Certain Songs #88: Bob Dylan & The Hawks – “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Manchester 1966)”

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Album: The Bootleg Series Vol 4.

Year: 1966.

On Highway 61 Revisited, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” was a bit of respite from the supersonic Old Testament testifying of the title track and the epic name-dropping of “Desolation Row.”  Infused with uncharacteristic melancholy, it kinda gets lost in the shuffle.

But not the live version. As far as I’m concerned, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” was the peak of every concert on the 1966 tour and this version is  definitely in my top 5 Dylan songs. All of that melancholy has been replaced by anger, as it now sounds like a trip through a harrowing hellscape.

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez
And it’s Easter time too
And your gravity’s down
And negativity don’t pull you through

With Garth Hudson’s organ fading in and out of the maelstrom like far-off Christmas lights in the fog, things only get worse as Dylan meets person after person and checks out one bad place after another. But no matter where he goes, no matter what he does, it all just sucks.

If you’re lookin’ to get silly
You better go back to from where you caaaaaaaaaaaame
Because the cops don’t need you
And man they expect the same

Then, just before the final verse, Robbie Robertson uncorks a guitar solo that doubles down on all of the pain and rage in lyrics. I think it’s his finest moment, presaging later solos by Neil Young and Tom Verlaine. Always threatening to come apart at every note but hanging together because it really has no choice. If the guitar solo falls apart, then the song falls apart. And if the song falls apart, then the world falls apart.

But it doesn’t. The solo hangs on, the song hangs on, the world hangs on. But Bob Dylan is sick of the whole fucking thing.

I started out on Burgundy
But soon hit the harder stuff
Everybody 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

And while he hitches a ride on Robbie Robertson’s guitar, it’s actually not even clear that he made it back to the safe confines of mid-1960s New York City.

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A pretty great live version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (recorded in Liverpool) was actually put out as the B-side of the “I Want You” 7-inch single. It’s muddier than this version, but still every inch as epic.

For a few years, the jukebox at The Olympic Tavern in Fresno had that single, which at the time was only available on an Australian import album called Masterpieces. So every time one of my bands did a soundcheck at the Oly, the first thing I would do was play it as we were loading in our equipment, just to see if anybody was paying attention. Noone ever was, of course. I wonder whatever became of that single.

2 ½ amazing minutes of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” live in 1966

Official video for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Manchester 1966)”

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Every “Certain Song” Ever

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