All’s Well That Begins And Ends Well
A record exists between two silences. The silence before the song starts is one of expectation and anticipation. Sometimes the silence after the song has finished is one of satisfaction, resolution and even joy. When that happens you have a record that enters your personal pantheon – one you will return to over and over again.
Good beginings set the emotional mood of a song and should intrigue the listener ; beckoning them to lean forward and open up their hearts and minds. Good endings deliver on the promise of their beginnings and close a song like a ship after a long journey safely docking in its home port – ready to sail again.
Dylan’s Tom Thumb’s Blues is the first from my own pantheon (more to come later!). It seem to me to begin and end exceptionally well. Feel free to comment suggesting your own favourites.
Nobody tells stories like Bob Dylan. This pearl comes from his mid 60s golden period when miracles emerged from his mind with machine gun rapidity leaving everyone else breathless in his rear view mirror. Neither he nor any one else has ever caught up. I’m featuring the 1966 tour performance here today with Bob and The Band reaching far beyond the moon!
The song opens with entwined burnished mid tempo rolling piano and guitar lines evoking a journey to a humid landscape where unknown fevered delights and dreads lie in wait for the traveller as he voyages through the enervating, sticky exotic heat. Dylan delivers the opening lines with his patented, langorous, half-past one in the morning, half a bottle of tequila to the good, come – hither charm.
‘When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don’t pull you through’
Now, tell me you don’t want to know what happens next?
Some five minutes later we have have been treated to a magic lantern show spotlighting Rue Morgue Avenue, the legends of the mysterious St Annie and the entrancing Sweet Melinda, watched Angel being picked up, avoided the cops and sweated the booze and drugs out. Tom Thumb, of course, remains unmet and unmentioned.
Throughout the song the band provide a supporting magic carpet of sound that allows Dylan to spin a narrative where he is simultaneously in the thick of the nightmarish action and serenely floating above it all. The peerless Paul Griffin plays piano with wonderful rhythmic assurance while Mike Bloomfield’s guitar glistens throughout like liquid poured gold. Al Kooper’s organ provides the aura while Bobby Gregg’s railroad drums provide momentum for a song that in all other respects seems to have escaped temporality.
As the song concludes we come to understand that either the singer will have to go home or he will die a lonely exile’s death. Bob Dylan, no stranger to Homer, knows that all Odysseys must end. The weary hero has to return home – even if he’s not exactly sure what kind of welcome awaits him there.
Everyone said they’d stand behind me
When the game got rough
But the joke was on me
There was nobody even there to bluff
I’m going back to New York City
I do believe I’ve had enough
In Bob Dylan’s life, though he has criss-crossed the globe pursuing his vocation, all paths eventually lead back to New York ; the city where Robert Zimmerman truly became Bob Dylan and where he was launched into artistic immortality.
There are several epic live versions of the song. You should seek out two in particular. The song was a staple of the astounding 1966 tour. The Manchester version features Dylan’s spectacularly swooning, surely he’s going to fall over now stoned vocals where syllables are seemingly stretched to infinity. Garth Hudson’s provides the all enveloping organ which seems to lift Bob to the heavens, if he wasn’t high enough already!
There is a further deeply committed and intense performance that occurred on Dylan’s return to New York City soon after 9/11. Uncharacteristically, he precedes the song with a spoken introduction acknowledging his debt to the city – a debt he and the band discharge to the full in a performance that has a glorious ragged grandeur that electrifies the Madison Square Garden crowd.