Tuesday 26 April 2022

It's Getting There: 'Not Dark Yet' in the Key of Bob

Is there an artist more restless than Bob Dylan? Probably not. The most compelling evidence of this is how he treats his songs onstage: as we’ve seen with ‘Key West’, to use the most recent example, a Dylan song is never finished. There is always a chance that it will be completely overhauled either lyrically or musically (sometimes both).

It's easy to forget that this process of reinvention often begins in the studio. As we’ve heard on various installments of the Bootleg Series, Dylan might experiment with entirely different melodies, alter keys and time signatures, and extensively rework the lyrics before choosing which version to release. Once the song makes it to the stage, the process continues: it’s common for Bob to stick very closely to the studio version of a song for early performances, only to gradually take it in other directions over time.

One of the 'song evolutions' I find most interesting is ‘Not Dark Yet’, the centerpiece of Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind. On the surface, it seems to have enjoyed an unusually stable history – the live arrangements were very faithful to the studio version for many years, until Bob unveiled a drastic rearrangement in the fall of 2019. However, the journey of this song has featured more twists and turns than might be apparent at first glance, going right back to its birth in Oxnard, Los Angeles, in late 1996.

In his 2011 book The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein quotes keyboardist Jim Dickinson talking about the genesis of the song:

“Dylan had started the sessions at Oxnard,” Dickinson recalled. “It was just a trio, the way Lanois wanted to do it, obviously.” Then some Columbia executives heard [an early version of] “Not Dark Yet” and got excited, smelling the money. “The management had heard over the phone a version from Oxnard with Dylan singing in a higher register, and this quick and spare guitar stuff that Lanois was playing, and it had stuck in somebody’s head.”

As Dickinson tells Epstein, this led to an uncomfortable situation – during the later sessions held at Criteria Studios in Miami – in which Lanois, at the behest of the executives, put pressure on Dylan to return to the earlier version of the song.

“We do the song and they keep changing keys,” Dickinson recalled. “Daniel said, ‘Bob, will you try it in another key?’ Nobody will say this thing about putting his voice up, right?” What the management really wanted was for Dylan to sing the song in a higher, brighter register. “So we did it in three or four different keys [….] And finally Dylan was just obviously pissed off.”

Dylan held his ground and got his way: the version of ‘Not Dark Yet’ that appears on Time Out of Mind is in the key of E, which is as low as you can get while remaining in standard guitar tuning. However, the question of which key to play the song in is one that continued far beyond the sessions for the album.

Engineer Mark Howard, who worked on Time Out of Mind, touched on Dylan’s relationship with keys during his 2008 interview in Uncut:

The way Bob works is, he kind of writes on a typewriter, so he has no idea where these songs lie, in what key they live in, what tempo – anything of that. Musically, there’s no chords written. So it’s like, he’ll say, “I got this song, and maybe this is how it goes,” and you try a couple of different versions of it in different keys, and he just finds where it sounds best, where it sounds best for his voice, where it’s comfortable. And that’s usually the open you end up going with.

When ‘Not Dark Yet’ made its live debut in Columbus, Georgia, on 30th October 1997, it was once again played in the key of E. However, the performance was a one-off, and the song was not played again that year. (Bob would sing it in this key just once more, when he performed it with Eric Clapton and his band at the 1999 Crossroads Festival.)

Not Dark Yet in the key of E

‘Not Dark Yet’ re-emerged in January 1998, now being played in the key of C, and was performed three times before disappearing once again. It turned up one more time that year, at a show in Berlin on 3rd June, where it was played for the only time in the key of D.

Not Dark Yet in the key of C

Not Dark Yet in the key of D

In 1999, ‘Not Dark Yet’ became a setlist regular for the first time (played 56 times that year), now in the key of G. Bob must have been fairly happy with this key, as he stuck with it all the way through to 2002, although by this point the song was once again being performed only sporadically.

Not Dark Yet in the key of G

‘Not Dark Yet’ sat out the whole of 2003, but reappeared in the spring of 2004. It was now being played in the key of C-sharp, where it would remain through 2005.

Not Dark Yet in the key of C-sharp

In 2006 Dylan shifted the key of ‘Not Dark Yet’ to G-flat, where it would remain for the next six years. I have a special fondness for the 2011 performances – despite the ravaged state of Dylan’s voice during this period, these versions have a sweeping, majestic quality that’s hard to resist.

Not Dark Yet in the key of G-flat

The various performances of ‘Not Dark Yet’ between 1997-2012 reveal how altering the key of a song can give it a noticeably different feel, even if the arrangement itself barely changes. You can see why Dylan would spend a lot of time trying to find the ‘right key’ for the song.

‘Not Dark Yet’ is yet to make an appearance on the Rough and Rowdy Ways World Tour. The question I have is not ‘Will it be back?’, but ‘If it does come back, what key will it be in?’

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