‘What Can I Do For You?’ Massey Hall 1980

‘What Can I Do For You?’ – An appreciation.

 

“You’re talking about your life now, you’re not talking about just part of it, you’re not talking about a certain hour every day. You’re talking about making Christ the Lord and the Master of your life, the King of your life.” – Bob Dylan, May 21st 1980.

Illustration by William Henry Prince, 2014.

Illustration by William Henry Prince, 2014.

A brief timeline

I don’t know when this song was actually written, but the first live performance was at Fox Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, California, on 1st November 1979.

It was copyrighted 27 days later, on 28th November 1979.

The official, released version was recorded at Muscle Shoals Studio in Sheffield, Alabama and produced by Jerry Wexler & Barry Beckett on 12th February 1980 and was subsequently released on June 23rd, 1980 as track 4 – from the CBS album ‘Saved’.

It is 5 minutes and 54 seconds long.

The album hit #3 on the UK charts and #24 on the US charts.

The last live performance was on 23rd July 1981, at ‘Sporthalle’ in Basel, Switzerland and it had been played 93 times.

1981

1981

The LP and UK 1981 versions

‘Saved’ has a special place in my heart. My little brother stored up all his pocket money to buy me the LP for my 17th birthday, in October 1980.

One of my favourite songs on the record was ‘What Can I Do For You?

The whole album sounded less angry, preachy and unforgiving than ‘Slow Train Coming’, and that particular song sounded grateful – like Dylan was happy to have been saved from poison and fiery darts. He showed some humility that I found appealing.

Lyrically, it wasn’t ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ or ‘Visions Of Johanna’ but it had some decent couplets, some autobiographical interest and was correct within its form and genre.

I was also really impressed by the final harmonica solo – it sounded like the harp had been played into a proper ‘bullet’ microphone and through an old valve amp. The way it sounded warm, rich and gritty, then soared and dived over the Hammond organ was just lovely. The mournful, fluttery ending was my favourite moment of the album – and it still is.

I first saw Dylan play the song live on July 4th 1981, at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, England. Even through my awestruck teenage ears, I remember how different that night’s version sounded.

He played ‘All Along The Watchtower’ and then began ‘What Can I Do For You?’. It sounded more Bob Marley than Bob Dylan. He was playing with the phrasing, the timing of the lyrics and vocal melody. His voice was pitched higher too, with a tender, see-saw, lilting vocal style. And there was only the middle harmonica solo – no melancholy ending. It was beautiful, definitely, but completely different from the song he recorded.

“Welcome to the world of live Dylan shows” – my veteran tour-following friend said, as we drove home afterwards.

Massey Hall

Massey Hall

The 1980 Canadian version

“…the shows at this point started to be pretty comfortable, everybody knew their part pretty well. In a sense it was becoming more enjoyable because the stress and unsurity about everything [was gone]. It was becoming crystal clear that it was just a matter of getting out there and doing it.”Spooner Oldham, 23rd July 1999.

Bob Dylan brought the third and final leg of his ‘Gospel Tour’ to Massey Hall, in Toronto. According to various reliable sources, the concert was professionally filmed and recorded by CBS, who considered releasing a live ‘gospel’ album and/or film.

Audio and visual recordings of the April 20th 1980 show have been in circulation amongst collectors for decades, in varying degrees of quality.

Whether one believes that we were created by an intelligent and all-powerful God or have evolved over time by the force and laws of Nature, I think that music, words and the human voice can combine and tap into the source and power of life. I don’t know if I would call it ‘spiritual’, ‘mystical’, ‘emotional’, ‘Divine’ or simply ‘music’, but I have witnessed such a connection many times – in a tent in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, at the home of a full-blooded Cherokee in Eden, North Carolina, and on a stage at Massey Hall in Toronto.

It is the latter that has been preserved on film and audio tape – and Hallelujah to that. It is a treasure.

The applause from the previous song dies out and Fred Tackett starts to play a simple guitar figure and the band are counted in. The stage is dark, and the lights come on in sequence. Firstly, the singer is lit by white, then the backing singers are bathed in an orange glow.

Dylan’s voice is understated, conversational at first, and I love the low, husky timbre of his voice as he speaks the first few lines. The female backing here is sublime – they combine so sweetly and sound heavenly around his very earthly and human voice. Fred Tackett’s Gibson adds some rich, warm textures – like shards of light through stained glass.

There is an urgency and sincerity to his vocal on the first two lines and then when he sings “Opened up a door that no man can shut and you opened it up so wide” it is pure ‘Blonde On Blonde’ phrasing. It could be Just Like A Woman or Obviously 5 Believers’. It is absolutely his style. Imitated, derided, loved and unmistakable.

   The camera is showing us a head shot as Dylan looks out at the audience repeatedly during the first verse. As the song moves into the second verse, the camera angle changes to show Dylan in the foreground and the five gospel singers to his left, watching him for signals and changes.

