Somewhere in the traffic, Melbourne, 2009

Sometimes it’s only when you see a girl for the second or third time that you realise how beautiful she is. A song is a bit like that. On first listen it might not do that much for you, but a few more listens through the years, and bang, it hits you like a ton of bricks.

My purgatorial crosstown drive to work from Templestowe to Clayton is next to impossible without good music emanating from the speakers of my piece-of-shit Mitsubishi. One cold morning, I’m doing that godforsaken drive in peak hour traffic, and with one foot on the brake, I’m reaching over to the glove box and fumbling about for something to listen to. Because the traffic may start moving again at any moment, I just grab a CD without looking and slide it into the slot. Turns out it’s a Dylan bootleg of covers from the Never Ending tour, entirely handpicked from the web. I haven’t listened to this strange beast of a compilation in a long while.

Here Dylan pays homage to Warren Zevon (Mutineer), Johnny Cash (Train Of Love), gospel (Somebody Touched Me), traditional (The Roving Blade), Reverend Gary Davis (Cocaine Blues), Dean Martin (Return To Me), Townes Van Zandt (Pancho And Lefty), Ry Cooder (Across The Borderline), Jimmie Rogers (My Blue Eyed Jane) and many, many others. It seems that for Dylan to perform the odd cover is an act of escape for him – an escape from the burden of being Bob Dylan, revered songwriter.

I feel like I’m moving now, even if the traffic isn’t. Then I hear some descending guitars chords and it’s the beginning of a song that I haven’t listened to as much as some of the aforementioned songs – but it sounds beautifully familiar – perhaps previously I might have skipped past this song. Not this time. I’m riding every bump. It’s Dylan doing the Grateful Dead song Friend Of The Devil.

It’s that time-worn, latter-day Dylan voice singing about being on the run, with a sheriff (and twenty hounds) on his trail, and then cutting a deal with devil along the way: Robert Johnson-Crossroads style. The narrator is sleepless, having just spent the night in Utah / in a cave up in the hill, and is thinking of his two wives:

Got a wife in Chino, babe, and one in Cherokee
First one says she’s got my child, but it don’t look like me

The audience noise is loud on the recording and the performance is uneven, but the profound messiness of it all is in keeping with the dishevelled state of the narrator. Dylan inhabits the character. He is Ishmael. He is Cain. He is Barabbas. He is the spirit of the outlaw.

But just as the tension-filled song is seemingly winding up with Dylan’s desperate, fidgety guitar licks, something truly transcendent occurs – something beyond words – a pressure valve is released and the virtuoso Larry Campbell launches into an otherworldly pedal steel guitar solo. It’s as if the whole lament is building up to this emotional crescendo. It’s as if the spirit of the narrator is elevated above the pain and loneliness of the lyric to some beautiful place of refuge in the desert.

© Damian Balassone.

More Dylan Stereo Stories by various writers

Like A Rolling Stone

Just Like A Woman

Most Of The Time

Shelter From The Storm

Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You

Sooner Or Later One Of Us Must Know

Visions of Johanna

Girl From the Red River Shore

Blowin’ In The Wind


When The Ship Comes In

Damian Balassone's poems have appeared in over 100 publications, most notably in The New York Times. He is the author of three volumes of poetry, including the 2020 publication Strange Game in a Strange Land (Wilkinson Publishing).