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Real Not-Yet-Live: Bob Dylan's 1984 Tour Rehearsals, Part 1
1984-05-23, Beverly Theater, Los Angeles, CA
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Rehearsal tapes always seem like a small miracle. How do tapes of private sessions where Bob Dylan is practicing with his band make their way online for us all to hear? I don’t know, and it’s best not to ask. Don’t want to get anyone in trouble.
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to two tapes of Bob and his band woodshedding ahead of the 1984 summer tour immortalized on the Real Live album. What a band too: Mick Taylor from the Stones, Ian McLagan from the Faces, Colin Allen from Focus, Gregg Sutton from a bunch of places. Oh, and Carlos Santana sat in for a ton of songs (including during the rehearsals).
Two tapes of these rehearsals are out there, the first from the Beverly Theatre in Los Angeles a few days before the tour kicked off, the second from Verona, Italy right before the first show. I’ll be covering them in two installments. This first one is free, the second on Sunday will be for paid subscribers only.
In Behind the Shades, Clinton Heylin paints a fairly grim picture of this first set of LA rehearsals:
Rehearsals only began in earnest at the Beverly Theater barely a week before the first show, in Verona, Italy. Previously, Dylan’s commitment to his material had always been 100 percent. Arthur Rosato, who witnessed most rehearsals from 1974 through 1981, remembers a Dylan who, ‘even if it’s in rehearsal … sings his lyrics. He doesn’t run through them; he sings them.’ In 1984, he expressed no such commitment and as a result, whereas his previous bands had always responded to this man who brought fire to his kingdom, the 1984 band were denied any such spark. The rehearsals were frankly awful. Not only did the band sound as though they were playing under half a hundredweight of porridge, but Dylan’s singing voice had lost its elasticity.
Sounds bad! But good news: This tape does not bear that out at all.
To be fair, I believe it comes from one of the final LA rehearsals, maybe even the last day. The earlier attempts may have been every bit as chaotic as Heylin suggests. But there’s a lot in this late-rehearsal recording to like. Plus, since it was recorded by the studio engineer, it’s basically soundboard quality.
The full thing’s at the bottom as always, but I’ll embed some highlights as we go.
Things kick off with a track we’re going to hear a lot across the two tapes: “Instrumental.” Which in most cases could be equally titled “???” Sometimes it’s something really cool. Most times it’s just the band generically grooving along waiting for Dylan to sing something. This is one of those times.
“Maggie’s Farm” marks the first proper song. It features the basic Real Live arrangement — one sign this tape comes from a late rehearsal, many arrangements seem pretty well in place — but with much more prominent organ. That will be a trend you’ll hear a lot here. Real Live sounds like it was mixed to be a guitars-forward record. But when you’ve got Ian McLagan of the Faces on organ, turn it up! He’s much more prominent in this tape than on the live album. “All Along the Watchtower” follows — again, not that different than the ’84 tour versions, but with prominent organ, plus a killer Mick Taylor/Carlos Santana solo (it’s hard to tell which guitarist is taking a lot of these solos beyond one thing: It’s certainly not Bob). Mick-or-Carlos doesn’t phone it in in rehearsals either.
The first true highlight though comes with “Just Like a Woman.” Two attempts at it, in fact. The first starts promising enough, but falls apart quickly. That’s part of the fun of these rehearsal tapes though: the false starts, the failed attempts, the woodshedding. The second time goes much better. Organ is loud as hell. The vocals start a bit tentative, but he’s really belting by the end. Listen to how many notes Dylan packs into “pearls” at 1:30. Here are both:
1984 marks Dylan’s first tour since the three years of gospel in ‘79-‘81, and a few of those songs have stuck around. First is “When You Gonna Wake Up,” which also gets two attempts and features a prominent lyric change in a later chorus: “When you gonna wake up? When you do, let me know…” (instead of “strengthen the things that remain”). “Shelter From the Storm” follows it, another early highlight of a song he hadn’t sung since 1978. The arrangement features some of the same big-showstopper feel, even with this much smaller band:
Another fun aspect of rehearsal tapes is viewing roads not taken, songs not played. In this case, they’re mostly covers, but one original he rehearsed (extensively from the sound of it; it’s pretty polished) but never actually played on the tour is “Watered-Down Love,” another remnant of the gospel era. I don’t love this song as much as friend-of-the-newsletter Jon Wurster, but it sounds great here. Should have made one of the shows! Again, listen to how many syllables he packs into “down” at 0:34:
Two attempts at “Masters of War” follow, another quickly-aborted first pass and then a completed second take. After a “Jokerman” run through, the same thing happens with the next two: “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Man of Peace.” Best of all those is “Simple Twist of Fate.” On the subsequent tour, the song seemed to get new lyrics every night, and the same holds true at the rehearsal.
I’ve never heard this verse before or since, but here’s what I can make out (it’s at 1:27 if you want to try your own listening comprehension test):
He held her down but she pressed outside
I know that another man she’d/should be/bid his bride
He used the window to breathe the air outside
And you know she found it clean
He said “Baby, you know what I mean/seen”
He said, “You’re mine, but I can’t wait
no more for that simple twist of fate”
Of the next five songs, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and “Highway 61 Revisited” don’t make it far before falling apart. “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Heart of Mine” (that one he only played twice on the actual tour) go better. “I and I” though is the best of the three Infidels songs on this tape. It starts quiet, just Dylan singing over an insistent drum beat and organ chords, gradually building throughout. I kind of like this more punk delivery verses the fairly slick album recording. A shame it falls apart before the end.