At the end of each line, he bends forward, eyes closed, until he delivers the final two clear, clipped, enunciated lines in a breaking, keening, pleading voice.

Suddenly he whips the microphone from its cradle and holds it to the harmonica he has been holding in his right hand. I notice that the girls in the choir clap and smile, and he closes his eyes and plays.

Halfway through, he starts rocking back and forth, raising his face to the heavens, then to the ground, to the side…and he is completely connected to the music. He is absolutely in the moment and a divine or natural power is flowing through him.

Between 2:57 and 3:13 he plays a repeated phrase that creates a sparkling tension as the bass-line descends and the choir wails. The solo comes to an end (it looks to me as if some dust or other foreign object is sucked into his mouth from the harp, causing him to end slightly early) and he starts to sing the final section of the song.

After the first few, low-key lines, Dylan really sings out, holding and elongating the vowel sounds, while one of the gospel ladies answers him via a wonderful, musical moan. His voice breaks and sounds beautifully wounded, pleading again, his timing impeccable.

There is such commitment and sincerity in the singing that it makes the hair on the back of my neck respond. I have never heard Dylan sound so good, his voice strong, flexible and incredibly expressive. At the end of the verse, he grins slightly and opens his eyes briefly, giving a quick look to the crowd, as if to say “I sang that well, huh?”.

Then he brings the harp to the microphone and it soars, the band playing their hearts out as he rocks back and forth, eyes shut, the elemental force flowing through him again. The simple, repeated harmonica phrase between 4:55 and 5:18 works brilliantly and sees Dylan hunching over, oblivious to anything other than the music, the connection.

The song breaks and there is just the lonely harp notes flying above the sombre, earthy organ. Dylan bends and searches valiantly for the high note that eludes him. It sounds like the harp reeds are blocked but he keeps at it. It takes a lot of courage to do that – stand on a stage before an audience, not giving up and searching for a note, experimenting, trying alternatives, hitting the wrong ones, knowing everyone is watching – and he eventually realises he’s not going to get it, turns and lets the band finish.

Sensational.

Massey Hall, Toronto. April 1980.

Massey Hall, Toronto. April 1980.

“They tend to see the fame and fortune; what he’s done and what he’s accomplished. I’m glad I didn’t know all of those things about him [before meeting and working with him] because what I saw and who I saw was a man.

God has been using him and his songs and his lyrics for a long time…I watched him not only walk the walk but I watched him talk the talk, sing the talk, and write about it. I grew to have a lot of love and respect for him.” – Regina Havis.

                                                                                                                                       

 

The sound of a voice

Vocally, I don’t think he has ever sounded better in concert, with the exception of the 1966 tours.

Although Bob Dylan briefly sang in a ‘folk’ style, influenced by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Woody Guthrie, he quickly moved on and rediscovered his earlier love of ‘rock n roll’, ‘blues’, ‘country’ and ‘swing’.

By the mid-60s, he had definitely invented his own unique and highly influential vocal style.

There are surprisingly few examples of his ‘live’ mid-Sixties shows on tape – and fewer still that were recorded well enough for us to hear what it must have sounded like to the audience.

Many of the known ‘65/’66 live recordings certainly give the listener a sense of the power of the music, but it is hard to really appreciate the sound of his voice. Some of the acoustic sets from the 1966 World Tour are, being much easier to capture than a full band, an exception.

The tours of 2000/2001 produced some absolute gems, where his timing and phrasing, sensitivity and trickery made up for the toll that time was taking on his vocal chords. The version of ‘Visions Of Johanna’ that I heard in Portsmouth, England (24th September 2000) is magical, but as a result of his technique, rather than the power and actual sound of his voice.

The ’74 Tour was, by his own admission, about full-out power, rather than power and sensitivity.  

“When Elvis did ‘That’s All Right, Mama’ in 1955, it was sensitivity and power. In 1969, it was just full-out power. There was nothing other than just force behind that. I’ve fallen into that trap, too. Take the 1974 tour…” – Bob Dylan, 1980.

Even recordings of the brilliant Rolling Thunder Tours often sound a little shouty and, well, cocaine has never been the bride of subtlety or restraint. The film (also unreleased by the way) ‘Hard Rain’ is one clear exception, and there are others of course.

In his book, Chronicles Volume One, Dylan also admits to having forgotten how to sing by the mid to late 80s:

“In reality I was just above a club act. Could hardly fill small theaters… My performances were an act…My own songs had become strangers to me, I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves.” 

This harsh self-assessment is borne out to some degree by concert recordings that I have heard and seen. ‘Hard To Handle’, though entertaining, seems to be mostly posturing to me – like doing a Bob Dylan impersonation – the act he writes about.

The ‘Gospel Tours’ were – in my opinion – the perfect combination of power, technique, expressiveness and, most importantly, the best his voice had sounded. I think he was also just as committed to expressing the heart of the songs on that tour as he was during the 1966 or Rolling Thunder tours.

