"Tombstone Blues" and Paul Williams' Unfinished Fourth Book
2003-07-27, Orange County Fair, Costa Mesa, CA
Today’s subscriber show request comes from Sean C. It took place 20 years ago today at a county fair in Orange County, California. It was Dylan’s 46th concert of the year, his 12th for the month, and featured no new songs for the tour.
None of which is very interesting.
What is interesting is that the great Paul Williams wrote about this show for the never-completed fourth volume in his beloved Bob Dylan, Performing Artist series. This show, in fact, was the focus of what would have been the intro for the book titled Bob Dylan - The Genius of a Performing Artist: 2003-1990 and Back Again.
Here’s how the book would have opened (in first-draft form at least):
I'm falling in love again. I'm falling in love with this tape (compact disc, really) of a Bob Dylan show I was ejected from by the venue's security people four months ago. Today is December 11, 2003. The show-recording I'm listening to is from the Orange County Fair, Costa Mesa, California, July 27, 2003.
This is the first page of the fourth volume of my series of books about Bob Dylan's oeuvre as a performer, and according to the precedent set in the other books it should be a continuation of a chronology, starting roughly where the last volume left off. The last volume followed the trail of what Dylan once called "them dusty old fairgrounds a-calling" to a theater in Portland, Oregon on August 21, 1990. That's quite a distance (further away in minutes than in miles) from Costa Mesa, 7/27/03 - but bear with me, friends, there's a method in my madness.
Williams goes on to write 7,789 words about this show. Wait, scratch that; he writes 7,789 words about just the first four songs of this show.
Tragically, that appears to be as far as he got. The excerpt, which is archived here, ends abruptly. The last words are “[much more to come].” They never would.
So in honor of the tape that so captivated Williams, I decided to annotate some of what he wrote. He spotlighted a handful of particular moments that moved him from the show opener, “Tombstone Blues.” One more quote from the preamble before we dive in:
Bob Dylan and his band (Tony Garnier, Larry Campbell, George Recile, and Freddie [sic] Koella) opened the Costa Mesa show with "Tombstone Blues." And created a masterpiece. The same week that Bob and the boys played this show at the Pacific Amphitheater (which is inside and part of the Orange County Fair during Fair season), Dylan's movie Masked & Anonymous was opening in theaters for the first time. It's not a masterpiece, in my opinion, but it is an extremely interesting (and, if you will, revealing) piece of creative work by Bob Dylan, who cowrote the screenplay and stars as singer/bandleader/ne'er-do-well Jack Fate. I mention it now because it strikes me that this particular 7/27/03 performance of "Tombstone Blues" is something of a companion piece to the movie. Both attempt, in a synesthetic fashion, to evoke and convey the feeling of being alive in the United States (and, I think, the Western world in general) at a particular moment in modern history called the 1960s. Both are significant works of art. This one, the song-performance, gets my accolade as a "masterpiece" because I find it such a fulfilling and stimulating and endlessly surprising aesthetic experience, a fountain of delight... and I am confident that many others can and will have the same experience with it.
Below, find Williams’ quotes about specific line-readings and musical moments from this Costa Mesa 2003 “Tombstone Blues,” with the accompanying bits of audio, in the order of how they appear in the text (which is not the order they appear in the song). Again, here’s the link to his full fourth-book excerpt, since I’ll be pulling these quotes out of context.
And many other lines, all delivered with just the right Jack Fate (or masked and anonymous Bob Dylan 2003) nuance: "The National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul"—with subtle but very telling emphasis on "at a profit." What contemporary college student could resist this, even before hearing the rest of the line ("in the old folks home in the college")? Not only because of the lyrics and the singer's fabulous delivery of them. The sound of the music is just as funny and timely and evocative of how things are now, if you're nineteen years old, or sixty-two with the mind of a music- and truth-loving nineteen-year-old.
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