Bob Dylan and the Band, “Forever Young” from Planet Waves (1974): Across the Great Divide

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Arriving on an album that seemed to straddle Bob Dylan’s then-current rustic phase and the stomping wildness of his much older collaborations with the Band, “Forever Young” served as a something of a microcosm.

Ultimately, there would be two — yes, two — versions of this song on 1974’s Planet Waves. Even then, it seems that neither the Band nor Dylan was quite through with it. “Forever Young” shows up again on the tour that produced Before the Flood, then on the Band’s multi-artist extravaganza Last Waltz and Dylan’s big-band Budokan concert recordings of the late 1970s, before finding a home once more on the Band’s 1996 album High on the Hog.

These examinations, over time and space, through different musical configuration and tempos, serve to give the stirring, but surprisingly straight-forward lyrics a depth they likely would never have had as words on paper. “Forever Young” can sound, by turns, like a lullaby of affirmation, like a lament for lost time, like a confession of the deepest worry. It seems that Dylan, and by extension the Band, have never tired of these many permutations, finding new meaning with each passing year, and each passing version.

That starts with Planet Waves, which found the Band returning to work with Bob Dylan for the first extended period since the Basement Tapes in 1967. When the album finds its occasional shambolic groove, though, it recalls something earlier — when they were barnstorming through Dylan’s first electric tours.

And so we have “Forever Young,” which held enough mystery (even from the first) that everyone involved emerged of two minds about things. It was presented on side one of Planet Waves as a quiet one-take reminescence — and then as the opening song of side two in a country-rocking testimonial, living up to Dylan’s scrawled subtitle on the album cover art: “cast-iron songs and torch ballads.” This one was, in fact, both.

By that point, Dylan had had “Forever Young” inside his head for years, and it seemed he couldn’t find a way to perfectly frame a long-ago paean to parental love.

Finally demoed in June of 1973 — a version that would later appear on 1985’s Biograph, giving us yet another way to hear this gem — “Forever Young” would be part of sessions on November 2, 1973 (without Levon Helm, who was still in transit), November 5, November 8 (which produced the slower-paced, deeply touching master), November 9 and then November 14 (source of the second take for Planet Waves).

For all of those struggles, and all of these dead-end trips, “Forever Young” proved to be one of the most resilient songs from that era. It was also the only track from Planet Waves to have made it onto setlists through the end of the blockbuster 1974 tour that followed.

The Band’s often-overlooked 1996 version, dedicated to the recently departed Jerry Garcia, finds late-period member Randy Ciarlante adding a third voice with Rick Danko and Helm — and, in this way, tends to combine all of this song’s many emotions in a single take. The expanded format, some seven minutes in length, also gives Garth Hudson plenty of room to explore the kind of contemplative instrumental passages that add still more layers — something only hinted at in live performances like those for The Last Waltz.

Still an occasional part of Dylan’s concerts four decades later, it seems “Forever Young” is forever evolving — even as it remains forever involving.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson
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