The film and sound recording of ‘What Can I Do For You?’ from Massey Hall is a perfect example of both Dylan’s skill as a singer and his ability to harness the joyous, healing, spiritual and emotional power of life through music and song. It is a triumph.

It is such a shame that Sony/Columbia Records have not released a film or live album from this period, as it shows a brilliant musician, singer and songwriter at the very height of his powers.

I think it is time.

Studio sheet for Saved sessions.

Studio sheet for Saved sessions.

 

Musicians on the 3rd ‘Gospel Tour’

Fred Tackett (guitar)

Spooner Oldham (keyboards)

Tim Drummond (bass)

Terry Young (keyboards)

Jim Keltner (drums)

Clydie King, Gwen Evans, Mary Elizabeth Bridges, Regina Havis, Mona Lisa Young (background vocals)

Bob Dylan (vocal, guitar, piano, harmonica).

 

 What Can I Do For You?

1

You have given everything to me

What can I do for You?

You have given me eyes to see

What can I do for You?

 

Pulled me out of bondage and You made me renewed inside

Filled up a hunger that had always been denied

Opened up a door no man can shut and You opened it up so wide

And You’ve chosen me to be among the few

What can I do for You?

 2

You have laid down Your life for me

What can I do for You?

You have explained every mystery

What can I do for You?

 

Soon as a man is born, you know the sparks begin to fly

He gets wise in his own eyes and he’s made to believe a lie

Who would deliver him from the death he’s bound to die?

Well, You’ve done it all and there’s no more anyone can pretend to do

What can I do for You?

 3

You have given all there is to give

What can I do for You?

You have given me life to live

How can I live for You?

 

I know all about poison, I know all about fiery darts

I don’t care how rough the road is, show me where it starts

Whatever pleases You, tell it to my heart

Well, I don’t deserve it but I sure did make it through

What can I do for You?

 Copyright © 1980 by Special Rider Music.

SOURCES

Bob Dylan official website – see links.

The Yearly Chronicles – http://www.bjorner.com

Regina Havis and Spooner Oldham quotes from ‘On The Tracks’ © Copyright 1993-2005 Rolling Tomes Inc. / On the Tracks.

Dylan quote at start is from KAREN HUGHES INTERVIEW, DAYTON, OHIO, MAY 21, 1980.

Chronicles, Volume One, 2004, Simon & Schuster, UK.

Sadly, I cannot share a link to the video of this song (or the rest of the concert) as that would be a breach of SME copyright law

.

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6 responses to “‘What Can I Do For You?’ Massey Hall 1980

  1. I totally agree with you when you say he never sounded better except, perhaps, for the 1966 tour. I saw a few of the Warfield ’79 shows and they were really something to behold. Bob gave 100% or more at those shows. And Saved was a great album . . . George Harrison was right when he said people freak out at the word “God.”

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ken. I would have loved to have seen/heard him at those 1979 shows. I think George Harrison was right as well. That ‘period’ of his musical journey has often been over looked or treated unfairly. In terms of songwriting and his voice, he was at the top of his game. William.

  2. Thanks for another great piece. I know the live performance of this song you refer to, and I agree with you: it is inspired. The vocal is extraordinary but then the harmonica takes over, achieving an even greater intensity, expressing things that words can’t – not even Dylan’s. Those faltering high notes that come right at the end of the last solo certainly convey a seeking quality, but sound to me less like mistakes than false notes or harmonics – notes the instrument isn’t really designed to produce, but that Dylan somehow wrings out of it through sheer force of will. John Coltrane used to achieve a similar effect with his saxophone, as he – like Dylan – strove to communicate some glimpse of the divine.

    • Thanks for your comments. It’s hard to tell if the notes we refer to were deliberate or not. I hadn’t considered that it was deliberate. I watched it many times, trying to see if his face would give any clue – but I couldn’t tell. I think he was trying for a particular note (which he finds on the Saved version) and couldn’t quite get it. I’m not a very good harp player, so I could very well be wrong! I would be keen to see/hear this solo from other nights on the tour to see if he did the same thing. Either way, he definitely showed a glimpse of the divine. Many thanks, William.

  3. William, thank you for this appreciation of what I agree is one of Dylan’s sublimest periods. One of my regrets (and I’ve had a few) is not seeing him in Akron, Ohio, on that tour. (How ’bout that band?!) My punk/new-wave crowd was definitely put off by the God business. I’ve never been a believer, but I do hear the divine in this music. “Saved” is one of my very favorite records. …Rock on, William — or should I say, keep pressing on! You’re clearly working for the light. Peace.

    • Thank you very much for your comments.
      I was put off by the God thing at the time as well – but the music was so good that I loved it anyway. The passion and lyrics were great. He didn’t convert me to Christianity but I did start to look at the idea of ‘faith’ as a positive thing in life.
      Peace and best wishes, William.

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