifted to notable status by Dylan’s sneering vocals. Here, Dylan gets a punk backing band, shifts the song into 2/4, and makes the whole song sneer. It is, for most of this performance, the best possible version of the song.
It also showcases another thing I have always liked about Dylan: not only does he not treat performances as sacred (by trying to reproduce the studio recording, or at least “staying faithful” to the original in some “spiritual” sense), he doesn’t even treat the songs as sacred. Here, as he does so often, the distinctive melodies of his song are torn apart, disembodied, and dropped back into the songs as signifiers more than actual melodies.
And let’s talk about the band, shall we? Dylan is famous for his various collaborations, but this is one you never hear about: his backing band on this is legendary Mexican/American punk rock band The Plugz (minus founder/lead singer/Robert Rodriguez cohort Tito Lariva). The point is not that it was a gutsy choice - though taking an unknown Latino punk rock band onto the Late Show in 1984 probably qualifies as gutsy - the point is that it was a brilliant musical choice.
And finally, there’s the harmonica solo. How can you not love someone who gives so few fucks?