If you’re skimming the tracklist, the first title to really jump out is “I See You Around And Around.” What is that? Some sort of cover? No! It is apparently an original song, or a sketch of one at least, you can’t hear anywhere else. There are several of these on the rehearsal tapes, and to many these unheard Dylan songs will be the most exciting thing about them.
“Around and Around” appears to be in the fairly early stages, the mumbling on the verses perhaps because he doesn’t have many lyrics yet. He does have a melody though, a beautiful one, which he sings while the band vamps behind him. Sure, this song had a ways to go, but it’s a shame he abandoned it. This brief fragment had real potential.
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” sounds like it usually does, and the following “Instrumental” seems to be going nowhere until, suddenly, a groove develops a minute in. Dies quickly on the vine though. More enjoyable is the “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” that follows. It goes better than the aborted earlier attempt, led by McLagan’s organ, which as mentioned is a highlight of this entire tape.
Another new song follows. This one gets many more attempts than “Around and Around,” albeit most of them on the next tape. It’s titled “Angel of Rain” according to a sample setlist given to journalists at a press conference (although it was never actually played in a show). You often see it referred to as “Almost Done,” due to the chorus. Here’s Heylin writing about it in Still on the Road:
As evocative titles for unknown Dylan songs go, ‘Angel Of Rain’ is right up there. But no song containing such a line ever revealed itself. Even the emergence of two pre-tour rehearsal tapes – one from LA six days before the press conference, the other from Verona itself – failed to yield forth such fruit. Unless, that is, she is wearing a disguise, as I suspect she is.
What can be found on these two invaluable recordings are a number of attempts at a rather beautiful original song, which on the evidence of multiple versions from the Verona rehearsal has the repeated refrain, ‘Almost Done’. Four days earlier, in LA, it began life as a snatch of melody and a few half-strangled phrases about how ‘the dawn in gonna shine’, and a snatched chorus of ‘Almost done, you’re still the one’. Even on the first Verona rehearsal – which is largely devoted to working on all three new songs (and a couple of country covers) – the words are a lot less developed than the melody or the rat-a-tat arrangement. Almost done? Maybe not.
We’ll get to that Verona tape next time (reminder: paid subscribers only, so sign up if you want it!), but even in LA, that “snatch of a melody” is among the most lovely he was writing around this time. For that reason alone, it’s a shame he never completed it. Hell, he could have just hummed the whole thing and it would have been beautiful.
We’ll hear many more attempts, with more fleshed-out lyrics, next time…
That and “Around and Around” may be many people’s high points of the tape, getting to hear glimpses of Dylan songs in progress. My highlight, though, comes next. Dylan attempts to cover a song he has never done in concert, not then and not now: Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind.”
Yes, I know it wasn’t Willie’s originally — there’s a whole chapter on it in my first book — but Dylan was undoubtedly drawing from his version here. He was on a real Willie kick around this time, covering a bunch of the legend’s early-‘80s tunes: “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” at the Infidels sessions and “Why Do I Have To Choose?” at a bunch of the ’84 concerts. On the next rehearsal tape, he’ll cover another song Willie had recently recorded. But on this one, he’s trying to nail “Always on My Mind.”
You can really hear it develop over the four takes. The first is mostly harmonica. The band tries to follow along eventually, but it doesn’t sound like Dylan gave them any warning. On the second take, though, they all jump straight in, McLagan leading with the chords. Dylan doesn’t seem to know the lyrics yet, doing a lot of nah-nah-nahs.
Did someone print out a lyric sheet after this? Because on the third take, even though it doesn’t last very long, he’s really singing. Guiding the band in real time too; “stay there” he directs at one point. On the fourth, it all finally comes together. Bob’s really belting, and band is there from the jump. It’s the first time he makes it to the chorus too. Even though it eventually falls apart, not before a killer Mick-or-Carlos guitar solo. It’s sounding terrific now. They shoulda done it in concert. It would have been a showstopper.
Hear all four takes below to follow how it progresses. Being able to listen in to stuff like this is what I love about rehearsal tapes.
The tape closes with a few passes at “Every Grain of Sand.” Take one collapses after a few lines, but they nail it the second time. It starts off softer and subtler than the eventual live versions, more suited to a quiet rehearsal room than a giant stadium of people. A noodly instrumental middle only derails it slightly.
One more aborted “Every Grain” follows, before the tape concludes with something else intriguing: A brief full-band pass at “Girl from the North Country.” Dylan performed it plenty on the tour (it’s on Real Live), but always solo acoustic. This short snatch at an electric version shows what could have been.
After that, Dylan says something to the band off-mic, a little more noodling ensues, and the tape cuts off. No doubt only a small fraction of that day’s rehearsals, but extremely enjoyable to listen in on.
Download the full thing below, and stay tuned for the second rehearsal tape just before the opening show in Italy in a few days. Spoiler alert: He debuts two more new original songs never heard again, both of which are more fleshed out than “Angel of Rain” or “Around and Around” were.
Again, part two is for paid subscribers. Click here to become one of them and get it sent straight to your inbox. See you then.