Bob Dylan’s rare appearance on Letterman in 1993 was a historic event, one which saw him perform a gorgeous rendition of the timeless ‘Forever Young’. Despite being released two decades prior, Dylan didn’t have to abide by the rules of appearing on talk shows solely to promote his latest record and instead opted to play whatever he was in the mood for.
The track is an especially poignant one for Dylan as it is a letter to his eldest son, Jesse, but despite its extremely personal significance, the genius songwriter managed to find the universal within the person which makes the lyrics feel intimate and relatable for anyone who listens.
It’s clear that due to this song’s emotional weight that Bob feels a heavy attachment towards the material, a factor in which he decided to play it almost twenty years later during his appearance on Letterman and, additionally, he looks like he’s in his absolute element performing the number.
‘Forever Young’ has a warming lullaby feel to it as Dylan battles the worry he has about his child and, more poignantly, how he wants them to stay with the optimistic childlike nature that truly keeps you young, even when you’re old. It opens with the lines, “May God bless and keep you always / May your wishes all come true”, echoing the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers, which has lines that begin: “May the Lord bless you and guard you / May the Lord make his face shed light upon you.”
The acoustic, slower rendition of the track that Dylan performed on Letterman is the definitive version and sees the tender side to the artist who often shied away from his emotional side, commonly opting for the fiery electric version of the track providing him with a mask to hide behind.
Both versions, of course, sit side by side on Planet Waves but the slowed version was very nearly not included at all according to producer Rob Fraboni. “We only did one [complete] take of the slow version of ‘Forever Young,’ this take was so riveting, it was so powerful, so immediate, I couldn’t get over it,” he said. “When everyone came in nobody really said anything. I rewound the tape and played it back and everybody listened to it from beginning to end and then when it was over everybody sort of just wandered out of the room. There was no outward discussion,” recalls Fraboni.
“When we were assembling the master reel I was getting ready to put that [take] on the master reel. I didn’t even ask. And Bob said, ‘What’re you doing with that? We’re not gonna use that.’ And I jumped up and said, ‘What do you mean you’re not gonna use that? You’re crazy! Why?’ Well,…during the recording…[Dylan’s childhood friend] Lou Kemp and this girl came by and she had made a crack to him, ‘C’mon, Bob, what! Are you getting mushy in your old age?’ It was based on her comment that he wanted to leave [that version] off the record,” Fraboni added.
Thankfully, Dylan listened to Fraboni as they came to a compromise to include both versions and hearing a heartfelt Bob perform it live on Letterman is a truly magical moment, watch it below.