My Back Pages (Live) (1992)
“My Back Pages” from Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964)
“My Back Pages” is Dylan’s farewell to his earliest days as a “protest singer,” to those folky ways and sandal days. His solo version sounds bitter so the listener senses that he is flailing away at everything, everyone.
The Byrds resurrected the song for their album Younger Than Yesterday, the title of which is inspired by “My Back Pages.” While it is a good solid Byrds execution complete with jangling folk rock guitars, upbeat rhythms and a dense “small wall of sound” production, the song lost something on the way cross country to Los Angeles. The Byrds were morphing into a country band and Folk Rock was just about done. It was the group’s last Top 40 hit before they lit off in a more rootsy direction.
The Byrds’ version from Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
The definitive performance of the song, the one that ignites it and brings it to its full potential was recorded live in 1992 at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was released in 1993 on the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration for Dylan that celebrated his career (which assumedly will go on till he can’t perform any longer). It features Tom Petty, Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn and George Harrison.
“My Back Pages” at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert, New York, in 1992
That crew could have merely appeared on stage, said ”Good evening” in unison and exited and it would have created an instant classic moment.
The original Dylan-and-a-guitar rendition is a snarly, snarky song. It reflects the pressure that had already built in young Bobby Zimmerman, pinning on him “movement” leadership, a spray-paint coat of Messianic promise, and a role as inheritor of all that was good, right and serene about the Folk genre. Dylan was feeling, it seems, a “Bleh,” coming on.
By the time he wrote “My Back Pages,” the intelligentsia in the Bohemian enclaves of Greenwich Village, Cambridge, South Street in Philly, and North Beach in San Francisco were strewing palms as he rode on the back of an ass into town.
The opening quatrain alone puts the young man’s distress into high relief.
Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
From there on, the singer is gunning down everything around him, from the staid and starchy folkie scene to the “mongrel dogs that teach,” from history and politics to love – it was all in his rifle’s scope.
The Byrds snatched “My Back Pages,” hoping that a different Dylan tune would yield another hit for the flagging group. (They covered six in all.) David Crosby, then with the band, thought it was too formulaic an approach and that Dylan’s work had become their compositional crutch. Crosby turned out to be right. Their “My Back Pages” barely made the Top 40 and dropped off in short order.
Perhaps realizing that his song sounded oddly prideful coming out of the mouth of a 23-year-old, Dylan shelved “My Back Pages,” never playing it live until 1988 when he was 47. After that it became a staple on his concert playlist.
The all-star-studded 30th anniversary party and concert offered something well beyond an embarrassment of musical riches. Besides the personnel who played on “My Back Pages,” present were The Band, John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Eddie Veder, Tracy Chapman, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, Willie Nelson, Ronnie Wood, Richie Havens and Kris Kristofferson.
The warp-drive power intensified and focused to a fine point when it came time for “My Back Pages,” third to last song at the show. The arrangement is a fusing of The Byrds’ 1967 arrangement and something close to Dylan’s Blues + Folk + Rock labors on Highway 61 Revisited.
The song kicks like a mule from the beginning.
Roger McGuinn, sounding and looking scarcely a minute older than the day he recorded the song with The Byrds, is up first to sing. He quickly reminds the listener how full of charm and integrity his voice is and how he spotlessly embodied the old easy spirit of the Los Angeles of the mid-’60s. His guitar is in as fine fettle as his voice; it still rings and jingles with optimism and enthusiasm.
At the start of McGuinn’s turn at the front mic, we immediately feel the song flower. It is no longer the plaint of Dylan as a young kid who was floundering internally as he tries to slip out of a harness of his own making.
For a glittering twenty seconds, The Byrds come back to life, especially during the ensemble’s harmonies at the chorus. In the video, it is amusing to see Dylan playing in back of McGuinn. The two did not always have the best relationship. It is also touching to see them harmonize together. Dylan made The Byrds in many ways, but The Byrds made Dylan in countless ways as well.
Tom Petty sings the next verse with hard rocking back up not just from the assembled gods of Rock but – an ideal choice – the remnants of Booker T. & The M.G.s, the Stax/Volt house band from the ’60s through the ’80s. Donald “Duck” Dunn plays his usual masterful bass while stalwart gadabout drummer Jim Keltner hits the skins, both players driving the runaway train ahead with force and finesse. And doing his best circus blues playing in ages, Al Kooper, Dylan’s long-ago organist, lights up the control board and everyone’s ears.
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
Petty is the warm up for the next star to step forward, Neil Young, who in turn is the warm up for two guitar solos that will go down in history.
Neil brings his special brand of earnest, challenging Rock vocal intonation to his verse, spitting out the line about phony preachers with great relish. It calls to mind his own songs like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Like A Hurricane.”
Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now
Young returns to the fore eventually. Until then, Eric Clapton steps in to mount a landmark guitar solo, one that strikes up all of his own flourishes once more but also pulls out a few grace notes from George Harrison’s stylistic runs. Harrison eventually sings a verse, but first so does a world-weary Clapton who is succeeded by a mumbling Bob Dylan, putting work in on his own song in the most eccentric way conceivable. Clapton gets to croon one of the best lines in “My Back Pages”:
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
George Harrison jogs our memory – as if we needed jogging – as to just how phenomenally good the singing talent was when The Beatles reigned supreme. Harrison easily skates up and down the melody, handing down the top vocal of the whole number. One of the greatest singers of Rock-N-Roll history, it was always a pleasure to hear more from him after he came out from the long shadows of Lennon and McCartney.
In a surprise, though, Harrison does not chip in a lead solo. He plays only an acoustic rhythm part.
Neil Young grabs the limelight again and wails out a glowing, gliding set of lines that serves notice to Clapton that he’s in the presence of at least one other serious guitar god. Aside from the more melodic strains from Neil’s guitar he throws in a couple of grungy chord cranks evocative of the finest moments of his early days with Crazy Horse.
To close the song, Young comes up with an original melody-line that reinterprets the chorus without changing a word. His voice is starkly beautiful and carries the listener back to the mid- and late-60s when all these men were circling the globe in the throes of youthful ecstasy.
In this live performance, “My Back Pages,” transformed as it is from Folk song and period piece into a grand work of art forged live in the great furnace of New York, counts as one of the top 100 Rock songs ever, and a top ten live performance by a band that may never be equaled again.
Listening to such showmanship restores one’s faith in a kind of Rock-N-Roll that, given a chance, could save, if not the world, a whole lot of souls hungering for a brighter existence.
- Dylan sounds lost on the cut, apparently moved almost to tears. Things have spiraled beyond his control with a band of this caliber. Musically, he is out of his league. That gives extra emphasis to the lyrics he wrote and, in this version, sings My pathway led by confusion boats/Mutiny from stern to bow/Oh I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.
- The full lyrics to My Back Pages are available in the Song Mango Lyrics Database.
Also by Bob Dylan on SongMango.com:
- Visions Of JohannaThe song's abstract impressionism remains a landmark moment when Rock emerged from the egg of Rock-N-Roll.
- Ballad Of A Thin ManA wild, morose piece – good background music against which you might throw yourself off the nearest bridge.
- Chimes Of FreedomAn appeal to human virtue, a sense of right and wrong – a quest for human rights on every level – render the song immortal.
- Like A Rolling StoneA worshipped icon, held aloft and offered as proof – of what, you can never tell.